The INQ Cloud Touch is a new generation in social mobile from the small UK company who practically invented the connected mobile social experience before everyone else jumped on board. These days there is no shortage of social integration across all mobile platforms, Android especially. So do INQ have what it takes to redefine that social mobile experience again in their popularly-dubbed “Facebook phone?”
INQ is all about detail and lifting the INQ Cloud Touch from the exquisite packaging makes this message clear: they are thinking differently. We don’t normally comment on packaging here on Pocket-lint, but the first word has to go to the box. It’s a box you’ll feel guilty about throwing away and in a world where first impressions count it gets the phone off to a good start, but it is only a box.
The handset itself comes in a couple of colours and we had the white model, which screams Star Wars at us: its curves and contrasting black and white design make us think of an Imperial Stormtrooper and that’s no mistake. It’s no mistake either that the other handset screams Ferrari Red at you. Like the packaging, these phones are designed to be noticed. On our white handset we were almost disappointed to find it didn’t have OII stamped on the back.
It is finished in plastic but it feels sturdy enough, certainly better than something like the Orange San Francisco when it comes to build quality, but not quite up to the more established HTC Wildfire S. It is pretty much free from creaks, but there is a hint of movement as you manipulate it in your hand. Sure, it won’t stand-up against some of the high-end devices when it comes to passing off that luxury look and feel, but this is an affordable device: it is designed to be cool and that it is.
Its affordable status is reflected in it’s overall size: measuring 114 x 62 x 13.1mm it is larger than many rivals. That’s not necessarily a negative point as there is something of a toy-like charm in its fun design. The bold controls across the bottom of the screen are a far cry from the subtle touch-buttons you’ll find elsewhere - they also shout out the phone’s identity, the home button replaced with INQ’s logo, flanked by menu and back controls.
At first glance though, there is a lot of space that surrounding the screen: this isn’t a thin bezel design, but it feels comfortable in the hand. The 3.5-inch display is pretty generous for an affordable model, compared to the common 3.2-inch devices it competes with. That does highlight one issue, and that’s the low resolution and pixel density of the 480 x 320 display, offering 162ppi. The darling of affordable screens is the Orange San Francisco, or ZTE Blade, and we suspect the follow-up - the ZTE Skate will be a popular device offering bang for your few bucks when it comes to the display.
A lot can be forgiven on a device that is so affordable as it is competitive with many of its entry-level rivals. The status is reflected under the hood too, where you’ll find a 600MHz Qualcomm MSM7227 processor. The same processor finds it’s way into a wide range of devices on this level, such as the HTC Salsa and ChaCha phones that also offer specific Facebook functionality, and the likes of the Samsung Galaxy Mini and Ace (although some devices are clocked at 800MHz).
Internal memory is minimal at only 140MB, which will very quickly dwindle. Of course you get to expand up to 32GB with microSD using but you’ll have to pay attention to where you download and install your apps - more increasingly you can install or move them to the external memory, which is well worth doing where possible.
Other key specs include a 5-megapixel autofocus camera. INQ haven’t done anything to alter the camera over the stock experience, although you will find various settings to tweak the colour and white balance. The results are average and will be fine for sharing online, but it suffers from the normal problems of struggling with noisy images as the light drops and over-exposing when the conditions are bright. There is no flash.
Video capture is offered at a limited 640 x 480 resolution and returns pretty much average results, again, fine for sharing online, but lacking the detail and fidelity of more expensive phones offering HD capture. Focus is fixed too, so don’t expect too much outside of casual candid video capture.
But the INQ Cloud Touch isn’t being pushed as a camera phone, or even as top tier device, so the compromises can be accepted as they lead to a more affordable device and being based on Android, it comes with most of the benefits of the Android ecosystem. You miss out on some of the niceties, like Adobe Flash video support, as the phone falls below Adobe’s specs, even though it arrives running on Android 2.2.
What you do get, however, is one of the deepest and most considered approaches to Facebook integration that we’ve seen so far. The INQ Cloud Touch is synonymous with “Facebook phone”, the two terms being linked in the rumour mill before the truth become fully revealed. Facebook is given top-level visibility, with a number of widgets that feed you Facebook directly on your homepage. Of course, this being Android you can remove them and rearrange them if you don’t like what you see.
