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Danger HipTop

T-Mobile's version of the Hiptop works like a communicator should
by Shawn Barnett

Posted May 23, 2003

My co-workers are getting tired of hearing me say, "Wow!" I've been saying it ever since I opened the FedEx box from T-Mobile, which contained the unusual Danger communication device, which T-Mobile has decided to call "Sidekick." It's about as sophisticated and well-designed as communicators should have been two years ago; but thank goodness it's finally here. More than cutting edge technology, its beauty is embodied in the obvious careful thought that went into nearly every aspect. Even though I'm a technology-savvy person, I'm struck by the obviousness of the interface. That's even more surprising considering the extremely unconventional design of the Danger device. But after only a few hours with it, I may be ready to declare that this is the platform that will get regular people excited about mobile data-if they aren't intimidated by the unique design.

It has to be the most Jetson-like item I've seen from the tech industry. With its flip-around screen and tapered edges, it's almost surprising it doesn't sprout an antenna with satellite receiver dish, as many of George Jetson's devices did. It's good that it doesn't, of course; indeed, there is no external antenna at all, and unlike every other phone on the market, the hiptop is horizontally-oriented, designed to be held in both hands for data and control purposes. This orientation gives the user a wider keyboard with larger keys for both their eyes and thumbs to find, especially compared to RIM-style keyboards. It also gives them a wider screen than other cell phones. As a result, the hiptop is both easier to type on and easier to read from, be it Web or email content.

The 240 x 160 LCD screen is excellent, and the interface design takes advantage of the 16 grays available on the device, offering smooth colors and sharp graphical treatment. Program icons are arrayed in a virtual wheel on the left, something we've seen in Motorola's Accompli devices. The right thumbwheel scrolls through these icons, which swing around with soft animation. Date, time, network (cell) and battery status are shown on every screen, a great feature that surprisingly few data phones have. Soft sound effects accompany most actions, giving the hiptop a futuristic and friendly feel, without the tinny beeps of older devices.


Another plus with the hiptop is how many options can be set. For example, if you don't want your device making all those cool sounds I just mentioned, you can set a number of smart mute options, like mute every day from one time to another, and to mute all day on weekends or weekdays. It's pretty slick, and the interface is plain English, another design plus.


The main control wheel is clear, with a healthy gnarl for good grip in all situations. A series of surface mount LEDs lie beneath, driving some pretty cool light shows when the phone rings or messages come in. Users can do some serious customization here as well. The wheel can be pressed in to activate the current selection. The other three control buttons are Menu, Jump, and Back. Menu is self-explanatory, but Jump works as kind of a shortcut or command key, working in combination with keystrokes when the keyboard is exposed; when it's closed, Jump just takes you to the Phone application for quick selection of recently called numbers. Back takes you out of whatever application or sub-menu you've entered.


While you can dial calls using the jog dial, it's a bit cumbersome. If the number you want is not in the recently dialed calls list, you'll be better off flipping the screen around and using the number keypad. Unfortunately, this isn't that easy either, since the familiar 10-digit keypad is not used on this device, and there's no touchscreen interface. You'll have to type the number in on the number row across the top of the keypad. No big deal, but not really fast. Once I've dialed, and the call is in progress, I usually swing the screen back over the keypad and hold the little flat football-shaped device to my head. It took me a minute to figure out that the large vents at the upper right were the speaker, and that the small opening between the Menu and Jump buttons was the mic, because I'd been using the included headset wire for the first few days. The woman on the "Phone" screen had been demonstrating the fact to me but I didn't pick it up.


Danger did a really good job designing the keyboard. I like both the feel and the layout, as well as the keys they chose to make readily available to the common user. It was designed with email composition in mind. The @ key, for example, is not accessed through any alt or shift combination, it's a real key just left of the spacebar. I'd like to knock on the heads of most keyboard designers and say, "Hello, this is a pretty important key now, can't we make it mainstream?" They also included a delete key and standard return key, labeled with "Del" and "Return." Made for the masses. Finally, a decent four-way toggle disc makes navigation easier.

But they didn't stop there. The have some pretty smart auto-editing features to help users appear more literate. Apostrophes are added automatically to words that likely need them, as well as capitals at the beginning of lines-and of course the mighty personal pronoun "I" is also capitalized, so little girls who think its cute to write in all lower-case will have to go turn this feature off. The rest of us can enjoy a more trouble- and error-free emailing experience.


Speaking of email, this has to be where Danger and T-Mobile impressed me most. I found setting up my device to receive my own personal email strikingly easy. The Web interface was easy to understand and its instructions well written and comprehensive. It appeared to be designed by more than just an engineer of hardware and software, but by an engineer of consumer-friendly devices. With a quick glance at my email settings in my computer's email program to verify settings, I had the Danger device receiving email in seconds. Literally. It took me only seconds to enter the data, and only seconds before the email from the last three days began appearing on my Sidekick (I typically leave email on the server for that long).

After a few weeks of use, I'll be completely honest: this is the best mobile email solution I've yet seen. Out of the box, this device is able to receive and display email with attachments, including images (.gif, .jpg, .png), PDF, and Word files. And while the device can't view some files, it can identify and remove certain files to save space, like Excel, Powerpoint, .wav, .avi, .zip, and .sit. Email is pushed to the device at an interval set by the user, or it can be pulled down at will.

Images display well, with large JPEGs displaying quickly and impressively for such a low-res device. Also available as an option is a small Kyocera-branded digital camera attachment that plugs into the Sidekick's headset jack. It swivels front or back, and captures little 120 x 90 pixel color images that can be emailed to anyone, and they automatically wirelessly sync with your Web portal page.


Finally, the Sidekick is a pretty reliable Web browsing and IM device. Browsing is quick and seamless. I was able to load our Pen Computing website front page in 22 seconds, start to finish. Pretty impressive performance for a proxy browser. The excellent and comparatively wide screen offers a good browsing experience, with more comfortable reading of sentences than a typical cell phone, or even a Palm device. For the quickest, easiest IM, AOL's Instant Messenger is pre-loaded, and because both of T-Mobile's plans include unlimited data, users can chat with their buddies all day. Up to 10 conversations can be held simultaneously if you really want to get wild. In my testing the only problem was that I couldn't see or IM users with Apple's iChat. Hopefully an upgrade is available; the AOL server loads a "PleaseUpgrade000" in the Offline list, so apparently they can tell the software needs updating.

I'd say that was the only flaw I found with the Sidekick. Its unique design both sets it apart from a crowded marketplace and serves the designers intention: to create a communicator that is easy enough to learn and use that buyers will indeed do just that: use it. I think they've achieved that goal. The only impediment in a world of slim, short, bar-of-soap, and Palm-shaped smartphones is user acceptance of the unusual form factor. Like the Palm Pilot, it will have to succeed by word of mouth. Since it's available for US$149 - 199, acceptance should be easier; though its target market, the younger generation, is more likely to go with a free phone. Let me add my words to the chimes of praise: I'm extremely impressed with the Danger Hiptop/T-Mobile Sidekick. It is the most useful and intelligently designed communicator I've yet seen, and I've seen quite a few.

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