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September 09, 2004

Retooled Sidekick phone a small step toward all-in-one, on-the-go gadget

A small company in Palo Alto, Calif., with the silly name Danger (www.danger.com) is introducing the significantly improved Sidekick II, a handheld smart phone sold by T-Mobile.

The original Sidekick has achieved a modest level of success among its target audience - urban twentysomething trendsetters - but hasn't enjoyed anywhere near the popular acclaim of the Palm Treo 600, today's smart phone of choice for well-heeled gadget freaks.

The Sidekick II has a long list of small but nicely designed upgrades from its predecessor. Equally important, T-Mobile has improved its rate plan for the device. The phone is due in about a month from T-Mobile at $299 with a one-year contract.

I'm still not completely sold on the Sidekick concept, but after trying one out on loan from Danger, I found the new version in many ways equal to or better than the Treo 600, at about half the price.

The Sidekick II is a do-it-all communicator. It's a phone, and it goes online to fetch e-mail, browse the Web and run instant messaging sessions. It also functions as a personal organizer, plays games and even has a built-in low-resolution digital camera.

Each Sidekick II owner gets a personal Web site, run by T-Mobile and Danger, that automatically synchronizes with the device.

Create a new contact on the Web site with name, phone number, address, etc., and the information shows up within three minutes on the Sidekick II. Delete an e-mail message from the Sidekick II and it's gone from the Web inbox, too. Snap a picture with the camera, and the image is available for download from the Web account.

This type of feature should be standard with all wireless phones so that you could conveniently enter data from your home computer.

What's most immediately obvious about the Sidekick II is the flip-out screen. The 2.5-inch color LCD panel is hinged at the top. Gently poking a finger at the bottom causes the screen to pivot around, revealing a tiny keyboard.

Danger says the Sidekick II has the largest keyboard of any smart phone, but the minuscule keys still make it a chore to peck out messages for anyone with adult-sized thumbs.

To talk on the phone, you have to hold the screen side of the Sidekick II against your ear. A rocker switch on the left side of the screen doubles as an earpiece, and there's a tiny hole for the microphone on the right side.

You also have to flip out the screen, to reach the hidden keys, whenever you want to dial a call.

The online side of the Sidekick II, in contrast, is elegant. Using a scroll wheel and control buttons arrayed around the keyboard, it's quick and easy to jump from e-mail to the Web browser to messaging using either America Online's Instant Messenger or Yahoo Instant Messenger.

I'm pushing 50, so I had to squint at the small on-screen text and fumble for the tiny keys. But otherwise the IM experience is the same as with a computer. IM works particularly well because you aren't expected to send anything but short, poorly spelled bursts of text - the best I can do with such a small device.

You have to make a little bit of extra room in a pocket or purse for the Sidekick II. Although thinner than the original Sidekick, the new model is longer. The 6.5-ounce Sidekick II is 5 inches wide by 2 1/2 inches high by 7/8 of an inch deep. The rechargeable battery provides 4.5 hours of talk time and 60 hours of standby time.

T-Mobile also hobbled the original Sidekick by offering just one, overpriced monthly service plan. Now, you can pick any T-Mobile voice plan and pay $20 a month extra for unlimited data usage - equal to or better than what competitors are charging.

Danger says T-Mobile is receiving Sidekick II units now and should have them in its company-owned stores by late September or early October.

Meanwhile, I hope there's a mad genius hunched over a workbench in a Silicon Valley garage designing the perfect communicator, a phone/computer/camera/music player/movie player that will stun the world, making everything that's come before seem lame by comparison.

Until then, the Sidekick II shares first place with the Palm Treo 600 as the best of an imperfect lot.

Mike Langberg, Knight Ridder/Tribune

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