Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Dell Streak: A Smartphone With a Tablet Heart

After much teasing and a European launch, the Dell Streak smartphone has finally arrived here in the U.S.. The Streak goes against the gradient, with its roomy 5-inch touchscreen and a design that emphasizes its huge potential as an Android-based data device. But it also has a phone, too, and as such, stands to be judged against the latest competitors in the smartphone arena. And that's where the Streak stumbles. After spending some quality time with the device, I found a lot to like when using it for multimedia and data. But, it's lacking as a phone, and the overall user experience was lackluster.

My experience with the Streak sums up the devices schizoid nature-is it a ginormous smartphone on steroids (not quite) or a tablet computer for your palm (closer to the mark). In the end, in spite of its unique design and appealing viability as a handheld media device, in use the Streak feels too much like last year's Android device.

(This review will be updated as soon as Dell announces the particulars of the Streak's availability and pricing).

The Next Step for Handheld Computing?

This palm-sized gadget is truly optimized for use as a handheld. While using it, I couldn't help but think of some of the Star Trek PADD devices, the smaller ones that unobtrusively fit in a single hand. The Streak has a sleek, contoured design black plastic and metal design, with a 5-inch Gorilla Glass display.

The large screen means the Streak's dimensions will defy many average-sized pockets-I couldn't slip it into my jeans--but might be tucked away more readily into larger spaces, like my deep-pocketed blazer. It weighs in at 220 grams, and just 10mm thick, compared with the Apple iPhone 4's 137 grams and 9.3mm depth (that with a 3.5-inch screen).

The Streak's specs sound appealing: 1-GHz Snapdragon processor, 512MB of RAM, 16GB of storage (on a microSD card), 800 by 480 WVGA screen (same as Nexus One and Sprint Evo 4G), GPS, GSM/HSDPA/HSUPA/UMTS/EDGE support, Bluetooth 2.1 EDR, 5-megapixel camera (with VGA front-facing camera).

The specs come to a roaring stop, though, when you get to the Android load--version 1.6. In a world where all the cool Android kids are now running Android 2.0 or 2.1, the Streak suffers from the burden of 1.6. The device often felt surprisingly, unexpectedly sluggish to navigate around; given the Snapdragon processor inside, it's easy to point to the Android OS as being the culprit (later versions of Android are far zippier).

To its credit, Dell has tweaked the OS to enhance some menus and displays to make them easier to use and complement the Streak's horizontal-friendly design. The company has also integrated some capabilities of later Androids into the Streak-including Exchange support (with Touchdown integration), multi-touch (though, in testing, only in some applications), and support for Google Maps with Navigation. Dell also adds integrated Windows DRM support, for loading the device with protected content. And Dell says it will update the Streak to 2.2, a move which will hopefully help address the responsiveness issue. But at launch, at least, the device feels stale.

The Streak feels surprisingly natural to hold in one hand, or to hold between both. My small hands had a bit of difficulty spanning the device's horizontal keyboard, but colleagues with larger hands had no issue there. The keyboard feels a bit cramped; I found I typed best on it by laying the tablet down.

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