After my less than inspired experience with the new T-Mobile Sidekick 3, I decided to try something completely different. I do this every now and again — try to ween myself off the Sidekick platform. I’ve tried it with Treos, I’ve tried it with Blackberries, and I’ve tried it with phones from Nokia and Sony Ericsson. But in the end, I always come crawling back to the Sidekick.
The form factor of the T-Mobile MDA is pretty nice. The size is great, and the overall feel is decent. It doesn’t exactly feel bulletproof, but it also doesn’t feel like it’s going to come apart in your hands, either (like the Sidekick 3). It feels good as both a phone and a PDA, and is small enough to disappear into a pocket, or to rest comfortably on your belt (I’m one of those geeks who wears his phone on his belt since there’s something unsettling about keeping a high-powered radio transmitter down deep in my front pocket).
I like the way the keyboard slides out and the screen automatically changes orientation. The keyboard is usable enough — not as nice as the Sidekick’s, but good enough. It’s missing the dedicated row of numbers that the Sidekick has, however since it has a touch screen (unlike the Sidekick), you really only miss the number row when typing IMs or emails, or when entering addresses into Outlook. The screen is bright, and while it’s not huge (240 x 320), it’s definitely sufficient.
The first problem I had with the MDA was connecting it to my wireless network. Although I’ve never had a problem getting any WiFi-enabled device to connect at home, the MDA simply refused. I made the mistake of calling T-Mobile tech support for advice, and they explained to me that the WiFi functionality is only supported for T-Mobile Hotspots, and that they had no idea how to get it to work with any other network. Within the last 30 days, I’ve connected a Pharos Traveler GPS device (running Windows Mobile 5), a Nintendo DS Lite, my Xbox 360, and about 6 different computers to my network without a single problem, but the MDA simply would not budge. I decided to move on since connecting via GPRS typically makes more sense, anyway.
That brings me to T-Mobile’s EDGE performance. I criticized the Sidekick 3’s poor data performance which I now realize was unjust. I should be criticizing T-Mobile’s EDGE support in general. It’s just as slow on the MDA is it is on the Sidekick 3. In fact, it’s slow enough that you have to be paying very close attention to see any difference whatsoever between EDGE and plain old GPRS, and that’s in San Francisco where you’re supposed to get good speeds.
On a more positive note, I found that I liked the 1.3 megapixel camera on the MDA; it’s clearly better than the Sidekick 3’s. And I liked the fact that the MiniSD card is easily accessible, unlike the Sidekick 3. That means I can easily use my SanDisk USB 2.0 card dock to transfer media to and from my phone’s MiniSD card which isn’t a practical option on the Sidekick 3 since you actually have to remove the battery cover to get to the card.
I wasn’t overly impressed with the software on the MDA, though that’s more of a reflection on Microsoft than T-Mobile. Windows Mobile 5 is clearly much better than Palm OS, but still not nearly as nice as the Sidekick’s OS. The little “x” in the upper right-hand corner of Windows Mobile apps doesn’t actually close the application — it just hides it so that the next time you access it, it launches quickly. The idea is that the OS is supposed to manage memory automatically, and close applications once the device starts to run out of available RAM. I don’t think the MDA ever shut down a single application, however, and it felt extremely slow from the very beginning. At first I attributed its sluggishness to it’s 200 MHz processor until I played with my friend’s brand new HP iPAQ hw6915 which boasts a 416 MHz processor, and still manages to run Windows Mobile 5 poorly. The problem clearly seems to lie with Windows Mobile 5 rather than the hardware.
I was also a little surprised at how bad the mobile version of Outlook is. I tried setting up a couple of POP accounts, and was amazed to discover that I couldn’t configure it to only download new mail (I have thousands of old messages on the server that other POP clients are smart enough not to download, but Outlook wanted to download every last one of them), and I couldn’t specify whether I wanted messages removed from the server or not. (Apparently, it doesn’t remove messages from the server, but how would I know that since there is no configuration option?) I also don’t like the way the SMS client is integrated into Outlook. SMS is very different from email, and should be treated differently with an entirely different application which is optimized for SMS rather than email.
The multi-protocol IM client is also, to put it mildly, a complete joke. I believe it actually sends and receives IMs as SMS messages, so they take several seconds (as in 10) to be sent or received. That’s hardly instant. I could probably have faster conversations via email. I installed another client called Agile Messenger which I’ve been happy with on Symbian phones in the past, but I think it still needs a year or two to mature on Windows Mobile.
Being already unsatisfied with the phone, I should have just quit right there, but for some reason, I was determined to forge ahead and see if I could get the T-Mobile MDA to sync with my Mac (Address Book and Calendar). I bought and downloaded The Missing Sync for Windows Mobile 5 from Mark Space, and promptly proceeded to waste about four hours of my life. I can’t even remember everything that went wrong, but I think it went something like this: since WIndows Mobile is supposed to work with ActiveSync, The Missing Sync basically spoofs ActiveSync, or at least tries to. In my case, it didn’t do a very good job. When I paired the MDA with my MacBook via bluetooth, The Missing Sync kept failing to fool the MDA into thinking it was an ActiveSync client. After following all the troubleshooting guides in the Mark Space knowledgebase, I finally resorted to reinstalling the software which actually fixed the problem, but lead directly into the next problem, which was that the data copied from my computer to the MDA was completely screwed up. Among other things, there were five old iCal events which got scheduled every day, indefinitely, on the MDA. I was so determined to get it to work that I completely recreated my iCal calendars, removing all obsolete events, and when I tried again, I was back to my first problem of the MDA not being able to connect to the Missing Sync. That’s when I performed a hard reset on the MDA, packaged it up for return, uninstalled The Missing Sync, asked for (and got) a refund, and crawled shamefully back to my Sidekick 2.
So in short, I don’t recommend the MDA. I think it’s too slow, and Windows Mobile 5 is just about as compelling and interesting to me as Windows XP. That said, if your computing world only consists of Windows, and that’s all you’ve ever known, you might like Windows Mobile and the MDA. It does a lot of very nice and impressive tricks, however it doesn’t have a coherent and consistent story like the Sidekick. The Sidekick is a collection of hardware, software, and services which all come together into the best mobile experience I’ve every seen. Windows is a platform designed to support as many disparate pieces of hardware and software as possible in an attempt to be all things to all people. The key to a usable mobile device is to focus on a small set of functionality, and do it exceptionally well. Windows Mobile tries to do everything, and is content with doing it passably.