HTC's Facebook phone is a BlackBerry wannabe, but can it stand toe-to-toe with RIM's finest?
Sit down on a train, ferry or bus, and odds are you’ll see someone, head down, thumbing frantically away at the keyboard of a BlackBerry.
Handsets such as the BlackBerry Bold 9800, the hybrid Torch and the Curve 8520 have almost universal appeal, it seems, finding a place in the pockets of everyone from the uncouth youths to sharply dressed executives. It’s odd, then, that manufacturers other than RIM have shunned the format in recent years.
HTC is aiming to claw back some of that ground with the boldly named ChaCha – one of two recently launched “Facebook” handsets from the Taiwanese manufacturer. It couples a BlackBerry-style keyboard with a 480x320 capacitive touchscreen and Android 2.3 running a number of Facebook-specific software customisations.
The key, though, to the ChaCha is its Facebook button. This sits apart from the main keyboard in the bottom-right corner, and clicking it launches a number of actions; precisely what it does, though, depends on where you are within Android.
The Facebook button wears its official logo proudly.
Click the button while you’re in the home screen, and you’re whisked away to a status update page. Click it in the browser and it does the same thing, but also adds a neatly formatted link and a text extract from the page you were on.
Click the button while you’re in the camera app and the Cha Cha snaps a photo, instantly creating a post ready for you to add a comment to and upload. Push it in the music app, and you can to let friends know what you’re listening to.
It’s an elegant system, and could save you time if you’re a heavy Facebook user, but there’s little here you can’t do with the existing Android share facilities. And what about integration with other services? We can’t help but feel the ChaCha would be better served, not by a single-service Facebook button, but a context-sensitive, general-purpose social networking key instead.
Integrated support for a wide range of services from Twitter through Evernote to Picasa is a real strength of Android smartphones, and it’s disappointing that HTC’s new-found fondness for social networking isn’t more all-embracing.
And while there’s also Facebook Chat support, it would be nice to have deeper integration. Inbound messages pop up in the notification area, and conversations take place in threaded message view as with SMS exchanges. However, there’s no unified inbox to tie your instant messaging conversations together, and hitting the Facebook button in the Messaging screen does not, as you might think, launch the chat application.
The benefit of the Facebook button may be debatable, but you can’t argue over the importance of the screen to the successful functioning of a smartphone. And alas, the screen on the ChaCha is its biggest failing.
The 480x320 resolution is fine, but the tiny 2.6in diagonal, coupled with HTC’s ham-fisted attempts at optimising its Sense UI, means it always feels cramped. Many of the widgets – People and FriendStream, for example – look oversized and awkward on this screen, while the large buttons and oversized toolbar steal vast amounts of real-estate.
The ChaCha's 2.6in screen is touch sensitive.
On the post to Facebook interface, for instance, the notifications bar at the top and another toolbar below it combine to swallow up 27% of the total space, and on a screen this small you can ill-afford to lose that much. The screen supports multitouch, but actually using pinch-to-zoom gestures when you have this little space to play with feels awkward in the extreme. We also came across a few apps that didn’t adapt cleanly to the phone’s landscape mode
The core hardware isn’t as bad – but again, it’s flawed. The keyboard, for instance, is top quality: the keys have a light yet positive click, they’re domed and separated by a couple of millimetres, making fast, error-free text entry possible with a little practice. We also like the fact you can just start typing on the phone’s home screen to search through your contacts.
But with a layout such as this – with the usual Home, Menu, Back and Search touch-sensitive controls between keyboard and screen – placing the cursor cluster in the bottom-right corner of the keypad feels wrong. The ChaCha is crying out for some kind of D-pad right in the middle to make the phone a little easier to use.
Design and performance
We like the general design and build quality. The phone feels solid and well made, and the combination of metal and white plastic is a satisfying one. There’s no HDMI output here, which isn’t surprising in a budget phone, but you do get a microSD card slot for expanding the stock 512MB allocation of storage.
In addition, there are two cameras – a VGA one at the front, and a 5-megapixel camera at the rear, accompanied by a single LED flash. Image quality is acceptable: with care, you can produce good, sharp snaps. Screen brightness is fine, at a measured 379cd/m2 with a contrast ration of 534:1; and calls on both earpiece and speakerphone come through loud and clear.
We had no argument at all with general responsiveness and performance, either. The 800MHz Qualcomm MSM7227 processor isn’t up with the latest dual-core offerings – scores of 10,462ms in the SunSpider test and a mere 656 in the Quadrant prove that – but the phone feels perfectly fleet of foot in and around the Android UI and while browsing the web.
You can’t argue with the pricing, either: the ChaCha is available for $0 upfront on Vodafone's $29 cap over 24 months, which is mightily reasonable. You can also buy it outright for $299.
Disappointment quickly rises again, however, at below-par battery life. At the end of our 24-hour test only 40% remained on the gauge, a result that puts the ChaCha several places behind the majority of the smartphone pack. And, finally, although the phone ostensibly supports Flash, we failed to get it to play YouTube or other flash video.
So it’s a pretty mixed bag. While good in some departments, the ChaCha disappoints in as many others. But all these positives and negatives are are nothing next to the small screen and awkward UI customisations. The ChaCha could be the fastest phone on the planet with the best camera and week-long battery life, and we still wouldn’t recommend it: it simply isn’t pleasant enough to use.