Backstage | iLounge

Backstage

Backstage at iLounge is the combined blog of our editors, featuring casual and often only loosely iPod-, iPhone- or iPad-related discussions that our readers may enjoy. Founded in July, 2004, Backstage has served as a launching pad for stories that later appear on the main site, and as a place to discuss portable phones, games, computers, and accessories. Visit Backstage Archives for past stories, and bookmark backstage.ilounge.com for new ones.

Backstage: On the Portable Media Center backlash

By Jeremy Horwitz | 09.26.04 | 11 comments

If registration weren’t required (or you wanted the hassle), you could read a reporter for a reputable publication opining on Microsoft’s Portable Media Centers at this link that “there just aren’t that many places where you can make use of” portable video devices, and how “other passengers… [would] think of anybody lugging around such a clunky gadget: ‘loser.’”

Frequent Backstage readers already know that iLounge’s editors (a) love their iPods and (b) don’t exactly love Microsoft, but (c) aren’t closed minded to non-Apple innovations or cool new gadgets. Given these factors, it should only come as a partial surprise that we remain intrigued by the Portable Media Centers and won’t dismiss them out of hand, despite the fact that they’re not receiving the warmest of welcomes from the press these days. We think that if portable video had the right software package - read: TiVo, a legal DVD ripper, and access to a cheap pay-per-view TV library a la iTunes - the recipe would have the missing ingredient (or killer app, in Silicon Valley terminology) it needs to be a breakaway success.

We’re really curious, though, what you think about these portable audio, video and digital photo devices. Is it worth our time to pursue them for Backstage reviews, or should we ignore them altogether until Apple gets off its rear and joins the fray?

Backstage: The iPod Battery ii

By Jeremy Horwitz | 09.22.04 | 2 comments

Added to the queue - BTI’s newest battery accessory, “The iPod Battery ii” (note the intentional use of lower case). If you remember our review of The iPod Battery, you surely recall that we were shocked to get around 73 continuous hours of extra iPod playtime out of that product, which was marketed by BTI for only 40 hours of sustained playback. We’re currently running tests of the thinner and better-looking Battery ii, which won’t likely match its predecessor’s run time but will be more attractive. There will obviously be more to come, and our review will note a recent marketing change re: the original battery, as well.

Backstage: Introducing Sake the iLounge Husky

By Jeremy Horwitz | 09.16.04 | 10 comments

pic Here’s the reason I haven’t updated Backstage as much as I’d normally like - meet Sake (pronounced Sah-kay, like the Japanese wine), my new Siberian Husky puppy. He’s roughly three months old and has been living with us for four days. Straight from Innisfree’s kennels in Chateaugay, New York, he has a great temperament and is adjusting to life here pretty quickly… enough that I’ve been able to cut through my backlog of reviews and almost get back to “normal” here. Thanks to everyone who commented on the earlier Husky thread - your comments helped us screen prospective breeders and know exactly what to look (out) for!

Backstage: Danger Sidekick II Power Users’ Review

By Jeremy Horwitz | 09.14.04 | 13 comments

Do we truly never know what we have until it’s gone? If so, now may be the best time for our Power Users’ Review of Danger’s Sidekick II. Having boxed up our review unit for its return to Danger, iLounge’s editors feel as if we’ve achieved a bit of psychological distance from the all-in-one telecommunications gadget that we’ve been testing for the past ten days. In fact, it’s just enough distance for us to ask and answer two critical questions of interest to Power Users - people who are familiar with the Sidekick’s core technologies and want to hear more about the differences between the old and new platforms.

Question one is one posed by Power Users who currently own older Sidekicks: will a prior-generation Sidekick user want or need to upgrade to the Sidekick II?

Question two is posed by Power Users who skipped the older Sidekicks: does the Sidekick II represent enough of a break from the past to make joining the bandwagon worthwhile?

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The answers to both questions are “probably yes.” iLounge’s editors fall into each of the above camps, and there’s little doubt that Danger has won us over with the Sidekick II platform. While there may be valid reasons for some users to skip or wait on the Sidekick II - especially newbies and those with a low tolerance for service interruptions - we think that this product takes significant steps towards the mass-market appeal prior Sidekicks could only have dreamed of having.

Aesthetics

Like it or not, a good part of the Sidekick II’s added appeal is strictly physical, though those words gloss over the importance of Danger’s design changes to the Sidekick platform. Unlike the earlier Sidekicks, the Sidekick II is slim and almost PDA-like - a better, less spaceship-like shape - and its pop-out screen opens in a deliberate, less toy-like motion. The screen now better resists damage because of an extra hinge that permits a gentle up-down flex against the rest of the unit’s flat surface, and moves if the unit is accidentally dropped.

While similar in texture, the new coloring of the Sidekick II and its keys is more mature: the body has shifted from a cheap metallic gray to a lighter and more sophisticated non-metallic gray, with dark rubber bumpers on the top and bottom sides. White keys (43) have given way to (47) black ones, backlit with red, and power users will appreciate that a clearly illuminated second feature for 12 of the keys is a numeric keypad for telephone dialing, a welcome change from the older Sidekick, which required keyboard-style dialing.

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Additionally, the past Sidekick’s colorful wheel is now solid black, while the previously white joypad has been replaced with a more sophisticated and better textured one. The new joypad now glows like the Northern Lights, and gives off a nice variety of signals for background events. Overall, the unit just looks better - a true version 2.0 of the Sidekick platform.

