T-Mobile Sidekick II Review: Best Phone I'll Never BuySo I'm heartbroken. I've just spent a week using the T-Mobile Sidekick II, and I think it's probably one of the best mobile devices I've ever used. And I can say, with total conviction, that I will never, ever purchase one and neither should you. In fact, after the experiences I've had today with T-Mobile, I'm not sure I can ever recommend one of their products again.

You may have noticed I'm a little slow on posting today. The reason is, besides being really, really high, is that I've spent about two hours on the phone with various customer service reps trying to resolve an issue that's been plaguing my primary account for the last three months. I've stayed away from mentioning it on Gizmodo, because I didn't want to turn my personal experiences into an overall anti-T-Mobile bias, but after my experiences today, with the yelling, the lies, and the misdirections, I am finally leaving them for good, and I have received such consistent horrible, deceitful service that I've come to realize it's indicative of a larger overall problem with the company - and that's worth telling you about.

But first, let me explain why the Sidekick II is so awesome.

Now I never owned the original Sidekick; let me get that out of the way first. It was one of those devices that captivated me, though, and I read every little thing I could find about it before it came out. I even took my friends to Danger.com to show them the cool Flash animations back before I even knew about the Hiptop/Sidekick - I was a fan before I even knew they were making a gadget.

For whatever reason, though, when the Sidekick came out I didn't get one. I'm fairly sure it's because I was dirt broke and any extra money I had was going to pay for Macaroni and Cheese. Once I heard about the color Sidekick, I was determined to scrap together a little bit of cash and get that one, but then got a little gun shy when I heard about so many problems with the build quality. But the Sidekick II was going to be my entry, I figured, and if you've read Gizmodo for the last few months you'll see that I was pretty excited about it.

So I know about the Hiptop, but detailed comparisons between the old one and the new one are probably best left to someone else. I can tell you the basics improvements, though, such as they are.

The Sidekick II is wider than the old one, but flatter. It seems a fairly decent trade-off, to me. Any extra keyboard size is welcome, and a thinner profile is easier to slip into pants pockets than a shorter, but more bulbous shape.

The camera is also built-in this time, and although it's not the megapixel version I was hoping for - maybe in the Sidekick 2.5? - it's a lot better than that joke of a camera in the old one. Built-in is better than out-board, too; it makes the Sidekick II a nice emergency camera when you don't have a better one handy. And the automatic sync back up to T-Mobile's servers means that any picture you take is available online, too, which is handy. The old units may have had that, too, but I don't know. Doesn't matter, it's a nice feature.

The built-in "flash" LED on the camera is a joke, though. I tried taking some pictures of some friends at DBA, which is a fairly dark bar in Manhattan, but reasonably lit, and even with the nighttime mode (and I tried them all) all you could see was a bit of a strange blobby flesh-colored shape. I even tried to get really close to their faces to see if that made a difference, but it was still awful. It wouldn't be disappointing if there weren't a flash on there at all, but to include one and have it suck is stupid. There's a chance, though, that it might not be going off when the picture is actually taken, though, so that could be fixed in software.

And the software is nice, as is the Danger-crafted operating system itself, if one can really separate the two. Because all software is controlled by Danger and T-Mobile, it's really hard to clarify where one ends and one begins. And while I pretty much hate that aspect of the Sidekick II - it would be the one thing holding me back if I weren't leaving T-Mobile - I have to admit that from an end-user perspective, it didn't really seem to be lacking much for me.

But the 'for me' is the problem, because you don't get to pick and choose apps to add as you wish, so although the Sidekick II does everything I need it to - IMAP email, AIM, and basic web browsing - if you want to add something else, you have very limited options. You can either download the software from Danger, usually for an additional fee ($10 for the SSH client!), or petition them relentlessly until they decide to provide it for you.

There is a third option - unlocking your Sidekick II and installing programs over the USB port - but it involves basically opting out of any official support from T-Mobile and Danger, and as such it's not fair to consider that as a normal consumer option.

Like there's no IRC client, for instance. Sure I could log in via SSH and then work from there, but sending SSH packets through GPRS - even with the slight speed gain of using T-Mobile's proxy servers - still isn't nearly as nice as using a native Sidekick II program. And if the platform were open, someone could just code one up and I could add it in. Why, it might even be free! But as it stands I just have to hope and pray someone at Danger will hear my plea and spend the many hours to code it up, submit it to T-Mobile for approval (they still have final say, to my knowledge), and then pay to have it added to my device. Sucky. But hey, I'm a Mac user (and Windows, shut up!) so I know about hoping and praying the vendor will look down on you from on high. At least you can add your own 3rd party options on OSX.

