CategoryPhones

Review: HTC ChaCha

“It’s a Facebook BlackBerry”: my answer to the almost inevitable “what the hell is that?” question I’d get every time I pulled out the HTC ChaCha to check my email or get some directions. I took the ChaCha with me to the USA recently as my local phone. That’s my M.O. as a gadget guy: one phone with a local prepay SIM card, one with my kiwi SIM card.

HTC ChaChaThe ChaCha is an eye-catching little phone. Stark white and brushed aluminium, with a broken-looking bend in the middle, this is the device you want to carry if you enjoy people asking about your phone. The hardware qwerty makes it look a bit BlackBerry, but the HTC Sense UI on the touchscreen is very recognisably Android. It’s a little bit disconcerting, but it works.

This is a definitely Facebook phone. There’s a dedicated f-button below the keyboard that is context sensitive and lights up to prompt you when it’s time to book some faces. For examples:

  • When browsing the web, the f-button lights up. Clicking it will prompt you for a comment and share the URL and comment on your timeline.
  • When taking photos, the f-button lights up. Clicking it will share the photo on your timeline.

It all works jolly well if you’re an avid facebookalist. For people like me – I’m more of a twerp – I’d hope someone could hack the f-button to drop the f-bomb. That way I could just tap it to add tasty flavour to my tweets. And on that note, the included HTC Twitter app is adequate. It’s a bit stupid in that replying to direct messages has you composing a public reply, but otherwise it’s serviceable. Avid tweeple would be better off installing an alternative twittering application.

It’s Android 2.3 under the covers, which is a Good Thing. 2.3 means smooth scrolling, fast performance, and good memory management. It also comes with the accoutrements you expect from a late-model Android: GPS, WiFi hotspot function, multiple home screens, and all the other jazz.

If you’ve read my Android reviews in the past, you’ll know I’m not a fan of OEM add-ons to Android. Google built Android pretty well (version 2.2+ at least), so it bothers me that OEMs layer their crapware on top of a perfectly good OS. However, in this case, HTC’s already competent Sense UI makes a huge amount of sense (punny!). Sense takes the ChaCha’s unusual screen dimensions into account, and provides the user with a bunch of widgets (weather, clocks, Facebook, etc.) that work really well with the layout. Google’s first-party apps (e.g. Maps, Gmail, contacts) also work well on the smaller screen.

Third party apps on this device are hit and miss. The screen must report itself to Android as a landscape layout, rather than a wide portrait. This means that apps like the (otherwise excellent) IRB Rugby World Cup app, or Vodafone’s pre-installed MyAccount app are displayed small and in landscape mode. There’s no way that I could find to rotate them to portrait. The only option was to turn the phone sideways and get tapping on the touchscreen. Workable, but side-tappin’ is going to catch on like N-gage side-talkin’ did. A lot of other apps (e.g. Twitter, Seesmic) display in correct orientation with reduced vertical screen real-estate.

The hardware is HTC-quality. Super solid, no creaks or wobbles, and lovely in the hand. The keyboard is really clicky. I’ve become adjusted to the super light touch of capacitive touchscreen keyboards, so found myself typing pretty slowly on the ChaCha’s keys. I’m sure they’ll become smoother with time, and would be better for someone coming from another device with a hardware keyboard.

Conclusion

It’s a really nice piece of hardware with solid software. If you need a qwerty and love your Facebook, this could be your phone. The only deal-breaker might be if your favourite Android app doesn’t render properly on the screen.

You can grab it from Vodafone for $599, or less with a plan.

If there are any particular apps you want me to test on it, just ask in the comments.

2Degrees Huawei IDEOS X5 Review

2Degrees Huawei X5I’m confused. On the one hand we have Vodafone pimping the Samsung Galaxy S, an Android 2.1 phone hobbled with Samsung’s custom interface. On the other hand (in my actual hand), I have the IDEOS X5 from 2Degrees. It runs the all-but-latest Android 2.2, with almost identical specs to the Samsung. The Samsung is a thousand dollars. The X5 is $549.

To be fair, the Galaxy S has a faster processor and larger screen, but in complete honesty I prefer the feel, performance, and price of the X5 by a long way. This cements my opinion that Google’s Android OS is properly suited to phones around that $500 mark. If you’re spending $1000, just get an iPhone (or wait till later this year and get a Nokia WP7).

