The T-Mobile Sidekick 4G isn't the only affordable Android device with a physical keyboard on the market. The Sharp FX Plus on AT&T also proves that the price of joining the legion of Android users keeps dropping. Running Android 2.2, this slick-looking slider boasts a QWERTY keyboard and is sold for free (with a two-year contract) through Walmart. But is the FX Plus--with its 3.2-inch screen, a 600-MHz processor, 3G speeds, and an outdated Android OS--really a good deal?
The Sharp FX Plus has an expensive look considering its budget pedigree. Unlike the T-Mobile Sidelick 4G's wild magenta and white paint job, the FX Plus is clad with a conservative black and metallic gray finish, but it has a sturdy feel. The front of the device houses a smallish 3.2-inch touchscreen display with four physical buttons for Menu, Home, Back, and Search. On the back is a rubbery, soft-touch surface that provides a comfortable grip, resists fingerprints, and has a pleasant feel. The back also sports the phone's 3.2-megapixel camera, which sadly lacks a flash.
Click to enlargeSlim despite being a QWERTY slider, the Sharp FX Plus is a hair over half an inch thick (4.7 x 2.4 x 0.6 inches) and just 5.3 ounces, which is close in size and weight to the T-Mobile Sidekick 4G (5 x 2.4 x 0.6 inches, 5.7 ounces) and premium smartphones with physical keyboards such as the T-Mobile MyTouch 4G Slide (4.8 x 2.4 x 0.5, 6.5 ounces). However, other AT&T phones equipped with keyboards are more compact, namely the HTC Status (4.5 x 2.5 x 0.4 inches, 4.2 ounces) and the HP Veer 4G (3.3 x 2.2 x 0.6 inches, 3.6 ounces).
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Display, Keyboard, Audio
The 3.2-inch, 480 x 320-pixel display on the Sharp FX Plus won't impress anyone with its screen real estate or image quality. Icons, web pages, and text look tiny though legible, but viewing angles are weak, as brightness dropped off considerably when we tilted the phone in any direction.
Heavy smartphone typists won't find a new friend in the Sharp FX Plus, since its four-row QWERTY keyboard disappoints. The phone's oval keys are wide and have a comfortable amount of spacing but are hard to hit with precision due to their strange shape, small size, and stiff feel. As a result, the FX Plus can't compete head to head against the Sidekick 4G's keyboard, which has five rows, separate number keys, and round, rubberized buttons that provide a pleasing click when pressed. Still, there are a few bright spots, such as dedicated buttons for "@" and symbols, and many keys double as numbers and often-used punctuation marks. Four arrow buttons provide quick cursor navigation.
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The Sidekick also has dedicated buttons for Search, emoticons, and voice action. Keys on the FX Plus feel stiff and are small, especially the space bar. By comparison, the myTouch 4G Slide has wide buttons and nice extras such as a www/.com key and lights indicating when CAPS and ALT are engaged.
Audio isn't the Sharp FX Plus' forte. The handset's speaker, located on back, produces weak, tinny sound with low volume. Our test track, "Paper Romance" by Groove Armada, lacked bass of any kind, and "Infinity Guitars" by Sleigh Bells distorted at maximum volume, particularly during heavy guitar feedback and deep drum beats.
Software and Interface
The Sharp FX Plus offers the basic Google Android experience for a budget price. Running an older flavor of Android (not the latest 2.3 version), the phone gives users access to seven home screens that can be customized with widgets and shortcuts to favorite apps at will. Sharp pre-loads the device with widgets for checking the calendar, local weather, time, and Facebook and Twitter feeds. Icons to launch the dialer, messaging, browser, and app tray sit at the bottom of the screen.
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Don't expect swift performance from the Sharp FX Plus, as the handset felt sluggish in everyday use and bombed on performance benchmarks. We observed delays during mundane tasks such as opening apps and navigating through menus. At times, even launching the Android Market took an agonizingly long 10 to 11 seconds.
The FX Plus and its 600-MHz CPU coughed up a very low Linpack score of 2.46 (single-thread) on our tests. That's more than 17 points below the average score we see from Android handsets. Both the dual-core Motorola Droid 3 (39) and 1.2-GHz Snapdragon-powered T-Mobile MyTouch 4G Slide (44.7) were much faster, as was the HTC Status (8.35), which runs on an 800-MHz, single-core Qualcomm CPU.
