The Venue 11 Pro's proper keyboard is good: the Scrabble-tile keys are spaced well apart, and they’re large enough to encourage rapid tapping. There’s a full-size UK double-height Return key, and there’s enough room to ensure that Dell hasn’t fudged the layout elsewhere.
The typing action impresses, too, as each key has plenty of travel and a consistent, light action – we’ve used full-blown Ultrabooks that haven’t been as comfortable. Microsoft may have improved the Surface’s fabric-covered keyboard on its latest tablet – we likened it to "a really, really good touchscreen keyboard" – but the Dell’s physical keys are better. The Venue is also the match of the physical keyboard included with the Asus Transformer.
The trackpad makes up for its lack of height with plenty of width, and the smooth surface and two buttons are all larger and more responsive than the Asus and Surface Pro’s equivalents.
Dell’s cheaper slim keyboard also uses physical keys, but they’re not as satisfying. There’s barely any travel – less than a millimetre – and a lot less space between the keys. The lack of feedback from every button is irritating, and the cheap-feeling plastic used throughout means this peripheral isn’t as comfortable under the finger as Microsoft’s equivalent.
Several different Venue configurations lower the price of our £699 version. The next model down costs £629 thanks to a Haswell-based Core i3 processor, and there’s a larger drop to the £429 model – although this cheaper system makes do with a Bay Trail-based Atom chip, a 32-bit OS, weaker integrated graphics, a smaller SSD and half the RAM. A £499 system is also available that shares its specification with the £429 version but also includes a wireless broadband card.
Every Venue 11 Pro has a one-year collect and return warranty, and each tablet can be improved with accidental damage protection. It’s not as versatile a support offering as we’re used to seeing from Dell, but it’s a better option than Microsoft’s one-year limited hardware deal.
Also, while Dell’s accessories are decent, none of them come cheap. The tablet keyboard with its second battery is £176, and the slim keyboard costs £117, which is more than the £99 Surface cover despite both products offering the same functionality. A docking station with extra ports is £147 and the stylus, when it’s available, will be £37.
The Venue has a 2MP front camera and an 8mp rear shooter. The former unit is fine for Skype calls, although it lacks sharpness and struggles in low light conditions. The rear camera is better, but its shots are still a little too dark.
The Venue is furnished with a dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi card, but it’s a 2x2 MIMO model that won’t be as rapid as a three-antenna unit. Dell’s spec sheet lists an 802.11ac option for machines with a Core i5 vPro processor, but that’s not available to buy right now.
There’s no doubt that the Dell is a capable rival for the Surface Pro 2 at the high-end of the Windows 8 tablet market thanks to its sturdy build quality and versatile design, and its Core i5 processor and 1080p screen are easily good enough to get most jobs done – even if they’re bettered by Microsoft’s hardware.
If you just need a tablet, there’s no doubt Dell offers better deals: the £699 Core i5 model and £629 Core i3 version both come with 128GB of storage space and are both cheaper than the most affordable Surface Pro 2, which costs £719 but only has a 64GB SSD.
The Venue remains competitive when accessories are considered. Dell’s keyboard unit with second battery costs £176, which means the two Core-powered Venues cost either £805 or £875 – with Microsoft’s two cheapest Surface Pros with Type Covers costing £829 and £909. The Surface might have a better processor, but we’d rather have the Venue, with its great keyboard and second battery.
Both machines are undercut by the Asus, which is an ideal machine for less intensive work, but we can only recommend the Transformer if you’re on a serious budget – its included keyboard makes it much better value than the equivalent Dell tablets, but it’s hampered by an Atom processor and a mediocre screen.
At the high-end, and in business, the Dell is the better option: it’s got enough power, a good screen, a great keyboard and plenty of flexibility when it comes to specifications, prices and accessories.
The Dell Venue Pro 11 is an excellent, cheaper alternative to the Surface Pro 2. If you want a Windows 8 hybrid for serious work then the Pro 11 has you covered.