You could say the original Sidekick was the first shot fired in the smartphone revolution.
With a flip of the thumb, you could expose the physical keyboard hidden behind the screen. It was aligned horizontally to make typing easier, but it wasn’t too bulky. And the large screen — bigger than most other phones in 2002 — made tasks like browsing the web and writing e-mails on your phone actually seem like ideas worth getting used to.
Over the years, the Sidekick and its successors ended up losing out to the newer breed of smartphones ushered in by the iPhone — devices with advanced operating systems and apps, and with touch displays in place of physical keyboards.
So, can the Sidekick make a comeback? Samsung hopes so: The latest iteration of the old classic, the Sidekick 4G for T-Mobile, stays true to its heritage while bumping up its specs and adding a host of media and entertainment perks.
It’s an Android phone built for the 4G now, but it has some hardware and software quirks that make it feel several steps behind.
Samsung stuck with the traditional Sidekick silhouette, with two buttons placed on either side of the 3.5-inch 480 x 800 resolution touchscreen. A Home button and Jump button grace the left side. A Menu key and Back key are situated on the right, with a small optical track button sandwiched in the middle.
Being right handed, it took a while to get used to this button placement. I really wanted the Home button to be on the bottom right when it’s held in landscape orientation, with the Back button above that and the Menu and Jump keys on the left. My thumbs got lost often.
The phone has about the same heft as an iPhone 4, but is slightly longer and about 50 percent thicker. It fits in a front pocket, but it is a bit chunky. That thickness comes from the physical keyboard under the screen. The Sidekick’s screen slides out using a unique “pop-tilt” mechanism, revealing the display’s sassy pink underside, after it’s snapped into a comfortable viewing angle.
Sliding the screen out takes a bit of practice: You need to use both thumbs, applying pressure to the crack between the screen and keyboard. But all you have to do is nudge it free of the body, and the screen springs out the rest of the way on its own. You can’t apply the force horizontally, which is a departure from other slide-out keyboards, and from the swivel screen on older Sidekicks.
Also, the volume rocker and power button sit just a hair below where you need to place your thumbs to push the display out. This leads to a lot of unintended volume adjustments, screen shut-offs and other accidental button-presses when flipping the screen up. Sliding the screen back in without pressing any of the buttons also takes some getting used to.
For my dainty lady thumbs, the QWERTY keyboard was a little uncomfortably spaced out, dropping my texting speed a few notches. Male friends with longer — normal-sized? — thumbs thought the keyboard size was just right.
The Sidekick 4G comes with Samsung’s Kick UX skin for Froyo onboard. It’s less than intuitive — there are three ways to access just about every app or feature of the phone, which can be a little confusing. But it’s fine once you find one method you prefer over the others.
The Jump key (a Sidekick legacy) was particularly handy in this respect: It lets you switch from one recently used application to another while bypassing the home screen. It’s not exactly multitasking, but it is a timesaver.
Once inside an app or widget though, you lose those options. With some apps, like the Facebook widget, you have no choice but to use the Back button (heavily) to navigate. That’s a bit of a shame on a touchscreen device. And although the handset is clearly meant to be used primarily in landscape mode, several apps and functions require it to be in portrait orientation.
The Sidekick 4G stays true to its chat roots with a slew of messaging options, including Google Talk and the phone’s signature Group Text and Cloud Text Features. Group Text provides functionality similar to that of other app- or web-based group texting services like GroupMe, allowing you to create and manage a group of contacts and send mass SMS messages. This is great for getting a message out to a specific group of people (your family, your co-workers, a circle of friends) speedily and easily.
But those subscribed to limited texting plans may not appreciate the barrage of texts that result from the reply-all nature of the service. Cloud Text is similar, but works across platforms, so you can text from your PC or the Sidekick.
There’s a VGA front-facing camera you can use to video-chat through Qik’s service. Around the back, there’s a heftier 3.2-megapixel camera. That’s subpar by today’s standards, but the software offers multiple settings that photo geeks can use to tweak images. You can shoot photos in black and white, sepia and panoramic modes, and adjust the exposure, white balance, contrast, saturation and sharpness. Video quality is nothing special.
If you actually use your phone to make calls, you’ll be happy to hear that the call quality is superb. The phone’s noise cancellation is so well-implemented that during a lull in conversation with my dad on my bus ride home, the line became so silent that he thought the call had been dropped.
During my testing, I found T-Mobile’s network speeds — HSPA+ 4G or otherwise — to be generally good. The latest episode of 30 Rock downloaded in minutes, and web pages loaded at least as quickly as on comparable smartphones. T-Mobile says you’ll get 5-to-10-Mbps download speeds wherever it can connect to 4G, and I found no reason to dispute that claim. The Sidekick will also act as a mobile hot spot for up to five devices.
Overall, the Samsung Sidekick 4G gives a modern update to the traditional look and feel of the old Sidekick handsets, but it suffers a bit from some odd hardware-design choices, and from software quirks. Viewed as just another Android phone, it’s tough to recommend it over other Android handsets out there. However, longtime Sidekick users or Blackberry owners transitioning to Android will like the Sidekick’s big keyboard, and they should be pleased enough with the user experience.
WIRED Physical keyboard will keep thumb warriors happy. Tons of media options and chat features keep you entertained and connected. Speedy 1-GHz Hummingbird processor gets things moving: Games like Angry Birds Rio don’t stutter in the slightest. Battery life easily lasts all day for normal mixed usage. Background noise? What background noise?
TIRED Screen-popping mechanism is a bit tricky. Button placement is downright poor. The mix of onscreen-touch and physical-button navigation is perplexing and redundant. It takes a lot of work to get a good photo –- if I wanted to mess with that many settings, I would have gotten an actual digital camera.
Photo by Jon Snyder/Wired.com