Smartphone giants HTC and Samsung are taking on the BlackBerry with their Android-based rivals: the HTC ChaCha “Facebook phone” and the Samsung Galaxy Pro.
With its full QWERTY keyboard and the ease of staying in touch through push e-mail and BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), the BlackBerry has won legions of fans across the world particularly amongst young professionals and social networking aficionados.
Over the past few months, Android smartphone giants HTC and Samsung have released their own BlackBerry-style smartphones with the aim of taking on the BlackBerry on its home turf. In this article, we find out how the Android-based HTC ChaCha “Facebook phone” and Samsung Galaxy Pro compare to each other and to the BlackBerry Bold. We also look at the ChaCha’s much-hyped Facebook integration.
Form Factor & Design
Both the HTC ChaCha and Samsung Galaxy Pro (pictured) feature a BlackBerry-style design with a landscape screen and a full QWERTY keyboard. Unlike the BlackBerry, both phones feature a capacitive touchscreen so you’ll get the best of both worlds: a fast and intuitive touch-based user interface as well as the ability to type lightning fast on a real QWERTY keyboard.
The vast majority of BlackBerry devices don’t yet feature a touchscreen so it’s impossible to play games such as “Angry Birds” or “Cut the Rope” – the only touchscreen in the BlackBerry range being the BlackBerry Torch slider phone. For a touchscreen in the BlackBerry Bold family, we’ll have to wait until the BlackBerry Bold Touch 9900 is released in September.
In terms of the general design of the phone, the HTC ChaCha and Samsung Galaxy Pro both feature fairly similar designs. Dimensionally, the two phones are very similar in size to each other and the BlackBerry Bold – all three devices easily fit into any pocket and are comfortable to hold in the hand. Beyond the obvious cosmetic differences, the Galaxy Pro is noticeably lighter (being a good 20 grams lighter than the other two devices) whilst the HTC ChaCha features a slight “chin” (a distinctive design feature in HTC devices).
We must admit that on the first sight of the ChaCha, we thought “urgh”. It’s probably due to the weird combination of white, blue, silver and black plus the fact that a gap is left between all of the buttons on the QWERTY keyboard. However, after using the keyboard and the phone, it’s design really grew on us and is something that we’ve come to love.
On the front of both phones, we have the four Android navigation buttons (home, menu, back and search) below the touchscreen display. On the ChaCha these are implemented as touch-sensitive buttons whereas on the Galaxy Pro these are implemented as physical hardware buttons. It’s really a matter of personal preference as to which you prefer but we certainly think the buttons are better laid out on the ChaCha with the navigation buttons right below the screen. We think it’s bizarre the “Samsung” logo takes centre spot on the Galaxy Pro whilst the hardware navigation buttons are squeezed in below the Samsung logo and above the QWERTY keyboard.
If you’re coming from a BlackBerry background, you’ll miss having a trackball right below the screen. Although a trackball probably isn’t necessary on a touchscreen device, we think it makes it a lot easier scrolling through long menus and selecting text. It’s possible to navigate the user interface using the four arrow buttons in the bottom right of the devices but it’s not as elegant a solution as a trackball.
The BlackBerry Bold has a lovely faux-leather backing. Unfortunately this design feature isn’t replicated in either the ChaCha or the Galaxy Pro: the ChaCha has a simple smooth plastic back whilst the Galaxy Pro has a textured back similar to the “HyperSkin” texture on the Galaxy S II. The Galaxy Pro’s textured backing does give some extra grip but aesthetically we much prefer the back of the ChaCha.
- First place: BlackBerry Bold 9780. Stylish phone with a beautiful faux-leather backing
- Second place: HTC ChaCha. Stylish phone but it took us a while to get used to the colour and the design of the keyboard
- Third place: Samsung Galaxy Pro. A rather bizarre design with the “Samsung” logo taking centre-place on the front of the phone (prime real estate!) and the Android navigation buttons being squeezed in right beneath.
Both the HTC ChaCha and Samsung Galaxy Pro sport larger screens than the BlackBerry Bold. The ChaCha has a 2.6-inch screen and the Galaxy Pro has a 2.8-inch screen. This compares to the BlackBerry’s 2.44-inch screen.
