Judging by T-Mobile’s videos on sidekick.com, you have to be young and wear clothes designed in the 1970s and sold by Old Navy in the twenty-first century to enjoy or appreciate the T-Mobile Sidekick iD. I was a kid when those clothes were designed, and texting was done on paper; but I can still appreciate the Sidekick iD.
Way back in 2003, I reviewed the monochrome HipTop from Danger, Inc., which T-Mobile had just picked up as the Sidekick. Although I was steeped in the Palm OS at that point, I had to admit that the Sidekick was the best fusion of phone, Internet, and email I’d seen, and I’d already seen a few attempts by that point. I was curious to see how far they’ve come in four years.
Of course, the Sidekick iD isn’t the device I need to see how far they’ve come. That would be the Sidekick 3, with Bluetooth, voice dialing, MP3 player, digital camera, and a memory card slot. Still, I admire a device that doesn’t try to be everything, so I was happy to give the Sidekick iD a try.
Design vs. Freud
Though stubbornly associated with the young, and more sadly with Paris Hilton (a cardboard example of the Freudian "id" personality), the Sidekick design has always struck me as more mature than many of its competitors. Other designs insisted on either square screens or portrait orientations, and when they finally assented to including keyboards, these other designers tried to squeeze them into this same long portrait format. The Sidekick recognizes that just about every successful screen design is horizontal. Computer monitors, televisions, and movie screens: all match the orientation of our eyes, while the orientation of the PDA has always pursued paper. But that’s a conversation for another time.
The Sidekick’s landscape orientation allows concealment of a wide thumb-pad. Its keypad is just right for my thumbs, not requiring too much reach. I recall that the original Sidekick’s overall width made typing a little more comfortable, at 4.5 inches from side-to-side, but the iD’s 5.1 inches don’t make it difficult. Although I won’t say it’s necessarily better than a Treo keyboard for its width, I’d be willing to bet it looks less intimidating to a novice.
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I was able to type comfortably with the Sidekick iD in a matter of minutes. I was somewhat slowed by having to invoke the alt key to access items like apostrophes and hyphens, but it was so much faster than trying to do the same with my bloody RAZR. I’ve seldom gone beyond five lines with that thing, but I managed many paragraphs before I knew it with the Sidekick iD.
The Sidekick’s interface has gained a few buttons, and has one too many navigator methods.
The main navigator, a track ball, is also found on the Sidekick 3. I haven’t used a track ball since 1995, on my old Compaq notebook. This trackball works great, though. Its slight texture improves traction. I’ve been surprised that skin oils haven’t made it difficult to use, or changed its color. It’s a white translucent plastic that allows it to glow and change color (slow flashing blue for standby, flashing purple for an incoming call, for example).
Rolling the ball around can navigate in menus and through emails, but mostly only works up and down. One exception is in pull down menus, where a second flyout menu is accessed with a roll to the right.
But that’s not the only way to do that trick. You can press down on the ball, or press right on the Speaker/D-pad. Yes, that’s the second navigation control. It’s nice, but which does what in each application is a constant game that the Sidekick plays with me.
If I press up or down on the D-pad in the email application, I move up and down one email. If I press left or right, I jump between mailboxes (like from the Inbox to Saved, Drafts, Sent). However, if I roll the ball up and down, I move individually or rapidly through the email items instead of one at a time. But if I roll it left and right, nothing happens. There’s more, but it’s sufficient to say that the two navigators can be very confusing. I’d have been happier with just the one.
In the upper left corner is the Menu button. Press it, and you get a pull down menu. It’s also used in combination with many other buttons, both on the keyboard and in the four corners. I won’t go into all the functions. Three that I use all the time are Menu+U, which fetches email. Menu+Back takes the Sidekick out of keyguard mode, and Menu+X deletes an email.
The Sidekick’s other buttons are more straightforward, which is good, as there are a lot of them. About nine in total.
In the lower left corner is the Jump button, which takes you back to the on-screen icon "ring."
