Backstage: Danger Sidekick II Power Users’ Review
Published: Tuesday, September 14, 2004
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(Motorola V600 version of the picture - “save as” to your desktop to view in full size.)
(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.
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.
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.
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