Sidekick 3: Hands On

Around the turn of the century, consumerism took an interesting turn: cultism became favorable. No longer was there just the mass market and a void, but small niche markets became common, sought after, marketed at. (No blog post along these lines would be complete without shouting “LONG TAIL!” at the top of the author’s lungs, and I will not break the trend.) I belong to a number of shopping cults: my memberships in [the cult of Apple]( and [the cult of Bemani]( are well documented.

Today, I realized that I had a third major cult membership: the cult of the Sidekick.

Don’t get me wrong – I was fully willing to admit my Sidekick addiction for the two and a half years I’ve owned one. It is nearly inseparable from my hand to the point where it often feels like a body part rather than a cell phone. It is difficult for me to survive without one: it manages all of my email, the majority of my IM conversations, serves as my primary syndicated feed reader, and acts as my notepad for random nuggets of information.

But this morning, I stood in line with what I would estimate as roughly 500 people on 41st and Madison, waiting patiently for our chance to purchase a Sidekick 3. Again: these were not giveaways, these were people waiting in line to *buy a cell phone*. Again: **cult**.

With that said: while there are a number of professional reviews available about the Sidekick 3, very few go into the technical aspects and random questions that tech wonks like myself have. This post is my best attempt to answer the questions I had before I got my hands on one. I hope you find this useful.

(I’m going to be skipping on trying to take screen shots; if you need to see illustrations of what I’m talking about, your best reference point would be the [online manual](

## The Design

Existing Sidekick users who put their hands on the 3 will immediately notice a major difference: the rubber bumpers along the top and bottom are gone. In fact, almost all the soft rubber on the system is gone now. This is a welcome change; while I certainly liked the bumper at times, it tended to get grimy and ultimately was just a dirt magnet.

Next big change: The scroll wheel has been replaced with a trackball. Not only is it a trackball, but the multi-color LED (which traditionally was under the d-pad) is under the trackball, so it will light up in a variety of colors as needed. When I first touched the trackball, I thought “Why would I need this when I already have a 4-way d-pad?” My objections soon dropped, as the trackball is effortless to use. Sensitivity is set perfectly right out of the box (but is adjustable, should you not agree). It has a nice noticeable tactile feel as you roll it, but not in an obnoxious way. It’s not too big and not too small. In short, I have no complaints.

Last big change: all the remaining face buttons have changed sizes and orientations. This is a mixed bag. Some of the buttons certainly needed the change, particularly volume up/down and power. On the down side, I’ve run into issues of inadvertently putting the speakerphone on once already. And looming larger is the minor catastrophe of the soft buttons on the right side, around the trackball. On the 2, the start/end call buttons were at different angles from the Cancel/Done buttons. On the 3, all four are part of the same surface, and while they are divided, it’s not by much. I’ve hit the wrong buttons a lot in my first 6 hours, and while I expect to figure it out soon, it’s an annoyance worth noting.

The keyboard is more or less the same as the 2, although the keys are now translucent and capture the backlight better. And in a very small victory for simplicity, the two magnets that sat at the bottom of the keyboard on the 2 have been replaced by a single discrete magnet directly under the space bar.

The battery, which was never accessible before, can now be user-replaced. It also has to be removed if you’re changing SIM cards. There is also now a slot for a Mini-SD card (the SK3 ships with a 64MB card, and it supports a maximum of 2GB), and I’ll get into this more in the Camera and MP3 Player sections.

Two last things: there’s a small light next to the AC adaptor port, and the USB port is no longer hidden under rubber.

## The Hardware Functionality

The SideKick 3 finally brings the device off of basic GPRS and into the magical world of EDGE (EGPRS). This is supposed to result in three times faster data rates. While I have no benchmark data to prove or deny this, I did find some of my pages to be loading considerably faster. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

The CPU is also a bit faster in the 3, resulting in menus that no longer chug as you scroll through, but now do something that resembles “whizzing”. It’s actually nice to roll the trackball as quickly as possible and have the device keep up.

Bluetooth, the largest missing feature from the 2, finally appears in the 3. But before you start bouncing off the walls, it currently only supports two profiles: hands-free and vCard transfer. This means you can do very little at this point. (Danger has stated informally that they plan on adding more profiles but as their quality standards are very high, they couldn’t squeeze more in before shipping.)

The camera function on the Sidekick has a spotty past – a horribly designed add-on for the original, a gimped 640×480 camera for the 2. The 3 makes amends with a 1.3 MP camera, which can save to the Flash ROM or the Mini-SD card. The quality still is not good enough to make me stop carrying around my Cybershot, but it does have an extremely quick warm up time, allowing more spontaneous shooting. It also has better camera controls (sharpness, JPEG quality, etc) and the like. In the “stupidest thing I’ve tried” category, I also just realized that the flash is no longer a wimpy light but now a blind-you-and-make-you-see-spots flash. (If you want qualitative examples, [here’s]( a shot taken this afternoon.)

Finally, the USB port – always sitting patiently on the side of the older devices but never being put to use outside of development – is finally accessible by end users, for loading MP3s and moving pictures around. The device mounts as a mass-storage device on my OS X machines, and while it’s only USB 1.1, it does the trick.

