If bigger is better, then the Dell Streak is the greatest smart phone in the world. But size isn't everything, and, although the Streak's large screen and powerful Android operating system provide heaps of fun, it needs some more polish before it lives up to our Android tablet fantasies.
The Streak is only available from O2. It will set you back £399 on a pay-as-you-go deal. You can also pick it up for free on a £35-a-month, two-year voice and data contract, or for free on a £25-a-month, two-year data contract if you don't want to use it as a phone.
Is the Streak a phone or a tablet? We think it's a bit of both. Although its size means it looks hilarious when held up against your face, its 127mm (5-inch) screen has been slapped onto a slim, 10mm case, which means it's technically possible to pop it into a pocket. Unlike the iPad, the Streak doesn't feel like a pack of A4 paper that's come to life. It feels more like a very, very big phone, in the same way that the HTC HD2 did.
But the Streak's main strength is its tablet-like size. When holding it, the Streak reminded us of a handheld games console like the Sony PSP Go, because its buttons are arranged so that you tend to use it in landscape orientation. We rarely used the Streak in portrait mode, especially since the home screens are always shown in landscape mode, which isn't the case with most Android phones.
The Streak's widescreen orientation emphasises its strengths as a media player and Web-surfing device, over its qualities as a phone. Dell has taken advantage of the widescreen real estate in several places -- for example, the phone dialler puts a list of recent calls beside the keypad. Dell's also put plenty more options along the top of the screen, where other Android phones only have notifications -- for instance, the menu button resides at the top of the screen, rather than at the bottom, like you'd normally see.
But Dell's efforts don't go far enough for our taste. We'd like the user interface to be as well thought out as the iPad's, taking greater advantage of the big screen. For example, we'd like the Gmail app to capitalise on the landscape screen, like it does on the iPad, rather than just being a stretched version of the phone app. Even where the Streak does make full use of the space available -- as with the address book, in which each person's contact options are shown as buttons beside their name -- the grey user interface lacks flair.
A universe of symbols
The wide screen will probably also prove a stretch for your fingers while you're typing. But at least you can go nuts with your thumbs -- tablets the size of the iPad are simply too big to enable you to type this way.
Dell has, however, decided to forgo huge, finger-friendly buttons in favour of every key you can possibly imagine. That means there's a full Qwerty keyboard, a number pad, separate shift and caps lock keys, and a double-width button that's dedicated solely to entering emoticons.
The zillions of keys also have zillions of alternate options, so symbols you will never have to use -- like the registered-trademark sign -- are at your fingertips. That's handy for texting the occasional maths equation to your mates, but useless for most people. We'd prefer to have bigger, easier-to-press buttons.
The Streak also lacks predictive text and spelling-correction features, which tend to make typing on a touchscreen a faster and more accurate process. Dell has also excised the trackball that you see on most Android phones. That keeps the Streak looking slick, but makes it tough to place the cursor in tiny text. Unlike the iPhone OS, which has a little magnifying glass that helps you find your place, Android doesn't have a software-based solution to this problem. It's another example of how the Android software needs to be tweaked for a tablet to take full advantage of the hardware's potential as a serious emailing and writing device.
Work in progress
In general, the Streak is a good first attempt by Dell at making an Android tablet, but there's plenty of room for improvement. Dell has promised that it will send out an automatic update to version 2.2 of Android within the year, but the Streak is stuck with version 1.6 in the meantime.
On a phone, many users won't miss the latest features of Android. But, on a cutting-edge -- and expensive -- tablet-like device such as the Streak, the absence of the latest version of Android is a disappointment. The lack of support for Exchange email feels like a huge hole, and the app that's pre-installed to handle the task, TouchDown, isn't user-friendly or good-looking.
The big, beautiful maps that you see while running Google Maps are let down by the fact that there's no multi-touch capability to let you zoom in and out easily with a two-fingered pinch or stretch movement -- although you do get this feature in the Web browser and the gallery. There's no free sat-nav in the form of Google Maps Navigation either. Both of these missing features came with a later version of Android.
Videos from YouTube and other sources look good on the Streak's WVGA screen, but BBC iPlayer is a no-go zone. The Web site blocks Android phones, and the unofficial beebPlayer app is no longer available. When the update to Android 2.2 comes out, you'll also get Flash Player 10.1, and the Flash video on the iPlayer will finally be yours. In the meantime, you're out of luck.
The Streak is still packed with features, such as the Android Market, which will let you download thousands of apps and games. But it's no fun to shell out for a new gadget that already feels slightly dated, and then have to wait around for an update without even knowing exactly when it will arrive.
Although the software left us saddened, the Streak's hardware didn't disappoint. Sleek and slim like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Streak also has a decent 5-megapixel camera that can shoot video. There's even a VGA camera on the front, which will be great for video calling once Skype pulls its finger out and gets its app on Android in the same way it has on the Nokia N900.
Wi-Fi and fast 7.2Mbps HSPA connectivity will keep you surfing at top speed at home or on the go, and the 1GHz Snapdragon processor means the phone runs smoothly even with multiple apps running.
There's 2GB of internal memory, with room for a microSD card, and it's easy to sync the Streak with the music and video on your desktop computer. Sadly, however, it has a proprietary port for this purpose, so you'll have to use its special cable.
Dell also promises that the Streak can take a few more knocks than its delicate touchscreen competition. The Gorilla Glass touchscreen should be able to withstand a full frontal assault from the keys in your pocket or handbag, although we didn't put it through our brutal monitor punch test to find out.
We're craving an Android tablet to challenge the iPad, but the Dell Streak merely whets our appetite. The Streak's sleek, powerful hardware is let down by the presence of a relatively old version of Android, and £399 is a considerable sum of money to drop on a gadget if you have to wait around for an update before it can reach its full potential.
The Streak is much better than the Android-based Archos 5 Internet Tablet, and it offers plenty of advantages over the iPad, but it lacks the polished user interface of Apple's device. Ultimately, the Streak is a good omen for Android tablets to come, rather than a must-have gadget.
Edited by Charles Kloet