T-Mobile Sidekick 4G Review
Since its release in 2002 as the Danger Hiptop the Sidekick has been on a rollercoaster ride. With integration of AIM and being the first cell phone capable of placing unassisted TTY via the browser, it even gained a foothold in American Sign Language.
But in 2009, a major outage and data loss followed by stop on sales in 2010 was thought to be the final nail. But the name has been resurrected with a new core: Android. Has the original concept been lost in translation, or will we see the Sidekick reborn? In this review, we’ll give you the answer.
While it’s a little obvious costs were needing to be cut in multiple ways, box and accessories included to meet the on-contract pricing, the T-Mobile Sidekick 4G presented an interesting twist in box design, namely in a presentation that mimics how the phone itself opens up. Inside the box the very minimal: external charger, USB sync cable, 2GB microSD plus adapter, and no headphones.
Powered by a 1GHz Hummingbird processor, 512MB of RAM, 1GB of ROM, and a 1500mAh battery, we found the T-Mobile Sidekick 4G to be snappy and yet still light on the power use. Even with 3-4 hours of calls per day, the warnings (starting approximately at 28% left) wouldn’t appear for at least a full 24+ hours. And this was with Bluetooth (3.0) running during most of the calls, and WiFi (b/g/n supported) on occasionally. Perhaps this is due to the 3.5″ WVGA 480×800 TFT screen set to auto-brightness, or maybe the device is being under-clocked more so than other devices we’ve tested – but the results were very consistently clear: long battery life with plenty of functionality. The Sidekick also has the standard accelerometer, light sensor, and proximity sensors we find on most devices these days.
The front of the T-Mobile Sidekick 4G looks a lot like any other slab device on the market today, until you notice the orientation of the Android hardware buttons. They are obviously turned towards the left, confirming the Sidekick is intended to be a landscape device (but is still quite functional in portrait). The optical D- or trackpad, while not completely useable in the browser, makes moving through typed text a breeze.
On the left side of the device we find the headphone jack, volume rocker, and power button. The positioning of the power button does present a couple small issues (one of which is covered in the camera section below). While the device is in landscape mode, the power button placement makes perfect sense. Rotating to portrait mode, however, makes the button awkward to hit while maintaining a safe grip on the case.
Audio from the headphone jack is plenty loud, and we found the sound quality to be more than acceptable. Access to the volume rocker becomes a little tight with headphones attached as well.
To the right of the screen is micro USB cover/slot and the dedicated camera button. So far, we haven’t seen any issues with the cover, yet. But as with any small plastic hinge, we do anticipate this will be the first part to have troubles.
As we flip the Sidekick 4G over, the speaker and 3MP camera are revealed. Noticeably absent is a flash, and the pictures below demonstrate just how this affects low light image photography. The speakerphone is loud, but we found the tone to be harsh. On either side of Sidekick 4G are small grooves, providing excellent grip and preventing you from throwing the phone on the floor accidentally when kicking open the keyboard.
The 1500mAh battery is hiding beneath the cover along with the SIM and 2GB microSD cards. Our battery results were posted early, but it bears repeating: wow. Our only hope is this for be the norm in the future.
The hinge on the Sidekick 4G is a dream. It slides open quickly and completely with just the right amount of pressure, and returns home with just as much ease. In line with the rest of the build, there is little to no give when the screen is extended or closed, and there is no scraping against the tracks or the keyboard.
As for the five-line keyboard, the buttons are slightly raised and have a great tactile feel. The spacing is a little wider than most phones, and after some use, we found we liked it better this way. None of the missed keystroke issues that plague the Epic 4G were found in the Sidekick 4G. As if we needed further proof this device is intended for social media and texting, the keyboard goes one step further by not only providing a dedicated “smiley” key, but then also includes common emoticons as Alts to the W,E, and R keys. There is also a dedicated Voice Action button, and two Shift keys (one pink and the other black).
For the times you don’t want to use the hardware keyboard, Swype has been installed as well.
Compared to the Samsung Epic 4G, the T-Mobile Sidekick 4G is very similar in width, length, weight and height. The screen size difference is, of course, the most noticeable. And perhaps the smaller screen is one of the reasons for the long battery life of the Sidekick 4G.
Android 2.2.1, at the time of this review, supports the core of the Sidekick 4G. The default launcher, while not standard Froyo, performs much better than we expected, considering the history of non-standard interfaces. The built-in software is straightforward, and not much sets the Sidekick 4G apart from the rest. But in that light, there isn’t a lot of bloat either. Unfortunately, the built-in browser is problematic, but we’ll discuss that further in the performance section.
