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T-Mobile Sidekick 4G review

Once a closed platform, T-Mobile brings the Sidekick brand back from the dead — and this time, it's running Android.

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T-Mobile Sidekick 4G
T-Mobile Sidekick 4G

You thought Sidekick was dead, did you? That’d be an easy assumption to make since Danger’s servers are being turned off this month — and since it’s the one of the most deeply-integrated cloud deployment for mobile devices ever undertaken, eight years’ worth of Sidekick models will turn into pretty paperweights after that. It’s a sad end for a company that had such a significant and lasting impact on smartphone design and technology, but ultimately, staying alive through Microsoft’s purchase and the Kin debacle would’ve been a tall order for any management team.

Well, that’s not the whole story. What many folks don’t realize is that it was T-Mobile that owned the Sidekick brand all along, not Danger; outside of T-Mobile’s sphere of influence, the devices were actually known as Hiptops in other parts of the world. That means the carrier has opportunity to keep the Sidekick brand alive even as the underlying technology platform passes away — and it’s an opportunity they’re taking head-on with the introduction of the Android-powered Sidekick 4G.



Interestingly, the Sidekick comes in one of the nicest smartphone boxes you'll find on the market today. I say that's interesting because carriers tend to reserve the awesome packages for the expensive devices - the ones priced $200 and up - and the Sidekick slides in at $100 on contract. The top and bottom lids don't cover the sides of the box completely, revealing a hint of the "Sidekick 4G" logo that spans the length of the box. Underneath the top, you've got your phone with a silk-like ribbon sticking out of the side, which is just what you need to pop the handset out of the box without pawing at the corners frantically for minutes on end (trust me, I've been there). The "cradle" that the phone rests in than unfolds, accordion style, where you'll find the charger, battery, USB cable, SD card adapter (you get a 2GB microSD), and documentation. Personally, I'd keep the box, because some actual engineering went into this thing.



I wish I had a Sidekick LX 2009 (which I reviewed) handy for direct comparison, but from what I remember, the Sidekick 4G is clearly a half-step down the first time you look at it - it's chunkier and more plasticky than its predecessor. I don't think it's intended to be quite as high-end, and in the the scheme of things, that makes sense: when the LX came out, it was trying to appeal to longtime Sidekick users who'd started to grow up, get grown-up jobs (hence the Exchange support), and have grown-up money to throw around. T-Mobile wanted a high-end device that carried over Sidekick familiarity. With the 4G, though, the story has changed; the myTouch and G brands are in full effect for the mainstream consumer and high-end markets, which gives the Sidekick brand an opportunity to return to its teen-centric, hypersocial roots. And my hypothesis here is underscored by the pricing — back in the day, the LX went for $199.99 on contract after rebate, whereas the 4G has launched at $99.99. In other words, I don't think it's a bad thing that this isn't as luxurious of a device as the LX was for its day — if anything, the 4G is truer to the Sidekick brand than the LX ever was. There's definitely a market for this class of device.

And let me be clear: this isn't a cheesy, rickety, or poorly-made device, nor does it look particularly cheap — it just lacks that certain je ne sais quoi that higher-end phones usually exude. For instance, there's not a lick of soft touch anywhere to be found on the top or bottom — it's all hard plastic. One small bit of good news is that the casing is entirely matte, which should do a far better job skirting damage (scuffs, minor scratches, and the like) from normal use than Samsung's famously glossy Galaxy S devices do.

Looking at the controls and ports, some of them are going to be pretty foreign if you're not coming from an older Sidekick. For example, the power button is on the front right edge if you're holding the phone landscape, which equates to the lower left if you're holding it portrait. Wacky, right? Likewise, the 3.5mm headphone jack is on the other end of the same edge, right next to the volume rocker — not exactly "normal" placement. The strangest nuance, though, has to be the Home button, which lies on the upper right of the front when you're in portrait mode. Yes: the upper right. I found that I could swivel my thumb up to hit it when holding the phone normally with my right hand, but not my left — and I have fairly large hands. Considering how often Home comes into play while you're using an Android-powered device, this seems like a really odd oversight. Granted, T-Mobile did everything it could to stay true to the Sidekick formula, and that meant splitting the four buttons across either end of the display — and the good news is that you can press and hold Back (which is at the bottom left) to accomplish the same thing.

