jamor Apr 07, 2011

Dell Streak

At A Glance

Will Ferrell

Clever camera controls; excellent as a navigation device; Unfettered, iTunes-free music control; Open app dev platform; Two cameras

Will Ferrell Streaking

Small screen size; Too big to be a smartphone; Clunky UI; limited orientation; Ancient Android version

Can This "Tablet" Top the iPad?

The Dell Streak is born into a hardware environment that desperately needs an Android-based tablet—or any kick-ass tablet that doesn’t run Apple’s “stop it now before it borgs the free world” iOS. Our current tally shows no fewer than 30 touch-operated tablets that could be launching in the next six months, and the majority of this freshman class of iPad killers will probably be running Google’s mobile operating system.

Indeed, hardware manufacturers from here to the back aisle ways of Computex want a piece of the tablet action that the iPad has so successfully proven out. As of July 21, Apple was reporting 3.27 million iPads sold, and, hey, we like the iPad as well . We also think we might like the open, unfettered platform of an Android-based tablet even better.

But is the Dell Streak even a tablet? See, it might actually be a smartphone. And as a smartphone, it’s got a lot going for it. But as a tablet, though? Um, no. Not so much.

Neither Phone Nor Tablet, Fish Nor Fowl

The device’s capacitive touch screen display measures five inches diagonally, and boasts a 800x480 resolution. At that 5-inch physical dimension, the screen is bigger than what the iPhone 4 offers (3.5 inches), and is even larger than the 4.3-inch displays of the largest “pure” Android phones, the HTC Evo 4G and Motorola Droid X. Nonetheless, the Streak’s display is dwarfed by the wide-open expanse offered by the iPad’s 9.7-inch screen.

This is a problem, at least if you want to use the Streak for what have become “typical” touch tablet activities: web browsing, email, Twitter, casual gaming, HD video playback and digital magazine reading. For a truly comfortable experience, all of those activities require a large screen, and/or a large virtual keyboard (which is made possible by a large screen), and the Streak has neither.

At 800x480, the Streak’s display resolution is exceeded by not only the iPad’s resolution (1024x768) but also the iPhone 4’s (960x640). The Evo 4G and Droid X sport 800x480 and 854x480 screens respectively, so given the Streak’s 5-inch screen dimensions, the Dell device actually offers fewer pixels-per-inch than these pure smartphone competitors. That said, we’d still take the Streak’s extra 1.5 inches of screen real estate over the two smartphones’ more exacting pixel grids.

We tested two Streak specimens for this review. One came straight from Dell and was optimized for the 3G network bands used in the United States. But we spent even more time with a unit that was purchased in England, where the device went onsale June 4. Our overseas unit was unlocked, but if we had had access to a UK credit card address, we could have also purchased a data-only or data/voice service plan -- for the Streak is, in fact, a phone.

Or, rather, it makes and receives phone calls. We’re not sure whether a device that roughly measures 3x5.75 inches really fits into the phone category. Put this sucker in your front pants pocket, and people will think you’ve stolen a paperback book from the Mega Lo Mart. Raise it up to your face, as if to make a call, and people will think your body has shrunk -- or that you’ve time-traveled from an era in which mobile phones were big, honkin’ monstrosities.

In practical use, the Streak’s speaker and earpiece are well-situated for voice calls. They line up nicely with the ears and mouths on our substantial, Maximum-sized melons. But we still feel like dorks putting this leviathan device up to our faces.

Regardless, if you want to use the Streak as a phone, you can commit to a 2-year AT&T contract and get the hardware for $299. There aren’t yet details on whether you can get a 3G-only service plan. Meanwhile, if you want to run the Streak as an unlocked WiFi-only device, you’ll be dishing out $549. The 16GB, WiFi-only Apple iPad costs $50 less than this—though because there are so many hardware differences between the two devices, it’s borderline silly to make a big deal about pricing comparisons.

The Hardware: Much To Like

The Streak runs a 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon system-on-chip processor that’s partnered with 512MB of RAM. This ARM-based SoC is plenty zippy, but if you plan on arguing with iPad fanboys about their ARM-based SoC (the Apple A4), proceed with caution, because we found the iPad a bit faster during WiFi-connected web page loads.

MaximumPC.com loaded in 10.6 seconds on the Streak, and 9.4 seconds on the iPad. Techradar.com loaded in 18.8 seconds on the Streak, and 17.8 seconds on the iPad. IMDb.com loaded in 7.2 seconds on the Streak, and 5.8 seconds on the iPad.

