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Rather fittingly, the biggest mobile phone you’re likely to come across, needs little introduction. The Dell Streak is a rather unique piece of mobile technology, having one foot in the smartphone world, and the other in the tablet space.
Given that it’s been out for around a year, there are plenty of other reviews on the Web. So, I won’t make this an exhaustive review of a device you’ve probably already read about. However, I was fortunate enough to have a two week loan of Tim Salmon’s Dell Streak, see the photos I took of the device along side other smartphones. Therefore, these are just my thoughts about the device, while my memories are still fresh.
So off we go, here’s my thoughts on Dell’s generously proportioned slate-come-smartphone, running Android 2.2 Froyo …
Phone or tablet?
Even now that I’ve used the Streak for two whole weeks, I’m still undecided if I should call it a large phone or a small tablet. Tim has mused over the same question. If you you had a gun to my head, I’d have to say a it’s a big phone. Why do I say that? First of all, it’s designed to be used as a phone. You can make and receive calls while holding the device to your ear. Unlike, say, the Samsung Galaxy Tab which requires the use of a headset to make calls. My second argument for saying the Dell Streak is primarily a phone is that it can comfortably slip into any average trouser pocket, despite its large body. Sure, if you like to wear skin tight pants, you may have a problem, but it happily slipped into all of my pockets.
Having said all that, the Streak has made me think differently about screen size. I used to be something of a masochist when it came to screen sizes. I’m the guy who managed to read several PDF novels, including Dostoevsky’s epic, “The Idiot“, on the tiny two inch screen of the Nokia E51! Since December, I’ve been using the HTC Nexus One as my primary device. Until the 4.3″ HD7 and 5.0″ Dell Streak arrived on my doorstep, the Nexus One had the largest screen I’d used on a phone. It made activities like reading Kindle ebooks a comparative pleasure. It was startling to realise that the Nexus One’s 3.5″ screen felt tiny.
The reason the Nexus One felt so constrained after using the Streak was that the latter can fit so much more on its screen. This means reading anything, whether it be Kindle books, apps like Google Reader, or websites, is easier because it allows for more eye movement and less finger scrolling.
Both of the Android devices I’ve been talking about here have the same screen resolution, 480×800 pixels. Therefore, one might expect that the Streak would display the same amount of information as the Nexus One, just with larger dimensions. This isn’t the case though. Those larger pixels on the Streak mean that text and icons can be scaled down, to the same physical size as you would see on a three to four inch screen. If elements are scaled down, more can be fitted on the screen at once. One cautionary note, I have good close up vision, but Tim complained about the default system fonts being too small for him to read comfortably. They obviously weren’t scaled up to take advantage of the physical size of the device.
The Streak has a pleasingly simple and sleek appearance. Down the right-hand side you find a 3.5mm headphone socket, the volume rocker, power button and camera shutter key. The camera is an autofocus unit and so the shutter key has two steps.
The left-hand side is completely clear, apart from the proprietary data port. Yes, I said proprietary, let’s do a collective sigh. Part of the reason for this port is that the Streak has a HDMI dock for hooking up to your home entertainment system. Fortunately though, the Streak will charge via USB connection to this port, it’s just that you have to use that specific cable, you can’t use a standard Micro USB charger.
Both the top and the bottom of the Streak have a tapered end, with smoothly curved, glossy, plastic. I really appreciated this symmetric design and it made holding the device in landscape very comfortable. Often, you don’t need to worry about which way up you’re holding the device. The accelerometer controlled screen orientation is happy to work in any situation. The top end houses the earpiece for phone calls along with an ambient light sensor and a front facing camera for video calls.
The lower end has three capacitive buttons for Home, Menu, and Back. Some people really don’t like having capacitive buttons, I am not one of them! It makes more sense to me to have them along with a capacitive screen. It saves me having to make a mental adjustment about how I’m going to interact with different parts of the device.
The back of the Streak it taken up with the very small 5 megapixel camera unit (with a dual LED flash), along with speaker grill and the large metal battery cover. The battery cover attaches via a set of hooks, which when slid into place reveal the afore mentioned speaker. It can be a little fiddly to get used to taking the cover on and off, because it doesn’t quite feel as if it has pressed home enough to slot into place, when it actually has. Also, the metal plate is covered in a rather brittle black lacquer. Both Tim and I have dropped the cover, and there are chips around the corners to attest to the fact!
On a side note, the battery cover reveals a housing for a 1540mAh battery, SIM card slot, and Micro SDHC card slot.
