Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more. There was nothing small about the previous color-screen Sidekick, and the new model is much the same. Measuring 5.1 by 2.6 by 0.9 inches and weighing 6.5 ounces, the new Sidekick actually is a bit longer and heavier than older versions, though it's slightly slimmer. Owners of the previous version, however, will notice a welcome change: The screen, which rotates 180 degrees to reveal the keyboard underneath, no longer bulges out from the rest of the phone. Though it's still boxy overall, this smart phone now feels much more natural when held against your cheek during a conversation. Though it didn't make much of a difference, the microphone and the speaker are now reversed; you hold the left end of the phone to your ear and talk into the right end, not vice versa. We had one complaint, though; to dial a number that's not in the phone book, you must first open the screen.
The T-Mobile Sidekick II adds some fashion sense with the removable rubber "bumpers" that run along the top and bottom edges of the phone. To freshen the look, bumpers are available in a variety of colors to match your mood. But more than just adding to the design, the bumpers hold an external power button so that you no longer have to open the screen, volume controls so that you don't have to dig into a menu to adjust the sound, and two ergonomic multifunction buttons. When in photography mode, the phone's right multifunction key is a camera shutter--an especially nice touch. The Sidekick even feels like a real camera when you hold it to take a picture, and the rear-facing lens sits well out of the way of your fingers.
The Sidekick II has essentially the same 2.75-inch-diagonal TFT display as the previous model. The crisp, 65,000-color screen is readable in direct sunlight, and the animated menus (again, virtually unchanged from before) are easy to navigate. It's a piece of cake to swing the screen up and access the keyboard--just nudge the lower-left or top-right corners. We like the way in which the screen solidly springs into place, although it has a tendency to graze the keypad and accidentally hit a button or two. The backlit keypad itself is roomy and easy to use, with tactile buttons.
Surrounding the T-Mobile Sidekick II's display are the familiar Jump and Back buttons found on its predecessor. The newcomers include a four-way directional control on the left side of the phone that lights up when you receive calls or messages, as well as send/end call buttons, which double as page-up/-down controls, that sit above and below the scrollwheel. Though it's smaller than that of previous models and not backlit, the scrollwheel can be used to select menu items. There's also a dedicated Menu key and a Cancel button. The Sidekick's speaker has moved to the back of the phone--not the best placement for resting the handset on a surface. The bulk of the T-Mobile Sidekick II's robust feature set is almost unchanged from that of the previous model. The phone stores 2,000 contacts, with room for five numbers in each entry. Other goodies include a notepad, a calendar, a to-do list, 12 polyphonic ring tones, and a vibrate mode. The Sidekick also has a USB port, but as of July 2005, Danger's promises of future activation have yet to materialize. And to keep in contact without making a call, there's also text messaging; Web surfing; wireless e-mail access to three POP3/IMAP accounts but no corporate e-mail access; and support for viewing but not editing DOC, PDF, and JPEG files. For downloaded apps, there's 32MB of shared memory, though downloads are limited to a maximum of 1MB each.
The T-Mobile Sidekick II's new, integrated VGA camera, which doubles the resolution of the older, add-on version. With three resolutions (160x120, 320x240, and 640x480) and a built-in flash, the new addition takes above-average shots for a camera phone, although images still aren't of printable quality. The flash does a fair job if you're within a foot or so of your subject, but it won't do you much good beyond that range. Options for the camera are limited to a Night mode and a mirror for self-portraits. The Sidekick II stores up to 36 images at the highest quality, and all pictures can be sent to your buddies via e-mail or attached as thumbnails to contacts for photo caller ID.
Other new features include the long-overdue speakerphone, which can be activated only after a call has started, and support for Yahoo Instant Messenger, which boasts the same functionality as the existing AOL Instant Messenger application. You can hold up to 10 IM conversations at once, and the phone saves your chats in case you lose your network connection. Now, if the Sidekick would just add ICQ and MSN Messenger, we'd really have something.
A few annoying quirks that dogged the old Sidekick live on in version II, including the lack of expandable memory, Bluetooth, or an infrared port. Fortunately, however, T-Mobile supports over-the-air PC syncing, and a third-party sync utility is available for Mac users. After downloading the client software from T-Mobile (Mac users can try MarkSpace.com), you'll be able to sync with Outlook's Contacts, Calendar, and To-do List. Alternatively, you can go to T-Mobile's Web site and import or enter your contacts, which are then downloaded to the device. The Sidekick II supports vCards, which you can send to yourself via e-mail, then import to the phone.
We were disappointed by the Sidekick II's surprising lack of customization options. You'd think a phone that's so clearly targeted to consumers would boast custom and photo wallpaper, screensavers, and desktop themes, but you'll find none of these on the new Sidekick. The only included game, Rock & Rocket, will be familiar to owners of the old Sidekick, and you can download more titles along with polyphonic ring tones, WAV music tracks, and sound effects from T-Mobile's Download Fun service. We tested the triband (GSM 900/1800/1900) Sidekick II world phone in New York City using T-Mobile's service. We had no trouble hearing our callers, even when holding the phone against our cheek to make calls, and they said we came through loud and clear. We also had a decent Web-surfing experience with the Sidekick's browser over T-Mobile's GPRS network; even pages that weren't optimized for mobile devices managed to load on the LCD, if a bit slower than they might have over a dial-up connection.
There were some speed bumps in the data service a few months after our initial testing, however. Shortly after the brouhaha over Paris Hilton's Sidekick II in early 2005 when personal information was stolen from T-Mobile's servers, Sidekick data service went down for nearly a week while Danger engineers patched security holes. T-Mobile refunded a month's data fee to Sidekick users, but customers had no Web browsing, e-mail, or IM service during that time. Sidekick users reported smooth sailing again by March, and as of July 2005, we haven't heard of any serious trouble or encountered it ourselves. Though the Sidekick II isn't the only device to lose service (BlackBerrys and Treos users reported service interruptions in June 2005), keep in mind that the Sidekick's high profile makes it an enticing target for hackers.
Battery life was satisfactory. T-Mobile promises about 4.5 hours of talk time and almost 3 days of standby time. In our tests, we managed 5 hours of talk time, and we matched the standby time.