Backstage Review: Danger SideKick II for the Beginner
Published: Tuesday, August 31, 2004
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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