Dell's updated Venue 11 Pro 7000 is a slick, versatile 2-in-1 hybrid, but a few glaring issues keep it from being an ideal laptop replacement. The new Windows slate does have a lot going for it, including zippy performance, a sharp 10.8-inch display, and the flexibility of Windows on a tablet.
But what makes the Venue 11 Pro 7000 a standout productivity device are Dell's optional accessories, which include a snap-on keyboard for use as a laptop, as well as a desktop docking station for use as a desktop PC. The idea is that this one device can replace a separate tablet, laptop and desktop computer.
Unfortunately, poor ergonomics really hold the Venue 11 Pro 7000 back. The design of the keyboard dock is particularly disappointing; you can't tip the display back far enough to get a reasonable viewing angle, especially when using the device in your lap.
With the right add-ons, Dell's updated hybrid is still an impressive productivity machine. But does this $700 slate do enough to warrant a purchase over Microsoft's excellent Surface Pro 3 hybrid, which starts at a slightly pricier $800?
The Venue 11 Pro 7000 is a handsome tablet, with an understated gray-and-black design. I love the soft-touch back, which feels luxurious and allows a good grip on the slate. Meanwhile, the Pro 7000's magnesium alloy frame helps give it a dignified, professional appearance.
Externally, the Pro 7000 (which comes with a more powerful Intel Core M processor) is practically indistinguishable from the original Intel Atom-powered Venue 11 Pro, launched last year. Measuring 11 x 6.95 x 0.42 inches and weighing 1.6 lbs., it also shares the same dimensions and weight as the Atom version.
That's still pretty hefty for a tablet, especially when attached to the keyboard dock, which doubles the weight. Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 weighs more by itself (1.75 lbs.), but its keyboard is lighter. In comparison, Apple's iPad Air 2 weighs just 0.96 lbs.
Dell also released a more powerful Venue 11 Pro model in 2014, which comes with an Intel Core i5 processor, but is thicker and heavier than both the Atom and Core M versions. All three versions connect to all venue 11 Pro accessories, including the keyboard and desktop dock, so you – or your IT department -- won't have to buy new add-ons if you upgrade your tablet.
As far as tablet keyboards go, the Venue 11 Pro 7000's is actually pretty good. The accessory features well-spaced, full-size keys – a must-have feature for any serious work device. Keyboards for smaller tablets usually come with truncated layouts that feel too cramped for extended typing sessions. The island-style keys also offer decent travel, although I wish they provided a bit more feedback when pressed.
The touchpad is small but responsive. Mousing around feels good, and Windows 8 swipe gestures work well. Plus, the pad's lower corners provide a satisfying click when depressed. I like the look of the metal lining around the touchpad, too.
That same metal lining is less comfortable at the edge of the keyboard dock, where palm wrists rest when typing. The small size of the palm rest area is another factor that can make the keyboard uncomfortable to use for long periods of time.
Attaching the keyboard can be a bit tricky, since it involves lining up two sets of pins on either side of the tablet. Once connected, the hinge feels extremely sturdy; when I picked the connected device up by the tablet portion, the keyboard stayed put. When you're done using the device, you can close the lid like a traditional clamshell laptop. Disconnecting the pair involves pressing a button at the base of the hinge, then yanking with a bit of force.
The system is simple and reliable, but not nearly as elegant as the Surface Pro 3's snap-on, magnetic keyboard. On the other hand, the docked Venue doesn't rely on a kickstand to prop itself up (à la the Surface Pro 3) so it's easier to use in confined spaces.
A "slim keyboard" accessory is also available. My advice is to opt for the full keyboard dock, though; the slim keyboard is too shallow, which makes typing uncomfortable. It's a decent option for casual users, but a poor choice for serious productivity.
Despite its merits, Dell's snap-on keyboard has one critical flaw: it doesn't let you tilt the display back far enough to get a satisfying viewing angle in most situations. When linked to the keyboard, the display can be tipped back only about 15 degrees from the vertical position. Even while sitting at a desk, I found that my viewing angle was more severe that I wanted. I kept trying to push the display back just a bit more, only to be thwarted again and again by the limited design.
