On the surface, the T-Mobile Sidekick 4G looks a lot like the older Sidekick models that T-Mobile used to sell. It has the same basic design -- a large, slide-up screen as the centerpiece to a symmetrical layout intended primarily for messaging, but looks can be deceiving. Danger, the company which made the original Sidekick line was bought out by Microsoft several years ago, leading to the end of the "old" devices and a long hiatus in new releases. T-Mobile still owns the Sidekick brand, which it's now attempting to relaunch starting with a device manufacture by their partner company Samsung.
Even more importantly, the old proprietary "Danger OS" is now gone, replaced by an open and fully-functional smartphone platform, in the personage of Google's Android OS. With a suggested retail price of $100 with new service, and after a $50 rebate, T-Mobile is targeting the new and improved Sidekick at much the same market as the old device served, namely the entry-level messaging crowd. But with respectable hardware behind it, and a full smartphone platform, the Sidekick has the potential to appeal to more than just texting teenagers.
BUILD & DESIGN
The Sidekick 4G's ergonomics make it clear that this device is mostly intended to be used in it's "keyboard open" mode as a messaging phone. Whereas most side-sliding devices are designed so that the navigation buttons are all at the "bottom" of the screen while the keyboard is closed, on the Sidekick buttons are placed on either side of the screen to make them convenient for thumbs. This is a trade-off -- it makes them a little easier to get at while typing, at the expense of making them less convenient when using it in a traditional one-handed grip.
This device has a fairly long design, longer even than the Motorola Droid Pro, which features a keyboard fixed below its screen. It achieves good balance though, making sure that it doesn't feel awkward in the hand no matter which way you have it oriented. I also have to give Samsung its due for putting the Micro-USB port in exactly the right place that even when plugged in, it doesn't get in the way in either portrait or landscape modes.
The Sidekick 4G's slide mechanism is different than most. Instead of the screen just freely sliding up to reveal the keyboard, it requires that you press on a particular section of the screen's edge, which in turn causes the whole thing to pop open. This took me a few minutes to get accustomed to, but after that, it becomes second nature. The way it locks allows the screen to be spring-loaded, while still guaranteeing that the device won't pop open in your pocket by accident.
While it could have gotten away with having the minimum required screen for Android, Samsung ponied up and provided a lovely 800 x 480 WVGA display. At 3.5 inches, it's smaller than the "high end" Android models sporting 4-inch displays. That half inch may not sound like much, of course, but when you're talking about diagonal screen size, going from 3.5- to 4-inches means 30% more raw screen space. Even so, the Sidekick still provides ample room for most web browsing while displaying the same resolution -- meaning that as long as you have good eyes, you're not losing any detail compared to a larger screen.
At first glance, the Sidekick 4G's keyboard looks rather flat and potentially uncomfortable. Again, looks can be deceiving. In actual use, not only are the keys usable, they're extremely comfortable. Each key is easy to find, and has a great tactile response. I experienced a shorter adaptation period moving to the Sidekick 4G's keyboard than I have to almost any other thumb keyboard I've worked with; within the day, I was happily typing and texting like I'd never needed anything else. In fact, it's one of the most comfortable thumb keyboards I've used, with little to no need for adjustment. The buttons are spaced well enough that they're easy to find and press, and they have a very satisfying key travel and feedback. The keys are nicely backlit for in the dark. It's the sort of keyboard which is perfectly suited to its role as a texter's best friend.
Interestingly though, this device's keyboard isn't completely conventional. Of course, it has a fifth row at the top for the number keys, which is both nice and handy, but it also features a few shortcuts which are rarely seen, but make sense for a messaging phone. Such as shortcut keys for common emoticons, including smiles, hearts, and one button that's devoted entirely to the "@" symbol. All the punctuation is easily available, and the only thing you might have to glance around for would probably be the exclamation point, which is the alternative character for the "1" key.
For reasons beyond my understanding, the left shift key on the keyboard remains that hot pink color even on the all black model of the Sidekick 4G. As that's T-Mobile's signature color, I guess the company just couldn't resist shoving it in our faces.
Other Buttons & Controls
Although the keyboard itself is nicely backlit, the four navigation buttons aren't, leaving you to sometimes fumble in the dark to find them. While it's not strictly necessary, it would be beneficial to have these illuminated too.
On one end of the device, the right side when slid open, the Sidekick features a small optical trackpad which serves as a directional control. In the past, I've had distinctly less than thrilled experiences with these sorts of sensors. In my experience, they tended to be less accurate than I'd like, often moving several notches at once, making it hard to use them for the kind of precision navigation that they were theoretically for. So it was to my pleasant surprise that this one seems to have ironed the kinks out of the idea. Unlike its predecessors, it's quite precise, and doesn't go off wildly scrolling at the slightest touch.
This isn't to say that I necessarily like it more than a "conventional" directional pad. There's still the fact that you need to continually keep sliding your finger to use it, which isn't ergonomically sound. But it is strikingly compact, and offers an independent directional control in a small amount of space that would never fit a D-pad. Given the choice between no controls and an optical pad, the optical pad is an appreciated convenience sometimes.
Like many newer devices, the Sidekick hides its microSD/SDHC slot under the battery cover, but thankfully you don't have to actually remove the battery to get at the card. All the other ports and buttons of interest are right out in the open, and relatively self explanatory, from the Micro-USB jack to the 3.5mm headphone port.
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