Bottomline - the T600, coming up on its 1-year bday, is still the standard by which all others are measured -ghileman

How Hipsters Stay in Touch

Sequel to Cult Sidekick Device
Has Camera and Sleeker Look,
But the Phone Is Still Clumsy

August 4, 2004; Page D1

When gadget lovers talk about combination cellphone and e-mail devices, the conversation usually turns to high-priced, business-oriented devices like PalmOne's Treo 600 or Research in Motion's BlackBerry phone models.

But there's a stealth competitor. Like the Treo and BlackBerry phone, it has robust e-mail capabilities, complete with a built-in keyboard. It also makes a great instant-messaging or text-messaging device, and does a good job with Web surfing. It's called the Sidekick, and it tends to fly under the radar because it is aimed at young consumers, not business people; it has an unusual design; and it is sold by just one cellphone carrier, T-Mobile.

Since its launch in October 2002, the Sidekick has built a small, cult-like following among its target youth audience, and in Hollywood. It has been used during television interviews by the likes of Jennifer Aniston and Demi Moore, and, according to its maker, has also appeared in music videos and on Jessica Simpson's reality TV show. Recently, teen movie actress Lindsay Lohan was photographed carrying a Sidekick encrusted with crystals.

Now, the gadget's manufacturer, a small Silicon Valley firm called Danger Inc., is about to roll out a new version, the Sidekick II, which T-Mobile plans to start selling early this fall for $299, plus $20 a month for unlimited data on top of any voice calling plan. Ms. Lohan's crystals, alas, are neither a standard feature nor an option on the new Sidekick.

My assistant Katie Boehret and I have been testing the new model, and we generally like it, though we found that it's much better for e-mail and messaging than for making phone calls.

The Sidekick II retains the signature feature of the original Sidekick: a screen that flips up and around with the flick of a finger to reveal a roomy keyboard underneath. Like the original, it is mainly meant to be used horizontally, in both hands -- it's more reminiscent of a portable game machine than of the vertical Treo and BlackBerry.

But the new model has a host of improvements over its predecessor, whose only major update had been the switch to a color screen from a monochrome one last summer. Where the first version resembled a bar of soap, thick with a hump in the middle, the Sidekick II is flat, with tapered ends, and is 25% thinner, albeit longer. It's still 20% larger and 10% heavier than a Treo, but it's sleeker than the first Sidekick.

In addition, a number of key controls that had been hidden under the flip-up screen have been moved to the outside of the device, where they're easier to reach if you're on a phone call, or just reading e-mail, and don't need to use the keyboard. These include the power button, four-way directional pad, and volume controls. And the unit now sports traditional cellphone send-call and end-call buttons, with green and red phone icons.

The Sidekick II also now has a built-in camera, with the same lousy quality as most other cellphone and PDA cameras; a speakerphone; and a stronger cellphone receiver. The keyboard is different, and now has a clearly marked section you can use for dialing phone numbers.


Sidekick II, Price: $299, More info: www.danger.com and www.t-mobile.com


Like the first Sidekick, the new model also has a built-in calendar and address book, to-do list, notepad, Web browser, and even some games. All of these are arrayed along a semi-circular menu that you navigate with a scroll wheel on the right side of the screen.

In our tests around Washington, D.C., Katie and I found that the Sidekick II worked very well for e-mail and AOL instant messaging, which is built into the device. Setup was easy and message delivery was pretty quick, even though T-Mobile's data network is quite slow compared to those of Verizon and Sprint. The Sidekick II can hold up to six megabytes of e-mail, and can display Microsoft Word documents, photos and Adobe PDF files that are sent as e-mail attachments -- a big plus.

We did run into some reception problems, both in the city and the suburbs, which made it impossible to receive e-mail, even though in some cases we could still make calls. This highlights one weakness of the Sidekick: unlike the Treo and BlackBerry, it's offered by just one carrier, T-Mobile, so if T-Mobile's coverage isn't good in your area, the device itself is pretty useless.

Katie and I found the Sidekick II to be clumsy to use as a phone. This was the major weakness of the first Sidekick, and it hasn't been much improved in the new version.

The core issue is that dialing the phone requires flipping open the screen to reveal the keyboard. But with the screen flipped open, holding it up to your ear to make a call is uncomfortable and makes you look like you're cuddling with a computer. In open-screen mode, the Sidekick II is awkward to use as a phone even with a headset.

The obvious solution would have been to place a separate dialing keypad somewhere on the outside of the Sidekick II, but Danger didn't do that. So, the only way you can use the device as a phone with the screen closed is to dial from a list of recently called numbers, or speed dial entries, which pop up when you click a button; or use the Sidekick's scroll wheel to tediously browse through all the names in your address book.

For that reason, the Sidekick II should be considered primarily an e-mail and messaging device, with a secondary use as a phone. If you rely more on voice calls than on text messages, this isn't the product for you.

The other big weakness of the first model was in synchronizing the address book, calendar, and to-do list with the information on your PC.

Instead of synchronizing directly with a PC, the Sidekick is designed to synchronize with a Web site, personalized for each user, which has its own calendar, to-do list, and address book, along with an e-mail display. The idea is that you type in your info, and it gets wirelessly transmitted to the device. In our tests this process worked very well and very quickly. Within seconds, any new appointment or address we typed into the Web site showed up on the Sidekick II, and vice versa.

You can upload your computer data to this Web site, and it, too, will be sent to the device, though the upload process is clumsy and slow, and isn't easy or convenient to do on a regular basis.

But T-Mobile and Danger plan to offer a free synchronization program that will make it much easier to upload your computer data to the Sidekick II. We tested the program, which may not be available until a few weeks after the launch of the Sidekick II, and it worked well.

The Sidekick II also features something called the "Catalog," a program that allows you to purchase and download things like ring tones, sound effects and games from T-Mobile. We downloaded a pop song, "Heaven," by Los Lonely Boys, and we were able to use it as a ring tone, and also as an alert for incoming e-mail and instant messages.

You can also download, for free, a couple of add-on programs: Yahoo Instant Messenger and AOL e-mail.

At $299, the Sidekick is no longer as much of a bargain as the original, black-and-white model was when it launched at $199; and it's $50 more than last year's color model of the original Sidekick. The $299 price is still well below what most Treo and BlackBerry phone models list for, though you can find a Treo 600 at Amazon.com for as little as $199, after rebates, with the activation of phone service. That's $100 less than the new Sidekick.

Despite its higher price, and its limitations as a phone, I like the Sidekick II very much as a data device. It's cleverly designed, has a certain cachet, and does what it promises, for a monthly fee from T-Mobile that won't break the bank. Just be prepared to pay extra if you want it studded with crystals.

--With reporting by Katherine Boehret

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com