Danger Hiptop 2 Review, AKA T-Mobile Sidekick 2

The Danger Hiptop 2 has been out for almost a year now in the US, it’s called the T-Mobile Sidekick II over there. Fido finally picked it up in Canada and is now selling it for $200 CDN on a plan or $550 without. Sporting a-built in camera and a slightly slimmer profile than it’s predecessor, the Hiptop 2 offers unlimited HTML web and e-mail for an impressive $20 bucks a month on top of your standard voice plan.

So is it worth it? The Hiptop2 is not all things to all people and you’ll see hits and misses throughout the review. The question is whether the things it lacks are the kinds of things you care about. Because if they aren’t, you’ll see that what it does do, it does very well.

Interface and Design

The first thing people tell me when I show them this product is that it definitely does not look like a phone. Most initially think that it’s just another gaming handheld. Aside from the unconventional looks, the Hiptop2 is also immediately noticed for its size. At 130mm x 66mm x 22mm and weighing 184 grams it still fits loosely in a larger pants pocket, but some may think you are just happy to see them.

The display screen is 240-by-160 pixel 65k color LCD which is viewable from various angles, even in direct sunlight. Brightness can be controlled manually or through a built in light sensor that adjusts to the ambient illumination. Even in manual mode with the backlight turned up to full, it’s nowhere near as bright as most of my other phones. It is however bright enough to do the job.

Controls on the device are straight-forward and very easy to use. Pickup the manual, you will learn these in minutes. My only complaints are that the left directional pad is only 4-way directional. It would have been nice to be able to click on it to make a selection. Had they added this, the device would have been as easy to use with either the right or left hand.

On the outer edge surrounding the top and bottom are buttons covered by a hard rubber, they require some effort to press making them very difficult to accidentally activate in a pocket. These include the dedicated volume keys, power, camera shutter and contextual key. In the camera application, the shutter key is the right rubberized key on the top edge. Again, the device would have been more left-hand friendly had they allowed the contextual key on the left to double as the same function.

What makes the design really cool is the slide out style screen. When you push on it with your left thumb it slides up and locks into place while changing the image orientation in the process. This reveals the keyboard and allows access to the number keys for manual dialing and messaging.

This design is absolutely excellent for providing a large data entry keyboard and large screen, but it does have drawbacks for voice dialing. For one, calling anyone that is not already in your address book requires two hands to flip open the device and type the numbers. On the upside, the device recognizes what you’re doing and takes you directly to the phone app from the main menu. You then close the phone and stick it to your ear. It sounds worse than it actually is, I quickly got used it. The only time it really annoyed me was when I was on the phone to the credit card company. Several times in the process I had to go back and re-open the phone to type in account numbers and security answers. I eventually just gave up and used the speakerphone.


As a Phone

So we all agree, it’s strange looking for a phone. The question now becomes one of usability.

The Hiptop2 is a Tri-Band GSM 900, 1800, and 1900MHz phone, this gives us plenty of worldwide coverage. Reception is excellent – no noticeable interruptions in service that could be the phone’s fault. As for the features, there are plenty of good and bad points.

To its credit, you get full synchronization with Outlook so you won’t sprain a thumb getting all your stuff in there. On the downside, it costs you $20 for the software to do it and that’s something that’s almost always free on other smartphones.

The address book has plenty of data fields, a dedicated area for notes and room for 2000 entries. It will also recognize when you type letters on the main menu screen and allow you to do a multi-letter character search of your contacts. As always, contacts can be uploaded from your SIM card.

There is also support for the standard caller identification, polyphonic ringtones and picture-associated caller ID. This includes your choice of 30 cartoon avatars or one from your personal gallery. Unfortunately, MP3 ringtones are not supported and it will only accept wav or midi files up to 100k. Adding ringtones can be done for $2 bucks a pop from the software catalog or you can just e-mail supported types to yourself.

Text messaging is present but MMS is not. If you want to send a picture message, you have to do it by e-mail. Considering that most people don’t have/use e-mail on their phones, the absence of this feature is strange.

Like it’s predecessors, all of your data is copied back onto the network. This means you can access it with a password from your computer in a secure and stable way. Any changes you make on one, appears on the other. Sadly, moving information between phones is rather challenging since it doesn’t come with Bluetooth or Infrared capabilities. Those who are determined to use wireless headsets are out of luck.

Available software is nicely organized in a simple catalog application right on the device. It receives regular updates and allows you to buy ringtones, games and other software from your phone with just a few clicks and virtually no hassle. Unfortunately you only have 25 software titles to pick from at the moment, averaging $8 bucks each. And if you delete an application, you’ll have to pay for it again to get it back.

Compare that the seemingly endless stream of applications, a great many of them free, available to Palm or PocketPC based products. Even Blackberry has many more choices. I have read about people who install third party applications otherwise but I know most people won’t go through the hoops required.

If you stick to the provided products, loading up new software really couldn’t be any easier.