External functionality has not been sacrificed in more than a single way in the new design: in fact, almost everything about the Sidekick II is smarter, and most often more functional than before. The biggest changes in the Sidekick II are its improved use of non-keyboard controls, which now come in three flavors: face-mounted buttons (now six, instead of three), face-mounted scroll controllers (now two instead of one), and side-mounted buttons (now five instead of zero).

The earlier Sidekick’s three face buttons were marked both with words and confusing icons: a diamond meant Menu, a circle meant Jump, and an X meant Back. Now the Sidekick II does away with the words and changes the icons, using slightly more intuitive shapes to indicate Settings, Main Menu, Back and Cancel.

Additionally, the four-direction scrolling joypad previously placed on the keyboard has been moved, Game Boy-like, to the left face of the unit, and the rotating jog dial wheel has been shrunk and spaced between two other buttons: “hang-up phone” and “place call,” for easier cellular phone use. Simply put, the placement, feel, and utility of these new buttons is a substantial improvement, and the only error - the removal of words from the buttons, for novice users - is one a little practice eventually remedies.

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We were initially most concerned about the new side-mounted buttons, which are rubberized and positioned such that accidental button presses seemed quite possible. Our fears were unfounded: we never experienced an accidental press during our testing, even though we frequently kept the Sidekick II in a pants pocket. Volume up and down buttons were added to the unit’s left bottom side, while a Power On/Off button is on the bottom right. The top two buttons sit on the Sidekick II’s left and right shoulders, and as with a Game Boy Advance are called Left and Right Shoulder buttons. They appear to have been added mostly for future expansion: the left can be used as a shortcut key for the device’s other features, while the right shoulder button is now useful mostly when snapping digital pictures.

That’s a convenient addition, because unlike the earlier Sidekicks, the Sidekick II has a built-in digital camera on its back. The camera features a fixed (non-zooming) lens, a small “see yourself” mirror, and a miniature flash. Few users will miss the prior Sidekick add-on camera’s pivoting ability, especially given that the new camera offers roughly four times the earlier one’s resolution. More on that later.

A speaker under the lens gives the Sidekick II true speakerphone capability, while another speaker is hidden within the device’s joypad. A tiny microphone hole appears right next to the jog dial. Finally, all three of the unit’s ports - headphone jack, AC power, and USB - are now mounted together on the unit’s right hand side, with a rubber plug protecting the USB port from the elements. Rubber also protects the unit’s SIM card, which hides in a spring-loaded recess next to the left shoulder button.

All that’s missing from the Sidekick II’s design is the prior unit’s infrared port, which unfortunately held more promise than was ever exploited. Similar IR ports on PDAs and cellular phones sometimes permit those devices to act as TV remote controls or communicate with other portable devices or computers. Neither the IR port nor the USB port have been properly utilized in past Sidekicks, so Danger tossed one away. We’ll concede that it’s no great loss.

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Overall, the Sidekick II is an iterative but important revision of the prior Sidekick’s physical casing and interface. If any potential user was turned off enough not to buy the old Sidekick based on exterior alone, we’re pretty sure that they’ll have no issue with the new one, and from what we know, the new design is already highly coveted by current Sidekick owners as well. This, of course, is despite the fact that the unit’s core features (screen, controls, and software interface) have hardly changed. Little things turn out to count for a lot in these devices.

Pack-Ins and Accessories

Each Sidekick II includes a few pack-ins: a quick start guide, a full manual, a T-Mobile service guide and SIM card, a power supply for battery recharging, a wired headset for phone calls, and a leather carrying case. No USB cable is included - all of your interactions with a personal computer are conducted wirelessly through T-Mobile’s web site - and the only software you might want, Pumatech’s Intellisync for transferring Microsoft Outlook information to the Sidekick II, is sold separately as a T-Mobile download. That’s a bit of a shame, because it’s a useful piece of software, and we’re not sure about final pricing for it quite yet.

Of the items Danger does include, the only ones requiring comment are the manual, headset and carrying case. The manual’s well written and actually occasionally funny - see if you can spot the little jokes hidden in some of the illustrations. But the headset and carrying case aren’t super impressive - each is a no-frills affair, though the latter is the only component in the entire package that looks dated and out of place, like a holder made for 1980’s aviator sunglasses.  Now that the Sidekick II is on its way to “cool” status, it’s clearly in need of better accessories, and we’d imagine that companies like iSkin, Shure, Etymotic and the like could do a knock-out job catering to this need.

Software Interface

Like Apple Computer, Danger has placed user interface simplicity at the top of its list of priorities, and the result is that the newest generation Sidekick begins its life as a relatively well-oiled machine. Other than three minor cosmetic changes, which we’ll discuss first, the Sidekick II’s software is virtually identical to the most recent update of the earlier Sidekick, and that’s a good thing.

The first thing you’ll notice on power-up is that the Sidekick II has a new start-up sequence. When you hold down the power button to turn the unit on, a new animated icon of the Sidekick appears, showing a black and white Sidekick flipping open. Then there’s a chime, and a flashing light show of colors under the joypad, then a T-Mobile logo animation, then a combined T-Mobile Sidekick II animation, then a flashing of the telephone keypad’s lights.

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There’s also a new shut-down sequence. After three lines of text that show different portions of the unit powering off, a T-Mobile logo appears and fades away, accompanied by a short light cascade from the joypad.

Finally, the main menu has changed a little. At the top left of the screen is a T-Mobile logo, replacing the circular main menu icon from the older Sidekick. And the menu options, at least on our pre-release phone, have changed a little. The central “phone” icon on the list features a right-side picture of two people using the Sidekick as a phone, and an instruction to flip the screen up to dial. When the screen is opened, the aforementioned numeric keypad glows red (and is highlighted on the screen) to indicate that you can start dialing.