I’ve had the X5 in my pocket for the last few days, giving it a real workout. The bottom line is that this is one of the best Android devices I’ve used. It feels a lot better in the hand than many other phones. It has a better “heft”, and feels a lot more solid than the Galaxy. The build quality is up there with the Nexus One – there’s no wobbles, creaks, or alignment problems. The back has a nice soft-feeling matte finish, and the front is the fairly traditional monolithic glass screen with soft-buttons below the screen.

The X5 flips through all the regular expected smartphone shenanigans with speed and aplomb. Android users will know they need to install a bunch of apps, and dig around in the settings to turn on things like transitions and live wallpaper, but once you’ve got the phone set up to your liking, it really flies.

2Degrees have done a very good thing, in my opinion, by rejecting Huawei’s custom interface baubles. The customisation of the phone out of the box extends only to a few installed applications. Swype keyboard is there by default – I personally prefer the default Android keyboard, but some people swear by Swype. You also get Documents To Go (for editing office documents), Aldiko (for e-books), and Layar (for showing off). Other than that, this default Android build gets out of your way and leaves the user to make decisions about what they want the interface to look like.

All the great Google apps are built into the phone, including the voice commands and voice navigation feature. I have to say the voice commands didn’t really like my kiwi accent, but the navigation was very accurate when driving across Auckland. Initially I couldn’t find the settings for Android 2.2’s much publicised WiFi hotspot function, so I put in a call to the PR company to ask about it. They politely informed me that within the PR material (that I never read, but really should), was a note saying that hotspot functionality will be coming in a software update by the end of May 2011.

Upgrades?

It’s the question every Android user has to ask: will I get the new versions of Android? I can only say that I have no idea. I could imagine Huawei releasing 2.3 for this device, but then again at the price they may not want to pour much post-release support into it. Watch this space.

It’s not all roses

It wouldn’t be a review without finding flaws, but they really are rather minor.

Firstly, you need to know that Huawei don’t ship MicroSD cards with their phones. This is something widely discussed in the comments on my review of 2Degrees’ previous Android phone, so I thought I’d better point it out up front. If you have a lot of music or photos, add $50 to your budget to grab a 16GB MicroSD.

There’s one thing that I’d call a genuine (albeit minor) flaw in the X5:  the soft-buttons are meant to light up in low-light conditions, but I think the threshold needs some serious tweaking, or perhaps my test phone is broken. Most of the time the buttons are not lit up, and they are really quite hard to spot in dim indoor light. I can prove it’s a sensitivity issue by covering the light-sensor area at the top of the phone – the buttons dutifully light up nice and clear when all light is blocked to the phone. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a setting to make the buttons light up in less ambient light. It really is a minor issue, because the buttons work fine in all conditions, and you get used to their location after a few days (although you’ll have to memorise the specific locations when moving from another Android phone 😉 )

Conclusion

I’d seriously doubt if you can get a better non-imported phone in New Zealand for the price. If you want a fully supported phone from a local supplier, and you’re not an iFanboy or Windows Phone 7 weenie, you couldn’t really go wrong grabbing an X5.

Pros

  • The price!
  • Vanilla Android 2.2, no crapware
  • Build quality

Cons

  • Soft-buttons don’t always light up when required.
  • Probably no upgrades to 2.3 or above.

Windows Phone 7: An Alternate View

Fanboy, while poorly defined, is probably the most common among the many pejoratives flung my way by coprophagous  internet monkeys. Despite my teflon exterior, some of that shit sticks, yo. In pursuit of some balance, I’ve lent a Windows Phone 7 device to Dylan Reeve. You may have heard him as a guest on New Zealand’s best podcast, or via his A Social Video project. Dylan is a fellow tech geek, but doesn’t really hold a phone preference. Forced at gunpoint, he’d probably admit to batting for the Android team.

Once I get the phone back from Dylan, I’m going to find a less geeky subject to join us on the precarious see-saw of internet opinion, because God knows you’ll only be happy when I’m suspended in mid-air, unable to climb down for fear of injuring the poor delicate Android users on the other end.

Without further dalliance, let me hand over to Dylan, unedited and unabridged:

My smartphone experience is a little different to many others – I started with a Nokia 5800, then moved through two Android phones in reasonably quick succession. My main phone now is a Samsung Galaxy i5503, which is a entry-level Android 2.1 phone.

So with that in mind I’ve been an interested observer of Windows Phone 7, and was happy to spend a little while rocking the LG Optimus 7Q. What follows are my thoughts about the phone, itself, Windows Phone 7 and, unavoidably, my comparison of it to the Android and Symbian phones I’ve been used to.

