Saturday, April 16, 2011

C-Net Reviews: T-Mobile Sidekick 4G

The good: The T-Mobile Sidekick 4G impresses with the addition of a touch screen and the Android operating system. The handheld also offers enhanced messaging features, great call quality, and a good camera.

The bad: The user interface won't appeal to everyone. The smartphone can occasionally be sluggish.

The bottom line: The T-Mobile Sidekick 4G continues the Sidekick's legacy as an excellent messaging device and also serves as a great entry-level smartphone.

Review:


T-Mobile Sidekick users were probably a bit stunned when it was announced that data service for the popular messaging handheld would cease on May 31. Though the interruption of service is certainly inconvenient, it doesn't mean the end of the Sidekick--quite the opposite, actually. The T-Mobile Sidekick 4G, which will be available April 20 for $99 with a two-year contract and after a $50 mail-in rebate, pumps new life into the Sidekick line with the addition of the Android operating system, a touch screen, and enhanced messaging features, among other things. As with the ... Expand full review

T-Mobile Sidekick users were probably a bit stunned when it was announced that data service for the popular messaging handheld would cease on May 31. Though the interruption of service is certainly inconvenient, it doesn't mean the end of the Sidekick--quite the opposite, actually. The T-Mobile Sidekick 4G, which will be available April 20 for $99 with a two-year contract and after a $50 mail-in rebate, pumps new life into the Sidekick line with the addition of the Android operating system, a touch screen, and enhanced messaging features, among other things. As with the previous models, the Sidekick 4G won't be for everyone, but we found a lot to like about it. Read on to find out if it's right for you.

Design

Though Samsung has taken the reins from Sharp, the company wisely kept a lot of the design elements that made the Sidekick a Sidekick. The T-Mobile Sidekick 4G still has the landscape-oriented slab form factor and it's about the same size (2.4 inches wide by 5 inches long by 0.6 inch thick) as the Sidekick LX 2009, but it's a bit more streamlined since there aren't as many gaps or protruding buttons. As a result, the phone feels smoother and slips into a pants pocket more easily.


Though no longer made by Sharp, the T-Mobile Sidekick 4G looks and feels similar to the older models.

The Sidekick 4G has a plastic construction and feels relatively lightweight but solid. We miss the soft-touch finish found on the previous Sidekick, but you do get a textured surface on back along the left and right side, making it easier to grip the device when you're using the keyboard.

Another aspect taken from the old Sidekicks are the four navigation controls that occupy each corner of the handset. Gone are the dedicated Talk and End buttons, but you still get the home, menu, back, and jump keys. The jump key will bring up a view of your most recently used applications. There's also an optical joystick that doubles as an OK button as well. However, it's rather small, so we found it difficult to use for scrolling through lists.

Fortunately, you don't have to rely on the joystick for all your navigating needs because the Sidekick 4G has a 3.5-inch touch screen--a first for a Sidekick. The addition of the touch screen makes it easy to launch apps and scroll through the various home screens and menus. You can also quickly zoom in on Web pages and pictures, thanks to the pinch-to-zoom support. In general, images and text looked sharp on the 480x800-pixel display. That said, videos looked a bit murkier compared with some of today's higher-resolution screens.

Of course, two hallmark features of all the Sidekick models were the moving screen and the keyboard. The Sidekick 4G has both, but with regard to the former, the smartphone goes more the way of the Sidekick Slide with a slider design. It's a bit different in that you don't need to slide the screen all the way up. Instead, with one good push, the screen pops up and sits at a slight angle. It's a pretty smooth action, and the "pop-tilt" hinge feels quite sturdy, so we don't have any major concerns about long-term durability.


The Sidekick 4G's QWERTY keyboard is outstanding and very easy to use.

Once open, you have access to the five-row QWERTY keyboard, and as we've come to expect from Sidekicks, the keyboard is excellent. There's ample spacing between the bulbous buttons and they provide a nice tactile feedback, so we were able to type quickly and with very few mistakes. We also appreciate the presence of the number row and dedicated keys for emoticons, the @ symbol, and voice commands. You can also create shortcuts using the combination of the jump key and a letter. Some are already preset--for example, pressing the jump key and the M key will launch the music player--but you're free to create more. If you don't need to write a long message, the Sidekick 4G also offers the Swype virtual keyboard.

Rounding out the device are a 3.5mm headphone jack, a volume rocker, and a power button on the left side (when held in portrait mode) and a Micro-USB port and camera button on the right. We found the placement of some of these buttons to be troublesome. Most notably, when trying to capture an image using the camera button, our palm would often hit the power button and thus lock the phone before we could snap the picture, which got to be quite annoying. The 5-megapixel camera lens is located on back sans flash, and you'll find the microSD expansion slot behind the battery door.


The Sidekick 4G has a 'pop-tilt' hinge and comes in either matte black or pearl magenta.

The T-Mobile Sidekick 4G comes packaged with an AC adapter, a USB cable, a preinstalled 2GB microSD card, and reference material, and you can purchase the smartphone in either matte black or pearl magenta.




User interface and software
Recognizing the need to replace the older devices and come up with something that fits into today's market, Microsoft and Danger made a joint decision to shut down the Danger service and transition to a new mobile platform. As a result, the T-Mobile Sidekick 4G now runs on the Android operating system, more specifically Android 2.2.1.

Sitting on top of Froyo is Samsung and T-Mobile's custom Kick UX interface. It's different from anything on other Android phones and caters more to the Sidekick's younger target audience. You can customize the seven homescreen panels with various themes and wallpaper that are slightly flashier than most.