You can forget about comfortably using this hybrid in your lap; it's extremely difficult to read text at such a steep angle. I could only get a decent look by arching my back and craning my neck into an uncomfortable position. On the bright side, the tablet's IPS display provides wide viewing angles, so the screen doesn't look washed out when viewed from a vertical angle.
If you want a hybrid that works well as a laptop – as in, something you actually plan to use in your lap – then you can stop reading this review right now. The Dell Venue 11 Pro 7000 is not the device for you, period. For tabletop use, the viewing angle is manageable, but not ideal.
Dell explains that it was necessary to limit the viewing angle to keep the device from tipping over; otherwise, the keyboard would have to be a lot heavier, or else the device would need a kickstand for support.
Surprisingly, the Venue 11 Pro 7000 actually works better as a desktop computer than it does a laptop. That's thanks to Dell's desktop dock, which simultaneously charges your slate while offering a slew of extra ports so you can hook up accessories like a desktop keyboard, mouse and external hard drive, as well as a large monitor.
The back of the dock has two USB 3.0 ports, an Ethernet port, an HDMI port and a DisplayPort. The front side of the dock adds an extra USB port (bringing the total to five, including the port on the side of the tablet) and an audio jack. The inclusion of two video out ports (HDMI and DisplayPort) is especially notable, since it lets you easily connect two external monitors without plugging extra wires into the tablet itself. The Surface Pro 3 dock, in comparison, has only a single mini DisplayPort.
Much like the keyboard dock, the desktop dock puts the tablet at a fixed angle, though it's a more comfortable one. When set beside a desktop monitor, I found the docked Venue 11 Pro to be highly usable as a secondary display.
Connecting the tablet to the dock is as easy as setting it down on a single connector. To disconnect it, just lift – no extra button presses requires.
On the whole, I still like Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 dock better, since it doesn't require you to blindly line up a connector at the bottom of the device. The design also lets you keep the keyboard attached, something that's not possible with Dell's setup.
While the Surface Pro 3 comes with both a stylus and a pressure-sensitive display, Dell's tablet comes with neither. That means you'll have to shell out an extra $35 for Dell's active stylus if you want to take notes and draw diagrams on the tablet's screen.
In the case of the Venue 11 Pro 7000, pressure sensitivity comes from the tip of the pen, not from the display. Results are mixed: pressure sensitivity works pretty well, but my strokes don't feel as clean or as accurate as on the Surface, and I don't have as much control over the weight of my lines. Plus, there's a noticeable wobble to my strokes no matter how quickly I write. Accurate pressure sensitivity is an important feature for digital note-takers; regular capacitive styluses don't offer enough control for inking to feel clean and natural. That's one area where the Surface Pro 3 beats the Venue 11 Pro 7000 by leaps and bounds.
My handwriting isn't great, but you can see the difference in the quality of pen strokes in this comparison shot. Writing on the Surface Pro 3 feels like writing with a regular pen, since the device can produce quick, clean lines. Lines on the Venue 11 Pro 7000, in comparison, are thicker and irregular.
Inking on the screen while docked with the keyboard is also awkward at best, since you can't tip the Venue 11 Pro 7000's screen back far enough to achieve a reasonable angle for writing.
The Venue's narrow 16:9 aspect ratio can also feel a bit awkward for note-taking when the device is in portrait mode, especially compared with the Surface Pro 3's wider 3:2 aspect ratio, which is more like the dimensions of a regular piece of paper. If you're used to jotting notes on a standard legal pad, you might find yourself feeling boxed in on the Dell.
There's no place to stow the stylus directly on the device when it's not in use, but the Surface Pro 3 has the same issue.
The Venue 11 Pro 7000's performance falls somewhere between the Core i5 and Atom processor models, both of which launched last year. Think of it as a compromise: you sacrifice a bit of power from the Core i5 for a tablet that's significantly slimmer and lighter than that model, but much speedier than the Atom version. Core M can provide good performance without the need for a bulky internal fan.
