HTC ChaCha review

The second “Facebook phone” from HTC, and launched in tandem with the HTC Salsa, is the HTC ChaCha. It’s strange name for a phone that is something of a strange Android device, offering a format we haven’t seen much of from the Google OS. We can’t knock it for offering customers choice, but how will Android cope on the touch type device and will teenagers/business folk be keen to ditch their beloved BlackBerry for a little ChaCha?

Design

HTC know how to make phones, so it should come as no surprise that the HTC ChaCha is lovingly crafted. The most distinctive design element is that slight angle to the body, a nod to the “chin” of many HTC handsets, but means that you can bash away on the keyboard and view the screen comfortably at the same time. 

The phone is constructed from metals and plastic, giving a nice combination of materials and an attractive design. In terms of size it is slimmer than the BlackBerry Bold at 10.7mm; the ChaCha is marginally larger than the Bold overall, with a wider spaced keyboard offering up individual keys.

Across the bottom of the display are the normal touch controls for home, menu, back and search, with the volume rocker and standby/lock buttons falling into their regular places. Unlike the HTC Salsa there is no camera button, but you do get two hard calling buttons beneath the display, meaning you can answer calls and hang-up without having to touch the screen. 

Then we have that Facebook button, which is perched beneath the keyboard, a little too prominently, emphasising the fact that this phone is a little bit different. The HTC ChaCha isn’t just a phone with a Facebook button though, as it’s the first candy-bar Android device with a full QWERTY keyboard that we’ve seen from HTC and seen running HTC Sense.

That keyboard

The keyboard itself feels great to use, with a nice positive action to each key and a nice clean, slightly tactile, finish. The size and spacing is mostly fine and if you’re coming from a BlackBerry keyboard you’ll be up to speed in minutes. It offers four rows of keys so gives you the full QWERTY run down, with each main character key getting an alternate number or symbol. Some punctuation gets its own key, so comma, full stop and question mark are each just one button press away, which is handy in daily use.

You also get offered cursor keys, which although small, provide a modicum of control that you’d otherwise miss. You can use the cursors to leaf through the homepages, so if you have a run of widgets you can switch back and forth to keep yourself updated. You can scroll up and down some lists, with the return key doubling as “ok”, but this is where the experience starts to come unstuck.

Much of the cursor control will be dependent on the app recognising what you are trying to do. In most cases, you’ll have to select the list to scroll up and down, but dive into messages, for example, and you’ll be able go head down the list on conversations and press return to open up the one you want to continue. It will depend on the app you have open as to the options the cursor movement gives you.

But the thing that we don’t understand is the allocation of functions to the main keys. You press and you get the primary character, but a long press just gives you repeated characters. Surely a press and hold should offer you caps, or the alternative character? It means you’ll spend a great deal of time diving over to the shift and Fn buttons when typing. If you are going to be using the ChaCha to write “properly” (and by that we mean serious emails, etc., rather than casual Facebook posting) then you’ll be hampered by this - unlike a BlackBerry which caters very well for these sorts of controls. 

But there are some inherent benefits to the buttons too. Start typing from the homescreen and you are effectively already searching People, the phone returning either phone numbers or names as you type. It isn’t as smart as the universal search you’ll find on recent BlackBerry models, but it is more direct than opening the dialler and searching for the contact you want. 

There are some other shortcuts on the keyboard which make use of the function button. The camera shortcut works reliably although more than once we launched the camera rather than placing a fullpoint in an email (they share the same key). The spacebar sees itself with a settings icon, but we couldn’t get this to respond.

One key we had particular problems with was the W key. It shares itself with the number 1 and the shortcut for voicemail. We often found when entering text that we had to press W two or three times to get a response. We didn’t notice it to be a problem with other letters, but it’s a fairly common letter we wanted to work when writing emails, whether work-related or wasting time waiting for the W15 bus. You get the point. 

Miss a letter and you’ll have to go back and insert it, although you can opt for predictive suggestions. Predictive text of course appears on the screen and that means you lose a little more space, but it might be a useful addition if you are prone to mistakes.

A small screen that makes Sense?

We haven’t seen HTC Sense on a 2.6-inch screen before, although we have seen low resolution devices running it. The resolution of the screen on the HTC ChaCha is 480 x 320 pixels. That gives you a pixel density of 221ppi, which is high, effectively cramming plenty of pixels nice and tight into the visible display. This makes it capable of rendering fine detail sharply, and as you’d expect, HTC Sense looks nice and crisp throughout.

