Before teenagers were snapping up iPhones and BlackBerrys left and right, T-Mobile’s original Sidekick was the phone to own for fashion-savvy textaholics. The latest T-Mobile Sidekick bulks up on features without bulking up on size, making it a definite upgrade and a solid value as far as we’re concerned – even with the more crowded market for smartphones.
Features & Design
The Sidekick’s most iconic feature has always been its sideways form-factor, with a screen that swivels out of the middle to reveal a full QWERTY keyboard. Although Motorola changed this with the last-gen Sidekick Slide, which features a linear sliding screen, the flashy swivel screen is back in 2008. Other vital controls outside the keyboard include an exterior BlackBerry-style trackball, a directional pad that doubles as a speaker, and a slew of dedicated buttons for navigating menus, including top and button shoulder buttons.
Hardware specs include a 2.0-megapixel camera, EDGE Internet, an included 512MB microSD card, media player capabilities, stereo Bluetooth, and customizable shells that can be swapped out to change the phone to different colors. The much bemoaned lack of video on previous models has also been remedied with a new video recording mode that allows users to capture short clips.
From its inception, the Sidekick has captured a youthful, trendy image, and T-Mobile has continued to cultivate that with the latest incarnation, which boasts even more customizability than the last. Although the majority of its face and flip-out LCD get a rather dull matte black bezel, the back and sides have been designed as removable shells that can be swapped in seconds. The stock phone comes in a yellow-tinged green color, but T-Mobile also includes a glossy black (read: fingerprint-blotched black) shell with every phone. If neither is to your liking, you’ll also find a bountiful aftermarket for shells online, and at $15 a pop, they’re cheap enough to experiment with a few. In fact, T-Mobile also offers blank shells with directions for DIY customization – a rare luxury in a world where most manufacturers prefer to void warranties for even light modifications.
Menu graphics for the phone seemed to latch onto the Sidekick’s young image as well, a bit to our annoyance. Default theme included loud argyle patterns, “gritty” graffiti-themed designs, and colorful rainbow collages that looked like they belonged on Trapper Keepers. While T-Mobile offers additional themes through its download catalog (most of which are along the same vein,) we really would have liked to see some more basic, refined options included by default. If you’re out of high school, plan to use the Sidekick for business at all, or just want something a little easier on the eyes, you’ll almost certainly find most of the installed options on the gaudy side.
Image Courtesy of T-Mobile
The Sidekick uses a proprietary operating system that’s one of the more intuitive ones we’ve seen, though it has its quirks. A main menu displays most functions of the phone in a circular array that can be flicked through quickly with the track ball. Sliding the ball to the right navigates deeper into the menu system, and another outside button brings up a list of auxiliary options for any given menu. For the most part, this makes using the phone quite intuitive, though we found some functions were only accessible in odd ways. Using the camera, for instance, requires you to navigate to your albums first, then click another button to open up the actual picture-taking mode, which is labeled rather ambiguously as “capture.” Good luck grabbing a shot of Bigfoot when you need to go through that routine just to pull up the viewfinder.
While the Sidekick glides through menus quickly and doesn’t bog down under heavy use, stability was not one of its strong points. Ours frequently rebooted itself for no apparent reason, and the annoyance was compounded by having to enter passwords every time it came back. We also ran into a handful of annoying glitches, like the themes we had purchased online not showing up in the theme selection menu until the phone had been on for some time, and have to re-choose them every time the phone rebooted.
Media players are often an afterthought on many business-oriented smartphones, but on a model like the Sidekick that specifically targets a youth market, playing music isn’t a function to be taken lightly. Fortunately, the media player on the Sidekick is well thought out, and usable on a day to day basis. While it’s not as slick as the benchmark Apple iPod, it offers some distinct advantages thanks to its stronger array of controls. Almost every function, from queuing new songs to browsing by album, has a keyboard shortcut, making navigation very quick after an initial learning period, and the keyboard also facilitates text-based searching for songs in a large library. Having a trackball makes some tricky tasks, like rearranging songs in a playlist, much easier. Sound quality was up to par with the best standalone MP3 players we’ve tried, and even the included headphones, while definitely cheap, were passable. Some awkwardness does arise, though, from the side-mounted headphone jack, which leaves headphone connectors jutting out sideways to get snagged in pockets, rather than pointing straight up.
