For seven years, T-Mobile's Sidekick messaging phones have been popular devices for teens, skaters, and twentysomethings, and they keep coming back for more. The latest in the line, the Sidekick LX, brings some grown-up features to the party: 3G data speeds, a vastly improved camera, and GPS. Add to that software for popular social networks, and the LX is an upgrade that Sidekick lovers will drool over. The biggest drawback to the device is its $199 sticker price--$250 for new users--which seems a bit high for a device less versatile than a traditional smart phone.
The Sidekick LX, built by Sharp, is available in Orchid (maroon) or Carbon (dark gray), which, thanks to the silver accents on its borders, looks much more professional than the neon greenSidekick 2008. However, a colorful light bar on the screen and a glowing trackball makes this device more playful than professional, and will no doubt appeal to the phone's demographic. Unlike the Sidekick of 2008, the latest version doesn't have a customizable, removable shell, though later this summer hipsters will have the option of customizing the battery cover with laser etching.
The LX measures 5.2 x 2.4 x 0.6 inches and weighs 5.7 ounces. That's a bit bigger and bulkier than the Sidekick 2008 (which measured 4.7 x 2.3 x 0.7 inches and weighed 5.3 ounces) and closer in size to the original LX from 2007.
The device has an absolutely stunning 3.2-inch, 854 x 480-pixel display, which is a higher resolution than any other phone on a U.S. carrier at the moment--including the iPhone--making the user interface and pictures look beautiful on the device. Colors pop off the screen, and you almost feel like you can reach in and touch the icons. Unfortunately, this isn't a touchscreen; you have to use the trackball. The swiveling display feels sturdy and easily opens with the flick of a finger across a small protruding ridge on the bottom of the device.
Buttons and Keyboard
Click to enlarge
Fans of the Sidekick series will appreciate that the button layout remains intact from previous models. Swiveling the screen upward reveals a menu button, a four-way navigational pad (which doubles as the phone's earpiece), and a MyFaves quick-launch button on the left. On the side opposite is an exit button, Send/End keys flanking the device's trackball, and a Return key. With the screen closed, two buttons on the right launch the camera and the picture-messaging inbox. On the left are volume keys, the microUSB charging port, 3.5mm headphone jack, and power button.
Click to enlarge
The keyboard, nearly identical to that on the Sidekick 2008, is very spacious and extremely easy to type on. The circular buttons felt a bit stiff at first but loosened up after some use. The keys have a soft white glow for typing in the dark.
The orb-based Danger operating system remains intact and unchanged; it's just as easy to navigate as ever. Small circular icons represent each option, such as the Address Book, Download Catalog, Instant Messaging, MyFaves, Phone, and more, which you can navigate with the trackball. Though a bit sluggish at times, overall the LX ran smoothly.
You can change the look of the desktop by picking one of a few dozen fun themes, available for $2.99 each, that cater to the Sidekick's youthful audience. We downloaded and installed the Street Fighter Theme in about 5 minutes over EDGE; you can expect a much zippier experience over 3G. Games are available for a range of prices; we downloaded a Resident Evil game over the 3G network and finished installing it in about a minute.
Messaging and E-mail
Click to enlarge
The Sidekick LX serves up a pretty good e-mail experience, but it's not as robust as a BlackBerry. For example, it doesn't support HTML e-mails. You can add up to four POP/IMAP or preconfigured accounts from AOL/AIM, Windows Live, or Yahoo. Each account exists as a tab under the e-mail application and automatically pulls in messages from the last seven days. Incoming messages are pushed to the inbox. Microsoft Exchange support is expected in the future but wasn't available on our review unit. Images came through on the device just fine, but they aren't embedded in the e-mail; you have to open the attachment. Every image we were sent during testing came through, including a large 349K file. We suspect the limit is at 1MB or more because a 600K WAV file also worked. PDF files open as text only, which, again, is where the Sidekick pales in comparison to smart phones.
Like other Sidekicks, this one has a 6MB storage limit, which means you'll be deleting messages frequently. Worse, when it's full, you get a warning stating that messages will bounce until it's cleaned up. So there's the potential to lose important e-mails when you need them most simply because the Sidekick can't keep up.
As with previous Sidekicks, you can sign into AIM, Windows Live, and Yahoo instant messaging accounts. When new messages come in, a preview pops up on the home screen. If someone signs on or off, the screen's light bar flashes, but this feature can be turned off if it's too annoying.
Previous Sidekicks weren't particularly good multimedia devices; they had 2.5mm headphone jacks, low-res cameras, and slow data connections. The Sidekick LX, thanks to its new 3G connection, 3.2-MP camera, 3.5mm headphone jack, and 128MB included microSD Card, will change that perception.