The keyboard is exquisite — I'm fast and accurate on it, which is all you can really ask for

Oh, and memorize the location of these four buttons the moment you take your Sidekick out of the box, because they're not backlit. The keyboard is — more on the keyboard in a bit — but not the main navigation controls. That's pretty unusual for an Android device, but it'd drive me nuts far more if the Sidekick had capacitive touch controls without any tactile response; it's a little more tolerable here when the buttons are real, actual, clicky buttons.

Along the right edge, you've got a proper two-stage camera button and the Micro USB port. Unfortunately, the port is covered by one of those finicky plastic flaps that requires a fingernail to open - a "feature" that Samsung has embraced far more frequently than most other manufacturers over the past few years. I'd hoped they'd kicked the habit with the Galaxy S line's move to sliding door covers, which I've found to be far easier to open (and leave open if you prefer), but no dice on the Sidekick.

An oft-requested, oft-overlooked feature in Android phones these days is an LED notification light. Well, the Sidekick 4G actually has two, both above the display: one for normal Android notifications, one for charging. Historically, the Sidekick series has been known for pretty insane LED configurability, and the 4G doesn't let you down — it's got its own dedicated panel in the Settings menu where you can choose different colors for text, email, and missed call notifications (though you can't configure the charging light, the panel lets you know that it'll change color based on the battery's current charge level).

Granted, a pair of discreet LEDs beneath glass isn't nearly as true to the Sidekick heritage as a big, light-up, in-your-face trackball — but this is the year 2011, which means they needed to retire that dusty ball and slot an optical pad in its place. I came away not loving it for a couple reasons: one, it doesn't seem sensitive enough, which means it takes far too much effort to scroll from one end of a list to the other. Two, the trackpad is inset — it's surrounded by a crescent-shaped bevel — which makes it unnecessarily difficult to smoothly swipe over (compare this to the implementation on, say, an HTC Desire or any number of recent BlackBerrys to see how it can be done correctly). Of course, Android doesn't need a trackball or trackpad at all; I suspect Samsung included it here simply to carry forward the classic Sidekick ID and appease upgrading owners making the adjustment from a non-touch UI. If you insist on using it, just be aware that it's not that great.

Never mind everything you've read so far, though. You, Samsung, T-Mobile, and I all know that a Sidekick is made or broken by its screen opening mechanism and the quality of the keyboard that lies beneath it. Sure enough, you can tell that all the engineering dollars for this device went into these two critical elements, because they're good — seriously good. Now granted, the screen doesn't swivel open, which many Sidekick purists consider blasphemous, but the spring-loaded (and dare I say all-aluminum?) tilt hinge really couldn't be much better. It's rock solid without a hint of play in both the closed and open position — a far cry from, say, the T-Mobile G2 — and it requires minimum effort to pop open with a pair of thumbs pushing along the bottom edge. For the style-conscious, you'll also appreciate that the bottom side of the display and the hinge components are coated in a contrasting color that give the phone an extra dose of personality.


And the keyboard, as I said, is exquisite — I'm fast and accurate on it, which is all you can really ask for. Maybe it's just the thrill of using that rare five-row layout, but I don't think it's reaching to suggest that this is one of the best phone keyboards I've ever used. If you've ever played with a T-Mobile G1, you might remember that it had a terrific keyboard that was marred only by the bizarre asymmetric design that left the phone's "chin" protruding between your right hand and the keys. Well, the Sidekick 4G's keyboard is nearly identical — both in layout and in button shape, size and feel — except that the asymmetry is a thing of the past. I generally don't consider myself a physical keyboard person, but I find that the 4G is one of those rare beasts that's making me reconsider my stance.

And it's a good thing that the physical keyboard's so wonderful, because the on-screen virtual keyboard is a little small on that 3.5-inch display. Actually, that's not fair — to my surprise, I actually found that I was no less accurate on it than on my 4-inch devices — but this segues into my concerns about the screen. First off, I had no issues with contrast, brightness, or outdoor viewability (it tends to wash out a bit at odd viewing angles, but it's far from the worst I've seen - especially for a $100 phone). Considering the thickness and overall bulk of the Sidekick 4G, though, I'd expect a little more real estate; I couldn't help but feel cramped in almost every situation, particularly browsing. WVGA resolution is great, of course, but I think that a screen on the order of 3.7 to 4 inches would've taken the device to a new level of usability. T-Mobile's target audience apparently doesn't mind using a phone that's loud and noticeable — how else do you explain the magenta accents? — so I don't see the harm in making the entire package just a little wider to accommodate more display. In fact, I'll go out on a limb here and say that packaging this phone with Samsung's leftover 4-inch Super AMOLED components from last year's Galaxy S marathon would have suited this device perfectly.

