Is Your Windows 8 Tablet Fast Enough For PC Gaming?

Why should Nintendo's DSi XL, Sony's PlayStation Vita, and Nvidia's Shield have all the fun? We take Dell's Windows 8.1-based Venue 8 Pro, powered by an Atom processor, and try turning it into a portable PC gaming console with a handful of upgrades.

I've never been much of a game console guy. It's not that I look down on them with some misguided sense of technical superiority. But as an old-school PC gamer, I've always preferred first-person shooters and RPGs to platformers. I feel I have more control with a mouse and keyboard than a gamepad. There's a sophistication you can get on the PC that'd be difficult to replicate on a console.

When it comes to handheld gaming, though, the PC isn't as much of a factor. Laptops are too large to carry and play on for short jaunts across town, and unless you're flying first class, they're not all that practical in the air, either.

Nintendo catered to the space with its Game Boy, which evolved into today's 3DS XL. Sony countered with its PlayStation Portable. That was replaced by the Vita. Of course, smartphones and tablets are quickly encroaching on the mobile gaming space thanks to advancements in graphics hardware and standardized APIs able to maintain compatibility. Nvidia's Android-based Shield bears mention as well, since it facilitates gaming in its native environment and on Windows, if you're running the right GeForce card and in range of a fast-enough Wi-Fi network.

While all of these portable consoles have their strengths, none of them give you a truly mobile version of the desktop experience. You can't play something like Dota 2 on a Nintendo DS. Nvidia comes the closest with surprisingly faithful ports of Half-Life 2 and Portal, but the Android library is otherwise limited. The company continues to implement innovative technologies with GameStream and Grid cloud gaming. However, both features depend on blazing-fast network connections for smooth performance. The day might come when tethering and in-flight Wi-Fi are quick enough, but we're not there now. So what's a PC gaming to do?

Windows 8-based tablets aren't marketed as gaming platforms, and for good reason. The hardware inside most of them tends to be modest, particularly with regard to graphics. Moreover, their storage space is usually quite limited. In many cases, basic peripherals don't work with them due to a lack of simple USB connectivity. Lastly, PC games still aren't written with touch-based input in mind. Right out of the gate, gaming on a Windows-based tablet is a mess.

Of course, enthusiasts lead the charge when it comes to exacting change. We put our minds to making the mobile PC game console idea happen. And let's be clear: I'm not talking about playing Angry Birds or Halo: Spartan Assault here. Some of those Windows-based touch-optimized titles are decent. Cold Alley, GTA: San Andreas, Armed!, Asphalt 8: Airborne, and Skulls of the Shogun are good for hours of diversion, and available on the Windows Store. But that's not what I'm going for. I want hardcore desktop gaming on my mobile console.

The Platform: Dell's Venue 8 Pro

We have to start somewhere, and Dell's Venue 8 Pro is ideal in some ways. The 8" tablet form factor is undeniably mobile, yet it provides us with a larger viewing area and resolution compared to the 5" displays on Sony's Vita and Nvidia's Shield. The Dell's 1280x800 native resolution trumps the PlayStation's 960x544 and matches Nvidia's Tegra 4-based portable.

As far as the internals go, our Venue sports an Atom Z3470D with HD Graphics and 2 GB of DDR3 memory on a single channel. All three of those line items potentially limit what we can realistically play. We're going to try some contemporary games, but also know we have to consider older titles as well. The good news is that there's a colossal library of fantastic PC games to choose from, and many are available inexpensively. If anything, this is a great opportunity to try some of the games we never got around to when they first emerged.

A PlayStation Vita or Nvidia Shield is in the £180 neighborhood; Nintendo's 3DS XL is slightly below that. Dell's Venue 8 Pro starts at around £250. Granted, those prices cover the 32 GB model. If you plan to install more software, consider the 64 GB version.

We haven't even made it off the first page yet and we've already paid a premium compared to competing portables. But keep in mind that a Windows-based tablet is useful for much more than gaming. The Venue also includes a full version of Microsoft Office Home 2013. This isn't the much-maligned Windows RT, either. It's the full Windows 8.1 operating system.

You're probably going to want a mouse and keyboard to make navigating Windows more familiar, and on a tablet with a single micro-USB port, that means leaning on Bluetooth. We picked up a low-cost HP X4000b mouse four around £20, and Bluetooth-attached keyboards can be found for the same price (I snagged a new Microsoft Wedge mobile keyboard off of Craigslist). As for wireless networking, the Venue includes a 2x2 antenna setup and 802.11n connectivity. Link speeds aren't the bottleneck I thought they might be.

To recap, I bagged the 32 GB Dell Venue 8 Pro from Micro Center as well as a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard and a leather case that doubles as a stand. All of those parts together give me the equivalent of an ultra-portable laptop, along with the peripherals needed for desktop gaming. But there are some compelling extras that I also wanted to test. If they're able to enhance my experience even more, I might be willing to spend a bit extra...