In terms of graphics prowess, the Sharp FX Plus handled itself much better, notching a solid 6,681 on An3DBench, 344 points above the category average (6,336.8). That's enough to beat the minute HTC Status (5,120) but not the Droid 3 (6,963) and the MyTouch 4G Slide (7,098).
Stuck on AT&T's 3G network, the Sharp FX Plus delivered sluggish cellular data speeds. We averaged pokey downloads of 1.8 Mbps and uploads of just 112 Kbps using the Speedtest.net app. These lackluster throughput results translated to long wait times to load web pages. Mobile versions of NYTimes.com and ESPN.com took 11 and 16 seconds respectively. Worse, the phone needed a full 40 seconds to completely render our LaptopMag.com site. This performance is close to what we experienced with the HTC Status over AT&T's 3G network, but a 4G phone such as the Samsung Infuse 4G averaged a faster 2.6 Mbps (download). It also loaded LaptopMag.com in a quicker 15 seconds.
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The Sharp FX Plus has the usual selection of Google Android applications including Gmail and e-mail messaging clients, supporting POP, Exchange, and IMAP accounts. Facebook and Twitter apps come pre-installed, along with the new Android Market, which offers books, movies, and TV shows, and apps for download. An AT&T Code app scans barcodes for looking up retail items online and AT&T Live TV streams commercial video content from major networks such as Fox and NBC for $9.99 a month.
For navigation, the Sharp FX offers Google's free Navigation app and AT&T's paid Navigator service ($9.99 per month). Polaris Office allows users to view Microsoft Office documents.
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Camera and Camcorder
The Sharp FX Plus's rudimentary 3.2-megapixel camera doesn't impress, especially compared to the lens on the Sidekick 4G, which takes lovely shots. Pictures we took on a pristine summer day were fuzzy with blurry details. Colors didn't pop and clear blue skies had an odd hazy quality. Like the Sidekick, the FX Plus also lacks a flash, so low-light shots are out of the question. Fortunately, the camera's autofocus took only able second to lock onto subjects, but the camera needs about 3 seconds to start after you press the phone's dedicated camera button.
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The FX Plus is equally disappointing when it comes to capturing videos, as the VGA-only movies we shot were extremely pixelated, blocky, and filled with artifacts. The handset doesn't even support the popular MPEG4 file format, only providing the less PC-friendly H263 codec.
On our tests, the Sharp FX Plus served up accurate call quality, with voices coming through loud and clear. Callers on the other end also said our voice was easy to make out, even when calls were placed from a windy rooftop. However, the phone's built-in noise cancelling feature didn't appear to affect sound quality when we toggled it on and off.
Using the speakerphone was an acceptable, if not stellar, experience. We could hear voices in a medium-sized conference room with about 15 seats but maximum volume was still quiet, making us doubt it could survive a noisy meeting. People on the other end also reported that we sounded far away even when we placed the device on a table inches away from us and sat directly over it.
Perhaps to make room for the sliding keyboard, the slim battery inside the Sharp FX Plus packs little juice. The device only lasted 4 hours and 52 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test, almost an hour less than the average Android phone. By comparison, the much more powerful Motorola Droid 3 ran for 5 hours and 49 minutes, while the myTouch 4G Slide pushed on for 6 hours and 9 minutes. The HP Veer offered more stamina as well, lasting a full day without needing to be charged. None of these phones can match the Sidekick 4G's staying power of 7 hours and 32 minutes.
Click to enlargeFor a free smartphone, the FX Plus provides basic Android functionality at a low cost. Texting-crazy teens looking for their first smartphone will certainly prefer the better keyboard, 4G speeds, and bolder colors of the T-Mobile Sidekick 4G. Sure, those looking for an inexpensive device on AT&T with a physical keyboard plus access to popular Android apps could settle for the FX Plus. But if you're going to pay a monthly data plan anyway, save up for a more modern handset such as the dual-core Motorola Atrix 4G ($99) or the HTC Inspire 4G ($99), which both offer faster performance, 4G data, and better cameras.