If you’ve been following the ongoing saga of Dell’s Streak, you’ve probably already read our review of O2 UK’s version — thing is, the British perspective can be very different from the Yankee one (we didn’t see eye-to-eye during the War of 1812, for instance). To that end, we wanted to circle back now that the gargantuan Android beast is finally coming close to a US release and get another quick take.
As a refresher, this thing matches or exceeds the specs you’d expect to find on any modern high-end smartphone in most respects, starting with a 1GHz Snapdragon core, a 5 megapixel camera with dual LED flash, 850 / 1900MHz 3G for use on AT&T, Rogers, Bell, and Telus, and 2GB of internal storage coupled with a bundled and pre-installed 16GB microSDHC card. Where the Streak sets itself far, far apart from the crowd, though, is with an absolutely enormous 5-inch capacitive touchscreen at 800 x 480 resolution. Needless to say, it’s a polarizing feature — and for many, it’ll singlehandedly determine whether the phone is a buy or a no-buy.
The Droid X is an extraordinarily imposing device — so for us to be able to say that the Streak dwarfs the Droid X is making one hell of a statement. It’s clear that Dell expects you to generally hold it in a landscape orientation (more on this in the software section), and in that respect, it works fine for users of any hand size; if you imagine the way you’d normally hold a PSP (a real one, not a Go), you’re on the right track. Be that as it may, there are definitely times when you’ll want to hold it portrait, and for that Herculean operation, you’ll need the hands of a yeti. Actually, that’s a bit of an overstatement — we’d consider our hands just a little bigger than average, and we were able to get a comfortable grip on it, though trying to reach every corner of the display with your thumb is a tricky affair at best.
At 10mm, the Streak is among the thinnest smartphones around, but the effect of that thinness is amplified by the device’s surface area. In other words, it feels even thinner than it actually is. As we’d noted in our review, as long as you’re not wearing tight pants (or pants with unusually small pockets), it’s totally pocketable without too much drama or bulge; a good rule of thumb is that if the 4.3-inch Droid X or EVO 4G fit for you, the Streak should fit, too, particularly thanks to the curved edges and glossy, slippery surfaces. It’s a good thing that it’s so easily concealed, because it’s a serious conversation piece when it’s out — a testament to the fact that there’s seriously nothing else quite like it in the market today. Seriously, strangers of all types will come up to you and want to know what the heck it is you’re tapping on, so be prepared for that.
Talking a little bit more about the Streak’s materials and construction, we can’t overstate it: it’s a simply gorgeous phone, truly one of the prettiest we’ve ever seen. Dell has done a magnificent job of blending the Gorilla Glass display almost completely flush with its surroundings in such a way that it appears to be a solid, uninterrupted sheet of curved, glossy blackness — an effect similar to that achieved by the Palm Pre, but with far more reassuring levels of construction and quality here. In fact, the Streak really feels more like a computer than a phone in some respects, a testament to Dell’s traditional comfort zone. That said, we did have a couple concerns; first, the plastic caps that sit on either side of the display had a tendency to creak when pressed, particularly the top one where the earpiece and front-facing camera are located. That’s not a big deal since you don’t really have a valid reason to be pressing too hard on these parts of the phone, but a bigger concern lies with the display itself: pressing on it with anything more than a light touch causes some LCD rippling around the edges, a sign that it’s taking more stress than it should.
Controls and ports on the Streak are fairly standard for an Android device with a couple notable exceptions. The capacitive buttons below the display (or to the right side of it, depending on the orientation) are capacious and work really well. Strangely, though, there’s no dedicated search key among the trio, a strange omission for any Android phone, let alone one with this much room across; we thought “no big deal” at first, but we did actually find ourselves regularly missing it. More importantly, though, the Streak eschews the nearly universal micro-USB port for a wacky custom one — it kind of resembles an iPod connector, but without the ubiquity or the availability of hundreds of compatible crappy alarm clock docks. Apple, of course, can get away with pretending micro-USB doesn’t exist because it’s cultivated its own widely-popular standard over the last decade, and by now, most people have an iPod cable or three lying around. Dell, however, can’t get away with it. The fact that we couldn’t use our already-connected cables to charge the Streak or transfer files to and from our PC drove us nuts, never mind the fact that you’re stuck buying accessories and spare cables — likely at jacked-up prices — straight from the source or from whatever relatively small third-party ecosystem develops to support this phone. Of course, the advantage to the proprietary connector is that you can purchase an awesome dock for the Streak that features HDMI-out and a USB port, and that’s totally fine, Dell — just give us a micro-USB port on the phone, too.
The Streak’s display is fantastic. It’s not quite as vibrant or bright as an AMOLED device or an iPhone 4, but it’s exceptionally usable outdoors and has some of the best touch sensitivity we’ve ever experienced — there were actually a couple cases where we had to prove to ourselves that we were even making contact with the display with our fingertips when taps were being registered (turns out they were, but just barely). Dell makes great use of the screen’s real estate, too; even though its 800 x 480 resolution is no higher than, say, a Nexus One, the Streak uses lower-resolution screen elements (icons and the like) so that you can fit far more on the screen at one time — and because it’s five inches across, you can really take advantage of it. Sure, you can make out individual pixels in some of the fonts and icons, but so what? We’ll take being able to see twelve Gmail items on the screen at once with message body previews (pictured above on the right, versus a Droid X on the left) any day over higher pixel density.
