Dell's 5-inch Streak, released to the U.S. market in August 2010, suffered from something of an identity crisis. Was it a tablet competitor to Apple's iPad, despite the smaller touch-screen? Or did its calling ability make it more of an Android smartphone, on par with the Samsung Galaxy S? Dell obviously hoped its new baby would appeal to an audience in the market for both types of device-the risk being that, in attempting to hit that sweet spot between the two, the Streak would end up an also-ran in the tablet and smartphone categories.
Dell's Streak 7 suffers no such crisis. It seems clearly meant to compete within the tablet category, and specifically with the Samsung Galaxy Tab and Research In Motion's upcoming PlayBook, both of which also include 7-inch screens. Like its predecessor and the other Android-based tablets currently on the market, the Streak 7 runs Android 2.2 ("Froyo"), which was developed for smartphones (and smaller screens). Dell is promising "over-the-air" software updates in the future, presumably to the upcoming, tablet-optimized Android 3.0 ("Honeycomb"), and that could change the user experience considerably. In the meantime, all the quirks of Android 2.2 on a larger-screen device are pretty apparent.
Hardware-wise, the Dell Streak 7 is a handsome, middle-of-the-road tablet. It weighs just under a pound. The 7-inch screen, paired with the smoothly curved bezels, offers a comfortable one-handed grip-provided you have a hand on the larger side. The textured backing provides a little bit of friction on smooth surfaces, and the Gorilla Glass front will presumably resist at least some damage; it survived four 3-foot and 5-foot test drops onto a hardwood floor with no cracking or chipping. (As always, dropping your expensive mobile device is not recommended.)
Whereas the original Dell Streak featured three mechanical buttons along its topmost rim-camera, power and volume-the Streak 7 offers only power and volume. Like the original Streak, this larger edition relies on a PDMI (Portable Digital Media Interface) connector with a 30-pin receptacle, connected to a USB port and AC adaptor. Both Streaks' design is such that the connector takes a bit of fumbling to slot into the tablet, but that's a comparatively minor quibble-far more minor, say, than the Streak 7's seeming inability to charge when plugged via USB into my ThinkPad.
The front of the Streak 7 offers three capacitive buttons: Back, Menu and Home. This is an Android device standard, and they all seemed responsive no matter what application or feature happened to be running at the time.
The Streak 7's screen, with an 800 by 480 resolution, seems a bit dim, compared with the Samsung Galaxy Tab's 1024 by 600 resolution. RIM has claimed its PlayBook's resolution will match the Tab's, which means the Streak 7 could find itself lagging in the category come the next few quarters. Nor was the Streak 7's viewing angles particularly ample: unless you stare at the screen head-on, or at the slightest angle, it becomes unacceptably dark.
If the Streak 7's hardware has an Achilles Heel, it's the 5-megapixel rear-facing camera. The software is Android standard, with the ability to granularly adjust for picture quality, white balance, etc. No matter what the setting and lighting conditions, though, the resulting images often appeared muddy or washed-out. The camera module's positioning on the upper-left portion of the Streak's frame also made for some awkward centering.
As with the original Streak, the camera's bright spot-so to speak-is the camcorder, and its ability to shoot 720p video. Uploading both still images and video to Picasa, Facebook, Gmail and Twitter is a snap.
Software-wise, Dell offers the same "Stage" user interface as its original Streak. As soon as you start up the device, you're offered a set of screens, accessible by swiping left or right, which includes Home, Web, E-mail, Social, and Music. The icons within these screens are enclosed within a graphical interface meant to evoke an old-style theater. Aesthetically, it looks far better on a 7-inch screen than on a 5-incher, but most users will likely swipe right to Android's applications screen.
Thanks to the Streak 7's dual-core 1GHz Nvidia Tegra processor, applications and games run with nary a stutter. I played games such as Gun Bros and Asphalt 5 for 90 minutes or more at a stretch, without the back of the device becoming more than just a little warm, and with no slowdown. Combined with the T-Mobile 4G connection, downloading and opening Web pages and running video was likewise a speedy experience. Inevitably, though, that speed costs power: over a few days' consistent testing, I needed anywhere from two hours to four hours to drain a full-battery charge.
Which brings us to the subject of Android 2.2-or rather, the increasingly desperate need for Android 3.0. Or more specifically, the need for Google to offer a version of Android not only optimized for tablet applications (done, once Honeycomb is pushed into the ecosystem), but also tweaked for tablet-caliber power management.
More than once, I've run a third-party application or game only to find it sucking away at the tablet's battery like a particularly famished vampire, and when you navigate away from said program, there's no indicator or guarantee that it isn't still running in the background. Say what you will about the drawbacks of the "walled garden" model advocated by Apple of Microsoft-at least you're assured of a certain quality level. If Google and its partners can impose a greater degree of order on Android Marketplace, and tweak how those applications interact with Android, then the Marketplace could conceivably gain the cachet it needs to battle more heartily against Apple's App Store.
In addition, the Streak 7 crashed on me three times over the testing period when running applications. In each instance, I needed to perform a hard restart. Whether this is the fault of Android or the application is an open question. Nonetheless, those crashes contributed greatly to the sense of Android needing another polish. Hopefully, Google will decide to push out Honeycomb sooner rather than later.
For business users, the Streak 7 offers Quickoffice, calendar, and integrated GPS leveraging Google Maps for on-the-road navigation. As with the original Streak, syncing Exchange is an exercise in pure aggravation, although integration with a Google account was the usual sync. The seven-inch screen meant the virtual keyboard is better used in portrait mode, at least for those with smaller hands, and Swype is available for those who like it. Having just tested Windows Phone 7 and its Office hub, the experience with the Streak 7 left me wishing for Microsoft to finally produce a tablet-optimized version of Office 2007 or 2010; it would certainly make porting and editing documents that much easier.
With its 7-inch screen and powerful processor, Dell's Streak 7 removes the ambiguities that surrounded its smaller predecessor. In addition, the Streak 7 feels a bit more polished than the original Streak-although its screen resolution and battery life leave much to be desired.
Presumably, the future upgrade to Honeycomb will eliminate some of the quirks associated with Android 2.2, and perhaps improve the battery power to the point where it's worthy of that speedy dual-core processor. Until that day, though, the Streak 7 may have some trouble distinguishing itself in the 7-inch tablet market, especially when placed head-to-head against the Samsung Galaxy Tab or RIM PlayBook.