Is it a phone? Is it a slate? Dell’s unique internet communications device confuses and delights in equal measure.
It may weigh only 220g, be dressed in sober black and have attracted a fraction of the attention of the Apple iPad, but Dell is pinning a lot of hopes on the humble-looking Streak. And it undeniably has a charm all its own.
Designed to appeal
A 5in screen dominates, with a thick black bezel on either side. If you were feeling unkind you might call it an overgrown phone, particularly when held vertically, but most of the time you’ll be holding the Streak in landscape mode, and in that orientation it looks quite neat.
Unlike the iPad’s chic minimalism, Dell dots a number of buttons around the Streak’s edge. The Home, Menu and Back buttons sit to the right of the screen. Menu is context-sensitive, showing commands such as Wallpaper when on the home screen and Voice Dial when in the phone app.
At the top (the right-hand side if you use it as a phone) you’ll find the volume buttons, the power switch, a 3.5mm audio socket and the camera button. The bottom is home to a proprietary connector, which is how you link up with your PC and recharge the device.
As has been well advertised, Google Android powers the Streak. But disappointingly, it’s Android 1.6 – not 2.1 or the newer 2.2 (FroYo).
That means you lose out on support for native multitouch, Adobe Flash and over-the-air Exchange synchronisation.
Which you miss the most will depend on how you use the Streak. The lack of Flash means you can’t watch videos on the PC Authority website, for instance, or many online games for that matter.
The lack of native multitouch isn’t quite as bad as it sounds: most of the other key apps, notably the web browser, do support it. One application that doesn’t, however, is Google Maps, and that’s a bigger limitation. No pinch to zoom means you have to double-tap the display or use the small onscreen buttons.
To counter the lack of Exchange support, Dell bundles a 30-day trial of an app called TouchDown. It works well, but will cost you extra if you want the full version. Dell assures us it will release an over-the-air update for the Streak to Android 2.2. That sounds great, but as owners of the HTC Hero and other Android-based phones know, such promises can be broken.
This aside, we’re impressed by the work Dell has put in to make Android scale to the Streak’s 800 x 480 display. The neat home screen has a search bar and six onscreen shortcuts to key apps such as contacts, messaging and the web browser. Press the arrow at the top and the installed apps spring into view.
Most of these are predictable, but we’re a little disappointed at the lack of a proper office suite. All you can do is view files with the QuickOffice viewer; great for PDFs, annoying for everything else.
Then again, that’s when the strength of the Android Market comes into play. Most apps adapted well to the larger screen, and you can download the third-party Office app DataViz Documents To Go for around $20.
Dell also includes the Amazon Kindle app, which suggests it considers the Streak suitable for eBook reading. While it’s never as comfortable to read a book on a backlit device as it is on a dedicated reader, it feels surprisingly natural to read a page on the Streak’s 5in screen.
Strengths and weaknesses
We have mixed feelings about the Streak’s onscreen keyboard. One nice touch is the separate number pad if you’re typing in landscape mode, but it’s fiddly to enter text at speed. We found mistakes kept creeping in, and the auto-correction is no match for that found on HTC’s Android handsets or the iPhone 4.
Consequently, we wouldn’t want to use the Streak as an email device, and if you make frequent calls nor will you want it to be your main phone. While you don’t look ridiculous with the Streak clamped to your ear, you don’t look entirely sane either. You can use the hands-free set to make and take calls, and call quality is fine, but the biggest hurdle is the size. You can squeeze the Streak into a jeans pocket, but we suspect most people will prefer to keep it in their bag.
Entertainment on-the-go is great
Where the Dell Streak excels is as an entertainment device. Video looks fantastic on the 5in screen, and YouTube clips were beautifully smooth thanks to the 1GHz processor. There’s 16GB of storage as standard, but this comes in the form of a microSD card rather than built-in flash memory. The only room for expansion is to upgrade to a 32GB card.
The hands-free set includes a pair of high-quality earphones that slip into your ear canal and block out most background noise. There’s no volume control, but a pause button allows you to accept incoming calls.
The 5-megapixel camera on the rear takes decent photos in bright conditions. Under more subdued lighting, twin LEDs help to illuminate your subjects, but the effect doesn’t come close to a proper flash. We were also a bit disappointed by the video camera. It only shoots at 640 x 480 and at 20fps.
The Streak excels when browsing websites. As long as your connection is strong, even sites that aren’t optimised for mobile browsers load quickly. And over Wi-Fi it’s even quicker, with the BBC website displaying in fewer than 11 seconds. It completed the SunSpider benchmark in a highly respectable average of 25 seconds, while a 91/100 score in the Acid3 standards test is acceptable. But it’s hamstrung by the lack of Flash support.
To fully take advantage of the Streak’s GPS capabilities, you need to buy Dell’s car docking kit, which we expect to retail around $115.
We took the Streak out onto the streets without the kit and, as ever, were impressed by Google Maps Navigation. The visual directions are clear and its mapping solid, but in some ways it isn’t ideally set up for the 5in screen. Yes, the road mapping is large, but if and when you do need to press a button you’ll find they’re uncomfortably small.
The other problem is the built-in speakers. To make sure you can hear what the synthesised voice just said over the background hum of the road, the volume needs to be set at three-quarters or above. And the speakers start to distort at that volume. It’s fine most of the time, but if the road name isn’t familiar then it’s easy to mishear.
The Streak’s generous 1530mAh battery retained 60% of its charge after our 24-hour test (this includes polling for email every 30 minutes, playing back audio for an hour, making a 30-minute phone call, and hooking up to the internet for an hour with the screen on). That puts it on a par with the iPhone 4 – pretty good for a device with a screen this large – but heavy users will need to recharge it every day.
You can do so either via the supplied USB adapter plug or by plugging it into your computer. If you do the latter, you can also synchronise your Outlook contacts and calendar via Dell PC Suite (which you load direct from the Streak). It isn’t the most polished software in the world, with some suspect English to negotiate during setup, but it works.
We can’t recommend the Dell Streak yet. For it to become the natural choice for browsing the internet, it needs to support Flash. And for this, it needs its promised Android update.
There are other problems with the Streak as well.
It’s just too large for most pockets, so you’ll miss the always-there convenience of a phone. On the other hand, its screen isn’t as big or as beautiful as that of the Apple iPad, which rules out the much-heralded rebirth of digital magazines.
Nevertheless, there’s a lot to like. Considering its screen size, battery life is good. Dell makes the most of Google Android, with a slick user interface married to thousands of apps, many of which are free. And the hardware is rather attractive too.