Essentially the main Facebook features get their own widget: News, People, Events, Notifications and Places. Beyond this, INQ have also broken out Facebook Chat, Friends, Messages, News Feed, Notifications, Photos, Profile into direct shortcuts in the app menu (and on their customisable scrollable homescreen bar) so you can basically access any of the Facebook mobile features directly, without having to go back and forth around the Facebook app.
The INQ Cloud Touch uses a combination of the regular Facebook for Android app and their own Facebook layers which are again linked. The mainstay of this on the homepage is the News widget which will give you live access to the links, videos and photos, either taking you to the Facebook app, or direct to the website for that link. It is a nice, in your face, easily snackable, way of serving up Facebook content from your friends without you having to do anything, but feels a little slow in use.
The other main Facebook widgets - People, Events, Notifications and Places - are mixed in their approach. As widgets they are live, so change when they have something to reflect (in the case of People, Events and Notifications) changing their image so you know there is something to look at. Places is essentially a link through to the existing Facebook Places area of the mobile app and Notifications takes you through to the homepage of the Facebook app, so you can access your notifications at the bottom of the page.
Events in fact opens up your calendar, which is your regular Android Calendar, but with the addition of Facebook birthdays and events integrated from Facebook. The People widget is more interesting, tying into INQ’s People app, which serves up a customised feed from your top friends on Facebook. Apon first opening the app it will auto-populate, giving you the opportunity to chop and change and select those people you want in there. It’s nice clean way of seeing what your friends have been up to. Again, it is really only a top-level offering however, as if you click on comments or the likes section it reverts you to the Facebook for Android corresponding page.
Facebook rolls into one other area of the INQ Cloud Touch user interface too and that’s the Contacts. Enter the Contacts and things are fairly regular - the option to skip across tabs to enter the dialler, call list or favourites, or browse your list of Contacts. If a contact is also a friend on Facebook, then their contact page changes to include extra tabs for access to their Facebook wall and photos. This additional information is on top of the normal integration that Android offers from the likes of Twitter and Skype.
That, in summary is Facebook on the INQ Cloud Touch. It’s a comprehensive approach but it isn’t all encompassing. We feel that the People app could potentially offer up some additional features and you could expand the stock Android gallery to include Facebook galleries, for example. However, for fans of Facebook, you’ll find that having a direct link to different features will serve you very well, especially if you are forever rooting through the mobile app to get to a particular section.
Before we look at other areas of the user interface it is worth mentioning the two shortcut buttons on the outside of the INQ Cloud Touch. The first is an info button that opens up an extremely useful page reflecting the status of your phone, covering useful things like alarm setting, Wi-Fi, battery, memory status and shortcut buttons to toggle vibrate, Bluetooth, GPS and so on. It’s the sort of functionality many manufacturers are adding to the notification bar on their homepage. It’s a great way to easily access settings, something that Android users are often doing.
The second external button is a direct music control. A long press will open up Spotify, which is the default music player on the phone. Thereafter pressing the button will pause the music - even when the screen is off - and a double tap will skip on a track which is a useful feature. If you have a Spotify account already, you can log in directly and make the most of their streaming music service and the Spotify app will also index any local music you have on the phone. It isn’t the best music player when it comes to dealing with local music however.
You’ll find the default Android Music player is in place that you can also use (which makes navigation of your local music collection a little simpler) although this isn’t tied into the external button - if you are using the stock Android Music player and you press the button, it will start playing from Spotify and we couldn’t figure out anyway of changing the priorities of that control button, which would be useful.
Throughout the user interface INQ have made little changes to make the phone distinctly theirs, for example changing the app icons. If this is your first Android phone it will probably be of no significance, but we couldn’t help thinking that the additional colour and detail added to the app icons was slightly overbearing: the mock Picasso gallery icon and the DSLR (with flash) for the camera seem to cram too much detail in too tight a space. There seem to be too many colours in play and we’re not sure that it quite hits the young and edgy intention square on.
