The Dell Streak Android tablet is basically a really big smartphone. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. the 5 inch display on the Streak gives you plenty of room to gaze at the web browser or other Android apps. And the fact that you can make and receive phone calls, send text messages…….
The Dell Streak has a brilliant 5in screen and a 1GHz CPU that supplies plenty of power under the hood to ensure the smooth running of the device, including the ability to display HD video. It runs on the Android platform — Dell has made some tweaks to the interface — so it can tap in to the Android Market, which now has more than 30,000 apps available for download.
In the world of convergence, there’s a natural barrier between smartphones and larger devices such as tablet PCs or personal media players (PMPs). The jury is out on how small a device can be for videos, e-books and web pages to be enjoyable to watch or read.
Streak. It needs no introduction, as this slate’s been gaining a lot of attention amongst gadget lovers around the world. Thanks to the UK launch last Friday, we were one of the first on this planet to procure Dell’s finalized Android 1.6 phone from O2. Yep, you heard right — Engadget’s now in possession of two Streaks, with the older one still in its original and somewhat unstable prototype state. Our new toy sports a matte “carbon” finish instead of chrome (no word on future availability; the red version’s coming in two weeks’ time), and now 399MB of RAM instead of 405MB (according to Android System Info app; it’s actually a 512MB chip). Anyhow, now that we have the real deal, there’s plenty to go through, so join us after the break to see if the Streak’s really going to start a new trend.
The Dell Streak tests the limits of that barrier with its 5in 800×480 display; in all other respects, it’s technically just another Android smartphone. At 153mm long and 79mm wide, the Streak divided opinion in the office: some felt it was far too large to hold to your ear for a phone conversation, while others decided that if it fit in their pocket, it counted as a phone – and it does fit into most pockets.
The Dell Streak is designed to hit a ‘sweet spot’ between typical smartphones and tablets, and while you could use it for phone calls, at 15cm wide, you probably won’t want to be holding it up to your ear all the time. The Streak is wonderful for browsing photos, viewing movies, navigating the web and reading e-readers. It’s a whole lot easier to carry than the iPad and it offers the flexibility of the Android platform, unlike Apple’s closed iPhone OS.
We found the Dell Streak easy to use and pretty good looking to boot. It’s definitely a head-turning device, especially when it’s running a high-def video, its screen looks bright and has very good contrast.
Following the conventionally sized Mini 3 / Aero, Dell decided to plunge into an untouched territory with its second-ever smartphone. The result is an unusual form factor — a 10mm-thick slab with a five-inch 800 x 480 LCD (much like the Archos 5 PMP but with capacitive touch overlay), and it’s one damn good screen that’s usable under the sun, too. Of course, we’ve seen it all back in February, but our enthusiasm has not dwindled in the slightest — the final Streak still has the same sexy figure, is still as rigid, and is still as pocketable in our regular-fit jeans. No, really — there’s been a lot of debate on whether people would actually put the Streak in their pockets, but like we said before, as long as you’re not into hippie-tight pants, the slate should happily fit in like a regular phone. The only time that you might struggle is when you’re walking up stairs, but a quick push to the outer side of the pocket should do the trick.
Opinion wasn’t divided on the Streak’s ability as a tablet device though. The screen would benefit from a higher resolution for reading web pages, but it is well-suited to video – even though its 5:3 aspect ratio means you’ll have to put up with black bars in most widescreen videos. Luckily, the screen’s contrast is good so the black bars blend into its bezel and are almost invisible.
While the majority of the navigation is done by prodding, flicking and dragging your fingers across the screen, there are three touchbuttons on its right side for quickly going to the main screen or returning to a previous screen. There are physical volume controls on the top of the unit, as well as an audio port, a shutter button for the camera and a power button.
It’s a thin unit (only around 1cm thick) with nice curves. Here you can see the top view, which includes the camera shutter, power and volume buttons, as well as the audio port.
Our four-month ownership of the prototype has proven that the Streak’s quite the attention seeker, even before we revealed to the intrigued passers-by that it’s also a phone. We even gave the screen’s Gorilla Glass some real beating, although such toughness doesn’t seem to extend to the plastic parts on the two sides of the phone — we’re already seeing some fine scratches there. But of course, the more important question is: is this form factor practical at all? Well, let’s start with the grip — the rounded edges on the two shorter sides allow us to hold it comfortably like a PSP. We can even hold the 220g (7.76 ounces) device single-handedly that way with little effort, but we tend to hold on the left to avoid accidentally touching the capacitive buttons on the other side. As for holding in portrait position (when making a phone call, for instance), the flat edges mean our finger tips can securely grip onto the phone. We don’t have a preference for either posture, as it really depends on what you’re doing — obviously video playback is best in landscape, whereas web browsing can work both ways depending on the text layout, and e-book reading is ideal in portrait mode due to shorter lines.
