October 21, 2002©2002 Rich Stillman, Waystation Partners
Do you like this article? You can read more. Better yet, subscribe to my mailing list and you'll receive reviews of new devices and technology that can make your electronic life better today!
Last Friday I sent you all an email about the new Sidekick cell phone/Internet device, the first cell phone with enough text features and a low enough price point to convince me to join the 21st century - or at least to allow the 21st century to call me while I'm in my car. I've lived with the Sidekick for over a week now, about halfway into my trial period and long enough to form some fairly strong opinions about it. Not surprisingly, I'll share them with you.
First, for those of you that like to eat dessert first, I'll summarize. I'll probably be keeping the device, since its wireless data features have more than lived up to my expectations. However, I don't think I'll be recommending it to my phone-centric friends, and I'll hope T-Mobile and Danger fix a few problems before my one-year contract is up and I have to start paying the real cost of using the service.
I'll start out with the bad news first, and it's almost all about coverage. If you look at T-Mobile's coverage area at http://www.t-mobile.com/coverage/Default.asp, you'll see it's pretty sparse - roughly where first-generation cell phone networks were around 1995. T-Mobile's use of GPRS, the American equivalent of the European GSM standard, means that you can't roam on anybody else's network. So what you see on T-Mobile's map is what you get. If you live and work near major highways and don't spend much time away from them, you should be OK. Otherwise, you might consider finding a home near a T-Mobile executive, since they'll probably have the influence to get good coverage nearby. While driving around much of eastern Massachusetts, I was pretty reliably in range when I was in cities or suburbs, and pretty reliably out of range in rural areas.
Compounding the coverage issue is a real problem with building shadowing. Driving around Boston and Cambridge, signal strength fluctuated wildly. This even happened on Storrow Drive, where I should have been getting a clear signal from transmitters across the Charles River in Cambridge. In-building penetration was also weak, with the signal fading to unusability once I got a few feet inside a brick building. When in a city, I'll be joining the people who stand on the sidewalk to make their phone calls.
I found a surprising level of coverage driving the coastal route from Masachusetts to North Carolina. I had enough signal for either voice or text communication for almost the entire ride. I was fully in the dark only for the southern half of the DelMarVa peninsula. And that wasn't on the big highways - it was on routes 13 and 17, where about half the houses had trees growing out of the windows.
But here's where text has an advantage: weak coverage is far more of a problem with voice than with text. Passing through any signal area, I was able to pull in email and instant messages that were waiting, and to send email and instant messages I had composed. Even a short time without coverage means a dropped voice call but I was able to keep up with my email for all but a couple of hours of the two-day trip. So the Sidekick rates a "B" for text coverage and a "D" for voice coverage - one reason I'd be hesitant to recommend it to someone who relies on their cell phone for constant voice communication.
T-Mobile's service plan for the Sidekick should also give voice users pause. They are essentially test-marketing the device and service, and offer only one plan - 200 anytime minutes and 1000 weekend minutes for voice, and unlimited data, for $40 per month. Using the phone casually, I rang up almost an hour of airtime on my first weekend. Voice-centric users who buy this phone will probably end up carrying a second phone for making their voice calls. T-Mobile doesn't even make this easy, since existing T-Mobile customers can't add the Sidekick to an existing plan. In this case it is the calling plan and not the device that gets in the way of text/voice convergence.
That brings me to the device. Having used the Motorola Pagewriter 2000, the BlackBerry and other miniature text communicators, I can say after a week that the Sidekick outshines all of them. Both the hardware and the software borrow liberally from those two devices, add a few tricks, and create a package that is intuitive, quick, usable, and functional.
One of the criteria I forgot to list in my last message was a keyboard. I have no patience for stylus-based character recognition, which may not be perfected in my lifetime. Almost any keyboard will provide better speed and accuracy than any currently available handwriting recognition system. A good keyboard and screen are necessary for any small device, and the designers of the Sidekick have hit the mark with both.
The keyboard combines the BlackBerry's curved shape, positive keyclick and thumbwheel with the Motorola's navigation disc and backlight. It's easy to hit the right key, even in the dark, and navigation of both text and menus is easy. The screen presents an impressive amount of text, 11 lines of about 45 characters, on a very small space, using a well-designed font and exceptional contrast. I regularly use reading glasses on magazines and books, but I don't need them to read this screen clearly. Even the backlight is right: just bright enough, but not glaring like the Motorola's.
Closed, the unit is about the size and shape of a typical mid-sized cell phone, or a bar of soap. The screen rotates 180 degrees with slight thumb pressure - the image automatically turns upside-down to compensate - and, reveals the keyboard. Open the device in a crowd and you'll instantly be able to identify the true geeks - they'll be over to talk to you before you've had a chance to press a key. The design is very sensible, although the screen remains exposed and at risk of damage even when the device is closed. You won't want to carry it without the included case.