As a Camera

I shot over 200 photos over the last month and overall, the pictures are a little above average for a .03 MP camera phone, but the quality is nothing more than “messing around”, It would not be suitable for any type of print.

Because of its form factor, taking pictures with the Hiptop2 feels very much like using a regular camera. As features go, you get a limited LED flash (I really wish they’d allow for it to be used as a basic flashlight), low light setting, zoom (in picture viewing) and your choice of 640 x 480, 320 x 240 or 160 x 120 sizes. Noticeably absent are color effects, white balance, frames or a self timer. The Hiptop2 does not record or play video.

Once again, integration on the Hiptop2 just can’t be understated. On many cameraphones, the act of taking a picture, saving it and e-mailing it can be a painful, multi-minute experience. On the Hiptop2, it’s a breeze.

From the main menu, just click the shutter button once to see your gallery or twice to go into capture mode. Click the shutter or scroll wheel to take a picture and then roll to the e-mail icon. Click on it; punch in an e-mail address hit send. That’s it. And best of all, it happens almost instantly. Like other cameraphones, the act of sending pictures on the network can take a wee bit of time. The difference on the Hiptop2 is that it all happens in the background. No sitting and waiting for the picture application to make the connection and send the image before you can do anything else. The second you hit send, you can go one to any function in the phone immediately; even sending another e-mail while that one is still going out. Your message will be cued behind the one in progress but it’s invisible to the user.

Also very cool was the ease of mobile photo blogging provided by Hiptop Nation. Pictures in my photo blog were easily added by just sending them by e-mail to an address set up by Hiptop fans. As I went about my travels, friends could use that URL to see what I was up to just a minute or so after I sent the images. Special thanks to Hiptop Nation for this.

Text Messaging

The implementation of Text Messaging is pretty basic. There are no folder options and no way to view messages from the same person as a chat string. On the upside though, you can set reply requests and delivery reports. There is also the rather nice touch of allowing you to punch in a persons name rather than a number. As you type, the device shows you possible matches from your address book

Another plus and minus is the support of Multi-Part SMS. This means that if you go over the character limit in a message, the surplus text will simply moved into its own message and sent with the original. Unfortunately, the Hiptop2 doesn’t actually show you your character count as you type. It will show you that you’ve gone over into a second message but if you want to organize your thoughts to avoid this, it is difficult without seeing how many characters you’re up to.

Mobile E-Mail

If you need something to get your enterprise e-mail on the go – get a Blackberry or Treo 650. The Hiptop does not support it. But if this is for your personal POP3 (that’s most of us) or IMAP e-mail, this device is an excellent choice. You get the same e-mail push as on the Blackberry (ie – your mail comes to you automatically). Word and PDF documents are automatically opened and placed in your e-mail as text. And JPEG pictures sent to you are re-sized for the screen and displayed right in the body of a message. Excellent! I also really like that all e-mail addresses, web links and phone numbers contained in an e-mail are summed up at the bottom of the message. This allows you to quickly go to a page, add or call a contact etc just by rolling to it and choosing the option with the Menu key. Sending messages is very easy and you can attach sound files, pictures or Vcards.

The e-mail client itself is very easy to use. You can set up folders and sort by subject, sender, size or date. Adding multiple e-mail accounts (up to 3) is easy and you can manage mail volume (crucial due to the limited memory) by choosing not to download attachments past a certain size or of a format not compatible with the device. You’ll still have them when you download them to your home computer, they just won’t clog up the device’s 16 MB of storage memory Also, you can simply have the device purge messages automatically after a certain amount of time.

Another well thought out feature worth mentioning is message notification. In addition to whatever sound and lights you choose to associate to incoming e-mail or text messages, a banner appears at the top of the screen summing up the contents. This happens regardless of what application you are using at the time, allowing you to decide at a glance weather this message is worth pausing your game or leaving a page. Very very nice indeed.

My only complaint in this area is that text inserted into a message from a Word or PDF attachment cannot be copied and pasted into the notes application for editing. Let’s hope they toss that into the Hiptop3.

Web Browsing

You get a full HTML browser, meaning you can surf just about any site. I found that most pages were decently rendered for a small device but there are a few things that could use some improvement. For example, there is no way to adjust the font size in the browser. Most pages were fine but a few I looked up took some squinting to read. The browser also does not support Javascript. And lastly, there is the connection speed issue. 8 times out of 10, browsing was pretty fast for a phone. I could load up Mobilemag, images and all, in about 38 seconds. About 9 seconds with the images feature turned off. That’s pretty impressive. The problem is that the other 2 times I tried, the browser would just go on doing a whole lot of nothing until it eventually timed out. I suspect this is a network issue rather than a device problem but it happened frequently enough to be irritating.

Also of note, if you lose GPRS coverage momentarily (getting into an elevator in some areas), the device is a little slow to reacquire it. Although I could do it manually at any time, it took as long as 10 minutes to do it on its own. This is a little annoying as you can’t surf to a page during that time even though you have data coverage. As such, I reset it manually whenever I needed it.

