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Sunday, October 27, 2002

Technology

Hip Sidekick falls short as a phone
Gizmos

By Mike Langberg
Knight Ridder

T-Mobile's new Sidekick wireless communicator is full of clever design ideas and is a bargain at just $199.

But I'm betting the product ends up on the ever-growing scrap heap of failed products attempting the elusive marriage of a wireless phone with an electronic organizer.

Why? The Sidekick falls short as a phone; it's awkward to use for making calls and T-Mobile's singleservice plan for the device -- at $39.99 a month -- offers only onethird the number of anytime minutes as the company's standard $39.99 plan for regular wireless phones.

This more than cancels out the big plus in the Sidekick service plan: unlimited data usage for Web browsing and messaging -- the first time consumers haven't been charged for data either by the minute or the megabyte.

Created by a Palo Alto, Calif., start-up with the somewhat silly name Danger (www.danger.com) and initially known by the code-name Hiptop, the T-Mobile Sidekick (www.t-mobile.com) became available nationwide Oct. 1 at T-Mobile's company-owned stores and CompUSA; the Sidekick is not sold by any other of T-Mobile's many resellers.

I wanted to be more optimistic about the Sidekick, because there are many things to like, including the best approach to electronic mail and instant messaging I've yet seen in a handheld device.

What's more, the Sidekick just looks cool.

The size and shape of a man's wallet, the silvery Sidekick weighs only six ounces. The top of the Sidekick is a monochrome LCD screen, 2 inches wide by 1 inches high, surrounded by a scroll wheel and three control buttons.

The screen swivels on a hinge to reveal a tiny keyboard suitable for typing with two thumbs. You wouldn't want to write a novel on these miniature keys, but the keyboard is adequate for composing a short e-mail or instant message (IM).

Navigating with the scroll wheel, you pick from a long menu of applications built into the Sidekick.

There's Web browsing, e-mail and a slimmed-down version of America Online's popular Instant Messenger, along with an address book, calendar, to-do list, games and one-touch access to phone messages. There's even a very low-resolution camera attachment for taking postage stampsize pictures and e-mailing them to friends.

My favorite Sidekick activity is IM. You sign on to AOL's Instant Messenger, also known as AIM, the same way you do on a computer and see the same buddy list. You can hold as many as 10 simultaneous AIM conversations, as long as you don't lose your wireless signal; in my tests, messages went back and forth only a few seconds slower than sitting in front a computer with a high-speed Internet connection.

The Sidekick can also retrieve e-mail from any account using the nearly universal POP3 standard; just about the only Internet service provider that doesn't use POP3 is America Online. Sidekick owners also get their own e-mail account at no extra charge.

Web browsing is a mixed bag. The Sidekick's screen is very sharp, but Web pages -- both text and graphics -- are shrunken so much to fit the small screen that some text becomes illegible.

There's a bigger problem than occasional illegibility, however: The Sidekick browser doesn't support a common feature called Javascript that's used at many Web sites for important tasks such as sign-in screens.

I couldn't look at news stories at the Web site of the New York Times, for example, because I couldn't enter the user name and password of my free New York Times account. Nor can AOL users get their mail through the AOL Mail's Web page, again because the sign-in screen won't work.

On the other hand, moving addresses and appointments into the Sidekick is easy. Subscribers get access to a personal Web page where they can type in phone numbers, calendar items and notes. Anything entered on the Web site flows almost instantly into the Sidekick. You can even import addresses and appointments from popular organizer programs such as Microsoft Outlook and the Palm desktop, although you can't automatically synchronize updates between the two.

The fatal flaw in the Sidekick, as I said above, is the phone.

To place a call, you must either clumsily pick out a number with the scroll wheel or flip open the screen to use the keyboard. To talk, you must hold the screen to the side of your face -- there's a small speaker to the right side of the screen and small microphone to the left -- smearing it with face oil, or carry and regularly use a headset.

T-Mobile's service plan for the Sidekick is also unfriendly to talkers. You get only 200 weekday ''anytime'' minutes for $39.99 and 1,000 weekend minutes; unlike most other wireless carriers, anytime minutes must be used on weeknights instead of more numerous night/weekend minutes. The Sidekick, by the way, sells for $249 with a $50 mail-in rebate that brings the final price down to $199.

For the same $39.99 a month, T-Mobile offers users of regular wireless phones a hefty 600 anytime minutes a month. Buying a Sidekick, in other words, costs you 6 hours and 40 minutes a month in anytime minutes.

There's one final pitfall for residents of the Bay Area: T-Mobile, which launched its Northern California operations in July, uses the network of Cingular Wireless.

Cingular is singularly deficient in the quality of its local service, with far more dead spots than rival carriers. This will render the Sidekick useless for either voice or data in many locations where other carriers have no problem delivering a signal.

Looking at a long progression of hybrid phone-organizer communicators has, I'll admit, left me jaded. But I convinced of one thing: A communicator must succeed first as a phone, making the process of placing and answering calls as easy as a conventional phone. The Sidekick flunks this crucial test, then compounds the error with a rate plan that puts a straitjacket on voice minutes.

Online addicts, eager to stay constantly connected to their e-mail and IM buddies, might find the Sidekick a worthwhile investment, but I'm not sure that's enough of a market to keep it from becoming anything more than a sideshow.

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