The Americans have fallen in love with the Sidekick, and there's no denying that its full Qwerty keyboard makes firing off texts and emails painlessly simple. We even found ourselves rather partial to the previous version. But the world of mobile phones has moved on, and the Sidekick 3's average flip-out screen, weak multimedia features and frankly ugly design make it little more than a bargain basement BlackBerry wannabe.
The Sidekick 3 is only available from T-Mobile, from free on its Flext 35 package to £160 pay as you go. Unlimited Web access via T-Mobile's Web 'n' Walk package costs £7.50 per month.
Pick up the Sidekick 3 and the first thing that comes to mind, with a shudder, is Nokia's ill-fated N-Gage gaming handset. There's something about its chunky build, multitude of plasticky buttons and distinctly average display that feels old-fashioned. Despite a neat switchblade flip-out action, the 66mm (2.6-inch) screen is seriously under-pixelled for today's multimedia world, particularly on a phone that's shooting for heavy Web users.
With the screen shut, you can navigate the Sidekick 3's graphical menus using either the left-hand, four-way pad or the right-hand trackball. This feels awkward at first, but you'll soon be zooming around. Dedicated Menu, Jump, Cancel and Done buttons speed things up further -- this is one responsive handset. The Menu button, especially, is worth singling out -- it acts as a kind of 'right-click' mouse button, pulling up extra options that always seem to be just what you're looking for.
There are also handy gaming-style shoulder buttons on the top, and volume controls on the bottom. And don't forget the Qwerty keyboard, revealed by flicking the screen to the left and up, through 180 degrees. Keys are certainly small, but they're no harder to use than on a BlackBerry, with the possible exception of the number keys at the top, which are a shade too close to the screen.
Don't forget that the Sidekick 3 is designed as a messaging device. If you want to make a phone call to a new number not stored in the address book, you have to flip open the screen, dial on the tiny keyboard, then flip it shut before they answer -- not good.
The on-board Web browser uses EDGE for a decent 2.5G speed boost, and makes the best of the bright, landscape-format screen. Pages are reformatted to fit the low-res display, which can mean some hunting around for content, particularly on Web sites using frames.
The Sidekick 3 is fine on basic sites, but forget about exploring the outer (or even the inner) reaches of Web 2.0. Streaming audio doesn't stream, YouTube videos stubbornly refuse to load and the whole of MySpace was blocked by T-Mobile's nanny-ish Content Lock.
The email application is fast, functional and can open smaller JPEG, MP3 and text attachments, but you can't then save these files to the phone for use as wallpaper or in the media player. What's worse, your inbox is limited to a miserly 8MB, even if you have a huge miniSD card in the expansion slot (hidden under the battery cover if you're having trouble locating it). This is no business-focussed BlackBerry.
Other messaging is well handled, with the usual SMS and MMS options plus AOL Instant Messaging for thumb fiends. While the Sidekick 3 does have Bluetooth, it's only for pairing with headsets -- there's no wireless data transfer on offer (and no infrared either).
Multimedia options are simply shocking. The 1.3-megapixel camera seriously lags behind today's standards, and there's room for just one full-quality snap on board (although you can also save images to the memory card). Even the cheapest camera phones have a digital zoom or can capture some form of video nowadays, but not the Sidekick 3.
It's also fussy when it comes to audio, playing back nothing but unprotected MP3 files, albeit via a decent-enough graphical media player. There's just one game installed: a playable Asteroids clone.
One cool feature of the Sidekick 3 is the ability to access its data online. You can sign in at T-Mobile's UK Web site from any PC to read emails and download images from the camera. If you then download the Intellisynch application, you can also synchronise contacts, calendar entries and to-do items from Outlook.
Audio calls sounds fine in traditional phone configuration, but we suggest you avoid the tinny, mono speakerphone where possible -- and this goes double for music playback. The supplied stereo earphones are nothing special, so it's good to see the Sidekick 3 sporting a standard headphone jack for easy upgrades.
Data use with T-Mobile's Web 'n' Walk service was fast and reliable, with no terminated connections during our test period. T-Mobile also offers a good selection of free ringtones, games and PDA-light software to download via the Catalogue application.
The 1.3-megapixel photos were better than expected, with fine colours and less-than-usual amounts of distortion and softness at the edges. But its low resolution and limited features offer no competition for any of the latest camera phones from Nokia or Sony Ericsson.
Battery life is also behind the curve, owing to the large screen sucking a lot of juice. With typical use, you'll need to charge up the Sidekick 3 every other day.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Kate Macefield