Dell Streak review

Streak. It needs no introduction, as this slate's been gaining a lot of attention amongst gadget lovers around the world. Thanks to the UK launch last Friday, we were one of the first on this planet to procure Dell's finalized Android 1.6 phone from O2. Yep, you heard right -- Engadget's now in possession of two Streaks, with the older one still in its original and somewhat unstable prototype state. Our new toy sports a matte "carbon" finish instead of chrome (no word on future availability; the red version's coming in two weeks' time), and now 399MB of RAM instead of 405MB (according to Android System Info app; it's actually a 512MB chip). Anyhow, now that we have the real deal, there's plenty to go through, so join us after the break to see if the Streak's really going to start a new trend.%Gallery-94418%


Following the conventionally sized Mini 3 / Aero, Dell decided to plunge into an untouched territory with its second-ever smartphone. The result is an unusual form factor -- a 10mm-thick slab with a five-inch 800 x 480 LCD (much like the Archos 5 PMP but with capacitive touch overlay), and it's one damn good screen that's usable under the sun, too. Of course, we've seen it all back in February, but our enthusiasm has not dwindled in the slightest -- the final Streak still has the same sexy figure, is still as rigid, and is still as pocketable in our regular-fit jeans. No, really -- there's been a lot of debate on whether people would actually put the Streak in their pockets, but like we said before, as long as you're not into hippie-tight pants, the slate should happily fit in like a regular phone. The only time that you might struggle is when you're walking up stairs, but a quick push to the outer side of the pocket should do the trick. More on that in the video below.

Our four-month ownership of the prototype has proven that the Streak's quite the attention seeker, even before we revealed to the intrigued passers-by that it's also a phone. We even gave the screen's Gorilla Glass some real beating, although such toughness doesn't seem to extend to the plastic parts on the two sides of the phone -- we're already seeing some fine scratches there. But of course, the more important question is: is this form factor practical at all? Well, let's start with the grip -- the rounded edges on the two shorter sides allow us to hold it comfortably like a PSP. We can even hold the 220g (7.76 ounces) device single-handedly that way with little effort, but we tend to hold on the left to avoid accidentally touching the capacitive buttons on the other side. As for holding in portrait position (when making a phone call, for instance), the flat edges mean our finger tips can securely grip onto the phone. We don't have a preference for either posture, as it really depends on what you're doing -- obviously video playback is best in landscape, whereas web browsing can work both ways depending on the text layout, and e-book reading is ideal in portrait mode due to shorter lines. If you're all for making phone calls in a more discrete manner, you can always opt for the handsfree kit or a Bluetooth headset (2.0 with EDR) instead.

Apart from the three capacitive buttons (back, menu, and home) and a mic on the right, you'll find four physical buttons along the top ridge -- volume rocker, power, and camera (two-stage button i.e. press half-way to focus). The 3.5mm headphone jack is right next to the volume keys, which can be a nuisance if your headphones rock a straight plug. Luckily, the bundled handsfree kit -- with an L-shape plug -- has pretty impressive clarity and moderate bass, plus you get three sets of rubber buds to suit your ears. Other accessories include a USB mains adapter (with UK and EU plugs; the US will obviously get something else), USB cable (with clip), and a microfiber pouch (which doubles as a wiping cloth). Disappointingly, the gorgeous HDMI dock -- due to arrive in the UK over the next two weeks -- is not included, and Dell's still mum on pricing. Well, at least for now we can tease the company for the artwork blunder on the box -- the illustrator somehow assumed the screen does edge to edge. Ah, if only.

Going back to the phone: there's a front-facing VGA camera between the earpiece and proximity sensor (for disabling the screen while making a call), ready for video chat apps such as Fring and Qik -- neither of which were able to use the Streak's secondary camera just yet. On the back of the phone you'll see a five megapixel autofocus camera with its dual LED flash (more on the picture quality later), a mono speaker that produces loud sound with less distortion than most other phones, and a sliding battery door (which is now tightened by two little paddings not seen on our prototype). Now, be warned: if you remove the door while your phone's running, failing to replace it within a few seconds would turn it off. We were told that this is actually a data-loss prevention mechanism, so we'll assume the phone will actually quit all the processes before killing the power.