The screen is pretty much the same size as the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 mini, but a higher resolution, and like that diminutive device, we see HTC move the apps and “Personalize” menus to the corners of the screen. Otherwise, HTC Sense is presented in a similar way to the rest of their devices, remembering of course that this is effectively a landscape aspect screen (it will auto-rotate for portrait in apps, but not in the HTC Sense homepages). 

You can fill the homepages with the normal run of widgets, but everything has been miniaturised to be more space efficient. The effect is different from other HTC handsets, but it’s definitely is the HTC Sense experience, accepting that there has to be some compromise along the way. You get seven homepages, but you start at the far left page by default, which is where you return when you hit the “home” button. An overview can be accessed with a pinch, just as on regular touchscreen devices.

You get the fancy new HTC lockscreen too, which is very welcome, meaning you can assign four common apps to unlock straight too, so you can easily get to your favourite apps straightaway. Officially this is HTC Sense 2.1 and the Android version at the time of writing is Android 2.3.3, so it is up-to-date.

Whilst HTC has changed things like their Friend Stream app to make it more space efficient, some of the native Android apps don’t fair so well. Gmail, for example, is fine when looking down your list of emails, but when it comes to composing an email you don’t get a great deal of space: reading an email sees you battling through the headers before you get to the meat of the message. Scrolling up and down on the screen in some apps can be tricky, so you’ll have to use those cursor keys when possible, or you might find yourself hitting the controls under the screen.

Generally speaking, HTC have moved navigation tabs from the bottom of the screen to the side, so you get larger icons to skip from local albums to Facebook, to Flickr in the Gallery for example. This treatment applies across those areas that HTC customise, so the same applies in Music, Friend Stream (their social network aggregator app), Peep (their Twitter client), videos and so on. Regular Android apps will display themselves as normal, so if they support landscape, then they will appear as such, if they don’t then everything will be sideways on the screen. 

You do get the same run of features as you do in the HTC Salsa (so it is well worth reading that review too) and that ChaCha never feels like a less capable device, but it doesn't have the fullscreen impact that other phones do.

Performance

In general terms everything on the HTC ChaCha runs very nicely. The HTC Sense side of things works well enough and the keyboard we’ve already detailed: it has some minor flaws, but on the whole it is a good experience. Other apps don’t fair so well because you lose the space to control them as accurately. At least once you enter an app the physical keyboard means you’re not fighting for screen space like you might be on some small-screen devices, and in most cases, hitting the search icon means you don’t have to fight to find that search text box. 

Android Market, for example, which will serve you up a fair selection of Android apps for you to enjoy, is positively minuscule on the ChaCha. To some extent it's great to see these apps presented in such tiny fine detail, but at the same time, you can't help but think it wasn't ever intended to be viewed like this.

Dealing with the Internet is another problem. The small screen means that cruising around websites is a bit of a pain. You’ll do a lot of zooming in and out to be able to read, and we often found ourselves flipping the phone sideways and re-flowing the text to be able to read things. It’s not the fully engaging internet experience that larger devices offer and that’s a fact you’ll have to live with if you choose a small screened device like this.

Internally the HTC ChaCha finds itself with the same Qualcomm MSM7227 processor clocked at 800MHz as we saw in the Salsa. You get 512MB ROM and RAM and these specs really set the phone out as a mid range handset. There is a microSD card slot in the back for memory expansion. As such, there are limitations to what it will do, but given that the screen is small, you’re probably less bothered about the lack of Flash support or the inability to chow through HD video files. You’ll probably not be worried about the fact that you don’t get the network streaming elements that are found on more powerful HTC devices either.

In reality, we found that the HTC ChaCha was stable and ran smoothly whilst we were testing it. It doesn't have the snap to the user interface that the top-tier phones do, but it isn't sluggish like some older handsets were. It’s also a really comfortable phone for calling on, the slight curve fitting your face. We found that calls came across loud and clear, and in combination with those dedicated calling buttons, it’s a great phone for making a lot of calls on.

