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Dell Venue 11 Pro review: This Atom-powered Windows tablet goes full-HD

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MSRP: $499.99

The Good The well-built Dell Venue 11 Pro has an excellent full-HD display, plenty of configuration options, and an optional keyboard and docking station. Battery life is also excellent.

The Bad That sold-separately keyboard dock suffers from occasional lag and a tiny touch pad, and even low-end configurations are more expensive than other tablets or hybrids.

The Bottom Line Betting on a full 1080p display partly justifies the Dell Venue 11 Pro's higher price compared to other Atom-powered tablets. But the keyboard dock add-on, which should turn this into a functional laptop alternative, is too expensive and occasionally frustrating to use.

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7.8 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 7
  • Battery 8

One of the more ambitious ideas for Windows 8 was that it would work equally well across a wide variety of screen sizes. Not just the 13-inch, 15-inch, and 17-inch laptops that previous versions of Windows were mostly found on, but also 8- and 11-inch systems, with a few stragglers (12.5-inch, 14-inch) in there for good measure.

What we've found over the past year is that the tile interface in Windows 8 does indeed scale well on smaller screens, although the experience inside actual apps and programs is more varied, especially if you're using a touch screen as your main interface.

Something with a 10- or 11-inch display feels like the most natural size floor for effective use by Windows 8, and we've seen a good number of products hit that mark, either as standard clamshell laptops, standalone tablets with optional keyboards, or hybrids that straddle the line between the two.

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That's why Microsoft's flagship Surface Pro 2 has a 10.6-inch screen, and why we liked the recent Asus TransformerBook T100. Dell's 8-inch tablet, the Venue 8 Pro, was fine but finicky to use, and therefore the Venue 11 Pro (it's actually an 10.8-inch screen) comes off as more impressive -- still portable, but better configured for actually getting things done.

In one sense, its a direct competitor to the Surface Pro, but with more configuration flexibility -- our review unit is the $499 Intel Atom CPU version, while both Core i3 and Core i5 versions are available for up to $849.

In everyday use, the Venue 11 Pro works as well as any comparable product, and also has a few distinct advantages, including a solidly built chassis and an add-on keyboard that makes it feel much more like a laptop than the Surface does. Most importantly, it has a default full-HD 1,920x1,080-pixel display, which is something very rarely found in a screen this size.

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But your $499 initial investment covers only the tablet itself, and adding the keyboard is an astounding additional $160 (it was as a little as $140 as of last week) -- although the keyboard also has an extra built-in battery. $660 for an 11-inch Intel Atom PC sounds a bit crazy, especially as the 10-inch Asus T100 includes the keyboard (while skimping on a few other specs) for under $400. Worse, while the keyboard feels great, it lacked the responsiveness we expected.

With the Venue 11 Pro, you're paying a premium for the excellent design and the full-HD display. If you don't need 1080p, there are less-expensive alternatives out there.

Dell Venue 8 Pro Asus Transformer Book T100 Acer Iconia W3
Price $499 $379 $429
Display size/resolution 10.8-inch, 1,920x1,800 touch screen 10.1-inch, 1,366x768 touch screen 8.1-inch, 1,280x800 touch screen
PC CPU 1.46GHz Intel Atom Z3770 1.3GHz Intel Atom Z3740 1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760
PC Memory 2048MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz 2948MB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz 2948MB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz
Graphics 32GB Intel HD Graphics 32GB Intel HD Graphics Intel GMA 1003MB shared
Storage 64GB SSD hard drive 64GB SSD hard drive 64GB SSD hard drive
Optical drive None None None
Networking 802.11 b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11 b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Windows 8.1 (32-bit) Windows 8 (32-bit) Windows 8 (32-bit)

Design and features
When in its laptop form, connected to its chunky keyboard base, the Venue 11 Pro looks and feels a lot like other recent ultraportables, and even echoes the classic netbook design that sold so many Atom-powered subnotebooks years ago. Picked up, however, the weight and balance feels off, as the top-heavy clamshell feels likely to tip over at any moment. In real-world use, the system actually stayed upright most of the time, thanks in part to a small kickstand-like lip at the intersection of keyboard and screen.

Taken apart, by a pill-like plastic button in the center of the hinge, the 11.6-inch tablet screen is substantial. Unlike some of the more plastic-feeling 10- and 11-inch Windows 8 tablets we've tested, the Venue 11 Pro could likely stand up to some rugged travel, and the soft-touch finish on the back was not especially prone to smudges or scratches. One problem with the hinge/connection is that pulling the screen away from the keyboard dock almost always caused me to accidentally press the power button, which sits along the top edge of the tablet.

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As a standalone tablet, the Venue 11 Pro delivered, with good on-screen typing, an accelerometer that wasn't too sensitive. Volume controls on the side edge, along with Micro-USB and SD card slots make it reasonably easy to use this as a standalone device.

Of course, for a more all-day experience, you'll want to add a keyboard and touch pad or mouse. Dell makes it easy, with a snap-on keyboard dock that transforms the combined system into a traditional clamshell laptop. The dock also has its own internal battery, which in our testing, more than doubled battery life.

