Saturation of the tablet market arguably couldn’t have come at a worse time. I don't say that because of a lack of slates to choose from (quite the opposite, actually), but rather because most manufacturers are just now finding their stride in the industry.
Tablet turnover rates are pretty low due to their very nature. People simply aren’t replacing tablets as often as they do smartphones, a fact that doesn’t bode well for hardware makers. It’s not all doom and gloom, however, as there are still plenty of potential buyers in the wild. In addition to those that have sat on the sidelines during the maturation process of the modern tablet, some early adopters will want to replace their tired tablets with something shiny and new.
What they’ll find is a selection that’s vastly different compared to what was offered half a decade ago. Android is all grown up and tablets now have a defined purpose backed by a deep ecosystem of apps. The hardware is equally as impressive as components like high-resolution displays and quad-core processors are the norm.
Hoping to highlight how far the industry has come is the new Dell Venue 8 7000. First shown off at Intel's Developer Forum last year, the new Venue 8 arrived to store shelves about a month ago with a unique form factor and a chassis that’s thinner than any other tablet in the world.
The device is powered by Intel’s Atom Z3580 quad-core processor with a burst frequency of 2.33GHz and an Intel HD Graphics (PowerVR G6430) GPU alongside 2GB of DDR3 RAM and 16GB of flash memory. Wireless connectivity includes Intel’s 7260 1x1ac 801.11ac and Bluetooth 4.0.
With the Venue 8 in your hands, you can immediately notice just how thin it is. Measuring only 6mm thick, it’s more than a full millimeter thinner than the iPhone 6 Plus and is the thinnest mobile device I’ve tested to date.
Dell has equipped their latest tablet with an impressive 8.4-inch OLED touch display (2,560 x 1,600, 361 PPI). It’s described as an edge-to-edge infinity display but the reality is that the screen is framed by narrow bezels on three sides with a large “handle” along the bottom that houses the speaker system and 2-megapixel front-facing camera. It’s a unique layout that is certainly visually appealing although usability (holding it) could be a real concern for some.
Along the left side is where you’ll find the power button, a volume rocker and a tiny opening for the microphone. The opposite edge is button-free, featuring only a microSD card slot and a SIM card slot on LTE models.
Along the bottom are a headphone jack and a USB port while the top edge is free and clear of any buttons or slots. The edges are more or less squared off with no rolled edge on the top and a very subtle curve along the bottom. While it looks great, it’s not exactly the most comfortable tablet to hold – especially for long periods of time.
Around back, we find two 720p cameras as well as the primary 8-megapixel camera near the bottom. The two 720p cameras are separated by 80mm and together with the primary camera, make up Intel’s new RealSense Snapshot Depth Camera.
Similar in theory to the Duo camera on the HTC One M8, this trio of cameras capture a stereographic image with each photograph that allows for some nifty after-the-fact effects which we’ll cover in just a bit.
The Venue 8 7000 measures 124.4mm wide by 215.8mm tall by 6mm thick and is constructed primarily of aluminum with plastic and glass accents. At just over 300g (306g according to specs and 310g as measured on my kitchen scale), it’s hardly any heavier than a 7-inch class tablet.
In terms of pure aesthetics, it’s one of – if not the – best looking tablets currently on the market. Of course, looks can only get you so far; the real test will be how it handles everyday use.
Dell’s Venue 8 7000 comes preloaded with a mostly vanilla installation of Android 4.4 KitKat. In fact, you’ll only find a handful of Dell-branded applications such as Dell Cast – the company’s business-minded Chromecast solution – and Dell Gallery, a custom photo gallery where all of the RealSense camera tools live.
Dell Gallery is unique in that it pulls in images from multiple sources such as your smartphone and various social media accounts (in addition to those you snap with the tablet) and arranges them all into convenient categories such as date taken (timeline), location and people.
As the first tablet to use Intel’s RealSense Snapshot Depth Camera, it goes without saying that it is one of the flagship features of the Venue 8 7000. It uses three separate cameras to capture a 3D image with depth information which allows for three unique editing methods.
The first is the refocus tool, a capability made famous by Lytro a few years back that has since been replicated – albeit in different manners – on the HTC One M8 and even any Android device using the Lens Blur effect in Google’s Camera app. This allows you to snap images without the need to focus on your subject as such duties can be taken care of later after the fact. You can even control the strength of the out-of-focus areas often incorrectly referred to as bokeh (the term actually means the quality of the blur produced, not the blur itself).
The effect certainly works on the Venue 8 although it’s far from perfect. In some photos, for example, undesired areas will be blurred while on other images, it’s overly obvious that they’ve been tampered with as the effect looks unnatural – especially around the edges.
The same can be said about the selective editing effects that let you adjust colors and brightness or apply filters to select parts of an image based on distance. It’s a neat concept but it’s not quite there yet.
There’s also a measurement tool which allows users to deduce measurements such as distance and area from a 3D-captured image. This tool works best when you snap photos straight on (not at an angle) standing between three to 15 feet away from your subject. Dell says to avoid reflective surfaces and choose subjects that are a different color than the background.
As a photography enthusiast, I appreciate that Dell is investing time and effort into improving mobile photography. In the same respect, it’s still a tablet and while such a device is great for viewing images, it’s not ideal for taking them and most likely never will be.
In the case of the Venue 8, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. By focusing on photography, Dell has actually made it more difficult to use the camera system as you have to constantly make sure your hands and fingers aren’t blocking any of the three rear cameras. It may sound trivial but it happens more often than not and is rather annoying.
Intel’s RealSense technology is certainly worth developing further but I simply don’t feel that a tablet is the right platform for it.