Exclusive: Dell Thunder prototype preview (video)

Christmas came early at Engadget HQ this year, as evidenced by the picture above -- you're looking at two Dell Thunder prototype smartphones, each with some surprising quirks, and hints that they might include global HSPA, AWS for the likes of T-Mobile, and maybe even a dash of CDMA support. We'll warn you ahead of time that these are labeled EVT1 for "engineering verification test" and date back to the April leak, so they're about as early as you can get -- don't expect the final handset to arrive without some significant differences. Good? Then peek the gallery below, hit the break, and let's get on with the show. %Gallery-99899%

Hardware: When Santa Claus delivered our two units, he forgot to bring the rear cover for either one, but even without it the Thunder's a sleek, sexy beast. Completely curved chrome sides make it feel like an original iPhone in the hand, but with completely recessed hardware buttons that give the handset a touch of class and a gorgeous curved glass screen. The top houses a full-size 3.5mm headset jack, while the bottom has a pair of tinny but loud speakers and a micro-USB port for charging, and both surfaces are coated in soft-touch plastic, which made for a pleasant single-handed landscape grip by pinching those sides between our forefinger and thumb. Inside the device's back panel is one of the most logical layouts we've seen, with both microSD card and SIM slot completely accessible without removing the easily-swappable 3.7V, 1,400mAh battery. Also, notches at either side show the rear cover is slid, rather than pried off. Last but not least, there's rear-facing 8 megapixel camera with autofocus and a 4x digital zoom, plus a bright single-LED flash right under the camera module. While the power and camera buttons were stiff and difficult to to press and there were quite a few visible, light-leaking seams, those sorts of things typically get tightened (or loosened, as required) closer to production anyhow.

Screen: There are two things you should know about the Thunder's curved glass screen: the glass is awesome, and the actual LCD panel underneath is not. Using the glass is like looking through a window into the world of Android, with off-angle views distorted in a manner that's as useless as is it cool, but in this case the window has a pretty dismal picture on the other side. If these prototypes have the OLED panel we were promised, we'll eat an Engadget T-shirt, as they appear to be dim, standard LCDs, and though one unit is running at 800 x 480, the other seems to be pushing something more like 1,280 x 768... yet manages to be uncomfortable to read. Honestly, both screens reek of prototype and we expect both to be swapped out for rich, saturated OLED screens -- especially considering Dell's debug app includes a suite of AMOLED-specific tests. Here's hoping it's high-res, too, because if the Thunder had a pixel density akin to Apple's Retina Display, the screen would be unrivaled.

Software: Bone-stock Android 2.1 (Eclair) was loaded on one unit, and a developer version of Android 1.6 (Donut) on the other, with no Froyo tweaks or custom Stage UI to be found, though the latter rig did have have an interesting piece of software loaded: a test suite for Qualcomm CDMA programming. Most compatible apps worked right off the bat, but we couldn't get the camera or camcorder to launch without a force close, so we weren't able to tell which resolution the camera uses to record video.

Performance: Debug code and a variety of apps all but confirm what's under the hood -- we're looking at a 1GHz Snapdragon QSM8250 CPU with Qualcomm Adreno graphics, much like Google's Nexus One. Without the overhead of custom UI, transitions and programs were pretty snappy throughout, though there was a certain amount of lag when swiping the apps drawer. Raw CPU performance was actually slightly weaker in benchmarks than a pre-Froyo Nexus One, pulling 6.2MFLOPS in Linpack and taking 3600ms to complete a BenchmarkPi run, though graphically the Thunder pulled ahead with a respectable 37.1fps in Neocore and 18.6fps in Nenamark. GPS was missing or completely disabled on both devices, so we couldn't test how long it took to get a fix, but we reliably pulled down 5Mbps (on an up-to-18Mbps internet connection) over 802.11n WiFi. Though we didn't test its accuracy, there also appears to be a full set of inertial sensors on board, with a working three-axis magnetometer and a three-axis accelerometer that will hopefully fuel motion-controlled games in months to come.

Educated guesses: There are a number of features referenced in the Thunder's bootloader and debug software that didn't actually make into these prototype machines, namely FM radio support, dual microphones, HDMI output and a hardware dock connector. Furthermore, Dell's debug apps have tests for quad-band GSM plus AT&T / Rogers / Telus / Bell and Europe-compatible 3G data. Meanwhile, the second phone identifies as AWS, suggesting a possible T-Mobile launch, and of course we're very excited about that CDMA test suite -- Verizon or Sprint, anyone? A "Hynix 4G + 4G" label suggests the phone may have 512MB RAM and 512MB ROM, like the Droid 2, and though we didn't see a spot for it on the device, there are references to a VGA, possibly front-facing camera to accompany the 8 megapixel imager on the back.

These handsets date from April and are obviously pretty far from the finish line, but we like what we've seen. Check out the video below, then let us know in comments if there's anything else you'd like us to test that doesn't involve disassembly, blenders, or stabbing pens into the expensive prototype screen.

Chris Ziegler contributed to this report.