It's so hard to keep a good secret these days. Just ask T-Mobile. Word of its new Sidekick model, codenamed Gekko, got out months ago and was all but confirmed when the ruthless blogosphere got hold of some internal T-Mobile documents about the upcoming model. Well, today, the wraps were officially taken off the new model. Simply called the T-Mobile Sidekick, it's the first Sidekick to debut since device manufacturer Danger was acquired by Microsoft. The Sidekick isn't a revolutionary, new product but we think there's enough there to attract the young, hip messaging fanatics.
The big highlight is the new level of personalization. While we saw some of this in the T-Mobile Sidekick iD, where you could swap out color bumpers, the Sidekick lets you not only change the color but also allows you to add your own graphics, images, and designs to the outer shell, making it completely unique and your own. Shells cost $14.99 for two or $9.99 each. Beyond looks, the Sidekick also ships with all the new features that were introduced with the Sidekick LX software update, including stereo Bluetooth support and video recording and playback, while keeping its strong messaging capabilities. For these reasons, we think the Sidekick will be a hit with its target audience of young T-Mobile customers looking for an all-in-one communication device. The T-Mobile Sidekick is available starting today in select stores and online for $149.99 with a two-year contract after rebates and discounts.
Of all the current Sidekick models, the T-Mobile Sidekick most closely resembles the Sidekick LX; it is just a smaller and lighter version. It measures 4.7 inches wide by 2.3 inches high by 0.7 inch deep and weighs 5.3 ounces. It feels comfortable in the hand, with a nice solid construction. Of course, the big design news is the level of customization. Unlike the T-Mobile Sidekick iD, which only allowed you to change the color of the outer edges, you can swap out the entire "shell" with different color plates as well as add your own custom design or image. All Sidekicks will ship with an extra green shell in the box.
To pick or create your own shell, simply visit www.sidekickshells.com. From there, you can choose from a selection of predesigned shells or you can start with a blank slate (you have a choice of black, white, or pink as a base color) and upload your own graphics or images to add to the back. I had the opportunity to design my own shell, and much to the dismay of my T-Mobile contact, a University of Oregon alum, I placed a USC Trojan logo on mine. The whole process was easy and pretty fun. Sadly, I had not received my custom shell at press time.
Given the more compact size, the Sidekick has a slightly smaller 2.6-inch WQVGA display, but features the same the 65,000-color output and 400x240 pixel resolution of the LX. We wish the screen was a tad bigger, but nevertheless, text and images look sharp and vibrant. Plus, you can change up background themes and font sizes to your liking. The Sidekick doesn't have a touch screen, so there are a number of external controls that allow you to navigate through the menus and perform functions. To the left of the display, there are Menu and Jump buttons and a directional keypad that doubles as the phone's speaker. Meanwhile, on the right, you have a Cancel button, Talk and End keys, an OK button, and the trackball navigator.
On top of the unit, there are two function buttons that perform different tasks depending on which application you are using, as well as a mini USB port and a 3.5mm headphone jack. The volume rocker and the power button are located on the bottom. As we've noted in our other Sidekick reviews, we found these controls a bit hard to use since they're pretty tiny in size and set flush with the phone's surface. The camera lens is located on the back of the phone minus a flash or self-portrait mirror and finally, there's a microSD expansion slot, but you have to remove the back cover to access it.
With the exception of the Sidekick Slide, the T-Mobile Sidekick has a swivel-screen design where if you nudge the upper-right corner or the lower-left corner of the screen, the display will rotate a full 180 degrees and expose the full QWERTY keyboard. The keyboard itself is similar to the one found on the Sidekick LX. There's plenty of spacing between the keys, and we were able to easily compose messages. We did find that the top row of number buttons were pretty close to the edge of the bottom of the screen, so there were occasions our thumbs bumped against it. The good news, however, is you can now dial numbers without having to use the keyboard. There's an onscreen dialpad that you can access using the track ball (actually a bit time-consuming, so it might be easier to just use the keyboard) and you can also scroll through your address book and select and call contacts.
The T-Mobile Sidekick comes packaged with an AC adapter, a USB cable, a wired stereo headset, a 512MB microSD card, and reference material. For more add-ons, please check our cell phone accessories, ringtones, and help page.
The T-Mobile Sidekick doesn't bring any unannounced, new features to the handheld, but it does ship with all the enhancements that came with the Sidekick LX software update--most notably, video recording and playback and stereo Bluetooth support. As a phone, the Sidekick offers quad-band world roaming, speed dial, call forwarding, three-way calling, a call log, a vibrate mode, a speakerphone, and text and multimedia messaging. The Sidekick's address book holds up to 2,000 contacts, with room in each entry for five numbers, an e-mail address, an IM account, a Web URL, a street address, and notes. For caller-ID purposes, you can pair an entry with a photo, a group ID, or one of 18 ringtones. You can also add contacts to a Favorites list, which is separate from T-Mobile's MyFaves plan. The Sidekick does support MyFaves to give you unlimited calling to five contacts, regardless of carrier. Plans for MyFaves start at $39.99 a month.
