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Review: Sidekick 4G Is a Teenage Dream

T-Mobile has teamed up with Samsung to revive the Sidekick brand, once a highly popular messaging phone for the hip, younger crowd. The $99 Sidekick 4G (after $50 rebate and with qualifying plan contract) isn’t just a throwback to the old phones, however. The device is built on the Google Android (s goog) platform, supports T-Mobile’s 4G data network and uses a lot of hardware from Samsung’s popular Galaxy S smartphone, which sold more than 10 million units last year.

How much will the newly updated Sidekick 4G appeal to teens? I asked my 13-year-old son, Tyler, to take the Sidekick 4G for a weekend spin. Here’s what he, as a current iPhone 4 (s aapl) user, thinks:

My 11 year-old step-daughter also spent time with the Sidekick 4G and inside of two minutes asked me if she could keep it to replace her iPhone 3GS. Of course, I used the device as well, so my written review supplements the kids’ opinions.

Hardware: Modernizing an Old Favorite

Much like the old Sidekick phones which had a flip-up screen to reveal a hardware keyboard, the new Sidekick 4G uses a display that slides-up on a unique hinge. You simply nudge the screen a small bit and the hinge does the rest of the work, popping up the screen for keyboard use. The keyboard is excellent for typing, is backlit and includes both a dedicated number row and buttons for search, emoticons, and voice input. Of course, the touchscreen display can be used for typing, just like any Android device.

The new handset also places four hardware buttons on the corners: home, settings, back and a new “jump” key. This last one is configurable for quick-launching Facebook, email, messaging or practically any other app. As a long-time Android user, I found the buttons hard to get used to, but that’s likely because I’m trained to use the typical four Android buttons on most Google phones of today. Aside from these buttons, the Sidekick 4G has one for power, a volume rocker, a round optical pad for navigation and a dedicated camera key.

While the outside of this mainly plastic phone looks hip, don’t underestimate what’s inside, as the phone shares much from Samsung’s Galaxy S: 1GHz CPU, 800×480 display, and all of the same sensors and connectivity options, including a 21 Mbps radio for fast downloads in T-Mobile coverage areas. In fact, the handset can be used as a wireless hotspot for multiple devices and also supports Wi-Fi calling. Although I don’t live near a strong HSPA+ signal, I did take the phone on my weekend travels and saw downloads topping 6 Mbps. In the right coverage areas, I’d expect the Sidekick 4G to see speeds at or near 10 Mbps. The battery should get most users through a full day as well.

So what’s missing in terms of hardware? The camera sensor is 3 megapixels, has no flash, and can be slow to focus, but it does record 480p video. The touchscreen doesn’t use Samsung’s OLED technology; however, it is reasonably good. And the internal memory is limited to around 350 MB: T-Mobile includes a 2 GB microSD card, and you can always purchase even more external storage. None of these specification limits bothered my kids, however.

Software: Android Is Fun Again

The smartest move T-Mobile made with the Sidekick 4G may not be about the hardware, though. Building the phone with Google Android 2.2 allows the device to be as fully functional as nearly any other Android smartphone available today. The handset has access to the full Google Android Market for tens of thousands of apps, so the kids were enjoying Angry Birds and other games over the weekend. All the software I looked at performed comparably to other Android phones I’ve used recently — perhaps a little slower when compared to a high-end handset, but again, kids won’t care or know any better. YouTube videos play just fine, and the browser is more than capable, which I’d expect based on the hardware.

The interface actually makes Android fun to use as well. You can see the difference immediately, because the phone’s lock screen doesn’t display the time numerically. Instead, it spells out the time, which the kids thought was unique. Menus are angled, edgy and self-explanatory. I was able to get at my apps faster when using the jump button shortcuts. And of course, being Android, you can customize the experience as well. Tyler changed to one of the included themes, which modified not only the phone background, but also gave the Sidekick 4G a fun font as well. (Note that my screen shots show Tyler’s customizations; you can use a fairly standard font as well.)

