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Mobile Community Design
Research and design information for mobile community developers.

Monday, October 16, 2006

A designer's thoughts on the SideKick

This is a review of the T-Mobile SideKick 3, but it is by no means complete. Overall, the SideKick is a beautiful piece of technology, but designers are picky people who are never satisfied. So this is a review of a few of the more interesting positive and negative points of the sidekick from a design perspective. It isn't really a buying guide.

One of the most unique things about the SideKick is the input devices. The screen pops up from the lower left corner and rotates up clockwise (see lower two photos). The thumboard is large and pretty reasonable for text entry (although certainly not as fast as a full keyboard). I use it for reasonably long blog entries without much problem. The small sphere on the right side is a trackball. It is used for most navigation on the device, but is particularly useful for moving around web pages. It doesn't map to a mouse cursor (which would have been a mistake), instead it jumps between hot-spots (links) on a web page, or skips automatically between menu options in a list. It results in a very intuitive method of rapidly switching between items without the problems of pinpoint accuracy. There is a click button under the ball, which is used for selection of items after you roll over them. This was a very courageous step for Danger (who makes the device) to try a totally new navigation system. I have yet to see something as versatile and fast. Scroll wheels could do menu items, but they wouldn't allow 4-way directional input for web browsing. Also note that there is a redundant navigation system under the speaker on the left side (up, down, left, right). I don't use it at all. There are also four black buttons in each corner of the black area (shown below) and two buttons on the top of the device (just over the edge).

Here's what it looks like closed. Note that it says 'Flip to dial!' in the bottom right corner. You can't really place a voice call without flicking open the screen - thus this not a one-handed dialing machine. This is a serious fault in something which is supposed to be partially a cell phone. Note: you can place a one handed call, but only to recently dialed numbers, and the track-ball is really fiddly in one hand, so this is impractical. Dialing with two hands is nice (if you have them free). You flick open the screen, and start typing a name. It rapidly finds all matches, usually giving you the correct one first. Hit the green button and you're set. Of course usually you need to shut the screen again before talking - which is not very elegant.

The screen does attract some attention when it is opened (it clicks out impressively). However, one really wonders why this was necessary. It seems over-engineered. Why not have a screen which rotates up on a hinge (like a laptop). This would protect the screen when it was shut.

Open, the machine is very comfortable in the hands. The ridges on the sides give a place for the lower thumbs to rest. The screen could be a little wider (look at all that black framing around it!), but it's big enough for most web pages to be reasonable. Keyboard shortcuts (e.g. home button-e) brings me automatically to e-mail. I have shortcuts set up for different instant messengers, world clock, notepad, phone, camera, etc. It is very rapid to switch between different applications once you memorize the shortcuts.

OK, imagine the phone closed and in your pocket. It beeps about an incoming instant message on MSN. Which side do you open it from? The only visual aid to deciphering this is the white sidekick lettering along the right side, or if you can remember which side the trackball should be in. My point is that when you have an incoming call/IM/email or just want to check a web site, it's very easy to open it upside down. And since the screen flicks out rather fast, it's easy to drop it if you have it upside down - not to mention that it makes you look rather dumb.

For those of you interested in ambient computing, or light-touch interfaces, check out the SideKick! The touch-ball lights up via an LED underneath it. It does the full rainbow of colors. A small program I downloaded flashes different colors ever 10 seconds, depending on if I have e-mail, IM, voicemail, or SMS waiting for me. This means that you can set it on the coffee table across the room and glance at it occasionally and know if you need to check it - all while continuing the conversation you're currently in the middle of. Consequently the device is a lot more elegant and polite than the average cell phone. It also (perhaps not by plan) acts as an ambient interface for a desktop PC. When you're at home, you see the button flashing blue, and know you need to go into the bedroom/office to check your mail more effectively - very nice.

The black hole just in the corner (see above) is the audio jack. Instead of being a typical 3.5mm jack (which works with all of your existing headphones), it is a 2.5 mm jack compatible with many handsfree units and asian headphones. You can get a converter, but they are a hassle, and mine doesn't fit well and results in audio that cuts out intermittently in one ear. For a device that is supposed to be an MP3 player, this is really poorly designed. Also the placement of the audio jack is unfortunate. Instead of placing it on the bottom, like any normal MP3 player, it is on the side. If you have it in your pocket, it results in a clumsy protruding cable that makes the device wider than it is normally. Note to any future phone manufacturers trying to build in MP3 player functionality: you must have a standard jack and place it somewhere reasonable if you want people to actually use the device for music.

The device uses a mini-SD card. A standard SD card would probably have been cheaper and more standard. But the main problem is that it's under the case. You have to turn off the phone and remove the back to get at the card. This makes getting photos or MP3s a off the phone a pain. Most PDAs have the slot excessible from the outside. Not a lot of reason not to here.

I should mention that T-mobile (or perhaps Danger) actually designed a customer experience and not just a phone. The phone continually backs itself up automatically (over GRPS) to a web site where you can access you data. You can shop for new applications via an online shopping service from the phone (it bills your phone bill). All of the applications are approved by T-mobile and thus are reasonably reliable, integrate with the system well, and are of reasonable quality. They also automatically install and there is a simple "block" system to see how much room you have left. This is a dramatically different experience than downloading third-party Pocket PC applications from a third party web-site and doing the install and compatibility checks yourself (often with disastrous results). Also, T-Mobile is providing an unlimited data plan for $20/month. That means that you can use as much SMS/MMS/e-mail/web as you like and it doesn't cost anything extra. It should also be noted that setup is very simple and most of it works out of the box. This is dramatically different than my experience with an I-mate KJAM PDA, painfully trying to set it up to read my GMail account. T-mobile is successfully providing an end-to-end service here (but don't try to contact their tech support!).

In summary there are a few problems. It is:
- difficult to tell which side is "up" by feel or appearance;
- impossible to dial one-handed and requires opening;
- a somewhat overdesigned screen which feels a bit clumsy when opened;
- the audio jack is a non-standard size and in the wrong location; and
- the mini-SD card slot not easily accessible.

However, the SideKick has some great pluses:
- a great seamless integration of e-mail, SMS (text messaging), Instant Messaging and voice;
- a novel set of input devices from the trackball to the backlit keyboard;
- an intriguing output device in the trackball LED light which is finally pushing the boundaries about how to communicate with the user more in a less demanding fashion;
- an excellent 'user experience' design which backs up data, gives multiple interfaces to personal content and has realistic pricing plans.

It's surprising that Danger didn't figure out the one-handed dialing and MP3 player problems in previous iterations. Once they get that ironed out in the next version this will be an amazing personal communication device. It's still not bad as it currently is.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can you let us know what the "small program" was that you downloaded ot get the color flashes in the trackball? Thanks!

3:18 PM  
Blogger axup said...

the program is available in the downloads library in the sidekick for purchase. It is called 'Message Sentinel'.

8:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the cool thing about the sidekicks are the ability to theme them.

you can get a huge list of free themes at http://www.allaboutthekick.com

3:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i think having the sidekick is very useful in always.....and its very fun to have and all my friends have it so its very fun

5:23 AM  

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