Noah's Sharp Sidekick 3 review
You've seen it on TV and in the movies, and you've seen it in the hands of celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton. T-Mobile's Sidekick 3 is the favorite gadget of many on-the-go hipster, and with good reason. Built for E-Mail and instant messaging as much as for phone calls, the SK3 is a 21st Century communicator with fun design touches meant to appeal to the young - or young at heart - user. Is the Sidekick 3 a worthy upgrade to the SK II? Yes. Is it the perfect blend of cell phone, mobile Internet client, and multimedia PDA? Almost.
The Sidekick 3 takes up where the SK II left off, adding features while trimming the overall size somewhat. Originally conceived and designed by Danger - a company that Apple Co-Founder Steve Wozniak helped to get off the ground - and now manufactured by Sharp, the SK 3 is a "hiptop" communicator that's smaller than a laptop but larger than your average cell phone. Indeed, at 5.1 x 2.3 x 0.9 inches in size and weighing close to seven ounces, the SK 3 is no lightweight. But the device's design, featuring perhaps the best QWERTY thumbboard on the market today, has already made it a hit for T-Mobile.
A 2.75" color screen dominates the front of the device. The Sidekick is meant to be held horizontally e(xcept when holding it up to one's ear during a call), and the screen displays in a landscape orientation. Flanking the screen on the left are the Menu and Jump buttons along with a directional pad. On the right of the screen you'll find the Ok and Cancel buttons, smaller buttons for Call and Hangup, and the trackball, which is new to this third version of the device. More on the trackball later, but suffice it to say it's one of the design highlights of the SK 3.
The signature feature of the Sidekick line has always been its swiveling screen. On the SK 3, pushing up on the bottom left corner of the screen flips the screen up and around 180 degrees to reveal the QWERTY board underneath. This leaves the device in a perfect position for thumb-typing, held on the sides by both hands with thumbs free to man the trackball, jump buttons, and keyboard. While owners of the Sidekick II suffered through many a cracked screen and broken swivel mechanism, design and construction improvements seem to have given rendered the SK 3 a bit sturdier. Also, the screen is now backed by a spring hinge designed to deflect some of the impact of direct hits to the display's back when it's swiveled "open" during use.
Heavy text and instant message users have always been the Sidekick's primary demographic, and they'll be happy to know that the already comfy QWERTY board has been improved since the SK 2. The keys are now constructed from hard plastic with a glossy finish, and between their domed "slanted lemon" shape and spacious layout, they form one of the best keyboards currently available on a handheld device. Typing emails, IMs, notes, and almost anything else is about as easy on the SK 3 as doing so could possibly be with two thumbs. My one complaint about the keyboard is that the delete key is a little hard to get to in its spot all the way over on the right edge of the board. Then again I do have rather large thumbs.
One big complaint about using the Sidekick 3: When calling a number not already in your Contacts list, you must swivel the display open to dial from the keyboard underneath. Once the call is being connected the display can be closed without disconnecting, and a trackball-accessible virtual keypad is displayed for navigating menus during a call (think voicemail, telephone banking, and so on). This made me wonder why Danger and T-Mobile didn't just build a "trackball dialing" option into the Phone software? Swiveling the screen open to dial and closing it back up before placing the phone to my ear quickly grew to be a pain.
The front of the Sidekick 3 is finished in silver and black glossy plastic with a single T-Mobile logo and two Sidekick logos printed so that one is always right-side up and the other upside-down no matter which way the screen is swivelled. The back panel is done up in a hard grey plastic with ridges that stop the device from accidentally spinning when placed on a flat surface. Also on the back, a silver plastic circle frames the sensor for the 1.3 Megapixel camera and accompanying light, and a sole grey button releases the cover for access to the battery, SIM, and MiniSD card slots underneath.
Along the top edge of the device are two soft keys used for various functions including shutter release on the camera. The bottom edge features a +/- rocker switch for volume control, power on/off key, and a 2.5 mm headphone jack. While the left (D-Pad) edge is button free, the right edge houses the USB port, AC adapter jack, and a connector for the included nylon tether.