The processor, combined with 4GB of RAM, is more than adequate for everyday productivity tasks such as managing your email inbox or editing spreadsheets and documents. I found that programs opened and closed quickly, and switching between applications was snappy. I rarely noticed slowdown, even during more processor-intensive tasks like light photo editing in Photoshop.
All the ports you'd expect from an ultraportable notebook are present on the Venue 11 Pro. The left side has the charging port, a single USB 3.0 port and a mini HDMI port, which could come in handy for showing business presentations on a large TV or monitor. The right side has a full-size SD card slot so you can expand the slate's internal storage.
Business users will appreciate the Venue 11 Pro 7000's long battery life. The device is rated to last about 8-10 hours, and an external battery in the keyboard dock increases the slate's longevity by about 50 percent. After using the Pro 7000 for most of the workday, we found that the battery was only about halfway drained. That should please business users who need a mobile device with staying power.
A 10.8-inch display is pretty large for a tablet. Unfortunately, it's not really large enough for split-screen multitasking. I tried writing part of this review on the Venue 11 Pro 7000, with my document on one side of the screen and my Web browser open on the other. I quickly decided that I was better off switching back and forth between the windows, since there just isn't enough space here.
Compared with the Surface Pro 3 – which sports a larger 12.2-inch display and is pictured here on the right – the Venue 11 Pro 7000's screen feels cramped. The Surface Pro 3 also pushes more pixels (2,160 x 1,440) than the Venue 11 Pro 7000 (1,920 x 1,080). That extra resolution makes a big difference in terms of how much content can be seen on-screen at once. On the other hand, the Dell's resolution is pretty good if you plan to use the device primarily as a tablet, with full-screen Windows Store apps.
The IPS display is otherwise quite sharp and bright. Text is crisp and readable, and viewing angles are very good.
The Venue 11 Pro 7000 comes with a pristine installation of Windows 8.1 Pro, free from the useless preloaded apps that plague other tablets. The Pro version has some nice perks for business users, including the ability to link your computer to a corporate domain network. It also comes with some extra security features, like support for BitLocker, which encrypts your hard drive. Finally, Windows 8.1 Pro includes the ability for your computer to act as a remote desktop host, so you can access your files and apps from another PC.
The Venue 11 Pro 7000 starts at $699 with a Core M-5Y10 processor, 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. Our review model costs an extra $50 and has 128GB of storage, but is otherwise identical. The top-end model costs $829 with a speedier Core M-5Y71 chip, but the same 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage.
The Dell Venue 11 Pro 7000 is a well-designed device, and with its wide range of accessories, it mostly fulfills Dell's promise of replacing your tablet, laptop and desktop computer with a single device – with a few big caveats.
If you're looking for a laptop first, don't even consider the Venue 11 Pro 7000. The keyboard dock has good keys and a solid trackpad, but also one fatal design flaw: you simply can't tip the screen back far enough to get a reasonable viewing angle, especially while using the device on your lap.
If you want to use it primarily for digital note-taking, Dell's active stylus makes the Venue 11 Pro 7000 a decent choice. Still, its pen performance is mediocre compared to tablets with pressure-sensitivity built into the display.
Dell's hybrid really shines as a desktop PC that can double as a portable tablet when undocked, though.
Still, it's hard to recommend the $699 Venue 11 Pro 7000 over the $799 Core i3-powered Surface Pro 3, unless you can't afford the extra $100 for Microsoft's slate. The Surface offers a sharper 12.2-inch display and comparable docking capabilities, and the fact that it comes with a pen and pressure-sensitive display out of the box helps offset the cost. The Surface Pro 3's biggest weakness is that its reliance on a kickstand makes it less stable in your lap, but at least you can get a decent view of the screen. Unless you greatly prefer the slightly smaller footprint of the Venue 11 Pro 7000, Microsoft's tablet is the better productivity machine in most respects.