Certain issues do crop up with such a large screen, however. Dell has had to modify the default Android interface for the extra-large home screens, which only work in landscape mode. It has added new elements to the notification bar at the top of the screen; instead of one single bar that you pull down to access notifications, the bar is now split into four interactive elements.
The first displays your app tray, listing all your installed apps in a grid, which means you can access all your apps from any application screen, rather than having to go back to the Home screen. The second lets you manage your home screens and lists recently used applications – also accessed by long-pressing the Home button. The third is the traditional notification tray, while the fourth area shows the icons for WiFi, wireless signal, battery, and such. Tapping it displays a subset of the Settings page so you can quickly toggle WiFi or 3G, or add alarms.
Apart from the three capacitive buttons (back, menu, and home) and a mic on the right, you’ll find four physical buttons along the top ridge — volume rocker, power, and camera (two-stage button i.e. press half-way to focus). The 3.5mm headphone jack is right next to the volume keys, which can be a nuisance if your headphones rock a straight plug. Luckily, the bundled handsfree kit — with an L-shape plug — has pretty impressive clarity and moderate bass, plus you get three sets of rubber buds to suit your ears. Other accessories include a USB mains adapter (with UK and EU plugs; the US will obviously get something else), USB cable (with clip), and a microfiber pouch (which doubles as a wiping cloth). Disappointingly, the gorgeous HDMI dock.
While these customisations are innovative, the long development process meant that Dell started with Android 1.6, and despite the inclusion of Android 2.1 icons in the settings page, it’s worth remembering the limits of the older version. Most notable of these is the lack of Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync support, and despite Dell’s integration of Twitter and Facebook accounts, the Streak lacks Android 2.x’s support for multiple integrated accounts.
Going back to the phone: there’s a front-facing VGA camera between the earpiece and proximity sensor (for disabling the screen while making a call), ready for video chat apps such as Fring and Qik — neither of which were able to use the Streak’s secondary camera just yet. On the back of the phone you’ll see a five megapixel autofocus camera with its dual LED flash (more on the picture quality later), a mono speaker that produces loud sound with less distortion than most other phones, and a sliding battery door (which is now tightened by two little paddings not seen on our prototype). Now, be warned: if you remove the door while your phone’s running, failing to replace it within a few seconds would turn it off. We were told that this is actually a data-loss prevention mechanism, so we’ll assume the phone will actually quit all the processes before killing the power.
An accelerometer is built in and it will automatically change the orientation of the screen depending on the way you’re holding the Streak, but it will only work in certain applications. Other nifty features of the Streak include Google Maps integration, which will allows the Streak to be used as a GPS device with turn-by-turn navigation. The Streak has a front-facing 640×480-resoluton camera, as well as a 5-megapixel out-facing camera. You also get a proximity sensor and an ambient light sensor.
The Streak’s battery life may well be impressive, but what about its performance as a phone? Pretty good, we’d say — last night we made a 25-minute call with the Streak held against our face the whole time, and our hand and arm were still alive after that. We also did our usual noise test and the Streak managed to suppress a fair amount of background noise, as you can see in the video above.
Well, here’s the meat. Like we said earlier, this final firmware performs much smoother and is more stable than what we have on our prototype. Dell’s also put on its own skin over the Android 1.6 OS — homescreen icons are put in shaded boxes, the menu drops down from the top and can shrink to a favorites bar, and on the top bar you get a homescreen-switching button, notifications area, plus a status area, all of which can be triggered by just a tap instead of a drag action. Unlike most other Android phones, to remove a homescreen icon on the Streak you have to hold down on it until it goes red, and then press the menu button for the remove option (and some widgets, such as the RSS reader, will also show a “Widget options” button). This makes sense, as dragging an icon across a five-inch screen isn’t really ideal.
The CPU is an ARM-based Qualcomm Snapdragon that runs at 1GHz. It gives the Streak enough grunt to display HD video smoothly and it really does look good on the 5in screen. For storage you get 2GB of space on the device itself, and there is also a MicroSD slot, which lets you install a card up to 32GB. You can access the MicroSD card slot easily by sliding off the back cover, which also makes it simple to replace the battery.
If you transfer a lot of movies over to the Dell Streak, you can use a dock to connect to a TV and watch them on the big-screen instead of the little screen. The dock has an HDMI output (as well as USB and audio out ports) and even if you don’t use it to connect to your TV, it’s handy for sitting the Streak on an in-flight seatback tray to watch videos on the tablet directly.
