In every school there was a guy who was almost a year older than the rest of the class. He didn't get held back or anything, he was just born a few days too late for his parents to register him the year before. In grade school no one noticed, but in jr. high he hit puberty before everyone else. When he was gangly and awkward, everyone else in his class made fun of him, but by high school he was one of the cool kids. He started growing bigger than the rest of the guys in his class. He wasn't stupid, just bigger, so he he used his size and age to his advantage. He was probably the first guy you knew who could buy you some beer with a fake ID. Girls all wanted to date him, guys all wanted to be his pal, but somehow he was never a popular kid - just the cool guy.
The Sidekick II (SK2), well, it's exactly like that guy. The first Sidekick was a bit awkward and gangly, but the SK2 has matured into a smooth operator that just happens to be a bit bigger than his classmates. It's really not fair to just judge the SK2 as a phone, when it does and has so much more than your average phone. It's really more of a laptop in your pocket. Because of this, we're going to make a few exceptions on our ratings, but we will make them consistent across smartphones-promise.
The Sidekick II will be available exclusively through T-Mobile for a while. If you don't score one in Santa Monica today, you should be to get one at your local T-Mobile store in the next day or two. Our man Jacks got us one a few weeks early so we could give you something to drool over while all the Paris Hilton wannabes are down in Santa Monica gettin' their new SK2s blinged out.
The Bod: Yup
Even for a smartphone, the SK2 is big. It's about the size of an original N-Gage, but it has so much more: a huge screen, a thumb keyboard, navigation buttons, and a crazy light-up D-Pad. There's no way it's gonna fit in the Levi's change pocket, but because the back is gently concave, it's actually comfortable in your front pocket. Even more comfortable than a Pocket PC phone or a Treo. Seriously.
You all know that the screen is tricked out, and that it spins around 180 degrees to reveal the keyboard hiding below, right? On the SK2, since the screen is flush with the body instead of bulging out from it, it's a little harder to perform this maneuver one-handed. But that's ok because many of the buttons you needed to get at below the screen on the original Sidekick have been moved to the edges of the phone, so you don't have to flip it open as often. The screen is big (240 x 160 pixels) and bright under all lighting conditions.
Battery Life: Yup
Using the SK2 pretty much non-stop throughout the day (it's SCARY how addictive it is), I got two to three days of use from a charge. It was always more than two, but it wasn't always three full days, so to be safe I'd say charge it every 48 hours. Sadly, that means no trips without the charger unless it's a quick overnighter. Considering this thing's screen and it's using GPRS all the time, anything over 2 days is impressive, and still as good as most other smartphones, GPRS or not.
Signal and Sound: Yup
Danger has significantly improved the antenna on the SK2. Where the original couldn't get a signal anywhere, the SK2 at least gets a signal where all the other phones do. It does not, however, have such a strong antenna that you get signal in surprising places.
The speaker and microphone are clear, and positioned to block wind noise when you hold the SK2 to your face. If you don't want to hold this block to your face, it also includes a speakerphone that was loud and clear indoors.
Menus: Oh Yah!
Navigation on the SK2 is unlike any other phone; it's quite intuitive. The button that brings you back to the main (jump) screen has an icon that looks like the jump screen itself. The menu button looks like a menu. You can hit it in just about any screen and get to exactly what you were looking for. The interface is highly consistent. It's all so obvious. Any time there's a button or keyboard shortcut, the screen displays that so you can skip scrolling and just get to where you want to go.
Maybe it's the fact that you actually have to hold down on the end key to actually end the call. Maybe it's the fact that you have to dial voicemail with the screen flipped open so you can press the keys required to navigate the voicemail menus. Whatever it is, something bugs me just enough that the SK2 falls short of a heavenly calling experience.
But I was surprised (considering the reputation of the original Sidekick) that this phone is perfectly good at calling. Danger even took pains to be sure that many shortcuts that work on regular mobile phones (like double tapping the call button for redial) work just like you'd expect. Activating the speakerphone or switching to another call are features made easily accessible.
Politeness: Oh Yah!
Finally! A phone that lets you use the external volume keys to set the ringer volume. And to make us even happier that includes two levels of silent - one that's just vibration, and one that does nothing at all (except make the pretty lights blink). Plus there's also a shortcut to set the SK2 to silent without the volume keys. Silencing an incoming call works exactly as you'd expect.
Contacts: Oh Yah!
