Fist of all, I have to say that I’m shocked by the almost unanimously positive online reviews of the new Sidekick 3. I can only assume that they were written by people who didn’t have extensive experience with the Sidekick 2, and who were content to simply regurgitate T-Mobile’s marketing collateral. Reading positive reviews of the Sidekick 3 has been like reading positive reviews of Matrix Reloaded. This review is written by someone who is (or was) a huge fan the Sidekick, and who has been using both the Sidekick 2 and 3 from the day they were each available.
I waited several weeks to write this review to make sure I had some real-world experience with the Sidekick 3. The first one I received was in some indeterminable way defective. About six hours after I started using it, while I was demoing it to someone, no less, the screen went completely black. I laughed at first, assuming I had found a software bug that would soon be fixed in an update, however after turning the device off and back on, soft resetting, and then hard resetting it, I wasn’t laughing anymore. T-Mobile forced me to sacrifice hours of my life speaking with well-meaning but ultimately powerless customer service and support representatives on the phone, the details of which I will spare both of us. The upshot was that I paid a lot of money to have another Sidekick shipped to me right away since once I get my hands on a device, I can’t rest until I’ve learned everything about it.
So now that I’m on my second Sidekick 3, and I’ve spend a few weeks with it in the field, I can honestly say that Danger got more wrong with the Sidekick 3 than they got right. To be fair, I’ll start out with I think they got right:
- The keyboard. I didn’t think it was possible, but the keyboard on the Sidekick 3 is actually better than the one on the Sidekick 2. The feedback is perfect, and the keys are just the right size and in just the right arrangement. I feel like I’d pretty much mastered the keyboard on the Sidekick 2, but I believe my typing speed has actually significantly improved since switching to the Sidekick 3.
- The MP3 player. I love iPods, but I also like variety and options, so I was very excited when I learned that the Sidekick 3 would have an MP3 player. It turned out to actually be a pretty decent piece of software. It does all the right things with ID3 tags, allowing you to browse your music by artist, album, genre, composer, and, of course, playlist. It supports two kinds of shuffle, has fairly decent navigation controls, and will even pause when you get an incoming call, then resume after you hang up. Well done.
- Expandable memory. If you’re going to have an MP3 player (and a 1.3 megapixel camera), you need someplace to put all the related media. The Sidekick 3 has a MiniSD slot which, in theory, is great, though see below as to why this could have actually been handled much better.
Unfortunately, that’s about all they got right with the Sidekick 3. Now for the considerably longer list of what they got wrong:
- First of all, the new Sidekick 3 has a much cheaper feel to it than the Sidekick 2. Almost everything is plastic these days, so I don’t fault it for that, but I do fault it for being very cheap feeling plastic. It looks and feels far less robust than the Sidekick 2. The screen sits slightly up above the rest of the phone and has too much play to it, both when it’s open and closed. My Sidekick 2 has been dropped, tossed, sat on, squished, and has been opened and closed thousands of times, and it still feels newer than my brand new Sidekick 3.
- And speaking of the screen, Danger (or perhaps I should say Sharp, since they manufacture the Sidekick hardware) completely screwed up the flip screen on the Sidekick 3. The flip screen was always the trademark of the Sidekick, and always had a good, solid feel. But the flip screen on the Sidekick 3 is awful. The back of the screen has two plastic bars which look like they are a part of the latch system, one of which actually sometimes catches on the upper left-hand button when the screen flips open. Unreal. I can already see where the plastic has taken a beating from opening and closing the screen. I’ve even seen the screen catch on the button and actually get caught mid-flip. I eventually found a way to reliably open and close the screen so that it doesn’t catch on the button, but the process still isn’t nearly as nice as the Sidekick 2. (For those Sidekick 3 users out there who doubt me, go unpack your old Sidekick 2 and open and close them a few times — you’ll instantly see how much better the old design was.)
- I really don’t know why they replaced the old roller with the new trackball. After using the roller for a few weeks (and moving the sensitivity all the way up), I guess I find it reasonably effective, but there doesn’t seem to be much point to it. The lighting effects are very cool, and the fact that you can navigate menus horizontally as well as vertically is interesting, but the old Sidekick had primarily vertical menus, and you always had the D-pad, so I’m not sure why they bothered to make the change. Maybe there will be some apps in the future which will benefit from the trackball, but I personally find the old roller easier to grip, faster to use, and generally more effective.
- Yes, I like he MP3 player, but I really don’t like the fact that the USB interface on the device is only 1.1. I bought a 2GB MiniSD card, connected my new Sidekick 3, started transferring MP3s, and then picked up my Nintendo DS Lite to play Mario for over an hour waiting for the transfer to complete. In my personal opinion, MP3 players require USB 2.0 or Firewire interfaces. Or at the very least, the device should provide easy access to the media card so I can use my own USB 2.0 interface. In order to access the SD card on the Sidekick 3, you have to remove the back of the handset which is not nearly as easy has it should be. I sure hope my taste in music doesn’t change anytime soon, and I don’t get tired of the 20 albums I have on my Sidekick 3 because I don’t have time to refresh them.