The Main Menu icons have been reorganized: Download Fun (renamed from Catalog) is now at the top, followed by AOL Instant Messenger, Email, Phone, and Phone Messages, which includes a new graphic and a note of how many voice mail and text messages you’ve received. Next is the Address Book “with Photo Caller ID.” The Sidekick II’s integrated camera permits you to snap shots and then assign them to callers in your directory - an easy to use, nice feature. Then there’s the Web Browser, then Camera (which shows your two most recent photos and the number of shots remaining), then Calendar, then To Do, then notes, then Rock & Rocket and your installed applications. In the Sidekick II we tested, the only control you have over the list is the order of installed applications. We would have preferred to have full access to rearrange the entire list - and likely hide or remove some of the icons.

The Applications

While most of the applications on the Sidekick II look and feel the same as those on the Sidekick, there are a handful of changes. The Phone’s menu has changed a bit, for example. It’s now easier to dial because the light up number pad is mapped to keyboard, though you can use your Address Book for even easier dialing. And there’s no need for a Send Call icon any more, since the unit has its own button, and a disconnect button as well, next to the wheel.

The Phone Messages menu now gives you numeric counters for number of messages remaining and used rather than a percentage of storage capacity consumed. This application’s settings are also more expansive, with ability to include original message in reply, enable reply request by default, and enable delivery request by default.

Our only real gripe with the unit is that the Web Browser application feels and looks the same as the most recent Sidekick version. Despite the fact that there’s more memory inside the new Sidekick II than before, pages seemed to load the same on both units under similar conditions. We didn’t see a cache improvement; it seemed like the extra memory was being reserved for downloadable applications, music, and photographs more than anything else.

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Because the Camera application permits higher-resolution captures than before - up to 640x480, or a .3 megapixel snap, the extra memory is probably necessary to store the 36 photos the Sidekick II permits. But resolution doesn’t tell the complete story. We found that pictures taken with the Sidekick II’s camera were better than those taken by another 640x480 digital camera we tested - one inside Motorola’s flagship V-series phone, the V600, displaying generally better clarity, contrast, and color balance.

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(Motorola V600 version of the picture - “save as” to your desktop to view in full size.)

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(Danger Sidekick II version of the picture - “save as” to your desktop to view full size. Note that in the full size version, text in the window displays becomes readable, whereas the V600 text is not.)

Your viewfinder is the Sidekick II’s screen, which does an above-average job of letting you preview your photos. And while the flash isn’t great, the camera does have a night photography mode and makes valiant attempts to produce usable low-light visuals. We didn’t find the low-light features especially useful, but if you can find a place to steady the Sidekick II when taking a picture, you might get better results.

Instant messaging will be largely familiar to prior Sidekick owners: as before, you can use a bare version of AOL’s Instant Messenger service, complete with a full buddy list and the ability to switch between different conversations on the fly. Users can also download Yahoo’s IM software - for free - and install it as a separate application on the Sidekick II.

While most of our conversations were trouble-free, we’d like to see Danger and AOL work on making the AIM application even more responsive to real-time network conditions, and better indicate whether messages are currently being sent and received from the Sidekick unit. We experienced occasional pauses where three messages would arrive together, sometimes complete with a “Hello?” type message from the other person, attempting to determine whether we were still there. This was an infrequent occurrence, but enough to make us want better information.

Raw Phone, Web and Gaming Performance

We detailed most of our phone, web, and game-related findings in the New Users’ review of the Sidekick II, and as a brief summary, we were highly impressed. Especially as a phone - whether pressed against the face, used with the included wired headset, or used as a speakerphone - the Sidekick II was awesome. People compared our Sidekick II phone calls to wired line calls and the best cellular calls they had received. Regardless, we continued testing the hardware in another city - this time under a greater variety of conditions. Our trials involved continuous Las Vegas-area use of the Sidekick II in places ranging from the city’s airport to sites on and off the famous Las Vegas Boulevard strip, inside and outside of buildings, at all times of the day.

As a web device and as a phone, the Sidekick II was quite literally unstoppable. We made calls without incident wherever we went, and relied upon the web browser to help us find and research every one of our destinations. While web access was never fast in the broadband sense of the word, we could count on Google results within 60-75 seconds, and full web pages within similar times (depending on whether their graphics were turned on or off to minimize load times). We checked the news, scouted sightseeing opportunities, and checked for show tickets online. Our one and only issue came up when we tried to access the online Zagat restaurant guide, and were denied search access because the Sidekick II doesn’t support Javascript. It was a minor limitation, but a reminder that the unit doesn’t do everything. For those keeping score, multimedia content (movies, music, etc) still remains off-limits from the Sidekick II’s web browser; nothing has changed in that regard. The lack of more up-to-date web standard support is in our opinion the biggest omission from the Sidekick’s feature set, and one that may well present more problems in the future as web content evolves and broadband-ready sites become the norm.

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Our only text and data hiccup actually came at the end of our test period. With a strong battery charge remaining, and within a very strong signal area, we received “Network Unavailable” messages for around half an hour as we were preparing to shut the unit down for its last time. Given the unit’s overall uptime, the half hour was a modest period of time to be without data services, but the event confirmed stories we’ve heard from T-Mobile customers that you can’t always be sure the web service will be there when you need it.