Whilst we liked the fact Samsung tried to squeeze as large a screen as they could on the Galaxy Pro, it was immediately noticeable that size wasn’t the most important factor: it was actually the quality and the resolution of the display. The ChaCha has a beautifully vibrant screen with sharp text. Sporting a 480×320 pixel display and multi-touch support, the ChaCha’s screen is a real joy to look at and to use. Although Samsung’s Galaxy Pro had a larger screen, we were incredibly disappointed by its low resolution 320×240 pixel display and the lack of multi-touch support.
For comparison, the BlackBerry Bold has a 2.44-inch display with 480×360 pixels. This is very similar to the display on the ChaCha, though the BlackBerry has a slightly taller screen.
Of the three phones we looked at, the HTC ChaCha was unique in featuring the scratch-proof Gorilla Glass technology in the display. We love Gorilla Glass: it means that if you accidentally leave it in the same pocket as your keys, your screen should still be safe.
With a beautiful high-resolution touchscreen display, multi-touch support and Gorilla Glass, we believe the HTC ChaCha has the best display out of the three phones.
- First place: HTC ChaCha. 2.6-inch TFT capacitive touchscreen display with multi-touch, 480×320 pixels
- Second place: BlackBerry Bold 9780. 2.44-inch TFT display, 480×360 pixels
- Third place: Samsung Galaxy Pro. 2.8-inch TFT capacitive touchscreen display without multi-touch, 320×240 pixels
In terms of the keyboard, the HTC ChaCha and Samsung Galaxy Pro both have virtually identical keyboard layouts to each other and to the BlackBerry Bold. All 3 phones have a 4-line QWERTY keyboard which is backlit when you’re typing. We were pretty pleased with the keyboard on the three devices: we were able to type quickly – great for quick-paced instant messaging chat sessions and typing long e-mails which can be tedious with an on-screen keyboard.
The HTC ChaCha differs from the other two devices in having smaller keyboard buttons and choosing to leave a space in between each keyboard button. We think that this was probably a big contributor to our first impression of the ChaCha as an ugly phone: the small buttons and the spacing between buttons makes the entire layout look much busier and complicated than it is (there are a lot more edges in the design). However after using all three phones we can see exactly why HTC have left space between the buttons: the spacing between the buttons makes it more difficult to accidentally press two buttons at once. Indeed, we felt that accuracy typing on the keyboard of the ChaCha was much better than on the other two devices. Design-wise, the ChaCha’s keyboard is ugly. But in practice it just works really, really well.
- Tie: There are strengths and weaknesses of the keyboards on all 3 devices. The HTC ChaCha has an accurate yet ugly keyboard, the Samsung Galaxy Pro has large buttons for fast typing and the BlackBerry keyboard looks great and works great. A matter of personal preference really.
Operating System & User Interface
The HTC ChaCha runs Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) with a modified version of the HTC Sense user interface. This means you’ll get the same widgets as seen on phones such as the HTC Sensation and HTC Desire HD but with a layout which is slightly modified for the landscape nature of the screen. Being a Facebook-integrated phone, the ChaCha features a Facebook widget on the homescreen as well as the trademark HTC digital clock. The home screens are fully customisable with shortcuts and widgets: the phone ships with a whole library of HTC widgets including Facebook Chat, photo album, news and weather.
The Samsung Galaxy Pro runs Android 2.2 (Froyo) with the Samsung TouchWiz user interface. It features a much more basic home screen by default – only containing a Google search box and shortcuts to some popular applications. The Galaxy Pro doesn’t ship with Facebook so you’ll need to download this yourself, nor does it ship with many widgets.
On the whole, the ChaCha’s “HTC Sense” user interface felt much more polished than Samsung’s “TouchWiz UI”. We really liked the range of widgets in Sense UI, the “Frequently Used Applications” list and the integration of Facebook through the entire operating system (for example integrating Facebook profile pictures into your phone book). “HTC Sense” provides much more of a value-added experience to Android whereas TouchWiz UI on the Galaxy Pro felt like a minor re-skinning of stock Android.
With a newer version of Android and a much better user interface, the HTC ChaCha beats the Samsung Galaxy Pro hands-down in this round.
