The Dell Venue Pro 11 is the most tempting Windows 8 device I've ever seen. At first glance, it seems to be the best and least expensive realization so far of Microsoft's core Windows 8 value proposition -- the idea that some users want to carry a single device, rather than a separate laptop and tablet.
I happen to be one of those users. See, I don't own a tablet.
I know this is a shocking confession. But I've borrowed and spent extensive time with plenty of tablets, including iPads, Samsung Galaxy Tabs, several species of Google Nexus, and Microsoft Surface devices. Not one of them has convinced me to take the plunge.
The main reason for this is that my personal laptop, a MacBook Pro, is on its last legs. (I've had to replace the motherboard and now there's something wrong with the graphics hardware that's causing red-line artifacting. I expect it to die soon.) I know I'm going to need a new laptop sooner than later, so I've been holding off on buying a tablet. Plus, I'm fine with using my iPhone for reading or viewing around the house or while I commute. Right now, a tablet seems like an unnecessary luxury.
So I've been thinking about my next purchase. I grew up working with Windows, and as great as the MacBook is for some things -- like recording audio through the line-in -- for work, I still prefer how Windows is organized. I know where everything is, I can dive deep into settings menus if I need to, and I'm a nested-folders maniac. The OS X approach of just putting files and folders in some random place and making you search for it continually drives me nuts.
But I was so put off by my initial experiences with Windows 8, I didn't even consider the first generation of Windows 8 two-in-ones, including Microsoft's Surface Pro. I found the Metro interface difficult to use with a keyboard and mouse, and not particularly compelling as a pure tablet either.
Windows 8.1 has enough improvements -- including the ability to bypass Metro and go straight to the old Windows desktop, which is what I'd be doing most of the time when using it as a laptop -- to convince me to give it another shot.
- Price. In case you didn't get the hint from earlier, I'm cheap. The Dell Venue Pro 11 starts at $499 for a 32GB model, and while Dell hasn't announced prices for the higher-capacity models, I'm going to take a wild guess and say that the 64GB version will probably start around $599. That would make it a full $300 cheaper than the entry-level 64GB Surface Pro 2.
- Keyboard. I've never been a fan of the Surface keyboards -- even the thicker Type Cover (as opposed to the micro-thin Touch Cover) was harder to type on than a traditional laptop keyboard. Dell's Mobile Keyboard (see the image below) looks thicker and sturdier, and during a brief demo I got from Dell, it seemed easier to type on. At least I'm tempted to get some serious hands-on time with it. Microsoft's upcoming Power Cover, which is similar, won't be out until next year. (Once again, Dell isn't announcing a price for the Mobile Keyboard.)
- Personal experience. I place a lot of stock in my past experiences -- I'm skeptical about HP products, for example, after a couple of dud laptops in the mid-2000s. But I used a Dell XPS Gen 2 laptop as my main computer for about five years and had nothing but good experiences with it. Microsoft has only been in the PC business for a year. I just don't trust the company for hardware yet.
The Dell also has a slightly bigger screen than the Surface -- 10.8 versus 10.6 inches -- which will make it a little easier to use as a laptop, and the docking station could let me plug it into a monitor. (Microsoft is also introducing a dock for the Surface Pro 2, but not until 2014.)
Of course, all this might break down when I actually go into a store and spend some serious hands-on time with the Dell, which comes out in November. Maybe I'll still be frustrated by Windows 8.1 and decide that my work-issued Windows 7 laptop is all I need for now. Maybe Dell's hardware will feel cheap -- although in the brief demo they gave me a couple weeks ago, I was impressed by their attention to quality, with nice details like the rubberized back cover of Dell Venue 8 (an 8-inch Android tablet also announced today). Maybe the price will actually be a lot higher than I anticipate for specs that are comparable to the Surface Pro 2.
But the point is that Microsoft's PC partners are finally starting to deliver the kinds of PCs that might actually tempt a cheap skeptic like me. If nothing else, Microsoft's own hardware efforts seem to have spurred a lot more useful (as opposed to price-focused) innovation in the PC market in the last year than we've seen in the previous decade.