Dell Streak 7 Review: Poor Screen Limits the 4G Upside

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T-Mobile is about to offer the Dell Streak 7, the first Android tablet that can take full advantage of the carrier’s 21 Mbps HSPA+ data network. The Streak 7 arrives in stores this Wednesday, Feb. 2, for $199 after a $50 mail-in rebate and with a two-year data contract or $450 sans contract. The speedy network access is a plus, but the Streak 7 is lacking in many other areas as compared the Samsung Galaxy Tab, which T-Mobile currently sells for $50 more.

I’ve been using a loaner Streak 7 for a very short amount of time: T-Mobile provided one this past weekend, along with the cellular data service. Normally, I like to live with a device for several weeks before passing judgment, but the Streak goes on sale shortly, so here are my first impressions. I plan to follow up with a more detailed post after using the Streak 7 for at least another week.

Hardware Has Hits and Misses

Much like the Samsung Galaxy Tab I purchased out of my own pocket, the Streak 7 is a relatively thin and light 7-inch tablet. Like so many other hardware vendors, Dell has opted to power its mobile device with a dual-core Nvidia Tegra 2 processor. This choice of chip generally enables high-quality graphics that render fast, 1080p video recording and peppy performance. Unfortunately, the potential of the Tegra 2 is almost wasted on the Streak 7.

The key issue is the display. While a 7-inch tablet enables a greater level of mobility — the key reason I dumped the larger iPad for my Galaxy Tab — Dell chose a screen with 800×480 resolution for the Streak 7. As a result, the graphical benefits of the Nvidia chip can’t be seen because games are more blocky and less detailed than they could be, as shown in the image gallery below. Essentially, Dell took the same display resolution used on smartphones in the 3.7- to 4.3-inch range and repurposed it on a larger screen, making for a mediocre visual experience at best. Given that users look at the display whenever using the Streak 7, they’ll constantly be reminded of this poor design choice.

I’m also unsure of a few other decisions Dell made when it comes to the hardware of the Streak 7. The battery capacity is only 2780 mAh as compared to the Galaxy Tab’s 4000 mAh unit. A true battery test requires more testing time, so I’ll revisit this aspect, but the Streak 7 seems to gulp power. Using it in limited fashion, I’ve seen the battery indicator drop by 10 percent in as little as 30 minutes, for example. Gone too is a dedicated search button on the bezel. And although the device is advertised to record 1080p video, I only see an option for 720p. Testing it yielded a sub-par video, which is disappointing since the Tegra chip is capable of so much more.

On the plus side, the screen is responsive, as are the capacitive touch buttons. Music sounds relatively good from the two stereo speakers located on the left and right sides of the Streak 7. And of course, the real strength of the device lies in the 21 Mbps radio, which can take full advantage of T-Mobile’s 4G network within proper coverage areas. I took a short trip from my home office to pick up a 4G signal to test the Streak 7 and ran a few speed tests. Every aspect tested was better than what I see on my 3G Galaxy Tab, which also uses T-Mobile’s network.

Average latency for the Streak 7 hovered around 70 milliseconds; download speeds averaged 5.5 Mbps, while uploads were in the 1.5 Mbps range. For a frame of reference, I tested the 3G Galaxy Tab at the same location; latency was around 90 milliseconds, while downloads and uploads were 3.8 Mbps and 1.3 Mbps, respectively. Since coverage and network performance varies based on many factors, I’m sure both devices could have seen faster or slower speeds depending on the variables. But I’m also comfortable saying that the Streak 7 will likely always have a faster data connection.

Software Could Have Shone but Is Marginal

Just like the choice to use a smartphone resolution, much of the software choices are smartphone-like for the Streak 7. Unlike Samsung, which optimized core apps for the Galaxy Tab, Dell uses the same Google apps as any standard Android smartphone, which is a missed opportunity. Granted, it’s also one that can be corrected with a software update, but when buying a device, consumers are evaluating the device in its current state, not a potential, future state.

Dell did spend time creating a customer interface called Stage. This brings some clarity to five of the seven home screens on the Streak 7: two are left empty. Stage groups apps and services by screen: Music, Social, Home (showing weather and nine recently used apps), Web, and Email. For people not familiar with Android or those  who don’t like the stock Android interface, Stage will be welcome, but not necessarily impressive.

T-Mobile also included services and software that may appeal to some. Included is an option to download the T-Mobile TV service which offers a handful of free programming or can be upgraded to premium offerings for $8.99 per month. There’s also a Blockbuster application to rent movies, Amazon’s Kindle app and the Zinio magazine reader software. By and large, most of these apps can be found on other Android devices or will be coming to them in the future, so I don’t consider these to be a major differentiator from other Android devices.

Of course, there are trial games on the Streak 7 as well as many available in the Android Market. They run well but are hobbled by the display resolution, making for a marginal experience that could have been a great one with a better screen. I played the Asphalt driving game and Let’s Golf, but almost felt like I was using a last generation Nintendo DS after playing with a modern one in a store.

This Way or That Way?

One last important note on the Streak 7: It’s really meant to be a landscape device, which I find a challenge because I use my tablet in portrait mode more often than not. The front camera and microphone are on a horizontal bezel, while the touch buttons are on the side, as are the speakers. That may not be a problem for most, but it’s a different approach from the iPad and Galaxy Tab.

 

Conclusion

Folks looking for a low-cost, fairly basic Android tablet that can overlook the screen resolution could be happy with the Streak 7. It all depends on if the 4G radio is worth the purchase, because the Galaxy Tab for $50 more offers many better features. Regardless of the fast data connection, the screen is a deal-breaker for me personally, simply because it’s the function most used.

Again, I’ve only had a few days with the Streak 7, so I’ll incorporate into my daily routine and substitute it for my Galaxy Tab to see if I feel differently in a week or so. Perhaps its unfair to compare the Streak 7 to the Galaxy Tab, but both devices are offered by T-Mobile, so customers will certainly be making that same comparison.

Also worth noting are the data plan prices for the Streak 7. Current T-Mobile customers can pay $40 per month for unlimited data (with a 5 GB soft-cap) or $25 per month for 200 MB. New customers will pay $10 more a month for the unlimited plan or $5 more each month for the smaller data plan.

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