INQ1 review

9 03 2009
INQ1. I like it.

INQ1. I like it.

In my job we often get sent devices to try out, to understand the products and technology and see how it all works, and hopefully form good impressions. While we obviously write about these products, we’re really not in the business of writing reviews. However, it would seem a shame not to write the odd review of interesting gadgets that come across my path, and so here I have a review of one of the most interesting mobile handsets of the year so far, the INQ1.

The INQ1 is the first handset from INQ, an independent handset company wholly owned by the giant Hutchison Whampoa telecoms corporation. It has created quite a splash already, winning “Best Mobile Handset” at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona at the beginning of February. I’ve been using an INQ1 supplied by the 3 network (which has exclusive rights to the INQ1 in the UK) for several weeks, and while I certainly don’t think it’s perfect, I am very impressed by what it can do. It takes a unique approach, bringing popular social networks, messaging and web services to a cheap handset available on a cheap tariff. The whole idea is to attract mass market users to the idea of using their mobiles for Internet and mobile data use, and I think it’s a good idea.

General performance

The INQ1 is a fairly conventional slider handset, but it feels good in the hand. It’s compact and solidly built, but not too heavy. The brushed metal finish gives a sense of durability, and the sliding number pad is satisfying, sliding positively and with big, well-spaced keys that are easy to press. The screen is smaller than I’m used to (but I’ve been spoilt by a succession of high-end handsets).

You can take pictures with the 3.2MP camera and with a couple of button presses upload them straight to your Facebook profile page over the 3G network, and go and write an email while the image uploads in the background, which I really like.

One of the key applications installed on the INQ1 is Skype, and calls work perfectly well, as does the webmail client (it works with all the major services: Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail, as well as POP3 mailboxes). The software is reasonably fast, it looks nice and colourful (if a little bright) and is mostly fairly simple to navigate using the application carousel at the bottom of the home screen. Occasionally there are awkward UI incidents, where a button press produces unexpected results, but these are not too jarring.

The web browser works, but it looks a bit dated and doesn’t render all pages properly. But for a phone this cheap and with relatively limited hardware grunt, it’s a good enough effort. It’s unfair to compare the browser with an iPhone, because the hardware is much cheaper and less powerful. The browser-based Facebook application is as good as the Facebook application for Nokia’s S60 handsets (although I don’t think as good as the BlackBerry or iPhone versions). It does have some excellent Facebook integration though, which I will explain shortly.

It has simple widgets on the home screen, displaying weather information, BBC news feeds and a world clock.

You can plug the INQ1 into a Mac or PC using a standard mini-USB cable, and use it as a USB modem for mobile broadband over the 3G network. This worked really easily with my Macbook, as the drivers for the modem are stored on the device itself, requiring nothing more complex than dragging the connection launcher application into the “Applications” folder. Then it was a matter of a couple of clicks, and I was online. The supplied software is simple but effective.

Social web makes the INQ1 special

Now that I’ve done the mechanical review bits for the people with a short attention span, we can get onto a more detailed description of why I think the INQ1 is interesting.

I think it won the MWC award because it was designed from the outset to deliver web content and services to mobile users, and to do this at low cost. The software has been built from scratch with the intention of integrating the most popular social networking and communication applications at a deep level into the handset. What this means in practice is that the INQ1 does Facebook, Skype, email and instant messaging far better than it has any right to do; in fact it does some of these things far better than any other phone on the market, at any price.

The integration of all of these services is focused primarily around the phone’s contacts list. The INQ1 ties all of your various ways of contacting a person together neatly, and integrates them with your Facebook contacts list. When you first activate the handset, you enter your Facebook login details and the phone automatically downloads all of your Facebook friends into the phone’s contact list, displaying their profile picture and current status message. Cool, huh?

Well the next bit is even cooler. You then log in to Skype by selecting the icon on the side-scrolling carousel menu at the bottom of the screen, and your Skype contacts are added to your contacts list. Now email: you click on the mail icon, and the handset lets you choose between a standard POP3 mailbox, Hotmail, Yahoo mail or Googlemail. You enter your login details, the handset activates the account, and you’re away. The same goes for your MSN or AIM accounts.

The next step is to merge your contacts, so that you have a single contact for each person, containing the person’s phone numbers, Facebook profile, Skype ID, email address and IM accounts. This can be fiddly if you have a lot of friends, but when it’s done you’ve got the greatest mobile phone contact list ever!

You can open a contact in the contact list, and from a single menu you have the following options for contacting them:
– Call: voice or video
– Send message (brings up an SMS panel which lets you insert pictures or sounds, making it an MMS)
– Facebook: view profile, poke, message, write on wall
– Windows Live Messenger: initiate a chat
– Skype: voice call or text chat
– Email: from any activated account.

That’s a lot of ways to get in touch with someone! I’ve played with plenty of handsets, but I’ve never seen anything that has this sort of powerful integration out of the box. It’s great!

Things I don’t like

I would really like to be able to easily add new applications to the INQ1, such as a Twitter client or a Flickr uploader. But perhaps this is an unreasonable expectation, and I’ve just become too used to using Symbian or BlackBerry phones which specialise in this.

The quality of the camera is disappointing – corners have been cut here – but photos are adequate in broad daylight. There is no LED flash for low light snaps.

Not the greatest phone cam ever made.

Not the greatest phone cam ever made.

Poor colour balance and dynamic range makes for flat pictures

Poor colour balance and dynamic range makes for flat pictures

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is a music player application which includes scrobbling to Last.fm, but as the INQ1 commits the cardinal sin of not having a 3.5mm stereo jack I didn’t bother testing it – this phone is not quite ready to be a serious music player.

It would be a killer device if if had a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, given how many of its key applications rely on heavy text input. I think INQ is well aware of this, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the next release from the company adds a slide-out QWERTY keypad.

Conclusion

This is not a handset for everyone but it does a lot of things far better than you would expect from a phone at this price point, and I think it shows how much you can achieve on relatively low-end hardware, with some clever software integration. If you want a cheap handset that gives you really good Facebook and email access and lets you make cheap Skype calls, the INQ1 is definitely worth checking out. I’m really looking forward to seeing what INQ comes up with next.

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