But here's the thing - I know I'm sounding really negative when I had previously gushed about it - if you just accept the Sidekick II for what it does and not what it could do, it's amazing. It is hands down the best mobile messaging platform I've ever used, as long as those messages are sent via AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). In fact, it might be best to think of the Sidekick II as a little mobile AIM portal first, then all its other functions secondary. One of the functions of the new shoulder buttons is to switch between conversations you're having in AIM - up to ten at once. And man, did I ever use that little button. Flipping between conversations with the shoulder means you never have to take your thumbs off the keyboard, and since the Sidekick II has one of the best thumb keyboards ever, I was able to stay connected to my friends and co-workers with almost the same speed I can do it in iChat or Trillian.

Plus, since it's so light and tiny, I was able to walk down the street or lounge in a bath and still get all my texting done. You haven't truly AIM'd until you've done it in a bubble bath (especially with a loaner unit. Life on the fucking edge, man!)

The other functions of the unit are nice, if hobbled by the slow connection speeds of GPRS. Web browsing isn't something you'll want to plan on doing a lot of, because even though it works, it's a chore - think slower than dial-up with a smaller screen. But it's great for checking Mapquest or looking at a link that someone sends you in AIM.

The email client I used for a while, but I keep probably the better part of a gigabyte of email in my Gizmodo IMAP account - not to mention my other email accounts. Since a lot of the confusion is mitigated by use of mail filters and multiple, server-side folders, I was very disappointed to find that the otherwise robust email client didn't support IMAP folders properly. Everything just sat in an inbox, which when you have thousands of saved emails isn't very useful. For the average, casual emailer, though, it would be fine. And the Sidekick II isn't a Blackberry or anything, either, so if you purchase a "lifestyle" device expecting it to handle your work email properly, then you are making a mistake.

That being said, a better email client would make the Sidekick II a contender in that space, especially coupled with a higher-speed cellular radio, something like EDGE or EV-DO or some other magical 3G acronym that means Really Fast Wireless Internet.

There are notes and games and a calendar application, too, and they are sort of nice, but since they didn't sync with my Apple iApps like iCal I didn't bother. There is a sync program from Danger now, though, that pushes your data up to their website, then back down to the Sidekick, so that weakness in the platform is finally being patched up.

And without going off track and making this yet another Apple handjob, I would mention that the same sort of uniformity of user interface across all the Sidekick II apps reminds me a lot of Apple's UI work, and it makes for a really appealing, intuitive, quick-to-fathom device (if not an excuse for the closed platform). I love me some hotkeys - I feel like I've really grokked a system once I can get around it without using a mouse - and the Sidekick II has a ton of smart hotkeys that, once learned, pretty much work the same across everything. That's part of the polish that takes the Sidekick II from just another cool technology gadget to something that really shines.

Well, that and the flip-out screen, which returns from the original Sidekick in a similar form. This time, though, it fits flush with the rest of the unit, which is part of why the Sidekick II is thinner than its predecessor. Everybody who plays with the screen loves it, though, and while I no longer think of it as the Sidekick II's defining feature, for people new to the device it certainly still is. When we were at DBA, people couldn't stop picking it up and playing with it, watching the color display flip the image at just the right point so it was never upside down. It's a fantastic form factor and this second iteration does nothing but improve it. The addition of the shoulder buttons have been well thought out, and the intelligent volume buttons still work like you'd hope they would (why can't any other phone OS figure out that volume down should go from quiet to vibrate to silent? It's so perfect and so simple.)

So there you go. It's a great device, and up until today I had every intention, despite those few reservations, to go ahead and get one. My main voice phone could stand to be replaced, and although I'll probably pick up the next Treo, too, the Sidekick II would be perfect for now. I was willing to do what I commonly preach against doing, which is to buy something that is almost perfect in the hope that it would someday be totally perfect. But I'm not going to.

Now honestly, if you just have to have the Sidekick II and don't care a whit about customer service - I mean, you will eventually, I promise you, but sometimes gadget lust is hard to resist - then this would be where you can leave off. I'm going to make this short and sweet, though, because god knows I've made this review long enough as it is. Still, I feel like this needs to be made clear.

