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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Long Term Review: Dell Venue 8 Pro

After field-testing the Dell Venue 8 Pro, I committed to it for this year's Tour of the Alps by buying a 64GB microSD card and bringing it as my only tablet/reading device for the tour. It was easy to justify because not only could it process photos, it could also upload rides to Strava, Garmin Connect, and Facebook.

Overall, the device was fast for most activities. Strava, Facebook, reading, and watching movies are all I/O bound activities, and the I/O available on the device is more than sufficient for those activities. Unfortunately, importing 25MB RAW files from the camera to the device is also an I/O bound activity, and writing to the microSD card is SLOW. The net result is that using Lightroom was unsatisfyingly slow. You would wait hours for the import to happen. That's OK, since you can leave the tablet on overnight and let it work.

The big problem happens when you try to edit the pictures. First of all, the atom processor is about 1/8th the power of my desktop, so you'd expect Lightroom to chug a bit. Well, a bit isn't a good description. It chugs a lot, and unfortunately, I think it has more to do with the I/O architecture than with the processor. Watching the task manager's monitoring output confirms that while the CPU does peg occasionally (especially during export), most of the time, the CPU is actually idle, leading me to believe that it's the reading and writing to the microSD card that's the real bottleneck. It could be that loading everything into onboard storage would work better, but unfortunately, I didn't buy enough onboard storage to test that scenario.

Nevertheless, I did manage at least one Facebook post a day, and the results of the photo manipulation demonstrate that even for Facebook posts, Lightroom is light-years ahead of its competition.

Now, the biggest disappointment is the active stylus. Being an old-fashioned desktop application, Lightroom is remarkably resistant to touch input for cropping and delicate manipulation such as my favorite ND grad filter tool. The hope was that the active stylus would help there. Unfortunately, this hope was dashed. First of all, the stylus uses a AAAA battery, which is impossible to replace anywhere in Europe while touring. This is exacerbated by a hardware bug: putting the stylus near the tablet would cause the battery to drain. This is an unacceptable bug. But even when the stylus was working, it wasn't very responsive, leading me to believe that the I/O problems plagued by low-end tablets swamp any technology Dell was able to apply. So while I dreamed of being able to write blog posts, etc while touring, it just didn't happen because I was too frustrated by the touch keyboard for more than the occasional Facebook status message.

Is this enough to get me to not recommend the Venue 8 Pro? No. It simply does everything else too well, and even my Lightroom frustrations weren't enough to keep me from using it, simply because the output is just so much better than anything else out there. What it does mean, however, is that I'm waiting for someone to package the Surface Pro's technology into an 8 inch tablet with a passive stylus (or even better, into a Phablet form factor --- I'm happy to trade off screen size to ditch an entire gadget on the trip and use the weight budget for a portable keyboard). If/when that happens, I'd be more than willing to pay a premium for the upgrade. Sadly, however, I'm guessing that it's going to be a long wait.

All in all, however, the technology is impressive. Just 3 years ago, I was happy to forgo any tablet solution in favor of having an honest to goodness Kindle for reading purposes. This year, the Kindle stayed home, and it looks like it will stay home for the foreseeable future in favor of this multi-purpose, useful device. I can see my frustrations disappearing with just a few more Moore's cycles.

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