Hands-on with Sidecar for iOS and Android: FaceTime on Steroids

When speaking of dialer apps on either iOS or Android, what comes to mind is typically apps to help you speed-dial a contact in the most efficient way possible. Sidecar, launched today, is a rather different concept. It's a VoIP dialer app that sits somewhere in between other caller apps like FaceTime (or Skype, Fring and Tango), which lets you video-chat with a friend, and Pair, which lets you share various items like photos, your location and more with another person. Basically, Sidecar lets you call and share what you're doing while you're talking -- including things like real-time video, photos and location. But how well does the app work in real world testing? Read on to find out.

Set Up with Sidecar

Sidecar keeps things plain and simple in setup. Fire up the app, and the first thing you'll see is a welcome splash page with an invitation to set things up. Click through (using the big yellow Begin button) and you'll find yourself looking at an activation screen.

Fill the fields out with your mobile number, first and last name (last name is optional) and email address (also optional), and you're ready to start using the app.

Sidecar uses your own mobile number to identify you as a unique user, and goes into your address book to check if any of your contacts are also Sidecar users. If it detects that a certain mobile number among your friends is a user of the app, it grabs the contact and places it in a special Sidecar Contacts tab on the lower right corner of the app. Additionally, if any of your friends register with Sidecar later on, they'll automatically appear within this contact list.

Making Calls with Sidecar

Once you've got the app all set up, you're ready to make a Sidecar call. Tap on a contact within your Sidecar contact list, and the app initiates a VoIP session with your friend.

Incidentally, Sidecar also makes it possible for you to call anyone in the U.S. or Canada for free, even if the recipient of the call is not a Sidecar user. You can use the Dialer tab to input a number, and after the call ends, the recipient will receive a text message inviting them to join Sidecar. Outside of the US, you can chat with Sidecar users via the usual VoIP setup.

Within a call, Sidecar let us tweak audio settings too; we tapped on the lower right corner of the app to access these. The app let us mute a call, choose whether we wanted to use Bluetooth or our handset, turn our speaker phone on, or activate the Smart Speaker feature. Smart Speaker detected whether we were holding the phone up to our face -- after which the audio source would transfer to handset audio -- or whether we held it away, in which case audio came through our phone's speakers instead.

Another feature we liked in Sidecar was its call log. The app recorded the date and time of our conversations with a friend, and if we shared photos or locations, it saved that too. We could view these items anytime after we ended our call.

Sidecar's "See What I See" Video

Sidecar's main user interface is similar to that of a rotary dial phone, with four functions arranged in a circle. You can tap on each function to access the feature, with "See What I See" -- sharing real-time video within a call -- front and center on the app. You can initiate any of the features yourself, or get invited by the friend with whom you are speaking. Once you receive an invitation, you can choose to view it now, or save it for later.

We fired up See What I See and the feature used our smartphone's back-facing camera to record the scene that we could see at the moment. Several more functions were folded into the See What I See, too. There were two translucent buttons at the top of the app: a shutter button for taking screenshots of the current live picture (the image was saved into our Camera Roll), and a pause button to pause the real-time video.

Sharing Photos Using Sidecar

Sharing photos within Sidecar works similar to See What I See. We tapped on the appropriate circle within the app's rotary dial phone UI, chose from two options for the picture source (Take a Photo, Choose from Library) and shared our image.

Sidecar also let us choose to either view a photo our friend sent now, or later. A helpful feature within the app automatically created an album of shared photos within the particular session, which was shown to us as a thumbnail grid (though we could only see the pictures we received, not any of those we sent).

Once photos were saved to Sidecar's automatically generated library, the app gave us the ability to share the photo through email, Twitter, or to save it to our library.

Sharing Your Location on Sidecar

To share our location using Sidecar, we tapped on the button labeled Location in the main UI. Assuming you gave it permission during setup, Sidecar can use your smartphone's integrated GPS to locate you and beam that pin over to your friend. Your friend can also share their location as well, which you can choose to view now or later when you get the notification.

Sharing Contact Information

We shared another person's contact information with our friend by tapping on the Contact button on Sidecar's main UI. From here, we could scroll through our regular address book to select a contact to beam over.

Just like all the other functions within Sidecar, when we received a contact we could choose to view it now or later.

Whisper Text Feature

Another handy feature within Sidecar let us send pop-up messages wherever we were inside the app. To use Whisper Text, we tapped on the Whisper button that sits on the lower left corner of the app, in a nav bar that's permanently present within Sidecar.

Afterward, a keyboard appeared where we tapped out our message and sent it instantly to the friend we were chatting with. Presumably, this feature is for sending private messages within the app that you don't want everyone else around you to hear.

Bottom Line

We found some glitches within the app that made our experience a little buggy. Once, we tried to share what we saw then exited out of the app, and our friend was still somehow able to accept and see through our smartphone's camera, even if the picture wasn't live on our screen at that time. It was a little disconcerting to know that it was possible for the app to be using our smartphone's camera without our knowledge. Other minor bugs we saw included the Whisper Text bar floating mid-screen after we minimized the keyboard, and general sluggishness on our phone when Sidecar was running in the background.

But beyond these bugs (which will hopefully be resolved in future versions), we still have to give Sidecar kudos for being the only app of its kind: A dialer app that lets you seamlessly share items within a call. Sidecar reminds us of a VoIP app crossed with a shared stream app like Pair -- except that the sharing of all items are done live. It's a bit like Facetime on steroids.

Certainly, there are times when audio doesn't cut it when you're aiming to share a full-bodied experience with a person. Sidecar aims to be the answer to that problem, and currently it's the only app that fills that space. (It's worth noting that it is possible for you send texts while you're on a phone call via multitasking, but that solution is clunky and requires you to use several apps at once. And if you're on the Verizon Wireless network, you can access even less sharing functions since you're limited to either calling or surfing the Internet at a time.) At this point, only time will tell whether the app will catch on and gain a strong user base. If it does, we can definitely see it being a success. But in the meantime? Sidecar seems pretty useful, and still worth a download for its (free) price. As of today, the app is live on the iTunes Store and on Google Play.