I have avoided writing about my problems with T-Mobile because, well, shit happens, and as the editor of this site I feel like I have to suck it up sometimes even when I might know some higher-ups to call to make everything go away when I have a problem. Part of that is because I don't want to be an asshole and use Gizmodo as a personal platform of hate, but part of it is because I want to have the same experiences with these companies as anyone else would. But now I feel like the latter is sort of negating my concern about the former, and my experience as your everyday customer with T-Mobile overrules any extra weight writing about it might give it.

Basically, I've been lied to, over and over again, by various customer service representatives from T-Mobile. Without going into every last boring detail, I had tried to purchase a SIM card from a third-party reseller in Brooklyn instead of ordering one through T-Mobile and waiting a week for them to send it. After the guy tried to rip me off, I walked out without paying but he still placed the order. I immediately called T-Mobile and told them to fix it, which they said they did, but it's been screwed up ever since.

So for the last three months, I've been going back and forth with T-Mobile trying to get my service working and my account to where it should be. Everything seemed to be fine, after about eight or nine separate phones calls - I had the second line I wanted, there was a slight billing error that was being looked into, but service was happening and they would let me know what was up with the overcharges.

So then last week my service was canceled. I called them up, they noticed there was a billing investigation going on, and said, "No problem. Sorry we shut you off. We'll let you know what happened."

I was never contacted. Today, my service was disconnected again.

When I called and reached a rep named Patty, I explained what had happened - something I always have to do, despite asking many times for it to be noted properly on my account - and after about an hour was able to finally reach the resolution that the overcharges on my billing would be removed. Keep in mind that this is after she had told me that she would be willing to credit back about a third of them if I "admitted and understood that T-Mobile had done nothing wrong in this matter." Of course, I told her that was rank bullshit, and pressed on. Finally, after speaking to her manager she was able to get approval to make a one-time charge. Already pissed, I asked her, "So are you saying that in this case, T-Mobile was actually wrong?"

"I'm not saying that, sir, but I'm not saying you were wrong, either." That sort of milquetoast response wouldn't have saved me from leaving if it weren't for one thing - dreams of my very own Sidekick II, available only via T-Mobile. So I said fine. She calculated the refund, with tax, told me the amount, answered a couple more questions for me, and we hung up. I had just spent an hour of prime news-posting time dealing with something that should have been fixed three months ago, but I had finally gotten everything taken care of.

Until I tried to use my phone. It was still off, so I called T-Mobile again, not twenty minutes after hanging up with Patty the first time. Long story longer? There was no notes from Patty about giving me a credit. She lied to me. The refund - the one she calculated the taxes for - was a lie. She even made notes on my account indicating that she'd tried to placate me, but ultimately I was inconsolable.

So I lost it.

I worked customer service for AT&T for almost two years. Despite my daily vitriol here, I am the sweetest cupcake of a customer you will ever find to customer service reps - especially those that work for the phone company. You can put me on hold, ask me to wait while you figure out what's wrong, call me back, whatever. I'm a prancing pony of politeness.

I lost it bad.

So... god, this is all so pathetic. But honestly, I don't know what else to do. I'm going to take a $200 service cancellation fee just to escape their clutches. I'll fight it, of course, but they'll probably just mindlessly pass it on to a collection agency, where my refusal to pay it will attempt to deep six my credit (beat you to it, suckers!)

And if it were even one lie, and one screw up... I ignored this for three months, giving them chance after chance to make it better. To continually screw it up, inconvenience someone who was just trying to use their service, who paid bills early is just incredible, and is indicative of an overarching deficit of concern throughout the entire company that I'm finally starting to recognize. I'm used to shitty service - I am an American, after all - but this has been so beyond the pale that I can't justify using their service any longer, nor can I in good faith recommend them to anyone else.

The last person I spoke to was nice, and wanted to let me know how much he sympathized with me, but ultimately said he was powerless, and that in this instance - and I made him verify this to me, repeat it back so I could make sure I heard it - he had to trust T-Mobile over me. My only recourse, he said, was contacting Customer Relations via email and hope they got back to me with some resolution. No one within Customer Care - the people you can speak to on the phone - had any power to resolve my problem.

So goodbye, T-Mobile. I joined up two years ago because you were making smart decisions, had a good price and lots of free features (many of which have been slowly taken away). You guys have a lot of great phones, but until there is a massive, fundamental change in the way you treat your customers, I can't in good conscience recommend your products and services to anybody.

Related

T-Mobile Sidekick II Reviewed [Gizmodo]