The HTC ChaCha (aka the HTC Status in the US) is one of the new breed of Facebook/Social Media centric phones we’re starting to see crop up around the place. Much like the INQ Cloud Touch, the HTC ChaCha has a user interface (UI) experience based heavily around efficient Facebook navigation. However, unlike during the INQ Cloud Touch review we did a couple of weeks back, we were pleased to discover that HTC managed to not only make an easily navigable interface, but a responsive one as well.
The HTC ChaCha’s Physical Design, Display & Keypad
Some of the more modern smartphone fans might balk initially at the design of the ChaCha. This is not a slate device like an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S II. The HTC ChaCha instead sports just a small, 2.6 inch full touchscreen display complete with Android’s standard 4 capacitive buttons located below.
The screen itself is quite crisp and clear, sporting a resolution of 480 x 320 that’s more than sufficient for its size. Colours are bright, but not quite as vibrant as we found when we reviewed the Google Nexus S with its Super AMOLED display. However, the HTC ChaCha’s screen still shouldn’t leave anyone wanting in that department.
Below all of this can be found one of the best hardware QWERTY keypads we’ve ever used for its size. The keys are responsive, easy to click even with our clumsy thumbs, and offer a good range of symbols and numbers via the fn key. If the symbol you’re after isn’t there then don’t fret; you can bring up a larger list on the screen and select one with a quick tap. We must say that we still prefer a landscape slider keyboard for typing like the one we found on the HTC Desire Z, as our fingers tend to be on the larger side. But for a portrait keypad on a device of this design we were definitely impressed.
We were a little confused as to the purpose of the green and red buttons between the keypad and screen. These buttons act exactly as the call and hang-up buttons did on older style phones. But with the range of functionality and ease of the touchscreen display we couldn’t see the difference between tapping the screen and tapping one of these buttons, but more on these (and the dedicated Facebook button) later.
The keypad is also at a noticeable angle to the display and capacitive keys above. At first it looked puzzling, but soon the advantages of this design became clear. Not only is the screen prevented from direct contact with a table when face-down, but the phone is actually more easily held when typing. We also discovered that the ChaCha was noticeably more comfortable in our pockets than some other phones we’ve tested, despite its extra girth. This is because the curved design sat well against the thigh, instead being pushed just slightly out from it.
Power and UI
The HTC ChaCha sports a single-core 800MHz processor and 512MB of RAM. It's not an impressive spec sheet but it's still easily sufficient to handle the day-to-day business of a casual device like this running Android 2.3.3. Sadly there isn’t a 2.3.4 update just yet, as that would give access to GTalk video chat (Android’s answer to FaceTime), but that’s no big deal and with HTC’s current track record we expect it to arrive in the not too distant future.
Battery life is a bit of a mixed bag with the ChaCha. We found that, because of the small screen, we often got a fantastic amount of time between recharges at regular medium to heavy use; sometimes close to 2 days. However, once you start getting used to all of the great little Facebook integrations battery strength takes a sharp nose dive. The sheer amount of 3G connectivity required to use this phone to its full potential often left us looking for a charger before a single day’s end. This was mostly due to the fact that the Facebook integration is so tight that we often forgot we were even on the internet, especially when using Facebook chat.
As always we were happy with HTC’s Sense UI on this device. Although it was a bit cramped on the 2.6 inch screen we were surprised to find that not too much of the touchscreen functionality was missing. Yes, there was less space on the home pages for icons and someone with poor vision might have trouble reading some of the characters, but on the whole we didn’t find it too limiting.
As far as Facebook integration goes the HTC ChaCha did just about everything we wanted from the INQ Cloud Touch. The main Home Screen sports a central widget that displays the most recent update to your Facebook news feed. Two swipes to the right takes you past a very standard HTC Home Screen and to a dedicated Facebook chat widget. This widget shows all of your online and idle friends for Facebook chat and allows you to easily speak to any of them at a tap. Moreover, the HTC ChaCha will notify its user with a Facebook chat alert for any incoming messages, just as if an SMS had been received. We often found ourselves chatting away over Facebook and forgetting that we weren’t communicating via traditional cost-per-message texts. The alerts did become a little annoying when we were chatting on a computer, as every subsequent message would be met with an alert. This is an issue that needs addressing, but we got used to throwing the phone on silent after the first notification each time and after a while it stopped bothering us.
One more screen to the right is the Agenda widget, which also takes up an entire screen. The Agenda widget notifies you of all your upcoming Facebook events and Facebook friends’ birthdays in a continuous stream. It also threads in every appointment you personally add to your phone’s Google calendar, which is fantastic. Alternatively, it adds every Facebook appointment and birthday to your Google calendar, in case you prefer using a more standard PDA system.
The lock screen is downright fantastic. When going to unlock the phone there are 5 simple options, none of which clutter up the process to make it more complicated. For just the standard unlock swipe your finger upwards. Your fingertip will capture a small ring and drag it on to the screen. Let go at any time to unlock.