Instant Messaging

The Hiptop2 comes will an AOL Instant Messenger application built in. Super fast messaging on the go is excellent. It would have been nice however to have support for other platforms as most people I know use other IM programs. Note that you cannot create an AOL account from the device itself. Once you’ve done it on your computer, just plug your user name and password in the AOL application on the device you’re good to go.

Data Entry

All hail the mighty thumb board. Like a Blackberry, thumb typing on the Hiptop2 is a pleasure. The keys are large, raised, rubberized and well spaced making it quick and very comfortable. It’s also well thought out. Although you have a number row at the top, the proximity to the screen makes them a little awkward to hit with a thicker finger. To remedy this, virtually every number and symbol up there is also represented on other keys. Also, the net centric device has dedicated keys for @, period and comma. Beautiful.


PDA Functionality

Although nowhere near the level of functionality offered in Palm and PPC applications (No voice notes, call recording) the Hiptop2 does cover the bases for most users.

Aside from the already mentioned address book, here are some of the applications provided to keep you on track:

Notes:
A very basic text editor. I typed up most of this review on it last week and had no issues to report. You can have multiple notes and flip back and fourth between them with ease. There are no formatting options (underline, bold, italic etc) so all you can do is type, copy, and paste. On a strange note, this is the only area where integration seemed a tad off. Rather than just allow me to e-mail a note, either as the body of a message or an attachment, I actually had to select the entire text, copy it and then paste it into an e-mail. It seemed so odd that I spent quite a bit of time looking for the feature before I gave up.

Calendar:
This one is rather robust and can be synchronized with Outlook. You can set appointments using daily, weekly and yearly views and set detailed re-occurrences and notes. As expected, you can also set reminder alarms.

To Do: This is your basic check-the-box task list. You can set tasks with or without due dates and add notes.

Gaming:
Yes, the Hiptop2 plays cell phone quality Java games and you get both an Asteroids clone and snowboard game built in. One of my favorites from the downloadable catalog, Cheese Racer, is actually an updated version of Rally-X from the Atari days. I also liked The Reckoning, another Atari (Missile Command) remix that helps you improve your typing speed. As in other functions, the device’s processor doesn’t let up and I observed no slowdowns whatsoever in hours of game play.

The graphics are rendered better than average for phone games and I have to say that the button layout does lend itself well for this purpose in closed mode. Add in the use of the vibe feature for force feedback and multicolor LED’s in the game pad, and it makes for a pretty good mobile gaming experience.

Navigation

The Hiptop2 could not be any easier to figure out. Just press the menu key in any application and your options are clearly laid out. In the main menu screen, important items from each application are previewed whenever you roll to their icons. This is a great little feature for quickly sizing up your day. Roll over the e-mail icon and it shows you how many messages you have unread as well as the sender’s address and subject line for the most recent eight. Roll over the pictures icon, and you see your last two photos. Do the same with the Calendar app, Notes and To Do list icons and they all give you a snapshot of what’s there.

Of particular interest to regular PDA users, I’ve been through a solid month of hardcore use without a single bug or crash. Now go pick yourself up off the floor. It’s also very responsive. I can think of only a single occasion when it didn’t keep up to my key presses and that was when I had the memory packed to the gills.

Customization

This is one thing that’s remarkably limited for a smartphone, maybe there will be a third party hack, but as it stands now, you can’t customize the color layouts, wallpaper, fonts or menu orders on this phone. The style is Japanese Anime and that’s how it will stay. The exterior customization allows for the grey rubber bumpers on the top and bottom to be changed to more interesting colors, or dish out the big bucks and get the device “studded” for an extra bit of bling.

Battery Power

The specs promise you 4.5 hours of continuous talk time. “Continuous” is the key. Battery ratings are very hard to nail down as how you use your phone will greatly effect how long the battery will last. For me, I can’t say I’ve been disappointed. I took and sent off a half dozen images, surfed the web, wrote and received several e-mails, played games, and make short calls every day. That worked out to the need for charging every 36 hours or so. Not bad considering my usage. On a down note, the lithium battery does not appear to be user replaceable. That usually means that short of device surgery for replacement, you’ll have to deal with lowered battery performance over time.

Conclusion

Faults and all, the Hiptop 2 delivers on the mobile lifestyle promises that most others just pay lip service to. This is largely due to a proxy server which lowers the total data volume for Hiptop devices; making the unlimited data plan possible.
It’s just not a great experience to have the power to fully access web and e-mail almost everywhere but constantly fearing the costs of using it. Up until now, I’ve paid per MB on my Treo 600 and I’ve paid large for my indulgences. With the Hiptop2 I can e-mail, surf and instant message to my heart’s content, whenever I want to, as much as I want – at a great price. And now that you can get access to the Rogers towers for a few extra bucks a month, there is just no reason not to recommend this device. If you plan to use data much, pay for an unlimited plan, it will save you in the long run big time.


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