The Sidekick, the PDA for settling bar bets.

The Sidekick, the PDA for settling bar bets.

The Sidekick, the PDA for settling bar bets.

The latest gadgets and tech toys.
June 12 2003 6:48 PM

Robin, to the Googlephone!

Need a Web browser to settle bar bets? Try the Sidekick.

Getting more ... on a smaller scale
Getting more ... on a smaller scale

Wouldn't it be great to haul Google out of your pocket at the bar to settle bets, perform background checks on potential dates, or just dredge up the lyrics to "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" when it comes on the jukebox? I have long fantasized about an all-in-one pocket device that doubles as cell phone and mobile search engine: a Googlephone! But the Googlephone has been an elusive device. Mobile Web browsers are still a novelty feature, plagued by postage-stamp-sized screens and buggy browsers. Most PDAs likewise lack a solid browser and keyboard for searching or are just a bit too big to carry suavely on a Saturday night.

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The lone exception is T-Mobile's Sidekick, the novel twist-open hand-held manufactured by Danger Inc. Since going on sale last October, it's become a top choice among Silicon Valley hotshots who can afford any gadget they want. "It's all about the 'plastic,' " a friend thumb-typed to me from Tokyo—meaning the Sidekick's physical form and feel, rather than its software features, make the difference. Its bar-of-soap shape sits snugly in a pocket or your hands, and there's a satisfying snap when you slide the screen up with one thumb to reveal a full-sized (for a PDA) keyboard. Slashdot alpha geek Rob Malda summed up the Sidekick's winning formula: "For $200 you get a fully functional PDA and cell phone … a good keyboard, a Web browser, and a remarkably bright screen. It's a little larger than a cell phone, a little smaller than a PDA. All in all, a great combination."

The only thing that sidelined the Sidekick as a contender was its black and white screen, which didn't do justice to most Web pages. That's why the new $300 color Sidekick, which T-Mobile began shipping to anxious Americans last week after an early run in Europe, has been one of the most eagerly awaited consumer gadgets this year. After a few days toting the new Sidekick with us, I'm ready to declare a winner: We have found our Googlephone!

The clincher is the Sidekick's browser. Compared to other portable browsers I've tried, like the Palm Tungsten C or even the Opera browser for Nokia phones, it works better for speed searching. That's partly because of a powerful CPU chip, partly because of gateway software on T-Mobile's side of the connection that filters out problematic HTML while still letting images through. [Correction, June 13, 2003: The gateway software is on Danger's servers, not T-Mobile's side of the connection.] Coupled with T-Mobile's GPRS network, it's fast enough to flip open and Google for answers to questions that pop up in midconversation before your audience wanders off—even if you misspell "Kucinich" on the first try.

That's not to say it's perfect. The browser doesn't do JavaScript, animation, or pop-up windows, which makes many sites unusable. Most embarrassingly, it fails to load some sites at all, including Slate. Given the number of queries (e.g., "why geld Funny Cide") for which Google returns an "Explainer" column, we couldn't help feeling shortchanged. Eventually, we figured out that clicking on Google's cached version of the page works. [Update, June 12, 7:45 p.m.: Danger's engineers have confirmed that URLs like "slate.msn.com/id/2084323/" will fail while "www.slate.msn.com/id/2084323/" will work. They are fixing the bug.]

As a phone, the Sidekick draws mixed reviews. You dial on-screen with the keyboard, then either hold the thing to your head (it hides a speaker and microphone at opposite corners) or plug in a headset. My wife dubbed it "cool," but a Slate editor slagged hers off as "next to useless." Depending on which way you feel, T-Mobile will equip your Sidekick with a regular phone subscription plus $20 per month for unlimited Internet use or a $30-per-month data-only plan, on which you can make the occasional call for 8 cents a minute. [Correction, June 13, 2003: The data-only plan offers calls for 20 cents a minute.] There are plenty of other features, too: e-mail, a camera attachment, AOL Instant Messenger, games, an address book, even a blogging tool. But we spent most of our time Googling every question that popped into our heads, even while rolling down Highway 101.

The Sidekick's engineering makes it popular with the pros, perhaps because it's more computerlike than most pocket rockets. It lets you thumb through multiple applications easily, rather than running only one at a time. Its keyboard and thumb-wheel are fast once you figure them out. A roomful of UNIX consultants enthused that if I could download an SSH client for it—software from which they could log onto their servers at the office—they'd trade in their phones and leave the laptops at home.

That's when we hit the Sidekick's one big bug: Unlike a Pocket PC or Palm, you can't download or install new applications onto it. Danger Inc. has gone out of its way to keep the system locked up, like a phone rather than a computer. Since there's no way to try a different browser, no way to add novel new programs (SSH client? KaZaA? A calculator?) that Danger doesn't offer for download, it looks like the Sidekick will never become the next PC or Palm. As a portable Web search engine, it rocks. As a portable computer, you'll quickly find its limits and realize you can't Google for an upgrade.

[Corrections, June 13, 2003: The gateway software is on Danger Inc.'s servers, not T-Mobile's side of the connection. In the $30-per-month plan offered by Danger, calls cost 20 cents a minute, not 8 cents.]