Even with the screen closed, this device is very usable. The thumbwheel, three large control buttons, the screen and the phone are all usable when the Sidekick is closed, and you can do pretty much everything with these controls except enter text. Swiveling the screen reveals the keyboard. In fact, you can open applications, scroll and select screen items, open messages, look up phone numbers and dial the phone with the screen closed, using the right hand only. Use both hands, and you'll look like you're playing with a miniature Game Boy.
The operating system and applications software are a mix of good ideas. Menus are context-sensitive and simple. Applications look very much like their PC counterparts. The folder-based email system mimics Outlook. The AOL Instant Messenger application is a dead ringer for the PC. Setup is simple. Enter your POP server and account information and the device will start downloading email immediately. Log in to your AOL Instant Messenger account and your existing buddy list appears.
The OS has been designed with practical phone use in mind. A couple of clicks on the outside buttons lock and unlock the device or mute and un-mute the speaker. A "jump" button on the outside of the device acts as a home key, returning you from anywhere in the device's software to the phone icon on the main screen. This action allows application selection to be done with a predictable sequence of key presses and thumbwheel movements, a real benefit when full attention can't be paid to operating the phone.
The data service was very fast, in general. Most pages started loading within fifteen seconds of pressing the Return key, and even complex pages with graphics usually took less than fifteen seconds to load completely. The browser has a Back key but no Forward key, so it's harder than it could be to navigate a tree of Web pages, but the browsing experience is far more PC-like than I expected.
Email is the Sidekick's real killer app. The effect of having unfiltered email available at all times is more profound than I would have thought. Being plugged into my actual POP mail stream made my laptop almost unnecessary. A couple of messages I received during my North Carolina trip came from people I don't normally correspond with, and my old Wolfetech/Skytel service would have filtered them out, but I got them and responded to them on the Sidekick. The result was a feeling of being completely connected. In the past three days, I've used my laptop only once to pick up email, just to clear out my server, and there were absolutely no surprises.
There was, however, a great deal of spam. Anything that hit my mail server got forwarded, in full, to my wireless device. A commercial spam filter on T-Mobile's relay servers, or user-deifnable filtering rules, would solve this problem. An option that would download only headers would also help. This is a minor annoyance now but will be a real barrier to usage next year when T-Mobile begins charging for data traffic based on volume.
The email-to-Web linkage is also problematic. Clicking on a URL in an incoming message will load that address into the Web browser, but all embedded URLs are moved to a list at the end of the message. For newsletters and other messages with multiple URLs, this treatment renders the Web links almost unusable.
There are a few other minor quirks in the system. The address book acts as a centralized repository for email addresses and phone numbers, but it offers no option for user-defined categories. Only pre-set categories like Work, Home and Mobile are available. This would be understandable if the address book could import vCards, which have the same limitation. But vCards aren't supported. The unit also includes both an infrared window and a USB port, but neither one is supported by the software, so forget about beaming addresses in from a Palm or PocketPC. The instant message client supports only two-way connections, although it may be possible to join a multi-way conversation if a PC user adds you. I haven't tried that.
The built-in notepad is useful, but there's no way to get the notes out of the device - they can't be emailed, or copied and pasted. They're accessible on your T-Mobile account management web page, but moving data around the device shouldn't require a PC. IM conversations can't be saved at all.
It would be nice if the Web browser could queue a page load while off the network, so you wouldn't have to watch for a signal. That would give the browser the same fringe-coverage capabilities as email and instant messaging. Finally, the event notification alarms need to be modified - the default sounds are a bit garish, like a Las Vegas slot machine. The speaker presses directly against the leather in the case, so if the sounds are set to a useful volume when the phone is out of the case, they get smothered when the device is being carried. And the device's vibration mode, which can be automatically enabled when sounds are muted, is way too weak and short to get attention, especially in a moving car.
The Sidekick's radio can be used for data or voice, but not for both at the same time - place or receive a phone call, and you'll be detached from the data network. You'll automatically be logged back into the data network when you hang up, a process that takes about thirty seconds. And using the phone blocks access to any other application, so don't try checking the built-in calendar while you're on a phone call. This flaw alone probably means you won't be leaving your Palm home just because you start carrying a Sidekick.
But what I get out of this device far outweighs these teething problems. In all, after a week of use, I'm sold - but I'm far from a typical user. If I had carried a cell phone before getting this device, I'd still be carrying it. I also have no plans to leave my PDA at home. But a week of reliable wireless email has convinced me that mobility vastly increases email's value. I've used the wireless web to get driving directions, news updates, and the eBay value of garage sale treasures without having to buy them. Even instant messaging makes more sense when it can be extended to a wireless device, serving as an alternative to making a phone call.
For data-centric use, the tenuous coverage map has been adequate - although it certainly could use improving - and voice calls have worked fine as long as I stay in one place. This device will more than replace my SkyTel pager, at about half the monthly cost, and I'll hope T-Mobile works out the bugs before my service contract runs out next October.
So I'll be keeping the Sidekick - but I'll be very careful when recommending it to others.