We also tried to download some more games and ringtones to see whether our first impressions (mediocre, as detailed in the New Users’ review) were accurate. They were. We liked Danger’s rendition of Mah-jongg, but thought that the third-party slot machine game we tested was amongst the worst we’ve ever seen on a modern handheld device. It’s almost astonishing that there aren’t more and better games - at least paralleling the Ubisoft/Gameloft ones available on recent Motorola phones - given the relative sophistication of the Danger hardware. For the moment, downloads as a whole are unfortunately a hit and miss proposition, and their costs ($1.99 per ringtone, for example, $4.99 for some games) don’t help matters. While gaming and music aren’t the Sidekick II’s killer applications, it wouldn’t hurt for Danger to be more aggressive in developing both. Our hope: iTunes on the Sidekick platform. We’ll keep our fingers crossed, but aren’t counting on it.

Service Plans: A Final Word on Behalf of T-Mobile Customers

Ideally, the Sidekick II would be sold through multiple vendors in the same manner as Motorola’s V600 and other uber-popular phones, but it’s not. If you want a Sidekick, you need to buy it from T-Mobile and sign up for monthly data services at $29.99, or add data services on to a GSM telephone plan for an additional $19.99.

This wouldn’t be a problem if T-Mobile’s data services were perfect, or close to perfect, or if the company’s customer service was easy to deal with, but according to customers we’ve spoken with, that’s not the case. Like other wireless companies, T-Mobile’s customer service leaves something to be desired, and from what we’ve heard, the presumption unfortunately appears to be that the customer is wrong unless strongly proven otherwise. And this wouldn’t be a major problem if customers rarely needed to call with problems, but service outages like the 30 minute one we experienced are apparently not uncommon, and can sometimes last much longer. Then, when customers call to request outage credit or assistance, they’re forced to argue with T-Mobile to get the service credits they’re due. Wait times for these calls can also be unpleasantly long, compounding the problem.

The other issue we’ve heard a lot about from multiple readers is voice mail delays: someone can leave a voice message for you and you might not receive it for a day or two, rendering T-Mobile’s phone service a question mark for anyone who values their time. This sort of service limitation is so profoundly crippling of any wireless device - let alone one for someone who values telecommunication enough to pay the extra $19.99 per month for special services - that it causes one of iLounge’s editors (the one without a Sidekick) to seriously question whether we could deal with the limitation.

That said, iLounge’s editors generally have an unusual tolerance for these sorts of “early adopter” issues, and as such, one of us will be upgrading to the Sidekick II without reservation, and the other of us will likely buy one and become a new T-Mobile customer as a result. But average consumers should be forewarned: if you are the sort of person who at any given moment might be depending on web services, voicemail, or the like, you should wait until T-Mobile offers greater assurances that they’re ready to accommodate your needs.

Concluding Words

Today, we think that your decision as to whether the Sidekick II is ultimately the right device for you will depend largely on a single factor: can you tolerate T-Mobile-related service issues that may impair your use of voicemail and data services? If so, Danger’s got the device for you - an all-in-one data-ready phone that does for the world of voice and data communications what the iPod has done for the world of portable music.

If not, we can understand your perspective, too. The asking price of $299.99 (now confirmed to be $199.99 for upgraders) plus monthly service fees is in our view reasonable only if you’re going to get close to full use of the phone and data services you purchased. On the bright side, the Sidekick II does a substantially better job of picking up the GSM telephone and data signals you’ll need to use your device inside of buildings or wherever you go, so if you’ve been happy with your old Sidekick, you’ll love the new one. But all that’s for naught if T-Mobile doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain. We look forward to a day when the data service end of this equation, whether through T-Mobile or its competitors, is as conclusively superb as the Danger device that relies upon it.

Sidekick II Photo Gallery

Backstage: Microsoft’s Longhorn and the iPod

By Jeremy Horwitz | 09.12.04 | 6 comments

I’ve been busy with more important things this past week, but I couldn’t help but comment briefly on the latest oafish proclamation from Microsoft, the promise of a new feature in their Longhorn (Windows 2006) operating system that will - in their words - keep iPods from stealing data from PCs or unleashing virus attacks on business networks. (Edit: Alternate link for story. Search for “Microsoft claims”.)

“Wait a second,” you’re saying, “no one really uses iPods to steal data from PCs or unleash virus attacks. That’s just insane.” And of course, you’re correct. The average PC virus gets sent through e-mail, fits on a floppy disk (say nothing of a CD-R), and by no means needs an iPod for any stage of its transmission. Plus, everyone knows it would be a hell of a lot easier to attack or steal from the average PC with a non-iPod portable device (say, a USB key) that installs its own PC drivers. Each of these facts will be just as true in 2006, assuming nothing changes and we’re not all driving flying cars and eating Soylent Green by then. So why, then, would Microsoft say it’s securing its new operating system against Attack By iPod?

It’s obvious - to (a) smear the iPod’s good name while (b) providing a convenient excuse to make another Windows OS that rejects or screws with competitors’ products and (c) distracting people from discussing the huge virus problems that already plague Windows machines. Since Microsoft can’t stop people from infecting PCs with virus-laden e-mails (attacks that come 40 times a day) or stealing data through the Internet (which doesn’t even require that someone sneak up and attach an iPod to your computer), they’ll just invent a problem that they can solve. Attacking the iPod is surely a lot easier than actually coming up with a worthwhile iPod competitor, right? This, from the company that took 2 years to come up with a mouse with a built-in neon light. Ugh.

