Katherine Boehret

Sidekick 4G: Speedier Socializing

If you think it’s hard now to talk to teenagers while they have phones in their hands, a revamped smartphone’s new messaging functionality could make it even more challenging.

This week I tested a device that’s custom-made for the texting fiend: Samsung’s new Sidekick 4G from T-Mobile. This smartphone, which costs $100 (after a $50 rebate, with a two-year contract and a $30 monthly data plan) takes mobile messaging up a notch.

Its Secret Messages option will password-protect text messages from nosy parents or friends. It’s the first T-Mobile phone with Cloud Text, a feature that lets people receive or send texts on their computer’s Web browser, too. A Sticky Notes feature lets users stick text messages with important information in it—like directions to a friend’s house—on the Sidekick’s home screen. And a Group Texting tool lets people create and save groups of friends for group chats.

I tried all of these features and had fun using the Sidekick 4G, which runs the Android 2.2 operating system. Since its debut in 2002, the Sidekick has been known for its cool screen that either swings or slides out to reveal a keyboard beneath it. The Sidekick 4G was released last week. A T-Mobile spokeswoman said the previous model was discontinued last summer in anticipation of the device’s move to the Android platform.

(Sidekicks had a problem with the loss of personal data due to server issues. The Sidekick 4G has no technical connection to the data service previous devices used.)

The new Sidekick has a 3.5-inch screen that slides up to expose a five-row physical keyboard, including numbers, which eliminates the need to shift to another screen for typing numbers or symbols.

But some features aren’t fully baked. Cloud Text is still in its beta, or test, phase, and it doesn’t yet sync contacts from the phone to the browser-based texting services, nor does it enable Group Texting. This means you have to (gasp!) know someone else’s mobile number to initiate a text from the PC or manually input names and numbers as contacts on the PC. (People can also receive texts and reply to them.) Another problem is that some apps and screens won’t rotate into landscape view even when the phone is turned on its side with its screen slid out. The spokeswoman said Cloud Text will have Group Texting in the next two weeks and that contacts in Cloud Text and the rotating screen problem would be fixed in updates over the next three months.


The Sidekick 4G’s Group Texting function in action

As its name implies, the Sidekick 4G runs on T-Mobile’s 4G network. In Washington, D.C., I clocked my Sidekick at 6.28 megabits per second for downloads and 0.51 mbps for uploads—fast, but nowhere close to the T-Mobile website’s theoretical estimate of 21 mbps. Four other T-Mobile smartphones run on this 4G network. The spokeswoman said 4G speeds will vary based on a number of factors. In some cities, the average download speeds of T-Mobile’s 4G phones have approached five mbps, with peak speeds of nearly 12 mbps, she said.

But like all carriers, T-Mobile wants to make it as easy as possible for users to hop off of its own carrier network and onto Wi-Fi—even for making phone calls. People can make or receive calls over Wi-Fi using the Sidekick 4G as long as they’ve enabled one simple setting on the phone (first-time users receive a prompt that walks them through this).

But if someone is in the middle of a call and walks out of Wi-Fi coverage, the Sidekick can’t pass the call over to the carrier’s network. I tried this during a call and heard a warning beep, then saw a message flash on the screen telling me my call would drop if I went out of the Wi-Fi coverage. Sure enough, I walked too far and the call dropped. If someone starts a call in the network and wanders into Wi-Fi—even a network already set up on the phone—that person won’t be prompted to switch to Wi-Fi.

The kicker is that calls made using Wi-Fi, even one’s own home network, will still deduct minutes from a monthly T-Mobile data plan. People can choose between two data plans for the Sidekick 4G on top of their voice plan: The Web-200 is $10 a month for 200 megabytes of Web and email; Web-Unlimited offers unlimited Web and email for $30 a month. If people choose the Web-200 plan, they’ll pay $150 for the Sidekick device, itself.

This system wouldn’t be such a surprise if T-Mobile hadn’t, at one point, offered a similar feature that didn’t deduct minutes. Users paid $10 more each month and got unlimited calling over Wi-Fi. The company discontinued this service in October 2009.

The spokeswoman said Wi-Fi calling on Android phones uses a different technology that doesn’t let calls be handed off into the carrier’s network.

I did a lot of messaging with very little effort on the Sidekick. Its touch screen lets people type with an on-screen keyboard if they prefer to skip the step of sliding the screen out to type on the physical keyboard. This 5.7-ounce Sidekick 4G is heavier than the 4.8-ounce iPhone 4 and the 4.3-ounce BlackBerry Bold 9700 by Research in Motion. It’s also thicker because of its built-in full QWERTY keyboard.

Past iterations of the Sidekick used playful sounds and different colored lights as indicators. This Sidekick keeps that spirit alive: An LED notification light glows purple when new text or MMS messages are received; red if the phone received a missed call; and blue if it received an email.

I used Secret Messages to send and receive password-protected texts with another Sidekick 4G (this only works from one Sidekick 4G to another). I created groups of friends for Group Texting by selecting their names from my list of contacts, which were sucked in through Facebook, Twitter, and my Gmail account. (Users can opt not to import contacts from these other networks.) The name I gave to each group, like “Allentown Allies” for a small group of people from my hometown, was visible by all group members.

Users in each group can control their involvement by texting code words like “.sleep 1,” which will stop group texts from coming into a phone for an hour. Teens who need to turn off texting while in class or at dinner with their parents will appreciate this—or their teachers and parents will.

If you do a lot of messaging on your phone, the Sidekick 4G offers clever ways of keeping in touch, just know that some aren’t ready for prime time.

Watch a video with Katherine Boehret on the Sidekick 4G at WSJ.com/PersonalTech. Email katie.boehret@wsj.com.

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