Across the bottom of the unit are the volume control buttons, the power button, and the headset jack.
On top are the two gaming Left and Right Shoulder buttons. These also serve as Mute and Speakerphone buttons. I consider them too out-of-sight to be of any real use, but the Sidekick reminds you which button to press while you’re on a call to access either function. You just have to know the icon for those buttons. Honestly, I couldn’t get the Mute button to work, but the manual says it should.
The Best Part
Easily the most unique and fun part of the Sidekick is the swing-around screen. Press lightly on the upper right or lower left corners and the screen rises out of the keyboard trough, swings around, and snaps back down into the trough, resting at a slight angle toward the user. Just right.
It’s not so loud that you get dirty looks in public, but I do recommend keeping it under control when opening it in the nursery. While it seems odd, this method of opening a computing device becomes more natural, and is certainly quicker, than opening a clamshell.
What’s beautiful about this unusual device is that you don’t often need to open the screen. Scanning email and making calls to people in your address book can be done without the keyboard. As your Favorites fill up and your Address book starts to get a bit long (it can hold up to 2,000 contacts), you’ll want to use the keyboard to quickly find contacts; but most of us call the same people over and over.
The developers have made dialing with the Sidekick iD easier than the original Sidekick by including an embedded number pad in addition to the numbers across the top of the screen. When you first flip the screen open, regardless which application is highlighted, if you start to use the black keys, it assumes you want to dial by number. If your contact’s name starts with one of the white letters, it’ll start searching your address book for a matching letter. You can also select, "Dial with Letters" once you start your dial, and call numbers like 1-800-TMOBILE with a little greater speed than normal.
Now that you’ve made your selection, you can start your call by pressing the green handset button below the trackball, or just press the trackball itself. If you do the latter, you’ll have to answer the small dialog box that pops up with "Send Call" option. Want to cancel? Heh. Sidekick game time. Press the Red handset button and nothing happens. Press the Back button and you go back to the last menu, but the call’s still going through. Press the trackball. Nope. Try the big X button above. Naah. Press and hold the red handset button for a second or two. Sigh. That’s it. Nothing happened the first time because you didn’t press it long enough. That instruction is on the screen if you’re still in Phone mode, but if you’ve pressed any of the other buttons, you’ll never see it.
Assuming you’re okay proceeding with the call, it’s time to switch paradigms. It’s not hard, but to avoid looking silly, swing the screen shut quickly and grab the Sidekick in your dominant hand with what was the left side pressed against your ear. Left is up, right is down. Your ear is on the D-pad and your mouth near the trackball. Speak normally.
Though I’ve had a great time calling people with the Sidekick, hearing them just fine, their experience wasn’t always so great. I live in the country, just outside of the suburbs, so that could be part of the problem. People heard me a lot better with the included headset, so if you like those, you’ll do fine with the Sidekick iD; but I’d forget that more often than not.
For me, the key function of the Sidekick would be email, then texting, then telephony, and finally Web browsing. I never have time for games. It’s sad, but true. I’m usually happier emailing or texting people than I am talking on the phone, with only a few exceptions, so I’d probably gladly suffer my friends dealing with the static for a good data experience (some friend I am). I got better reviews using the included earbud, by the way.
Email is pretty good on the Sidekick iD. If you use the included email account, it’s almost instantaneous. Back when I tested the original Sidekick, I was blown away by the speed that photos arrived the device. That hasn’t changed, I’m happy to say. Any photo I send to the phone arrives just seconds after I send it. Crazy. I don’t think I get the entire thing, though. The full-size version remains on the T-Mobile or Danger server, and is accessed should I decide to save it to my phone’s Photo Album or email it to someone else.
I recently reset the device, but for three weeks, I also used it to retrieve my personal email. This was a little different from the included email’s behavior, only downloading at set intervals. You can set it to retrieve up to three email accounts, which would be plenty for me.
