Microsoft versus Danger
July 06, 2006
Surely there are those in the same boat as I am, wherein a decision to purchase a moblogging capable cell phone has come down to a select few applicants. As a T-Mobile subscriber, the pool of such applicants is rather small, and consists of the T-Mobile MDA, the Danger Sidekick, and Blackberry devices that don’t really fit the bill well. That is to say, when one considers the need for a decent keypad, it’s the MDA and Sidekick that clash head-to-head, leaving the Blackberry behind to cover the more business-minded.
It’s somewhat sad that T-Mobile’s state of affairs leaves us with so few options, particularly since neither competitor has it all. In fact, what’s truly aggravating about the competition is that both contenders could be much better fighters if they weren’t limited by T-Mobile’s greed and poor design decisions. Nonetheless, having identified the two fighters, we must now peruse the online reports, which I have done at length. Sadly, much of the material on this Internet of ours is written by neanderthals, or 14-year-olds who have no grasp on simple technical concepts. As such, I shall attempt a substantive mini-review of my findings, with the fanboy comments and sweeping generalizations removed.
The T-Mobile MDA
The MDA is a device that, although branded with the T-Mobile stamp, is a repackaged HTC Wizard, also known in some circles as the MDA Vario (not to be confused with the titanic MDA Pro sold exclusively to European markets). The MDA runs on Windows Mobile 5.0, the “new” Windows CE that once graced our beloved Compaq iPaqs when the PDA market was fat with money. Nowadays, however, Windows Mobile has made its home the cell-phone market, where watered-down Windows programs (or Windows lookalike programs) flourish with reasonable ease.
The MDA, by all accounts, is a more flexible phone than the Sidekick, since there is plenty of software available for it. By the standards we’ve come to expect from other Windows Mobile-enabled phones, the MDA is underpowered, but does most things well enough. Certainly, anything the Sidekick can do, the MDA can do as well, albeit with more options; other web browsers, media players, e-mail apps, and instant messaging programs can be downloaded. Meanwhile, the Sidekick is mostly limited to the software already on it. Naturally, developer support for Windows Mobile programs is huge, while support for Sidekick developers is ridiculously small, in part because Danger and T-Mobile allow third-party programs for the Sidekick to be purchased exclusively through T-Mobile, and the amount of programs actually approved for such sale are few indeed.
The MDA, though running a multi-generational operating system, still has the flaws many who use Windows Mobile are used to. The MDA tends to freeze like the stereotypes expect from a Windows machine, and must be rebooted/reset every so often. While many options in the default MDA setup disallow certain configurations, most are surmountable with simple registry tweaks and add-on programs.
The phone quality of the MDA is considered sub-par, with a quieter speaker than most phones and some room for clarity improvements. One of the nicer things about the MDA is that it has fully-functional Bluetooth, as well as the ability to logon to wireless access points. The $29 Internet plan through T-Mobile that adds on to one’s voice plan is $10 more expensive than the plan for the Sidekick, though comes with T-Mobile Hotspot access, which can be used by any other Internet-ready devices one owns, such as a laptop. Another bonus, temporarily anyway, is the current T-Mobile promotion that affords the MDA with a 1GB SD card for $299, the same price as the Sidekick sans SD card.
Overall, the MDA is considered a decent PDA that doesn’t shine in any category, but is certainly more feature-packed than the Sidekick. Sadly, it’s also not considered nearly as streamlined or user-friendly.
The Danger Sidekick 3
Also known as the Hiptop, the Sidekick is the BeOS of cell-phone handhelds. It’s smooth, intuitive, and does everything it’s capable of with grace. Unfortunately, the Sidekick has artificial limitations set by Danger and T-Mobile, such as the inability to use one’s mp3s as ringtones. Why T-Mobile would demand this and not enforce it for its other devices seems somewhat strange, or is a simple symptom of their ability to do so given their hold on Danger’s design decisions. Nonetheless, the limitations of the Sidekick do not end there.
In previous days, Danger allowed most anyone to obtain a software development kit (SDK) for the Sidekick series of handhelds. Such an SDK, along with the proper developer key, would allow one the capability of running unsigned third-party programs, which in effect drastically increased the pool of software one could run on Danger’s devices. While such free software access was intended to allow the developer community to test one another’s products, Danger tightened its hold on the SDK to prevent such third-party applications from being available to most anyone. As a result, the Sidekick 3 has a tiny pool of available programs.
Still, with a couple program purchases, the Sidekick becomes a formidable device. Out-of-box, the Sidekick can play mp3s, connect to instant-messaging servers, and deal with e-mail (albeit unable to save attachments therefrom). The Sidekick even has a terminal application which one can use to telnet into a remote box, and with a free shell account, one can always have IRC or such handy.
By most accounts, the Sidekick’s internet access is faster than the MDA. The downside is that everything done on the Sidekick is cached on Danger’s servers, from the pictures one takes to the programs one downloads. One would suspect that this would lag access to the Internet, but this is only when issues on Danger’s end arise. Otherwise, the fast bandwidth to their servers allows for a faster-than-MDA Internet experience.
For me, the MDA is an appealing device because of its capabilities, which trump those of the Sidekick. However, having to do a fair amount of configuration on my phone, which I expect to not require resets and lots of customization to work well is not appealing to me in the least. That is to say, while I would likely enjoy a customized MDA once such work has been done, dealing with the headache to get there is a nightmarish proposition.
I half expect Sidekick 3 hacks to show up down the road, and possibilities of light development on the device area distant but appealing idea. For purposes of moblogging alone, neither the MDA nor the Sidekick 3 are clear winners, although the Sidekick’s slightly-better camera and slightly-better keypad may steal the win by an inch. In the end, it’s the UI that has me choosing the Sidekick, leaving me with one eye open on the state of handhelds in T-Mobile’s lineup.
As a quick aside, the MDA Vario II is expected to launch in Europe this autumn, which offers a much better hardware package. In the end, though, the reliance on Windows Mobile, which I consider a poor mobile operating system, will still keep me critical. Sadly, I yearn for the days that never came to be, where beIA was ultimately unrealized and lost in a Palm vault somewhere.
Until something better comes along, consider Danger my cell phone’s middle name.