Making a lot of calls isn’t great for the phone however, because it sees itself saddled with a 1250mAh battery. This means the life of the device is surprisingly short and on busy days we found ourselves having to charge it during the day. In terms of battery life we found that its sibling, the HTC Salsa, was better.

The Facebook button

We looked in a lot of detail at the Facebook button on the HTC Salsa in our Feature on it, and it’s worth reading if you want to know more, but we’ll cover the basic functions here.

The Facebook button offers a number of shortcuts to Facebook, but rather than use the Facebook app (available to all Android users), it uses Facebook for HTC Sense. This is essentially a framework of functions, rather than a central app, and as such, it weaves its way into a number of different areas. Fortunately, the Facebook button will blink at you when there is something you can use it for.

As a standalone button, a press will take you straight through to an update page, so you can post on your wall, or on the wall of your friends. A long press of the button fires you straight into a Facebook Places area so you can checkin at that location.

Press the Facebook button in the browser, music, photos or video and you get to share, with the ChaCha lifting the text or URL straight to your update. The update process looks almost identical to Friend Stream, and you do need to be careful with that - press the button in Friend Stream and you enter an update through that service (potentially to Facebook and Twitter) whereas outside the app you’ll be Facebook only. 

The button also works in the camera, where you can use it to take the shot and go straight to a Facebook upload page. It’s nice and direct and means that if you spot a Facebook moment, you can be in on the action and sharing it with the world almost instantly. Facebook Chat also gets a look in, with a supporting widget and Fb Chat app available so you can talk with buddies. It works well enough, but in the case of the ChaCha you don’t get to see much of your conversation on the screen.

There is the potential for confusion between what you do in HTC’s Facebook and Android’s Facebook. As the functionality is duplicated, you can find different routes to doing the same thing. This isn’t helped by notifications - you post something via the button, down the HTC route, and when a friend comments you get a notification that takes you to the regular Facebook app. Overall there is nothing essentially new here, because the functions already exist, but the Facebook button does make it a touch more convenient.

All of this is very picky, but it doesn’t feel quite as seamless as the rival Facebook experience we’ve seen on the INQ Cloud Touch. It’s worth mentioning that on the HTC ChaCha the Facebook (and many other pages) have the blue colour colour scheme so it does feel a little more “Facebooky” at times than the Salsa did, but whilst criticising the Facebook functions, we shouldn't ignore just how richly integrated HTC Sense already is.

Cameras

There are both front and rear cameras, the back offering 5-megapixel stills and up to 720 x 480 video capture. It misses out on the HD tag, but it is at least widescreen. The camera interface has had the normal HTC treatment, meaning you get touch focusing and a smattering of effects to try out. Unlike their other big-screen devices however, it’s very difficult to assess the results on the phone itself.

Move things over to your PC, or share them online, and you’ll get a much better sense of what you’ve just captured. Video is reasonable in good conditions, with touch focusing letting you shift the camera around and re-meter and refocus as you wish. Although not HD, there is enough detail and the colours are pretty good.

Low light conditions in both the video and the camera suffer, naturally, bringing a lot of noise in and the inevitable blurred shots when taking photos. Photo capture is better than it looks on the display and we like the fact you can touch to focus, meaning sharper shots than many rivals. It suffers the same flaws as every other camera phone, though, struggling with high contrast scenes.

Verdict

When thinking of the HTC ChaCha, it’s worth setting the “Facebook phone” elements to one side. The ChaCha is a more important device than just Facebook and if the button was removed, you’d still have all those features anyway.

You get all the benefits of that connected Android experience, tying into your Google accounts and filling your phone with your contacts, email and calendars. HTC Sense has been sensibly scaled to fit onto this phone and that all works well, but we can’t help feeling that something is lost in the experience. If you have seen Android on larger devices then visually you miss-out with the ChaCha. Android might look cute, but you'll find yourself struggling for space at times.

But that might be a sacrifice worth making if you crave a proper keyboard. We have a few problems with the keyboard, but none of them are critical. Annoying yes, but it’s still usable. Side-by-side with a BlackBerry and we prefer the keyboard on our Bold and the use of screen space, although much more basic visually, often means that you see a little more of what you are doing.

For those looking to venture into something a little different their BlackBerry then it has a lot of offer. However, the touchscreen experience offered by it’s sister handset the HTC Salsa is difficult to ignore, resulting in a richer experience with the benefit of a much better mobile internet experience.