However, for about $160, on top of the base tablet price of $499, it makes the full system cost as much as a budget-minded Intel Core i-series laptop. On the positive side, the keyboard is well-built, with solid, chunky island-style keys that feel great to type on. Despite its small size, important keys such as Shift, Tab, and Enter are not short-changed

But the story is not all positive. When using the keyboard, I encountered occasional lag or missed keystrokes. The keyboard physically connects to the tablet rather than using a Bluetooth connection, so it's even more surprising, although we have run into similar issues with other hybrids in the past.

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The touch pad on the keyboard dock is too small to do much more than basic on-screen navigation. And while it felt more responsive than the keyboard, two-finger scrolling on Web pages was difficult, as was selecting blocks of text. But, on a small tablet-based system such as this, one might be expected to use on-screen touch controls for much of your navigation.

One reason the Venue 11 Pro stands out from other small Windows tablets is that it includes a full-HD 1,920x1,080-pixel 10.8-inch display. This is an IPS display, so it looks good from even wide angles, and the screen isn't so glossy that you're constantly fighting glare. Sound from the built-in dual speakers is predictably thin, but good enough for casual video viewing or Skype calls.

Dell Venue 11 Pro
Video micro-HDMI
Audio Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack
Data 1 USB 3.0, microSD card reader
Networking 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Optical drive None

Connections, performance, and battery
For a slim, lightweight tablet, the Venue 11 Pro manages to pack in a decent amount of connectivity. The HDMI and SD card slots are of the micro variety, useless without an adapter or dongle, so keep that in mind if you like to travel light.

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Dell sells a docking station, which costs $140, and it looks and feels like one previously sold with an older Inspiron tablet. The tablet slots into the top at a fixed angle, and you get three USB 3.0 ports, DisplayPort and HDMI, and an Ethernet jack. The dock is a heavy aluminum piece and will stay where you put it. With the USB ports, you could add a full-size keyboard and mouse, and even connect an external monitor -- although you should keep the low-power Atom processor and small 64GB SSD in mind before you make this your main work machine.

Having a laptop or netbook with an Intel Atom processor used to threaten poor performance for everything from Web surfing to video playback. Today's Atom CPUs are so different from the classic netbook-era ones of several years ago, they really should have a different name. For everyday use, something like the 1.46GHz Intel Atom Z3770 is perfectly fine, and can handle social media, HD video playback, Web browsing, and office documents. It can even deal with some basic games, such as those found in Microsoft's Windows 8 app store. These are closer to mobile phone or iPad games than PC ones, but games such as Halo: Spartan Assault are still impressive on the Venue 11 Pro.

Of course, a full Core i-series CPU will offer better performance, and you can even configure the Venue 11 Pro with a current-gen Core i3 or i5 CPU, albeit at a much higher cost ($849 for the Core i5 model).

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When using a low-power chip such as the Atom, you'd be right to expect excellent battery life. The base $499 Venue 11 Pro ran for 6 hours and 30 minutes on video playback battery drain test. That's a decent score, although heavy Wi-Fi use will shorten your performance. The real interesting number comes from the second battery built into the keyboard dock. Using both batteries together, we got a combined run of 14 hours and 5 minutes, which is more than double the standalone time. If you need a small laptop that definitely won't die during a cross-country or transatlantic flight, the 11 Pro plus keyboard dock should be more than enough.

Conclusion
The Dell Venue 11 Pro takes the Atom-powered small form factor tablet/hybrid idea and pushes the boundaries toward a more upscale, professional product. The solid construction, high-res display, well-made keyboard, and long battery life all point to a low-power Windows tablet that can do nearly all an ultraportable laptop can.

My main concern is price. You're paying a definite premium for these features, starting with $499 just for the tablet itself. That the price on the keyboard dock actually rose since we started testing the Venue 11 Pro is mind-boggling, and asking anyone to pay $160 for a clip-on keyboard, even one with a built-in battery, is a stretch.

Multimedia Multitasking test
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Apple iTunes encoding test
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Video playback battery drain test
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Find out more about how we test laptops.

System configurations
Dell Venue 11 Pro

Windows 8.1 (32-bit); 1.46GHz Intel Atom Z3770; 2GB DDR3 SDRAM 1333MHz; 32MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics; 64GB Sasmung SSD

Toshiba Click W35Dt-A
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1GHz AMD A4 1200 APU; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 512MB AMD Radeon HD 8180 Graphics; 500GB 5,400rpm hard drive

Acer Iconia W3
Windows 8 (32-bit); 1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760; 2GB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz; 1003MB (shared) Intel GMA, 64GB SSD

Sony Vaio Tap 11
Windows 8 Pro (64-bit); 1.5GHz Intel Core i5-4210Y; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 1739MB (Sharedl) Intel HD Graphics 4200; 128GB Tosiba SSD

Asus Transformer Book T100
Windows 8.1 (32-bit); 1.3GHz Intel Atom Z3740; 2GB DDR3 SDRAM 800MHz; 32MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics; 64GB SanDisk SSD

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