As mentioned, the Dell Streak was running Android 2.2, when I tested it. However, at the time of writing there was over the air update available for version 2.2.2. The only customisation to the user interface was Dell’s “StageUI”. Given that this was the first custom Android user interface I’d reviewed, I did not find it at all obtrusive.
The Streak has seven home screens, many of which can be filled with full screen widgets made by Dell. The most useful of which is a widget which displays a three by three grid of your most recently used applications, along with weather and location (see the ‘in the hand’ photo, above). Other full screen widgets include: a music player which showed an album art gallery of recently added music, and similar widgets for browser bookmarks and contacts.
The good is that is you don’t like them, you don’t have to use them. Given the scale of on screen items, discussed above, it’s possible to add a lot more app icons to a home screen. However, simple widgets like the traditional single row, full width, Music widget are not scaled up, but still occupy the same relative space as on smaller devices, which means there’s a lot of empty space on the Streak’s home screens. Click here for Tim’s take on the Froyo version of Stage UI.
The only other notable difference between the Dell’s implementation of Froyo to a vanilla Android device is the app-grid. Rather than a vertically scrolling list, the app-grid is made up of sideways scrolling pages. Again, I liked this, but it is a subjective choice.
Overall, the version of Android running on the Streak is very close to a vanilla ‘Google experience’ such as you’d find on the Nexus One. I would count the few customisations as enhancements. They provide optional functions that don’t change the overall user experience you’d find on any ‘Google Experience’ Android device.
There’s one exception to what I’ve just said (yes, I’m just trying to keep you on your toes!). Dell have bundled the Swype keyboard as the default input method. If you haven’t heard of Swype, it works by the user drawing a line connecting all of the letters that spell out the word they want to type. For example, draw a line from d, to a, to v, to i, to d, to type “David”. I have tried Swype on much smaller screens, and found it to be a poor experience. However, on the Streak’s large screen, where the physical size gives a much more forgiving margin of error, I actually enjoyed doodling out my words. What’s more, the Swype keyboard works just as well as an ordinary QWERTY keyboard in both portrait and landscape. People tend to love or hate Swype, but I have to say that it worked well on the Streak.
There isn’t actually a lot to say here, which is always the way with something that works well. I’m sure if there was lots of performance issues I’d be making a laundry list of complaints!
The Streak’s 1GHz CPU did justice to everything I ran on the device. I don’t tend to run that many demanding applications. However, Tower Raiders 2 Gold,one of my favourite Android games, is a very good test for any computational bottlenecks. While this game slows down occasionally on the Nexus One, the Dell Streak happily played every level I could get to, without dropping frames when the action became very busy!
Video playback, both with the official YouTube application, and with the third party VPlayer, always played smoothly. Watching video is another thing that the Streak’s five inch screen is obviously well suited to. Relatively speaking, feels like watching a large screen TV. What’s more, the Streak’s speaker is very loud, so hearing audio isn’t a problem either.
However, the single best performance aspect for me was the Streak’s generous internal storage drive. This is a really important aspect for Android devices, as not every application can be installed onto the SD card. Phones like the Nexus One with a mere 200MB of internal storage soon start to feel the pinch. However, the Streak has a whopping 2GB of internal storage, which means that you’ll practically never run out of space for applications.
The other performance aspect is of course battery life. Unfortunately, I cannot reliably report on this. I used the Streak without a SIM card, so there was no GSM or 3G connection to draw power. Plus I had a warning from Tim that if the battery was allowed to become completely exhausted, a factory reset of the device would be necessary. Hence, I was very pro-active about keeping it topped up. What I can report however, is that I never had a nasty surprise at how much the battery had depleted after a heavy session of browsing and game playing.
I did have a curious networking issue though. I often found that the native browser would complain about certain likes, like shortened URL’s having “Too many redirects” and would give up loading the page. This meant that I had to resort to Opera Mobile as the default browser. I queried with Tim about this and said that he’d never had that problem. This leaves me to conclude the the Dell Streak and my Netgear DG834G v5 WiFi router weren’t quite compatible.
Overall, now that I’ve returned the Streak to Tim, I’m missing the big old thing! Whenever I wanted to check my Google Reader feeds, without my laptop, I often found myself reaching for the Streak, rather than my Nexus One. That large screen, in portrait, just made reading text so much more comfortable. The Streak’s form factor has made me think twice about tablet devices. However, I do suspect that even a seven inch device will be a completely different experience to a five inch device.
I wouldn’t recommend the Dell Streak if you have a fast-paced, rough-and-tumble lifestyle. However, if you’re mostly in the office, and/or at home, and use your mobile device for a lot of reading and/or video watching, then it’s worth giving the Streak serious consideration. Especially if you want a larger screen device, without having to have a phone AND a tablet.