Is Dell’s Streak a Jumbo Smartphone or a Tiny Tablet?

The time I’ve spent with Verizon Wireless’s Droid X has made one thing clear to me: I like great big smartphone screens. As impressively elegant as the iPhone 4's 3.5? retina display is, the X’s 4.3? superscreen makes for larger type and easier tapping. It’s like the difference between a highly refined sportscar and a roomy SUV. I hope phones in both sizes flourish.

And then there’s Dell’s Streak…which makes the Droid X look like a pipsqueak. At five inches, its screen is so expansive that it’s not clear upon first glance whether this device is a phone. It is. Or at least it can be one: The Dell executive I spoke with at a demo yesterday described the Streak as being “capable of making phone calls.” In other words, Dell sees it as a data device that does voice rather than a phone that does data.

The Streak is currently available in the UK from wireless carrier O2; consumers who sign up for two years of data-only or data/voice service can get it for free, and it costs about $500 without a contract. Dell intends to bring it to the states later this summer, but hasn’t announced any specifics about pricing or or carrier partnerships.

If nothing else, the company deserves credit for being gutsy enough to enter a market with an exceptionally checkered past. The OQO and FlipStart PC flopped, as did Microsoft’s UMPC. Intel’s Mobile Internet Device platform doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, either. Sony’s UX series is history. Archos continues to build mini-tablets that run Windows and Android, but it caters to gadget nerds, not the masses.

Basically, there’s never been much evidence that anyone other than a few geeks wants a computing gadget that’s bigger than a smartphone and smaller than a netbook. (The iPad is a lot thinner than a netbook, but its screen size–9.7 inches–is similar.)

And yet the Streak is pretty interesting. I’m used to hands-on time with tiny computers leaving me less interested in them, not more so, but the Streak is more impressive in person than it is in theory. Dell did something that almost nobody who builds these kinds of gizmos ever bothers with: It built a user interface designed with the device in mind. The Streak runs Android, but Dell has does some serious customization. It gave the device a new keyboard; it moved the app tray to the top of the screen and created a special row for favorite apps; it reworked the alert pane to make it easier to read.

You usually use more typical smartphones in portrait orientation, but Dell says that it found that people are more likely to hold a device as large as the Streak in landscape mode. So it optimized the interface with that assumption. I found myself holding it in one hand and tapping around the interface with the other one.

Apart from the screen size, the Streak is reminiscent of more typical “superphones” such as the Nexus One and EVO 4G. It has a 1-GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, 512MB of RAM, 16GB of storage space, a five-megapixel camera on the back plus another camera on the front for video conferencing, GSM and UTMS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS. Even though the multitouch screen is humongous, the resolution is 480 by 800–the same as the Nexus and EVO, and less than that of the iPhone 4. Dell says it’ll run for about ten hours on a charge, a finding confirmed by Engadget’s review.

Like many another Android device, the Streak suffers from day-old bread syndrome–the problem which we’re not supposed to call fragmentation. Dell’s customized operating system is built on top of Android 1.6, an OS which has since been superseded by Android 2.0, 2.1, and 2.2. Dell says that its version of 1.6 includes tweaks that replicate some of the functionality of more recent Android versions, and that it plans to update the Streak to 2.2 at some point.

A few photos I snapped at my briefing yesterday:

How big is the Streak’s display? It’s so spacious that it has a roomy onscreen keyboard…that includes a numeric keypad (see large image below):

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