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Sidekick II: I can't live without my trusty Sidekick (II)!
Written: Jan 20, 2005 (Updated Jul 7, 2005)
a Very Helpful Review
by the Epinions community
Pros:A PDA, phone and data device that works out-of-box.
Cons:Terrible noise canceling bug that affects voice quality and washed out screen.
The Bottom Line: Easy to use straight out of the box for anyone. Comprehensive features and tight integration with a good website. The Sidekick II is the Blackberry for us normal people.
Update: 7/7/2005 I sold my Sidekick II a month ago and have now replaced it with a Treo 600. I stand by the review that the Sidekick II device is a great device and a hell of a convergence device. But, the company Danger has no clue to what uptime is for backend servers. During my five months using their Sidekick II (which directly relies on Danger servers for all functionality) the Danger servers went down four times (almost once a month, each downtime was greater than a day). These were not 24-hour downtimes either, these downtimes lasted from three to ten days in length. When the backend servers go down, the Sidekick II turns into a brick that is only useful as a phone (if that because of the echo/noice cancellation bug). After the last loss of service, I gave up on Danger and their blatant disregard for quality of service given to the end-user -- and that is when I sold off my Sidekick II. I will miss the device since it was great (when working) at keeping me always online. It is too bad that Danger cannot find someway to keep redundant servers and keep service for end-users uninterrupted. These major outages were not the only times that they were down, from time to time the Danger servers would go down for a few hours, which was also quite annoying. If you can stand downtime, then I still recommend the Sidekick II. But, if you want to have a device that works most all of the time, then I would have to steer you away from the Sidekick II -- you will end up a frustrated ex-Sidekick II user just like me. See the forums at www.hiptop.com to see if they have been having outages lately before deciding to plunk down cash on the Sidekick II. Your mileage may vary.
I remember two years ago when a small company released a small convergence device named "Sidekick" on the T-mobile network (also known as Hiptop on other networks). It was of the coolest devices that I had seen and incorporated mobile data in an easy to use fashion. But, that model was monochrome and was quite bulky. I kept my eye on the device. It got an upgrade when the Color Sidekick came out, but that was still bulky. The swivel screen jutted out of the device when it was closed and made the Color Sidekick look oversized. Then in 2004, Danger released a major upgrade to the Sidekick, dubbed Sidekick II. After seeing the Sidekick II in action, I had to have one.
The Sidekick II is larger than a regular mobile phone. It also does not look like a mobile phone at all. A large LCD screen dominates the now flat face of the Sidekick II. The screen is beautiful and works both in bright sunlight and the darkness of night. It is a transreflective TFT screen that runs at a resolution of 240x160.
On the front face there is a scroll-wheel on the right and a control pad on the left of the screen. The control pad is frosted and has LEDs underneath it. When something happens the LEDs will flash all different colors and in different patterns. It is very cool. On all four corners there are buttons (clockwise from top-left: Menu, Cancel, OK, Jump). The earpiece for the phone is inside the control pad and the microphone is a small hole beneath the scroll-wheel.
On the back of the device is a huge speaker for the speakerphone. There is also a lens for the camera and a "flash" for taking pictures, though the flash is worthless.
Along the top edge of the device are two buttons that change functions depending on where you're at. The top left is used mostly to turn on the speakerphone functionality, the top right is for the camera. The bottom edge of the device are three buttons. Two are for volume control (ringer and in-call volume) and one is the power button.
Underneath the top edge rubber "bumper" on the left side is the GSM SIM card slot.
There is 32MB of built-in memory, but that is not a moniker that Danger uses to keep track of memory. Actually, there really is no mention of memory unless you buy games, applications, or ringtones. At that point memory is mentioned in "blocks" and not in bytes. There is no mention of what the CPU is, or what speed it runs. But that is not really necessary because the system runs just fast enough (it is quite snappy the performance).
The swivel screen is what sets the Sidekick II apart from the others. When closed it can still be used, but swivel it open and it reveals the keyboard (and also inverts the image for correct viewing). You have to go to a store to see it in action to see just how cool the swivel screen is. The screen itself is nice, but a little bit washed out. My worry for the swivel screen is that it will break from usage. It seems like a novel idea, but when you see it working, you'll see why I worry about it.
The keyboard is really great and easy to adapt to. I was typing like a pro in a matter of minutes. The keys are nicely spaced out and even my fat thumbs make good speed typing on the keyboard. The keys also have a good tactile feedback. I worry that the print on the keyboard (and also the black paint) will rub off from excessive usage though.
The ringer on the Sidekick II is LOUD. It is the loudest of any phone that I have ever owned -- on the loudest setting, you can hear the phone a block away, and that is not a really bad exaggeration. There are sound profiles and they can be scheduled (for instance go to "quiet" mode at 10pm and go to "normal" mode at 7am).
