It's been nearly two years since we last reviewed a T-Mobile Sidekick, and it would be a vast understatement to say things have changed. Then, they were designed by Danger and manufactured by Sharp, and were the messaging phone of choice. Today, following fiasco and failure, the Sidekick empire is in ruins. But good ideas and their originators live on, and several of Danger's brightest wound up in Mountain View, California. Danger's Andy Rubin founded Android, design director Mattias Duarte built Honeycomb (after helping craft the Helio Ocean and webOS for Palm) and now, the Sidekick itself has joined its founders in the house that Google built. In many ways, the Sidekick 4G is a return to form, but in an ecosystem filled with similar Android devices, can it stand out from the crowd?
We're tempted to say "yes" based on looks alone. Android's got no shortage of landscape QWERTY sliders, and some of them even boast pretty fancy builds, but the Sidekick 4G's matte, soft-touch plastic frame, accented sparingly with a dark brushed metal trim, manages to simultaneously be stylish and utilitarian. It's a thick plastic phone in a world that increasingly idolizes supermodels like the iPhone 4 and Xperia Arc, but every part of its shell is purpose-built for tactile control, and we're mostly happy with the trade-offs.
Samsung may have not seen fit to equip the Sidekick 4G with one of its fancy AMOLED displays, but it certainly dug up a pretty fantastic standard LCD here, which washes out slightly at off-angles but otherwise aquits itself admirably. Of course, it's only got 3.5 inches of real estate, which can be quite the adjustment if you're used to 4+ inch slate phones or even 3.7-inch QWERTY sliders like the Droid 2, and there's enough more than enough bezel on the Sidekick 4G to suggest that the smaller screen might be a cost-cutting measure. That said, you're looking at 267 pixels per inch here -- which means you're rarely looking at pixels at all -- so it's not bad, just not really suited to multimedia. It's pretty nice for touchscreen input, though, with a responsive capacitive digitizer (tracking five points of contact) underneath a smooth Gorilla Glass sheet.
Whether held in the left or right hand, the Sidekick 4G is comfortable to grip in portrait mode, and most critical controls are easy to reach -- the bottom (or left) positions the nice, firm volume rocker right beneath your upper digits, a 3.5mm headphone jack at the very top, and the power button at the bottom where you can press it with pinky or palm. Up top (or right) there's a rotating flap covering the microUSB port, and a somewhat squishy two-stage camera shutter button that can nonetheless assist in taking single-handed pics. There's also an optical trackpad on the front that makes a little bit of sense in portrait mode, but isn't really sensitive (nor accessible) enough to scroll through more than the occasional webpage. We miss our trackball.
Landscape mode is where the Sidekick's hardware is obviously designed to shine, as the handset's large, clicky face buttons don't make much sense in the vertical -- and of course, once you spin the phone ninety degrees, you'll be able to access the Sidekick's famous QWERTY keyboard, though sans the familiar hinge. Historically, the only Hiptop that ever shipped without that trademark swiveling display was dead on arrival, but we can joyously announce that that stigma is no more, as the Sidekick 4G has one of the most ingenious and rock-solid sliding hinges we've seen on a smartphone yet. Push the bottom lip of the display upward roughly a single centimeter, and the mechanism leaps forward with a satisfying snap, propelled by an spring-loaded, all-metal crossbar that simultaneously props up the display at the correct angle and shields its cable ribbon. There's not a hint of play in any direction, nor any question about whether the device is fully opened or closed and though we initially missed our spinning screen we eventually had to admit this one is nearly as cool.
We've tried every Hiptop keyboard made, and while this isn't the best we've ever used -- the Sidekick II's all-rubber matrix is hard to surpass -- Samsung's Sidekick 4G beats the pants off any QWERTY keyboard we've used on an Android machine. You pay a hefty premium to get this kind of real estate, but look at the result: a spacious, staggered five-row keyboard with a dedicated number row, easy access to commas, periods, questionmarks and the all-important @ symbol, and if you're 15 years old (or 15 at heart), an emoticon key too. The domed keys are rather noisy in use, a little shallow and a tad stiff, which can lead to some thumb fatigue after a while -- a little extra padding might have been nice -- and the placement of the Search key tripped us up from time to time when we intended to hit Shift instead. Overall, though, Sidekick lovers will be right at home; with just a couple days of re-training ourselves, we were touch-typing 35WPM (without errors) on the QWERTY keyboard.
Though still decidedly made of plastic, even the back cover of the phone shows some thoughtful design. It sports larged textured grips to make absolutely sure you won't easily drop the phone while typing, and it's thin and flexible enough to easily pry off the rear without requiring excessive pressure. Underneath, you'll find the same user-replaceable 1500mAh battery Samsung uses in all its mid-range smartphones (Transform, Intercept, Craft, etc.) which should make finding replacements easy and cheap, as well as easy access to the included 2GB microSD card (but unfortunately not the SIM slot).
Software, performance and battery life
Samsung's never been particularly shy about skinning Android -- replacing parts of the stock user interface with ideas of its own design -- and for the most part, we've tolerated its TouchWiz skins without really understanding the point. Starting with the stellar Galaxy S II, however, it seems there's finally a mandate to make change exceedingly functional and pleasing to use, and we have to say, the Sidekick 4G's interface (based on Android 2.2.1) is pretty dang cool. Filled with translucent blue parallelograms and text that vaguely evoke Honeycomb (and by association, Tron), every part of the UI has seen a stylish overhaul, and it's both seriously eye-catching and fairly useful. The lock screen, for instance, returns you to your content when you slide the lower blade down, but fling the upper blade skyward and it can automatically launch any app or shortcut of your choice.