We loaded up a Ra Ra Riot album via the included USB cable and listened using the included earphones. While these buds are made of chintzy plastic, they were comfortable enough. Audio sounded good and was sufficiently loud. Album art is displayed on the screen along with the song, album, and artist name.
We streamed The Lonely Island's "Like a Boss" video over YouTube using the phone's 3G data connection. It took about 15 seconds to buffer and played inside the Sidekick LX's own video player. The video streamed smoothly, but it was cramped and pixelated, and audio sounded watery.
The Sidekick LX' speakers were loud enough to hear in a quiet room, but audio was generally tinny and shallow.
Click to enlarge
Using T-Mobile's 3G connection, the Web browser was pretty speedy. Mobile versions of CNN.com loaded in 7 seconds, ESPN.com in 4 seconds, and NYT.com in just 4 seconds. You can view a "mini-page" version of each site--similar to a BlackBerry's formatting--to zoom around quickly and select a specific section. Larger, full HTML sites such as NationalGeographic.com took 40 seconds to load and looked good.
The presentation was decent on these full HTML pages, thanks to the large display and its high resolution, but you don't get the quick and easy zooming that the iPhone and T-Mobile G1 offer. Instead you have to dig through the menu a bit to find the zoom button by pressing Menu > View > Zoom. A zoom shortcut mapped to the keyboard would have worked well. Further, tabbed or multiple page browsing isn't supported as it is on the iPhone and G1. The Sidekick LX doesn't support Wi-Fi, a feature we also would have welcomed.
The Sidekick LX also has new Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter applications. The Twitter app worked very well; you can update your status, view a friend's timeline, start/stop following people, and even set your location within a tweet. But you can't upload photos to Twitter. The Facebook app, on the other hand, lets you quickly upload photos and view your friend's most recent status updates and photo uploads. It's organized well and easy to use. The MySpace app will let you upload videos; a Danger spokesperson told us that this feature will expand into the Facebook app as well. Alerts of updates are displayed on the home screen.
Also new to Sidekick LX is built-in GPS. You can use either the included Windows Live Maps application (for local search, traffic updates, gas prices, movies, directions, and more), or with TeleNav for voice-guided turn-by-turn directions ($9.99 per month). However, Windows Live Maps' accuracy wasn't great. While on the streets of Manhattan, Windows Live Maps placed us northwest of Weehawken, N.J. We searched for a nearby Five Guys Burgers and Fries restaurant and three results popped up quickly. You can call, find directions to, or mark a favorite destination.
Outside Manhattan, the GPS performed better. It accurately found our location in Long Beach, N.Y., and took just 5 seconds to plot a route with turn-by-turn directions from a train station to our home. You can view the directions in list form or on a map and get reverse directions as well. It's not ideal for driving due to the small text and maps, but it's good for walking.
TeleNav, which is usually very accurate, was not yet available for the Sidekick during our testing period, but T-Mobile says it will be available on the device's official launch on May 13. We will update this review after we've had a chance to test it.
The phone's 3.2-MP camera snapped decent photos. Thanks to autofocus, shots of text on paper up close came out relatively crisp, and the autofocus took about half a second to lock on. Pictures of a co-worker in a dark Dunkin' Donuts that we shot with both the integrated LED flash and autofocus came out grainy and noisy, though. There were noticeable horizontal and vertical lines in these darker shots. Pictures taken under brighter light, like of our office or the city streets, came out well and were good enough for the Mobile Photos section on your Facebook page.
You can record video at a 320 x 240-pixel resolution, and playback on the device was colorful and smooth. The footage is just barely YouTube-worthy, though; it looked pixelated when played back on a PC.
Call Quality and Battery Life
Click to enlarge
When making calls with the Sidekick LX, both ends came through loud and clear. The audio from a voice message left on a landline phone sounded good, and no words were clipped. However, we noticed minor distortion towards the end of our recording.
The Sidekick LX's battery life wasn't impressive. We were able to get through a day using the device regularly to surf the Net, listen to music, and send off texts. The device will last you during a long morning commute and back under heavy usage without trouble, but you'll likely need to charge daily.
There's no doubt this is a much-improved Sidekick. Its 3G support, integration with social networks, and beautiful display all make it an excellent device for its target audience, and that's all on top of the existing keyboard and swivel screen that have made the Sidekick so popular. However, $199 (or $250 for new customers) is a hefty price to pay, especially considering that the T-Mobile G1 offers a better browser, many more apps, and more robust e-mail support for less money. The G1 also includes Wi-Fi. But if it's an excellent messaging experience you want on a device that's geared more towards play than work, the T-Mobile Sidekick LX is a phone you'll definitely want to consider.