Talk about messaging phones and you'll inevitably get to the Sidekick. T-Mobile's screen-flipping feature-phone has a history of offering smartphone style push email, web access and social networking with a straightforward UI; now there's a new addition to the family tree, in the shape of the Sidekick LX 2009. The simple name-change over last year's model hides a number of improvements, however, not least a stunning display, 3G and GPS. Are they enough to maintain the Sidekick reputation, or has the feature-phone crown been snatched away? SlashGear set to finding out.
Handset manufacturer Sharp have switched to a raised membrane design for the keyboard, which you might expect to ruin the tradition of excellent Sidekick keyboards. Instead, it's even better than the LX it replaces, tactile and well-spaced. This is definitely a phone for messaging; the flip-side of decent key spacing is that the LX 2009 itself is a sizable handset, to the point we felt a little silly holding it to our head for voice calls. Blunt edges and a thinner but nowhere-near-thin casing makes this the LX 2009 actually longer than the 2009, for all that it's not quite as thick.
Forgiveness is overwhelming, however, once the incredible LCD display comes to life. At 3.2-inches and 854 x 480 resolution, it's colorful, insanely crisp and offers a real challenge to the AMOLED screens we've seen. You can understand why Danger went to town with the navigation animations, though the fact that the trackball lacks precision meant we overshot menu options more than we liked. Underneath is a long, thin LED strip which launches an impromptu disco whenever calls, messages or emails arrive; it's hard to imagine that you'd miss the loud ringer or bone-shaking vibrate-alert, but the light effects seem to think it's a risk worth preparing for.
The LX 2009 marks a significant milestone for the Sidekick lineage in that it's the first model to include 3G. Previous models relied on EDGE and some clever server-side webpage fettling to avoid undue delays; frankly, 3G would've been wasted as T-Mobile USA's high-speed network lacked the coverage to make it worthwhile for all but the smallest minority of subscribers. Now, with the carrier's roll-out continuing apace, the LX 2009 catches up, but it feels as though the server-side processing hasn't kept pace. Page renders are acceptable but nothing special, and the browser itself is outclassed by Opera Mini or Safari Mobile. Still, it's hard to see how T-Mobile could do much more without a touchscreen; we're so used to tapping to zoom and swiping to drag across the page it's tough relying on the trackball.
GPS is another fresh addition, and it's a functional if not exactly elegant implementation. Unlike what seems like every other mapping-enabled cellphone, the LX 2009 uses Microsoft's Live Search rather than Google's products; of course, Danger is now owned by Microsoft. The display steps up to offer maps in glorious detail, particularly when looking at satellite views, but there are no turn-by-turn directions only a list of turns. Overall, though, GPS seems to have been underused in the LX 2009; there's no Latitude-style "I'm here!" feature for Twitter, no friend locater and not even teen-friendly pedestrian directions.
Messaging has always been the Sidekick's forte, and Danger have done their best to keep up with what's fashionable in social networking. The Sidekick LX 2009 ships with preloaded MySpace, Facebook and Twitter clients, with the former offering access to searching, viewing profiles, messaging and commenting, and access to image galleries. The LX 2009's Twitter app puts updates straight on the phone's homepage, which is something we wish other handsets would copy, but at its fastest will only check for new messages every five minutes. It's a shame, as the app otherwise includes everything we could ask for: profile viewing, following and unfollowing, and of course that eminently-peckable keyboard to blast out your own tweets.
In fact it seems Danger were so busy catching up with Twitter that they neglected to bring their SMS and email apps up to date. The email app will still only allow three external accounts to be added, and the SMS app is limited to 100 inbox messages. It won't disappoint any Sidekick upgraders, but neither will it blow anyone away. Considering the advances in email-cellphone integration - look at the GMail client on Android handsets, for example - the LX 2009 is at risk of losing its edge.
The 3.2-megapixel camera is a welcome leap in megapixels but won't replace anything but the cheapest of point-and-shoots. The LED flash falls into the trap of over-saturating closer shots and yet proving too weak for anything more distant, but the autofocus snaps into place reasonably quickly and there's little delay between clicking the right shoulder-button and the frame being captured. GPS can be used to geotag images - although you'll need to turn it on first, as Danger leave it switched off by default - and there are options to share shots via MMS, Bluetooth, email or straight to a Facebook gallery. Of course, you can always whip out the memory card or use the supplied miniUSB cable to hook up to a computer. Video is less successful, with highest resolution topping out at 320 x 240 and quality coming in at sub-digital camera level, never mind that of a cheap camcorder.
Phone features - once you've gotten past the bulk by your ear - are serviceable, with a little echo but no noticeable hiss. We tested several Bluetooth headsets with the LX 2009 and had no issues either with connecting or using them day to day. Those who prefer wired headsets will be pleased with the standard 3.5mm socket, also ideal for using the handset as a PMP with your own headphones, but it's side-mounted which could present an issue when the LX 2009 is monopolizing your pocket.
Overall, there's a sense that the Sidekick LX 2009 has grown up for its latest incarnation, but not quite at the same pace that rival devices have matured. QWERTY keyboards are no longer unusual on feature-phones, and function-savvy teen and twenty-something buyers have wised-up to exactly what social networking apps can be used on the move. Existing Sidekick owners will likely find enough in the 3G, GPS and awesome display to prompt an upgrade, but there's no must-have feature that will pull in fresh blood. In many ways that's a shame; the T-Mobile Sidekick LX 2009 is certainly the best of its lineage, it simply faces a market so competitive that it's all to easy to slip from view.