Dell Streak Review

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$299

Pros: Gorgeous 5-inch display; Intuitive, customizable interface; Front-facing camera for video calls; Bundled syncing software; HDMI dock and car dock options

Cons: Runs older Android OS 1.6; Sluggish at times; Doesn't record 720p video; Problems playing certain video files

Verdict: A mammoth 5-inch display and sleek design make the Streak an intriguing tablet-phone hybrid, but we'd wait for a software update.

There's one word that you don't see anywhere on the Dell Streak's box. And that's "phone." Instead, Dell positions its 5-inch, Android-powered slate as a tablet, one that's more mobile than the iPad. But the Streak (price undisclosed) is a phone, too, and in that context it's positively massive. Yes, you will get stares if you hold this gadget up to your head. Yet that ginormous screen does make surfing the Web, watching videos, and turn-by-turn navigation easier on the eyes. Expected to be carried by AT&T, the Streak also sports an elegant industrial design, a 1-GHz processor, and both a 5-MP camera and a front-facing VGA camera for video calls. Still, the size isn't for everyone, and the Streak runs the dated OS 1.6, which impacts performance.

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So does the Streak break the mold or is it just a tweener that will turn off both tablet and phone shoppers?

Design

You can slip it into your pocket, but the Streak will weigh it down. All 7.8 ounces of it. We could definitely see and feel this device tugging on our khakis as we walked around New York City. The good news is that the Streak is relatively thin, with a 0.39-inch profile, but its 6 x 3.1-inch footprint makes one-handed use difficult. There's a reason why Dell presents the main menu in landscape mode.

Decked out in carbon black, the Streak has a glossy front that's dominated by its beautiful 5-inch screen. The display is bright and colorful, and held up well in direct sunlight. And since the LCD is made of Gorilla Glass, it's also tough. Too bad you get the same resolution (800 x 480) found on smart phones with 4.3-inch screens. In fact, the Motorola Droid X is a bit more spacious at 854 x 480. To the right of the LCD are three touch buttons (Home, Menu, and Back); we would have liked a Home button, too. To the left of the screen you'll find a front facing camera.

The top of the Streak (or right, if you're holding it vertically) houses a 3.5mm headphone jack, narrow volume controls, a small recessed power button, and a camera launch/shutter key. Instead of a micro USB port, on the bottom you'll find a 30-pin dock connector that looks like the iPhone's and is your sole means of connecting to your PC or power source. The back of the Streak has a 5-MP camera, dual-LED flash, and an easily-removable metal cover for quick access to the battery and microSD card slot. 

To sum up the design, we'd call it manageable, sturdy, and handsome. However, we'd like to see more color options (which should be coming).

Software

Dell has enhanced the Android 1.6 OS to mostly good effect on the Streak. You get up to six customizable home screens that you can populate with all sorts of widgets (including Facebook, Twitter, and RSS feeds). Out of the box, the main home screen presents shortcuts to the Browser, Maps, Phone, and the Android Market above a Google search box. There's also a link to a Getting Started tutorial that gives you a quick tour of the design and interface.

Along the top of the screen you'll find a bunch of other shortcuts. For example, touching the arrow in the top left corner displays frequently used apps on a black background. Clicking the More button in this mode expands to the full list of apps. Next to this arrow you'll find a shortcut (strangely labeled AT&T on our device) that displays all your homescreens at once and along with recent applications. To the right of this area is the notification area shortcut; however, unlike most other Android phones you can't drag down from the top of the screen to see your notifications (like new e-mails). You have to tap this area instead, and it's narrower than we'd prefer.

To the far right is the status area that shows the battery life and signal strength for cellular and Wi-Fi. If you tap this area you'll be able to quickly set an alarm, enter airplane mode, and toggle the wireless radios.

Overall, it's fairly easy to get around the Streak, and it doesn't feel as cluttered as the Droid X. But Dell's UI doesn't feel as polished or robust as Sense on the Evo 4G. Worse, the Streak runs the now-ancient 1.6 version of the Android operating system. We can live without live wallpapers, but you don't get things like a combined inbox, speech to text for typing, multitouch support in maps, or double tap to zoom in the browser (though pinch to zoom works fine). We also think this older OS is holding back the Streak's performance--more on that below.

Keyboard

Like 15-inch and larger laptops, Dell tried to make the most of the Streak's relatively large 5-inch screen by cramming in a number pad. This comes in handy for entering passwords (if you use numbers) and a few other instances, but for the most part we think it's wasted real estate. We'd much rather have larger letter keys than a number pad. Despite this weakness, we had no problems typing accurately at a moderately fast clip. At least with our hands, though, we found ourselves straining to reach the keys in the middle of the layout due to the Streak's large size. Typing in portrait mode feels cramped, so we'd avoid doing that.

Specs and Performance

With a 1-GHz Snapdragon processor under the hood and 512MB of RAM, the Streak has comparable specs to other high-end Android phones. The device comes with 2GB of internal memory for system and application files. Most apps launched quickly, and we could easily browse the web with Pandora streaming in the background (albeit with increased page load times). The accelerometer also kicked in quickly for the most part when changing display orientation.

However, this tablet felt a bit sluggish at times. For example, the Streak stutters a bit when switching home screens, and occasionally we saw a delay when returning to the home screen from an app of 2-3 seconds. Another time the keyboard got stuck on the screen for a second as we moved to another app, and on more than one occasion the Gmail app took 5 seconds or more to load. While the software on our unit wasn't final, we don't think it will change that dramatically before launch.

When you look at the benchmarks results below the Streak's performance numbers trail the latest superphones in several categories, though it fared well in others. We suspect this showing has much more to do with the device's older 1.6 OS than the underlying hardware. We anticipate a serious performance bump once Dell gets around to rolling out a software update, but the company couldn't be more specific than "later this year."

Benchmark TestDell StreakMotorola DroidHTC EVO 4GSamsung CaptivateDroid X
FPS2D2831305458
Linpack for Android4.14.1266.78.1658.19
Benchmark > CPU291.0402.76649.67772.756777.93
Benchmark > Memory280.8308.09312.91645.07424.25
Benchmark > Filesystem106.271.9642.3762.89162.21
An3D Bench2467N/A31866617N/A

Web Browsing

On most smart phones you have to zoom in to read text when surfing the Web. Not so with the 5-inch Streak. When we loaded a new story on BP when visiting The New York Times, we could make out the entire first paragraph without having to squint. Having a screen this large also makes it easier for you to select links without zooming. You can zoom in if you like, but using the pinch gesture didn't feel very smooth. Scrolling was smooth, however. Our biggest frustration with the browser is that the address bar often wouldn't react to our input the first time. We had to aim a bit lower that you might expect with our finger to get the Streak to respond.

Load times for the browser were good both over AT&T's 3G network and Wi-Fi. For example we loaded the mobile versions of CNN and ESPN via Wi-Fi in 5 seconds each, and the full versions of Laptopmag.com and The New York Times in 18 and 21 seconds, respectively. Over 3G those times increased to 12, 13, 32, and 25 seconds. Not bad.

A part of us really wished the Streak had a higher resolution to make the most of its large canvas, but overall the browsing experience is satisfying. (We just hope our issue with the address bar is just a software bug or a screen calibration issue.)

E-mail, Messaging, and Sync

As expected, Gmail worked well on the Streak, delivering our messages quickly with good attachment support. The bundled Quickoffice software displayed an Android benchmark results spreadsheet with the same formatting we had in Google Office. From the preview mode we could easily save the document to the messages folder on our memory card. The barebones text messaging app worked fine and integrates nicely with contacts; we also like the different color conversation bubbles, which makes it easy to follow a conversation.

Dell goes the extra mile when it comes to synchronization by bundling the Streak with Dell PC suite, which lets you synchronize and back up your device. The Sync Manager lets you sync contacts, calendar, tasks, and notes. The Backup Manager backs up and restores your data.

Camera and Camcorder

Equipped with a 5-MP camera, the Dell Streak took colorful and mostly sharp images outdoors, so long as we kept our hand steady. A shot of a fruit stand really popped, and we could even make out the fuzz on the peaches. A second shot of a fashion mannequin decked out with an American flag had a hint of blurriness but was otherwise fine. Just be sure you don't move your hand before the photo gets saved; the Streak was pretty slow to capture images. Indoors the flash helped but it was weak in comparison to the Evo 4G and Droid X.

If you touch the screen while shooting, you'll see a wide range of settings to the right, including digital zoom, scene selection, white balance, brightness, and contrast. You can also engage a multi-shot mode for taking as many as nine shots in a row. We hope Dell adds an automatic option for the flash; there's only an on and off setting.

We wish the Streak captured 720p footage, but its VGA video looked pretty good when we played it back on a big-screen monitor. A yellow cab looked realistic, and the device held up well as we aimed it upward toward the blue sky and back towards traffic. The sound was also plenty loud. An indoor clip of our dog lounging around looked a bit fuzzy but good enough to share on Facebook. At any time you can switch to the front-facing camera VGA in photo or video mode.

Video Calling

Thanks to its front-facing video camera, the Streak joins the Evo and the iPhone 4 as smart phones that can be used to make video calls. We couldn't get the Qik app to work, but Fring proved to be a decent solution. Once we downloaded the app, and turned on the video call setting within the program, we dialed a Fring contact by pressing the video camera icon on screen. Over Wi-Fi, the video quality was pretty clear so long as the other subject kept their movement to a minimum. Audio was delayed a bit but easy to make out. 3G calls were much worse; the other caller looked like a blurry mess, and many words got clipped.

Music, Video, and eBooks

The Streak has one of the better-looking music players we've seen. Once we dragged and dropped some albums onto the device--it enters mass storage mode automatically when you connect to a PC--a cool interface displayed the album art in a grid. Even better, the audio was loud enough, if just a bit harsh. You could easily use the Streak as an alarm clock (and that's without the optional media dock). As with most Android phones, you can download fresh tunes from Amazon MP3.

