INQ has given geeky Android a makeover and taken it to the cool kid's party, so it can make out with the cutest robot in school. The Cloud Touch's innovative Facebook widgets could be improved, and you need a subscription to make the most of the built-in Spotify music player, but INQ's additions to Android are still appealing, and phone has a real sense of fun about it.
The Cloud Touch is available for free on an £18-per-month contract, or SIM-free for about £240.
INQ claims the Cloud Touch's design is based on that of the iPhone 3GS. We can't see the resemblance, beyond the fact that both have screens and are phone-shaped. Nevertheless, this plastic handset feels comfortable to hold. It's available in black, white or red. It may not be to your taste, but we love the attention-grabbing red colour.
The three touch-sensitive buttons along the bottom of the screen look rather childish, but they do the job. We like the Cloud Touch's lock screen -- you drag an icon from the bottom of the display up to the middle of the screen, where it bounces around entertainingly before the screen is unlocked. You can drag a camera icon to fire up the snapper right away, or drag a keyboard icon to start typing text, which can then be sent in a message, used to search the phone or the Web, or saved as a note. Alternatively, you can just drag up a padlock icon to unlock the screen normally.
The phone's on-screen keyboard is responsive and easy to use. Not only does it have a predictive-text feature that suggests words as you type them, it also offers suggestions for the next word that you might want to add. It's surprisingly handy, and just goes to show that phones are getting smarter than we are. Next, phones will automatically call the person we're daydreaming about.
The Cloud Touch may be cheap but, thankfully, it doesn't cut corners when it comes to usability. The 3.5-inch capacitive touchscreen feels responsive, and it's large enough to enable some serious Web surfing. Browsing is a treat, thanks to Android having one of the best browsers in the business. The low resolution of the screen, however, means that we often had to zoom in quite far before the text on Web pages became clear and readable. It's a compromise that's to be expected on an affordable phone.
INQ has also whipped up a built-in Wi-Fi feature that will help you stay connected if your mobile contract has a low data allowance, while saving battery juice at the same time. When you sign into a Wi-Fi hotspot -- whether at home or out and about -- the phone saves the GPS location. When you leave the hotspot, the Wi-Fi connection is switched off automatically, until you wander into the next location that's saved on your phone. INQ told us that leaving GPS on and turning Wi-Fi off can increase the phone's battery life by 15 per cent, as compared to leaving Wi-Fi on and GPS off.
You can turn on the Wi-Fi manually to connect to a new hotspot, and that location will get saved too. There's also a worldwide database of free hotspots so, if you approach one of them, the Wi-Fi connection will then wake up automatically. Every INQ phone user's hotspot discoveries also get fed back into the database. You can thank us for the hotspots that we added to the database, at home and at CNET UK Towers. We didn't run into any others that seemed to make the phone connect automatically, but we didn't take the handset on many journeys during our tests. Only time will tell if INQ's database of hotspots is worthwhile.
Since Wi-Fi is always turning on and off, INQ has tried to make it easy to access the connectivity controls quickly. A button on the upper-left-hand side of the phone launches an information page, on which you'll find shortcuts to settings like Wi-Fi, and a dashboard that shows data about the phone's battery life and other details. We're big fans of this feature. It's very handy to have quick access to your alarms, and an estimate of how long you can talk or listen to music for before the battery will conk out.
Spot the Spotify
Another button on the right-hand side of the phone launches the music player. INQ has ditched the uninspiring standard Android music player in favour of a Spotify app. But, unlike the app on the iPhone, you don't have to buy a subscription to Spotify to use it. If you do have a subscription, you can stream infinite tunes. If you don't have a subscription, you can use the app just to listen to songs you already own, since Spotify also syncs with your own MP3 collection.
Without a Spotify subscription, though, the app isn't much fun. For one thing, it asks you to sign in every time it opens, which could quickly become very annoying. Also, many of the features, like playlists, won't work without a subscription. If you're not charmed by the wonders of Spotify, you can switch back to the standard Android music app. You can also download an alternative music player from the Android Market.
If you don't mind shelling out £9.99 per month for a premium Spotify subscription, the app comes into its own. You can set playlists to download so that you can listen to them offline, as well as stream tunes over 3G and Wi-Fi.
Your phone's music library syncs automatically over Wi-Fi with your home computer when you're on the same wireless network. That's handy if you have a big collection of music. If you get bored of the music that's filling up your phone's memory card, you can change the mix by selecting different playlists for syncing next time you're at home.
The Facebook phone
INQ has rustled up some custom widgets for Facebook addicts. Widgets on the home screen serve up a stream of your mates' latest exploits, and they update without you having to open a separate app.
The friend-feed widget is a good way to read your mates' updates right on the home screen, but we think there's room for improvement. On the plus side, it does a good job of showing photos and videos in a large widget that fills the screen and is attractively designed. But we wanted it to be easier to 'like' our friends' posts, and tap straight through to their profiles from their updates.
We have a higher opinion of the widget that zooms in on your five favourite Facebook friends -- as defined by Facebook's own social graph data -- so you don't have to set the phone up with your most-contacted mates. After checking out their recent updates, you can text or call them right from the app.
Finally, a bar of shortcuts links up with most of Facebook's features, from Chat to Places.
By default, the central home screen is filled with Facebook widgets, which means the Cloud Touch is effectively the fabled Facebook phone. When you start the phone for the first time, you'll be prompted to sign into Facebook straight away, which just goes to show how focused this blower is on Zuckerberg's baby.
Despite the Facebook focus, there are still four more home screens to fill up with other Android widgets, some of which come pre-installed on the phone, while many more are available from the Android Market. If you're a Facebook denier, you can just remove the Facebook widgets from your home screen altogether.
The INQ Cloud Touch focuses on three of our favourite things -- Facebook, Spotify and not costing much money. If you have more Facebook friends than hair follicles, this phone's widgets will float your boat, although they could be improved in places. Even if you're not keen on socialising until your medial prefrontal cortex shrivels up like a week-old taco, the Cloud Touch can still be tweaked into a decent Android smart phone. Just be aware that the Spotify features work best with a subscription.
With an innovative keyboard, lock screen and settings button, INQ has done a good job of adding its own special sauce to Android on the Cloud Touch. But, most importantly, the phone is responsive and pleasant to use. If you can get over the plasticky case and silly-looking buttons below the screen, the Cloud Touch has plenty to recommend it.
Edited by Charles Kloet