The Sidekick has integrated Bluetooth 2.0 and, as we noted earlier, this now includes support for stereo Bluetooth headsets. Other uses for Bluetooth include hands-free car kits, wireless transfer of photos, videos, and music, and connecting to other Bluetooth peripherals, such as a printer. As for data connection, you're left to rely on T-Mobile's EDGE network with speeds of around 100Kbps to 130Kbps. For the Sidekick's target group, EDGE should be fine, but we're sure there wouldn't be any complaints if 3G and/or Wi-Fi were added, as they provide faster alternatives for Web browsing. We should note that the Sidekick's Web browser now has a mini view, which provides you with an overview of an entire Web site so you can more easily find what you are looking for without having to scroll through the entire page.
Like previous models, the Sidekick comes with its own T-Mobile e-mail account with a push solution so you'll have real-time message delivery. You can also access up to three additional POP3/IMAP4 accounts, and while the Sidekick is definitely not a business-minded smartphone, you can have your corporate e-mail forwarded to the Sidekick. There's an attachment viewer for Word documents, PDFs, and JPEGs. In addition to the T-mail account, we configured our review up to access our Yahoo account and had no problem with the setup. It simply required entering our login and password, and we were up and running within minutes.
Of course, you've also got the choice to instant message with friends. The T-Mobile Sidekick comes preloaded with three of the major instant-messaging clients: AOL, Yahoo, and Windows Live Messenger. You can hold up to 10 simultaneous conversations, and you can switch between conversations quickly by pressing the Menu and D buttons. And if you happen to lose your network connection in the middle of a session, the Sidekick will save the chat until a connection is restored. You can also now create and join group chats and instantly see who's online from a separate tab in your address book.
Beyond communication, the T-Mobile Sidekick offers a built-in media player that plays MP3, WAV, WMA, and AAC music files and 3GP and MPEG 4-SP video files. The media player has repeat and shuffle modes, and you can search for songs by artist, album, genre, or composer, as well as organize tracks into playlists. However, the player is a bit kludgey since you have to hit the menu key to access any of the controls, or you can memorize the shortcuts. To get media onto the Sidekick, you can use the included USB cable and then drag and drop files from your PC to the Sidekick (which should show up as an external drive on your PC). The Sidekick has 64MB NAND Flash memory and 128MB DDR SDRAM, and the expansion slot can accept up to 8GB cards.
While everything has been pretty status quo in terms of features, the T-Mobile Sidekick does get an upgraded camera. It now sports a 2-megapixel camera with video recording capabilities. The camera doesn't offer a ton of editing features. For still images, you have your choice of three quality settings and four resolutions. Once you've shot a photo, you can rotate or reduce the image. Note for videos, you must have a microSD card inserted before you can even activate the feature. Videos are also limited to just 20 second clips.
Picture quality wasn't bad. Objects had good definition and clean lines, but we wish there was a bit more richness to the colors. Video quality was sub-par. Clips were pixelated, and it's difficult to shoot and watch video in such a small frame.
Finally, the Sidekick has several organizer tools, such as a calendar, a notepad, and a to-do list. There's a new QuickFind search feature, and a spell checker as well. You can download more applications, ringtones, and games via the preinstalled Download Catalog, and you no longer have to restart the device once you've downloaded a new application.
We tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900; GPRS/EDGE) T-Mobile Sidekick in San Francisco using T-Mobile service and call quality was excellent. Voices sounded loud and clear on our end, and there was very little background noise, so we enjoyed distraction-free conversations. We also had no problem using an airline's voice automated response system. Our friends also reported good audio quality, and didn't have any major complaints. Unfortunately, speakerphone quality was mixed. While our callers were impressed with the clarity, volume was pretty soft on our side so we had a hard time hearing the conversation, even with the volume at its highest level. We were in a quiet room, as well, so we imagine it'd be near impossible to hear the speakerphone in a noisy environment. On the bright side, we successfully paired the Sidekick with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset and the Motorola S9 Active Bluetooth Headphones.
General performance was good. We didn't experience any significant performance delays or system crashes during our review period. We had no problems with any of the messaging, whether we it be sending or receiving e-mail and instant messaging with buddies. Surfing the Net was a little trying with the EDGE speeds. It was fine for some mobile-optimized sites, but graphics intensive pages took a while to load. Music playback through the phone's speaker was louder than voice calls, but still somewhat soft and definitely lacking base. Thankfully, there's a 3.5mm jack so you can plug in a nice pair of headphones for a better listening experience. And as we said earlier, watching video isn't all that pleasant given the blurry quality and small viewscreen.
The T-Mobile Sidekicks's 1,030mAh lithium ion battery has a rated talk time of 5 hours. The Sidekick beat the rated talk time in our battery drain tests with a total of 7 hours on a single charge. We are also trying to confirm the Sidekick's digital SAR rating as reported by FCC radiation tests.