Backstage: The review queue grows by 8

By Jeremy Horwitz | 09.07.04 | 1 comment

Add the following to the review queue: 4G Cases from Pacific Rim, Contour, and Speck. Altec’s IMminis. A new iPod mini case called Poco from Japanese design house Bird Electron. The new iCradle from Pacific Rim. That oddball 9V travel charger thing you may have read about in the news section. And a beta of the Tunewear Tunemax, which we are going to pass on reviewing until (unless?) we have a final, or receive confirmation that they really want the one we’ve received to be reviewed as-is.

Backstage: Back from vacation

By Jeremy Horwitz | 09.06.04 | 5 comments

Now that I’m back from vacation, there are four items just waiting in the ol’ review queue: iLeath’s new iPod mini case, Griffin’s EarJams, Matias’ new clear iPod Armor mini, and the Power Users’ review of the Danger Sidekick II. As a preliminary note on the new SK2 review, the device held up beautifully in Las Vegas, providing a highly convenient travel resource wherever I went.

And regular Backstage updates will hopefully return in short order, too. On a related note, we’ve been trying to figure out how to get some Backstage-related links up on the main page so that people know when it was last updated.

Backstage Review: Danger SideKick II for the Beginner

By Jeremy Horwitz | 08.31.04 | 17 comments

The first wireless revolution detached telephones from their base stations, which remained connected to wired phone lines. In a second revolution, cellular telephones emerged, with no telephone lines or wires whatsoever. The third revolution freed notebook computers from their wires, permitting laptops to remain connected to the Internet while moving a hundred feet away from their base stations. Now the fourth revolution in wireless communications has arrived: a device the size of a large cellular telephone that lets its user make remain connected to the Internet for e-mail, web, and instant messaging without using lines or wires of any kind, plus make phone calls and take digital photographs.

We could end this review in three sentences or carry on for several pages, but in either case the conclusion would be the same: as the best embodiment of the latest wireless revolution, Danger’s new Sidekick II has the potential to be the iPod of handheld wireless communication devices. With modest exceptions, it is the hybrid PDA and phone that Apple Computer would have released in an alternate universe where serious money could be made on phones. And today, the only thing holding the Sidekick II back from greatness is wireless service provider T-Mobile, which exclusively sells Sidekicks, yet maintains a level of wireless data service that has driven some customers crazy.

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As we realize that most of our readers are looking for a short and sweet review of the Sidekick II, we provide this new users’ version in that form. Our power users’ review (to follow several days from now) is longer, goes into greater detail, and includes detailed comparisons between the new and older Sidekick hardware.

Concept

To succinctly summarize the Sidekick II is to trivialize the impressiveness of its design: it is a color-screened handheld device that serves as an outstanding GSM cellular phone and speakerphone, provides complete read-write access to four different e-mail accounts, permits full AOL and Yahoo instant messaging, competently browses the web, takes digital pictures, offers PDA-style organization tools, and plays games. Used moderately for each of these purposes during a given day, it can last for nearly 30 hours on a single battery charge. And it fits into the front pocket of a pair of jeans.

The engineering feats involved in the Sidekick II are only slightly short of staggering. Thanks to a revolutionary screen design - pardon the pun - Danger’s Sidekicks each possess the ability to operate in a “closed” or “open” position, whereby a fingertip-sized 47-key keyboard is hidden under a brightly-backlit screen that flips open by spinning around on a top central pivot point. When closed, the Sidekick II resembles a silver and gray version of Nintendo’s original Game Boy Advance portable game console, and the user’s access is limited to selecting on-screen options from highly intuitive menus with a joypad and buttons. Phone calls can be placed by picking names and numbers from an address book, and digital pictures taken from a rear-mounted lens and flash system with a few button presses. It bears brief mention that the earlier Sidekick hardware did not include an integrated camera, an external joypad, or as many buttons - all wise improvements.

When open, the Sidekick II looks like a miniaturized notebook computer with a joypad, dial, and buttons on its sides, and the integrated keyboard can be used for typing, dialing telephone numbers, and more. It also bears note that the keyboard is substantially better and larger than the ones that appear on professional-quality PDAs and Research in Motion Blackberry communication devices, which is especially impressive considering the devices’ relative up-front and ongoing subscription costs.

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Users pay a maximum of $299.99 for the Sidekick II hardware and an ongoing subscription fee of between $19.99 and $29.99 for unlimited use of e-mail, web, and instant messaging services. New customers traditionally have received $100 discounts off the purchase of Sidekick hardware, and the monthly data fees vary depending on whether a customer also opts to purchase separate cellular telephone service.

Using the Device

What’s brilliant about the Sidekick II is not just that it blends web, e-mail, instant messaging and telephone service into a single device, but more importantly that it does each feature justice and uses an almost effortless user interface. This is not a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. The main menu is a collection of simple icons that you move through in a half-circle on the left of the screen, each icon’s purpose fully explained on the right side of the screen. Because of the vivid color display and superb backlight, text and graphics are easy to see and understand - far easier than on most Blackberry devices, say nothing of PDAs. And each of the Sidekick II’s very different features is rendered as easy to use as possible - so easy that you can substantially operate the device even without using the full keyboard.

Like Apple Computer, Danger’s most visible contribution is its devotion to simplicity - it has removed the unnecessary boot-up screens, error messages, myriad settings and button presses that constantly threaten to turn personal computing into computer science. When you want to set up an e-mail account on Danger’s device, you’re asked fewer than ten questions, and then it works. When you want to send AOL instant messages for your first time, you’re asked four questions if you’re a new user, three if you’re an existing user, and then you’re up and running on the network. Browsing the web requires nothing more than the right web address. It’s effortless. But powerful. And more sophisticated users will find plenty of tricks hidden under the device’s surface.

