Dell Streak review

What are you Dell Streak? Are you a phone? Are you a tablet? Are you just an Android thing? Where do you sit in the order of must-have gadgets out there, and what do you think your primary purpose is? 

These are the questions we find ourselves asking when faced with the Dell Streak. Of course with a screen size of 5 inches, it battles against the likes of the Archos 5 Internet Tablet, but betters it with the inclusion of mobile phone connectivity. 

At 5 inches its nearest cousins are phones like HTC Evo, the Samsung Galaxy S and the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10, but with an extra inch of screen, the Dell Streak isn't exactly pocket-friendly. We’ve been making calls with the thing and holding it against your face not only makes your hand ache, but feels a little daunting, even if the call quality is perfectly fine.

At 5 inches it doesn't give you the expansive screen of the iPad either, so it isn't as adept at browsing the Internet, although it is easier to slip in a bag, so it's more portable. Packing 3G connectivity makes it practical for staying connected on the move, but do you want to carry something like this, if you have a device an inch or so smaller which does practically the same thing, like the HTC Desire?

We can't help thinking that the Dell Streak becomes a connected companion for someone who wants a phone for making calls, like a basic Nokia handset, and wants a more accomplished device for consuming media around the home or on their travels. Or someone who always uses a headset for calling. All of which makes it, in our minds, a little niche.

But these musings won’t stop you from wanting one because it is lovingly designed, looking like a large BlackBerry Storm, with sensitively curving ends that make it a pleasure to hold. It is designed from the outset to be held in landscape format. It is simply too big to be able to hold in your hand and use your thumb to type as you might on a touchscreen smartphone.

It measures 152.9 x 79.1 x 9.98mm, so it is certainly skinny and at 220g it is light enough to hold. There is no stand, which we are sure some would call out for, but the design around the back may well be spoilt by such an addition from an aesthetics point of view.

Finished in gunmetal grey, the matte back features a large removable plate to access the innards, where your SIM card and microSD will go, along with the 1530mAh battery. Currently O2 has the exclusive on the Dell Streak and we tested it on its network where you can get it on contract, but you can also pick one up SIM free from Dell directly.

Other details on the back of the Streak include the external speaker and the 5-megapixel camera accompanied by a double LED "flash". Around the sides of the Streak you'll find a bespoke port for charging and syncing in the absence of the conventional Micro-USB on the bottom, while the top edge offers up power, camera, volume and a 3.5mm headphone socket.

The front of the Streak is where the action is of course, and you'll find three touch-sensitive controls, offering home, menu and back. There is also a front-facing 640 x 480 camera, ideal for all those video calls you don't make. And then you come to the screen.

We've seen a lot of hot air blowing around screens recently, like Apple's Retina Display and Samsung's Super AMOLED, but the Dell Streak copes fine. It is constructed from Gorilla Glass, meaning it should be tough. With an 800 x 480 pixel resolution it matches most of the top Android devices, but doesn't quite give you the sharpness of the Apple iPhone 4. Like the others it does have a glossy finish, so reflections will be a problem and viewing it next to a window or outdoors will never be the best.

But it manages to present the Android OS with plenty of clarity and it really is a very responsive display, reacting to touches as we'd want it to. The typing experience is good because you have so much space and in this instance, Dell has seen fit to include a numberpad to the right of the on-screen keyboard and a comprehensive array of alternative characters, so you don't need to dive in to alternate key sets as you do on many other devices.

The predictive elements don't seem quite as snappy as HTC's, but we managed to get along just fine with entering text on it. Given the size, the portrait keyboard is also easy to use, although as we've said, one-handed operation is nigh on impossible. 

The Streak runs Android v1.6, which is a little disappointing and instantly takes the shine off things as you don't get quite as many native features as the latest Android systems offer you. Dell is promising an upgrade however (is there a handset manufacturer who isn't?) so we'll have to wait and see on that one.