Other apps of note are:
– Theme changer
– Telenav’s GPS Navigator
– Thinkfree Office
– Cloud and Group texting
– T-Mobile app store
– Media Room and Hub
– Twitter and Facebook
– Qik for video chat
Since the Sidekick 4G lacks a flash and only has a 3MP rear camera (0.3MP front-facing), the quality isn’t particularly special. In low light situations, the images are practically unusable. The Auto White Balance was off the majority of the time, and the final images all had an oversharped look. We did find a bug with the camera software, specifically if you tap a focus point on the screen (away from the center), then press the camera button, the focus resets back to center. You can then reset the focus by continuing to hold down the button and reselecting your point. This issue doesn’t exist in the Sidekick’s sister device, the Epic 4G. In all, the camera will be perfectly suitable for social media and texting, but don’t expect anything worth printing in larger formats.
As for the dedicated camera button itself, it is a nice feature to have, but the alignment with the power button on the opposite side would often cause the power menu to pop up when we were taking photos (as one’s thumb would put pressure on the power button while pushing on the camera button). Just a small annoyance once you understand the issue and know how to avoid it.
The rear camera can record at 720p, but high resolution recording options does not mean high quality. Like the camera mode, the Auto White Balance is off, but colors were fine, just a little washed out, if set manually. Playback reveals 720p size, but with a lot of artifacts and exposure issues (and yes, while the sample above was re-encoded, the results are exactly the same). The audio quality combined with the video capabilities makes this device again useful for social situations, but not much else. As for the front camera – at .3MP, you won’t get any better.
In the past, Android devices almost always needed some sort of Task manager to help with performance issues. Whether built-in or 3rd party, the norm would be to reboot or kill off apps to help the device return to its former speedy self. This was untrue of the Sidekick 4G, however. The only times we used the Task Manager was to a) test out its functionality and b) provide a clean slate for the benchmark apps. Otherwise, the Sidekick 4G was quite snappy. Even the built-in launcher performed quite admirably! The built-in web browser performance, however, was less that satisfactory. The device would lock up when scrolling large sites, and the checkboard effect was very apparent. By switching to an alternate browser, however, the problems completely disappared. So we’ll say the browser issues were software related, in this case.
Smartbench 2011: Productivity 793, 2048 Games
LinPack Pro: 11.922 MFLOP, 7.03 Seconds
CALL QUALITY/NETWORK SPEED
Call quality on the T-Mobile Sidekick 4G was excellent. We experienced no dropped calls or call quality issues. Data speeds with HSPA+/Edge ranged from 6585kbps to a sad 14kbps (obviously a low-speed EDGE zone). But the average was around 3000kpbs in our testing area. The drops to EDGE speeds certainly made us notice the blazing HSPA+ zones more fondly.
Wi-Fi Calling is also available, and it does work. But considering the cost — your minutes are still used — the overall utility is severely limited.
As mentioned before, the battery life is fantastic. But when you look at the benchmark scores (specifically Smartbench and LinPack), they don’t really compare to similarly spec’d devices such as the Galaxy S. In fact, the Sidekick 4G outperforms the Galaxy S in the Quadrant scores. So what has Samsung done here to help extend the battery life? The Epic 4G can barely take on 3.5 hours of solid calls if you are running a custom ROM and SetCPU! No complaints for the Sidekick 4G, however. The device still felt very snappy, and the battery life was much longer than we expected.
PURCHASING AND AVAILABILITY
The Sidekick 4G, in Pearl Magenta or Matte Black can be had for $99.99 on T-Mobile.
+ Great keyboard
+ Fantastic battery life
+ Very solid build quality with nice hardware keyboard
– Camera issues
– Some built-in apps are buggy
– No flash
While we were slightly disappointed with the lack of flash and the 3MP camera, overall the T-Mobile Sidekick 4G has been a stellar addition to the Android line-up. The battery life alone made us wistfully look at our daily drivers and ponder why Samsung (and other manufacturers) weren’t able to put together such a power-sipping device when obviously the capability exists in the Sidekick 4G. The consistent key action and the solid build will satisfy not only a business customer, but also teens who focus heavily on messaging. Ignoring the slightly buggy or insufficiently capable widgets, the UI even surprised us with its responsiveness. Sadly, the built-in browser failed to perform, but there are a few solid (and free) replacements which negated the impact.
The Sidekick is back, folks. The Sidekick is back.
We rate the T-Mobile Sidekick 4G a 4/5.