Dell Streak Android 2.2 (Froyo) update review
Dell Streak. Froyo. Need we say more? If you're not already getting giddy, let us remind you that said tabletphone's technically still stuck on the aging Android 1.6 OS, so this is obviously great news for all anticipating (and presumably very patient) users. Well, the handful of us anyway, given the majority's distaste for this five-inch device's abnormal form factor. Here at Engadget, we've been fortunate enough to give this final 2.2 build a thorough and exclusive test over the weekend, but has it fixed the bugs that plagued the 2.1 release? And will it make the Streak relevant again? Read on to find out.
If you've already seen our Streak 2.1 preview, then you'll certainly spot a lot of similarities between that and the new 2.2 release. Just to name a few: same lock screen (except for the hilariously squashed passcode numpad -- probably unintentional), same universal pinch-to-zoom, same stock gallery, same gigantic dialer (and still no smart-dialing), live wallpaper support, and 720p video capture. What's new for all, however, is the Stage UI that we had a look at a little while back, along with the the standard Froyo goodness like Flash support, Google backup, USB tethering, and mobile WiFi hotspot capability. While we're here, we'd like to mention that Flash videos ran well on most of the sites we visited, although ironically our own videos -- hosted by Viddler -- were prone to crashing the browser, so stability will probably depend on the videos' streaming bandwidth.
For those who've been itching for a portrait homescreen on this slate (namely our beloved Chris Ziegler), the updated Streak should now satisfy you, plus it also supports landscape display in either landscape orientation. The catch? Each page now only holds 16 icons in a four-by-four grid, whereas 2.1 and 1.6 supported four-by-six grids and four-by-eight grids, respectively. Aside from the obvious spacial disadvantage, the only real problem we've noticed here is that our Engadget app's widget loses one line of text in landscape mode, which is presumably something to do with the grid resized to make space for neighboring pages (in the style of webOS cards) and the launcher bar at the bottom; but all is fine in portrait mode. However, if you're old school, you can always switch off auto orientation in settings.
The aforementioned Stage UI consists of nothing more than Dell's very own full-screen widgets and the launcher. For the former, you have the following selection: Contacts, Email (with Exchange support), Gallery, Home (with local weather and a list of recent apps), Music, Social (for either Twitter or Facebook feed), and Web (with a search bar and thumbnails of your bookmarks). To our surprise, even with most of the seven homscreens taken over by these stylish widgets, transition between each page is still very slick, although we've noticed that sometimes you need to give them a second or two to load when jumping out of an application. As with any Android widgets, you can simply remove Dell's offering if you want absolute top-notch performance, but we actually like having them around.
Moving on to the launcher: rather than tapping a button at the top left corner of the screen, you can now trigger the app menu by either tapping the launcher button centered at the bottom or by dragging from the space below the homescreen grids. One small caveat: if you drag vertically within the homescreen grid area, the OS won't register your input as a launcher trigger as it's seemingly reserved for scrolling inside widgets. We eventually got used to this, anyway. As for quickly jumping from one homescreen to another, rather than swiping across the seven panels, you can trigger a quick-jump list by holding down on the launcher button and then swipe straight to the icon for your desired page.
Performance-wise we've already praised the general smoothness of the OS, and apart from the Stage UI consistently relaunching once after each boot-up, our build's been pretty stable. We put the phone through several runs of benchmark tests and got a mid-range score of 815 on Quadrant (previously 767 on 2.1) and an impressive jump to 33 MFLOPS on Linpack (previously just 6.949 MFLOPS). What's even more impressive is the battery life: we ran the updated Streak through a routine similar to what we did in our 1.6 review, and the result was a near 12-hour marathon -- almost two hours more than its 1.6 incarnation, and bear in mind that this was mostly over 3G data connection as well.
Last but not least, let's talk about apps. In addition to Amazon MP3 and QuickOffice, Dell's signed up a few more partners to pre-load more third party apps. The party list include the well-known Amazon Kindle, Evernote cloud-based note-taking service (much like Microsoft's OneNote), PageOnce Personal Assistant for tracking various accounts like travel and bank, RadioTime for internet radio, Zinio Reader for e-magazine subscriptions, and CoPilot Live 8 (30-day trial) for offline car navigation. Can't say we'd be using many of these on a regular basis, but perhaps Dell's two self-branded Nero-powered apps -- Backup & Restore and Mobile Sync -- will come in handy for most users. The former can backup your ringtones, SMS messages, system settings and apps in a .bin file, whereas the latter lets you manage media files but requires installing Dell Mobility Suite by Nero on your Windows desktop.
What's less obvious -- and perhaps totally underrated by Dell's marketing team -- is the addition of Swype keyboard. Yes, Swype! We almost missed this intuitive piece of kit until we noticed our accidental blue markings on the keyboard. The thought of repeatedly drawing lines across the screen may sound daunting (especially in landscape mode), but in all seriousness, we urge you to give it a go, even just for normal typing. Without prior experience, we were already typing much more accurately with Swype's taller and more responsive keys, plus its unique input method was also very refreshing and convenient most of the time. You can by all means switch to Android's stock keyboard, but frankly, there's no going back for us now.
And finally, the camera app. At first glance, we thought this was just the same stock camera app featured in 2.1, but upon closer inspection we noticed that this is actually a simplified version. In short: you no longer have a pull-out settings menu, but the basic settings -- brightness, geotagging, white balance, flash, and digital zoom -- are along the right-hand side of the viewfinder. Annoyingly, these buttons weren't very responsive, as you can see in our earlier video walk-through. The missing options are photo quality, scene mode, sharpness, resolution, and contrast. Similarly, you still can't disable the shutter sound, and the autofocus beeping does get on our nerves after a while. On the bright side, still photos are no longer over-sharpened and over-saturated as done by previous builds, although it would've been handy if we were able to use tap-to-focus to quickly adjust aperture, especially for outdoor shots. As for the camcorder, the Streak can still capture 720p 3GP clips, which is nothing new to those who've had a go with 2.1 -- video quality is almost on a par with the still shots albeit less sharp, and watch out for jello motion when moving around.
Well, it certainly looks like Dell's Froyo offering was worth the wait after all -- unlike the rushed 2.1 release, we finally have an OS that makes the Streak a lot more usable and enjoyable, and yet it also manages to increase battery life even further. Without sounding like we're gushing over the new and improved Streak, we truly believe that Dell's tabletphone is finally back in the game. Okay, that's assuming you're cool with the size of this huge phone or small tablet. Regardless, kudos to Dell for finally delivering a well-polished package for its first-ever smartphone (or second after the Aero, depending on which country you look from).
If you're still not convinced by the Streak, this major update should at least serve as a good indicator for where Dell's heading at in the mobile business, especially with the upcoming Venue (Thunder), Smoke and Flash. We like to think that things are looking good here, but whether the phones can hit the market at the right time is a different matter entirely (hint: Venue Pro). Anyhow, here's hoping the recent reshuffling will give Dell's mobile team a little push.