When held "the long way," the device resembles an overly large candybar style phone with an earpiece built into the top of the front panel (near the D-Pad) and a microphone on the bottom (below the trackball). The SK 3 can be used in this manner for voice calls, though using either the included wired headset or a wireless Bluetooth earpiece is more comfortable for lengthy conversations.
The Sidekick 3 was definitely designed to be fun, and the overall design reflects that spirit. Despite its size, the phone is hip and flashy looking. The flashiness is highlighted by the trackball, which lights up in 10 different colors and is user-programmable to work as an alert signal for incoming calls, voicemails, emails, and so on. Additionally, the other front-panel buttons are backlight, with the Call/Hangup keys being green and red, respectively. An ambient light sensor turns backlighting on and off as needed. The QWERTY keys are not backlit.
If you're in the market for a Sidekick, then you're either looking for an all-in-one Phone/Email/IM/Web Browsing device or you've just heard it's the latest thing all the kids are talking about. People checking out the SK 3 for the latter reason may be disappointed by how large and heavy it is; this certainly isn't a phone most people are going to want to keep in their jeans pocket on a daily basis. But if you know what you're getting - let alone if you're considering upgrading from a SK 2 - you may be pleasantly surprised. This third iteration of the Sidekick is 20 percent smaller (though a tad heavier) than its predecessor, the thumbboard is better, and the trackball is an undeniable gem both for its function (it makes navigation a breeze) and form (it lights up- in colors!).
All of the Sidekick 3's features are accessed from a central "Jump Menu" which features colorful Application icons and graphics arranged in an arc that you scroll through with the trackball or D-Pad. Applications include Download Catalog (access to ringtones, games, and other applications that can be purchased from the device), Instant Messaging, Email, Phone, Text Messages, Address Book, Web Browser, Organizer, Camera, Music Player, and Games. Instant Messaging and Organizer are actually collections with three applications each: AIM, MSN, and Yahoo IM clients, and; Calendar, Notes, and To Do list. The navigation system is logical, intuitive, and either "fun" or "juvenile" depending on your point of view.
Messaging, Email, and Web Browsing applications - described in more detail later in this review - are on the whole excellent. Organizer and Address Book features are also very good, and take full advantage of the trackball and QWERTY thumbboard. The Calendar, in particular, is such a pleasure to scroll through using the trackball I wonder why other mobile phone makers haven't started building their handsets with balls instead of joysticks. In almost all cases, key application functionality can be found by pressing the Menu key from within a given application. For instance, the Address Book defaults to displaying contacts last name first, which I wasn't used to. A press of the Menu button revealed multiple sorting options including First name first, and a choice of A-to-Z or Z-to-A.
This third version of the Sidekick features removable memory in the form of a miniSD card, and a Music Player application is also built into the phone to extend the functionality of this extra memory. I was somewhat disappointed to discover that the Music Player only supports mp3 and WAV files, since much of my music collection is in the iPod-optimized AAC format. However, mp3 is still the industry standard for compressed digital music, and the SK 3's player handles these files with ease. The trackball and QWERTY board make playlist creation a hair easier than on most mobiles; while this alone certainly isn't a reason to buy a QWERTY device, it is nice to see that the Sidekick 3 software designers thought to get the most out of the device's hardware across all applications.
Another disappointment about music on the Sidekick 3: user-installed mp3/WAV files cannot be used as ringtones. Custom ringtones - including snippets from popular songs - are available for purchase and download through the device's "Download Catalog" application, but pay-for-play is your only option. This makes sense from the standpoint of T-Mobile wanting to create additional revenue through a device so clearly marketed towards the "young, fun" crowd most likely to want custom ringtones. But it's also quite frustrating considering that most other mid- to high-end phones currently on the market support user-installable ringtones. In fact, I'd say that the overall lack of customization options ranks amongst my biggest complaints with the SK 3.
