I’ve been putting off writing this for a long time, but in a way perhaps it’s best that I did, since I’ve now had 4 months to get a more complete feel for all the details and thus (hopefully) give a more well informed review. So, here we go… this is the Dell Streak:
Summary / Caveats
In an effort to avoid burying the lead, I’ll start right off by saying that this phone (or “tablet” – whatever you want to call it) is perfect for me. I keep pretty up to date on the latest phone news, and I can honestly say that there is no other phone out there right now I would want in its place.
Regarding the caveats, the main point is the “for me” part of that first sentence in the previous paragraph; I totally recognize that different people value different things when it comes to products like this, so hopefully you can take what I say as coming from that perspective.
It’s probably also worth just briefly mentioning that the device originally came with Android version 1.6, and I happily used that for quite a while before eventually upgrading to Froyo (version 2.2). Doing so was an easy process, and it’s much faster and better in other ways I won’t expound on in the interest of brevity. I highly recommend upgrading, although the new devices now come with it from the start.
Size – Tablet vs. Phone
I’ll start by addressing what seems to be the most talked about feature of this phone: its size. With a 5 inch screen, it is substantially bigger than any other phone on the market (for comparison, the iPhone and many other Android phones are 3.5 in.) Because of this, it is billed by Dell and considered by many to be in the “tablet” category, even though (unlike many other tablets) it has all the same calling features as cell phones. Granted, it’s a bit big to hold up to your head and talk into (although it’s certainly possible) – I normally just use bluetooth or the speaker-phone capability, so that’s no problem.
The potential downside related to this that a lot of people are afraid of is whether it will fit in your pocket, since that’s where most people carry their phones. For me, it fits perfectly fine in every pair of shorts or pants I own, although I often jokingly say that if I were ever to get into the “skinny jeans” fad it could become an issue.
For reasons I’ll briefly expand on later in this review, the size was actually the primary selling point for me. It is large enough to totally satisfy what I would be looking for from a “tablet” device (comfortable web browsing, reading, etc.) BUT still small enough that I can take it with me everywhere, as you do with your standard phone. Having a bigger screen tablet would actually be a compromise for me, since then I’d have to lug it around as a separate “thing” rather than just fitting it into my pocket. If I’m going to carry around something extra, I’d much rather have a more functional device like a netbook or light-weight laptop than a tablet that doesn’t really offer me anything I don’t already have from my phone.
The only real downside for me in this regard is that it’s more difficult to use it without attracting a lot of attention. It’s such a unique and interesting device that it attracts small crowds of interest pretty much any time I pull it out and use it in a public setting. But who knows, for some that might be a good thing – just something to be aware of at least.
I could go on for a long time about all the cool apps and Android features, so I thought I’d try to keep it brief here, and just mention a few quick, standout things that I thought were really cool. These aren’t necessarily exclusive to this phone, and I’m trying (not completely succeeding) to avoid as much as possible doing a negative contrast to alternative platforms like the iPhone in this post. Those who know me know my feelings on that; I’ll just briefly mention that some of the coolest features about Android are made possible by the degree of open access you get to the underlying hardware platform, as well as the open nature of the OS / software platform itself. With great power comes great responsibility, and yes, Android developers and even users can also shoot themselves (or their phones, at least) in the foot, but *for me* I value the open for innovation side of that trade-off. (I also don’t use training wheels on my bicycle – they’re certainly “easier to use” and are great for those who need them, but too restricting for those who don’t).
Google Voice Integration
If you’re not already sold on GV, go check it out (fully explaining why it is so cool is beyond the scope of this post; I’ll do it in another if anyone is interested). Once you’ve learned that it (or something like it) is the future, and that phone communication without it seems very antiquated, you will appreciate that on Android devices you can have true and full GV integration. By this I mean that you can configure it so that if you make a call (from your normal contacts list) or send a text message, etc., it will automatically flow through GV. This is a huge convenience; there are GV apps on other platforms (and you should check them out if you’re on those) but none offer quite the same degree of integration.
This is a huge one for me; it’s actually the primary reason why the size of the device was such an important factor. (It does video well too – I just don’t watch that much video). I like to read all sorts of stuff, but there are two things that the screen size was particularly important for: (1) programming books, because they often have illustrations and formatted code samples that can get lost on a text-only view or require too much scrolling to see on a small screen, and (2) comic books. I actually have a fairly large library of comics; some companies put out DVDs a while ago containing decades worth of their monthly published works, and more and more newly published titles are being offered digitally now. I had tried out comic reading apps on other devices (iPhone) but there was too much zooming and scrolling required; on this device, most normal comic pages comfortably fit the width of the screen and only tiny writing or a lot of artistic detail requires any zooming.
