By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, July 2, 2006
Few cellphones say more about their owners than the BlackBerry and the Sidekick -- and these handheld gadgets don't always convey a flattering message.
Research in Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerry may make you look like a star on K Street. But carrying the device also advertises that you take perverse pride in being handcuffed to your job by your "CrackBerry" -- and warns dinner companions that you'll ignore them in favor of replying to memos from the office.
What the BlackBerry is to lawyers and lobbyists, T-Mobile's Sidekick is to hipsters and celebrities. Wielding this text-messaging-adept camera phone can broadcast your street cred -- unless toting Paris Hilton's favorite gadget merely suggests that you spend your time in nightclubs burning through Daddy's cash.
(Full disclosure: I carry a Palm Treo 650, which means I'm a geek who keeps checking baseball scores in the middle of meetings.)
The latest versions of the BlackBerry and the Sidekick, however, undermine those stereotypes. The BlackBerry 7130c is designed and priced like a normal cellphone, not a corporate peripheral; you might not get laughed out of a club for flaunting this device. The Sidekick 3 has enough communications options to ensure that your boss's directives will never be far from your attention.
The 7130c -- sold by Cingular for $250 on a two-year contract, with a $50 rebate available -- stays trim by using a condensed, 20-button keyboard. The letters line up in traditional QWERTY order, but with two apiece on most keys; as you type, the BlackBerry's SureType software determines what words each series of key presses could spell, then enters the likely match.
With most vocabulary, that works ridiculously well: I SureTyped "the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog" with perfect accuracy. But to enter e-mail addresses or other text not in SureType's database, you need to hold down the asterisk key to switch the keyboard into a second, slower mode, in which you press a button once for its first letter and twice for its second letter.
The 7130c's most important software is its e-mail program. It supports the two major kinds of consumer accounts (POP and IMAP), easily connecting to an EarthLink or AOL account with minimal configuration. But as with earlier BlackBerry devices, this one comes set to deliver new messages nonstop -- not only when you want to check your e-mail. It's easy to get inundated.
The 7130c's Web browser can't handle any complicated sites but suffices for quick data look-ups. There is no instant-messaging software on Cingular's model, however. The carrier sells unlimited data use for $30 with any voice plan.
This BlackBerry also features an address book; a calendar; a to-do list; and a memo pad that can sync with Microsoft Outlook on a Windows computer, using RIM's bundled software. (Mac users can try a free PocketMacsync program at http://www.pocketmac.net/ .)
But this phone is short on features beyond those. The 7130c includes a speakerphone, but no camera, memory-card slot or music playback. Its Bluetooth wireless seems good only for pricey Bluetooth headsets; it couldn't exchange any data with an iMac or work with a Toyota Prius's hands-free mode.
The 7130c shares its biggest flaw with every other BlackBerry -- a relentlessly awkward interface that spits on most rules of good design. Clicking on a link on a Web page should take you to a new page, but here it invokes a menu 17 items long. Opening a memo requires choosing between reading it and editing it; when you close a document, the default action is to discard your edits.
T-Mobile's Sidekick 3 --$300 with a two-year contract, available to current subscribers now and to the general public on July 10 -- doesn't have any such interface deficiencies. Its software keeps the important functions close at hand without burying more complicated stuff.
The Sidekick 3's hardware interface is just as smart. Its LCD screen flips open like a switchblade to reveal a QWERTY keyboard that falls right under your thumbs, with the important controls (for example, home and menu buttons, a handy little trackball and "send" and "end" keys) on either side.
This phone's Web browser and e-mail program are far more approachable than the BlackBerry's -- although it can't delete junk e-mail while keeping other messages online for you to read when you get home. It also has instant-messaging software for AOL's, Microsoft's and Yahoo's networks. T-Mobile sells unlimited data access for $20 with a voice plan.
The address book, calendar, to-do and memo programs onboard the Sidekick synchronize not to a computer but to T-Mobile's Web site. You can import addresses and calendars from Microsoft Outlook and other programs, but keeping a Sidekick 3 in sync with your desktop software requires buying extra software -- the $10, Windows-only Intellisync ( http://my.t-mobile.com/ ) or Mark/Space's Missing Sync for Mac OS X, $30 ( http://www.markspace.com/ ).
Although the Sidekick 3 is slimmer than the Sidekick 2 it replaces, it has a higher-resolution camera, Bluetooth wireless (good for headsets and car hands-free kits, and for sending business cards to other Bluetooth phones) and MP3-only music playback.
That last feature requires storing music files on a miniSD memory card. It's too bad the Sidekick 3 doesn't use regular-size SD Cards, which are more widely used and easier to find.
Both the BlackBerry 7130c and the Sidekick 3 suffer somewhat from the networks they run on -- Cingular and T-Mobile don't reach the subway parts of Metro. T-Mobile's network can also fade outside big cities; the Sidekick struggled to find a signal in downtown Lexington, Va.
But for users living, working and commuting in the right parts of town, both models offer much of the capability of a Palm or Windows Mobile smart phone at a small fraction of the cost, and at a size no bigger than many dumb phones. That says buyers of these phones know how to spend their money.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro firstname.lastname@example.org.