Dell Streak: A Smartphone With a Tablet Heart
After much teasing and a European launch, the Dell Streak smartphone has finally arrived here in the U.S. The Streak goes against the gradient, with its roomy 5-inch touchscreen and a design that emphasizes its huge potential as an Android-based data device. But it is also a phone, too, and as such, stands to be judged against the latest competitors in the smartphone arena. And that's where the Streak stumbles. After spending some quality time with the device, I found a lot to like when using it for multimedia and data. But it's lacking as a phone, and the overall user experience was lackluster.
My experience with the Streak sums up the device's schizoid nature--is it a ginormous smartphone on steroids (not quite) or a tablet computer for your palm (closer to the mark)? In the end, in spite of its unique design and appealing viability as a handheld media device, in use the Streak feels too much like last year's Android device.
Dell sells the Streak for $300 with a two-year AT&T contract, and $550 without a contract (price as of 8/12/2010). That contract price puts it at $100 more than the Apple 16GB iPhone 4 and the Motorola Droid 2 (with 8GB of on-board memory); the Streak has 2GB of memory built-in, and like the Droid 2, has a microSDHC card slot for further expansion. This pricing structure makes it clear that Dell has its sights set on a piece of the smartphone pie; unfortunately, in use, the Streak's appeal isn't as a smartphone at all.
The Next Step for Handheld Computing?
This palm-sized gadget is truly optimized for use as a handheld. While using it, I couldn't help but think of some of the Star Trek PADD devices, the smaller ones that unobtrusively fit in a single hand. The Streak has a sleek, contoured design of black plastic and metal, with a 5-inch Gorilla Glass display.
The large screen means the Streak's dimensions will defy many average-sized pockets--I couldn't slip it into my jeans--but it might be tucked away more readily into larger spaces, like my deep-pocketed blazer. It weighs in at 220 grams, and just 10mm thick, compared with the Apple iPhone 4's 137 grams and 9.3mm depth (that with a 3.5-inch screen).
The Streak's specs sound appealing: a 1GHz Snapdragon processor, 512MB of RAM, 16GB of storage (on a microSD card), 800-by-480 WVGA screen (same as Nexus One and Sprint EVO 4G), GPS, GSM/HSDPA/HSUPA/UMTS/EDGE support, Bluetooth 2.1 EDR, 5-megapixel camera (with VGA front-facing camera).
The specs come to a roaring stop, though, when you get to its Android version--1.6. In a world where all the cool Android kids are now running Android 2.0 or 2.1, the Streak suffers from the burden of 1.6. The device often felt surprisingly, unexpectedly sluggish to navigate around; given the Snapdragon processor inside, it's easy to point to the Android OS as being the culprit (later versions of Android are far zippier).
To its credit, Dell has tweaked the OS to enhance some menus and displays to make them easier to use and complement the Streak's horizontal-friendly design. The company has also integrated some capabilities of later Androids into the Streak--including Exchange support (with Touchdown integration), multitouch (though, in testing, only in some applications), and support for Google Maps with Navigation. Dell also adds integrated Windows DRM support, for loading the device with protected content. And Dell says it will update the Streak to 2.2, a move that will hopefully help address the responsiveness issue. But at launch, at least, the device feels stale.
The Streak feels surprisingly natural to hold in one hand, or to hold between both. My small hands had a bit of difficulty spanning the device's horizontal keyboard, but colleagues with larger hands had no issue there. The keyboard feels a bit cramped; I found I typed best with the tablet laid down.
Mildly Customized Face
As comfy as single-handed use was for reading or for holding it as a phone (albeit a bulky phone, but more on that later), everything about the Streak is actually optimized for horizontal use. Physically, the Streak has few buttons. At the right are the home, menu, and back soft-touch buttons, all oriented for horizontal use. Along the top is the headphone jack, volume rocker, power, and camera buttons. Annoyingly, the volume buttons change function depending on the unit's orientation (whereby up and down reverse, and not in a logical manner).