However, we can’t miss the big picture and that’s the fact that both phones run Android. That means you get all kinds of benefits such as access to 200,000+ applications in Android Market, free turn-by-turn GPS navigation worldwide and 3D buildings and the ability to tether using wi-fi hotspot. Contrast this with the BlackBerry Bold’s ailing “BlackBerry OS”: the operating system is much more limited and the BlackBerry App World has a much smaller range of applications (about 40,000 with fewer free apps than Android). Indeed, the big story is that both the ChaCha and Galaxy Pro run Android and for us that’s a huge plus: it’s an operating system which opens your world to many more possibilities.
- First place: HTC ChaCha. The latest version of Android (version 2.3 Gingerbread) with a beautiful “HTC Sense” user interface.
- Second place: Samsung Galaxy Pro. An older version of Android (version 2.2 Froyo) with a more limited user interface. Still, it’s an Android-based phone and that gives huge benefits over the BlackBerry OS.
- Third place: BlackBerry Bold. The BlackBerry OS lacks many of Android’s killer features and killer applications. With the lack of decent free applications in BlackBerry App World, we think you’re much better off going for an Android-based phone.
Social Features: Facebook and Chat
With a dedicated Facebook button, the HTC ChaCha is marketed as a phone for social networking. The phone’s Facebook button sits on the bottom-right of the phone and makes it incredibly easy to share your thoughts, photos or links with the click of just a button.
Depending on what you’re currently doing, the phone is smart enough to work out what you want share. For example, pressing the Facebook button in the camera application shares a photo whereas pressing the button in the web browser shares a link to the webpage you’re currently viewing. Pressing the button elsewhere in the phone allows you to update your status.
You can also check in to Facebook Places by long pressing on the Facebook button.
Whilst it’s possible to update your status and share photos from any Android-based smartphone (including the Galaxy Pro), the Facebook button really does make it so quick and easy. It’s a great little feature: our only worry is that with it being so easy to share content, it could become very easy to start annoying your friends by updating your status just a little bit too much!
As well as the Facebook widget and hardware button, the HTC ChaCha also integrates it’s own “Facebook Chat” application. This application is incredibly well integrated with Facebook: it shows the online status of all of your friends, arranges your friends by in the lists set up in your Facebook account and keeps an archive of your conversation histories. We’re really big fans of the HTC Facebook Chat application: you’ll get notifications of new Facebook Chat messages in the same way you’re notified about texts and it’s much more reliable and usable than the “Chat” feature in the official “Facebook for Android” application.
So is the Facebook integration in the HTC ChaCha just a bit of a gimmick? Not at all. It’s fast and a real joy to use. The Facebook widget, address book integration, the hardware “Share” button and chat application mesh really well together to provide a unrivalled social networking experience on your phone. There’s nothing on the ChaCha that you can’t do on other Android phones: it’s just the fact that the experience is much better and so you’ll actually want to use it. If you’re a Facebook addict, you’ll really love all the Facebook features on the ChaCha.
Moving on to the Samsung Galaxy Pro, there’s not really a huge lot to be said here about social networking. The phone doesn’t even come with Facebook pre-installed: all you get is Samsung’s “Social Hub” application. Social Hub integrates together your text messages and status updates from Facebook, Twitter and MySpace into one application. Unfortunately, it didn’t work particularly well for us and we can’t see many people using this feature: probably better to download the official “Facebook for Android” application instead.
That leaves the BlackBerry. Like Facebook for Android, there’s also a Facebook application for the BlackBerry so it probably matches stock Android in this regard.
One of the killer features on the BlackBerry is BBM (BlackBerry Messenger). Unfortunately, neither Android device supports BBM. For a cross-platform BBM-style application which allows you to talk to friends on iPhone, Android and BlackBerry, we recommend checking out WhatsApp.
- First place: HTC ChaCha. We absolutely loved the Facebook integration: the widgets, the phone book, the Facebook button and the chat application. We loved the fact the HTC ChaCha makes it so easy to share your photos and whatever is on your mind: a great phone for any Facebook addict.
- Second place: BlackBerry Bold. With the Facebook application for BlackBerry and support for BBM, the BlackBerry Bold is a great phone for social butterflies.
- Third place: Samsung Galaxy Pro. The Galaxy Pro isn’t a bad phone for social networking: it just doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary. There’s the “Facebook for Android” application but that’s it: it doesn’t excel like the ChaCha does.
