Forget everything you know about mobile phones, because the Sidekick II isn't like any mobile you have ever seen. It doesn't look like one, and it doesn't behave like one. It's big, it's got a wildly clever design feature that lets it hide a keyboard away, and it's more about messaging than about phone calls.
There's a lot the Sidekick II can't do, like share information directly with a desktop computer or play music. But it has one potentially indispensable trick -- it automatically makes backups to a rather neatly designed Web site, which you can use from anywhere.
The Sidekick II is exclusive to T-Mobile and costs up to £49.99, though it is free on some Web 'n' walk tariffs.
The Sidekick II is an unusual-looking mobile phone, even putting aside the fact that it is larger than any handset we've seen for a very long time. At first glance it actually looks more like a games console than a phone, because each of the short edges houses three controllers, while in the middle is a fairly large 66mm (2.6-inch) screen.
Things get more confusing when you encounter the Sidekick II's exceptionally likeable 'flip'. If you push gently at the top right edge of the screen it swivels round on a hinge at its top centre, to reveal a keyboard. Swivelling the screen back is slightly less elegant and wow-ish, but very easy.
Note that the screen always faces outwards, so it's nice that the Sidekick II comes with a carrying case that helps protect it. You will need this, because whether you have its screen out or in, the Sidekick II is chunky hardware -- it weighs nearly 200g. You aren't going to be able to tote it tidily in a pocket all the time. It'll need a second home in your bag.
Those side controllers are for getting around the handset. At the four corners of the hardware are buttons for calling up menus, getting quickly to the main screen, and generally jumping around. On the left is a square navigation pad, on the right a roller flanked by call and end buttons.
There are a few more buttons embedded in the rubberised strips that sit along the top and bottom long edges of the Sidekick II. On/off and volume control are along the bottom, shortcuts to the MMS and camera software are along the top. There's a 2.5mm headset jack, power jack and mini-USB connector on the right edge. You can't do anything with the USB connector straight out of the box.
The screen offers just 65k colours, and is at its best indoors, though it is reasonable outside. The keyboard stretches across an area 75mm wide by 40mm tall. The keys are rubbery and fairly small, but well spaced. There is room for a separate number row above the main Qwerty keys, but not for a dedicated number pad for dialling calls in the traditional way. Instead, for hand-dialling you use a range of keys that share their letter with a number and a third symbol. The keyboard is okay to use for tapping out SMS messages, but you probably won't want to hand-dial very many voice calls.
Hand-dialling voice calls isn't the point of the Sidekick II, though. You'll be using the built-in address book to speed-dial your contacts. Other built-in software includes a Web browser, AOL Instant Messenger, email (you get an email address with your Sidekick II contract), SMS and MMS managers, a calendar, to-do list, notes software, camera manager and an asteroids game called Rock and Rocket.
The Sidekick II supports Java, and so you can work on filling the 16MB of storage that is built-in to the device with downloads and your data. You can't expand on the storage though, as there is no room for memory cards. Also note the absence of any kind of music player. Don't bother to think about downloading one, because the Sidekick II only outputs mono sound (a mono earbud is supplied with it).
As part of your ownership of the Sidekick II you get some Web space. This provides secure backup of data stored on the Sidekick II and backups happen automatically. Email sent to and from the Sidekick II, calendar entries, to-do items, and notes and photos taken with the camera are all sent automatically to this Web space, which is password-protected.
This is a useful feature, because if you enter a new contact's information into the Sidekick II it almost immediately becomes available at your Web site and you can get at it from anywhere with Web access.
But there is a downside. If you want to share diary and contact information between your handset and PC, look for another device, because it's painful with the Sidekick II. To get your contacts from PC to Sidekick II, for example, you have to export them as a 'tab delimited' data file -- this is a standard format that your software should support -- then use the import feature at your Web space to get the data in. It synchronises with the Sidekick II automatically.
It's pretty straightforward, and as a one-off is acceptable. But if you want to keep copies of your ever-changing diary and contact book in sync on your desktop and mobile device, you'll find this convoluted procedure tiresome.
There's a good range of fairly funky tunes and beeps for use as message and call alerts, as well as a spoken 'new message', which we found irritating after just half a dozen times. A selection of light patterns flash across the large navigation pad that sits on the left edge of the device as part of the alert system, and if you are in a quiet mood you can choose just the light patterns on their own.
The camera has a maximum resolution of 640x480 pixels for images (plus 160x120 and 320x240), as well as no ability to capture video and no zoom. There is an LED flash, though. We found image quality in darker conditions poor, but acceptable in both natural daylight and well lit indoor situations.
As a voice call handset, the Sidekick II is a mixed bag. Neither us nor the people we phoned experienced any problems with call quality, but holding the Sidekick II to our ears felt very un-phone-like.
For SMS and mobile email, however, the Sidekick II is an excellent device. Its relatively large screen is great for scrolling through messages, and the keyboard is pretty good for typing on -- fast and relatively easy to use.
Battery life could prove something of a let-down in the real world. With just 2.5 days of standby time quoted by T-Mobile and 4.5 hours of talk, you'll have to stay near mains power at all times.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide