How Mobile Can You Get? (a guide to art & productivity with windows 8.1 tablets)

fDellHere at Step 2, we have a heavy focus on “mobile”. Not just the games we’re making, but our lifestyle and ability to be productive. To that end, the new era of Ultrabooks and tablets has been quite exciting to see develop. In this article, we look at Intel’s latest Atom CPU, codenamed “Baytrail”. We’ll focus on the Dell Venue 8 Pro(Windows 8.1), as that’s what I(hodge), have been using for work and play since late November. Let’s get started!

Atom Baytrail Tablet Processors

The Atom line of cpus from Intel have a reputation of being, well, not very good; to put it nicely. This all changes with the latest generation, code named Baytrail. Inside of modern Windows 8.1 Tablets, you’ll typically found the following variants.

  • z3740 – clocked at 1.3ghz to 1.8ghz
  • z3770 – clocked at 1.4ghz to 2.4ghz

Most sub 10 inch tablets will use the z3740, while larger tablets use the z3770.

In both cases the GPU (graphics processing unit) is a modified version of the Intel HD4000. This is the GPU used in the Ivy Bridge core-i series processors from Intel. In short, it’s actually pretty good for a tablet, and miles ahead of the previous graphics accelerator used with Atom processors.

Real-world use for the 8 inch tablet (Dell Venue 8 Pro (Windows 8.1))

Let me first list the software I use, and how I use it.

Softimage – Modeling, riggging, uv mapping, and animation of single elements. Reasonably high poly count models and low to moderately complex animation rigs. Even applied high quality textures and it’s smooth enough to work with; however, I found it best to work on a single model at a time, not a large complex scene. Also, it’s best to have the modelling program be the only one that is open while in use ( with the exception of a couple browser tabs ).

Photoshop/ArtRage – Multi-layered files are okay. Performance is reasonable. If using PS, it should be the only large application you have open. I would avoid projects with an insane number of layers. I haven’t had any problems with 15 to 20. The largest file size I used was around 100 megabytes. This is probably not going to work out well for print designers. Print typically requires high DPI/resolution images that can be in the gigabytes as far as file sizes go. In case you haven’t caught on by now, most of the things I do in Photoshop are for screen projects (textures and web interface stuff); so, my project resource demands are not as high as print designers. In my use-case, the 8 inch tablet works.

Visual Studio, Sublime – All of them have worked just fine. I use Visual Studio as my IDE with Unity3D, and Sublime for php based websites. I have a few files open at anytime and did not notice any productivity-breaking hangups.

Unity3D – Yup. It runs. It’s a bit sluggish at start up; however, as long as that and your IDE are the only things running, it seems to smooth out. The projects I work on aren’t large scale. I try to work towards a well optimized for mobile art style, and level design. Having said that, I do have my high resolution textures loaded with a few post shaders, and one directional light with real-time hard shadows enabled. It all runs smooth enough for me to navigate in the scene window and run the play tests.

Games – Everyone should take a break now and then. I’ll start by saying that these tablets play nearly any indie or casual game just fine. In the arena of more demanding games: World of WarCraft runs quite playable at low settings, with good view distance. Left 4 Dead 2, and pretty much any source game ran well enough to be enjoyable. No Battlefield 4 (no surprise). It’s also a great chance to go relive/discover some classics, such as the original Operation Flashpoint or Battlefield 2.

My Experience with the Dell Venue 8 Pro (Windows 8.1)

Build Quality – Good. Not great. It certainly doesn’t feel like it’s going to fall apart in one’s hand, it’s just not particularly stand-out quality. The circular rigged back feels nice to hold; however, once I put a case on, it I never feel it.

**Important Build Quality Update** After writing this article, I had an issue that required me to return the device. The single micro usb port broke. The supplied cable had always been a tight fit. I didn’t think much of it; however, the cable stopped fitting in the other day. I looked closer, and somehow, the tightness of the fit caused the internal pins to pull and twist. No micro usb port means no charging…

Would I still recommend it? Possibly. I don’t think my issue is common. This is one of the fist Baytrail devices rushed to market. My understanding is that the build quality should be fine and this is a rare case; however, I’m not replacing it. Find out why in one of my upcoming articles 🙂

Pen Input – This is one of the features that helps the Dell stand out from the pack, and is ultimately the reason I purchased it. This tablet is compatible with the first generation of active pens from Synaptics (they make most of the track-pads in laptops). Honestly, Dell’s pen is a mixed bag. It’s well known that Wacom is the gold standard in active pens, so I didn’t expect it to reach that quality. At first it was just plain broken. I randomly worked, and randomly left clicked. It was an unusable mess. Since then, Dell has had two firmware updates for the pen and screen. Now it works satisfactory. I can take notes and sketch/paint with reasonable accuracy, and up to 256 levels of pressure sensitivity. I would also like to note that Dell’s stylus actually looks and feels like a real pen. It is quite nice to hold, compared to the plastic stick-like stylus offerings of competitors.

Keyboards & Cases – Dell has two cases on their website, both custom tailored to the 8 inch tablet. The first is their sleek case with magnetic keyboard screen cover. It’s actually quite nice and doesn’t add to much bulk. The keyboard doesn’t compare to, say, a Thinkpad keyboard; but nothing does. It’s usable. The second case is really neat, but not sleek at all. It’s the Targus rugged case. It offers solid protection, and loop to hold the stylus, and a deceptively useful stand. While it add a lot of bulk, I can angle this thing any way I like. I usually use one hand to hold it in place, the stand to stable it, and my right hand is free to hold the pen and draw/write without fatigue. Of course, this comes at the cost of added weight and thickness.

Other Thoughts – There is only one micro usb port on this Dell tablet. You can run that to a usb hub, and connect as many devices as you like. Cool right? Well, that same micro usb port is used for charging the device. At the time of this review, the tablet cannot receive a charge via a hub. This means that one either runs the system on battery with peripherals, or runs that tablet alone while charging. Of course the option for a bluetooth mouse and keyboard is available; however, with no video out, one must use a display link usb video device for an external monitor; so, you won’t have that while charging. It is possible that Dell could change this with a firmware update; however, that don’t sound like they will any time soon.

 Peripherals Essential to Productivity

Keyboard & Mouse – There is no getting away from it. Touch applications work just fine without them; however, we’re out to do real work with our desktop productivity software. In some cases the software one might use doesn’t support the Windows touch API, and touch input won’t work with it. Dell offers an elegant keyboard case solution. I use this for maximum portability; however, I still need to keep a mouse in my pocket.

Display Link Monitor/Usb Adapter – Display link is a device that allows video over usb. You can get them in the form of usb to vga, hdmi, and a few others. There is also the option of the lightweight, and portable ASUS MB MB168B+ (this is the monitor I use) They run both video and power over a usb connection. Check out more about this in the video.

Your mileage may very.

Future 8in Tablets

CES 2014 dropped news on a handful of new tablets featuring Baytrail processors. The most exciting two would be the “Asus Vivotab Note 8 (with Wacom digitizer)”, and the “Thinkpad 8” (oddly, without pen input). I’ll introduce you to the upcoming options, and let you know which direction I’m going in later this week.

Thanks for reading!

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