You’ll find 2GB total of non-user-accessible storage (it’s dedicated to the OS and apps), and the Streak comes with a 16GB microSD card for all your accumulated data (32GB cards are supported). You also get built-in hardware GPS, and both a 5 megapixel rear-facing camera for stills and video, and a low-res front-facing camera for videochat applications. On the iPad, you won’t find a camera of any persuasion, and GPS is only included in the iPad 3G versions. Oddly, the Streak doesn’t come loaded with a videochat app, but rumors have that feature appearing later this year.

The Streak hardware also includes a 3-axis accelerometer, though the user interface doesn’t make very good use of it (more about that later). You’ll also find a 3.5mm headphone jack, and a proprietary 30-pin USB connector. That’s right: proprietary. You better not lose the cable that comes with the Streak, or you’ll be one unhappy nerd.

As far as the chassis itself, the Streak is a hard-knock, ready-for-anything fighter. Build quality is solid, seams are razor-thin, and the display’s vaunted “gorilla glass” remained scratchless after we scribbled on the screen with a sharp nail. All that said, we’re not fond of the power button on the side bezel. It’s essentially flush to the bezel surface, and you have to hunt around for it in order to turn the Streak on.

The front of the device includes capacitive Back, Menu and Home buttons. They’re all placed in the right spots, and emit an effective haptic vibration when tapped. Unfortunately, they need to be tapped too often -- a problem we’ll discuss in the next section.

The Software: For Every Positive, a Negative

The Streak currently runs version 1.6 of the Android OS. Code-named Donut, this build is actually two generations behind the current-best iteration, version 2.2, aka Froyo. Dell has announced it will upgrade to Froyo later this year, and when that happens, users will be able to enjoy improvements in Google Maps and Microsoft Exchange, as well as HTML 5 and Adobe Flash 10.1 support, among other optimizations.

That’s right: No Flash support for you! At least not yet. Now get back line with everyone else, and wait for the Flash Nazi to show you some love.

As we mentioned before, the Streak includes an  accelerometer, but it’s not put to good use, at least not in screen-orientation management. We love the fact that the iPad can literally be held in any position, and the home screen and most apps will reorient themselves right-side-up to whatever position you’ve thrown at them. There’s really no top, bottom, left and right in iPad orientation. Most of the time, this is pleasing and convenient.

The Streak, meanwhile, has a home screen fixed in landscape mode, and you can’t even flip it 180 degrees and have that landscape view re-orient when the device is upside-down. Likewise, even when you’re in an app that supports a portrait view, you still need the device oriented with the power button on your right -- just like in landscape mode, there is only one functional orientation.

We also have quibbles with the Streak’s basic UI navigation experience, and it’s difficult to say whether the problems should be ascribed to the outdated Donut OS, the fact that we’re trying to use a large phone as if it were a tablet, or Dell’s interface hacking (Dell has tweaked the home screen into a Dellified version of the stock Android UI). We’ll just say that in a sufficient number of built-in apps, you have to do a lot of Menu and Back button tapping to get where you need to go.

Indeed, anyone migrating to the Streak from an iPhone or iPad will miss Apple’s Multi-Touch gestures and simple, intuitive navigation schemes. Of course, the counter-argument is that the Streak and other Android devices actually expose more functionality in the apps themselves. Nonetheless, with devices this small -- and on devices designed for casual, low-mental-bandwidth applications -- sometimes even power users can benefit from interfaces designed for technophobes and the elderly.

The Software: For Every Negative, a Positive

But enough bitching and moaning. The Streak does, in fact, include some winning software and interface features. We applaud -- vigorously -- the ability to drag-and-drop music files to and from the Streak. In a world where restrictive, vexing iTunes operation drives people into mental institutions, the Android way flat-out rules. You can even drag-and-drop files you purchased via the Streak’s preloaded Amazon MP3 Store app.

And then there’s Google’s voice search support, which is enabled in many apps (to name just a few: Browser, Maps, Contacts, IMDb, and YouTube). Just hit the microphone icon, clearly enunciate the term you want to search for, and Google will magically (and with a pretty good success rate) return what you’re looking for.

The Streak’s keyboard has received criticism for including a number keypad when in landscape mode. Apparently, people who practice two-digit thumb typing have been hitting the number keys by mistake. OK, sure, yes -- that can happen. But because numbers are so integral to the data-entry process (especially when it comes to password input), we’ll happily make the tradeoff. Plus, because the Streak is an Android device, you can download alternative keyboards to find one that suits you better, which speaks to the overall freedom of the platform itself.

Indeed, Android is an open platform that hardware developers can tweak per their own requirements. Likewise, software devs can build apps for it without jumping through restrictive hoops, hurdles and approval regimens (cough, cough, iTunes App Store). By and large, we’d say the current app offerings found in the Android Market pale in comparison to what one can find in Apple’s store, both in total inventory count and app polish. Nonetheless, we applaud the sheer openness that Android provides.