Threaded conversations don't just look nice, but also let you communicate a whole variety of things without leaping into other apps -- a couple presses and you can attach a quick voice recording, upcoming calendar event, GPS location, picture or video to anything you send, or send an email, Tweet or status update from the same interface, and there's also a Group Text app to let you blast SMS out to all your friends. The Contacts page has similarly seen an overhaul, and it's much like the one we enjoyed using in the Galaxy S II -- there's an alphabetical directory at right for quickly scrolling through your friends, relatives and acquaintances, and a quick swipe right on their name will immediately call them (or swipe left will text them) without further ado. Though Android has had Sidekick-like jump shortcuts since the very beginning, actually tapping the Jump button by itself does something rather cool -- it pulls up a scrolling list of your last eight tasks in order and displays their keyboard shortcuts to make multitasking even less painless than it was by default.
All that said, the UI overhaul isn't without its issues, like how the Dialer and Contacts app is only usable in portrait view, and the way some third-party apps didn't like Samsung's translucent blue text and rendered it invisible. Samsung's worst misstep, though, is arguably its social networking integration. The Sidekick 4G uses Samsung's Social Networking Sync (SNS) service to drop your friends Twitter, Facebook and MySpace updates in a variety of useful places (like a tasteful homescreen widget and a browsable list on the contacts page) and lets you post updates directly from the notifications bar to any of the same. The problem is, the service syncs a maximumof once per day. Needless to say, you'll probably be using dedicated social networking apps instead, but none of them can leverage the same device integrations, and in fact you'll find all of your Twitter and Facebook contacts each listed twice in your contacts list if you have both the apps and Samsung SNS set up simultaneously.
Also, the UI is occasionally a bit slow -- not lethargic by any means, but considering the Sidekick 4G has the guts of a Galaxy S (including a 1GHz Samsung C110 Hummingbird SOC with 512MB of RAM and PowerVR SGX540 graphics) and Froyo on board, we expected a bit more speed when scrolling around, and despite pulling down 5Mbps speeds over T-Mobile's HSPA+ network, the web browsing experience is a little off. Pages loaded and rendered slower than we anticipated, and trying to scroll around while pages are loading resulted in an unsightly checkerboard pattern -- painful if you're trying to read just one of the entries in a lengthy scrolling blog. Benchmarks also suggest that speed has taken a hit in favor of something else, as our review unit managed only 12.5 MFLOPS in Linpack and a score of around 940 in Quadrant. However, gaming performance should still be pretty snappy, as that PowerVR chip still pumped out 49.9fps in Nenamark, and we played some Cordy and AirAttack HD with only modest slowdown, and stability seems good -- we've yet to see a single crash to homescreen or spontaneous Force Close.
Call quality was just fine over the earpiece, speakerphone or Bluetooth, and cellular reception was mostly consistant with the phone sitting still, and we found battery life fairly average but better then some. After a full 15-hour day of moderate use, we hit the pillow with 27 percent remaining charge, while the same test found our Droid 2 (with a recently replaced, but smaller 1370mAh Li-ion pack) barely holding on at the 15 percent mark. You'll still be charging this one at least nightly, but there's a little extra wiggle room.
Don't let the specs deceive you -- despite clocking in at a seemingly pedestrian 3 megapixels, the Sidekick 4G camera is extremely competent thanks to quality autofocus optics, a good sensor, and top-notch image processing. It takes really nice pictures, with lots of detail, excellent color balance, and accurate exposure. Low-light performance is surprisingly decent, with noise only becoming a problem in extreme circumstances. While there's no flash, you'll find a dedicated two-stage shutter key on the edge of the device, something that we'd like to see on every handset.
The Sidekick 4G captures video at a smooth 30fps, but resolution is limited to 720x480 pixels (SD). While the resulting videos are reasonably crisp, there's no autofocus during video recording, and audio quality is only average.
The camera interface is typical Samsung, and similar to what we've encountered on the company's many Galaxy S phones. It's pretty intuitive to use and provides features like touch-to-focus and a panorama mode. Overall we're quite pleased with the Sidekick 4G camera; it's easily one of the best 3 megapixel shooters we've used in recent months, and we don't mean that in an anachronistic sense. There's not much to say about the unit's front-facing camera, which is merely passable, but even as a token offering for T-Mobile's Qik-powered video chat, it's appreciated.
The growing Android empire has legions of slatephones big and small, and a growing stable of physical QWERTY devices led by the likes of HTC's G2 / Desire Z, Samsung's Epic 4G, and of course the Motorola Droid 2. All of those play at the higher end of the market, though, where folks can afford phones built from metal or filled with organic LEDs, while this perfectly passable Sidekick 4G rings up at just $100 on contract. It's solid, stable, feature-packed and incredibly stylish for the price, and we don't think it's an exaggeration to say it might single-handedly raise the bar for what a mid-range smartphone can be -- compare to the Samsung Transform we reviewed last year. Is it worthy of the Sidekick name? That's a little harder to say, but we've long thought the best features of Danger's Hiptop OS (like email, calendar and contacts storage in the cloud) were present in Android anyways. We think the best test is this -- head over to a T-Mobile store, and get your thumbs on that five-row QWERTY and fantastic sliding hinge.
Myriam Joire contributed to this review.
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