We’ve seen several attempts to produce a smartphone with a miniature qwerty keyboard in the BlackBerry style but use Android as the operating system. Generally they fail to impress, but HTC’s ChaCha bucks that trend.
The HTC ChaCha runs Android 2.3.3, making it fully up to date as far as operating system is concerned. And it also runs a tweaked version of HTC Sense. Some cues are taken from the new version of Sense as found on the HTC Sensation, most notably the ability to launch into one of four pre-selected applications from the lock screen simply by dragging an icon into a launch circle. To launch to the home screen you simply drag the circle itself.
HTC has worked hard to make Sense fit the 2.6 inch 480 x 320 pixel screen yet retain its familiar look and feel. The screen has a wider than tall format so that when you flip the ChaCha round in your hand apps really do benefit from the alternative orientation. You can’t flip all apps, though, for example the web browser seems stuck in wide mode.
You start out with four home screens, but can add more as needed up to a total of seven simply by tapping the giant plus symbol that appears on an empty screen. Put a widget there, and a new blank screen becomes available. The only annoyance with this system is that the main home screen is on the far left, so that you might need to do a lot of scrolling to get to the screen you want. To get over that, tapping the Home button gives you a thumbnail view of all home pages and you just tap one to get to it.
HTC has given many menu options keyboard shortcuts. When web browsing, for example, you can get history by pressing Menu then the H key.
Physically the ChaCha is very impressive. The solid build which mixes metal and plastic means the handset weighs slightly heavy at 120g, but it is robust. The chassis is slightly curved which helps get the screen to a good viewing angle when you are typing, but it does mean slightly awkward sitting in the pocket.
We don’t like that the microSD card can only be got at if you remove the battery. But the keyboard is superbly well made, with a small cursor bank at its bottom right and well spaced, tactile keys that make for super fast typing. There are even dedicated Call and End buttons.
As for that Facebook button, it is an act of pure genius – if you are a Facebook fan. It sits proud of the main keyboard. Press it and you are into a status update page. If you just want to get right into Facebook without posting an update, you can use an on screen widget. Or press the Facebook button when you are in the camera and it’ll take a picture and drop it into the Facebook upload screen. Or long press it at any time for Facebook locations. There’s also a separate Facebook chat widget.
This is all great, but there are some drawbacks. The small screen is obviously not ideal for viewing video, and not really ideal for web browsing either. You need to do a fair bit of scrolling to get through menus that, with a taller screen, are often fully visible. Flash support is not ideal either, with streaming from within web sites such as the BBC News site not possible.
Overall, though, the HTC ChaCha is the best attempt at a BlackBerry style Android device we’ve seen, the keyboard is very good, and the Facebook button inspired.