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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Field Test: Dell Venue 8 Pro 32GB

On my recent Pigeon Point qualifier, I got a chance to field test the Venue 8 Pro in an environment where I had no other choice of computing device. It was a cycling trip, so weight and space were both at a premium, eliminating the Surface Pro as a choice even if it had been an option. I could have brought the basic Kindle or the Venue 8 Pro, but the prospect of being able to upload rides and run Lightroom while at Pigeon Point won out. especially since we knew that Pigeon Point had wifi internet and the Venue 8 Pro had a Kindle app.

The device was certainly light enough and compact enough that it fit in my saddlebag with no problems. The battery life on the Venue 8 Pro is so good that I don't even bother turning it off for the 6 hour ride to the lighthouse. It showed up at the other end with still a 99% battery life. The first test was uploading tracks to Strava. I used an OTG cable and a mini-USB cable to connect the Venue 8 Pro to the Garmin Edge 800. The interesting thing about this tablet is that it comes with 2 web browsers: the "Modern" IE, and the Desktop IE. The two are different beasts, despite having the same name! The "Modern" IE, for instance, doesn't support plugins such as the Garmin communicator, so you must use the desktop IE, which is a real web-browser, for all intents and purposes. With that in place, the upload went without a hitch. The only complaint I have for this process was that the Venue 8 Pro, like any real PC, charged the Garmin while it was uploading data. This drained the Venue 8 Pro's battery sufficiently in such a fashion that I had no idea whether the battery life at the end of the evening at 49% was due to excessive charging of the Garmin Edge or because of my use of Lightroom.

Lightroom demands lots of storage, especially if you're going to be uploading 20MB pictures from the Sony RX100 during a long tour. As a result, I opted for a 64GB micro-SD card on the Venue 8 Pro for storage. At $39 for a UHS-1 on Amazon, this won't break the bank is would provide a reasonable backup for all your photos while you're touring. However, what I didn't account for was that the write speed to micro-SD storage on the Dell Venue 8 Pro was slow. Basically, you cannot expect better than 8MB/s write and 23MB/s read from even a UHS10 card. For me, that meant that on top of the Lightroom and OS overhead, it was taking about 30s per photo to upload from the camera to the tablet. And yes, you need the above mentioned OTG cable as well as a memory card reader. Once on the tablet, due to the write speeds to storage mentioned, do not expect snappy performance out of lightroom. In particular, trying to do photo editing while importing can be quite frustrating, as is manipulating lightroom with a finger. With a stylus, you can at least get some precision without toting a mouse along. Being able to run an ND grad filter on photos output by the RX100 is unique to the full Windows 8 tablets, and since your best photos take place at sunrise or sunset, I expect this distinguishing feature to be something that most serious photographers would consider essential.

One unexpected hitch came with exporting the photos. There's no easy way to select multiple photos with the finger and then export, so what I did was to export one photo at a time. Since Lightroom was happy to queue up my exports, this was surprisingly fast and easy once I had the photos filtered in library view. Again, writing the exports took time, but it was easily done in batch mode and once it was done I could upload to Facebook in a batch.

Skype also has both a "Modern" UI and a desktop version. The "Modern" version here worked fine, so I didn't bother with the desktop. However, the bandwidth at the hostel was so low that I couldn't tell whether the video was pixelated because of the bandwidth or whether I ran into a limitation of the tablet. Given that the machine was hardly CPU bound, I'd be inclined to blame the bandwidth.

My friend the Google employee was concerned that I'd turned to the dark side (though I'd always been a Windows user, even back when I was working for Google), but then I showed him the "Modern" IE and asked him to try out web browsing on the device. 3 web pages later, he was impressed. The tablet definitely runs circles around existing Android tablets for web-browsing.

I didn't get a chance to use the Kindle app, but I doubt if I'd have any problems with it, either reading, downloading, or purchasing.

All in all, if I was going on a self-contained cycle tour in Europe and had to carry everything in my saddlebag, there are only 4 pieces of electronics that are worth carrying (my CPAP machine doesn't count, since you mostly aren't a CPAP user). The Garmin Edge 800, a phone, a camera, and this tablet. Obviously, the tablet is the most optional of the devices, but it substitutes well enough for a laptop and any other tablet doesn't come close to the functionality of this tablet while maintaining a relatively low weight. I do wish that the device had better write speeds to the microSD card, but on tour, I'd simply just run the import overnight and deal with the editing the next day.

All in all, I'd recommend this tablet to a cycle tourist, and if Dell or Microsoft came up with a tablet with better write performance to secondary storage (or a reasonable price on more primary storage), I'd advice a cycle tourist to check those out.

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