Hands-on with the Dell Streak Android tablet

CNET Senior Editor Donald Bell gets an early hands-on with the U.S. version of the Dell Streak Android tablet and shares his initial impressions, along with sample images and video shot with the Streak's two integrated cameras.

Monday, I spent the better part of an afternoon with the Streak, Dell's ambitious foray into the world of Android tablets. It was an illuminating experience, with plenty of takeaways--both good and bad.

With its release in the U.K. over a month ago, chances are, you're already aware of what the Streak has to offer. Apart from its larger dimensions, the Streak's tech specs read like typical high-end smart phone. There's built-in 3G and Wi-Fi (802.11b/g), along with Bluetooth 2.1 support. The 800x480 resolution screen uses capacitive touch technology, supports multi-touch and is helped along by a fast 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. You get microSIM memory expansion (16GB included), and a removable/replaceable battery. There's both a speaker and microphone designed for voice calls, as well as a 5 megapixel camera that includes auto-focus and flash. And if that weren't enough, Dell threw in a VGA resolution front facing camera, enabling video chat and self-portrait antics.

Now take all of those specs, super-size it with a 5-inch screen, and you've got the Dell Streak. It's a giant smart phone and a scrawny tablet all rolled into one. It's awkward, it's fun, it's a freak of nature, it's your new best friend, it's a paradox wrapped in an enigma. In all seriousness, we're still a little conflicted over whether to recommend this superphone/microtablet--partly because of its unique size, but mostly because we haven't been given all the facts.

At the time of this writing there are still a few big unknowns regarding the Streak's U.S. release. Dell was kind enough to provide us with an evaluation unit, but remained tight lipped when it comes to the product's official release date, pricing, or possible partnerships or subsidies from national carriers. The last we heard in June , the Streak was due out near the end of July, priced around $500 when ordered directly from Dell.com--which doesn't strike us as screaming deal. Priced more aggressively using standard carrier contracts and subsidies, the Streak becomes less of a pint-sized stab at the Apple iPad, and more of an evolutionary step in the arena of Android superphones. We expect more news on the Streak's pricing and availability near the end of the week. Until then, let me walk you through the highs and lows of my afternoon with the Streak, and save our formal CNET review for later.

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Maybe it's all the time I've spent with the camera-deprived Apple iPod Touch and iPad, but right off the bat I just had to explore the capabilities of the Streak's two cameras. It was a beautiful day outside, and a great excuse for a walk in the park. You can see the results in the test photo slideshow at the end of this post, and in the embedded video to the right. In both cases, I was impressed with the image quality, though the front-facing camera is predictably crud.

Of course, what you don't see in these images is what it feels like to be a guy in a park taking pictures with what appears to be a Sony PSP. I can tell you from experience, it's a little odd. Cameras, MP3 players, and phones--all being devices of roughly the same size and shape--lend themselves seamlessly to convergence and interchangeability. Whereas taking photos with a tablet-shaped device nearly twice the size of any point and shoot, feels less like a win-win.

The added size of the Streak does carry some practical advantages. For example, the built-in Google Maps app is able to show more area and detail than a typical smart phone screen. Web pages require less resizing and fiddling. There's room to show off more of your e-mail in-box and messages. Photo slideshows and videos are given the pixels they deserve. In general, the extra screen means extra room to spread out, download more apps, and bask in the glory of Android.

Unfortunately, if we follow the logic that bigger screens make for better tablets, the iPad is still the inevitable conclusion. Compared to the Streak, the iPad makes a better map, better photo frame, better video player, better Web browser, and better repository for all things "app" with a seemingly limitless number of home screen pages. E-mail superiority is a matter of personal taste; however, the iPad's full-size QWERTY keyboard has some practical advantages over the Streak's smaller keys and insistence on including a numeric keypad layout.

That said, you can't fit an iPad in your pocket, or pop in your own SIM card, or shoot 640x480 video, or even take a crummy portrait on a front-facing camera. There's a lot going for the Streak, and it's safe to say Dell has created the best Android-based tablet we've seen so far. Granted, we've only seen a handful of Android-based tablets, such as the Archos 5, Archos 7 Home Tablet , and Pandigital Reader , but Dell's insistence on high-end hardware has placed it far ahead of its peers. It's also the only one in the bunch to use Google's official Android App Marketplace, bringing thousands of prized apps and capabilities into the fold. Dell has already promised that the Streak will see an update to Android 2.2 (currently 1.6) and Adobe Flash 10.1 support later this year, putting them further in the lead as the Android tablet to beat.

We'll have more to report on the Dell Streak as our testing continues and crucial details on pricing and availability are made clear.

 

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