Bucking the trend of skinny black boxes is an endeavour with as many risks as rewards, but HTC takes a punt with the new ChaCha Android smartphone, and we definitely think that it pays off. The screen is a tad small for the purpose, but all in all, the ChaCha is one very well designed smartphone, and one that deserves to be seen up close. From a distance, its two-tone white and grey finish lacks the impact that you get when seeing the handset in your hands. The brushed metal wrap gives this cute phone a premium look and feel, and the pearly white plastic chassis maintains this classy appearance.
The selling point here is the handset's full QWERTY keyboard, positioned below the screen in a BlackBerry-esque layout. HTC also adds dedicated call keys between the keyboard and the capacitive touchscreen display. The keyboard is as well spaced as can be expected in the space provided; the elliptical-shaped keys are taller than they are wide, which allows HTC to separate each button on the keypad. Our clumsy thumbs still struggled to type accurately during our tests, but it does seem like a task that you would improve at with practice.
The ChaCha could really use a trackball.
(Credit: CBS Interactive)
The screen on the ChaCha will be the most divisive element. Its diagonal 3.2-inch size and its landscape orientation make this display feel uncomfortably small, even though the image is sharp and the touchscreen is responsive. This is compounded by the fact that there is no jog-wheel or track pad like you might expect to find on a BlackBerry or similar. Without one, you're left to scroll through long lists and large web pages using the shorter part of the screen. You can use the keyboard for shortcuts, like typing the name of a contact in the address book rather than scrolling down the list to their alphabetic position, but we still really think that the ChaCha would have benefited from a larger screen and some sort of mouse-like input.
The other major downside to the landscape screen orientation is that there are some third-party apps that are locked into portrait-view mode, and will not rotate to fit the screen. Sony's Music Unlimited is one example where you will need to turn either the phone or your head to the side to comfortably queue up your next track. There is an option to auto-rotate third-party apps in the Display menu, but this isn't the fix-all that it really should be. We find it hard to imagine that the HTC quality assurance team didn't pick up on this issue before the phone's release.
If you're familiar at all with the HTC brand, then you'll have heard about its Sense UI, a slick, well-designed user experience common across all HTC Android smartphones. However, while the implementation of Sense is fairly uniform across the Incredible S and the Desire S etc, the ChaCha is a little bit different. Not only does HTC need to accommodate its smaller screen real estate, but also the phone's deep Facebook integration. The result is a clever mix of all of these elements — but a UI that isn't as intuitive as Sense usually is. For example, on the first of six home screens, the lower corners of the screens have fixed onscreen commands for opening the app drawer and entering the personalisation menu; however, these same commands are not present on screens two through six. So if you're checking your calendar on screen four, and decide you want to launch a particular app, you'll need to return to the first home screen before opening the apps drawer.
HTC keeps the screen resolution high on the ChaCha's small display, which in turn keeps the onscreen elements looking sharp, but it also means that all of the icons and text displayed is much smaller than we think is comfortable to read, especially for long stretches of time. Likewise, the app drawer feels cramped, and is difficult to scan quickly when you're looking for a specific app to use. Perhaps this won't be such an issue for the whippersnappers that HTC is trying to attract with the ChaCha, with their small fingers and sharp vision, but we do feel as though HTC could have bolstered the size of the icons, or included an option to magnify the text and images.
Watch for this button to pulse.
You may have noticed that we've been dancing around one of the key features of the ChaCha: the dedicated Facebook button positioned just below the QWERTY keyboard. While the full keypad may draw in the punters for a closer look, it's the Facebook button that HTC hopes will hook them in. HTC apparently worked closely with Facebook in developing this feature; a context-sensitive button that launches different functions of Facebook, depending on what application you are in when you press the key. If you're browsing the web, the Facebook button launches the quick posting tool and copies the URL into your post to share with your friends. If you take a photo, you can press the button to upload it to your wall, or if you're listening to music, you can post a link to the track you're listening to. Whenever there is a special use for the Facebook button, an LED light below it will throb on and off, coercing you to press it and post your activity online.