My very first impression of this phone upon using it seriously was that it’s heavy, and pretty big compared to my current small phone. It’s also well engineered – despite having a sliding keyboard it feels solid and well built.

I’d have to characterise my overall Windows Phone 7 experience as frustrating. I like many aspect of the concept of the operating system, but in practice there were many things that annoyed me.

So first, we’ll start with what I do like (some of this will also be revisited in the “don’t like” section)

  • User Interface – The overall Windows Phone 7 UI is consistent and uses common gestures and concepts throughout, this even extends into many of the apps.
  • Design Concept – WP7 has a bold design. Square, two-colour, large strong sans-serif fonts. I like the way it looks.
  • Good Core Applications – The built-in apps such as email, browser, calendar, messaging are all well designed and easy to use. I felt no need to seek alternatives.
  • Dedicated Buttons – I hate Apple’s anti-button ethos, using the iPad annoys the hell out of me for having just one useful button! The WP7 back button is especially welcome. Camera and search buttons are also nice.
  • Camera – The camera was great, as well as nice 5MP stills it will also record pretty decent 720P video.
  • Keyboard – The LG Optimus 7Q has a slide-out keyboard. It’s a nice feature.

Now on to what I didn’t like so much

  • Speed – Despite having better hardware that all the phones I’ve owned previously this phone constantly felt slow. Coming out of lock especially, but also within apps.
  • No Multitasking – I thought MS was mental when I heard WP7 was not going to have multitasking. I was willing to believe application hooks and saved state might make it okay – it doesn’t.
  • Search Button – I like that is has the button, I don’t like the implementation on this phone. As a touch-button it’s easy to accidentally hit (especially while using the camera) and it dumps you out of what you were doing and into Bing.
  • Apps – It’s still early days of course, but there doesn’t seem to be a huge variety of apps in the Marketplace. I tried all the free fully-featured Twitter apps (only 4) and none really suited me.
  • Unintuitive – Despite the common swipe-to-next-page convention throughout the system it’s not always intuitive or obvious that what you’re looking for requires a swipe to the left.
  • Settings – One of my favourite things in Android is the ‘Menu’ button, it is used within apps to display a contextual menu, which will usually include access to settings. There’s no similar convention in WP7. It can be hard to find settings, or impossible from deeper in the app.
  • Status – There’s no persistent status bar. In many apps it seems to be impossible to see battery status, signal level and time. Sometimes it can be revealed with a downward swipe, but not always.
  • Design Concept – It’s good, but it quickly gets broken.
  • Keyboard – It’s good that it has a keyboard, but the physical design isn’t quite right. The Shift and Function keys especially are awkward and small.

That’s the summary. There are obviously heaps of little details, so I’ll go into a few things, mainly about the things I struggled with.

We’ll start with Multitasking, it was my biggest issue. I’ve been used to be able to effortlessly switch apps in my various smartphones, as well as leave applications running in the background (Twitter as an obvious example). While most apps seem to do a good job of saving state, there is significant startup times usually. For example to get from browser to the my Twitter timeline in Beez (the client I used most) would take no less than 8 seconds plus however long it would take to actually load the stream.

Which brings me on to speed – I don’t know why, but everything seemed slow. It takes a while to load apps, and then often a while to draw the user interface stuff, and then a while longer to populate it. I’m fairly sure hardware wasn’t an issue, but not sure what is going on in the OS that made it so slow.

The design concept of Windows Phone 7 really stands out in the shiny-curvy design of most other mobile platforms. It’s bold and simple. The primary pinned application icons are white line-art on a solid background, and the background accent colour can be changed. But that’s doesn’t last long – very few apps seem to conform to this idea, and as soon as you start pinning third-party apps to the homescreen you end up with a multi-colour patchwork. Even the core setup breaks this – Microsoft’s XBox Live and Office icons flout the style.

So? I like it in theory, and it’s a very capable platform overall, but for me it just wasn’t quite right – the balance of like vs. frustrate didn’t pan out. Perhaps new versions may improve some of these issues?

Telecom Motorola Backflip: A Pocketable Trainwreck

A funny thing happened today. The Motorola Backflip appeared, unannounced, at my door, with a note from Telecom. It said something about a four-week loan and added:
[quote]We’d love to know what you think of the Backflip, and would appreciate your feedback via your media channels, social media or otherwise.[/quote]
Sure. I’ll let you know what I think: this phone is a piece of trash. It’s a pocketable train wreck, as @Polarbearfarm suggested. Do I sound angry? I am.