As for the phone dialer, we’re slightly disappointed that Dell’s still using the same dull skin as seen on our prototype — we have no issues with the dialpad layout, but the overall style just looks unfinished, plus we’d prefer to see the call log displaying pictures alongside contact numbers. Also, we’re shocked that the Streak doesn’t support smart-dialing, but then again we’ve only seen HTC offering this feature on its Android phones. Of course, provided that you’re in a quiet environment, you can always just use voice search to get to a contact, and you get two options for this: the default voice search app, or the Nuance Voice Control app that can be launched by just holding down your handsfree kit’s button.
Another preloaded app is QuickOffice, which not only can view Microsoft Office documents (.doc, .docx, .xls, xlsx, .ppt, and .pptx), but also makes a great file browser and can open other file types using their associated apps. Just too bad that it can’t edit Word and Excel files, plus the text on some of the PowerPoint slides didn’t render well, but the app’s there if you need it. Corporate users may also be interested in the 30-day demo of TouchDown suite, which grabs your email, contacts, calendar and tasks via Exchange ActiveSync.
Moving on to the built-in apps, let’s start with the browser: as expected on a 1GHz Snapdragon device, rendering and pinch-zooming are pretty quick and smooth, but we find it strange that we can’t tap to zoom. Also, the text doesn’t reflow to the width of the screen, but given the screen size, most of the time we’re happy with the original text layout. Next we have Google Maps: well, there’s not much to say except that you get so much more real estate than you can on other phones, and we have several pictures to prove it — just perfect for car navigation. Annoyingly, pinch-to-zoom is still disabled in Maps thanks to the 1.6 OS, but we’ll live through it for now.
Dell and ArcSoft have gone for the timeline approach, and have put up 18 sensibly-sized thumbnails at a time. The overall performance is pretty smooth too, but understandably the further down the timeline you go, the more likely you’ll experience some lag while older thumbnails are being loaded. This implementation is great for viewing media captured using the Streak’s camera, but to browse media files that you added manually, you’d best be using QuickOffice to find them. Also, we’d like to see Flickr and Picasa integration here, as implemented by the Desire and Nexus One respectively.
Speaking of media, the Streak’s supposed to support H.263/H.264, 3GP, MPEG4, and WMV videos. Like our prototype, this final Streak played our MP4V-encoded 480p and 720p clips (up to 7.4Mbps bit rate) without a hitch, although for some reason it wouldn’t open full-length films that were encoded the same way, even at 3Mbps and lower. More disappointingly, we had no luck with any of our H.264 clips despite the bit rate limited to 3.2Mbps, so we do wonder if this codec’s supported at all — maybe Archoscan lend Dell a hand? On a brighter note, our WMV clips — both VGA and 720p — came out as good as the MP4V videos. Last but not least, YouTube videos looks great on the five-inch screen.
We won’t go too deep into the music player as it’s pretty much identical to what we’ve seen before, but we’ve found a couple of new features. Firstly, the app will actually automatically grab mugshots of the artists, so we were a bit surprised to see Lady Gaga flashing her legs on the Artists page. Secondly, we discovered that you can skip a track by clicking the handsfree button twice, but here’s a caveat: we often found ourselves clicking too fast for the Streak to respond properly, whereas the iPhone wouldn’t have a problem with the same click rate.
So, let’s go back to the question that the whole world’s been asking: what is the Dell Streak? In our humble opinion, it’s most certainly a smartphone. A large and sexy smartphone that still fits in a pocket. Sure, a five-inch phone may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but with devices starting to join the 4.3-inch party, consumers will undoubtedly be considering devices with more screen real estate — the Google Maps screen comparison above probably says it all. We applaud Dell for taking one step ahead and going for the pocketable size limit, and the company’s definitely earned its worldwide attention. The work isn’t finished yet, obviously — on top of the bugs list we’ve compiled, many potential buyers are holding back due to the aging Android 1.6 OS. Don’t get us wrong, though, as the Streak’s running like a well-oiled motor as it is, but we’re hoping to get 2.2’s sweet tethering action and a bit of Flash on that stunning screen as well. Rumor has it that O2’s already road-testing a 2.x upgrade for next month, so let’s keep our fingers crossed there’ll be some Froyo in that cupboard.
This means that, although you can add your Facebook and Twitter accounts, only contacts from Facebook are integrated into the Contacts app and you can’t manage synchronisation as you can with the built-in Google account. The lack of ActiveSync support means that you can’t get push email from a work Exchange account, although you can still access it via POP3 or IMAP.
From our brief experience with the Dell Streak, we can say that it will appeal to people who like the idea of a tablet, but who don’t like the size of the iPad. In fact, the Dell Streak is a good smartphone (albeit a big one) and tablet all-in-one device that’s perfect for playing media files and interacting with social media sites. But you can even use it for looking over office files wile you’re on the go.