Review: Sidekick 4G Is a Teenage Dream

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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 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 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.

 

Conclusion

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.

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