One of the changes that INQ have made is to the lockscreen. It offers up three icons: unlock, camera and keyboard. This will let you basically jump into the camera or “INQ Type” straight away, which is a nice touch, but recently eclipsed by the customisable offering of the HTC Sensation and HTC Sense 3.0. It does segway neatly into the next area where INQ have made a change and that’s the keyboard.
INQ Type that we’ve just mentioned is a neat little app that lets you type first and then figure out what to do with it. Accessed either from the homepage or via the app shortcut/icon, it offers up the keyboard so you can start typing, and then offers you three options: Google search, Share and Save (clipboard, contacts). The search and save options are exactly as they sound, but INQ have missed a trick with Share. As this is social mobile, the Facebook phone, you’d expect Share to offer you some sharing options. It doesn’t: it lets you send by SMS. The SMS sharing option appears as though it could be the first entry on a long list; we’d expect Facebook and Twitter updating to be here, currently they’re not, so it’s not as useful as it first appears.
The keyboard itself is pretty good however. INQ Type is based on TouchType’s tech, which is behind our favourite SwiftKey keyboard. That means that as you type you’ll be offered suggestions and more often than not you can just hit spacebar to accept the suggested word without having to bash everything out on the keyboard. The predictions are intelligent, not just offering the word you’re typing, but going on to offering what it thinks the next word might be.
The keyboard is a little small, and we get the feeling that without INQ Type the experience of using the phone would be for the worse: we found that it could be a little fiddly and it isn’t the fastest or most responsive display out there which can impact on text entry. That’s to be expected on this level of phone and at least the keyboard is ready to roll and make the best of things.
Like the screen response, general navigation of the phone is typical for it’s specification. It is a little slow, but on the whole it seemed stable enough in operation, being mercifully free from crashes in our tests, although we did hit some errors from Facebook for INQ Mobile when restarting the phone. A selection of gestures are available, so you can select actions for swipe up, swipe down and double tap. Usefully, you can use one of these to open the dialler, something that by default doesn't find itself represented on the default homescreen. Call quality was fine and we had no problems with call quality. The external speaker is a little tinny, but we're neither surprised or bothered about that.
What doesn’t stand up so well, given it’s specification, is the battery life. This took us by surprise as many entry-level devices cope better - smaller screens and lower power hardware draw less juice from the battery - although the INQ Cloud Touch’s display is a little on the dark side too. Even so, the INQ Cloud Touch left us with a dead battery mid afternoon on several occasions, which was somewhat unexpected. This is the sort of problem that can affect the likes of the HTC Desire HD or the LG Optimus 2X and we expect more from the INQ Cloud Touch’s battery life.
We also found the Wi-Fi sometimes needed prompting to be reliable. Far too often we started looking something up to find that it hadn't connected to our Wi-Fi network. Despite being logged in to both our home networks, it seemed to ignore them. INQ offer a Wi-Fi manager setting that is supposed to intelligently detect when and where it should activate Wi-Fi, but we ended up turning it off.
Overall the INQ Cloud Touch offers up an interesting twist on Android: this isn’t a copycat device, it is original in its design and there are some very positive benefits that INQ have brought to the table. The info button is really useful, the look and feel of the Facebook widgets make Facebook more immediate and if you’re a Spotify user then the direct Spotify control will bring a smile to your face.
However, there is scope to take this further and we believe that these things are already on the INQ radar. Social integration beyond Facebook seems a no brainer and we’d love to see some juicy Twitter widgets. INQ Type is begging for more functionality and it is easily added.
Is it only for Facebook fans? Not necessarily, but the presentation of Facebook is one of the unique benefits that INQ offer you in Cloud Touch. If you fancy the phone because it is affordable you can easily remove many of the Facebook items if you don’t want them, but then you are left with a number of phones that offer a similar experience, with Spotify and SwiftKey available from the Android Market to reproduce some of what INQ have added here.
We’d love to see INQ tackle a higher-power device, weave a little magic into a more comprehensive multimedia offering, but as it is, the INQ Cloud Touch’s performance is befitting of its affordable price, even if its battery life isn’t.
Dependent on contract