The original Sidekick was a revolutionary phone when it debuted back in 2002. Before all these Android phones and all this touchscreen nonsense, the Sidekick helped usher a class of phone that was sold not because it made good calls, but because it made texting easier. Today, texting isn’t our number one concern, but there’s still a place for a good QWERTY smartphone. The question is, does the Sidekick 4G fit the bill?
Design and feel
The first thing you’ll notice about the Sidekick, aside from the fact that it runs Android, is the strange way it reveals its keyboard. No, the screen doesn’t kick to the side like the original “smart” phone did so many years ago, but it does still have kick. Instead of simply sliding the screen forward like most keyboarded smartphones these days, you open the Sidekick 4G by putting pressure on the left bottom side of the screen. With enough pressure, it “kicks” out, revealing a spacious five-row keyboard underneath. It’s a strange process, but it works pretty well, allowing a lot more space for the keyboard than a simple sliding design would.
The QWERTY keyboard has a full number row and is one of the better keyboards we’ve used. Keys have a healthy amount of space between them and a deep, satisfying click when you press them. In the race to make phones thinner, the quality of the keyboard has often taken a backseat. Not on the Sidekick.
We initially had our doubts on the gimmicky kick to the screen, as it’s a bit difficult to get the hang of, but it works well. It doesn’t jolt open so fast that you drop the phone, and you can flick it open while holding the phone vertically or horizontally. We do wish Samsung had opted for a larger screen, as 3.5 inches is a bit small now that 4.3-inch Android phones have taken over. The Sidekick always led the pack in terms of screen size. Not this time.
The navigation button layout is as strange as the screen. Fans of the Sidekick brand will be familiar with the touch wheel (not really a wheel anymore) and the layout of the face buttons, which are curiously placed to surround the keyboard in a landscape orientation, with the home, jump key and settings buttons on the left and the menu and back buttons on the right, along with the touch pad. This layout works fine when you’re typing with the screen kicked open, but if you’re using your phone with the screen retracted (vertically), this layout is a hassle because it puts the home button, a necessary one, on the top of the phone, well out of reach. The solution: You’ll have to hit the back button a bunch of times. That’s no fun. We wish Samsung (the phone’s manufacturer) and T-Mobile would have compromised and put home in a usable position.
The placement of the power button is strange as well. While most phones place it in the upper right (when held vertically), the Sidekick 4G’s power button is on the lower left, making it a bit awkward to press if you’d like to lock or unlock the screen. When held in landscape, the button is a bit easier to press, but we’re still puzzled why Samsung and T-Mobile chose the location from a functional standpoint. The audio jack is in a similarly odd spot, placed on the side of the unit, as if you’re going to listen to tunes only while using the keyboard.
With that said, we do like the rubber-gripped edges on the back and the dedicated camera button. They are welcomed additions, as is the front-facing camera.
As an Android phone, the Sidekick 4G is decent, but not cutting edge, by any stretch. The screen is 3.5 inches and has a resolution of 480 x 800 pixels. This is good, but top phones now have 4.3-inch screens with resolutions exceeding 960 x 540. Same goes for the 512MB of RAM, about half that of top competitors on T-Mobile and other carriers. The 1GB of internal storage and 2GB microSD card included don’t match the 8GB to 16GB top phones have, either. Then again, this isn’t priced as a cutting edge phone. At its launch in April, it retailed for $99, but its current price maxes out at $80 with a two-year contract — not a bad price for specs like these. We also like that the phone runs a 1GHz Hummingbird processor, which has an ARM Cortex A8 CPU and PowerVR GPU, which seems to be one of the best GPUs around. Still, it can’t match the power of some of the dual-core devices on the market and for all the flair, the graphics of the Sidekick are somewhat minimalist.
The Sidekick 4G came out a few months ago, and has yet to be upgraded to Android 2.3 (Gingerbread). Due to its custom Sidekick-ey user interface, it may never make the leap to 2.3. This is sad, as Google released Gingerbread last December. There’s really no excuse for a newer phone to be running Android 2.2 these days. If it would make the leap to 2.3, we’d likely see a boost in performance, but as it stands, the Sidekick 4G is one of the better looking 2.2 devices. However, like its hardware, the custom UI Samsung and T-Mobile designed on top of Android is a bit strange. It’s full of blacks, deep blues, and T-Mobile pinks, and full of little things to make it look trendy. You know, like instead of showing 11:00pm on the unlock screen, it will spell out “Eleven O’Clock.” Icons and menus have a hip look to them too. The question is: Are these menus actually hip, or just what Samsung and T-Mobile think the kids are into? We wonder.