Evolution of a Platform

That’s because the Sidekick II is actually Danger’s third iteration of the Sidekick - the first was a black and white unit, followed a year later by a color one that was similarly shaped and named. Manufactured for Danger by contract manufacturer Flextronics, the prior-generation Sidekick was considered an impressive feat of design, but was plagued by hardware defects. Users reported love and hate relationships with their Sidekicks, primarily because the units worked perfectly well until they abruptly failed, and stories of users whose Sidekicks were replaced between three and seven times - each with refurbished hardware - are fairly common. Interestingly, Danger accepts responsibility for these issues, and plans a generous trade-in program as a good faith gesture to satisfy existing customers.

While almost identical to the prior Sidekick in functionality, the Sidekick II is a substantially different manufactured product. Sleeker and thinner than its predecessor, it is also longer, an acceptable size tradeoff in our view, and one that improves the device’s use as a conventional phone. More importantly, Danger assures us that the device will be “hands down” more reliable than its predecessor, as it is now being manufactured by Japanese contractor Sharp, which also helped Danger redesign the unit to improve its durability. The results are a magnetic lock and a more flexible pivoting arm for the screen, rubber anti-shock bumpers on the unit’s sides, and better integrations of its ports and controls.

As a GSM Phone

As of the date of this review, we’ve tried making GSM telephone calls with the Sidekick II and literally never - never - have had a problem. Underscore this point. In recent months, we’ve used GSM phones from Sony Ericsson (T68i), Samsung (v206), Motorola (V600 and V400), and of course Danger’s prior Sidekick. The Sidekick II outperforms each of these platforms by a country mile, thanks to a new internal antenna that delivers considerably better phone reception. We are absolute sticklers for cellular performance, and had no complaints whatsoever no matter where we were, or drove - through standard deadzones or otherwise. Users on both ends of our calls consistently reported clean, telephone-line quality sound regardless of the way in which we used the device as a phone, including as a traditional headset with microphone and speaker, and even in a building known for serious interference issues. We will continue to test the Sidekick II on a visit to Las Vegas this week, and update these findings accordingly, but frankly, we don’t think there is any chance that they will change.

The Sidekick II provides three ways to place calls: as a standard headset, via a superb speakerphone, and finally through a packed in wired earbud and microphone. Each provided excellent sound quality without dropping calls. Speakerphone calls proved especially audible on both ends. While the unit looks somewhat large when touching your head as a standard headset, and we preferred either of its other audio options, it sounds good and works well in that configuration. Some users reported a small buzz in the wired audio, but certainly not a worse one than in the other phones we’ve tried.

pic

Additionally, Danger now sells digitized audio ringtones that come from a largely Sony Music library of past and present hits. While they sound pretty good - not great - they’re expensive at $1.99 a pop, which is especially exorbinent considering that most online music download services (including Sony’s) give you full versions of the songs in a much higher quality rather than mere 30-second snippets. Danger will also be selling access to Pumatech’s Intellisync, a tool that permits PC users to easily transfer their Microsoft Outlook address books, tasks and to do lists back and forth from the Sidekick II. Limited free one-way transfers of address book data to the Sidekick via a World Wide Web interface also remain an option. We found the data transfers to be relatively effortless, and our test Sidekick II displayed all of the information correctly.

Finally, users can easily link digital photographs to the address book entries. It’s a neat feature that’s becoming increasingly common on other GSM camera phones, and it works well here, as well.

As a Web Browser and Instant Messenger

The Sidekick II is relatively unchanged from the earlier Sidekicks in web browsing ability: they take several minutes to load graphics-heavy pages, and are considerably faster when operating in text-only mode. Some users have reported web outages lasting hours or days, but we did not experience this, perhaps because we were on a test account. Each is more a limitation of the data services provided by T-Mobile than a limitation of the Danger hardware, but these are factors hard core webbies will mind the most.

Danger’s only major web-related design limitations are the Sidekick II’s limited ability to display audiovisual data and web pages using newer coding standards. It’s not - at least currently - a real movie or audio player, and you shouldn’t expect to play such content on the device’s screen. That said, we had no issues with 95% of the web pages we visited, though the graphics are automatically rearranged in a somewhat less attractive way for the Sidekick II’s smaller screen.

AOL instant messaging was relatively easy to master within the first 30 minutes of use. Again, the Sidekick II’s only limitation in this regard is the screen - you can see one conversation at a time, with a second one-line preview window that appears in the screen’s upper right corner when messages come through. This same preview window also conveniently appears when you’re using other applications, such as the web browser, permitting you to use several of the device’s features together. Only the use of the GSM phone interrupts your ability to receive web and instant message updates, though you can still access all of the applications while you’re making phone calls.

Other Features

The Sidekick II’s other features are each solid. Notetaking and organization of stored notes is easy, as is use of the Calendar. Game and other application downloads are very easy - though sometimes a bit pricey considering what you get, mostly in the games. We tried downloading Danger’s RowBot ($4.99), a Tetris-ish jewel matching game that was a little bit hard to control despite its simple premise, and playing the device’s packed-in Asteroids clone Rock and Rocket. The games were okay, but not the best we’ve seen on even phone devices. Games made using the Mophun engine, and those supplied for Motorola’s v-series phones, have been much better implemented. Some applications, like Yahoo Messenger, AOL Mail, and a Calculator, are available for free - a much better deal.

pic


We liked Danger’s new built-in digital camera, which stores 36 photos at 640x480 resolution and takes pretty good shots considering that it’s only a .3 megapixel device. (That’s a nearly four-fold improvement over the earlier Sidekick’s resolution.) It was surprising and pleasant to see a built in flash and settings for night shots, which typically are excluded from phone-camera hybrids. Our shots looked considerably better when transferred over to our computer via Danger and T-Mobile’s easy-to-use web interface.

