Why I’m Excited About a Windows Product (Dell Venue 8 Pro Tablet)

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 11/18/2013

My Dell Venue 8 Pro 8-inch Windows tablet will be waiting for me when when I get home from work today, and I’m oddly excited about a Wintel product since—well, I guess maybe… ever! Let me tell you why my brain chemistry is being curiously rewired in the head of this self-professed Apple fanboy for a product of the underdog overlord.

The anticipation for this device is killing me, and I’ll make the reasons for that a sort of pre-review of the Dell Venue 8 Pro. For that, you must now bear with me through a quick walk down user interface memory lane.

I really do hate Windows and as an old Amiga-freak, I have no particular love either for the x86 Intel-ish hardware that it’s based on. But it’s mostly about hating the concept of overlapping, messy windowing operating systems. I even hated the “Workbench” desktop OS on the Amiga as just another anal expulsive operating system. The Mac wasn’t any better in those days. They were all the Oscar Madison’s of OSes—the slobs—versus the Felix Unger’s.

Interestingly, I later learned in an old book I read about Bill Gates once that there was an internal debate at Microsoft between two different philosophies when it came to graphical user interfaces: those who believed in the overlapping and clipping windows as stolen from Xerox, and those who believed in the much more restrictive window PANE paradigm—something smacking of antiquity, and perhaps dismissed as too much like what already existed and didn’t excite people anymore—like Tandy Deskmate or Norton Commander. Obviously, the folks with the messy apartments won, and we’ve all been paying the price ever since.

For almost 30 years, I haven’t been able to stand the overhead of being expected to arrange windows—especially knowing there is something better: an instantaneous full-screen card-flipping-like UI. Sometimes this is accomplished with virtual screens, and in 1986, the Amiga was letting you spin through full-screen apps with the Amiga+N key combination. This was not the mere flipping of apps on the desktop, like today’s Alt+Tab. This was completely separate apps in memory that you could cycle through. The Amiga did this faster with entire apps than pre-digital TVs could flip channels (instantaneous). Think: flipping through apps as fast as you could hit a key on the keyboard, with ABSOLUTELY NO SCREEN REDRAW. This was the magic of the Amiga’s ahead-of-its-time hardware.

It’s nearly thirty years later now, and Macs have mostly caught up. Mac are now on Intel hardware and replete with all that integrated GPU NVidia graphics goodness that has come to be expected on PCs for gaming. But on the Mac, OS X takes advantage of this by offering fullscreen app “flipping” in the form of the three-finger swoosh on touchpads. It’s a horizontally oriented “ribbon of virtual screens” and a simple touchpad gesture zooms you butter-smooth between them. This is the closest anything’s to the Amiga’s Amiga+N awesomeness that I’ve encountered in the three intervening decades. But I’m still on Windows 7 at work, where even with all this GPU awesome that even my HP laptop has, DOES NOT manifest as a better user interface. Instantaneous fullscreen flipping on a PC is still an unachievable dream. Aerosnap, you say? Ugh, Aerosnap is an indadequate consolation prize.

One bright spot in user interface design these days is that mobile platforms, due to their very restrictiveness where the windows paradigm fails, have had to push usability forward of necessity—but nothing so elegant as the Amiga Computer days of yore. Fullscreen apps with fixed locations for controls made multitasking really mean something on the Amiga. I still miss how muscle memory kicked-in. Watching someone (like me, for example) use DeluxePaint IV, Lightwave 3D and Scala was like watching a impossible-to-follow blur of hand-and-screen movement. People always commented on this, and I’ve never been able to re-achieve a similar state on modern platforms.

I basically gave up on recapturing that in-the-zone feeling—a union of man-and-machine where thought about tools dissolves away and just apps are left… that is, until my research into possible Intel-based tablets to make my day-job more efficient led me to this remarkable video:

Why in the world was I investigating x86 tablets in the first place? What led me to this discovery and tantalizing hope?

Well, Levinux, my own remixed version of Linux is a large part of my professional future and personal mission and it only runs on x86 hardware, because it’s based on the QEMU free and open source computer emulator (like VMWare). My actual free time in life is about a 45-minute commute to and from work on the New York subway. I own a MacBook Air, but I do not and will not carry it back and forth to work—and certainly won’t open it up on the crowded subway. But somehow, a tablet seems to be okay. I’m a compulsive iPhone and Kindle user on the subway, and once viable full fledged PC tablet hardware came onto the scene, I began to investigate. Maybe I could bring Levinux to the subway, and look no different than (now) common tablet gaming.