## Bundled Accessories

The battery charger that comes with the 3 is the same plug type as the 2, so if you bought extra chargers before, they won’t go to waste. Also in the box is a carrying case, a wrist strap, a stereo hands-free set (non-Bluetooth), the previously mentioned 64 MB Mini-SD card, and a USB cable. I am incredibly appreciative that someone realized that even if a lot of people have USB cables already, another one can’t hurt. Are you listening, Sony?

## The OS

To be honest, there haven’t been a lot of changes in the OS. If you were familiar with version 2.x, you’ll be able to get around fine in 3. The big functionality difference is that some menu items have submenus, which you can access by clicking *or* by rolling the trackball to the right. (Applications that have folders, like the email and web clients, can open folders with a right roll as well.)

There’s also now an option to have a screensaver: in this case, shutting off the display to save battery life. While the display is off, the trackball light blinks once every 1.5 seconds. I first considered this annoying, even if it’s not particularly bright light. After poking through the manual, I noticed that the color of the light is a status message: blue means you have messages waiting, green is OK, red is low battery. This is useful, so my objection is retracted.

The sound on the Sidekick 3 is now re-mastered in stereo; as we’ll learn later, this has a big downside.

And in news that will make a handful of people happy, particularly my wife: there is finally a skin option. You can’t add your own, but there are four background patterns available, mostly related to shopping districts in California. I’m sticking with the default.

## IM Explosion

Previously, the Sidekick shipped with an officially sanctioned AOLIM client, largely agreed to be the best mobile IM experience for AIM. A Yahoo Messenger client was available as a free download, and there was no support for MSN.

No more: three clients ship on the SK3, one for each of the networks I just mentioned. They all feature the same multi-conversation functionality that made everyone crazy about the AIM client, with some network-specific features.

I can’t speak to the YIM or MSN clients, as I don’t use the networks. But I have noticed one new feature for the AIM client: you can (finally!) set aliases for screen names. As someone who does this religiously on my desktops, it’s advantageous to have it on my mobile as well.

## SonicBOOM

This may get controversial.

As a Mac nerd, I am picky about my user interfaces. Applications I use have to show the right blend of power, features, design, and innovation; this is a delicate balance, and few applications meet my needs spot-on. For music management, the iTunes/iPod combination has been my gold standard for the last five years. And yet, I heard horrendous things about the mobile version of iTunes, so obviously not everything transfers well.

Here comes the controversy: SonicBOOM, the MP3 player on the Sidekick 3 is so good, it would be enough to replace my iPod as a pure MP3 player, were it not for the storage size limitations.

This feels wrong, but I’ve double checked the math and sure enough, it’s QED. MP3 loading is accomplished by dropping MP3s (sorry, no AAC or OGG or anything other than MP3) into a folder. SonicBOOM reads all the same ID3 metadata that the iPod does for major sorting – artists, albums, genres, and composers. It supports M3U playlists. It has a play queue, which is easier to manage than On-The-Go playlists. It has as-you-type search, just like iTunes. You can scrub tracks using the trackball. There’s a hotkey to pop a mini-controller interface over any app you’re in, allowing you to skip around between tracks or twiddle the volume or whatever you’d like.

So sure, it doesn’t do video. It won’t go past 2GB in storage. It doesn’t play newer formats, or have management software, or grab podcasts for you. And as such, I don’t expect it to replace my iPod. But if I had just a shuffle? There’s no question that I’d be kicking the white plastic to the curb.

SonicBOOM is what the iPod would be like, if the iPod had a keyboard.

## The Downsides

No upgrade goes completely smoothly, and so here are the four sticking points you should be aware of if you’re going from the 2 to the 3.

One: because of “OS incompatibilities”, none of your ringtones, applications, or games will transfer to the new phone. (Remember what I said about the stereo having a downside?) All the rest of your data will be fine, but the things you’ve bought are lost and gone forever. I have unofficially heard that if you complain loudly enough to T-Mobile representatives, you *might* get a break on this – but as many apps aren’t available for the 3.0 OS yet, I am saving my complaining for the appropriate time.

Two: there is no break in pricing for existing owners. You’re looking at traditional upgrade pricing: $300 with a two year contract extension, $350 with a one year extension, and $400 with no extension. This does not include tax or shipping, or any attempts to up-sell you on needless accessories. (As a silver lining, there is no increase in price for the data plan, despite being on a faster network.)

Three: it’s a new device, and like all new devices, there will be bugs to work out, glitches to work around, and inevitably some broken units. These are the hazards of early adoption, and while I haven’t heard any horror stories yet, the Sidekick did previously have a nasty problem with radios frying, so as usual, be patient with your new hardware.

Four: T-Mobile has again gimped some functionality. You cannot record your own ringtones, despite it being [referenced]( in the online manual. This isn’t anything new, but it sure is frustrating.


## Summing It Up

The term “mixed bag” is a loaded one: most people expect it to mean you’re looking right at the middle of the road for scores. I am very willing to admit that the Sidekick 3 is a mixed bag: there are a lot of new big perks (EDGE, faster CPU, MP3 player) that will make some people want to upgrade immediately, and there are some annoyances that will be enough to sway people away from upgrading (price, loss of applications).

With all that on the table, I am positively bullish on the Sidekick 3. This isn’t just because I was badly in need of an upgrade, but because the SK3 exceeded my expectations. The downsides are monetary, and those can be dealt with in a non-technological fashion.

On the traditional school-paper scale of 1 to 100, the SK3 gets a 90. It takes everything about the Sidekick that you know and love, and makes it almost all better. Just a shame about the price and app loss.