At least for now, you're on your own when it comes to getting premium movies and TV shows on the Streak. A tie-in with Blockbuster or someone else would have been nice (like the Droid X). We were also unsuccessful in getting a pair of 720p trailers to play on the Streak, both in the QuickTime format (it turns .MOV isn't supported). We also couldn't get an MPEG-4 episode of Heroes to play. Dell says the Streak supports H.264, 3GP, MPEG-4, and WMV. However, we couldn't 720p or 1080p WMV files to play. Bundling a video conversion app might have helped.

While the Streak doesn't come with any preloaded apps for reading eBooks, we downloaded Kindle for Android. Our novels looked great on the big display without having to increase the font size, and page turns were smooth.

Maps and GPS

Just as standalone GPS sales started to fall off of a cliff, device makers started rolling out larger screens. Well, the Streak puts another nail in the coffin of that business. The sprawling 5-inch display really makes a good canvas for in-car navigation. Google's free app worked well in a moving vehicle, barking out loud and accurate directions (once we downloaded a necessary plug-in). We would definitely spring for the Car Dock Kit once that becomes available.

Apps

The good news is that all of the apps we downloaded from the Android Market worked on the Streak. By contrast, the Android-powered Archos 5 can't even access Google's app store. The bad news is that most of these apps are not optimized for a 5-inch screen, resulting in some programs that look stretched. Pandora is a good example; the album art looks tiny, which is tucked up in the right-hand corner of the screen, but the controls are centered. The games we downloaded looked fairly good, however, including Raging Thunder Light. What the Dell Streak really needs is a higher-definition display or apps which are designed to look good when blown up to this size.

Accessories

That 20-pin dock connector is there for a reason. Dell will be offering a wide range of accessories for the Streak, including a Car Dock Kit and an Home Dock Kit with HDMI output. Other choices will include a form fitting case and a leather wallet case with a built-in kickstand. 

Call Quality and Battery Life

The Streak really wasn't designed to be held next to your head, but when we used it that way call quality was adequate. The other caller said we sounded just a little fuzzy, and we said the same thing about them. Those who gab often could opt for the bundled earphones, which has an integrated call button on the cable. We appreciate the rubberized tips for improved comfort, but other callers said they could barely here us. You're better off with a Bluetooth headset.

We still need to fully test the Streak's endurance using our web surfing test, but anecdotally its 1530 mAh battery didn't die on us during a day at the pool (surfing the web and streaming Pandora) and then running a few errands. We had a quarter of a charge left at 6 pm after unplugging the device at 6 am.

Verdict

When compared to competing smart phones, the larger-than-life Dell Streak comes up a little short. It's not as fast as devices that run the latest 2.1 software (and 2.2 is just around the corner). As for the bigger screen, it truly is gorgeous, but the 5-inch display only enhances reading comfort and not sharpness because you get the same resolution--or less--than 4.3-inch Android phones. As a tablet, the Streak lacks apps that are truly optimized for its larger size, but we're glad that it can access the ever-growing Android Market, a milestone in the Android slate category. Dell also deserves credit for crafting an interface that's easy to use yet customizable and a svelte design.

Ultimately, the Streak is a niche device that does some things well. We especially like it as a navigator, and it's a good web surfing companion. It has also has the potential to be a great video player--if Dell makes it easier to transfer content or gets a premium content parter in place. We like the Streak, but we wouldn't pay much more for this hybrid than a high-end Android phone until Dell works out some of the bugs and upgrades to a newer version of the OS.

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Author Bio
Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer, Editor-in-Chief
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptopmag.com, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.
Mark Spoonauer, Editor-in-Chief on
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Laptop Mag & Tom's Hardware
Carrier
Form Factor Candybar Touchscreen
Operating System Android 1.6
Networks GSM/EDGE 850/900/1800/1900 MHz
Data GSM/EDGE/WCDMA/HSDPA/UMTS
CPU 1-GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon QSD8250
RAM 512MB
Internal Memory 512MB of RAM / 16GB Micro SD Card
Memory Expansion Type microSD Card
Display (main) 5-inches, 800 x 480
Display (secondary)
Bluetooth Type Bluetooth 2.0 EDR
Wi-Fi 802.11b/g
Camera Resolution 5 MP
Audio formats supported WMA
Audio formats supported WAV
Audio formats supported MP3
Audio formats supported AAC
Video formats supported WMV
Video formats supported MP4
Video formats supported H.264
Photo formats supported PNG
Photo formats supported JPEG
Photo formats supported GIF
Photo formats supported BMP
Talk / Standby Time 9.8 / 400 hours
Size 6 x 3.1 x 0.4 inches
Weight 7.8 ounces
SAR Rating (Head)
SAR Rating (Body)
Company Website www.dell.com