The Sidekick has long been considered the messaging phone of choice for hipsters, but over the last year or so we’ve seen many people (including teens) trading up to more feature-rich 3G messaging phones, such as the LG Voyager and LG enV2, as well as to smart phones like the iPhone and BlackBerry Curve. The new T-Mobile Sidekick probably won’t win any of those converts back. It offers improvements such as a 2-megapixel camera and customizable exterior shells, but even at $149, this device feels overpriced. Hardcore Sidekick fans looking to replace an older model will appreciate these modest upgrades, but other consumers should steer clear.
At 4.7 x 2.3 x 0.7 inches, the latest T-Mobile Sidekick is a pinch smaller than the Sidekick LX, also made by Sharp. At 5.3 ounces, it’s also lighter, but the whole package still feels too bulky and heavy for our tastes. Its 2.6-inch display is smaller than the 3-inch screen on the LX, but its 400 x 240-pixel resolution remains the same. Likewise, the screen still flips the same way into its open position to reveal the keyboard. We appreciated the new 3.5mm headphone jack on the top side of the device, as well as the improved 2-MP camera, which now supports video recording, on the back. The right side of the unit has the same trackball the Sidekick LX and Sidekick Slide include, among other previous models.
Our Sidekick sported a black shell, but it was packaged with a neon green casing, which we thought spiced up the device. T-Mobile is allowing customers to create their own shells or choose between dozens of predesigned shells—users can save their own designs for others to purchase. You can design your own shell by choosing a base color and predefined logos and clip art from T-Mobile. We liked the option to upload our own pictures or choose from Flickr albums, and decided on using an image of a surfer for our shell. These cases cost $14.99 each or two for $9.99 each.
T-Mobile Sidekick Keyboard
The keyboard and overall navigation button layout for the Sidekick remains the same as the Sidekick LX. Keys were very responsive, and sending off texts was extremely easy. However, we wish that the space bar was larger, since we found ourselves often looking down to hit it correctly. Sidekick fans won’t be let down in this category, but we appreciate the keyboards on both the LG enV2 ($99.99) and LG Voyager ($149) just as much.
The UI on the Sidekick remains, for the most part, untouched. While there is a catalog that lets you download new applications and themes, the left side of the device still has orbital icons that you can scroll through to access the phone’s main menu. To view the options within any one application, you simply need to hit the menu button to the upper left of the display. In order from top to bottom, the menu options are: Download Catalog, Instant Messaging, E-mail, Phone, myFaves, Phone Messaging, Address Book, Web Browser, Organizer, Camera, Media Player, and Games.
Four themes that will appeal to the teen crowd are available: Argyle, Crew, Cut-n-Sew, and Grime. We liked the graffiti- and diamond-accented Grime theme.
Web surfing on the Sidekick was a mixed bag, primarily due to T-Mobile’s slow EDGE data network. ESPN.com loaded in 6 seconds, but the browser rendered the full HTML Web site rather than defaulting to the mobile page. Usually this is a good thing, but the full page was too cramped for our tastes; text and pictures aligned incorrectly and text from one line would run down into the next. CNN.com loaded in 4 seconds, and NYTimes.com loaded in 6 seconds. However, these results were with a full signal, and anything less often yielded load times of more than a minute, and that’s if the pages loaded at all. Without a full signal, we found that the Web browser was unable to complete our requests. Sometimes we found that the phone would load the full CNN site instead of its mobile version, and when it did that, the site took as long as 30 seconds to load completely with a full signal.
With the mini-view feature, you can zoom out of a Web page and pan around to zoom in on a specific area. We also liked that we could save images from Web sites directly to the microSD Card. You can even choose to send the images directly via e-mail, SMS, or MMS. As with previous Sidekicks, this device doesn’t support Flash, so don’t plan on watching YouTube on the go.
Sidekick E-mail and Messaging
The Sidekick may best be known for its messaging capabilities, because it allows users to IM friends over AIM, Windows Live, or Yahoo buddy lists. While these may have been unique once upon a time, we are hard-pressed to think of a recent phone that doesn’t offer these features. Still, signing into our AIM account was easy and the application ran in the background while we did other tasks, such as surf the Web. We’d like to see Google Talk added to the list of clients.