As audio goes, the Sidekick performs admirably. By virtue of the shape, you might have some concerns about the position and angle of the earpiece relative to your head, but I found that it's actually no less comfortable than any other modern smartphone. Calls are loud and clear both over the earpiece and speakerphone — but it's just "very loud" at the maximum volume, not "so loud your head's going to explode." There's a difference. It's nice to have that buffer in case you need to hold a call in an extremely noisy environment, but it's pretty rare to find in a device — and it's certainly not something I'd hold against the Sidekick, particularly considering how text-centric it is. Music actually sounds better than calls over the loudspeaker, coming through with surprising bass that gets more boomy when you set the phone face-up on a table. Interestingly, the speakerphone's grill is essentially flush with the rear, which you might expect to muffle it — but there seems to be just enough of a bump on either side of the battery cover to lift it up and create a megaphone effect.

At the end of the day, for me, smartphone battery performance falls into two categories: those that can comfortably make it through a day, and those that can't (let's be honest — the old days of going two or three days at a time on your Nokia are long over). The Sidekick 4G — with a 1,500mAh battery on board — looks like it'll last a day for most users. I was able to get 3 hours, 21 minutes of heavy internet and screen use, 55 minutes of voice calling, and an additional 18 hours, 19 minutes of standby on a single charge with a mix of 3G and Wi-Fi usage. Now granted, the kids T-Mobile's targeting with this device will likely have their faces buried in the screen for hours on end - but even so, I suspect most folks will be able to make it charge to charge without worry.




The Sidekick uses a fairly standard Samsung-customized Android camera app (in other words, if you've used a Galaxy S variant, you'll have a good idea of what you're going to get here). You're able to switch between the front and rear cameras, toggle camcorder mode, adjust exposure by half-stops, toggle macro focus mode, and choose from a number of custom scenes like Portrait, Landscape, Night, Sports, "Party," Dawn, Text, and so on. There's also an available self-timer, adjustable white balance, and exposure metering mode - needless to say, it's a good deal more powerful than what you get with stock Android.

It's safe to say that T-Mobile and Samsung weren't designing this as a serious cameraphone - you need look no further than the lack of flash and the 3.2 megapixel primary sensor for evidence of that. I wasn't blown away by the results; even in good light at the "superfine" JPEG setting, photos seemed to lack crisp definition, and I was frequently unable to get focus in macro mode (see the shot of the "U" below) even though the viewfinder was indicating that it had locked on. I was a little more satisfied with the quality of video output, but it tops out at 720 x 480 - just like the Nexus S - so you won't be shooting in high definition.



The Sidekick's skin is probably the most elegant balance of Android familiarity and target demographic-specific customization I've ever seen

Of course, the secret sauce to making an Android device worthy of the Sidekick name isn't entirely in hardware alone — the stereotypical Sidekick user is a text-messaging fiend with the attention span of a gnat, someone who values interpersonal relationships, cliques, and meetings even more than a big-shot salesperson with a BlackBerry. Meeting those needs head-on requires some unique software.

I've got to hand it to Samsung and T-Mobile on this one: the Sidekick's skin is probably the most elegant balance of Android familiarity and target demographic-specific customization I've ever seen. It's hip without being cheesy, unique without being bogged down. The changes start with the lock screen, which has a cool three-dimensional spelled-out time up top, missed call and text notifications down below, and a split that can be dragged either up or down to unlock the phone. But here's where it gets interesting: dragging down functions as a traditional unlock that takes you back to the screen you were last on, but dragging up triggers a configurable action that can be set to anything that an Android shortcut can: an application, a web bookmark, a specific contact, and so on. Very handy — and something that I'd like to see on other devices, not just Sidekicks.

In general, T-Mobile has obviously sought to give the Sidekick an "edgy" appearance with hard lines, angles, and blocky sans sarif fonts throughout the system. It looks good — and more importantly for the teens and twentysomethings who will primarily be buying it, it looks fresh. Naturally, all of the stock icons have been replaced, and there's a custom launcher installed; you'll also find a black status bar in place of the standard light gray (this is Android 2.2, not 2.3). I wasn't in love with the written-out Phone, Apps, and Contacts links docked at the bottom of the screen — they're unnaturally short, and the grid layout of the screen prevents you from placing icons or widgets anywhere near them, which leaves you with a big gap of wasted space. Despite the size, I found that I was able to consistently tap them on the first try, so it's not a usability issue.