It starts with the proud announcement from Telecom that the phone is “powered by Google’s Android 1.5 operating system”. Would that be the 18 month old 1.5 release that performs horribly, doesn’t support WPA-Enterprise WiFi and will only be upgraded at Motorola’s whim? Android 1.5 is a blight on the smartphone landscape and it is shameful that carriers are still foisting this bullshit on unsuspecting buyers.

Then you turn the phone on, and unbelievably it gets worse. Motorola demands that you register with their MotoBlur service. The phone is a worthless brick until you hand over an email address and password to Motorola. You can’t hit the home screen or make a phonecall. And why? So you can hand further information to Motorola by tying your Twitter, Facebook, and other social media accounts to MotoBlur. It doesn’t even use third-party OAuth to do so, it asks for your passwords in the clear, with no warning.

And the hardware: the keyboard is clunky, the performance anemic, and the stupid touchpad on the back of the screen is impossible to use and emits random click events as you use it.

I’m really, really sorry Telecom, but I just can’t in good conscience recommend this phone to anyone. I’m surprised it came to me outside of the regular PR channels. Maybe they were too ashamed? It’s the comedy smartphone option for stupid people. Save yourself $300 and get the IDEOS from 2Degrees.

2Degrees Huawei IDEOS U8150 Review

ideos The way I read it, 2Degrees’ main target market is the younger pre-pay user. They’re not (yet) looking for corporate accounts or sophisticated high-end smartphone users. In this sense, the IDEOS U8150 is a great fit as their first smartphone: capable, not going to stun the geeks, but priced well for the market.

At $379 outright, you can’t expect the U8150 to compete with the iPhone 4 or top-end android phones, but it performs admirably. I think this is largely down to the unmodified Android 2.2 version that Huawei have loaded on the phone. Even with a 528MHz CPU, the U8150 performs almost snappily. In fact in places it out-performs a full-price Android smartphone running 2.1 with layers of OEM cruft.

It still has that classic Android UI lag, with the screen running a few milliseconds behind your thumb. But the thing is, I’m ok with that for the price. When I pay near-on $1000 for a phone, I want it to feel like an iPhone or Windows Phone under my thumb. But for $379? I’ll accept feature-phone performance and smartphone features.

Features? We got Features!

Another huge plus of vanilla Android 2.2 “with Google” is you’re guaranteed to get all the things you’d expect from Android. Apps, maps, email, contact sync, navigation, active wallpaper. It’s all right there out of the box. Which is frankly amazing for the price. This phone even does some stuff that the iPhone 4 can’t do: it has WiFi tethering and FM Radio.

I like Huawei’s approach with this device. Step away from the forking customisations that HTC, Sony, Samsung, and others seem so enamored by, and just run the device the way Google planned. And Huawei are no slouches either: apparently their network gear is behind the networks that serve more than a billion humans.

So what are you compromising by not spending $500 more? Two key things: screen size and upgrades. The screen is tiny, and the on-screen keyboard is just adequate at the size. If you txt and email a lot, play with one first to make sure you’re comfortable.

The lack of upgrades will be a concern for the geek-set: Huawei have categorically stated that this phone won’t be getting Android 3.0. I don’t know if that also means no other 2.x versions, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve dropped the facility for upgrades altogether. Again: no real drama for the target market, because 2.2 doesn’t lack features (like 1.x) or performance (like 2.1).

One-upmanship

Vodafone tried to pull one over 2Degrees by dropping their 845 Android phone to $199. Thing is, the 845 is really at the level of a throwaway phone, or perhaps just barely valid as an emergency backup for smartphone users. A resistive touch screen and Android 2.1 on slow hardware is just a recipe for pain and anguish. Comparing the devices side-by-side, you can see a couple of other places the 845 falls short: no FM radio, no 802.11n (but it does have a headphone plug too).

Do yourself a favour and stretch to the IDEOS if you’re looking for a cheap Android phone.

Conclusion

I can’t believe how good the kids have it these days. When I was a young scallywag I had to pair a Nokia phone with an iPaq (that’s a Q there, not a D) over infrared.

Pros:

  • Did I mention the price?
  • Vanilla Android 2.2
  • Capacitive touch screen
  • Coloured backs for cool kids

Cons:

  • Screen size and resolution (ok for price though)
  • No upgrades to Android 3

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