There are also 4 icons on the screen: Phone, Messages, Mail and Camera. By grabbing any of these icons and dragging them down in to the aforementioned ring the user can immediately be granted access to any of these functions. This is especially great if you need to take a fast photo. Going straight in to the camera app without having to mess around through the home screens saves valuable seconds during which a great photo op could be lost. Each of the other icons (Phone, Messages and Mail) individually shows how many notifications there are for themselves. This is also handy as it shows accurate and important information at a simple glance, rather than having to find out what you’ve missed by unlocking the phone.
Other than that it’s a pretty straight forward Android interface with simple menus and an Applications section. However, with some of the apps themselves the ChaCha can run in to a minor problem.
Apps and Web Browsing
Any app designed to be solely used in portrait mode, obviously, stays in portrait mode on the ChaCha. Unfortunately this means operating the device length ways, with a now useless keypad sticking out to the side. This makes apps like Words With Friends understandably annoying. It also means that the app itself is tiny and could be difficult to read unless you have 20/20 vision.
Web browsing was speedy but definitely suffered from the smaller screen. An extraordinary amount of scrolling became involved just to read a single web page, which lead to another problem. With such a small screen the normal scroll motion we’ve become used to often caused us to overshoot the display and swipe straight on to the capacitive Back button. Being that there is no tactile barrier between the screen and buttons we found this infuriatingly easy to do. It’s the kind of problem that would go away as we became more accustomed to the handset and users shouldn’t have any problems after they’ve become acclimatised but it’s still something we felt worth mentioning.
Browser speed was standard; fast in some places and not in others. We found it to be equal to most other phones we’ve used, especially when we deactivated the Flash player.
3 Puzzling Buttons
As previously mentioned, the HTC ChaCha has 3 puzzling buttons on it.
The green call button is one such key. It seems to have no point to its existence. Pressing it brings up the call screen, which is great until you realise that you have a hardware keyboard below with numbers on it. Simply start dialing and the process starts anyway.
The red hang-up button acts as another Home button. We have no problem with this, except that HTC included a standard capacitive Home Button just below the screen. The red button also denies an incoming call, which can be done on the screen anyway.
The last and most puzzling of all is the dedicated Facebook button below the keyboard. This button has been a defining feature of the device in both reviews and in advertising campaigns. The general idea is that, depending on what you’re doing with the handset, the Facebook phone has different uses.
For example, if I were in any of the regular menus or Home Screen I would tap this button and be able to write a status update immediately. If I had just taken a photo I could press this button to upload it to Facebook. It’s a great idea, right? The problem is that it doesn’t work.
Never once when we tried to make use of this button did our changes affect anything. Not a single status update we wrote via this feature ever made it to Facebook and not a single picture we tried to upload did either. If we used the Facebook app, however, everything was fine and dandy. We even checked other reviews to see if we were just doing it wrong and found the same problem across the web. It’s amazing how HTC would have managed to get something this device-defining so wrong.
That being said we didn’t really find that it detracted from the overall experience of the device; it just perplexed us somewhat.
Camera and Media on the HTC ChaCha
The 5MP camera on the HTC ChaCha is also very much what we’ve come to expect. Photo quality is great during the day and in high light, but can suffer towards the later ours and during night time. The LED flash helps out here, obviously, and still photos still turn out quite well. Photos of fast moving objects or people in low light or with the flash can come out a bit blurry, but that’s no different than the industry current standard.
Video capture also comes out well and suffers from similar problems, although it does struggle a bit more with fast movements or sudden jolts to the device. However, this is once again in keeping with other 5MP cameras on the market.
The media player is great and hasn’t changed too much from earlier iterations of HTC Sense. Music plays through an easy UI, as do movies and podcasts. There’s not much else to say here, as the smartphone market seems to have nailed the media playing aspect a couple of generations ago and the HTC ChaCha is no exception.
The WhistleOut Opinion
All in all we really enjoyed our time with the HTC ChaCha. Interfacing was responsive and smooth with a clear screen and intuitive menues. For such a small screened device it didn’t seem to face as many limitations when it came to multimedia as some other models do, either. Browsing was affected but not too frustratingly so once we stopped hitting the Back button all the time and text/emailing was a dream.
The Facebook integration was absolutely fantastic, especially the Chat and Agenda widgets. Battery life was a bit concerning and we would like to illicit caution in that department as it’s very easy to get carried away with a device like this.
All up we’d have to say the biggest weakness was portrait-locked apps, which could sometimes be almost unusable due to the smaller screen. Avid movie watchers might also be a little disappointed with the small screen, but we didn’t have too many problems with it.
Otherwise we’d certainly recommend the HTC ChaCha to anyone looking for a low-end phone with a QWERTY keypad, even those who couldn’t care less about Facebook. However, if Facebook integration sounds like your thing then there’s even more reason to give the ChaCha a go. Any customer who fits this description should at least take a look at the HTC ChaCha when next they’re in the market to compare.