(Pocket-lint) - With so many flagship phones launching virtually every week it's sometimes hard to remember that not everyone has a spare £50 for a mobile phone bill every month or a couple of hundred to buy one in the first place. If that's the case, we recommend you read on.
The INQ Chat 3G hopes to bridge the gap between a phone that is only good for phoning people and a fully powered communications device. After creating the 3 INQ1 and INQ Mini 3G, the company, owned by the same people that owns the 3 network in the UK, have moved on to the INQ Chat 3G - a cheap QWERTY-based smartphone that's available (not surprisingly) from 3 for under £100 as a pay-as-you-go offering.
One of the biggest complaints we had of the INQ1 when we saw it in November 2008 is that it lacked a QWERTY keyboard. A year on, and that wish has been realised without adding too much to the overall size or weight of the device.
The phone, which is roughly the size of the BlackBerry Curve, is well built, offers a tight but well laid-out QWERTY keyboard and large screen. Between the two is a belt of shortcut keys positioned around a d-pad buckle. The keys are as simple as they are standard.
The sides offer a "switcher" key, which allows you to scroll through the application menu regardless of where you are (think alt-tab on a computer), volume control and a Micro-USB socket for charging. Music fans will be disappointed though, there is no 3.5mm headphone jack although you do get a microSD card slot once you remove the cover to store songs via DoubleTwist, or just by loading up your card in your PC in advance. DoubleTwist for those not in the know, is a mobile phone syncing app that lets you organise your music, video and photos to the INQ Chat 3G (and a range of other devices). It's like iTunes, but without Apple. You can also buy music via the Amazon MP3 store. Unusually there is no FM Radio.
The back sports a very bright glossy lipstick-red cover (other colours include black, bright yellow and pink) and an autofocus 3.2-megapixel camera with no flash.
The camera and video camcorder options are basic. Camera performance is what you would expect for a 3.2-megapixel camera with virtually zero functionality apart from taking pictures. Coping well with poor light, it's passable but nothing to shout about. What we did like however was the speed and ease in sharing them afterwards. The phone sports Facebook, Twitter, and email support from the get go, as well as Bluetooth, so you can share very quickly.
As for the camcorder, the results are dreadful and we wouldn't choose to use this in any other guise other than to do some happy slapping. If you want video recording functionality go elsewhere.
Power it up and the menu system is basic, but very easy to use. Keeping with the same operating system found in the INQ1 and INQ Mini 3G, the applications are accessed in two ways. The easiest is via the switcher, as INQ call it, that allows you to scroll through them in a way similar to Cover Flow on the Mac. Press the d-pad or switcher button on the side and it moves to the next application. You can customise the list so it gives you your favourites while dumping stuff that you don't need. Who needs Twitter anyway?
On top of this there is also a widget option on the homepage for your favourite apps and it is set-up with Facebook and Yahoo search as standard, although you can add more easily. Failing that, you can get to the rest of the phone - i.e., those gems like your photos or the calculator - by hitting the dedicated menu key to open up a grid style interface you're probably more familiar with.
Although this isn't an "app" phone in the same guise as the iPhone or Android handsets, there are some apps available. That said you won't really need to bother as you'll get Twitter, Facebook, Skype and MSN apps all pre-installed - there's email too.
Setting-up took around 10 seconds with the phone doing the rest. It's incredibly easy and you'll have to know virtually nothing apart from your username and password for your social networks in most cases. Once you've got "connected" you can then either switch them off or run them in the background and it's one of the fastest phone setups we've experienced.
As this is available on mobile network operator 3, that means you can make Skype to Skype calls for free. In our tests the call quality over Skype was not great, as can be the case with VoIP applications, but once you've logged-in to the service you can use the free Skype to Skype service over 3G rather than having to pay a hefty phone bill when it comes to wish your friends happy birthday around the world.
But it's not just about accessing your communiqué. There is a web browser in there as well. It's not the fastest we've seen - think BlackBerry over Android, but it's fully featured and lets you check out sites from around the Web. Navigation around the Web is via the d-pad - it's slow going, but again not the end of the world. You aren't buying this phone for that.
It's not something that we normally mention, but INQ have to be praised for the included manual. Rather than a fat book of boring instructions, you get 14 pretty flash cards that walk you through the key points. It makes setting up the phone even easier than it already is and really showed that the company thinks about the out-of-the-box experience.
If you are looking for a simple, but easy-to-use communication device without all the hassle or expense of the App Store and open source operating systems, the INQ Chat 3G will do you nicely.
The keyboard is tight, but still easy to use and the screen bright and crisp, albeit not touchscreen. The option to sign in to Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, Skype and MSN, giving you virtually all the social networking options you could want, is really nice although the pay off is a not too hot browser experience and virtually zero additional app support.
No, this isn't the Apple iPhone or the HTC Hero, it's not trying to be that. This is a phone that will get you connected quickly and cheaply (you can even pair it with your laptop). If that sounds like what you are after, then this is worth a look.
UPDATE: INQ has got in touch to say that it will now be putting Opera Mini as the default browser on the INQ Chat 3G, which should from experience of the browser on different handsets make a difference for the better when it comes to browsing the internet on the go