Going wireless: This year's model

Farpoint Group –

First of all, I must admit that I am a gadget freak. I love electronic toys. I buy a lot of them, but I don't always use a gadget once the initial period of experimentation and adventure wears off. I've got more PDAs than I'll ever have time to really learn to use. Computers -- ditto. I don't spend as much time playing with old-fashioned, voice-only cell phones as I used to, not because these have gone out of style (despite my editorial comment here), but rather because they're just not that interesting or differentiated any more. Color screens? Cameras? Whoopee! Fun, but not essential. More on that later this year.

My focus of the past six months or so has been on finding and using a new personal wide-area wireless data device. I formerly used a Research In Motion (RIM) BlackBerry 957 (http://www.blackberry.net/products/rim857_957/index.shtml) for many years, primarily to get e-mail. This product has a monochrome screen, works on the Cingular Wireless Data Mobitex network, and has amazing battery life -- well over a week in normal use. I used GoAmerica (http://www.goamerica.com) as my wireless ISP and was in general happy with the service. While this combination served me well, the world moved on -- I found that I needed a decent (read: something that looks a lot like a desktop) Web browser, an e-mail client with HTML support, and a color screen. Since I don't think it's currently possible (and may never really be) to optimize for both voice and data in the same device (see my April 2003 column, "The single-device paradox"), I've decided on a two-body solution: I would still use a fairly basic CDMA cell phone on Verizon's network, and replace the BlackBerry 957 with something new.

Candidates included another BlackBerry (the 7230; see http://www.blackberry.net/products/blackberry7200/blackberry7230.shtml), the Samsung SPH-i700 Pocket PC communicator (http://www.verizonwireless.com/b2c/store/controller?item=phoneFirst&action=viewPhoneDetail&selectedPhoneId=1530), and the T-Mobile Sidekick (http://www.t-mobile.com/products/images.asp?phoneid=195184&class=pda). I think it's best to cut to the chase at this point, and tell you that I got the Sidekick. This is not to say that it was an overwhelming first-place finisher in my detailed analysis, but it was the flat-out winner in the most important category: price. Being basically frugal, and given the fact that we pay for all production hardware and software that we use here at Farpoint Group (not all analyst firms can make that claim, but we feel we must do this in order to remain unbiased), the price really sold me. I bought it at Amazon.com and paid about $180 a few months ago. Unlimited nationwide data service on T-Mobile's GPRS network is only $30. Want to be even more amazed? Amazon now has the Sidekick for -- get this -- $20 after a rebate (see http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B0000A0AZC/qid=1079885110/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1_etk-phones/102-3869594-2375324)! This is astonishing, to say the least.

Before you plop down your 20 bucks (as I'm sure many of you will), you need to know that all mobile devices involve at least some degree of compromise, and none are perfect, or even close. The Sidekick is no exception.

But let's start with the pluses, and there are many. It's small and light. The form factor was inspired (or so I told by one of its designers) by a bar of soap-on-a-rope. The most cleaver design feature is the way the screen swings open, exposing a relatively large and lighted "two-thumb technique" keyboard underneath. A small scroll wheel to the right of the keyboard is used for most navigation, and the device is easy to learn and use. It has a fairly good Web browser and support for POP3 and IMAP e-mail. The Sidekick was designed as a consumer device, and the lack of Microsoft Exchange support shows this heritage. That's OK for me, because I don't use Exchange and really don't want to. If Yahoo! mail ever supports IMAP (what are they waiting for?), I'll be all set. Attachment support is good, but needs to be improved. Viewers for Microsoft PowerPoint (.ppt) and Microsoft Excel (.xls) would be particularly useful.

On the minus side, the browser doesn't support Javascript, limiting its usefulness to a greater degree every day. Full Java support would be nice, too; that's one of the things I like about RIM's products. What's really vexing, though, is that the e-mail program mysteriously moves all HTML links to the bottom of what's displayed for each message; this makes it impossible to know what to click and is a really, really dumb design decision. What motivated the folks at Danger, Inc. (the Sidekick's builder) to do this mystifies me; I hope they fix this soon. The only other big negative is that it's sometimes very slow to respond, and the browser seems to time out a lot while fetching information. However, I recently used my Sidekick on Microcell's GPRS network in Canada, and it was a lot faster and more reliable -- pointing the finger at T-Mobile. These guys really need to work on their network, both in terms of reliability, availability, and coverage. But, then, at only $30 per month, vs. $80 or so for most of the other guys, service is a bargain. Oh, and it's a phone, too, but I don't really use it as such very often. Without a keypad, I can say that dialing is a small pain, but it OK in a pinch.

There are a number of other personal organizer features (including an address book, calendar, to-do list, and notepad), but they're not compatible with PC-based applications. That's OK for me -- I can synchronize (over the air) through the personal Web page T-mobile gives me. The Sidekick is designed as an appliance or a thin client; it's not a Pocket PC or Palm-based device. That's OK for me as well -- all I really wanted, at this point, anyway, was decent Web and e-mail service, and overall I'm satisfied with what I'm getting in the Sidekick. Oh, there's an optional camera that plugs into the headset jack for quick, low-res photos, if you really want to take them. I've got a problem with camera phones, but, again, more on that later.

Still, I'm looking ahead to my next wireless communicator already. Later this year I'll discuss what I think the ideal product in this class might look like. Until then, I recommend the Sidekick, especially at the Amazon price. You can beat the price/performance, and, even with the limitations, it's hard to live without once you've tried it.

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