(Pocket-lint) - INQ caused something of a wave when it dropped its INQ1 handset into the mobile phone pond last year. Taking an approach that focused on software, the INQ1 was one of the first devices to offer out-of-the-box access to social networks and online services, fitting closely with 3's move towards offering the likes of Skype on their handsets.
The mobile phone world has changed significantly in the last 6 months and some might credit INQ for ushering in this change: we now have the likes of Motorola's Motoblur and HTC's Sense UI picking up your social networks and delivering an enhanced connected experience, but at a much higher price than INQ.
The INQ Mini itself is a compact candybar handset, measuring 102.9 x 45.8 x 12.8mm, small enough to slip into any pocket and at 128g, it is pretty light too. At first glance it looks like a number of entry-level devices from the likes of Sony Ericsson or Nokia, with a 12-key keypad, a central bad on control keys and a 2.2-inch display above. The display is 240 x 320 pixels, a typical resolution for entry-level devices.
Buttons are kept to a minimum around the body: on the right-hand side you'll find a camera button and a shortcut button that will take you to the Switcher banner, containing instant access to apps or websites. A volume rocker sits on the left-hand side.
The top of the devices sees the Mini-USB connection next to a small catch to release the back cover, which comes in red, but can be swapped out for a number of other colour options available separately. Ominously missing here is a 3.5mm jack, so you'll be left using the bundled headset unless you go for a Bluetooth option.
The bundled headset is of the hard plastic earbud variety which doesn't do your music justice. We've questioned many manufacturer's decisions in the past to omit a standard headphone jack, and with the INQ Mini pitching straight to the youth market, it seems almost criminal here.
Around the back of the phone is a 2.0-megapixel camera, which is an average performer and nothing more. It is fine for candid shots and sharing on the phone, but lacks the quality for prints. Images lack detail, the colour is poor and fringing is abundant around high contrast areas. Video capture is also offered, at a miserable 176 x 144px at 10fps, which is fine for sharing on a phone, but lacks the quality these days for much else. Also sitting on the back is the external speaker, which is relatively good considering its size.
The keyboard itself is positive enough in use, although the tactile finish wasn't to our taste. It doesn't feel nice under your fingertips and is reminiscent of running your fingernails down a chalkboard, for those old enough to remember what a chalkboard is. For the most part it doesn't matter, but the placement of the two keys beneath the screen is too cramped, especially when you are frequently using these to selection on-screen options.
INQ could have given more space over to the controls if they shrunk the logo'd "ok" button in the centre of the four-way controller.
Based on the Brew OS, the INQ Mini 3G is really all about the interface. It doesn’t have the same luscious visuals as some of the latest releases, but that is partly due to the lower resolution screen and the need to keep the cost down.
Out of the box you have access to Twitter, Facebook, Skype and Microsoft's Windows Live Messenger, which for many will cover their major social networking bases. You also get the Gmail app, which runs reasonably well, and also provides access to your Google Contacts. The INQ Mini doesn't ask you to integrate your Google Contacts from the off, but you can then call people using your Google Contacts via the app if you wish.
Missing Google Contacts is a shame as it is a simple way to get all your contacts from one central place like you do on rival services. So to get a truly centralised Contacts book in the INQ you'll need to bring in your numbers, then make the connections with other networks, merging contacts into one form. From Contacts you can dive over to a Facebook profile or call via Skype or just use regular messaging.
The clever thing is being able to send Facebook messages direct from contacts as you would a text message, which for heavy Facebook users will save plenty of time. Equally, you'll get access to received Facebook messages via Messages. Messages pulls together your various communications nicely, without having to rely on the different apps.
The menu system is interestingly designed, giving you a nice bright look and feel. It can sometimes be a little sluggish, refusing to respond to button presses, which reconfirms the budget status of the phone.
Dive into the menu and all the usual suspects are here, so you get access to your applications (most of which you'll probably access through the shortcut Switcher), but you'll also find access to music, photos, videos, etc. Sadly there is no radio.
You'll want to take advantage of the microSD card slot hiding under the back cover to expand on the minimal internal memory, especially if you are looking to carry around any quantity of music.
Getting content on to your phone is a breeze too, thanks to some thoughtful inclusions on the INQ. Connect the phone to your PC and options open up allowing you to use your INQ Mini as a 3G modem for your PC on the move, sync, transfer files or use DoubleTwist to manage your media. Mac users are also catered for, which is a rare thing indeed.
You can also customise the homepage with a number of widgets, so you can have weather, or a Google or Yahoo search right from the off, without having to dive into the browser. The browser experience isn't great, constrained by the size of the screen and although it renders full web pages, it is slow to do so, preferring mobile versions instead.
In terms of hardware, as the name suggests this is a 3G device, giving you HSDPA connectivity, but you don't get any backup for that: there is no Wi-Fi to continue your browsing without drawing on the mobile phone connection. There is no GPS either, although Google Maps is included, offering triangulation location and easy map searches.
Battery life in practise is reasonable, although if you make a lot of calls you'll find the battery might not last you the day. We found that standby was better and we got a couple of days from it before we needed to be charging again.
There are things we don't like about the INQ Mini 3G when you stack it up against what larger devices are doing, but then when you compare it to some of the current offerings outside the "smartphone" category, it copes very well indeed.
Sure, you don't get all the hardware specs, but we like the OS and the way it integrates aspects of your digital life in an innovative way. It's becoming more common, but stacked against rival Symbian S40 devices, it's a breath of fresh air. We mention S40 devices because the INQ Mini 3G also comes in as good value for money: the handset is free on a £15 a month tariff from 3, or £59.99 on pay as you go.
For those who want a compact and affordable phone, which offers the integration of the major social networks, then the INQ Mini 3G is well worth a look. But do try the keyboard as we found this the most annoying aspect of the device.