There are a number of other little touches that we could describe, but it should suffice to say that Danger’s integration of the Sidekick II’s various programs is generally great. Easy enough for anyone to use, this is the only device we’d consider carrying around for wireless data communications given its impressive feature set and implementation.

The Only Issue: T-Mobile

As mentioned in the introduction to this article, Danger has done virtually everything it can do to develop an excellent device. Fully featured and powerful in each of its functions, the Sidekick II begs for equally reliable data services. And that may be the only thing the product will be missing in this new generation unless Danger takes action.

Despite the earlier Sidekick’s feature set, which at the time was considered reasonably impressive, factors partially within Danger’s control have caused many earlier customers to refer to their “love-hate relationships” with their Sidekicks. Manufacturing defects were one issue, but feel feel pretty confident that they have been resolved. The other issue - and one we heard about from numerous Sidekick users - is seriously problematic wireless provider customer service.

T-Mobile users have complained about extended data service outages ranging from hours to days, extended delays in receiving their voicemail messages, and the need to argue with T-Mobile customer service agents about everything from service credits to Sidekick returns. Another online publication, Gizmodo, has gone further, accusing T-Mobile of consistently failing to fix acknowledged account problems and lying about its internal documentation of such problems.

While it is true that many wireless providers offer similarly unacceptable customer service, we would recommend that our readers hold off on purchasing the Sidekick II until T-Mobile sorts these issues out and legitimately provides closer to 99.9% data network uptime. Business customers are also warned that time-sensitive voicemails and other messages may be subject to extended delays unacceptable given T-Mobile’s promises.

For these reasons, the Sidekick II seems to be more appropriate for Danger’s apparent target market - younger users who are less likely to complain about such outages - than for mainstream and business customers. If Danger wants to win iPod-level market penetration and acclaim, it will need to remedy these problems, and fast.

Pros: Provides great e-mail, instant messaging, and phone service. Web, digital camera, and other functionality is close to class-leading.

Cons: Data services may be unreliable, and customers may experience hassles with T-Mobile customer service.

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Backstage: Danger’s Sidekick II - the Gallery

By Jeremy Horwitz | 08.30.04 | 0 comments

Leading up to our full review of Danger’s Sidekick II, you can now view iLounge’s photo gallery of Sidekick II shots, including comparison images with the prior-generation Sidekick, a Blackberry-like device called the GoodLink from Good Technology, and a Motorola V600 wireless phone. When’s the review coming? Our New Users’ Review - very soon (upgraded from “soonish”). In iLounge tradition, a Power Users’ review will follow.

Click here for the Gallery

Backstage: Danger’s Sidekick II

By Jeremy Horwitz | 08.26.04 | 9 comments

picYes, I’ll be reviewing it here on Backstage. Soonish. Not tomorrow soonish, but soonish nevertheless.

And no, the Sidekick II is not the secret iPod accessory we’ve been hinting at. But we’re trying to get the okay to talk about that, too. In all honesty, it wasn’t my intention to build up too much hype around it (it’s not something -huge-), but it’s something I really do like.

By the way, the earlier Sidekick is Dennis’ favorite gadget beside the iPod.

Backstage: Naming the next iPod

By Jeremy Horwitz | 08.25.04 | 5 comments

Just when the iPod rumor mill seemed ready to die down until 2005, someone had to go and discover two open Apple job listings for hardware engineers familiar with various video and wireless data technologies. Normally, of course, Apple Computer‘s attempts to hire such people would not surprise anyone. But the fact that the positions were listed specifically for the company’s iPod division raised some eyebrows, and deservedly so. If “it’s the music, stupid,” we get the 802.11x stuff, but what is all this video and GSM phone hoo-hah about?

Answer: the future. In my mind, the question has never been whether Apple would release a more versatile portable device than the iPod - they will. Specs aside, the question is really limited to whether they will call it an iPod, or something else.

Evidence that they’ll call it an iPod: Way back in my Future Pods article (February 2004), I noted that even if Apple released what we predicted would be the “iPod 2” (a thinner, iterative 3G iPod with better battery life (yes, yes), maybe a Click Wheel (yes), and a removable battery (bzzzt)), they probably wouldn’t use that name - they’d again call it the iPod (ding ding). And then there’s the fact that they named their new division the “iPod” group rather than the “advanced portable consumer electronics” group or something more nebulous. The company clearly loves the iPod brand name, and since “Pod” isn’t a strictly music word per se, most signs suggest that Apple’s future portable devices will play on that name. We still think that Apple should go with an iPod AV name rather than, say, a vPod or an iVid, but…

picEvidence that they’ll call it something else: Apple recently moved to trademark the word “Pod” sans the i, and fans have been guessing that the company might do something goofy and create a PowerPod and an iPod to parallel the PowerBook and iBook. This would be a bad idea from a branding standpoint, and my instincts are that Apple’s only doing this to prevent companies from selling aPods, bPods, and cPods. (Or, for that matter, HomePods and Dvx-Pods.) But then there’s the other theory. Having moved recently to secure a European design patent for a small tablet computer, Apple may be thinking of releasing the convergence fanatics’ dream machine: an “iPad” that uses OS X at the core of a super PDA that plays movies, recognizes handwriting for office applications, and interfaces wirelessly with networks for communications. To call such a device an “iPod” would be stretching it… but something similar wouldn’t be bad, right?

