The HTC ChaCha is shuffling on to shop shelves this month, after a head turning debut at Mobile World Congress in February. Like the HTC Salsa, it’s sporting its very own Facebook button – but with a QWERTY keyboard as well, this one’s aimed squarely at BlackBerry-addicted tweens. Should they cross the floor to Android? Read our full HTC ChaCha review and find out.
UPDATE: Electricpig editor Tom Bailey has reviewed the HTC ChaCha on the Three blog – see what he had to say!
We’ve been calling for more Android phones with portrait QWERTY keyboards for years, and the HTC ChaCha is certainly the finest of this rare breed so far. But if it’s this or a BlackBerry, you’ve got some tough choices to make still. Let’s take a look.
Dig the design?
From the back, you could mistake the HTC ChaCha for any recent touchscreen handset from the Taiwanese phone peddler. From smudge free white to the engraved metal band, it’s packing all the traits of a modern HTC phone, including the slight “lip”. Like the Salsa, it’s not quite unibody, but the flush edges might fool you into thinking it is, and we still love the imposing speaker grille on the front.
HTC’s positioned all the ports in sensible places here, with a wide power/lock button sitting on the top along with a 3.5mm audio jack, and micro USB slot and volume rocker on the left hand side.
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All in all, we’ve got not complaints. While previous BlackBerry-like Android phones from Samsung and Acer felt cheap and tacky, the HTC ChaCha gives off a premium vibe.
A QWERTY keyboard really has to earn its keep if it’s going to hog so much space on a smartphone, and luckily the HTC ChaCha’s delivers.
“Each key is large and symmetrically spaced and arranged, like individual Rice Krispies lined up for execution by your thumbs.”
Each key is large and symmetrically spaced and arranged, like individual Rice Krispies lined up for execution by your thumbs. It’s nice to see the period mark, question mark and comma all have their own keys, and even more of a delight to see HTC’s squeezed in four cursor keys for easy text editing. Make no mistake, you can pick up a tremendously fast pace typing on the HTC ChaCha: in fact, the experience is only bettered by the BlackBerry Bold 9700 and 9780.
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We’re also please to report that typing while on the homescreen automatically triggers shortcuts of names, so instead of labouring through People, you can just type your friend’s alias – something severely lacking on the Samsung Galaxy Pro. On the homescreen, the full stop key also acts as a camera shortcut with a long press, though curiously, the space bar shortcut to Settings never worked for us.
There are no real surprises with the Facebook button. It’s identical to the one on the HTC Salsa, which is welcome, since that also means it’s not remotely obtrusive. Letting the side down however are the call and hang up buttons, needlessly thin keys wasting the space around them – it would be easier to deal with calls on screen.
The 480×320 resolution gives the HTC ChaCha display almost unparalleled crispness. That’s as far as the compliments go however: it’s only so sharp because it’s so damn small.
While you don’t have to type on the screen, thanks to that rather obvious keyboard, it’s small enough to make zooming in and out of web pages a bit of a chore if you have man paws. As for seeing more than a couple of notifications on screen at one time in the drop down task bar? No chance.
The distressing thing is that it feels like it didn’t need to be. There’s acres of space between the screen and the keyboard, with the four capacitive Android buttons (Home, menu, back and search) hogging far too much space. Say what you will about RIM’s BlackBerry OS, the screens on its QWERTY BlackBerrys take up a much great proportion of their front face. HTC would have done well to ditch the call and reject buttons completely, and make the screen larger.
The good news is the HTC ChaCha’s screen is very visible in direct sunlight, unlike most Android phone panels, even if viewing angles are shallow.
If you still don’t know about Android, really, where you have you been? Get yourself over to our Google Nexus S review for the basics on the latest version, Android 2.3 (it’s awesome), then head back here.
Like the HTC Salsa, HTC ChaCha runs a modified version of Android 2.3, with HTC’s “Sense” user interface plastered over the top. It’s been slightly adjust for the wider screen ratio, so you only get five homescreens instead of seven, but it’s plenty to be getting on with, and you can still squeeze plenty of shortcuts and widgets into each.
All your standard apps run (though not Adobe Flash in this case, we’re sorry to say), but you get extra Facebook and Twitter integration with your phonebook contacts, and HTC’s extra apps and widgets.
These aren’t gimmicks however, but tremendously useful. HTC’s Facebook Chat homescreen applet comes into its own on the HTC ChaCha: being able to see who you can talk to you from your homescreen is incredibly convenient, and combined with the keyboard makes for an instant messaging service to rival BlackBerry Messenger.
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Then there’s the Facebook button. It glows whenever you can share something, and can trigger a Facebook Places check-in with a simple long press. This is questionably useful for MP3s (it just shares Amazon links so others can purchase it), but ace for sharing web pages, images and video.
As with the HTC Salsa, the paltry 800MHz processor inside means HTC has left out some of its more taxing apps, including its Locations mapping service, and more tragically, its excellent HTC Watch movie streaming app (Most third party apps run just fine, though you’ll find they run in landscape mode while your phone is upright, because of the ChaCha’s unusual dimensions). That’s the price you pay for a Facebook button, we guess.
We encountered exactly the same problems with the HTC ChaCha’s camera as we did on the Salsa’s – no surprise, since they’re likely to share the same five megapixel sensor. Focusing is poor, and low light performance better described as low light fail. The same applies to the standard resolution video it shoots, which as you can see has real exposure problems:
On the plus side, there’s a front facing camera for video chats, and that Facebook button really does make sharing convenient, especially for videos.
We’ve reached the point where performance no longer seems to be an issue if you’re not paying for the latest and greatest (In this case, the HTC Sensation) – Android is a great leveller in that respect. The 800MHz processor and 512MB of RAM inside the HTC ChaCha are enough to load most apps smoothly, while carrying out other tasks in the background (listening to music, IM), and your only real issues will be the lack of Flash (pity) and stalling or unsupported 3D games. We suspect however, that smooth Angry Birds support (check) to go with that QWERTY keyboard will be more than enough for most people.
Call quality was on a par with most other recent smarpthones we’ve tested: clear enough, if nothing to concern Nokia or Motorola. Battery life on the other hand wasn’t quite up to the HTC Salsa’s impressive benchmarks: the 1250mAh cell powered it through a day of use with all connections and syncing on. If battery life is a must, the 1520mAh HTC Salsa juicer is more likely to see you through twice that time.
The HTC ChaCha is what it is: a great smartphone for its form. The Facebook button is merely an optional bonus, since you can simply choose to ignore it if you wish – though it does make sharing easy.
But while the Salsa instantly earned its spot as one of the very best mid-range smartphones on sale today, the need for the HTC ChaCha is less obvious. In truth, you’re paying for a keyboard here, nothing else, and we’re not quite convinced. That screen really is small, and Android’s only getting bigger. Is that a price you’re willing to pay?