The Vodafone 555 Blue is the latest Facebook phone to hit the market. But when we say market, we don't just mean the markets here in the UK. Oh no, Vodafone has big plans with regards to opening up Facebook to millions of mobile users worldwide - at least that was the message at the 555's official launch in London in July.
As such, the 555 is a feature phone rather than a smartphone, in order to keep costs down. But with the handset also seeing a UK release we felt it important to give it the once-over to see if it could offer our saturated mobile market anything unique.
Build and Hardware
Let's get the obvious out of the way first. Yes, the 555 looks just like the HTC ChaCha. At least from a distance. Up close you'll notice a few subtle differences. There's not as much space between the keys, it has a smaller front speaker, it's not quite as curvy and, most importantly, there are no Android buttons. When you fire it up it has a much less impressive display, and that's because the 555, as mentioned, is Facebook on a budget. And we do mean a budget – it recently went on sale for just £62.50 on Vodafone pay as you go.
So you'd expect it to feel a little less luxurious than its Android-touting, much more expensive rival. And you'd be right. But that's not to say that the build quality isn't good. The silver and white matt finish is nice to touch, the keyboard is rugged but responsive and the 5 soft-keys (including a trackpad) work without issue. That said, we did find it a little off that the centre, right and left soft-key buttons don't line up with their on screen commands exactly - it may have made more sense to have the standard green and red keys as the more central ones. A minor quibble, but one that annoyed us nonetheless.
At 12mm thin, the 555 is certainly skinny enough to fit in the skinniest of jeans (if that's what the kids are still wearing) and the curved edges feel nice in the hand. The other build features are a shiny blue volume tracker button, a micro-USB port, a 2-megapixel camera with flash and a loudspeaker on the back.
On the inside, behind the back plate, you'll find the 1000mAh battery, space for your SIM card and also a microSD card slot – it can handle up to 16GB to back up its paltry 40MB of onboard storage. Plus, there's a decent file manager app on-board that makes it easy to manage your digital files.
The display is a 2.4-inch one, with a 320x240 resolution which, let's not beat around the bush, is a bit naff. It seemed okay for regular tasks, especially with text – but watching back any videos or pictures that you've taken, or ones from your friends' Facebook profiles, isn't the greatest experience. Connectivity isn't the 555's strong point either. In order to keep the costs down Vodafone has opted for just 2.5G and Bluetooth 2.1. That's right – no 3G or Wi-Fi. Ouch.
Couple this slow connectivity with the 800MHz processor and you are looking at a pretty cumbersome device at times – especially when presented with more demanding tasks than simply sending a text, or updating your Facebook status.
Battery life is good, with the official figures claiming three hours talktime and 324 hours of standby time. We were messing around with it for a good few days, making the odd call, but mostly using the Facebook features before we had to juice it up.
You can't avoid Facebook on the 555 – but then again, you'd be a tad foolish to invest in a phone sporting a shiny Facebook button if you weren't interested in the odd poke. The social network is integrated at every step. And do we mean every step. In fact, the first thing you do when you turn on the phone is sign in to your Facebook account – a log-in screen appears as soon as the handset is booted up for the first time. From there on in you'll find Facebook everywhere. It dominates the home screen, it lingers in every menu and the customisable Facebook key allows you to update/share/stalk at just a touch of a button.
On your front screen you are presented with three things. A time/date widget, a launch bar with space for 5 items -you can add more but you'll then need to use the soft-keys to scroll through them. Then there's the all-important Facebook status update bar. The launch bar automatically defaults with all things FB too. You can easily view your profile, news stream, friends' profiles and so on.
Well, we say easily, but viewing photos on the 555 is a laborious affair. We're sure the thumbnails in the Facebook albums are supposed to populate with actual imagery rather than JPG icons but we didn't have weeks to spare to find out. It's great that you've got easy access to all your friends' pictures, it's just not so great that it takes bloomin' ages to view a single pic. That lack of Wi-Fi really is apparent with media. We also found that photos albums on people's profiles weren't always listed. Some pretty prolific Facebook photo sharers we knew had “Empty” listed on their photo pages.
