Samsung Sidekick 4G review

Samsung Sidekick 4G for T-Mobile – Comes in Matte Black or Perl Magenta

Pros: Custom UI is full of tasteful color and is easily changed, hardware keyboard is a breeze to type on for long periods of time, the SK form factor has given way to a much more pocketable design, special bundled apps.

Cons: Lacks some buttons, key combos, and other features that were essential to the earlier Sidekick experience; camera is passable at best; the new flavor of SK can not be used as a blunt instrument for attacking intruders, and as such, should not be called a Sidekick.

Introduction:

The Sidekick brand has long been associated with messaging, a funny opening mechanism, and kids. But after the SK3 gave way to the distinguished LX, it looked like the line was headed down a more sophisticated path. And Apart from the goofy, “Go ahead, Sidekick the world!” slogan, this SK appears to be aimed at a slightly more mature crowd than previous incarnations. Sure, it’s a budget messaging device for the tragically connected, but the goofy backgrounds, quirky but clunky sound effects, and obnoxious, seizure-inducing flashing lights are, for the most part, gone. The Sidekick 4G looks less like a AAA-powered carnival trinket and more like a texter for young adults. The look has been refined, the size, reduced. Sitting in a line-up of currently available Androids, the Sidekick falls into the youth/budget category, but adults needn’t be embarrassed to pull this one out at lunch.

Comparisons with earlier Sidekicks:

I don’t think many would argue that HipTop’s old Sidekick OS could hold a candle to Android in terms of usability, customizability, or future potential, but I’ve found more than a couple of my favorite features from the SKII and SKIII are missing from the Sidekick 4G. It figures; today’s sidekick comes from a different hardware manufacturer (Samsung rather than Sharp), and Google’s Android software has almost nothing in common with the original HipTop OS (outside of Andy Rubin’s involvement with both projects). Really, the only link between the two Sidekick eras is the carrier selling and supporting the device, and perhaps some elements of the form factor. The phone basically looks the part, but is it really even a Sidekick?

My favorite aspect of the Sidekick 2 and Sidekick 3 that I owned was the abundance of well-placed buttons and the speed at which I could zip around the interface via different button combos. The Sidekick 4G has a lot of buttons as well, but is lacking the signature configuration of earlier models. The Menu, Jump, Cancel, and OK, keys of old have been replaced with Home, Jump, Menu, and Back. It’s a logical progression, though I find the arrangement to be painfully awkward, especially in portrait mode, where Jump is upper-left, Home is upper-right, Back is lower-left, and Menu is lower-right. Odd, but personal taste is surely a factor. Actions triggered by combining key presses are severely limited in comparison with old Sidekicks, and the Jump key/QWERTY letter combo (found on other Androids and via third party apps) are what we’re left with. This was a bit of a disappointment for me.

When held horizontally, old Sidekicks featured a D-Pad on the left side of the screen. This element has been removed entirely. On the right, what was once a scroll wheel and, later, a trackball, is now an optical trackball. I’m not sure if the trend to move away from physical trackballs in favor optical is the result of an aesthetic decision, the desire to produce gadgets with modern appeal, or because folks at the top just think they work better. Regardless, I miss my rubber trackball. The bumper keys that SK fans know and love are gone.

In their day, the first era of Sidekicks had the best phone keyboards in the world.

The SKII had the single-sheet of rubber covering the key contacts (resulted in blisters for some):

And the SKIII had those glorious plastic bubbles (my personal all-time fave phone QWERTY):

The Sidekick 4G definitely has the most sophisticated looking keyboard of any SK to date, and I think it’s safe to put it in the ranks of the best phone keyboards anywhere. The keys are a bit short on travel but have a wonderful soft click to them that makes for some very comfortable SMS and even email sessions. After a brief adjustment period, I was tearing through texts like a pro. The emoticon key and alt-shortcuts for popular smilies are a welcome addition and will likely appeal to the well-established tween SK market and goofy/sappy adults (that includes me), alike. I can’t really say that I have any complaints about the keyboard, other than how it’s accessed.

The sliding action on the SK4G display is rock solid and I don’t expect the mechanism will break or wear out prematurely. But it’s not quite as easy or fun to manipulate as the swivel design of other Sidekicks. Despite the goofy novelty of the swiveling screen, I have to admit that I miss it. That’s a Sidekick to me!

Hardware

The SK4G is a slider that measures in at 0.6 inches thick–not too bad, considering the excellent keyboard it packs. The display is 3.5-inches at 480 X 800 pixels. One year ago, this size would have met the standard. These days, it feels a bit tight. Twelve months on a 4.3-inch EVO display–one that seemed absurdly huge the first time I used it–tend to make smaller phones feel inadequate.

The processor is a 1 GHz ARM Cortex-A8 Hummingbird, and the phone has 1GB ROM and 512MB of RAM on board. Aside from some non-responsiveness that I suspect to be a result of GPS issues (check the camera section), there is enough power under the hood for a smooth daily experience, performing all of the tasks that an Android user should expect from today’s $99 devices. The battery is 1500 mAh, which is more than enough to get me through the day. There are benefits to a smaller display, after all.

The body of the phone is smooth and feels solid. The old debate between Samsung’s plasticky vibe and HTC’s heavier, metallic design could still apply here, but the QWERTY provides some decent heft. There’s definitely more beef here than in, say, the Nexus S. As with anything else, personal taste is king.

