Dell Streak 7: Solid design, mediocre display

Courtesy Dell's Official Flickr Page/Flickr

This Android-based tablet sports an elegant design, but it disappoints in many other areas.

The Dell Streak 7 dwarfs its little brother

The Dell Streak 7 is a study in contrasts. This Nvidia Tegra 2-based Android tablet counts smart and subtly sharp design among its strengths--unfortunately, its unimpressive display and inelegant software implementation constrain its appeal. T-Mobile's aggressive pricing--at $200 after a $50 mail-in rebate with a two-year contract (as of February 1, 2011), it's $100 less than the Samsung Galaxy Tab on the same carrier--may make the Streak 7 worth consideration, but the device's numerous weaknesses might not outweigh the value price.

The Streak 7 is the follow-up to Dell's 5-inch Streak, introduced last summer. That model suffered from a size that was too compact for a tablet but too large for the phone it really was. Still, that first iteration made me itch for a variant with a larger screen and more polish. The Streak 7 delivers on the first of those two items, at least.

Streamlined Design

Although the design of the original Streak didn't impress me, design is the Streak 7's greatest asset. It's not that the new Streak is especially slim or stylish; rather, its build quality, button placement, and subtle contours are appealing.

The unit measures 7.9 by 4.7 inches, 0.4 inch longer than the Galaxy Tab; both devices are half an inch thick, although the Streak gives the impression of being a sliver thinner. It also seems to be lighter, even though it actually weighs 15.5 ounces versus the Tab's 13.4 ounces. In the hand, the subtle curves of the Streak feel comfortable to hold; they're preferable to the more squared-off design of the Tab. The Streak also feels more conducive to hold in one hand.

On the whole, its design feels streamlined yet functional. Only the headphone jack, situated at the top right (vertical) or upper left (landscape), seems awkwardly situated.

Even the port cover is well designed: It's sturdy yet not bulky, and it smoothly fits with the edge (something that often can't be said of port covers). It provides easy access to the full-size SD Card slot and the SIM-card slot. To open the port cover in the first place, you'll need to use your fingernail, but it notably snaps open and closed easily.

The three navigation buttons--one each for back, menu, and home--are aligned at the right (or along the bottom, depending on how you hold the device). The positioning is offset, which means your palm won't accidentally invoke the capacitive touch buttons when you're holding the device in landscape mode with both hands (in contrast to the Galaxy Tab). That said, I found the navigation buttons and other touchscreen elements to be annoyingly sensitive to accidental brushes.

The Streak 7 heavily favors the two-handed landscape orientation. For example, the front-facing 1.3-megapixel video camera is in the middle, which puts it at the top of the screen when you hold the device in landscape. Likewise, the speakers are situated at the top left and right sides when it's situated horizontally, giving plenty of clearance from where you're likely to put your fingers. Again, this is a nice touch--many tablets, including the Galaxy Tab, put the speakers either where your hands might naturally fall or at the bottom (so if you rest the tablet on your lap, you wind up blocking the audio output).

Usability Leaves a Lot to Be Desired

Regrettably, design elements alone do not guarantee a tablet's usability. I ran into enough issues with the Streak 7 and had enough gripes about it to come to a lukewarm conclusion at best. It will face particularly stiff competition from tablets that ship with Android 3.0 (Honeycomb), too. Dell has said that it will offer Android 3.0 on the Streak 7 in the future, but for now you get it with Android 2.2--an OS that's clearly not optimized for use with tablets.

Unlike Samsung and its TouchWiz interface, Dell did little in the way of customizing its Android build. Everything is stock Android, except for the home screens, which have Dell's Stage user interface. Dell is actively deploying the Stage interface across its PC products. Here, the Stage interface provides some potentially useful home-screen widgets grouped around content type (Home, Mail, Social, Music, Web; two remain open for your text of choice). Mail shows your most recent e-mail, while Social provides hooks into Facebook and Twitter; the other three merely show your most recently accessed content. While appealing, the implementation leaves much to be desired. For example, I had to reenter my e-mail address for the Mail widget, and the Facebook widget provides truncated versions of status updates--if you select one to read the whole thing, you have to sign in to Facebook again.

The mediocre capacitive multitouch screen is another sore spot. The resolution is 800 by 480 pixels, the same as we've seen on tablets such as the ViewSonic ViewPad 7 and the HP Zeen (which is sold only with the Photosmart C510 printer it's intended to be used with). The display is a huge disappointment, its weaknesses glaringly obvious when I placed the Streak 7 side by side with the Galaxy Tab (which has a 1024-by-600-pixel resolution). Images looked washed out and lacked punch; text was barely passable, and certainly not well suited for long stretches of reading given the noticeable pixelation and the sparkly background. Even game graphics looked blocky and pixelated at times, in spite of the Nvidia Tegra T20 dual-core 1GHz processor.