Your Facebook content is supposed to be synced every 20 minutes, so as there's no refresh times, and you can even set what content is synced, and picture sizes, if you're worried about data usage. We found however that the automatic update function wasn't all it promised to be and we found it much easier to set the Facebook key to update on-demand. Speaking of notifications, there's also a neon blue light that will blink if you have any new ones. There's also a funky shortcut option where you can combine the alt key with a letter to carry out various commands.
Contacts and messaging are the strong points of the 555. Contacts, in particular, worked as well at integrating SIM and Facebook details as we've seen on some high-end Android devices. It even managed to pair up some contacts where the details didn't entirely match. From the contacts area it is also possible to see Facebook content from walls and such. Plus, there's the handy 'compose' button that lets you ping across a message, as a text or as a Facebook message, depending on the method you want to employ. All messages are then lumped together in one nice, easy to view, conversation stream.
As mentioned, the camera on the 555 is of the 2-megapixel variety, so nothing to get too excited about. However, if you are looking to post the odd quick snap whilst you're out and about it will more than suffice. You're hardly likely to use the camera as a replacement for your compact, but that's not really what it's all about. The pictures are decent, if not spectacular – it performed okay in well let situations (if somewhat a little saturated and noisy) but the LED flash isn't really up to much in dark environments. Within the camera app is the option to switch to night mode, four different picture sizes and a brightness adjuster. There's also a handy camera button on the keyboard making it easy to get snapping.
You can, of course, upload pictures you take direct to your Facebook profile, as well as emailing or texting them – obviously with data restrictions. Videos on the 555 are, in a word – crap. 3GP, H.263, video files with a 176x144 resolution at just over 7fps. And you can't email them or add them to your Facebook profile so they're pretty pointless too.
In terms of other apps, it's fairly basic. You'll get an FM radio, an MP3 player and browsing with Opera mini 5.1 – which has a nice option of displaying all your friends' shared Facebook links all in one place. YouTube viewing is not advised though, unless your a fan of Morph or other 1980s stop-motion animation.
Included Facebook app fun is just a Java-based chat client at present, although more apps (Places and Events were mentioned at the launch) should be coming down the line through OTA updates. One nice feature is the calender automatically populates itself with all your Facebook friends' birthdays, if they have them listed on their profile.
There's also Parlingo, a weather app, an RSS reader, a Java client, a file manager, tasks list, notepad, calculator, unit conversion tool and a stopwatch too.
When Pocket-lint went to the launch of the 555 it was clear that much of Vodafone's market research was done in emerging markets for the mobile industry, such as India and South Africa – where Facebook is high on the agenda for young people, but where access is difficult. The idea, it seemed, was to create a handset that could provide access to the social network, at a price that those markets could accept.
Pocket-lint is no economics expert, so we can't comment on whether the $100 price bar is okay for these regions, but we can comment on whether the phone is acceptable at that price for the UK – and the answer is yes. Sort of.
Compared like-for-like with the HTC ChaCha for instance, there's only going to be one winner and it isn't the contender in the Blue corner. But with HTC's Facebook phone coming in at almost £170 more (on Vodafone PAYG, at least) it's not really a fair fight. Sure, the ChaCha probably still shades it in the pound for pound category too, but at less than £63 the 555 is going to be seriously tempting for the tween market.
That's where the 555 could enjoy some success. There's no doubt that's the only market where Vodafone's baby could make an impression. But still, kids who have used their parents iPhones or Android smartphones will soon become frustrated by the lack of features and apps on offer and, more significantly, the sluggishness of the 555. Because that is its major stumbling block.
Obviously, a lot was done to keep the cost of the handset down and at that price point, and the lack of features and slowness are forgiveable. But in the UK, and other developed nations, where the 555 is hitting the pre-pay arenas, Vodafone may have missed a trick by not adding a few extra hardware bonuses. A slightly quicker processor perhaps and definitely 3G or Wi-Fi connectivity could have been achieved whilst keeping the price below £100.
The bottom line is that the Vodafone 555 Blue is an okay, if somewhat frustrating, device that falls into the 'nice idea, but must try harder' bucket. That's in the UK, at least – we'd love to see it succeed in its target emerging markets. After all, the whole world should be allowed a bit of a poke every now and then, right?