Anyway, the chamber underneath the cover houses the SIM card, microSD card (ours came with SanDisk's Class 2 16GB silicon), and a 1530mAh battery. To grill the battery, we had the Streak connected to 3G (HSDPA) only, continuously played music, had background sync enabled (including the Facebook widget, RSS widget, and Twicca), occasionally browsed the web on it, and took a few photos and videos. Guess what? Surprisingly -- especially given the screen size -- we managed to get almost ten hours per charge! On a more realistic usage like less music playback and more reliance on WiFi 802.11b/g, we even squeezed out at least 12 hours of sweet battery juice. This certainly makes the HTC Desire look feeble with its mere six-hour gig from a similar usage.

The Streak's battery life may well be impressive, but what about its performance as a phone? Pretty good, we'd say -- last night we made a 25-minute call with the Streak held against our face the whole time, and our hand and arm were still alive after that. We also did our usual noise test and the Streak managed to suppress a fair amount of background noise, as you can see in the video above. That said, we do have some minor complaints about the dialer, but we'll talk about that later.


Well, here's the meat. Like we said earlier, this final firmware performs much smoother and is more stable than what we have on our prototype. Dell's also put on its own skin over the Android 1.6 OS -- homescreen icons are put in shaded boxes, the menu drops down from the top and can shrink to a favorites bar, and on the top bar you get a homescreen-switching button, notifications area, plus a status area, all of which can be triggered by just a tap instead of a drag action. Unlike most other Android phones, to remove a homescreen icon on the Streak you have to hold down on it until it goes red, and then press the menu button for the remove option (and some widgets, such as the RSS reader, will also show a "Widget options" button). This makes sense, as dragging an icon across a five-inch screen isn't really ideal.

As for the phone dialer, we're slightly disappointed that Dell's still using the same dull skin as seen on our prototype -- we have no issues with the dialpad layout, but the overall style just looks unfinished, plus we'd prefer to see the call log displaying pictures alongside contact numbers. Also, we're shocked that the Streak doesn't support smart-dialing, but then again we've only seen HTC offering this feature on its Android phones. Of course, provided that you're in a quiet environment, you can always just use voice search to get to a contact, and you get two options for this: the default voice search app, or the Nuance Voice Control app that can be launched by just holding down your handsfree kit's button. The latter can even take dictated numbers, although it never worked for us, and we suspect our British accent is to be blamed.

Another preloaded app is QuickOffice, which not only can view Microsoft Office documents (.doc, .docx, .xls, xlsx, .ppt, and .pptx), but also makes a great file browser and can open other file types using their associated apps. Just too bad that it can't edit Word and Excel files, plus the text on some of the PowerPoint slides didn't render well, but the app's there if you need it. Corporate users may also be interested in the 30-day demo of TouchDown suite, which grabs your email, contacts, calendar and tasks via Exchange ActiveSync.

Moving on to the built-in apps, let's start with the browser: as expected on a 1GHz Snapdragon device, rendering and pinch-zooming are pretty quick and smooth, but we find it strange that we can't tap to zoom. Also, the text doesn't reflow to the width of the screen, but given the screen size, most of the time we're happy with the original text layout. Next we have Google Maps: well, there's not much to say except that you get so much more real estate than you can on other phones, and we have several pictures to prove it -- just perfect for car navigation. Annoyingly, pinch-to-zoom is still disabled in Maps thanks to the 1.6 OS, but we'll live through it for now.

So here's the "Photos & Videos" app, which is actually ArcSoft Mobile Media Gallery. As you can see above, Dell and ArcSoft have gone for the timeline approach, and have put up 18 sensibly-sized thumbnails at a time. The overall performance is pretty smooth too, but understandably the further down the timeline you go, the more likely you'll experience some lag while older thumbnails are being loaded. This implementation is great for viewing media captured using the Streak's camera, but to browse media files that you added manually, you'd best be using QuickOffice to find them. Also, we'd like to see Flickr and Picasa integration here, as implemented by the Desire and Nexus One respectively.