Another cool tweak comes in the notification pull-down, where the top roughly 20 percent is occupied by a shortcut for posting Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace status updates. That'll be a time-saving godsend for some... but if it's not your cup of tea, you can disable it and go back to a straight, stock-looking window that has nothing but notifications in it. Naturally, you've also got a handful of built-in apps that tend to appear on most Android-based models from Samsung and / or T-Mobile: Allshare (a DLNA enabler for media sharing), App Pack and Highlight, DriveSmart (just the basic version, not Plus), Media Hub, Memo, My Account, My Device, T-Mobile Mall, T-Mobile TV (for an extra fee), TeleNav, ThinkFree Office, and Qik Video Chat.

Additionally, there are a few apps that are unique to the Sidekick. Cloud Texting is basically a Sidekick-branded version of Zipwhip, a service that allows you to access and send text messages from a web browser in the event you're not near your phone (but let's be honest, when is a Sidekick user not near their phone?). Group Texting is a tool for holding text message conversations with several people as a group — it's also powered by ZipWhip. Neat idea, for sure, and it looks (and works) well on the Sidekick — but if you're pulling non-ZipWhip users into the thread, they get an unruly series of text messages each time someone in the group sends a message, and the texts don't come from a known number. It's messy, and your friends probably aren't going to appreciate it getting into these very often.

You've also got Media Room, a unified media player that offers locally-stored music and video, content from YouTube and T-Mobile TV, and Slacker in one place. It's stylish — certainly more stylish than Android's stock player — with an angled, edgy Now Playing screen that perfectly matches the rest of the phone's visual theme (Slacker integration works well, too, though you get a more traditional-looking Now Playing display over there). While media's on air, you also get basic controls and a song name on the lock screen right below the time, so there's no need to unlock to stop the music or change tracks. Granted, the usefulness of this app is diminished a bit for those who are hooked on Amazon Cloud Player or Google Music Beta, but - at this point, anyway — that's a relatively small group.

Another Sidekick special, Mini Diary, is a bit like a multimedia-aware note taker that can embed photos inline with text. It doesn't stop there, though: it'll also read geotag information off your images so you can see a map of where the diary entry was made, and it'll even embed the weather (pulled straight from AccuWeather) that you were experiencing at the time. An odd hodgepodge of functionality, but we're sure it has a use. Theme Changer is... well, a basic theme changer that will change the color of certain UI elements and highlights; each theme also includes its own wallpaper, though you're free to override it.

Though the phone never felt laggy to me, that wasn't really reflected in Quadrant — which underscores the fact that Quadrant isn't a great indicator of the user experience. The Sidekick was consistently clocking in scores between 950 and 1,000, well behind the current crop of dual-core and second-generation single-core devices that easily break 1,500 with stock ROMs and often crack 2,000. Unsurprisingly, though, the number matches up perfectly with Quadrant's average Galaxy S result; both devices have a 1GHz Hummingbird installed. The long and the short of it is that I wouldn't worry about the benchmark — you can get from screen to screen and from app to app without twiddling your thumbs.

Android has grown up — and T-Mobile’s lineup of Android devices is finally mature enough to support this kind of tightly-focused hardware

After spending several weeks swapping the Sidekick 4G in and out as my primary phone, I can conclusively say it’s not for everybody — but it’s definitely not a terrible phone. And in fact, for some, it could be a great phone. Adults — even ex-Sidekick users who’ve simply grown up and entered the workforce — might find something with a little more power and a little less flash to be more appealing, and for those folks, T-Mobile offers the myTouch and the G series. In fact, in many ways, the G2 is a perfect “adult” counterpoint to the Sidekick 4G.
Like grown-up Sidekick users, Android, too, has grown up — and T-Mobile’s lineup of Android devices is finally mature enough to support this kind of tightly-focused hardware. Kids who are old enough to own a smartphone and young adults who value text messaging and social networking above all else have every reason to flock to this device, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to them. But hey, parents: just make sure they don’t get their hands on a sub-9mm beast like the Galaxy S II or the Infuse 4G along the way, because they may not want to look back.