The Kick UX also offers a multifunctional lock screen. You can customize it so that swiping upward will open a user-defined app, while swiping downward will take you to the last app or screen you were on. Meanwhile, the main menu of apps is laid out in a grid format and spread across multiple pages instead of one long scrollable list.

The user interface certainly won't appeal to everyone, but again, it feels appropriately geared for the Sidekick audience. More importantly, it's functional and offers various ways to multitask on the Sidekick, which is great since the addition of Android expands the capabilities of the handheld. This includes access to more than 150,000 apps via the Android Market and support for such Google services as Google Maps Navigation, Gmail, and YouTube. The OS also brings richer integration of e-mail, contacts, calendar, and social networking sites. For more on Android 2.2, check out our article on Froyo here.

Features
The T-Mobile Sidekick 4G is a quad-band world phone with a speakerphone, conference calling, voice dialing, video calling via the front-facing camera and Qik, and text and multimedia messaging. The phone's messaging capabilities are enhanced by the new Group Text and Cloud Text features. Group Text lets you create and manage a group of contacts to whom you can send a mass text as well as reply all. You can also share your location and images with the group, and, don't worry, your recipients don't need to have a Sidekick in order to receive messages or reply to the group. Cloud Text is a Web app that enables you to send and receive text messages from the comfort of your computer, so you don't always have to be tied to your phone.

We tried out the group texting feature and it worked great. Creating a group is a piece of cake, as you simply enter the name of your contact and press enter or tap the contact's name. We found it particularly useful when trying to organize plans for an outing, as we could simply attach a map with our coordinates to the text. Unfortunately, we weren't able to try out Cloud Text since the service isn't live yet, but T-Mobile says it should be ready to go by the time the Sidekick 4G hits stores on April 20.

Connecting won't be a problem otherwise, as the phone is equipped with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS. In addition to cellular calls, you can make calls over a Wi-Fi network. There is no additional charge for this feature, but be aware that the minutes are deducted from your regular voice plan.

The smartphone also works on T-Mobile's HSPA+ 4G network and is said to be capable of hitting download speeds of up to 21Mbps. We didn't get anywhere near that mark but were still pleased with the data speeds. Using Ookla's Speedtest.net app to record download and upload speeds, we averaged 4.50Mbps down and 1.69Mbps up. Translated to real-world usage, the phone was able to load CNET's full site in 15 seconds, while the mobile sites for CNN and ESPN came up in 4 seconds and 13 seconds, respectively. YouTube clips loaded in seconds--even HQ videos--and played back without interruption.

The Sidekick 4G also comes with a trial offer of the T-Mobile TV service, which gives you access to live and on-demand TV. There are several other avenues of getting media on your device, including Samsung's Media Hub video store and Slacker Radio, both of which are preloaded on the smartphone. If you want to transfer your personal library of tunes and videos to the phone, you can treat the Sidekick 4G as a mass storage device and use the drag-and-drop method, or an easier route would be to use the DoubleTwist software to sync your content. Once on the phone, you can access all your multimedia in the Media Room app.


We were pleasantly surprised by the picture quality of the Sidekick 4G's 3-megapixel camera.

Last by certainly not least, the Sidekick 4G comes with a 3-megapixel camera. It doesn't have a flash but offers a number of editing tools, including white-balance controls, exposure settings, metering, and effects. Frankly, we weren't expecting much, but picture quality was surprisingly good. Colors could have been slightly brighter in indoor shots, but the images were nice and sharp, and the end result was actually better than a number of other smartphones with higher-pixel cameras. The camera can also record 720p HD video, and again the quality was impressive. The Sidekick 4G offers around 350MB of internal storage, which isn't much, but it ships with a 2GB microSD card and can accept up to 32GB cards.

Performance
We tested the quad-band T-Mobile Sidekick 4G in New York and call quality was excellent. We enjoyed clear audio with very little to no background noise. Voices also sounded natural without any type of distortion, and we didn't experience any dropped calls during our review period. Friends also reported good results. There were a couple of minor complaints about some slight echoing, but in general, our callers were happy with what they heard on their end.

T-Mobile Sidekick 4G call quality sample Listen now:

Speakerphone quality was also quite good. Though calls sounded slightly tinny, there wasn't any disruptive noise to interrupt the flow of conversation, and there was enough volume to continue the call even in louder environments. We paired the smartphone with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset and the Motorola S9 Bluetooth Active Headphones and were able to make calls and listen to music with no problem.
Powered by a 1GHz Hummingbird processor--much like the first generation of Samsung Galaxy S series devices--and 512MB RAM, the Sidekick 4G was generally a responsive device. Most apps launched as soon as we tapped them, but there were occasions where there was some lag. This happened most often when trying to activate the camera, and we also found some slight sluggishness when launching menus. That said, none of the delays were crippling and we didn't experience any system crashes during our testing period.
The T-Mobile Sidekick 4G ships with a 1,500mAh lithium ion battery that has a rated talk time of 6.5 hours and up to 18 days of standby time. We are still conducting our battery drain tests but will update this section as soon as we have final results. According to FCC radiation tests, the Sidekick 4G has a digital SAR rating of 0.34W/kg and a Hearing Aid Compatibility Rating of M3/T3.

Conclusion
Current Sidekick owners should rest easy knowing that the T-Mobile Sidekick 4G will be a good replacement when it comes time to part ways with their beloved device. Even if you're not a Sidekick user, the handheld is a great entry into the world of smartphones and provides great messaging capabilities with an excellent keyboard. It has great call quality and a good camera to boot. That said, the Sidekick 4G's stylings won't appeal to everyone, so if you prefer something a little higher-end and crave a pure Android experience, we suggest going with the T-Mobile G2.

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