Software

Aside from an excellent hardware keyboard, the best thing the Sidekick 4G has going for it is an innovative and appealing UI that presently sits atop Android 2.2.1. The phone ships with a theme changer app that allows for quick switching of wallpaper, colors schemes, and other customized UI elements. It’s a far cry from trolling unofficial HipTop sites, weeding through sport and blingy hiphop schemes for a suitable SK3 garb.

The Jump key is used to access a stylized list of recent applications–a change from the Android standard of holding down the Home button for tiles featuring the last eight programs run. That Jump key also pairs with letters from the QWERTY for quick app launches. Apart from the theming, suped-up lock screen and the ability to update a social status from the notification drop-down, the UI functions like any other Android. Though, it is worth mentioning that T-Mobile has included a Wi-Fi calling app that uses plan minutes but ensures a great connection.

The UI is not accelerometer aware (there is one on board) and transitions from portrait to landscape when the screen is open. With the current software, there is no 360-degree viewing.

Camera

The Sidekick packs a 3.15 MP primary camera, which will produce images at 2048 X 1536 pixels. The secondary, front-facing cam is VGA. You’re not going to want to use that one for anything but video chatting, which T-Mobile has facilitated via the pre-loaded Qik app. The back-side shooter can capture video a a max of 720 X 480 (480p), and as you’ll see in both the still and video examples below, daylight is required for vivid color representation and clarity. My indoor and nighttime shots–still and video–lack definition and the colors are washed out. Outdoor daytime images and those taken in other very bright environments, like a grocery store, look good.

Overall, the quality of image produced by the Sidekick is acceptable for casual use. That’s about as far as I’m willing to go in terms of an endorsement for the cam. Beyond quality issues, I ran into two snags that started out as mere annoyances and turned into what I would consider deal breakers, if I were in the market specifically for a camera phone.

First, the GPS is enabled whenever the still camera software is launched. I see no method for disabling this feature in the camera software or in the global Android settings. This, in and of itself, would not be a serious problem for me, though unneeded battery drain is never a good thing. I take issue with the auto-GPS activation because I suspect that was what caused numerous crashes of the camera software during my testing. I never experienced freeze-ups with the video camera, which does not activate the GPS system. The link between GPS and the crashes is speculation on my part, likely a result of my past experiences with GPS on Samsung Androids. I also experienced lock-ups when running Google Navigation, so GPS appears to be the culprit.

The second problem I encountered is the combination of the power/lock button and it’s function as a camera lock with an unfortunate placement. If you’re holding the Sidekick up to take a picture with your right index finger on the dedicated camera button, your thumb is likely to rest on or near the power/lock button. Accidentally press this button halfway down, and your shutter won’t trigger when you try to take a snap. A separate lock system for camera software? (see lock icon):

Add this to the often slow focus period, the fact that snapping a shot takes you to a viewing screen that requires a tap of the back key before you’re in position to shoot another photo, and you’re left with an altogether frustrating experience for shooting stills.

The video camera works fine, and I am fairly happy with the results of my daytime video. Still, the Sidekick’s camera situation leaves plenty to be desired. Again, it’s a budget device. Notice how much better the sound is coming from behind the camera than from in front of it. Good for narration, bad for interviews. The picture that displays sideways reveals an orientation detection problem.

Photo and Video Samples

Outdoors, Night:

Outdoors, Day:

Indoors, Night:

Conclusion

I wonder what might have happened to the Sidekick franchise had the hardware duties been taken up by HTC, and the target audience been professionals instead of teens and young adults. But the Sidekick has always been about youth, and, if it survives, probably always will be. For some reason, I thought this revival of the SK would employ the old formula and jack it up on steroids, but that really isn’t the case. In fact, very, very little remains in terms of what I consider to be Sidekick characteristics. My personal favorite SK features are missing.

The Sidekick 4G has got the brand, and some hints of the original form factor have been carried over, but the soul of the Sidekick is gone–probably forever. I made fun of my Sidekicks when I owned them because the blinking lights and childish sounds were silly. But I loved the phones. The buttons–and the shortcuts that they afforded–were inventive and practical. The spring-loaded swiveling screen made me feel like some sort of futuristic mobile ninja. The Sidekick 4G is lacking the strongest aspects of previous Sidekicks, and therefore, in my mind, isn’t a Sidekick at all. I’m not talking about who fashioned the hardware or wrote the software–just about the end user experience. The SK4G is a new messaging device that builds upon the reputation and marketing efforts of a different product. And, as a fan of earlier Sidekicks, I have to say that I feel a bit let down. On the other hand, the SK4G software looks and feels great, and the keyboard is a pleasure to use. At $99, you could do a lot worse. But if you’re a fan of old Sidekicks, don’t expect to relive the days of yore.

The SK4G is a budget device at $99, but that price tag requires a two-year agreement. The long-term costs of this Android are actually on par with other, better phones available on Magenta, even if the entry fee looks more appealing. For another $50 you can grab a G2, and for $199, you can score the impressive G2x. Amidst T-Mobile’s diverse selection of affordable phones, the Sidekick looks very nice–especially for franchise loyalists. But compared to the offerings at the next tier, the decision to purchase a Sidekick 4G becomes more complicated. If you’re considering a buy, know that a SK4G delivers a killer keyboard and cool software. But if you need a good camera or want the old Sidekick experience, you’re out of luck: You won’t find either of those here.

Tags: , , , , , ,