Katherine Boehret

A Kick Start to the Sidekick’s Social Side

If you’re tired of the basic BlackBerry design (small keyboard with a small screen) or the iPhone design (a virtual keyboard on a large touch screen) you might prefer a device with a roomy physical keyboard that stays out of your way, hiding under a large screen until you need it. Over six years ago, a small company called Danger introduced just such a device, called the Sidekick.

Since then, Danger has been acquired by Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), and there have been many iterations of the Sidekick. This Monday, yet another version of the Sidekick will be released: the Sidekick LX. Its swing-out screen design hasn’t changed much over the years, but competitors have since produced several other devices that also have screens that move to reveal QWERTY keyboards — including the Google (GOOG) Android G1 phone, whose chief designer also helped create the Sidekick.

This week, I tested the T-Mobile Sidekick LX to see how this old chestnut fared with some new polishing inside and out. It still bears the flashy, hip features that distinguished older Sidekicks, and newly integrated social-networking apps for Facebook, MySpace and Twitter enhance these traits. A Download Catalog works like Apple’s (AAPL) popular App Store by bringing games, apps, themes and sounds directly to the device.

But this Sidekick’s pricing doesn’t make much sense in our current recession: It will cost $250 after a mail-in rebate for new T-Mobile customers who sign up for a two-year contract; current T-Mobile customers who are eligible for an upgrade will pay $200 after the same discounts.

For $200, you could buy Apple’s iPhone or Research In Motion’s (RIMM) BlackBerry Storm, which both have touch screens and come with Microsoft Exchange support that synchronizes the device with corporate email accounts. (T-Mobile says the Sidekick LX should be able to get Exchange support from the device’s Download Catalog “in the coming months,” but wouldn’t be more specific.) The Sidekick also lacks Wi-Fi capability, which is also true for the BlackBerry Storm but not so for the iPhone, which works with 3G or Wi-Fi networks.

The absence of a touch screen is glaring on such an expensive device, especially one with a screen this large. It’s easy to imagine using a finger to flick and spin the Sidekick’s on-screen menu wheel, tapping on one to open it. Instead, you’re stuck using a trackball to repeatedly scroll through a crowded, 15-menu wheel.

Sidekick

The T-Mobile Sidekick LX has the device’s traditional swing-out screen but is the thinnest Sidekick yet.

The LX is the thinnest Sidekick yet, but it still looked rather large lying next to my BlackBerry Curve 8300 and an iPhone; it measures 1.3 and 2.16 cubic inches larger than each, respectively. Compared with past Sidekicks, this one has a design that feels flatter thanks to a thin flip-out screen that smoothly blends into the device in its closed position. You have to lift up the nestled-in screen before it turns to flip out, and I found it a little harder to open with just a push of my left thumb.

The Sidekick LX, however, has some hearty extras including a generous 3.2-inch display, a 3G connection that makes it easy to use for quickly browsing the Web, built-in GPS and a 3.2-megapixel camera (like the BlackBerry Storm and new BlackBerry Curve 8900 cameras). It comes with a 1-gigabyte microSD card, but this memory card can be accessed only by pulling off the device’s back panel instead of via a card slot on the side.

I brought the Sidekick LX with me for a weekend in Boston and its good-quality camera came in handy as I wandered Copley Square and snapped photos of still-blooming tulips in bright colors. I signed into my Facebook and Twitter accounts, and updates from these networks flashed across the top of the screen in banner-like news flashes.

The Sidekick LX can play YouTube videos, and can record its own videos for uploading and sharing to Web sites. Its colorful screen has over twice the resolution of its predecessor and is 0.6-inch larger.

But a few awkward software designs left me scratching my head. After I uploaded a photo from the Sidekick LX to Facebook, I was left in the Facebook app, rather than my device’s photo album, where I started and wanted to be. MySpace updates are pushed to the Sidekick LX as they happen, but Facebook automatically updates only once an hour. Twitter can be set to check tweets as often as every five minutes, but, by default, it’s set to check only every 30 minutes — a glacial pace for Twitter fans.

I used the Download Catalog to buy a few apps, games and ringtones for my Sidekick, including a $6.99 game of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire 2009″; a $2.99 flashlight app; and a $2.49 ringtone that played 15 seconds of Katy Perry’s song “Thinking of You.” T-Mobile says there are thousands of items in this catalog.

Calls placed and received on the Sidekick were remarkably clear-sounding to me and the friends I spoke with. Dialing numbers could be a little frustrating because, as was the case with former Sidekicks, you’ll need to open the flip-out screen to dial the number and then close it so you can hold the phone up to your ear. But most people will call friends in their address books and won’t need to use the number keypad.

The Sidekick’s 15 menus are simply too many to scroll through. I would prefer it if several categories were combined into one, such as Phone, myFaves (T-Mobile’s list of five friends you call), Phone Messaging and Address Book. Currently, these are listed as four separate menus. Simultaneously pressing the Sidekick’s Jump and Cancel buttons brings up a Quick Access view of recently opened menus and unread messages, and this eases navigation.

For its price, the Sidekick LX should be shipped with Microsoft Exchange already working, and all of its social-networking apps should have better updating capabilities. But most of all, the Sidekick’s big screen is just begging for multitouch in place of a trackball. If these features were part of the Sidekick LX 2009, it might be worth its price.

Edited By Walter S. Mossberg


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