Glitches Galore

What really holds the Streak down, however, is its apparent bugginess. The screen on my test model became unresponsive on a number of occasions, for instance. And unlike most of its competition, the Streak 7 boasts a full-size SD Card slot--but in my case the unit locked up several times upon the insertion of four different SD Cards (eventually it just rebooted itself, only to freeze again on startup). One of those SD Cards, which had worked fine earlier, upon reboot and reinsertion became identified as a 'damaged card'--and when I next popped the card into my Windows 7 laptop, it crashed the PC too. Fortunately, the data on that 16GB card appears to be present (I haven't tried opening every last image or document), but the experience now makes me leery of using one of the coolest features of the Streak 7, which is supposed to facilitate moving files between a laptop and tablet, or viewing images freshly captured on a digital camera. At least, I wouldn't try it with a card that I haven't backed up first.

When I did get this feature to work, I got a glimpse of how much fun it could be to view the contents of my camera's SD Card on the Streak 7. After I popped the card in, the Streak 7 successfully (but slowly) mounted the card to recognize the media and add it to the Gallery for viewing. At this writing, Dell had no suggestions as to why these crashes might have happened, and reps suggested that I try a second unit. I will do so and update this review accordingly.

As with the original Dell Streak, apps that are not designed for use on larger-screen Android devices display in their smaller form, flush to the upper-left corner of the screen. The unit froze when I tried to open several apps downloaded from the Android Market, even though I'd randomly chosen the apps from among the highly rated options in the Top Free Apps section. This crashing issue could be due to bugginess in the Streak 7 and how it handles the scaling of non-tablet-optimized apps specifically, or it could be due to Android 2.2 and how it deals with those apps. It's hard to say. But in all cases, the apps did just fine on the Galaxy Tab and struggled on the Streak 7. Dell didn't have a response when I questioned the company about the Streak's app scaling.

The battery life was another disappointment. In my tests, the integrated 2780mAh battery drained very quickly if I left the mobile broadband radio on: After just 8 hours of being on, and after sporadic light use, the battery had already drained to 48%. The Galaxy Tab, which carries a 4000mAh battery, had far better standby time--about two and a half days after its last charge--and after I used it to a similar extent as I did the Dell Streak 7, the Tab's battery registered at 58%.

The 5-megapixel rear-facing camera (with LED flash) felt awkward to use, and I can't say I was impressed with the responsiveness or how it operated; the image quality fell flat, too.

The on-screen keyboard was responsive, and actually quite conducive for two-handed thumb typing in the vertical position, but I often activated the Swype button inadvertently when holding the device in this orientation. Like the Galaxy Tab keyboard, the Streak 7 keyboard puts a blue glow around the key you just pressed, and offers no pop-up letters.

Other Specs

What else is inside the Dell Streak 7? It has 16GB of internal memory, 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, and support for T-Mobile's HSPA+ network as well as for 3G, UMTS, and EDGE networks. As you'd expect from an Android 2.2 tablet, it supports Adobe Flash 10.1. Dell describes the Streak 7 as having full HTML Web browser capabilities, but many Websites still recognize the OS as a mobile phone, not a full-bore Web browser.

T-Mobile bundles a host of apps, including its T-Mobile TV for live and on-demand TV access, BrainPop for kids, the Zinio magazine reader, Slacker, Amazon Kindle, Let's Golf HD (demo), Asphalt 5, Zoodles, Blockbuster, Think Office, and Qik Video Chat for conducting video chat over mobile broadband and over Wi-Fi. Oddly, you get neither a task killer nor a file manager, both of which would have been useful additions for consumers.

The Streak 7's monthly plan for 5GB (with throttled data speed thereafter) runs $40 a month for existing T-Mobile customers, and $50 per month for new customers. The 200MB plan (subject to overage charges) starts at $25 for T-Mobile customers and $30 for new customers. Or, you can buy the Streak 7 without a contract subsidy for $450, and then buy weekly or monthly pay-as-you-go passes. T-Mobile supports mobile-hotspot functionality for up to five devices via the Streak 7 at no additional charge.

T-Mobile's aggressive and highly competitive pricing makes the Dell Streak 7 a tablet to consider if cost is your paramount consideration. Had this model come out at the same time the original Streak shipped, excusing its faults would have been easier. But I expect better of a Dell product, frankly, and the Samsung Galaxy Tab provides a superior user experience for just $100 more. Additional options are just around the corner, too, so I'd advise shopping around before committing to this subsidized tablet for two years.

This story, "Dell Streak 7: Solid design, mediocre display" was originally published by PCWorld.

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