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The real beauty of the T-Mobile Sidekick is the Web side of the equation. You can access what’s on your phone via any Web browser by logging into T-Mobile’s web site.
You can see all your email, all your to-do’s, appointments, photos, notes, and even calls. You can send email from there as well, if you need to compose a longer email than your thumbs can handle. (See image at right.)
And if something happens to your Sidekick — say it resets or the battery dies — all this data will automatically re-download to your phone when you get it up and running again. Much like an online SIM card, only with greater capacity.
Much like gaming, I don’t have time for instant messaging. It’s convenient on a rare occasion, but can become a time sink if I’m not careful. But it’s there on the Sidekick iD, linking to AOL, Yahoo, and Windows Messenger, and can be left on at all times if you like, so that any nattering nabob can make your phone chime and trackball glow if you really like that kind of availability.
It’s great for bugging PR people when you’re working on a review, though; and then you turn it back off when you’re done.
The Sidekick iD has a seriously large battery, the biggest I’ve seen in a cell phone since the early 1990s. It’s a 3.7 volt, 1500 mAh lithium-ion cell that accounts for a good deal of the Sidekick iD’s 0.86-inch thickness.
I’ve gone three days on standby while receiving email all day and making two 10-minute calls a day before I couldn’t stand it and had to plug it in. It was down to two bars out of five. Not bad.
I had been prepared to say that my experience with the Sidekick iD has been flawless, without a single crash. But tonight I did have to turn it off and back on again to make the icon ring behave again. In its defense, I was also emailing myself a bunch of photos and seeing how quickly they’d arrive on the Sidekick iD while simultaneously refreshing the web site data via my computer’s browser. Perhaps I was asking a little much.
It was the first time in three weeks that any reset was required.
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I could ramble on, but Ed would kill me. So I’ll wrap up without hitting every little detail. As much as I’ve enjoyed the Sidekick iD, it’s missing a few small items. When I travel, I use my Motorola RAZR via Bluetooth as my PowerBook’s mobile Internet access point, so Bluetooth with a modem function would be nice on the Sidekick.
A faster EDGE connection would also be good, because many sites do load slowly.
A memory card slot would be good, but I’m pretty happy using email and the Web interface for most data input; so I also don’t need a USB connection to my computer. When browsing, the text is small, so I could also do with a larger screen than its 2.3 inch, 240-by-160-pixel color LCD.
I could do without all of those items if the Sidekick iD had one thing: a camera. Sounds silly, but my spirits are often lifted when my wife sends a simple snapshot of the kids at play. It’s a great way to connect that I don’t want to give up. She and I both need a faster way to text, and the Sidekick iD is it; but without a camera it lacks color, even with its changeable external skins.
Though I’m sure you’ve heard that the Sidekick ID is $99, that’s only if you are a new subscriber to T-Mobile (which means you’re either young, or paying too much to break your contract with some other carrier).
I’m already a happy T-Mobile subscriber, so $99 is out. If I re-up for two years, I can have the Sidekick iD for $168; with no extension, it’s $300.
The Sidekick 3 is $320 with the 2-year, or $400 with no extension; though you’ll also be told it’s $199.
Sorry, I know that was kind of a rant. Widely advertising prices you can only get by being a new customer signing a long-term contract is something every carrier does, but it still bugs me.
The T-Mobile Sidekick iD really was conceived as a simple device for the young. But even for them it’s missing the crucial camera that would help it compete with just about every other free phone on the market. Leave out the MP3 player, data port, and card slot, but not the basic camera.
But if that means nothing to you, and text is king in your world, the Sidekick iD is a great way to type like a crazy person, and in more ways than one (IM, email, and text).
I’m still thinking about giving the Sidekick iD a place in my pocket, but I may have to check out the Sidekick 3 first. I really thought I’d never settle for less than a Treo, but I have to admit that Danger’s simpler, wireless sync approach is compelling.
- Landscape-oriented screen and keyboard
- Outstanding battery life
- Missing a camera