This is another huge one; for *every* place you can enter text (any app, etc.), you can speak it instead, and the recognition is superb. Especially when you have kids (or other people) who use texting as their preferred method of communication, it makes it much easier to send a quick reply by just speaking it instead of typing.
One (of many) areas that the speech recognition comes in very handy on is Google Navigation. You may have seen some demo videos of this before (there are probably some at that link) but this is basically a top of the line, audio turn by turn, street view GPS system, with no need to even know the address of where you want to go. As an example of just how easy it is to use, I can hop in the car, open the app, and speak “Foster’s Freeze, Ventura California” and within 1-2 seconds the navigation opens up and begins speaking directions on how to get there from wherever I am. (Not that we go there that often, that example just came to mind as one of the first times I tried the feature just to see how well it worked).
Not a whole lot to say on this one, I just think it’s really cool (demos at the link). Hold up the phone to the night sky and it will tell you what you’re looking at, draw lines for constellations, tell you where planets are, etc.
Alternative Market and App Delivery Options
It is critical in my opinion that a software platform (something for which developers can write and publish applications, and which end users can choose from and enjoy) have a variety of possible distribution channels and options that enable fair market competition. Google’s Android Market is the default standard “app store” for Android, but the critically important aspect is that if Google (or the phone carriers, or anyone else) decides that a particular app should not be offered in their store, they have every right to make that decision, but that does not mean that the app is banned from the platform altogether.
Other companies can start their own “markets” to distribute apps (Amazon plans to do this for Android) without needing Google’s (or anyone else’s) blessing, and developers themselves can even distribute apps directly to users with no middle man, if they so choose. Other more restrictive platforms actually make it impossible to publish “free software” (as defined by licenses like the GPL), whereas Android allows users to install applications from any source they trust.
Android / Openness
The previous point is one of many specific examples of this larger issue. I briefly touched on this earlier, and I also promised not to get into it too heavily, so I won’t. I’ll just say that I do think there are important principles behind the choices we make regarding which software we use and support. I run Linux on all my home computers for many of the same reasons, and the great thing about Android is that now Linux (and the principles behind it) are undeniably experiencing heavy mainstream use, dispelling the “hard to use” myths that haven’t really been true for a long time.
It’s my hope that the widespread adoption of the platform will eventually lead to the beginnings of understanding the principles and values behind it, and the adoption and subsequent demand for those principles and values in consumer use, but I’m not fooling myself in that regard: I realize that most people don’t care about those things – I just think they should and hope they eventually do.
Support / Repair
Just have to wrap this up with an account of the outstanding customer service I received from Dell. The “gorilla glass” screen on these devices is pretty tough and scratch resistant, but unfortunately it’s not unbreakable, as I found out a few weeks ago, while attempting to move a very heavy desk (that I should have gotten help with). I inadvertently rested the edge of the desk on my leg to reposition my grip, forgetting that my phone was in my pocket. I later removed it to find the screen cracked, which significantly dampened my spirits for the evening.
I called up Dell the next morning to explore my options for repair / screen replacement, and after a very short (<5 min.) wait, and a brief friendly conversation with the helpful representative, I learned that since the devices are so new they don't have repair facilities in place yet, so the only option is getting a whole new device. This was followed by a brief hold time (presumably while he got approval), after which he came back and offered me a full replacement (brand new device), in light of the lack of repair options, even though the damage was clearly not covered by the warranty.
I do have to admit that I had done some research online first and knew about the lack of repair options, and had heard mostly reports of "sorry, you'll just have to buy a new one" mixed with a comparatively few reports of replacement offers. So, going into the conversation I definitely was angling for that outcome, although I never directly mentioned or requested it myself - didn't need to. It's amazing what a little conversational skill (and lack of negatively judging someone with an accent) can do for you
Hope that was helpful and/or enjoyable for some of you. I’ll repeat that I don’t necessarily think this is the phone for everyone, but if you’re like me, and you’re looking for all the benefits of a tablet in a device that you can always have with you, I think the Dell Streak is an excellent option to consider.