Speaking of media, the Streak's supposed to support H.263/H.264, 3GP, MPEG4, and WMV videos. Like our prototype, this final Streak played our MP4V-encoded 480p and 720p clips (up to 7.4Mbps bit rate) without a hitch, although for some reason it wouldn't open full-length films that were encoded the same way, even at 3Mbps and lower. More disappointingly, we had no luck with any of our H.264 clips despite the bit rate limited to 3.2Mbps, so we do wonder if this codec's supported at all -- maybe Archos can lend Dell a hand? On a brighter note, our WMV clips -- both VGA and 720p -- came out as good as the MP4V videos. Last but not least, YouTube videos looks great on the five-inch screen, but we've noticed a bug: if you have music playing in the background, the YouTube app simply plays video over the music rather than pausing it (like the Nexus One and Desire do). We're certain that Dell's team of talents can easily fix this (and we certainly hope that they're reading this).

We won't go too deep into the music player as it's pretty much identical to what we've seen before, but we've found a couple of new features. Firstly, the app will actually automatically grab mugshots of the artists, so we were a bit surprised to see Lady Gaga flashing her legs on the Artists page. Secondly, we discovered that you can skip a track by clicking the handsfree button twice, but here's a caveat: we often found ourselves clicking too fast for the Streak to respond properly, whereas the iPhone wouldn't have a problem with the same click rate. Also, for some reason, you need to have the screen turned on -- regardless of phone lock state -- for the music player to respond to clicks. Very bizarre, but probably very easy to fix.

Before we wrap up our multimedia rant, we'd like to talk about the lack of FM radio -- don't know about you folks in the US, but us Brits still fancy the occasional live audio shows while commuting, especially in 3G-congested areas. We're not sure if the hardware's there, but if it is, a small statue will be made in honor of whoever can hack it. So, it's time to whine about other things. First of all, the keyboard: it's not everyday that you see a numeric keypad on a phone's virtual keyboard, and there's a good reason for that -- it ruins the phone's ergonomic symmetry as our right thumb has to stretch over the numpad while typing. We were hoping that maybe Dell would put in a numpad-free keyboard as an option in Settings, but as far as we can see, we've got nothing. Nevertheless, both keyboards are still pretty responsive. Second thing: while the Calendar app may look delicious on the five-inch screen, we were surprised that the entries in week view mode bear no text description, whereas the 3.7-inch Nexus One (with Froyo) manages to pack in those details. Finally, we're puzzled by the missing contacts pictures -- we were expecting the Streak to pull photos off Facebook, and the box has definitely been ticked for this in Settings. Hopefully our friends in the States won't be suffering from these bugs next month.


Looking back at our old sample pictures, it looks like Dell's dialed up the sharpening settings on the five-megapixel autofocus camera. As you can see in the gallery below (with picture quality set to "Fine"), the outdoor shots are pretty good except for the slight over-saturation in general, but nightshots are just hopeless. As for the camcorder, not much has changed for the 640 x 480 clips -- picture quality's acceptable despite the same saturation and nightshot flaws, plus the lack of 720p option puts the Streak slightly behind the game. That said, unlike the latest HTC phones, the Streak's camcorder doesn't suffer from reduced frame rate when filming in a dark environment -- see for yourself after the gallery.%Gallery-94424%


So, let's go back to the question that the whole world's been asking: what is the Dell Streak? In our humble opinion, it's most certainly a smartphone. A large and sexy smartphone that still fits in a pocket. Sure, a five-inch phone may not be everyone's cup of tea, but with devices starting to join the 4.3-inch party, consumers will undoubtedly be considering devices with more screen real estate -- the Google Maps screen comparison above probably says it all. We applaud Dell for taking one step ahead and going for the pocketable size limit, and the company's definitely earned its worldwide attention. The work isn't finished yet, obviously -- on top of the bugs list we've compiled, many potential buyers are holding back due to the aging Android 1.6 OS. Don't get us wrong, though, as the Streak's running like a well-oiled motor as it is, but we're hoping to get 2.2's sweet tethering action and a bit of Flash on that stunning screen as well. Rumor has it that O2's already road-testing a 2.x upgrade for next month, so let's keep our fingers crossed there'll be some Froyo in that cupboard.

Remember, big gadgets come with big responsibilities, so whether you like it or not, be prepared for some social interaction when whipping out the Streak in the wild. And please, if anyone comes up to you and asks if your Streak is an iPad, just kindly point them to our pictorial comparison.