The Sidekick 4G also comes with a special jump key menu, accessible from a face button on the phone. The idea here being that you can more quickly open the apps that matter to you with a simple button press or two, like a speed dial for your app collection. We never really found much use for it as the feature is mostly useless unless the keyboard is accessible. For the most part, Android’s homescreens do a quick enough job of making apps accessible. Still, to those that learn the shortcuts, we have no doubt that the Sidekick jump keys will become like second nature.
Apps and Web
The standard set of T-Mobile apps is present on the Sidekick, but there are some interesting additions, mostly in the realm of texting and chatting. Twitter, Facebook, and Google Talk are all preloaded, as is Qik video chat. A cloud texting app lets you create an account on Sidekick.com and send out texts using your PC. This could be a useful feature if you leave your phone somewhere, but we like Group Text a bit more. This app lets you create groups of friends and text them all at once, making party or event planning much easier. We weren’t able to try out DriveSmart, but it supposedly can tell if you’re driving or not and turn on GPS, etc. Pretty useful, if it works.
The Web appears to use Google’s standard Android browser. This works fairly well for mobile devices, though we’re hoping Chrome is integrated in the near future. The browser has no trouble zooming in on Web pages and resizing text.
It’s great that the Sidekick 4G has a dedicated camera button, but we wish it had a worthwhile camera to take pictures with. While seemingly better than Motorola’s camera, this is not Samsung’s best work. The Sidekick’s rear camera is only 3.15 megapixels and its front camera is only VGA. These are almost less than the bare minimums. Most phones come with at least 5-megapixel rear cameras and 1.3-megapixel front-facing cameras. The snapping and focusing speed of the rear camera is also slow and it doesn’t come with a flash of any kind, so dark areas are out of the question. It can record video, but not at anything nearing HD quality. If pictures are important to you, buy something else. The Sidekick runs Samsung’s old camera software and just doesn’t stack up to the competition.
Call quality on the Sidekick is surprisingly clear for a phone built around texting. We had no problems making or receiving calls around New York City. In fact, calls sounded really good at times. “4G” HSPA+ reception was a bit weaker. While we rarely officially lost “4G,” it seems to take a while for T-Mobile’s network to connect. Once it gets going, the speeds are sometimes okay, but it seems to take a few seconds for the phone to make a data connection and start transferring files.
Downloading three app updates (less than 7MB a piece) and the Speedtest.net app took 10 to 15 minutes. Connected to T-Mobile’s “4G” network, we were only able to get about 300Kbps to 400Kbps (.3Mbps). This is about one fifth the speed of AT&T and a minute fraction of rival networks like Sprint and Verizon. T-Mobile has some work to do on its data network, at least here in NYC.
Battery life is decent, but about standard for a smartphone. Expect to charge every day or every other day, at minimum. The phone is rated for 6 hours and 30 minutes of call time battery life and 19 days of standby. From our experience, the 1500mAh battery performs well enough, though we weren’t doing much heavy calling or browsing on the phone due to the slow data speeds.
Samsung and T-Mobiles’ Sidekick 4G may resemble the Sidekicks of old, but it’s taken an Android-sized leap forward. This is the first Sidekick with a touchscreen and follows in the footsteps of its ancestors well. Still, it’s not without a large number of quirks, some annoying, others just odd. All in all, while we like the screen and keyboard, the Sidekick 4G tries too hard to be different. While previous Sidekicks had a definite audience, text-savvy teenagers don’t want to just chat anymore. They want a phone that can give them it all, and competing phones do just that. Samsung and T-Mobile are holding onto the Sidekick legacy a bit too tightly. We’re not sure anyone would find this Sidekicks odd design choices anything but a bother.
- Great keyboard
- Clear phone calls, useful text apps
- Satisfying screen “kick”
- Outdated Android 2.2 install
- Custom user interface doesn’t enhance Android
- Awkward button, audio jack placement
- Anemic camera
- Poor 4G speeds
- Unnecessary touch pad