Just when we thought the Sidekick was totally dead, T-Mobile revived the iconic handset with a new manufacturer and new mobile operating system. We first caught wind of the new 4G device a few months ago, but we were skeptical: it’s made by Samsung, it’s powered by Android and it doesn’t even have the swivel screen! Can we really call it a Sidekick?
After several days of putting it through use and abuse, we can confidently say yes. It is definitely a Sidekick by my standards – I owned the Sidekick 2, Sidekick LX and the Sidekick 2008 (the small one with interchangeable shells) – and admittedly more fun than the previous versions.
It’s not without its faults, but for those who want a solid Android device, fast Internet speeds and an amazing keyboard, the Sidekick shouldn’t be just for the kids.
T-Mobile Sidekick 4G
Now available in T-Mobile stores for $99.99 with a two-year contract
- 3.5-inch touchscreen display, 854 x 480 resolution
- 1 GHz Cortex A8 Hummingbird processor
- Android 2.2 Froyo
- 512MB RAM, 2GB ROM
- microSD expansion up to 16GB
- Wi-Fi (b/g/n)
- Bluetooth 3.0
- Satisfies what every Sidekick owner loves: form factor, excellent keyboard, great battery life
- Runs Android instead of Danger OS, no longer prone to server crashes
- Fast 4G data speed capabilities
- A bit bulky compared to most Android phones these days
- Some lag with applications and gestures
- Physical camera key placement isn’t ideal directly across power/standby button
The new Sidekick 4G is very easily recognizable as a Sidekick: its shape and size resembles the Sidekicks of yesteryear even though it’s now made by Samsung instead of Sharp – and the one time Motorola build the Sidekick Slide – and it has the four buttons on each corner that have been a staple of the line of messaging phones.
It’s not an anorexic device by any means, however, as we’ve grown accustomed to Android devices getting thinner each month. This smartphone has healthy curves and a decent amount of bulk to it, but in a good way. It’s not cumbersome at 5 x 2.4 x 0.6 inches, but it will probably start causing problems if you wear the types of jeans that require a friend in order to put on or remove.
The Sidekick 4G is also a landscape device. While it’s entirely possible to use the phone in landscape mode, things start to get a little tricky. The soft keyboard buttons are a bit too small to type accurately, so luckily there is Swype. But you bought a Sidekick because of its keyboard, so use it! The placement of the buttons begs you to use it in landscape mode, too. The home button is a hell of a stretch, even with larger hands like mine, when you’re holding it in portrait mode. In general, the button placement all around is awkward unless you’re holding it the way it was intended.
So, in landscape mode, you’ve got the home button and jump keys on the left hand side flanking the earpiece, and on the right you have the standard Android menu button, an optical track button just below it and the back button below that. It’s the only Android device that comes immediately to mind without a dedicated search button. On the lower left you have a 3.5mm headset jack and volume rocker; across the way on the lower right there is the power/standby button. To the upper left there is a microUSB port that has a protective slot cover, and on the upper right above the menu key area there is a physical camera button.
On the back of the device, there isn’t a whole lot going on. You have the speaker, which is loud and crisp, and a 3MP camera without flash. On front, there is a front-facing camera for video calling and self-portraits, and some notification lights that tell you when you have messages and other actions to attend to.
The screen slides straight up to open. Some Sidekick users may lament the death of the swivel screen, as I do, but it seems that this slider screen is much better. There is no play at all when it’s fully closed or completely open; the screen jumps from open to closed and back with a satisfying click with nary a wobble in between. When it’s open and revealing its keyboard, the screen angles towards the user – you. That means it gives you a much nicer viewing angle when you have it in landscape mode, and it gets out of the way of the microUSB port if a cable is plugged into it.
One of the more salient points in owning a messaging phone these days is its keyboard. Over the last ten years, it seems like nearly every single manufacturer got it wrong. Most physical keyboards took some getting used to, and others seemed to mock the user – Go ahead, type out an e-mail on me if you can. The only two keyboards that have been extremely satisfying to use have been the ones on BlackBerry devices, and Sidekick handsets. The new Sidekick 4G doesn’t disappoint.
Like the Sidekick 2, it has individual keys that are nicely spaced and give great tactile feedback. It’s not like the Sidekick 2008 where you feel like the buttons are just raised off a mold – each one of these keys makes you glad the Sidekick is back.
While it’s great to have a dedicated number row, the placement of the “delete” and “enter” buttons took some getting used to. They’re shifted down one row than we’re accustomed to on other devices – even on computers – and so I’ve hit “delete” a number of times when I intended to press “enter.” It’s a minor annoyance, but I got over it quickly.
The T-Mobile Sidekick 4G runs Android 2.2 Froyo. Again, for purists, it seems a little off as every other Sidekick in the past used the Danger OS. However, it was recently announced that the old Sidekick services would be permanently shut down at the end of May. Gone are the days of Danger server outages and crashes that permanently lose user data, or temporarily renders phones as bricks. Android is really what saves the Sidekick line.
