T-Mobile Sidekick - First Impressions

October 11, 2002

©2002 Rich Stillman, Waystation Partners

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Those of you who know me are aware that I'm probably the last person in the world over the age of ten who doesn't have a cell phone. I've always considered voice to be just one way to communicate, and decided to hold out until a phone came along that didn't limit me to just that mode. In the meantime, I've been using wireless text through a pager, augmented with free services from hz.com and the paid PocketGenie service from Wolfetech. This essentially gave me a text-enabled mobile answering machine that could monitor my POP3 email and could send and receive short email messages directly - not a pretty solution, but one that worked to an extent.

Still, it should come as no surprise to anyone that I wanted more. Specifically, I wanted:

What I wasn't looking for:

So I've been watching the adoption by T-Mobile, formerly Voicestream, of the Sidekick device by Danger. It became available within the last couple of weeks, and I went down to my local T-Mobile store, checked it out, and came home with one.

I could describe the unit, but T-Mobile has already done a good job of that. What I will say is that it's less than five inches long and less obtrusive on my belt than my Motorola Pagewriter. It can monitor up to three POP3 email accounts. It is a full AOL Instant Messenger client (I wish it was Yahoo, but I'm glad it's not MSN). T-Mobile uses GPRS, an offshoot of the European GSM system, so the phone also supports SMS messaging. There's a Web browser that supports HTML. Web pages get optimized by Danger's servers, but I've been able to connect to most of the services I consider useful - even those that require a login - and even relatively graphical pages display usefully. URLs sent in email messages are clickable, although they are all stuck at the bottom of the page with no context around them - finding the link you want can take some experimenting - but it's nice to have the link between applications.

Within an hour of getting it home, I was getting and sending email through my home account and having two instant messaging conversations that were as instant as I could want (no history stored, unfortunately), and started importing contacts (although not through vCard, alas.)

Physically, the phone is as sleek as a mid-size cell phone can be. The screen is very readable, but you may need your reading glasses if you have trouble with fine print. The keyboard is a direct ripoff of the BlackBerry with very positive clicks, and they've added the keyboard backlight feature found on the Motorola Timeports. They've also included word completion, which makes text entry much easier. The swiveling screen gets everyone who sees it - it's definitely the geek trump card of the month, especially once people notice that the screen image flips 180 degrees to compensate for the swivel. Danger did their usability homework when they designed it.

Best of all, it's cheap. The device cost $200 after a $50 rebate, and they threw in a $30 camera attachment which takes full-color, emailable 120x90 photos. I consider the camera a gimmick but I wasn't going to turn it down. The service is $40 per month for the first year for 200 minutes (1000 weekend) and unlimited data usage. The minute allotment is pretty meager if you're a serious phone user, and there are no other plans available for this phone, so it's not for everyone.

Unfortunately, T-Mobile has disabled one of the primary advantages of GSM - the portability of the SIM card. The card in this phone is removable, but it won't work in any other phone. They say they've done it to keep people from sharing the unlimited data service, but they also make it impossible to transfer your identity to a rented phone in Europe. Maybe next year, when the data service dials back to 15 meg per month, they'll fix this problem, but at the moment only the manufacturer can transfer the SIM between phones.

I'll be experimenting with the phone and service during the 14-day approval period, and I'll let you all know how it goes. The biggest unknowns at the moment are coverage (it's a digital-only phone, so in analog areas I'm out of luck), battery life and recharge time (the first recharge has taken over two hours so far, and it's not done), and reliability of the data signal. Pages populate quickly when they don't fail, which they do about ten percent of the time. But I can read all my email. I can do useful communication through IM. I can get traffic reports from SmarTraveler when I'm on the road, and news and weather. T-mobile also includes a link to the Onion in their default bookmarks. I like the way they think. And it's a pretty good phone, too.

So my first impressions are pretty positive, compared to the limited experience I've had with conventional cell phones. We'll see what the next fourteen days bring.