Up until now, x86 processor-based tablets have been very different and greatly inferior to their ARM-based counterparts like an iPad or Nexus 7. How? Well, the x86 tablets were way more expensive (>$800), huge (>10 inches), battery hogs and under-powered. ARM processors just seem to have won the mobile war because they’re cheaper, can be turned into smaller devices, and didn’t seem to unnecessarily to chew up battery life. It just didn’t seem to me that Intel could compete in the mobile space. There were a few Acer tablets that I discounted for the above reasons. Then there was the Microsoft Surface 2 Pro that is really no smaller than a laptop—a huge disappointment after the build-up. The Surface RT and 2 (not the Pro) are slim, competitive tablets—but they are ARM-based and won’t run Levinux.

After my first round of investigation, I all but gave up on Wintel tablets. That is, until recently when the frustration of not having Levinux on the subway has really gotten under my skin, and I started a second round of broader research. I figure Intel REALLY MUST be hedging its bets for survival in mobile. They’re not going to give up this space so easily, and their relentless tic tock methodology, plus their nearly infinite resources must be grinding away at this problem.

Then, I discovered the existence and near market-readiness of their new Atom-based Bay Trail processor. This quad-core Atom CPU has an integrated Sandy Bridge-like GPU, which is what gives the latest round of Intel processors their graphics umph, without requiring actual NVidia cards or integration of extra GPU chips on the motherboard. This makes all the difference versus the Atoms of the past, and the over-hungry i5’s and i3’s they shoved into glass picture frames and called it a tablet. This Bay Trail processor on paper has all the power, efficiency and low cost to run a viable true PC competitor (able to run all Windows software) to ARM-based tablets.

As much as I want to lump Intel together with Microsoft and hate them both as one nearly wrapped-up package, they’re BOTH making it hard, and this Dell Venue 8 Pro—the first device I’ve found available that uses the Bay Trail processor and Windows 8—just might be the first thing from these clowns that I’ve seen in years that I believe are together are GREATER than their parts. I mean, just look at this video. The mechanics are simple. Carry it and call no more attention to yourself than an iPad or Android device. At 8 inches, it’s too big for jeans pockets, but any smaller, and Windows 8 desktop becomes unusable.

And as much as I want to dislike Windows 8 and load Ubuntu onto this thing—just look at that user’s speed: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f7yljA5BeMI. And this is no hard-won finger gymnastics. This is just quick, simple swooshes from the screen’s edge. From-left to cycle apps. From top to return home. A little L-shape or reverse-L to dock an app half-screen on the left or right. This is way better than the iPad’s advanced 5-finger swoosh and the iPhone’s double-click of a home button requiring scrolling through thumbnail pics. You can even cycle apps in half-screen mode. This is productive for a tablet, desktop, or by any measure. Wow… this came from Microsoft?!?! It’s even better than OS X’s 3-finger touchpad swoosh—and dare I say? Yes, it’s even better than Amiga+N.

And the base device is $300, though I got the 64GB version for $350, but it’s still very much in line with an iPad Mini—and cheaper than a Retina Mini. I love Apple, but for professional reasons, I make sure I try out all the platforms. I was one of the first to order the original Nexus 7 and liked it until the screen cracked, then never replaced it. I felt I got my Android experience and didn’t have much more to get out of it. When the oddly named Nexus 7 2 came out, it held very little temptation for me. Gradually, all my tablet screens are cracking and the only thing to update this form factor in my box-of-tools is the 6-inch Amazon Papwerwhite 2013 (a slightly newer version) that I pop in my jeans’ back pocket without fear.

Now that I’m getting my third non-Apple tablet device (Nexus 7, Kindle, and now the Dell Venue 8 Pro), I’m sort of glad I’ve been buying my recent books in Amazon and not iBooks. As a full-fledged Windows 8 computer, I will even be able to run iTunes on it and bring all my music over (if I really want to), and run the latest version of Chrome and Flash, and watch Netflix our YouTube in the browser without even needing to download an App. All my Chrome-based development work will live nicely on this thing, and I can use my standard tricks of overriding the local hosts table and running my own web server, so I can do all my development work offline on the subway, simulating the parts of the Internet that I need (repositories and such).

In short, it’s a full fledged Windows 8 PC that would normally be in a laptop or even tower form factor that’ll run all your office software and even PC games—all crammed down into a svelte 8-inch tablet that’s no thicker than all the Android platforms out there, and’ll look right at home on the subway.