While the new device runs Android, it has a hip custom UI that is definitely aimed at the younger crowd. Across the seven home screens, the phone, apps and contacts buttons are a permanent fixture at the bottom, giving users ready and easy access to them most of the time. Like Samsung’s TouchWiz UI, the apps screen scrolls from left to right instead of up and down like most other Android handsets. From any one of the home screens, you can tap the indicator above to jump to another pane, or pinch the screen to bring the panes into view for switching.
The jump key, which made the Sidekick great for shortcuts, remains. You can customize them or add to the default actions. For example, pressing the jump key simultaneously and the letter “B” on the keyboard will take you to the browser. If you give the jump key one quick press, it opens up a list of all the recent apps you’ve opened and have running so you can get to them quickly. It replaces the long-press action for the home screen.
The home button serves two purposes: it takes you to the home screen whenever it’s pressed, and it brings down the notification pane with a long press. I don’t know why that’s necessary when a simple swipe of the screen will do, but maybe having the option is nice. The notification pane has something that most other Android handsets don’t, and that’s the ability to compose a message for Facebook, Twitter or MySpace (if any of you still use the latter service).
Web, Multimedia, Camera
The web browser is your standard Android browser, and it works pretty well but still has a few things that irk me as it does across all Android devices. Flash content, for example, will slow the thing to a crawl sometimes, or it can get pretty choppy and hitting the home button or back button will sometimes take a few seconds to register. Also, if a page takes longer than a few seconds to load, any gesture or scrolling will turn the display into the checkered screen until the entire page finishes loading. It’s very annoying.
Those few quips aside, the browser works just fine for everyday browsing. Over T-Mobile’s 4G network, web pages loaded up pretty quickly. The IntoMobile homepage, which can be a bit heavy for mobile browsers, took only 6 seconds to fully load over 4G. Not too shabby.
In terms of multimedia, Android still needs better music player options. When you fire up the apps menu, you won’t find a dedicated music player – instead, you’ll see Media Room, where you can find the music player, videos (which include T-Mobile TV, YouTube videos and user-uploaded content) and SlackerRadio. It might not be for everyone, but as a SlackerRadio user, I was pretty excited to see that it got its own dedicated tab in the Media Room application.
The Sidekick 4G’s camera isn’t going to help anyone win photography awards any time soon, but it’s admirable enough. Pictures turned out OK, though colors could have been a little more saturated, and it performed well in outdoor and indoor lighting conditions. The camera app itself is typical of what you’d find on most other Android devices, though this does support tap-to-focus, which is a nice feature to have. It does take a while and there is a bit of lag between the time you press the camera button and when it actually takes a photo, so that’s something to keep in mind when you want to capture a fleeting moment.
Call Quality, Battery Life, Coverage
The call quality on the Sidekick 4G isn’t bad. It’s not great, but I could hear my friends and family perfectly and they said I sounded just fine, too. I’d occasionally get a little bit of static and hiss, but not enough to make a conversation unpleasant or annoying. Calls over speakerphone sounded good, but a bit on the metallic side sometimes. Otherwise, it was loud and clear and never gave me any problems. Calls over the Wi-Fi calling were surprisingly clear, so it’s good to know you have that option in areas or buildings where cellular coverage may not be ideal.
I am impressed with this thing’s battery life. It has a 1,500 mAh battery, which is pretty standard on many Android devices these days, but this thing lasted an entire day with moderate to heavy use. With push e-mail turned on for two accounts, Twitter refreshes every 15 minutes, text messages and phone calls scattered throughout the day and some moderate web browsing, I was able to go from morning until night without having to plug it in.
T-Mobile says the Sidekick 4G’s battery life is rated for 6.5 hours of talk time and 19 days of standby time.
While this is the first Sidekick to feature 4G capabilities, it still suffers from T-Mobile’s fickle network issues. When it’s on, it is on. I regularly saw 6-7Mbps down with peaks of up to 10Mbps down, and 1.7-2Mbps up. However, like other T-Mobile 4G devices I’ve tested, it’s really hit or miss. In my apartment, for example, the phone can sit on my desk and hold a full 4G signal and drop to one bar of EDGE at any moment, then go back to two bars of 4G before falling back to EDGE. It’s not so much the phone’s fault as it is the network’s, but it’s definitely something to consider if it’s that important to you.
Verdict: The Sidekick is back and better than ever
Oh, but you might think it’d be blasphemous for me to say that the new Sidekick is much better than the old one. It’s made by Samsung and not Sharp! No problem, the hardware is just as solid as before. It’s running Android and not the Danger OS! That’s great news, it means we won’t have to deal with outages anymore and there are tons of free apps! Remember paying $1.99 for an alarm clock on the Sidekick LX? An alarm clock! It doesn’t switch between EDGE and GPRS! Wait, that’s a bad thing?
As an old Sidekick user, I can confidently say that this will definitely appeal to Sidekick users from days of yore, and it might even steal some of the kids who flocked over to BlackBerry when Sidekicks started slipping and taking a back seat to everything else. Even though it’s made by a new manufacturer with a new OS and more powerful guts, it’s unmistakably a Sidekick from a mile away.
It’s targeted for the younger generation, but even though I’m pushing 30, I had way too much fun with this device. I suspect you will, too.