There is a USB port hidden under a rubber cover on the right-hand side of the device, but there is no use for it for the normal consumer. Developers can use it, but that voids the warranty.
In the box is a black leather carrying case that is quite useful. I applaud Danger and T-Mobile for providing this instead of forcing us to buy a case in a cost cutting effort.
There are a lot of devices nowadays that bring data to the phone. And most mobile phones on the market are data enabled. But, there is a breed of phones known as "smartphones" that bring a whole lot more to the regular mobile phone. Devices like the Handspring Treo 650, Nokia 6600, RIM Blackberry and hp iPaq series bring calendars, full-blown address books, to-do lists, full webbrowsers and more to the table. Many of them implement a thumbboard also for quick data entry. These devices synchonize with computers and are basically a PDA grafted onto a mobile phone. Is the Sidekick II a smartphone?
It certainly is, but there is such a cool and hip feel to the device that the smartphone label detracts from the inherent coolness of the Sidekick II. Treos and Blackberries are for business people. The Sidekick is for the rest of us. It is a smartphone for the 20s and early 30s crowd.
The Sidekick II brings all the functionality of a PDA to a mobile phone/data device. It also brings AOL Instant Messenger, a HTML browser (not WML), and a camera. The backend for the Sidekick II is all done on the Danger servers. At first I was not too fond of this idea, since all of my data will be sitting on someone else's server -- which can be suceptible to hacking. To this end, I could do nothing, so most of the stuff I store on my Sidekick II is not sensitive. Just normal calendar stuff, to-dos, addresses, and notes.
What is nice about having everything stored on the Danger servers is that everything can be done in a web browser on a normal computer, or it can be done on the Sidekick II itself. There is no need to install any special synchronization software on any computers to interface with the Sidekick II. This is good because I am a Mac user and usually Mac users are disregarded by software companies. If you enter something into your calendar using a web browser, it will show up on your Sidekick II in a matter of seconds (and vice versa). This works for all the applications on the Sidekick II (calendar, address book, to-do, notes). The Sidekick II is an always-on device, whenever it has a good signal it will keep connected to T-Mobile's data network.
This all means that I can sit at my desk at home and enter information on my iBook; or I can sit at work and enter information on my G4; or I can sit on the train and enter information on my Sidekick II. All that information is nicely synchronized in the background over the always-on data connection. No more needing to remember to connect the Palm up to the HotSync cradle and HotSync'ing the device every few days. What else is nice about this constant synchronization is that if my Sidekick II is ever lost or broke, I just replace it and sign into the Danger network -- within a few minutes the new Sidekick II is just like the old one. All data will be restored from the Danger servers.
The inherent danger of this (no pun intended) is that if the Danger servers go down, the Sidekick II becomes a useless paper weight. So far my luck has been good with the Danger servers.
T-Mobile offers an add-on piece of software to synchronize your Outlook with the Danger servers (which then synchronizes with your Sidekick II). This maybe a good option for most Outlook users. I have not tried because I don't use Microsoft Windows or Outlook.
The Basic Applications
The calendar application is just what it is. It is a calendar with the standard views: Today, This Week, This Month, and Upcoming. It is easy to use and has all the basic functionality of something like the Palm or Windows Mobile calendar. It has basic alarms for each event. Be careful with the alarms though, since they will not ring if the phone is off -- and they will not give you a reminder if the alarm has past and you turn on your phone.
The addressbook is quite expansive in what it can store. It can store 2000 contacts. For each contact you can store: A category, ten phone numbers, five email addresses, three URLs, three street addresses, an icon and a note! Now if that isn't information overload for a contact, I don't know what is!
The to-do application stores to-dos with a priority, due date and note. It is very basic, but gets the job done. It is too bad the to-dos do not integrate in with the calendar's Upcoming view (though the to-dos show up in all the other views).
The memo application stores memos, I find it a very useful application since I like to write down lots of notes while I am out -- and also while I am surfing the web, I like to cut and paste stuff into the memos to store.
The built-in AIM client acts, sounds, and looks just like the computer version. Any AIM junkie will be able to jump right into chatting with this client. Just sign in and bam, you're off and chatting. There is also a Yahoo! Messenger available for free through the downloads section. Again, the Yahoo! Messenger acts, sounds and looks just like its computer counterpart. This is where the Sidekick II excels, the applications for messaging just work out of the box. There are no problems at all unlike the competitors (where you either have to buy a client or find a free one). There is nothing like having AIM and Yahoo! Messenger in my pocket at all times. If you are looking for a device to do instant messaging, look no farther.