Performance & Battery Life
Both the HTC ChaCha and Samsung Galaxy Pro feature an 800MHz processor and in day-to-day usage there was little to distinguish the two phones in terms of performance. Both phones are generally responsive and handle most everyday tasks without any issues. The BlackBerry Bold features a slower processor (624MHz) than both the Android-based competitors although it is difficult to compare performance given the different operating systems.
We experienced no issues with battery life on either device although the Galaxy Pro has a larger battery than the ChaCha (1350mAh on the Galaxy Pro against 1250mAh on the ChaCha).
- First place: Samsung Galaxy Pro. 800MHz processor and 1,350mAh battery.
- Second place: HTC ChaCha. 800MHz and 1,250mAh battery.
- Third place: BlackBerry Bold. 624MHz and 1,500mAh battery. Difficult to compare performance as it runs a different operating system.
The HTC ChaCha features a 5 megapixel camera with an LED flash and produced some pretty decent photos in our tests. It also has an additional front-facing VGA camera (0.3 megapixels) for video calling and self-portraits. The Galaxy Pro was let down by its 3.15 megapixel camera, the lack of a flash (making it impossible to take a photo in many indoor lighting conditions) and the lack of a front-facing camera. Both phones allow you to record videos through the “Camcorder” mode.
- First place: HTC ChaCha. 5 megapixel camera with LED flash. Front-facing VGA camera.
- Second place: BlackBerry Bold. 5 megapixel camera with LED flash. No front-facing camera.
- Third place: Samsung Galaxy Pro. 3.15 megapixel camera with no flash. No front-facing camera.
If you’re looking for a smartphone with a QWERTY-keyboard, the BlackBerry is no longer your only choice. Rival phones, based on Android, from manufacturers such as HTC and Samsung really give you the best of both worlds: a capacitive touchscreen as well as a full QWERTY keyboard so you can chat away without fiddling with a tricky onscreen keyboard. With an Android-based device, you’ll gain access to the wealth of applications in Android Market, free sat nav through Google Maps and touchscreen based games such as “Angry Birds” and “Cut the Rope”.
We were initially quite sceptical about the HTC ChaCha – not being a huge fan of the design and thinking that the Facebook-integration was just a little bit of a gimmick. Yet after 2 weeks of using the phone we love it to bits: the screen looks great, the keyboard is very practical and well-designed, the Facebook integration adds a lot of value and it’s just obvious that a lot of thought has been put into this phone. If you’re addicted to social networking and you can get over the “ugly” design, it’s a wonderful smartphone to use.
The Samsung Galaxy Pro is a really great idea but was a let down by its execution. With its low-resolution screen, an out-dated version of Android, the lack of multi-touch and the lack of a LED flash for the camera flash, there are a lot of niggles about the Galaxy Pro. We feel that too many corners have been cut in producing this phone and that make it a frustrating phone to use on a day-to-day basis. The problem is compounded by some bizarre design features – for example the keyboard buttons being twice the height of the navigation buttons and the placement of a “Samsung” logo right in the centre of the phone (prime real estate).
To conclude, the HTC ChaCha beats the Samsung Galaxy Pro hands-down in our battle of Android-based BlackBerry alternatives. We think it’s a great alternative to the BlackBerry for social butterflies and young professionals alike: you’ll get the benefits of BlackBerry such as a full QWERTY keyboard and first-class social networking but you’ll get so much more too: the ability to run thousands of touch-based applications, free GPS navigation and the additional features of the Android operating system.
- First place: HTC ChaCha. A well-crafted and compelling Android-based BlackBerry alternative. Good specs, great Facebook integration and a real joy to use. The aesthetics gave us a bad impression of the phone initially.
- Second place: BlackBerry Bold. A great smartphone: tried, tested and trusted. The lack of a touchscreen on the BlackBerry devices and the lack of applications for the BlackBerry platform are big downsides of this phone.
- Third place: Samsung Galaxy Pro. Android offers many benefits over the BlackBerry operating system: even so, we found the Android-based Galaxy Pro a very frustrating phone to use. Good idea but poor execution.
Thanks to Three who lent us a HTC ChaCha for the purposes of this review. Thanks also go to Samsung UK who provided us with a Samsung Galaxy Pro. The views expressed in this article are totally my own and reflect solely my own experiences of using the devices mentioned.