There's also a measurement feature allowing you to estimate an object's dimensions without having to whip out real-life measuring tape. For this to work properly, Dell says you should stand between three and 16 feet away from your subject. More than any of the other features here, this one feels like a gimmick. Not only does it take practice, but also how often are you likely to use this feature anyway? And I mean, if you were about to order a couch for your living room, wouldn't you probably bust out a real tape measure to get a precise measurement, even just to double-check the tablet? I know I would.
The problem is that as neat as all these features are, the actual image quality is utterly unremarkable. Colors are pleasing enough, but on the dull side. My macro shots were often lacking in fine detail. If you have the patience, you might be able to improve the quality somewhat by adjusting the settings, which include options for ISO, white balance and exposure. There's also a handful of scene modes in addition to "Auto," including things like nighttime and action photography. Again, it's not a bad camera, per se; you'd just think the image quality on the first RealSense tablet would be a bit more eye-popping.
Performance, battery life and software
Speeds and feeds aren't everything, but it's difficult to talk about performance without first talking about specs. Here's what we're working with: a quad-core Intel Atom Z3580 processor, paired with 2GB of RAM and Intel HD Graphics (a PowerVR G6430 GPU). Judging by both my own experiences, as well as a battery of benchmark tests, I'd say the Venue 8 can generally match other high-performance tablets. Not only did I enjoy smooth streaming apps like Netflix, but also the Venue 8 did a good job putting up with all my attention-deficit-fueled habits (read: opening more apps at once than I can really focus on, and then constantly toggling back and forth). In all the weeks I've had the tablet in my possession, I can't remember any app crashes, freezes or even slowdowns. It runs like the flagship Android device it is.
All that's backed up by the benchmark scores. The tablet performed well on various web-rendering tests, like SunSpider and Vellamo. It also matches its peers in the popular graphics benchmark 3DMark, and even bests them in certain performance tests like CF-Bench (I don't put as much stock in Quadrant, but I still run it anyway, out of curiosity). If anything, I wish there were more tablet-optimized apps that better took advantage of the larger screen; that, more than anything, would have improved the experience for me. Still, that's not something I can hold against Intel or Dell.
Dell rates the Venue 8 for around 10 hours of battery life (like many other Intel Atom-powered tablets, I might add). As it turns out, that's quite the conservative estimate: In my tests, I logged 12 hours and 11 minutes of video playback, far longer than I initially expected. That's not the longest battery life we've seen -- the iPad mini 3 and Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact both get close to 14 hours -- but by no means does 12-plus hours constitute "short" runtime either. In fact, we got nearly the same battery life on both the 8- and 10-inch versions of the Samsung Galaxy Tab S, which are also super-thin with OLED screens. Frankly, I'm very pleased with the runtime here, and I think you will be too. If anything, I wish device makers would make this much progress on the smartphone front, too.
I'll admit I haven't always been dazzled by Dell's Android tablets, but the company has tended to get the software right. Dell's strategy is simple: Leave Android alone. What we have here is a clean build of Android KitKat 4.4, with absolutely no skinning or alterations to the OS. You will find a handful of pre-installed apps, including Dropbox (complete with 20GB of free storage for a year), Evernote, Flipboard, Flixster, Ice Age Adventures, MaxxAudio, McAfee Security, Polaris Office, Skitch, The Weather Channel, Vine and UnoFriends. It's not that I like booting up a device for the first time to find apps I didn't ask for, but they're easy enough to uninstall. If anything, I wish the Venue 8 ran the latest version of Android, but even then, a Dell spokesperson says an update to version 5.0 ("Lollipop") is coming in a month or so.
Configuration options and the competition
As of this writing, Dell is selling just one configuration of the Venue 8: the 16GB model I tested, which costs $399. Really, the only customization options are the optional accessories. This includes the regular folio cover, a $50 case that allows you to prop up the tablet (thereby rendering that "fingers covering the screen and speakers" thing moot). There's also a pricier $90 folio that adds a built-in Bluetooth keyboard. Finally, there's Dell Cast, an $80 HDMI dongle that allows you to either mirror your tablet's screen on a larger device (much like Chromecast) or turn your bigger screen into your tablet's desktop. In short, it works much the same way Miracast does on other devices.
When it comes to smaller-screened tablets with high-end specs, Dell has a good deal of competition. Its most obvious rival is the iPad, though not necessarily the iPad you think. Apple's current small-screen tablet is the iPad mini 3, which costs $399 with 16GB of built-in storage, just like the Venue 8. To summarize what I've written so far, they're both slim, handsome devices, though the Venue 8 is slightly thinner and has a slightly crisper screen. Both are fast with long battery life, though the iPad's is slightly longer. The decision, then, comes down mostly to app selection and camera quality. Here's the catch, though: Apple is also selling last year's Retina display iPad mini for $299 and up, and it's virtually the same tablet as the mini 3! The only real difference is the lack of a fingerprint sensor. If you can deal with that, the iPad mini 2 is easily the smarter purchase, if only because it's a hundred bucks cheaper.
But what if you're simply not an iPad person? Luckily for you, you've got a glut of Android options too. NVIDIA's gaming-focused Shield Tablet has a few minor flaws, but it's a smart buy for just $299. Then there's the 8.4-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab S, which also has a similar 6.6mm-thick frame, 2,560 x 1,600 OLED screen and 12-hour battery. Personally, I find Samsung's "Magazine UX" tablet skin to be overbearing, and would probably choose something closer to stock Android if I were spending my own money. Still, if you're a fan of Samsung's smartphones, you might actually prefer the user experience here. Just keep in mind that the Galaxy Tab S is nearly a year old; if you demand the latest and greatest, you may as well wait for a refresh.
Need more ideas? You might consider the Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact, which brings a slim, well-built, waterproof design, along with a vibrant screen and long battery life. Still, at $500, there's no reason to buy this over other models, many of which have sharper screens and more capable cameras. Meanwhile, if you'd be willing to settle for a mere full HD screen, you could have either the Lenovo Tab S8 (currently selling for $180) or the Acer A1-840FHD, which runs at $200. Either way, you've got lots of solid options.
At $399, the Dell Venue 8 7000 isn't exactly cheap, but it mostly merits its flagship price. Thanks to a combination of a thin and beautiful design, excellent build quality, long battery life and a stunning screen, the Venue 8 earns its status as one of the best Android tablets you can buy. As the first tab with Intel's RealSense 3D camera setup, its unique photographic capabilities are a draw too, although some of the use cases feel more like gimmicks. What would make this already-excellent tablet even better is better image quality to match its imaging tricks. Also, while having the world's thinnest tablet design is mostly a plus, some ill-thought-out design decisions mean your fingers will end up blocking the speaker and rear cameras more often than you might like.
These annoyances aside, the Venue 8 is an impressive device that shows Dell doesn't deserve to still be the butt of "Dude, you're getting a Dell" jokes; the once-stodgy PC maker has shown it can go head to head with the likes of Samsung, Sony and Apple. Even if the Venue 8 itself isn't perfect, it makes me excited to see what the company does next.