I’ve been more than a bit busy with a number of things, but when I caught a story on the PBS program Nightly Business News today, I was sure to take the time to investigate the details. The store was about the upcoming release of a new Dell product, which is going to be called the Streak.

The one thing I saw immediately upon looking around is that, unlike what was given on NBR (usually very good about their computer based stories) is that they were all wet on this one. The Dell Streak is not a real competitor to the iPad, as it is much smaller, not a tablet at all. It is more of a smart phone for people with bad eyes or large hands.

There is a very good story on PC Magazine about this, and it also shed light on the fact that I was already aware of the product, just not that the name had been changed.

I get it. If I were a consumer electronics device in 2010, I’d want to be a tablet. Tablets are cool. They’re now. They’re hip. The hottest product on the planet right now is a tablet. But wanting to be one and actually being one are two very different things. I know tablets, I’m a fan of tablets, and the Dell Streak, I can assure you, is no tablet.

When mobile expert Sascha Segan first got his hands-on with what was then called the Dell Mini 5, he referred to it as a tablet. As this was before any real next-generation tablets had hit the market, one can easily forgive the mistake. Though, as Segan noted, the Dell Mini 5 is larger than the average phone,it is still a phone and not a true tablet.

Let’s look at the facts. The newly renamed Dell Streak (a good name, by the way) has a 5-inch screen (measured diagonally), making it larger than most phones (by roughly an inch and less if you consider the HTC EVO 4G), and half the size of Apple’s iPad. It’s not even as big as the HP Slate, which promises a 7-inch screen.The Streak comes with a microphone and speaker—just like a phone. Bluetooth support means it’ll work with any headset—which might be preferable since holding a 5-inch device up to your head might feel a bit ridiculous. You can do this with any phone and, to be honest; sometimes I feel funny holding my BlackBerry Bold up to my head (I use it mostly for e-mail anyway).

Tablets are typically sold by their manufacturers. Apple sells the iPad, Fusion Garage sells its JooJoo, Acer will sell its Android- or Chrome-based tablets, and HP will likely sell the Slate. The Streak will be an AT&T device, sold through the provider, with a standard plan. Sounds like a phone to me.

In a video demonstration from Dell’s Kevin Andrew, he explains that the Streak does many of your daily tasks "better than my smartphone used to and it’s more portable than my laptop, so it’s kind of the perfect in-between device." Clearly an echo of what Apple CEO Steve Jobs said when he introduced the market’s first truly successful tablet (a million-plus iPads sold in about a month qualifies as a success in my book).

In the video, Andrew says he’s been using the device as his primary phone. To be fair, it does look a bit large to hold up to your ear. However, Dell placed the microphone on the bottom and the earphone on top specifically because it wanted people to be able to use it as a handset. These simple acts would seem to belie the tablet moniker. Imagine trying to hold an Apple iPad up to your ear—a pointless enterprise since the speakers and microphone would be nowhere near your mouth or ear. Even the HP Slate could look silly when held up to your head. As you can see from the image to the right, the Dell Streak looks fine against Mr. Andrew’s ear.

I understand that I’m not the Supreme Court of tablets. I can’t rule on every product and decide whether or not it meets the tablet criteria. Actually, I can do that, but not everyone has to listen to me. The Dell Streak, however, represents the beginnings of a very slippery slope. Where does a phone end and a tablet begin? What are the earmarks of a true tablet? Is it size? I think a 5-inch screen is too small to be called a tablet. It’s large enough to watch movies and fill the Android interface with app icons, but you still have to type with your thumbs. In my opinion, tablets are supposed to fill in for laptops when you don’t want the bulk of a screen and physical keyboard. The iPad fits that model.

The Dell Streak will have Wi-Fi, but so does nearly every other smartphone, laptop, and tablet on the market. This doesn’t define it as anything other than a highly portable and connected device.

Some might say that if you put a voice plan on the device, it’s a phone. That does mean the Streak has the necessary circuitry to handle switched voice calls; but couldn’t Apple have done the same thing with the AT&T version of the iPad? Not necessarily, since no one, except Apple, knows if the iPad has the same voice call circuitry. Either way, the iPad with its special, 3G data-only plan is clearly a get-things-done tablet and not primarily a communication device. The Streak is something else.

There’s also the pocket test. An iPad can’t fit in any pocket, but it slips into a backpack or bag nicely. Smartphones—even 4.3-inch ones— slip nicely into a pocket. An HP Slate won’t fit in any pocket. The Dell Streak should fit in most jean and coat pockets, but could look a bit bulky. It’ll swim around in your backpack. What do you really gain for that extra inch? You get a product too big for your pocket and too small to make it more attractive to carry than your ultraportable laptop or, of course, an iPad?

Listen, I understand that everyone wants to be on the tablet bandwagon, but accepting Dell’s definition of this new product without some critical analysis will simply turn the whole tablet market into a nebulous mess, one where consumers are no longer sure which products to compare when they go tablet shopping. Perhaps that’s just how Dell wants it.

Thanks for clearing that up, Lance. 

I doubt I’ll be buying a Streak, but I am sure that more than a few will, simply because of that size difference. I am reminded of, back before smoking was so uncool – when I was a child, that there was a cigarette brand that was made 101 mm long, when several others had gotten longer by moving to 100 mm. It was accompanied by a campaign that had at its focus a slogan of “ it’s a silly millimeter longer!” I was very young and remember how stupid I thought it was, but I also know that I read things saying it was very effective campaigning, and lot’s of people were buying the line.

I’m thinking that the Dell Streak will be getting a similar response.



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