And, finally, we couldn’t close out the software section without mentioning that the Streak supports multitasking. As of this writing, the iPad does not. Let us repeat: The Streak can multitask. The iPad cannot.

Cameras: Streak, 2. iPad, 0

The Streak loses to the iPad in a number of feature-for-feature battles, but Dell was savvy enough to make sure it wins the camera conflict. As stated previously, the Streak comes with two cameras. That’s two more than the iPad’s allotment, and one more than what you’ll find on any iPhone.

The Streak’s rear-facing 5MP camera snaps still images at a maximum resolution of 2592x1944, and includes autofocus and an LED flash. Unfortunately, the camera’s output isn’t as impressive as that of the iPhone 4’s 5MP, 2592x1936 images. This is backed up by the fact that 5MP photos shot with the Streak were topping out at around 800KB, whereas photos of exactly the same scenes shot with the iPhone 4 hit 2MB.

But then again, the iPhone 4 is a smartphone, not a “tablet” like the Streak, so are comparisons really fair?

(Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.)

Regardless, we can report we’ve been seriously digging the Streak’s camera and photo interfaces. When you want to snap an image, you can hit either a hard physical button on the side bezel (near the power button) or a virtual button on-screen. After you take a photo, you’re immediately greeted with a number of editing option. Should you choose to accept the editing challenge, you can rotate, crop, resize or flip your image; add text, clipart or decorative frames; and tweak a number of effects, including stylized filters, art styles, and color tweaks. The Camera interface also allows you to define Zoom (up to 4x); Contrast (5 settings); Resolution (2592x1944, 2048x1536, 1600x1200, 1280x960 and 640x480); Quality (Fine, Standard, Basic); Multishot (Off, 4 or 9 shots) and other more prosaic settings.

The front camera’s video options are less exciting. The Streak can be set to record in either MPEG-4 or H.263 of resolutions of 640x480, 320x240 or 176x144. As for the front-facing camera, it offers the same resolutions and formats for video, but just two resolutions for stills (640x480 and 320x240), and there’s no zoom or extended editing options for stills.

We used neither camera for video-chat, precisely because no video-chat app is pre-loaded on the device.

When you’re perusing your Photo & Video folder, the interface has a great timeline slider to help you quickly navigate to images shot during specific months and days. You can also sort by a number of criteria (for example, Favorites, Photos Shot With Camera, Videos Only, etc). All in all, the Streak offers a lot of interesting features and controls for taking and cataloging images and video. It’s just the cameras themselves that aren’t state-of-the-mobile-gadget-art.

Who Needs Sat-Nav When You Have the Streak?

Even after two weeks with the Streak, we still haven’t decided if it’s an extremely full-featured -- and full-figured -- smartphone, or if it’s a tablet with a severe size deficit. We can, however, tell you that it’s a capable, winning alternative to GPS-based navigation devices like those from Magellan, Garmin and TomTom. No lie: The Streak just plain gets’er done. Now, granted, we haven’t yet done battery-life tests on the Streak, and it’s possible the unit could poop out at the worst possible time. But from the a basic interface and functionality standpoint, it works great as a navigation device.

Go to the Google Maps app, then hit the menu button for Directions. Type in your current address (or just accept “My Location” and the GPS will pin it down for you), and then enter your destination. Because you’re in Google Maps, you can be vague and idiomatic (e.g., “AT&T Park”) or precise and literal (“24 Willie Mays Plaza, San Francisco, CA, 94107”). You can even just tap points on the map, but sadly voice search isn’t an option after you’ve entered the Directions portion of the Maps interface.

With your start and end points determined, you can define whether you’re traveling by foot, car, bus or bike. Now hit Go, and Google will return step-by-step directions, just as if you had typed street addresses in a browser window. And if you hit Navigate, the Maps app will launch a familiar-looking automotive navigation interface, with helpful arrows that indicate the proper direction you should be traveling down the recommended streets. And no sat-nav device would be complete without voice instructions—the Streak’s are clear and effective. It’s just plain sublime.

So How Do We Review This Strange Device?

Smartphone, tablet, GPS navigator, what is it? Even on the Dell website, the messaging is confusing : A headline calls the Streak a “versatile 5-inch Android tablet,” but then copy below states, “The Dell Streak is a hybrid device that lives in the space between a smartphone and other larger tablets or netbooks that you might be using right now.”

We’re going to take Dell up on the tablet designation, which is why it receives a 6 verdict – two verdict points lower than what we gave the iPad in June. With even a 7-inch screen (which is rumored, by the way), the Streak would warrant a solid 7. An even larger screen (also rumored!) and a better UI experience would take the score to an 8, if not a higher number putting the iPad to shame. C’mon, Dell. You make computers, for rice cakes! Why did you ship a big-old phone when what the world really needs is an iPad killer?


Dell Streak

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