Given the device's physical layout, it makes sense that Dell has tweaked the Android OS for horizontal use, too. But not always for the better.
The display is optimized for use in horizontal mode; you'll swipe left to right to maneuver among the four home screens. The first screen has an e-mail widget; the second has the getting-started guide, plus browser, maps, phone, and Market icons, and Google Search toolbar; the third, contacts, messaging, and Gmail apps; the fourth, a kludgy Facebook widget (shows your wall and lets you update status, but shunts you to the Web to actually respond to anything), and camera, YouTube, Amazon MP3 Store, and music player apps.
The notifications bar runs along the top of the horizontal display; you can also reach notifications via the menu button. But you have to hunt to find the app Launcher tab. Here, the Streak fails to capitalize on the roomy screen, with tiny, hard-to-navigate icons instead of a layout that takes advantage of the screen.
The same could be said for some apps I downloaded. Several current games I installed would display only in vertical mode, and wouldn't scale to the large screen. Other apps, like the eBay app and the Kindle app, looked lovely on the large screen.
Plugged into the PC, the Streak gave me the option to copy media files to and from my PC, copy other files to and from my PC, or charge only.
After selecting copying media files, I went to work filling the Streak's microSD card with content. Dragging and dropping music worked smoothly, but not images. I tried to copy some JPEG images from my hard drive to the device, and Windows gave me an alert saying the images had "one or more properties outside of the device's limits," and suggested using a media program to convert the file before copying it.
The screen certainly is fit for playing back video, and doing so was easy--I simply copied some files over to the 16GB microSD card, and sat back to enjoy. Ditto for viewing photos (one of the apps that multitouch worked in). The YouTube playback, though, underscored the screen's lack of resolution; by comparison with the iPhone 4, the same high-quality video streamed via Wi-Fi showed a distinct lack of detail and poorer color.
While video, at least compared with the iPhone 4, felt lackluster, the photo viewer provided a pleasing experience. I loved how the photo viewer allowed me to cycle through images, how I could pinch and zoom into photos, and how the viewer showed the percent as I zoomed into the image.
Oddly, when I tried to drag and drop photos to the device, Windows warned me that it might not be able to read the images without reformatting (the Streak had no trouble, though).
That wasn't the only glitch I encountered. The Streak's camera often had difficulty focusing, and was very slow at shooting; sometimes, the shutter button didn't work at all. The camera had a moderate selection of options, but let's just say I wouldn't try to capture something that wasn't stationary with this camera.
And It's a Phone, Too
With all of the Streak's multifunctional assets, it's easy to forget that it makes calls, too. Here, perhaps, was the greatest stumble of all--the earpiece's audio sounded muffled, and the audio quality was no better over the tinny, limp-sounding built-in speaker. The speaker is on the back of the device, so you can't have the Streak resting on a surface if you want to use the speakerphone (or listen to music/video).
The phone app does work in horiztontal and vertical modes. The visual face for the phone app lacks the flair of other Android phones.The phone felt fairly comfortable to hold up to my face, though, in spite of its large size.
In the end, I often found myself comparing the Streak to the smaller-sized e-readers I've taken for a spin; and there, the Streak of course compares quite favorably. Yes, the cost will be higher for this LCD-based tablet than for those pint-sized E-Ink devices, but the Streak is a multipurpose entertainment device that also happens to excel as an Android e-reader. I used the Kindle for Android app, and found the Streak's size and display highly conducive for reading, almost like curling up with an old-fashioned paperback (except that two hands were not required).
I also found myself comparing the Streak to handheld entertainment devices I've used before, such as those from Archos. Here, the Streak stands out as well, due to its compact size and versatility.
It's when I consider the Streak as a smartphone that it feels less worthy; its audio quality is mediocre, and it lacks the visual and interface polish of competing devices. And given its price structure, which places it squarely amidst the smartphone pack, the Dell Streak appears set to languish. The handset may become more competitive once it gets its Froyo refresh, but for now that's a hypothetical; as it stands, the Streak's large screen doesn't outweight its shortcomings.