The second “Facebook phone” from HTC, and launched in tandem with the HTC Salsa, is the HTC ChaCha. It’s strange name for a phone that is something of a strange Android device, offering a format we haven’t seen much of from the Google OS. We can’t knock it for offering customers choice, but how will Android cope on the touch type device and will teenagers/business folk be keen to ditch their beloved BlackBerry for a little ChaCha?
HTC know how to make phones, so it should come as no surprise that the HTC ChaCha is lovingly crafted. The most distinctive design element is that slight angle to the body, a nod to the “chin” of many HTC handsets, but means that you can bash away on the keyboard and view the screen comfortably at the same time.
The phone is constructed from metals and plastic, giving a nice combination of materials and an attractive design. In terms of size it is slimmer than the BlackBerry Bold at 10.7mm; the ChaCha is marginally larger than the Bold overall, with a wider spaced keyboard offering up individual keys.
Across the bottom of the display are the normal touch controls for home, menu, back and search, with the volume rocker and standby/lock buttons falling into their regular places. Unlike the HTC Salsa there is no camera button, but you do get two hard calling buttons beneath the display, meaning you can answer calls and hang-up without having to touch the screen.
Then we have that Facebook button, which is perched beneath the keyboard, a little too prominently, emphasising the fact that this phone is a little bit different. The HTC ChaCha isn’t just a phone with a Facebook button though, as it’s the first candy-bar Android device with a full QWERTY keyboard that we’ve seen from HTC and seen running HTC Sense.
The keyboard itself feels great to use, with a nice positive action to each key and a nice clean, slightly tactile, finish. The size and spacing is mostly fine and if you’re coming from a BlackBerry keyboard you’ll be up to speed in minutes. It offers four rows of keys so gives you the full QWERTY run down, with each main character key getting an alternate number or symbol. Some punctuation gets its own key, so comma, full stop and question mark are each just one button press away, which is handy in daily use.
You also get offered cursor keys, which although small, provide a modicum of control that you’d otherwise miss. You can use the cursors to leaf through the homepages, so if you have a run of widgets you can switch back and forth to keep yourself updated. You can scroll up and down some lists, with the return key doubling as “ok”, but this is where the experience starts to come unstuck.
Much of the cursor control will be dependent on the app recognising what you are trying to do. In most cases, you’ll have to select the list to scroll up and down, but dive into messages, for example, and you’ll be able go head down the list on conversations and press return to open up the one you want to continue. It will depend on the app you have open as to the options the cursor movement gives you.
But the thing that we don’t understand is the allocation of functions to the main keys. You press and you get the primary character, but a long press just gives you repeated characters. Surely a press and hold should offer you caps, or the alternative character? It means you’ll spend a great deal of time diving over to the shift and Fn buttons when typing. If you are going to be using the ChaCha to write “properly” (and by that we mean serious emails, etc., rather than casual Facebook posting) then you’ll be hampered by this - unlike a BlackBerry which caters very well for these sorts of controls.
But there are some inherent benefits to the buttons too. Start typing from the homescreen and you are effectively already searching People, the phone returning either phone numbers or names as you type. It isn’t as smart as the universal search you’ll find on recent BlackBerry models, but it is more direct than opening the dialler and searching for the contact you want.
There are some other shortcuts on the keyboard which make use of the function button. The camera shortcut works reliably although more than once we launched the camera rather than placing a fullpoint in an email (they share the same key). The spacebar sees itself with a settings icon, but we couldn’t get this to respond.
One key we had particular problems with was the W key. It shares itself with the number 1 and the shortcut for voicemail. We often found when entering text that we had to press W two or three times to get a response. We didn’t notice it to be a problem with other letters, but it’s a fairly common letter we wanted to work when writing emails, whether work-related or wasting time waiting for the W15 bus. You get the point.
Miss a letter and you’ll have to go back and insert it, although you can opt for predictive suggestions. Predictive text of course appears on the screen and that means you lose a little more space, but it might be a useful addition if you are prone to mistakes.
In general terms everything on the HTC ChaCha runs very nicely. The HTC Sense side of things works well enough and the keyboard we’ve already detailed: it has some minor flaws, but on the whole it is a good experience. Other apps don’t fair so well because you lose the space to control them as accurately. At least once you enter an app the physical keyboard means you’re not fighting for screen space like you might be on some small-screen devices, and in most cases, hitting the search icon means you don’t have to fight to find that search text box.
Android Market, for example, which will serve you up a fair selection of Android apps for you to enjoy, is positively minuscule on the ChaCha. To some extent it's great to see these apps presented in such tiny fine detail, but at the same time, you can't help but think it wasn't ever intended to be viewed like this.
Dealing with the Internet is another problem. The small screen means that cruising around websites is a bit of a pain. You’ll do a lot of zooming in and out to be able to read, and we often found ourselves flipping the phone sideways and re-flowing the text to be able to read things. It’s not the fully engaging internet experience that larger devices offer and that’s a fact you’ll have to live with if you choose a small screened device like this.
Internally the HTC ChaCha finds itself with the same Qualcomm MSM7227 processor clocked at 800MHz as we saw in the Salsa. You get 512MB ROM and RAM and these specs really set the phone out as a mid range handset. There is a microSD card slot in the back for memory expansion. As such, there are limitations to what it will do, but given that the screen is small, you’re probably less bothered about the lack of Flash support or the inability to chow through HD video files. You’ll probably not be worried about the fact that you don’t get the network streaming elements that are found on more powerful HTC devices either.
In reality, we found that the HTC ChaCha was stable and ran smoothly whilst we were testing it. It doesn't have the snap to the user interface that the top-tier phones do, but it isn't sluggish like some older handsets were. It’s also a really comfortable phone for calling on, the slight curve fitting your face. We found that calls came across loud and clear, and in combination with those dedicated calling buttons, it’s a great phone for making a lot of calls on.
Making a lot of calls isn’t great for the phone however, because it sees itself saddled with a 1250mAh battery. This means the life of the device is surprisingly short and on busy days we found ourselves having to charge it during the day. In terms of battery life we found that its sibling, the HTC Salsa, was better.