The INQ Cloud Touch has been subject to rumour and gossip on a scale not normally seen for a small UK-based company with a portfolio – up until today – that only included two devices. Facebook is a big deal though and this is where the attention has come from. Is the INQ Cloud Touch the Facebook phone?

Facebook say no, but pick up the INQ Cloud Touch and you’ll find that Facebook has been woven into the very fabric of the handset. Not literally, it’s plastic, but one look at the homescreen and Facebook is, quite literally, in your face. We spent some time with the INQ Cloud Touch prior to its announcement and here’s what we think so far.

The INQ Cloud Touch is pitched at the affordable end of the market and a glance at the spec sheet reflects that. It isn’t going to go toe-to-toe with HTC at the superphone end of the market, but there is a chance that INQ will again launch one of the more exciting handsets in 2011, especially of Facebook is your thing. Aimed at the 16-24 year old bracket, the phone brings with it connectivity, attention to detail, and most importantly fun.

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INQ’s attention to detail is legendary, from the packaging to the paperwork you get in the box and we can’t help thinking that the INQ Cloud Touch is a device with a sense of humour. One cool thing we found lurked under the back cover, with detailing moulded into the back plate.

The design, Ken Johnstone, co-founder of INQ told us, owes much to Star Wars Imperial Stormtroopers and Eve from Wallee. You can read this in the plastic curving design and detailing around the device – just take a look at the white version with the black ring around the camera. There is enough in the design to make it distinctive and in a world of identikit Android devices, that’s an important factor.

But the real differentiator is in the user interface. The INQ Cloud Touch will launch on Android 2.2 (with an update promised “by the end of the year”), but it has been heavily customised to bring Facebook to the very forefront of the device. Facebook has such prominence that you are asked to supply your Facebook credentials when you first lift the device from the box before you get to your Google account. You get the feeling that INQ would quite happily have you sign in to Facebook and ignore the rest of what Android has on offer.

On signing into Facebook a lot of things happen. If you’ve used Facebook on Android (or other smartphone platforms) before you’ll know that the social networking company already has deep integration into things like photo sharing and contacts. INQ goes a little further. The main homepage of the Cloud Touch is setup with four default icons across the top:  People, Events, Notifications, Places. With icons reflecting those you’ll recognise from Facebook, it’s difficult to imagine how much more “Facebook” a phone could be.

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INQ have customised some of these areas, so you don’t just get links through the regular Facebook app page, you get a custom view. We had a look at the People pages and it is much more immediate that regular Facebook views. There is still plenty we didn’t see, and we didn’t have the chance to explore every facet of INQs custom user interface, but it’s clear it isn’t just a superficial tinkering. One of the technologies lying behind the UI is what Johnstone termed the Facebook “social graph”. This recognises who on Facebook is most important to you and pushes that information forward, so you’re faced with friends, rather than that obscure weirdo you met in Crete last year.

But to write the INQ Cloud Touch off as just a Facebook phone would be to do it a disservice: there is more on offer here. Johnstone told us that they have been very deliberate in their selection of partners for the new devices. First of all we have the INQ Type keyboard, which comes from the same people who brought us SwiftKey. It’s an innovative text entry system that learns how you write and logically offers up suggestions. It makes text entry fast and having spent a lot of time using SwiftKey, it’s one that we love. You can open the keyboard by swiping up from the touch bar, enter text and then decide what to do with it – search, share or save it, which adds an extra twist.

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Another partner on the INQ Cloud Touch (and the INQ Cloud Q, also announced today) is Spotify. There is a button on the bottom right-hand side which gives you direct access to the Spotify music player. Frank Meehan, INQ CEO, has been hinting at Spotify integration for some time and it has come to fruition in the Cloud Touch. Essentially it gives you the media player parts of the Spotify Android app, bringing with it neat features like offline playlist management and wireless Wi-Fi syncing with your music collection if you have Spotify on your PC. If you want the Spotify streaming service you’ll have to have a Spotify Premium account (£9.99 a month), but then you can plug the details right in and continue to run your music through the one app.

There is another hardware key on the outside of the INQ Cloud Touch which really appeals to our inner geek. It’s simply an information key, but on a single press no matter where you are in the phone, it brings up a screen offering time/date, alarm, Wi-Fi status, remaining battery and available memory. There are also toggles for vibrate, silent, airplane mode, Bluetooth and GPS. Bundling access to all this information in one location is fantastic and it seems more practical than the drag-down toggles offered on many rival devices.

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When it comes to Wi-Fi, Johnstone told us that INQ had worked on their own Wi-Fi handling designed to optimise how the phone worked with your Wi-Fi networks. It basically recognises where you are and will turn off Wi-Fi when you don’t need it, and turns it back on when it knows you are getting to another saved network. Most of us are creatures of habit with a saved Wi-Fi network at home and college/work, the idea being that you won’t have to manually switch Wi-Fi on and off as you are travelling between the two, or heading off somewhere else. We need to play around with this and see whether it has an impact on Google Maps (which uses Wi-Fi networks to speed-up location acquisition), or whether this has been considered.

In the time we’ve spent with the INQ Cloud Touch the phone has been responsive and easy enough to use. There has been customisation at many levels, and perhaps the app icon modifications – for example the camera icon to use the 5-megapixel camera - don’t look so good, given that the screen isn’t the highest resolution. The important thing to remember about the INQ devices is that they are designed to be affordable. They are designed to put the user experience above the ability to do absolutely everything that Android can. You do get full access to the Android Market and its apps, but the modest specs of the Cloud Touch may mean it doesn’t play nicely in all areas.

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It sits on the Qualcomm MSM7227 600MHz chipset, so it won’t compete in terms of sheer speed as the latest run of superphones and some things, like video playback, won’t compare with more powerful devices with a higher resolution displays. Memory out of the box is negligible so the first port of call will be a microSD card for all your content, a 4GB card is supplied. All these things help keep the costs down and with the INQ Cloud Touch expected to be free on a £20 a month contract, they’re probably worth the sacrifice if the user experience holds up.

Price when reviewed:
Dependent on contract

First Impressions

From what we’ve seen so far, the INQ Cloud Touch is brimming with innovation. It has been considered and customised to meet the needs of those who wrap Facebook around their lives, but with some added bonuses. The keyboard is certainly better than the default Android ‘board, and the attention to detail is really engaging. For example – from the lock screen you can choose to unlock and go directly to different areas, like straight to the camera.

Of course, we’ve not been let loose with the phone yet, so we don’t know what quirks are lurking beneath the surface – something we’ll be looking at when we get the phone in for a full review. Will it stand-up against a run of rival devices, or the rumoured HTC Facebook phone? Suffice to say, the INQ Cloud Touch is one of the more exciting affordable Android phones we’ve seen so far that looks to offer something distinctive and unique.

Hitting Carphone Warehouse in April, look out for our full review, coming in the not to distant future.