A single game - "Rock & Rocket," an Asteroids clone - came preinstalled on my Sidekick 3. Additional games are available for purchase from the Download Catalog, as are the aforementioned custom ringtones and additional entertainment and productivity software. Ringtones start at $1.69 each while applications range from a few freebies to $9.99, with most games and programs in the $3-6 range.
Again, the overall look of applications is a sort of "grown-up cartoon" style that's a little more hip and fun than your standard Windows Mobile smartphone OS. Speaking of smartphones, the SK 3 can view Word documents ,PDFs, and JPEGs, though it can't edit them. Where the low-res display is detrimental to viewing photographs, it works fairly well with the icons and graphics programmed into the OS and applications.
Display & Audio
The screen on the Sidekick 3 is a mixed bag. While the 2.75" TFT screen offers plenty of real estate, decent brightness, and 65,000 colors, it's rather low-res at a resolution of 240 x 160 pixels. As such, text and menus lack crispness, colors don't "pop," and many images look somewhere between lackluster and horrible.
Menus and other interface elements were designed with the limitations of the screen in mind, so after awhile I forgot about the resolution and got lost in my Instant Messaging and Emailing instead. But holding the SK 3 side-by-side with most any other current phone with a quality display really makes the Sidekick look like yesterday's news. Put the Sidekick next to a phone like the Samsung T809 with its gem of a screen and you'll think there's literally something wrong with the SK 3.
That being said, the Sidekick 3 is primarily a Messaging and Email device, and when used as such the display is more than passable. Those relatively few pixels render nice and big across almost three inches of display, making text easy to read. Then again, imagine how great a screen of the same size with a QVGA resolution at 16 million colors might look...
Call quality on the Sidekick 3 was excellent. If this is your primary mobile handset, you'll likely wind up using a headset (the included wired one or a wireless Bluetooth add-on) since the device is somewhat awkward to hold up to one's ear. But it does sound good.
The tri-band 900/1800/1900 MHz GSM radio performed well on T-Mobile's network, pulling in reception on par with other tri- and quad-band phones I've tried on the same network here in the San Francisco bay area. Voices were generally clear and callers reported no trouble hearing me on the other end.
Audio quality was also pretty good using both the included stereo handsfree headset and a Bluetooth headset. The stereo headset also works pretty well for use with the audio player. A third-party adapter is available to transform the SK 3's 2.5mm headphone jack into a 3.5mm port compatible with standard stereo earphones. The built-in speaker phone generally worked well, though I did get a few complaints about my sounding "far away" or muddy when on speaker.
One of the big complaints heard from Sidekick II owners was that it had a lousy camera. The Sidekick 3 packs an improved 1.3 Megapixel camera with a flash light. The camera is a step up from the SK II's VGA camera, but it's still not all that impressive.
The camera can capture still photos at three resolutions up to 1280 x 1024 (1.3 MP). Video capture is not supported. Camera settings are minimal, with adjustments available for flash on/off/auto, Normal or Night (low light) exposure, and Sharpness On/Off. Additional settings for JPEG quality and American vs European fluorescent light interference are somewhat hidden away in a separate menu.
Photos taken with the Sidekick 3 look okay on a computer screen and pretty lousy on the SK 3's screen. The former is because the camera just isn't that great. As with most cell phone cameras, photos taken in bright, naturally lit settings look pretty good but anything taken in less than ideal light comes out grainy and dim. The latter problem also has to do with the Sidekick 3's screen, which is 2.6" in size but relatively low -resolution at 240 x 160 pixels supporting 65,00 colors. The result is an unnatural, washed-out look when viewing photos. That's too bad, because the integrated photo viewer and slideshow functionality is rather nice to use.
The "flash" on the SK 3 is really an LED light that can be turned on manually or automatically just before a photo is taken. This system is common on today's cameraphones but really doesn't help very much in low-light settings. Photos taken with the flash on tend to have a grainy or otherwise unnatural look to them that's different but not much more accurate than those taken with the flash off. Photos can be easily attached to emails or transferred to a computer via Bluetooth or on a MiniSD memory card.
