Vodafone sprung a demi-surprise in being the next brand to launch a Facebook phone in the shape of the Vodafone 555 Blue.
But without the latest in connectivity, a relatively slow processor and a familiar shape, will the 555 be top of the pile or singing the Blues?
The new phone, manufactured by Alcatel, has one key difference though: it’s a non-smartphone, instead using a dedicated Java-based OS that Vodafone claims integrates Facebook more deeply than ever before on a mobile.
The 555 Blue will be aimed at the 16-25 market in the UK, with its cheaper price tag of around £70 eschewing the need for a contract and offering social networking for not a lot of dollar.
The design is a standard QWERTY keyboard design, taking a lot of cues from the BlackBerry range of old. Vodafone tells us that the 555 Blue was conceived over a year ago, presumably at a time when feature phones were still the main choice for consumers.
The chassis feels robust, if a little plasticky and light, and the 2.4-inch screen is bright without being too high-res. We don’t have the official specs yet, but it seems like a QVGA offering packed in there, leading to a relatively high level of pixellation for many applications.
The keyboard is solid too; the keys are a little close together, so typing speeds are ever so slightly hampered, but on the whole it’s a better experience than most.
A speaker grille and 2MP camera (surprisingly with single LED flash) reside on the back – the former is predictably tinny and no use at all for music, and the quick test shots with the camera show a slow shutter speed and uninspiring pics – but then again, for the price, that’s to be expected.
Haven’t we seen this before?
We’ll agree it looks a lot like the HTC ChaCha, but it’s a darn sight cheaper and has a slightly different fit in the hand – HTC’s effort feels a lot more premium.
So let’s dive in and look at the main reason behind the creation of the Vodafone 555 Blue – the Facebook integration.
It’s worth noting where this phone is aimed – it’s certainly not one for the tech lover, more for the non-technophile that’s still desperate to interact with Facebook.
That said, we’re looking at a phone that (according the early rumoured specs) has a 200 MHZ processor to run the entire Facebook overlay – sure, it’s only really got to do that and be able to call, text and check out the internet once in a while, but that’s still a worryingly low-power engine.
The Facebook overlay brings us something that looks very similar to that which we’ve seen with the INQ Cloud Touch – division of Chat, Messaging, News and profile at the bottom of the screen.
And the Facebook key – but weirdly this only does one thing, and that’s take you to the home screen of the application. Why not update a status or post a picture? Hopefully this is simply a bug at the moment.
Not being a touchscreen everything is handled by the optical keypad in the middle of the phone, which also acts as an Enter key, flanked by two softkeys.
Vodafone made a big deal about the background download capabilities of the phone; instead of having the phone refresh at given intervals or when the app is opened, your Facebook info is constantly refreshed in the background.
The depth of the phone’s functionality is refreshingly low – we’re talking the Facebook integration, Opera Mini as the browser for intenetting and the like, and a simple music player – plus some organiser tools, like a calendar and alarm clock.
Up to the task?
Sounds nice and clean, but here’s the problem: the grunt of the Vodafone 555 Blue is just too little to offer a decent Facebook experience.
We should point out that the phone’s reactions are mostly fine – opening and closing different Facebook elements is speedy enough.
But it’s when the updating needs to happen that the pain rears its head – we simply can’t believe Vodafone when it tells us the handset updates in the background often enough. And when it does, the rest of the phone operation slows down to such a snail’s pace that it’s not worth trying to open other elements while Facebook updates.
If we were to compare it to another handset, we’d say it was like a souped up version of the INQ Mini 3G – it had oodles of Facebook integration but was so slow to operate we had to throw it out of a window before we went insane with frustration.
The Vodafone 555 Blue works along the same lines, but a lot faster – the pauses are shorter, but even after we had the phone warmed up from first use, we were left watching the ‘updating Facebook’ screen far too often.
There’s also an integration issue – do we want to have to see a start-up screen each and every time we start the chat application? Surely we’d rather have it running the background constantly so people could ping us when we’re not directly looking at the application?
The pictures section is among the hardest to use on the phone. Unless you’ve opened and downloaded each individual picture, you’ll be forced to go through a minute’s wait to open a pic from your Facebook account thanks to the slow connection – plus there’s no way to scroll through them all album style.
We are impressed that, once viewed, the pics and comments stay cached – but this experience needs to be constantly updating EVERYTHING from your profile, from the News Feed to new comments, to be seen as a real bold step away from the smartphone application.
The internet is supposedly optimised by Vodafone to be smarter, faster and more data efficient thanks to some decent Opera Mini optimisation at the back end, but the unit we saw had a bug that wouldn’t let us install the browser. Why this isn’t already pre-installed from the factory, we don’t know.
Will the Vodafone 555 Blue be a success? It’s a tough one to call, as we have to take off our tech hat and put on that of a teenager with little interest in smartphones but tonnes in Facebook.
Simply put, we still think the experience is too slow to impress many, even if the price is only £70-odd. Will those who have picked through thousands of pictures on a broadband connection be happy going back to a sludgy speed on the go? We think not.
That’s not to say we’re not impressed with the deep Facebook integration – for many things it’s fine, such as browsing your friends’ profiles from the contacts menu or reading messages.
But for most uses it’s simply too slow, and we’re saying that from a normal user’s point of view. Vodafone needs to beef up either the processor or the speed (both of which are coming) to get the most out of the phone platform.
If Orange can bring the San Francisco, with a 600MHz processor and large WVGA touchscreen to the market for not a lot more cash, then Vodafone should be able to pack everything necessary into this phone to make it fly along.
Imagine a phone with a 1GHz processor and decent wedge of RAM, plus Wi-Fi and 3G background synchronisation so Facebook was instantly up to date – now THAT would be a perfect smartphone alternative, and surely people would pay around £50 or so more for the experience?
Stay tuned for our full Vodafone 555 Blue review – but we’d be surprised if it managed to be anything other than a mediocre attempt at trying to offer something different to the smartphone brigade.
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