The app lets you add up to three e-mail accounts, and each is assigned its own tab within the e-mail interface. The program, which has a clean look, also let us attach images and video to our outgoing e-mails. We set up our AOL/AIM mail, Yahoo Mail, and POP/IMAP accounts such as Gmail with ease, but we were frustrated when the device said our inbox was too full after the initial sync; it could display only 47 of our inbox messages. We were informed that it would bounce all other e-mail until we cleaned up our box, which means the device didn’t have enough memory to store even a week’s worth of messages.
Music and Video
We found little new with the music player. Audio through the 3.5mm headphone jack was sufficient, and volume got louder than we even needed it to. The single speaker on the left, however, wasn’t loud enough for our tastes; while it was good enough for playing music at our desk, it wasn’t loud or clear enough to play music on a porch with a few people chatting nearby. Using a Samsung SBH500 stereo Bluetooth headset, we were able to walk 36 feet away from the device before it faltered, which is on a par with other phones we’ve tested with the same headset.
You can load your own MP3, WMA, AAC, MIDI, AIFF, and WAV files onto a microSD Card, the slot of which is inconveniently located under the back cover. When music is playing, the album artwork shows on the right side of the display and the song and artist name are on the left. We liked that we could add songs to a playlist queue by hitting the menu button inside our music library and that music could continue playing in the background while we did other tasks.
The video player supports 3GP files, and when we played back our own the video was generally crisp. However, when we selected Full Screen from the menu, a quarter-inch border remained on both sides of the video player.
An application store on the Sidekick lets you download a variety of content, but we were unimpressed overall; it’s packed mainly with ringtones, themes, and backgrounds. Applications were hit or miss: we liked the game Contra ($6.99) and a Weather Underground application ($2.99), but we think it’s absurd that T-Mobile charges $2.99 for an Alarm Clock application, a feature that should be built into the device. MySpace fans will appreciate the MySpace application ($1.99), and corporate users may like the Excel Viewer application ($3.99).
Pictures taken with the 2-MP camera on the device weren’t too bad, although they were washed out. Signs across a street were legible, and indoor shots were just as good. Still, the images appeared too soft and lacked sharpness. The 176 x 144-pixel resolution video camera was dismal; footage was blocky and distorted. To make the video viewable on a computer, we had to blow it up 200 percent, which just worsened the quality.
When we tried e-mailing a 15-second video clip and an image to our work e-mail account, the files took more than 20 minutes to arrive in our inbox. While this may be partially due to our own e-mail system, we still wish the phone supported T-Mobile’s 3G networks or Wi-Fi to speed up the process.
Call Quality and Battery Life
Calls made on the T-Mobile Sidekick were clear on our end: we were able to easily hear our friend on a landline without any interference. On the other hand, our friend said the background noise was a bit loud and we dropped out for a second during the phone call. Overall, though, we were satisfied with the Sidekick’s call quality.
The Sidekick is rated for 5 hours of talk time. We played media and surfed the Web during a one-hour train ride home and for two more hours before leaving the device idle overnight. In the morning, the Sidekick lasted another hour while we played Contra, listened to music, surfed the Web, and sent a few e-mails. That totaled 4 hours of heavy media usage with at least 8 hours of idle time, which is quite good. We did notice, however, that with a half-battery the device wasn’t able to make it through a 3-day weekend idling, so you’ll want to keep the charger on hand for weekend trips.
T-Mobile Sidekick Verdict
There’s nothing particularly wrong with the T-Mobile Sidekick, but it feels outdated compared with phones like the identically priced LG Voyager, which offers nearly all of the same features but also a 3G data connection, touchscreen, GPS, TV, and an over-the-air music store. The $99 LG enV2 from Verizon Wireless also offers GPS, 3G data connectivity, and a great texting experience—for $50 less. If you really like the Sidekick’s messaging features and interface, and you like the idea of customizable faceplates, then take the plunge. Otherwise, we suggest looking elsewhere or waiting for Danger and its new corporate parent Microsoft to introduce something more innovative.