After the disappointment that was the Acer 8" Windows 8 Iconia W3 (but they're back with the W4!) and a distinct lack of Surface Mini I didn't have much hope for smaller tablets in the near future. And then seemingly out of nowhere, Dell introduces the Venue Pro 8. Not only is this a tablet with a good quality display, but it uses the latest quad core ATOM "Bay Trail" CPU, which means it actually does very well on the speedy / battery-life curve.
I've been playing with my own Venue for a few days now, and I can't help feeling if this was the first device people used with Windows 8, there were would a few changed perceptions on the interwebs. Suddenly the tiles and 'modern' Windows Store Apps make perfect sense. It kinda seems obvious that this is the format where Windows 8 was really designed to shine.
And yet the biggest surprise is that this isn't Windows RT, this is Windows 8 (actually, Windows 8.1) which means you get "full" Windows as well. Full Microsoft Office, Visual Studio (hurrah!), and big name games - and they all work fine. Pretty nuts for a device that's less than $300 and smaller than an iPad, right?
Of course, it's not perfect. I'm not a fan of the sole USB OTG port, which you can use to connect USB devices (Ethernet adaptors, Flash drives, DisplayLink monitors etc) or charge it.. but not both at the same time. If there was a docking station, this could actually make a desktop replacement that you could snatch on the way out the door to catch the bus. As it stands, you can still plug in a USB Hub and connect keyboards, mice, multiple displays, external drives and networking hardware, but you'll be limited to battery power while you do so.
The display is good, but it's 1200 by 800 so it's not "retina" good. And when you get to my age and the eyesight isn't as sharp as it once was, running Visual Studio is a little bit of a struggle. Increasing the font size helps, but then you get less text on the screen, so there's no ideal solution. Also the on-screen keyboard covers up a lot of the screen. My dream of a truly portable (and I think you know what I'm getting at here) Visual Studio machine remains a dream.
However, when using modern Windows Store Apps, the screen is just fine, and text is the perfect size even if you have bifocals. And there was "one more thing" too: a stylus! Not a capacitive stylus, but an active one which ignores your hand when you are writing. To be honest, it's a little finicky but it's perfect when using Desktop mode to select the tiny buttons. If I was using the Dell for actual work, I'd definitely use a keyboard and mouse, but the stylus is ideal for being mobile.
My favorite part of all though, is the fact that Visual Studio supports a Remote Debugging mode. This means when I'm writing an app to use on the Dell, I can develop on a "full sized" laptop and the app will be pushed to Dell over the network for testing: over Ethernet or Wifi, cool! This means I get to get to test it on the ideal little computer, but I'm actually able to read the C# and XAML :-)