Also welcome to the handset are three messaging apps, each of which focuses on the core competency of the device. There’s a standard text messaging app, of course; T-Mobile supplemented this with a GroupText app for chatting online between multiple people. And the new CloudText software reminds me of a Google Voice function I rely upon daily: A text conversation can seamlessly move between the handset and a web client, allowing the discussion to continue across multiple devices. The CloudText service goes live when the Sidekick 4G becomes available, so I couldn’t test it, but conceptually, I love the idea, and so did the kids, who use multiple devices during the day.


For the text messaging teen who wants a smartphone experience, the Sidekick 4G is a must-see. I raised concerns with the T-Mobile folks about the added expense of a data plan, but they pointed out that the $10 monthly plan that includes 200 MB of data qualifies the Sidekick 4G for the $99 cost. That could be enough data for some, provided the kids use Wi-Fi where available.

Both my children are sad to see the Sidekick 4G review unit go back, which definitely says something. And I understand the appeal, since both are current smartphone users who send thousands of text messages per month. But even I’m a little wistful as I box up the device. The Sidekick 4G is just as capable as my Nexus One handset, and in some ways, even more so. The phone is a bit bulky due to the keyboard, and the camera isn’t the best. But with fast download speeds, a great text entry system and a processor to handle all the tasks you can throw at Android, I’m almost inclined to become a Sidekick totin’ hipster at the age of 41.

14 Responses to “Review: Sidekick 4G Is a Teenage Dream”

  1. This phone is the best I’ve ever had. I haven’t had any major problems with it. Just some minor ones. Like slight freezing in certain apps. The speed is outstanding, and the keyboard is fast and comfortable. I’ve made blog posts from my sidekick! The camera isn’t a problem at all. It’s a camera. If you’re going to take pictures, buy an actual camera! The phone is fast, reliable, and pretty much everything everyone could be looking for in a phone (atleast I would think). I think this phone is simply a classic which will last for a while. Everybody loves the popup screen (although the swivel was better, but why argue?). Just the screen pop up is entertaining and appealing. One thing that makes it better is it’s distinct diversity from other Android phones. The sidekick has it’s own line of look and settings only found on the Sidekick Android. I think it’s just an amazing phone with endless possibilities. It should please anyone’s phone taste.

  2. Do you know if the touch screen is static based or pressure based?
    Examples: Pressure: The DS Touch Screen
    Static: Most Smart Phones

    • She has an iPhone 3GS but we didn’t buy it for her. It’s my old iPhone, which I purchased and later replaced with a Google Nexus One on T-Mobile’s network. I didn’t want to pay the ETF on the iPhone and we wanted her to have a phone, so I simply ported my number off the iPhone and got a new number for her so I could continue the contract without the ETF.

  3. Hey! I am gonna be the new owner of one soon! My new SK4G was shipped yesterday! By next week this time, I will be fu,bling and learning my new phone! I have been a sidekick user since SKone.. The one I have currently the last 4 years is the SK LX.. I love them…. That’s why I am sticking to the sk model.. My MAIN concern , because I am hearing impaired, was to have the awesome light up nonifications and musical vibrations… THAT is what I asked the reps at T-MO.. they said yes, that the corners light up.. however I am NOT able to find any testimony on this, can you verify what light up features this new one has? Thanks!! :)

  4. Thanks for the review, I really enjoyed it! I bought my Sidekick 4G today but was wondering how you got the little stick figure man that runs around in the background as I think that was really cool! Thanks for any help!

  5. bridget

    You can use the web on any sidekick as long as you unlock it & have an account with t-mobile. To unlock the sidekick call customer service. It’s a easy & quick process.

  6. Krysten

    I’m currently using an unlocked sidekick lx 2009 in canada. Because of this i am unable to use internet here. Would an unlocked sidekick 4g allow me to use data services in canada?

    • Reebha

      Hey, I’m from Canada and really want to get a sidekick 4g. I was just wondering you’ve already got the sidekick 4g and what provider you’re with? I’m have a bb 9780 with bell and hate it. haha if you could let me know, that’d be great! :D