- Another thing I think pretty much all MP3 players need is a standard headphone jack. I have a couple of pairs of headphones that I really like (noise canceling) which I can’t use because the Sidekick 3’s headphone jack is 1/16″ rather than the standard 1/8″. Yes, I know I can get an adapter, but that makes for a pretty clunky solution for something that shouldn’t have been a problem in the first place. I think the bottom line is that the Sidekick 3’s MP3 player is more to supplement your existing real MP3 player rather than completely replace it.
- Whenever I upgrade a wireless device, I expect two things right off the bat: better battery life, and a better signal than I got with the old model. There’s no reason in the world why battery and antenna technology should be moving backwards. With the new Sidekick 3, not only are neither better, but they are both actually worse. I got in the habit of charging my Sidekick 2 every night just in case I needed to have an especially long conversation the next day, but typically, the Sidekick 2’s battery would get me through two days of some moderate IMing, a couple very short conversations (I don’t talk on the phone much), and a few emails. The Sidekick 3, on the other hand, needs to be charged every night or it will be completely dead by morning. And if you listen to some music and actually make a few phone calls during the course of a day, it might not even make it until bedtime. Anyway you slice it, that’s very bad. And so is the new Sidekick 3’s antenna. Most Sidekick 3 users probably won’t notice this since they probably moved their SIM cards from their Sidekick 2s to their Sidekick 3s (meaning the Sidekick 2 can no longer receive a signal), but I actually made it a point to have both operational simultaneously to compare signal strength. Once again, the Sidekick 2 did better than the Sidekick 3. The difference is not drastic, but for places where you would normally only have one bar, and now you have none, that’s drastic enough.
Of course, there are several other new features which are supposed to make the Sidekick 3 better which, in my opinion, really don’t:
- New form factor. I do like that the Sidekick 3 is slightly smaller than its predecessor, however the cheapness of the Sidekick 3 combined with the fact that the shoulder buttons got harder to press when the screen is up, and all the other buttons got harder to locate and press as well, makes the design of the Sidekick 2 superior.
- The application menu is hierarchical now. This is one I’m really pretty ambivalent on. I use keyboard shortcuts to get to most apps anyway, so I don’t really care how they are organized. I could see much more use for this feature if you could organize your applications into custom folders or some such metaphor, but you can’t.
- Backgrounds. I can’t believe they even bothered to implement this “feature”. One of the big criticisms of the Sidekick 2 was that you couldn’t customize your wallpaper which every other phone in the world supports. The Sidekick 3 now lets you choose between four pre-packaged wallpapers with very hip names like Liquid, Madison, Rodeo, and Surface, but of course, you still can’t actually create your own. So if you were hoping to replace those very fashionable cartoon Hiptop users with pictures of your children, no dice.
- Bluetooth. If you just have to have a Bluetooth headset, then you’ll appreciate the Sidekick 3’s new Bluetooth support. Personally, I don’t like Bluetooth headsets. I think the burden of having to keep your headset charged and having to travel with another AC adapter outweigh the benefits of wirelessness. Of course, that’s not the Sidekick’s fault, so I can’t count that against it. However, I can count against it the fact that I can’t transfer files between my computer and my Sidekick via Bluetooth. Obviously I wouldn’t want to transfer MP3s (if I wanted the process to be slow, I’d just the USB 1.1 interface), but it would be nice to be able to transfer notes, small images, etc. If you’re going to advertise Bluetooth support, it should support more than just Bluetooth headsets and vCards. Besides, I can’t imaging how abysmal the battery life would be if I left Bluetooth turned on.
- EDGE support. EDGE stands for Enhanced Data (rates) for GSM Evolution which is supposed to make 2G data services faster. Personally, I have noticed zero difference between the Sidekick 2s data rates, and the Sidekick 3s. Am I supposed to call T-Mobile and ask them to turn it on? Does it cost extra? Is the air in San Francisco not conducive to high-speed wireless data transfer? What am I missing?
- 1.3 megapixel digital camera. If only picture quality were as easy as adding pixels. The Sidekick 2 took crappy little pictures, and now the Sidekick 3 takes crappy big pictures. Photography is about capturing light, and capturing light is about optics, not CCD size. Frankly, I don’t consider the new camera to be much of an improvement at all.
So in case you couldn’t tell, I’m thoroughly disappointed with the new Sidekick 3, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why there haven’t been more negative reviews out there. Maybe I have unrealistically high expectations. Maybe I’ve just been in a bad mood for the last month. Even though I predict that Sharp will be manufacturing an updated version of the Sidekick 3 within a year, I’m recharging my Sidekick 2 to hold me over until I find a new wireless solution.