Wednesday, June 29, 2011

HTC ChaCha review

When HTC announced the ChaCha in February, there was a part of me who thought that the phone was a joke. I mean here was a mid-range QWERTY monoblock Android phone with seriously dated specs compete with its own dedicated Facebook shortcut button. There's always something about Facebook that gets to me and seeing their logo on a phone annoyed me (despite being a user myself). Still, the ChaCha is one intriguing phone, being one of a handful of Android smartphones with front facing QWERTY keyboard. I found that I have grown rather fond of it. Read on to find out why.

Having been using it as my main phone for two weeks, I felt a tinge of sadness when I was asked  to return the Chacha. There's nothing fascinating about this phone but I haven't been able to put it down. Even the Facebook button is nothing more than a glorified shortcut to a compose screen with option to add pictures. There are some issues with this phone which I will get to, but even with those, given the choice I would even trade my more powerful Motorola smartphone for it.
Powering the phone is a 800MHz ARM CPU (up from 600MHz as originally announced) with (a generous amount of) 512MB RAM and 512MB ROM. The latest Android Gingerbread 2.3.3 and HTC Sense UI optimised for landscape orientation is included. It also comes with an accelerometer, digital compass, proximity sensor, ambient light sensor, WiFi 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth 3.0, GPS receiver and dual band HSDPA/HSUPA.

The 2.6" LCD capacitive touchscreen display with HVGA resolution is small and feels cramped. Part of this is due to Android not being designed for landscape screens (I also have this issue with the Milestone 2). I found a couple of my favourite applications such as Gowalla and BBC News to be not compatible in landscape mode having been forced to use them sideways! This is a large issue with Android fragmentation in general and developers who can't seem to be bothered to make their applications compatible with different screen resolution, aspect ratio and orientation.
The device as a whole is well constructed with liberal amount of metal used on the outer shell. At 124g, the ChaCha is reasonably light and pocketable. The QWERTY keyboards are plastic in nature and provides a good amount of key travel and tactile feedback. While I initially found the layout to be an issue (the numerical pad should be in the centre), I got used to it eventually. Four directional keys can be found on the bottom right of the keyboard. I am baffled as to why HTC decided not to have the directional keys on the centre of the device below the screen, where it is more usable. It certainly makes more sense to have a proper d-pad on a device with such a small screen. A volume rocker resides on the left side of the device.

A VGA front camera can be found on the top of the display. On the back you will find a 5MP camera with auto-focus and LED flash. Picture quality is decent for emails or for posting to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter as long as there are plenty of available light. Don't expect to use it for anything else and certainly not for printing. You can press anywhere on the screen to focus. Picture previews are of lower resolution variety (a bug likely) so always check in the Gallery application to see if it is in focused. It's annoying and I hope HTC and/or Google fixes this bug. But my advice: get a real camera instead. Below are unedited (but resized) samples:

The camera is capable of taking videos at a maximum resolution of 720x480 (DVD resolution). While not in HD resolution, the quality is rather good and is recorded in a 3gp wrapper. Embedded below is a video recording test I did with HTC ChaCha from a moving vehicle (don't worry - I wasn't driving!). Picture quality remained sharp through the time despite the less than ideal weather and bumpy ride thanks to whatever image stabilisation feature the ChaCha uses. Unfortunately, as the video proves, the microphone is unsuitable for this kind of audio capturing - but that isn't surprising for most cameras - on smartphones or otherwise.

Pressing the Facebook button fires up a screen that allows you to immediately compose your update, and if you choose to, attach a picture from either the Gallery or via the Camera application. There is nothing special about this, but the relatively painless process did encourage me to post more updates to my Facebook wall than I normally do. Pressing down the button will also allow you to check in to Facebook Places. While reading a website, pressing it down will create a link allowing you to share it. It just works. My only gripe with the Facebook button is you can't activate it until you unlock the phone. So in order to post an update you will first have to press the power button on the top of the device, swipe the screen to unlock and then press the Facebook button. Because the ChaCha has a QWERTY keyboard, HTC should have allowed users to unlock using button combinations.
Note that nothing here can't be replicated on another device with some clever application, but at least HTC made it idiot proof. It isn't on the level that Sony Ericsson has demonstrated with the recent Facebook Inside update that was announced with the XPERIA mini and mini Pro and has recently made its way to the XPERIA Arc. While the ChaCha's Facebook button encourages you to share (and it does so in an efficient manner), Sony Ericsson takes it to a whole new level of integration - allowing you not only to share, but consume. Sure there is a separate Facebook application, but that is a universal Android app that is also available for the Arc.

Pulling the plastic battery door on the back reveals a 1250mAh battery - a decent amount for a device with such a small display. At least in theory. The ChaCha's battery seems to last about 5 hours of high usage, on par with what I usually get with my Motorola Milestone 2. This seems to confirm with me that Android devices has the same poor power management regardless of screen size. A microSDHC card slot can be found next to the battery slow. Sadly it is only accessible when the battery is removed so it isn't hot-swappable. A 2GB microSDHC memory card is bundled together, though the device can easily take a 32GB microSDHC card.
Like all of HTC's Android smartphones, the HTC ChaCha comes preloaded with HTC Sense and an array of other HTC applications. A new lock screen, similar to the one first seen in the flagship HTC Sensation, is present. It offers a quick way on unlocking the screen by dragging application icons onto the unlock zone to simultaneously unlock the device and launch the application. The Sense installed here is version is 2.1 for Messenger and is optimised for landscape mode. Unfortunately the optimisation doesn't extend to third party applications as I mentioned previously. One can only hope that Google will release some design language guide for third party developers to follow when it comes to making apps landscape-compatible and optimised.

As a messaging device the ChaCha comes with an assorted amount of messaging application. In addition to the default messaging application for email, text messages (complete with threaded view) and Gtalk, the ChaCha also comes with HTC Peep, a very basic Twitter client that I suggest everyone to replace with something else. There are plenty of free Twitter clients on the Android Market and my personal favourite is Twicca. I also found FB Chat to be extremely useful. I am not a heavy Facebook Chat user but as FB Chat is integrated with Facebook Messaging, I found it handy to be able to chat with my friends while out and about. All these messaging apps makes use of the pull down notification area.
The built-in GPS receiver came in handy while we were away. Google Maps comes with free navigation mode and with a good data plan (like Three's All You Can Eat data plan), is extremely useful. I managed to get a cold lock within a minute and half on a clear day. You can also turn off the GPS receiver and use Wireless positioning. While this isn't as accurate as the GPS receiver, it is still gave a rough location up to 200 metre accuracy.

As you can probably tell, the HTC ChaCha is neither unique or special. But I found myself genuinely liking it. As a person who regularly receives plenty of high-end smartphones to review, it is truly surprising to find myself in a position where I would prefer to pick up a ChaCha whenever I head out. HTC has done well to craft a device that works well with a fantastic front-facing keyboard and that features a design that is different from the other Blackberry lookalikes on the market. If you are in need of an Android phone with front QWERTY keyboard then look no further. Now if only HTC releases a ChaCha with a Twitter button. ;)

Many thanks to Three UK for loaning the HTC ChaCha.

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