Review: HTC ChaCha

Our score: 3/5
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July 7, 2011 10:12 AM
 
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Published: July 5, 2011 11:00 PM
By Romain Thuret
The world's first Facebook phone has got its work cut out: HTC is hoping that it will attract younger customers to the brand and help it shed its geeky image.

Along the way, the manufacturer is hoping to steal some market share from the BlackBerry, much loved by teenage customers for its BBM instant messaging app and the physical keyboard that makes it so easy to use.

 

HTC ChaCha review


HTC's target audience is 18-24 year olds obsessed with texting and Facebook.  To win them over, it has a full-size physical keyboard, an up-to-the-minute communications system—and that Facebook button, which is a long way from being a simple shortcut to the site itself.  Instead, it opens a window on a very rich interaction between the mobile phone and the social networking site.

HTC ChaCha review test

The HTC ChaCha has a wide 2.6'' display, an 800 MHz Qualcomm CPU, 512 MB of memory and support for b/g/n WiFi.  The main camera takes pics at 5 Megapixels with the help of an LED flash, while there's a VGA webcam at the front for video calling.  The handset has a microSD card slot and version 2.1 of the HTC Sense interface.

HTC ChaCha review - back casing

Design and build

When HTC first revealed the ChaCha earlier this year at Barcelona's Mobile World Congress, our impressions were rather mixed as the handset felt a little too cheap and cheerful.

The finished version in aluminium and soft-touch plastic with a distinctive curved profile, however, is very well put together, although the white façade might still put some people off.

We've seen easier ways to get access to SIM card and microSD card slots than by removing the case and then the battery.

HTC ChaCha review - SIM card and battery

The full-size physical keyboard has everything you need, right down to buttons for answering and rejecting calls.  The buttons are very sensitive and as impressive as the very best we've seen on BlackBerrys from RIM.

The four touch-sensitive buttons found on all HTC smartphones are lined up underneath the display, while the Facebook button takes pride of place set apart from the keyboard at the bottom.  It starts to flash whenever you can do something with Facebook.  The only way to wake the phone up is via the power button on the top edge.

HTC ChaCha review - Facebook button

It's easy to learn your way around the phone, and the keyboard shortcuts are very handy: press and hold for the full stop key for a second, for instance, and you'll launch the camera.

The ChaCha's inward-curving profile means you can always see both the screen and what you're typing without having to lean forward or strain your wrist.  It only takes a few minutes of chatting online to see why that's a good idea.

Screen

The ChaCha's wide display only works in portrait mode.  It's a little shiny, but has enough contrast for market segment, with an average contrast ratio of 627:1.

Its deltaE peaks at 9.0, but the primary colours are all below 5.0, meaning it can reproduce colours just as accurately as many high-end smartphones.  Overall, the picture is too light and has a blue tinge, as is common on entry-level mobile devices.  Other phones have wider viewing angles, but given both the small size of the screen and its angled positioning, the effects aren't too noticeable in everyday usage.

Interface and multimedia

The ChaCha comes with HTC Sense 2.1.  We won't bore you with the details, as we've already described the interface when reviewing recent HTC handsets, with the exception of the Sensation, which has the new version, Sense 3.0.  All of the tools, widgets and gadgets that we like from Sense have been resized and adapted for the ChaCha's smaller, wider display.

The web experience is about average for a recent smartphone: it's not too fast and not too slow, and is helped along by the shape of the display.  Individual characters are often quite small though, which means a lot of zoom.

HTC ChaCha review - web browser test

Let's have at the ChaCha's unique selling point: the Facebook button, which users can use to interact with the site from various points within the interface.  If you press it while looking at the homescreen, your wall pops up and you can update your status.  Alternatively, you can comment on the status of a Facebook friend.

Pressing and holding the button launches the Places app, which will geolocate you and allow you to check in.

HTC ChaCha review
 
If you press the Facebook button instead of the usual camera controls, then, after confirmation, you can take a photo that's posted directly on your wall or on a friend's.  

It would have been nice to see the system taken even further: why not post a link on Facebook to the YouTube video you're watching on the ChaCha for example?  At the end of the day, the dedicated button has its uses but HTC could have taken it much further.

HTC ChaCha review typing

For multimedia, this is ultimately an Android phone with a Sense interface, leaving room for MP3 and MP4 formats.  If you're looking to play a wider range of media files, you'll want to download an alternative player from the Android Market.

Photos taken by the camera are far from perfect and we've often see 5 Megapixel cameraphones do much better than this.  The photos are neutral, but lacking in detail and the slow shutter release means you have to have pretty steady hand to get something sharp.
 
HTC ChaCha review camera test
HTC ChaCha review photo and video camera

Compare the HTC ChaCha other smartphones in our Product Face-Off

It sounds just about perfect for Facebook photos then!

Battery Life

How can we put this?  If you want to go after RIM with a smartphone with a physical keyboard to power long online chat sessions, you better make sure you have the battery life to match.

Alas, the ChaCha only has a 1250 mAh battery which is quick to charge but empties inside five hours of active use.  That's a lot less than a whole day of communication, which makes it hard to compete with the Curve which can regularly claim two whole days.

We're not sure that HTC's target audience is ready to charge their mobile at their desk everyday or carry around a charger like iPhone, Sensation or Optimus users are forced to.


The ChaCha is a mix of good intentions and deliberate opportunism.  Its Facebook button gives users new ways of accessing the number one social networking site, but the concept hasn't been pushed very far, leaving interactivity falling frustratingly short of the mark in many cases.  We would love to have been able to combine Facebook with other Android/HTC apps, for instance.

Another big problem is the battery life, which is really too limited to face up to HTC's unspoken enemy.  The ChaCha might just appeal to its target audience, as long as it's paired with a good data plan for Facebook chat and users can get over not using BBM.  The phone has some good ideas and HTC is a resourceful player, so let's see how things develop.
 
3/5 HTC ChaCha DigitalVersus 2011-07-06 00:00:00

Pros

  • Facebook button is genuinely useful
  • Full size keyboard is easy to use
  • HTC Sense is as handy as ever
  • Form factor makes typing easy
  • Good quality finish

Cons

  • Interaction with Facebook could be taken much further
  • Battery life totally unacceptable given the target audience
  • Poor quality photos
  • Screen is small with unsatisfactory display quality
  • Audio quality could be improved

Conclusion

The HTC ChaCha is an interesting concept but it could be taken much further. It should already be able to win over teenager Facebook fans who haven't yet been sucked in by BlackBerry and who enjoy both its distinctive look and its full-size keyboard.

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