Mirroring our British colleague’s sentiments, we were a little underwhelmed by camera performance and disappointed that video capture tops out with VGA. Shots were generally oversaturated, seemed heavily compressed, and just generally looked like they came off a cheap sensor with poor optics; the standard-def videos didn’t fare much better, hampered by mediocre sound quality. That all may not be an issue for many users — especially since a phone as big as the Streak doesn’t really make for the most convenient camera — but considering that many modern smartphones like the Droid Incredible, EVO 4G, iPhone 4, and N8 are all delivering high-def video capture and superb stills, it’s still a bummer. We also had some strange issues with the automatic white balance delivering stratospherically high color temperature indoors (check out our sample shot of the iPhone 4 in the gallery), and were confused to see that the phone offers no automatic flash control — you’ve got to trigger the dual LEDs yourself if you think you need them.
Herein lies the true tragedy of the Streak. Glancing at the downright mean-looking hardware, you assume that this is an extraordinarily powerful, full-featured computer that could replace a laptop or netbook in many cases. In some respects, that’s true — Android is arguably the most powerful, flexible mobile operating system on the market today — but we came away feeling like the thing was gimped in some significant ways that arbitrarily limit its appeal.
First, and most obviously, the Streak is launching with Android 1.6. Froyo and Flash 10.1 are promised in an update, but the fact remains that Dell is releasing a high-end smartphone in the middle of 2010 running a platform that is now three major revisions old. And that’s not just a meaningless number, either — there are some very practical implications to the version gap. For example, Google Maps doesn’t support pinch-to-zoom here, even after you update the built-in app to the latest that’s available, version 4.3 — that especially sucks considering how great it looks on a display this large! You’re also denied access to the “official” Facebook and Twitter experiences for Android, instead being stuck with half-assed clients that Dell has baked into the firmware.
Then, there’s the skin. We see what Dell tried to do here — we think — but it didn’t work out. It seems they sought to make Android just a little more MID-friendly by adding capabilities geared specifically toward taking advantage of the 5-inch display; the pop-up app menu and notification window, for example. In doing so, though, they’ve left a trail of questionable design decisions that left us yearning for stock Android (or Sense… or really, anything) at virtually every turn. Here’s an example: you can’t swipe down from the top of the screen to get the notification drawer, which is arguably one of Android’s most brilliant gestures. Instead, you’ve got to tap a surprisingly small gray area in the status bar, which in turn pops up a bubble listing your current notifications. Dell has also managed, against all odds, to not have room to show the time in the status bar when you’re in portrait orientation — an impressive feat, considering we’re talking about a 5-inch WVGA display.
Speaking of portrait orientation, Dell really doesn’t plan for you to be using it very often — which, depending on your style and your hand size, may or may not be a safe assumption. The home screen doesn’t work at all in portrait, though some elements of it — context menus, for instance — can occasionally be coaxed to do it. Virtually all apps, of course, are more than happy to work in portrait — so when you’re using the phone that way, you might find yourself getting used to using the home screen sideways to launch apps you’re trying to get into. We were also surprised to see that Dell killed the concept of the trash can on the home screen, so when you want to delete an icon or a widget, you’ve got to hold it until you “pick it up” then drop it again; it’ll stay highlighted red, indicating you can press the Menu button to get a delete command. Awkward and unnecessary.
We were also unimpressed with the keyboard, which Dell has made as full-featured as possible (to take advantage of the display size, we think) at the detriment of usability. In portrait mode, they’ve tacked on punctuation keys and a dedicated Caps Lock key in the letter rows, which we were accidentally hitting almost constantly (though the dedicated numeric row at the top is a neat addition). In landscape, they’ve inexplicably put a full numeric keypad to the right of the letters, which means you can sock away any dreams of typing with two thumbs unless you want to learn how to effectively do it off-center. Considering our extremely positive experience with the Droid X’s keyboard, we’d come into the Streak assuming that we would do even better — bigger is almost universally better when it comes to screen size and soft keyboards — but it’s just not the case with the Streak. Needless to say, we’d love to try the stock Android keyboard on this display in portrait mode and see what kind of typing speed we could achieve.
There are bright spots in the Streak’s software, though. We really liked its home screen panel system, which is user-configurable in real time — just by tapping in the status bar, you can add or remove panels so that you don’t have to swipe through five if you don’t want five. The browser has also been customized from the stock Android 1.6 app to add in pinch zooming, which is a major usability issue for some users (though interestingly, the Streak’s screen is just large enough so that you can totally read some full websites completely zoomed out). It seemed a touch slower than it should’ve been considering the 1GHz processor, but not to the point of annoyance.
For many, high-end browsing and messaging capabilities have overtaken the importance of voice calling in a phone, and that’s a philosophy that giant handsets like the Streak embrace with open arms. It’s an exciting, young segment of the smartphone market where we think we’re going to see a lot of growth and innovation over the next few years — and in many ways, Dell’s 5-inch monster is at the forefront of that charge. What makes the Streak such a heartbreaking device for us, though, is that the types of folks it’s most likely to appeal to — power users and road warriors who value sheer capability over portability — are the very same people who are least likely to appreciate Dell’s heavy-handed and generally unhelpful UI tweaks.
We’re more than willing to forgive a weak camera to carry this beauty, but ultimately, it’s the firmware that’s holding the Streak back from its full potential — and we’re not confident Dell is going to tone down the skin when the time comes to launch the Froyo upgrade (which, by the way, can’t come soon enough). For now, we’ll look to the hacker community to get us some nice, clean Android 2.2 builds for this thing — but if Dell wants to play in the hyper-competitive smartphone market over the long term, they’re going to need to remember something that they’ve known in the PC space for many years: they’re a hardware manufacturer, not a software firm.