The Sidekick II is all about push email (much like those Blackberries). The difference between push and regular email (poll) is that when email arrives at the tmail.com address it gets pushed straight to the device. Other devices like the Treo 650 have to poll for email at a set interval, so it checks the email server every so often to see if there is email, if there is, it downloads the email. The Sidekick II also supports three external POP or IMAP accounts. For external email, it is a poll type email. The Danger servers will poll each of the setup POP/IMAP accounts every 15 minutes. If there is email the Danger servers will pull the email over to the Danger servers then push it out to your Sidekick II. All of this happens behind the scenes and all you know is that you got email. If you need to check external email instantly you can push Menu U and that will activate a check without having to wait 15 minutes.
The email client is tied in with the addressbook (as it should be) and you can type the first few letters of a contact and it will pull up their email address. This makes it every easy to send email on the Sidekick II.
The text messaging application stands alone from the mail application. It would have been nice if they were unified as a "messages" application, but it's Ok. The text messaging application lets you save 100 messages on the phone and 25 to the SIM card. It is as basic as it gets (how fancy can a text application be?). There is functionality to split text messages if they get longer than 160 characters. The text messaging application is also linked with the addressbook for easy of use.
The camera is a joke for the most part. You can see some pictures on my Flickr site (http://www.flickr.com/photos/ultramookie/) if you want. It is a very basic 320x240 camera that can interpolate the 320x240 resolution pictures up to 640x480. What does that all mean? You're pictures will look pixellated and grainy. These pictures are not print quality and not even close to archival quality, so don't expect too much from the camera. The built-in flash is nothing either, it's more like a flashlight that turns on for a second when you push the shutter button, it will not help in dark situations. Talking about dark situations, don't expect to use the Sidekick in anything but a brightly lit room or outside on a sunny day. Everything else will be blurry and grainy -- even with the "night mode" setting. You can keep 36 pictures (of any size) on the camera at once. The nice thing is that when you take a picture, it automatically gets synchronized up with the Danger servers -- so when you log into your Desktop Interface, you'll see the pictures you just took online. That is a very nice feature.
Ok, the Terminal application does not come with the Sidekick II out of the box, but it is well worth mentioning. It costs $10 to download the Terminal application which lets you connect via telnet, ssh, or raw to any terminal service (like a mud or a Unix box). I use this a lot to check up on my own server and also to log into a free shell account (at www.freeshell.org). If you're a Unix/Linux/BSD guy or gal and need terminal access to a box, this is one of the best values out there! The best part is the $10 price tag since a similar product for the BlackBerry device (http://www.idokorro.com/imssh.html) costs some $200!
The Sidekick II as a phone is a bad proposition. If you answer the phone like a normal mobile phone, you'll look like you're holding a TV remote to the side of your face. And even if you can stand that, there is a nasty bug in the noise canceling that actively cancels YOUR VOICE. This is a big annoyance that both Danger and T-Mobile has promised a fix for months ago, but still have not rolled out with an update. The only way around this is to use a handsfree headset which both fixes the cancelation bug and the fashion bug. I hope T-Mobile and Danger rollout with a fix for the cancelation bug soon though.
The device will set you back $200 if you sign up for a year contract with T-Mobile. You can add the Sidekick data plan to your existing T-Mobile voice plan for $20 a month. Or if you don't want to have a voice plan, you can just have the Sidekick data plan for $29 a month. The data plan includes unlimited data and unlimited text messaging. At $20 a month that is quite a bargain.
There is no way to put a piece of: software, game or ringtone on the Sidekick II unless you buy it through Danger. This is a huge limitation, but I can live with it. I do wish that Danger could provide us with a way to put ringtones on the machine without having to buy from their limited selection -- for instance if I send the ringtone to myself via email, I could then save it on my Sidekick II.
The Sidekick II is the ultimate data and voice device. There are others out there that compete with it, but as a total solution for IM, mail, text, web, and other data related tasks, the Sidekick II is a perfect device. The design of the device lends itself to only attracting the younger crowd, which is too bad, but it is a device that can be use by anyone.
There are some serious flaws about the machine -- noise cancelation code is broken, software only available from Danger, and security concerns about data on Danger servers -- but if you can live with some of the flaws, this device is just for you. The device is for anyone who wants to have everything with them. Their IM, their mail, their web, their calendar, their contacts, and their phone. If you don't want to carry a PDA and a phone, then get the Sidekick II. At more than half the price of a Treo 650 and some $100 less than the BlackBerry 7100t, the Sidekick II is a bargain. And on T-Mobile's network, the Sidekick data plan gives more for the money than the regular $20 Internet plan that is provided to other phones (like the Treo 650 and BlackBerry 7100t) -- all ports are open on the Sidekick data plan whereas there are blocked ports on the regular plan.
Now that I have experience the Sidekick II way of life, there's no going back. I have all the data and communication needs that I have always wanted to be portable with me at all times. I don't need to carry a separate PDA and I don't need to do any synchronization tasks.
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