Dell has also customised the interface a little, so you have customisable home pages (called Homes funnily enough), which you can customise to your liking, with a selection of widgets at your disposal. Our review sample came with wallpaper of the Millennium Dome/The O2, with three images making up the backdrop to these pages. It's a shame they can't be used to slow background scrolling like HTC and Samsung, as you'll find odd pages with images that don't match: a petty thing, but the devil is in the details.

But otherwise we like what Dell has done here. The top notification bar has been put to good use, taking advantage of the space available and divided into different areas. First up you have the applications menu, which drops down into recently used apps, then a second press brings up the full list. It might seem a little fiddly, but if you are a creature of habit (as well as dropping app shortcuts onto the home pages) then it works well enough. The second area lets you add and remove home pages, as well as jump to them - a little like HTC's Leap feature.

The third area is your notification area and rather than your normal Android pull-down bar, you press and the list pops-up. The fourth area is your status area, a press here pulls up a menu to turn on or off the wireless connections, gives you network and battery status and set alarms. Finally you have the date and time.

These home screens only work in landscape, they don't rotate for portrait use, although once you get into applications, they will rotate depending on how you want to hold the Streak, with keyboards flipping round as you need them.

The standby/lock screen is a little disappointing. To unlock the screen you don't need to swipe to unlock, you merely have to press the menu soft button, so it might be worth using the on-screen pattern security to stop you unlocking the device with a simple touch. Standard "Screen Locked" window doesn't say you have received messages or anything else, which would have been useful.

Sitting at the core of the Streak is a 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, which gives the Streak the power it needs to zip around. We saw very little sign of lag when opening apps and navigating around the device, even with a number of applications open and running. The processor is backed by 512MB RAM and we found it ran nicely for normal tasks. 

It's a surprise that natively Dell hasn't made the most of these specifications. There is no real support for HD playback, although we found that RockPlayer had a stab at some HD video, with MKV playing smoothly, but some MP4 files dropped lots of frames to become unwatchable - of course, with so many variations in video, some will work and some won't. Likewise there is no HD capture from the video camera - you only get a maximum resolution of 640 x 480 which sets the Streak behind the curve.

Given the great screen, we'd also expect more in the way of media support. It had no problem with SD MPEG4 and AVI files from the default media player, but we would have expected a wider remit - DivX and MKV for example - although the beauty of Android is you can step around this problem with third-party apps.

We'd also have liked to see the Streak be a little more network savvy. There is no sign of skills shown by the Samsung Galaxy S with its All Share application, so again, if you want to stream content from your home network, you'll have to turn to a third party. Little details like this would have strengthened the offering from Dell and perhaps defined what the Streak should be. There is no FM radio either, a basic thing, but one that commuters appreciate.

Dell offers its twist on Facebook and Twitter with a widget, but as we've seen from the likes of Sony Ericsson with the Xperia X10, this isn't backed up with real applications, so you'll have to download the Facebook app and a Twitter client to really use these tools. Pressing on a Twitter or Facebook entry in the widgets will take you through to the browser version of those services, which you may well be happy with. Remember too that the official Twitter client from Android isn't compatible with v1.6, so you'll be looking at one of the third-party apps again.

The contacts experience is fairly rich, with information pouring in from your Google account and from Facebook, although we couldn't find a way to merge this information, so you may end up with duplicate contacts. It doesn't go as far as HTC Sense or Motoblur in feeding all the information through one channel.

As such, there isn't a link-up online photo albums, but we like the simple timeline that the photo and video browser offers. It also incorporates pinch zooming and swiping, so it's great for showing off your photos. We feel it could do with a few more navigation options. You can filter whether you are viewing photos, videos, etc, but we'd like to be able to see folders, so you could browse a collection of images. You can share photos via Facebook, Flickr and Picasa however.