I’m casting my vote for iPod AV anyway. grin Your thoughts?

Backstage:  Future Plans for the iPod 101 Series

By Jerrod H. | 08.24.04 | 8 comments

As you have likely noticed, I’ve restarted weekly progress on our elementary-level introduction series to iTunes and the iPod— iPod 101.  iPod 101 has thus far served as a guide to “Getting to Know iTunes’ Basic Features,” as we feel that using iTunes to it’s fullest is an essential part of enjoying the iPod/iTunes solution as a whole.

The series is going great.  Over the past few months, we’ve covered nearly all of the basic aspects of iTunes:  Importing CDs, Making Playlists (Manual & Smart), Burning CDs, Tagging Tracks and Adding Album Art, Printing CD Covers & Track Lists, and using Party Shuffle.  The response we’ve received from you all has been very positive, and we’re glad that our readers new to the iPod (and those looking for new tips) are enjoying the series.

Enough summary… I’ll get to the point.  Much like Jeremy has done below (help him, too!), I’d like to offer our preliminary plans for the future of the series to you, and hopefully get some feedback.

I have two more iPod 101 articles currently in the works:  Adding WMA files to your iTunes Library and the iPod (for PC users only), and a tour of the iTunes Music Store.  With the addition of these two articles, most newcomers will have experienced all of the essential components of what makes iTunes a fun one-stop-shop for digital music.  However, the series will not end here.

After iPod 101, I’ll be handing out diplomas (ok, only kidding) as we continue to iPod 201, which will deal with more advanced iPod & iTunes topics.  These will include (but not be limited to) items we see brought up in the forums frequently:

  • Methods of iPod Synchronization (Auto, Selected Playlists, Manual)

  • Relocating your iTunes Music Library

  • Using the iPod’s PDA features

  • Copying music from the iPod back to a computer

  • ...

  • AppleScripts?  eBooks?  Audible content? Help us make this series what you want it to be! 

    As the series will be rapidly growing, we also hope to create a more friendly index page dedicated to iPod 101/201.  It will be easily accessible to new readers, and easily to navigate through the series in order of increasing difficulty.

    I’d like to now ask for your feedback on the series and suggestions for iPod 201 articles. 

    Thanks!

    Backstage: In the queue and making plans

    By Jeremy Horwitz | 08.24.04 | 8 comments

    Currently in the review queue:

    DLO New TransPod: We’re working on a review of DLO’s new TransPod, including some comparison references to the version most people are familiar with.

    Power Support Swivel Fix Stand: The review’s done, along with reviews of Power Support’s Silicone Jackets. We’re just waiting to post.

    Secret Item: Something we can’t discuss yet, but want to. Hopefully soon.

    This might be the right time to take requests - anything you guys would like to see reviewed? Written about as a feature?

    Backstage: The dogs of iLounge

    By Jeremy Horwitz | 08.18.04 | 9 comments

    picDennis has a dog (Rocket, the Lab, featured in an earlier Backstage entry). And I want a Siberian Husky (pictured, right), hopefully in the next few months. Since iLounge has the greatest readers out there, I figured I’d pose this question to people with good taste: anyone out there have a Husky? If so, any breeder recommendations? Other comments?

    While comments from S. California users are most useful, any and all comments are appreciated.

    Backstage: An aside on portable games of 2004

    By Jeremy Horwitz | 08.16.04 | 14 comments

    picI just might be the only person in the world who plays the iPod’s built-in Solitaire game, and that’s mainly because it’s the only title that doesn’t destroy battery life or blur a bunch on the screen. As a lifelong gamer, I’m one of those people who hopes against hope that Apple will toss some better video hardware into the iPod, if only so that Tempest 2000 could appear on the machine. Since that’s not happening any time soon, I’ve been watching the only new portable games platform likely to show up by year’s end… Nintendo’s DS (Dual Screen) quasi-sequel to the Game Boy Advance.

    I’ve owned Game Boys since the day the first one was released in the United States, and as a collector have kept an almost complete Virtual Boy hardware and game set in my collection for years. That said, having played 90% of the NDS’s demo games at E3, and even having thought that its chances of success were most likely higher than Sony’s with the PSP, I’ve recently come to feel that NDS might be the first Nintendo platform I skip entirely. A US$179.99 retail price has been the consistent buzz over the last couple of months, and I consider that number to be something close to suicide for a portable platform with no killer apps and features (stylus? two screens? bigger size? less battery life?) that consumers haven’t been asking for. Most clued-in industry people I know have been assuming that it would sell for $129.99, and hoping that it sold for $99.99, which incidentally are my “I’ll think about it” and “I’ll buy it at launch” price points.

    From my perspective, there are of course reasons to price a portable game system at more than twice the current retail of the Game Boy Advance (and $70 more than the original GB’s launch price): you don’t have enough to meet demand, you want to gouge early adopters, or you’re really, really stupid or forgetful and don’t mind being blamed for another Virtual Boy-style debacle. (Yes, the VB launched at $179.99, had no killer app, and offered a two-screen gaming experience no one knew that they wanted. Purely coincidence, though.) Even at the same price, I doubt that the NDS will be a VB-caliber flop, mostly because the newer device has better third-party support, but what do you guys think? Would you shell out $180 for a DS? Or wait until the price drops? Or skip it altogether?

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