The last two Sidekick 3 updates on Backstage focused on some of the more obvious changes Danger made from the prior Sidekick 2 to this new edition. This update looks at the remaining important changes – Bluetooth, EDGE data support and web browsing, and finally, the Music Player. I’m saving big picture comments for the last installment of the SK3 update, but for now, I’ll say this: other than the unit’s price ($400 without contract, $350 with one-year contract, $300 with two-year contract), which will fall over the next couple of months, there is no doubt in my mind that this is a mandatory upgrade for current Sidekick 2 fans, and users of other data/phone hybrids should strongly, seriously consider the SK3 as a Blackberry, Treo, and other smartphone alternative. More on that later.
Bluetooth: Using the last Sidekick as a phone was pretty much a joy. If you take a look at the comparative radiation emissions from the Sidekicks and, say, popular Motorola phones, it’s safer to actually hold a Sidekick up to your face than a RAZR, SLVR, or ROKR if you’re inclined to do such a thing. Still, I almost always used mine with an earpiece. The trouble was that the earpieces all relied on cords, kept breaking, and/or didn’t sound great. Bluetooth, a wireless technology that lets you walk up to 30 feet away from the phone with a battery-powered earpiece of your choice – was really, really needed.
So Danger added Bluetooth 1.2 to the Sidekick 3, and it now works with virtually all of the popular Bluetooth headsets out there. I tried two of my favorite headsets – Oakley’s RAZRwire (silver, two above), which is highly similar to Motorola’s HS series of monaural headsets – and more recent O ROKR (black, directly above), a more advanced stereo headset that’s also capable of receiving stereo music from phones that support that feature. As with several other phones I’ve used them with, both worked very well with the Sidekick 3, allowing me to have wireless conversations that sounded – in the words of callers, and a couple people who tried talking – at least as good as they did when using the Sidekick’s standard headset, while I was within 10 feet of the phone. It was possible to walk 25 or so feet away from the phone and continue talking, though a little bit of static appeared in the signal at the 10 or 12-foot point, and remained as I moved further away.
The only issues I encountered were interface-related oddities and glitches, which I suspect that Danger will fix in upcoming firmware releases; the company has a track record of actually improving features like that over time. Once the initial pairing process between the headset and phone was complete, I sometimes had to manually “Transfer Sound to” my wireless headset at the start of a phone call, though on occasion, the Sidekick wouldn’t make the transfer and wouldn’t explain why. I suspect that the need for a manual transfer was for power-saving reasons; when it succeeds, you see Phone: (Bluetooth Headset name) in the upper left corner of the screen, as shown below, to let you know your headset is handling audio. Danger also hasn’t handled headset disconnects as smoothly as with some other phones, so if you turn off your earpiece without telling the Sidekick first, you may need to turn the Sidekick’s Bluetooth on and off to re-establish the connection.
Some people may not like that the SK3’s Bluetooth lacks for other non-phone features – it can’t be used to transfer data or serve as a modem for a computer, and won’t let you hear stored music either in monaural or stereo mode. I personally don’t care. A wireless headset for phone calls was what I wanted, and that’s what I got here. My bet is that you’ll see Bluetooth 2.0 with stereo audio support in the next Sidekick, whenever that’s released, but it’s not a necessary application for me quite yet.
The rest of this update – EDGE, web browsing, music player, and more – can be found by clicking Read More below.
Edge and Web Browsing: One of the most significant tweaks this time out is one that’s easy to miss unless you’re tech acronym-savvy: Danger has added EDGE support to the Sidekick 3, which basically means one thing – data transfers between the phone and network are faster. Estimates of 2-4X speed improvements appear to be accurate from what I’ve seen in my web browsing: pages definitely load quicker, even with pictures, than they did before. This is a major quality of experience improvement for SK2 upgraders, but it’s not so reliably fast in an absolute sense that it will satisfy everyone. The web browser still occasionally times out, sometimes without warning, and no new support for web standards (Java, Flash, etc) has been added to the SK3, so it’s basically just like the SK2 as a web browser, only most often a bit quicker.
Music Player: As most companies are doing these days, Danger has integrated a simple, iPod-ish music player into the SK3, and included an Airplane Mode that lets you turn off the cell phone so that you can keep hearing music while in the air. The interface includes most of the standard listing options you’ve seen in every music device released for the last few years: playlists (M3u format), artists, albums, genre, and “library” (aka All) are there, and transferring music to the SK3 is as easy as connecting the included USB cable and dropping files into a folder called Music on the included memory card. We had no problem putting files on the SK3 or playing them back – it was simple, though not super-fast for transfers.
Danger provides two different music playback interfaces – a Mini Player (immediately below) that simplifies the interface, not necessarily in the most efficient way given that it duplicates the timer, artist, album, and song displays, and a Play Queue view (bottom below), which lets you skip through songs you’ve stored. No one’s going to have problems using this interface, though it’s obviously not as clean as the iPod’s. Album art is only displayed on a separate View Song Info page, which is a bit of a disappointment given that it’s all but mandatory to show album art on the Now Playing screens of iPods these days.
Though we couldn’t test it with our own higher-quality headphones – no 3.5mm to 2.5mm adapter is included – the Sidekick 3’s audio quality with its own wired pack-ins is more than acceptable for a modern cell phone, and similar to what we heard from the ROKR and other Motorola music phones. You can also play music back through the Sidekick’s built in speaker, which does a good and acceptably loud job for a monaural internal listening device, though as noted above, you can’t hear music through a wireless headset. At one point, we noticed a bug we couldn’t reproduce – the left and right channels merged into monaural when heard through the stereo headset – but it happened only once, and music otherwise played back in true stereo.
Other Changes: The Instant Messaging link on the main screen now tallies how many messages you’ve missed (“17 unread”) rather than just telling you who sent messages – that’s now on the second, IM service-specific screen. Battery life appears to be better than before by a factor of a couple of hours unless you have Bluetooth turned on. And the new Camera interface is much faster at displaying thumbnails – actually, the entire SK3 interface is considerably zippier thanks to the new trackball and faster processors inside the shell.
Want more details? I’ll have my final comments on the SK3 in the next update.