I love the SK2's address book, but I must admit that its icon makes me think it's a datebook or something, so getting there from the jump screen takes an extra glance. But once you're there, the Address Book is fantastic. When you start typing a contact name on the keyboard, the SK2 will sort through your list for matching contacts instantly. Each entry can hold email address, street address, and multiple phone numbers, as well as a picture for photo caller ID. Dialing or sending an email from the contacts application is totally obvious.
You can upload contacts to the phone via T-Mobile's desktop web interface. It reads exports from Outlook, as well as Palm Desktop for PC or Mac. If you want to use your OS X Address Book, there's an applescript to run from inside the application. It exports the information in Outlook (PC) format.
Messages: Oh Yah!
The SK2 has taught me why people call them CrackBerries. It's easy to set up your Sidekick to automatically retrieve all your mail from either the Sidekick itself, or the desktop interface. As a warning: if you have an IMAP account full of like 1,000 emails, the SK2 will choke. It only has about 6MB of space for emails or so; once I cleared all the old crap out of my account (thanks, Danger, for forcing me to take out the garbage) everything was happy. Addressing emails is easy, you just start typing a contact name, and you are instantly given a list of matching contacts and their emails—just pick one. With the keyboard and excellent menus, composing email and adding a photo attachment is also simple. SMS works the same way, except you use the Alerts application instead of Email. There was no MMS (picture messaging) support as far as I could tell, but since picture attachments in email are so well supported, I can't count ding Danger for that.
Finally we see the Sidekick's weakness. You can sync calendar events (including alarms) from Outlook or iCal, which is cool except for the fact that alarms and notifications are a second class citizen on the SK2. If the SK2 is shut off, it will not wake up for an alarm. Worse yet, it will not even tell you that you missed an event the next time you turn on the Sidekick. The SK2 doesn't include an alarm clock at all, but you can download one (for $5, which is pretty lame) from the software library. Like the calendar alarms, this alarm clock will not sound if the Sidekick is off when alarm time rolls around. If you're traveling with the SK2 (and it is a tri-band phone, so you could travel with it), you better bring along a separate alarm clock.
Browsing: Oh Yah!
The SK2 lets you browse regular websites instead of having to know the mobile address for the websites you regularly visit (if they have one, that is). It does this by sending the URL you typed to a server that fetches the webpage, then reformats it for the SK2's screen. It's a pretty cool idea, and it really makes the web pages readable. The only problem is that it's not as smart as, say, Opera's Small Screen Rendering. Where Opera will try to make the best guess where the main content of a web page is and puts that column first, the Sidekick always goes from left to right. So with most web sites, you have to scroll through all the navigation and links that usually live on the left hand side of the page before you get to the content you were probably there to see in the first place. It just means you have to do a little extra scrolling, but come on, Sidekicks have an unlimited data plan and you get to visit almost any website you want. We can't complain.
Pictures: Oh Yah!
The SK2 has a VGA camera with an LED flash built in. It's fun and easy to use. Picture detail is sharp, even in those dark dive bars, thanks to the flash. The pictures do come out looking a bit muddy, however; it's as though the camera or the camera application is not very good at sampling for white and black points, so everything looks a bit greyish. But otherwise the photos are clear and sharp, nothing two seconds with the levels controls in Photoshop coulnd't fix right up. We'd prefer the pictures were perfect right out of the camera, but we haven't seen a cameraphone that can do perfect pictures yet.
The SK2 has all sorts of rings and alerts, most of which are synchronized to a specific light pattern on the light-up d-pad. Some of them are pretty damn cool. If you want more options, you can download them from T-mobile, but you can't add your own. You cannot customize the look, the menus, or the standby screen in any way. This is really too bad, because the standby picture on SK2 is pretty cheesey and the darn thing has a camera built in.
The SK2 comes with an Asteroids clone game that's fun, but like the original Asteroids, it can be tough to control. A few additional games are available for download, and more should show up now that Danger has a proper developer program. There is no Bluetooth, which is a shame because the SK2 could really benefit from a wireless headset (although it does come with a wired one). There is a mini-USB port on the side, but so far it doesn't work with any desktops we know of.
Also, it does have a built-in AIM client, and a Yahoo! IM client is available for download. Both are always-on (just like with the email) and I have to tell you, they rule! Seriously. If you're an IM addict, this is totally the phone for you. The IM clients are better integrated into the SK2 than any other phone or smartphone I've tried.