Messaging, Internet & Connectivity
This device is all about messaging, and messaging is where it shines. Between the QWERTY board, the trackball, and the Danger OS, IMing and Text Messaging is easy - if not downright addicting - on the Sidekick 3. The integrated IM program features three separate clients for AIM, MSN, and Yahoo! Messenger, and keeping tabs on multiple conversations is easy with the trackball and menu shortcuts.
As mentioned before, the thumbboard is exceptionally nice to type on, and the SK 3 can be set to alert you to new messages with a combination of sounds and/or visual alerts. Text messaging is similarly easy, and photo messaging is supported as well. Heavy messaging users will appreciate the subtly different icons altering them to new IM, SMS, and Email messages - the SK 3 makes it easy to keep tabs on all forms of modern communication.
The Sidekick 3's calling card is its Internet functionality, which requires T-Mobile's special Sidekick Data Plan. Currently $20/month, the plan gives you unlimited Web and email access and unlimited text messaging. Note that this plan is charged on top of whatever voice rate plan you may also have. The data plan takes advantage of T-Mobile's EDGE network, and the SK 3 is noticeably faster in browsing Web pages and sending/retrieving email than early versions.
Set-up of the device includes one T-Mobile email address, and the Email program supports up to three additional POP3 and/or IMAP addresses. "Always-on" push Email is standard, so as long as your within range of the data network your Email accounts will automatically be updated periodically. Manual "force-fetching" of Email is also available.
The built-in Web Browser takes advantage of T-Mobile's Sidekick servers, which parse and reformat Web pages specifically for the device before sending them along to the user. Generally this results in pages being squashed into one-column view. Most websites render pretty well this way, but a lot of scrolling is sometimes required to read a page. Danger would have done well to build PC-style "Page Up" and "Page Down" commands into the Web Browser.
Overall Internet performance was quite good thanks to T-Mobile's ever-improving EDGE data speeds. While EDGE isn't quite 3G and therefore not as zippy as Verizon's EV-DO cellular Internet, bang-for-the-buck wise it's hard to beat. Remember, $20/month gets the Sidekick Data Plan with unlimited Web, Email, and Text Messaging. While I did encounter a few spots in my local travels in which I had voice but not data service, in general anywhere I took the Sidekick, Internet access followed. And for a lot less than my monthly Cable Internet bill.
The tri-band GSM radio is locked to T-Mobile, and use of any data services on the SK 3 requires an active Sidekick Data Plan registration with the carrier. A standard mini-USB port allows for connectivity a personal computer, and the Sidekick 3 also supports Bluetooth 1.2 for voice only.
The phone also features a miniSD card slot that supports cards up to 2GB in size. When connected to a computer, the card shows up as a removable mass storage device, which makes for easy dragging and dropping of music and photo files.
The Sidekick hiptop communicator has always been a unique device that's more than a cell phone, less than a laptop, and designed and marketed for IM-obsessed youth. In its third iteration, the Sidekick has grown up some with a refined QWERTY keyboard and trackball that make navigating its user interface and multiple communications options a breeze. Though the SK 3 falters some when it comes to it's low-resolution screen and lack of user customizability, there's no denying that it's the most comfortable way to stay on top of Email, IMs, and SMSs this side of a full-fledged laptop.
If you're a veteran of the Sidekick I and II, the SK 3 won't be the earth shattering revision you might have been hoping for, but it is a worthy upgrade. Much improved phone capabilities, EDGE data speeds, and (I'll say it again) the QWERTY board and trackball make it worth a look. And if you're a heavy texter who doesn't mind carrying a device that's bigger and heavier than your average mobile, the SK 3 is well worth a look. Web, Email, IM, SMS, mp3s, and a camera everywhere you go? Now that's the kind of sidekick we all wish we had.