Although the Sidekick offers a “real” Web browser that works with regular HTML pages as opposed to the crippled WAP pages older phones must use, its molasses-slow EDGE Internet access serves as a major deterrent to major use. Even simple Google searches were slow to process through T-Mobile’s data connection, and many sites become riddled with visual errors when reformatted for the phone. Bottom line: we would use it to find an address or phone number in a crunch, but not much else.
When you build a handset around text messaging, phone functionality is bound to suffer a bit, and that’s certainly the case with the Sidekick. Sliding open the face to dial becomes even more of a chore than with a flip phone, since it requires more manual dexterity, and you’ll need another hand to close it, too.
Call quality, while acceptable, still sounded far from outstanding, and some callers complained of being able to hear an echo of themselves. Unlike most handsets, this is a text messaging platform built to also work as a phone, not the other way around, and it shows.
The newest Sidekick has made major strides in cutting down on the bulk that plagued previous versions, but it’s still unmistakably a smartphone, creating a pocket bulge to match. It features roughly the same footprint and weight as an iPhone, but it’s considerably thicker, making it a bit more of a pain to carry around.
Try as we did to get used to the swiveling screen, it still felt clumsy and unsatisfying to open to us, compared to other sliding-form-factor phones. Worse yet, even a minor fall to a carpeted floor sent it shooting open, making us wonder whether the hinge would survive a more severe fall to concrete. From a practical perspective, we couldn’t imagine a single way the flip worked any better than a slide, making it pretty apparent that this design won out for its style-factor alone.
Though the Sidekick’s full QWERTY keyboard has always been its centerpiece, manufacturers have played with, tweaked, and generally improved its design with every version. The latest Sidekick is no exception. While the Motorola-built Slide featured circular keys recessed into a hard plastic bed like eraserheads, the new Sidekick takes the opposite approach, with square keys that pop out of a plastic bed like bubbles in bubble wrap. Despite the change, we found it retained the same ease of typing as its predecessor. The phone’s extra-wide stance makes it easy to grip while typing with the thumbs, and the pronounced bulge of each key makes it difficult to mispress neighboring keys. Each key also delivers a crisp detent with every key press, giving the keyboard outstanding tactile feedback. Finally, it passed the best test of any keyboard: we never wanted to cut out messages short due to frustration with it.
Cell phone cameras have taken a major leap forward in the past couple of years, from cheap novelties for capturing spur-of-the-moment images to quality cams that approach the quality of point-and-shoot consumer products. The Sidekick’s 2.0 megapixel camera falls more toward the latter category: It’s quite respectable. Besides looking good on the Sidekicks’ tiny screen, most of our shots stood up well to scrutiny on a computer screen as well. You probably won’t be printing them out at CVS or making them desktop wallpapers, but for trading day-to-day shots with friends, we found the camera perfectly acceptable.
Taking pictures with the Sidekick also proved to be quite natural, thanks to the elongated form factor, shoulder buttons, and generous LCD that all mimic what you might find on a point-and-shoot. The screen refresh rate may look slightly choppy by comparison, but it does an admirable job adjusting to sudden changes in brightness: Swing it from a dark office to a sunny window and you’ll barely get a split second of white flare-up before it adjusts. The only photo-related disappointment came when viewing photos. The Sidekick won’t allow you to zoom up and down on them to get more detail in gradations, you’ll either have to look at the tiny, scaled down version, or a full-scale version that will take you a minute to scroll across.
Though T-Mobile may have appeased critics by adding video to an otherwise very capable multimedia phone, quality lags far behind the standard set by its competent still camera function. It only captures pitiful 176 x 144 resolution video at 10.66 fps, and the slightest motion produces a mosaic of blocky compression artifacts. Given the results we obtained, we wouldn’t hesitate to call it useless.
If you spend your life tapping out text messages, but don’t care for the stuffiness of a BlackBerry and other business phones, we can’t think of a much more appropriate handset than the Sidekick. While T-Mobile has made a few annoying trade-offs in its concessions to young audiences (like the flashy flip screen and some gaudy style elements,) the phone remains a solid performer, and at $150 with a two-year contract, a solid value as well. However, if you’re looking for Web browsing capability, or need a simple-to-operate phone for mostly voice calls, we would look elsewhere.
• First-in-class keyboard
• High-quality camera
• Intuitive operating system
• Easily swapped, customizable shells
• Annoying swiveling LCD screen
• Nearly worthless video recording
• Slightly difficult to use as a phone
• Slow EDGE Internet