The music player gives you nice big icons of album art, and the widget will also show this, with the widget offering up play/pause and skip controls without having to dive into the application. There is only one external speaker and it is rather brutal. When we tested it on a conference call, it wasn't clear enough to hold a decent conversation. Its position on the back means you are likely to cover it with your fingers when holding the Streak and it will be blocked if you place it on a surface, so it's an awkward experience. We'd have liked to see stereo speakers, again to strengthen the media offering.

But the reality is that you are likely to use headphones. A 3.5mm jack takes care of that and there is Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR if you prefer to go wireless. The bundled headphones are of reasonable quality, but easily and cheaply bettered. On the wireless connectivity front you also get Wi-Fi b/g and then there is HSDPA for your data on the move.

The standard Android browser has been adapted slightly, so you get multi-touch zooming and we found the browser to be quick to load pages and smooth in scrolling around large pages. Internet video is handled by the on-board YouTube app (for YouTube content), but there is no Flash player. Again, you could try the Skyfire browser for your internet video, but an update to Android 2.2 is likely to be the more comprehensive solution.

The internet experience on the Streak is good, serving pages quickly and providing plenty of space for browsing images especially. It doesn't have the size that the iPad does, which is even more expansive, but that extra inch on the screen makes a noticeable difference from your normal smartphone experience. This is all helped by the great colour depth that the screen offers.

Some may even be tempted to use it as an ebook reader, and although there is no included provisioning for this, the Kindle or Aldiko apps are waiting in the store for you. We fired up Kindle for Android and found that there was enough space to be effective, although you will be flicking through the pages rather more frequently than most ebook readers.

The Dell Streak comes with an embedded GPS and here the 5-inch screen size is of great benefit, allowing you to turn it into your satnav. The screen size is more common for navigation devices, and a quick update of Google Maps offered up the Navigation arm of that application, so you do have free navigation here. We've said it before, Google Maps Navigation is a little primitive, but will do in a pinch. Talking of pinches, there is no pinch zooming in Google Maps on the Streak.

You'll have to ensure you have your power supply handy for the Streak if you are going to use it as a PND. The bespoke connection chosen by Dell means that you'll need a USB connection in your car to use the supplied lead, but they are available in 12V "cigarette lighter" form these days.

The battery on the Streak isn't outstanding. We found it would last through most of the day, but it needs charging every night whilst in regular use. Like all these devices, power saving measures can be taken, but with the size that the Streak is, it would have been nice to see leading battery performance.

Finally we come to the camera. Dell has customised the camera interface and it certainly is a great experience composing your shot on such a large screen. The interface offers up settings around the edges of the screen and everything is easy to get to. You can toggle the "flash" although we found it to be typically ineffective.

The arrangement of having these side menus offered up when you touch the screen means there is no touch to focus option, so you get a central focusing reticule. The results in good light are nice, perhaps a touch under-exposed with colour balance a little off, but easily corrected. In lower light noise rushes in as you'd expect. 

Video, as we mentioned previously, is limited to a rather lacklustre 640 x 480 pixels, and we found it to be at varying frame rates, all a little on the low side. For a device of this ilk, this seems a little limiting, especially as we know that HD video capture on these specs is possible.

Verdict

We'd pick the Dell Streak over the Archos 5 if we were convinced that a tablet of this size was what we wanted. But it's difficult to ignore the fact that the Streak sits awkwardly above smartphone dimensions, without really establishing a position for itself.

It doesn't deliver the all-round entertainment out of the box that it should. Make the video offering stronger and people would see it as a great travel companion. It comes with a 16GB microSD card in the box which is welcomed, but provision of native support for a wider range of video codecs and home network love, perhaps a stereo speaker arrangement, and things would be more convincing. 

Overall we like the Dell Streak. We like the look, we like the feel, we have enjoyed using the device at this size for cruising the Internet and watching video content. We even appreciate some of the tinkering that Dell has done with the interface. But for pure consumers, we feel it needs a little more for greatness, so you need to do a little less tinkering yourself.

It's a first device and it's clear to us where Dell should go with it: an update to Android v2.2 and a few more software features added, and the Streak will earn its place in your bag.