First Look: T-Mobile Sidekick II
At a Glance
The first Sidekick revolutionized mobile Web access by offering a decent-size screen, a usable keyboard, and solid applications--and it won our 2003 World Class Product of the Year Award for its trouble. Two long years later--an eternity in tech time, during which PalmOne's Treo 600 supplanted the original Sidekick in many mobile users' hearts--the Sidekick II is finally on its way (it will be available later this fall). Fans of the original model will find much to like, but critics of the first aren't likely to be swayed by its evolutionary successor.
Offered by cellular provider T-Mobile and co-developed by Danger and Sharp, the $300 Sidekick II addresses many user complaints about the first device, including the fact that it made a lousy cell phone.
After testing an early production sample of the Sidekick II for two weeks, I can report that it works much better as a phone than the original. Voice quality in my informal tests equaled that of a standard cell phone. The unit's speakerphone was good, too, though it needed a bit more volume. Nevertheless, the unit's flat design and relatively large size made holding it against my ear feel awkward--especially during longer conversations (the unit does include an earbud).
Placing calls is easier now than before, but the task remains a little cumbersome. Dialing with the cover closed entails using the thumbwheel or the directional pad to scroll through a list of your recent calls or through your phonebook. Alternatively, you can use them to awkwardly select numbers on a tiny on-screen numeric pad, which is hidden behind an icon selection. A user-interface flaw: A command on the screen says 'flip to dial,' so users may not realize that the on-screen dial pad exists. If you prefer to use real, tactile keys you have to flip open the screen and use the dial pad that's part of the keyboard.
The Sidekick II looks more refined than the original. It's slightly wider, about the same height, and a bit skinnier. The larger size accommodates a more comfortable and more responsive QWERTY keyboard. The new design also offers an easier-to-access volume control, a call send/end button that doubles as a page up/down control, and two user-programmable multifunction buttons on the top rubberized panel. Some of the button icons (such as the one for the home/menu screen) are cryptic, however.
Whereas the original Sidekick buried its power button and directional pad within the keyboard, the new version wisely places these two buttons on the outside of the unit. The slightly dull, 65,000-color LCD seems unchanged from the original and is equally difficult to see in bright sunlight. The Sidekick's vital stats include 32MB of RAM, 16MB of flash ROM, and GSM 850/900/1900 network support (which means that it will work in other countries).
The Sidekick II comes with a built-in VGA (640-by-480-pixel) camera with flash (the previous version required a camera accessory). You can capture shots by pressing the right multifunction button on the top panel or by pressing the scroll wheel. The device holds 36 shots, regardless of the image quality setting. Though the camera is fun, its photo quality is mediocre; most of my snapshots came out fuzzy and grainy. Expect amusing throwaway shots, not photo-album keepers.
Easy IM and E-Mail
Like the original Sidekick, the Sidekick II excels at instant messaging and e-mail exchange. You can easily set up POP3, IMAP, or AOL e-mail, as well as Yahoo Messenger and AOL Instant Messenger. Navigating your e-mail and IM is simple, thanks to the Sidekick's intuitive menus.
Unfortunately, the designers failed to address a few gripes about the Sidekick. For one thing, there's still no way to physically connect the device to a PC. However, T-Mobile now offers a service that lets you sync your Outlook/Exchange contacts, appointments, and to-dos through its network, using Intellisync software. But you still can't sync to Outlook or Lotus Notes e-mail.
Another ongoing issue is the lack of a memory-card slot, Bluetooth, an infrared port, or third-party applications. Because Danger has kept the operating system fairly closed, few companies have developed software for the device. Users who need better e-mail and calendar integration should consider the more business-oriented Treo 600.
Despite its shortcomings, the Sidekick II does most things right, building on the features that made the original so good. It's a pleasure to use and it comes at a reasonable price; so if you're the type who needs to be connected all the time, this may be the handheld for you.
Richard Baguley contributed to this report.
Danger Sidekick II
A simple, fun, and affordable Web-enabled handheld that nevertheless lacks a few features you'd expect from a PDA/cell phone hybrid.
$300 (plus monthly T-Mobile service fee)