Walt Mossberg

Dell Tablets at Bargain Prices

If you’re thinking of getting someone a new, name-brand tablet for the holidays, but blanch at spending base prices of $229, $399 or $499, Dell is hoping you’ll look its way. The computer giant, battling an industrywide slump in PC sales, is once again making a push into tablets and one of its weapons is low pricing.

Dell has had little success in tablets. But it introduced this fall a family of four Android and Windows-based slates called Venue models. I took a close look at one model, the 7-inch Venue 7, which, at $150, is the least expensive new major-label tablet I’ve seen at the standard 16-gigabyte base memory level. (There are a few year-old models, or models with less memory that cost somewhat less.)

To understand how low $150 is for a name-brand, 16-gigabyte tablet, consider that the market-leading Apple iPads start at $499 for the 9.7-inch iPad Air; and $399 for the iPad Mini with a 7.9-inch Retina display. Even the latest 7-inch models from Google and Amazon, known for aggressive pricing, start at $229.

In fact, mostly because they adopted better screens, the 2013 models of the iPad Mini, Google Nexus 7 and top-of-the-line 7-inch Kindle Fire actually rose in price from the 2012 models.

So, what exactly do you get from a $150 name-brand tablet?

The answer: You get a lower-quality device with weak battery life, which might suffice for a first-time tablet buyer with a tight budget.

The Venue 7 is a relatively chunky black plastic tablet running Google’s Android operating system, that’s available via Dell’s online store. It operates over Wi-Fi only, though a cellular version is planned for next year. It cannot be ordered with more internal memory than 16 gigabytes, but it has a slot for a memory expansion card.

This tablet has a big brother, the Android-powered Venue 8, with similar specs, that starts at $180, still a good price.

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On the plus side, I found the Dell Venue 7 to be fast enough not to be annoying. Common apps like Gmail, the Chrome browser, the Kindle reading app, Google Maps, Twitter and Facebook all worked fine for me. Videos played smoothly.

But buyers of this tablet aren’t getting the latest or best technology.

The processor, an Intel Atom, and the version of Android used, Jelly Bean 4.2.2, are last-generation editions, though Dell says it hopes to offer an upgrade to the latest version of Android next year.

Screen resolution, at 1280×800, is also more characteristic of prior models of competing tablets. It’s no match for the resolution on the latest small tablets from Apple, Google and Amazon.

Also while the Venue 7′s screen was responsive, I was annoyed by a slight pebbly look, especially in white areas, at some angles.

The Venue 7 is thicker and heavier than leading 7-inch competitors like the latest Google Nexus 7 or Amazon’s Kindle Fire HDX. And while it’s a bit lighter than the new iPad Mini, which has a much larger screen area, it’s about 30% thicker.

The Dell’s rear camera, at just 3 megapixels, took truly mediocre, even fuzzy, pictures, indoors and out.

In my tough battery test, where I play videos back to back at 75% brightness, with power-saving features turned off and Wi-Fi on to collect email in the background, the Venue 7 lasted 5 hours and 29 minutes. That was less than half the battery life of the iPad Mini; two hours less than the last 7-inch Kindle Fire; and half an hour less than the latest Nexus 7.

Finally, there’s workmanship. This is an admittedly subjective area, but the Venue 7 felt a bit flimsy to me, especially around the longer edges of the screen. There seemed too much “give” where these edges connected to the case, and in a few cases, I could even hear a popping sound when I pressed on the case near the screen edge.

To be sure I wasn’t imagining things, I asked two other people who own tablets to check this out separately, and they agreed.

I want to stress that no amount of pressing on the screen edge seemed to degrade either the performance or the appearance of the device, but neither did it leave me feeling that the Venue 7 was as solid as its competitors. And I wondered how it would hold up to a child’s care and handling.

Dell says this is a deliberate design feature, created to make it easier for the back of the device to be removed for service or other purposes by qualified technicians. It stresses the “give” at the edge of the screen doesn’t affect functionality.

Bottom line: If you can spare more money, you’ll get a better experience and more longevity in a competing small tablet. But if you can’t, the Dell Venue 7 is a heck of a buy for an Android tablet from a brand-name company.

Find all of Walt Mossberg’s columns and videos at the All Things Digital website, walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at mossberg@wsj.com.


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