We've known since February that the INQ1 successor would add Twitter capabilities to the Skype, Facebook and IM party, and sure enough, the Mini 3G does indeed offer access to your 140 character-limited life directly from the home screen. Assuming you're not into some obscure social utility like LinkedIn or MySpace, this phone will pretty much cover all your social bases, promising to keep you perpetually hooked up to your friends and followers.
Hardware and Design
So let's get right into it -- how does the phone feel? Frankly, like a toy. Its light weight doesn't provide much in the way of reassurance and neither do the comparatively flimsy plastics used. That's not to say it won't take its share of wear and tear, but it's also clearly not the sort of phone to survive being smashed against a wall. We would also be remiss if we didn't mention the screen, which suffers from backlight bleed and color distortion when tilted only a few degrees off center, which are rarely noticeable foibles in general use, but there nonetheless.
On the bright side, the overall dimensions are a very compact 103 x 45.8 x 12.8mm and the keyboard is an absolute pleasure to work with. Featuring four big and bulky horizontal slabs, it has nice friction and each key is readily identifiable by touch. Navigation using the outsized circular navigation pad was also intuitive, though we would've liked to see either fewer soft keys around it or more space dedicated to each one. As they are positioned now, hitting individual keys requires slightly too much precision to make it as smooth and natural as using the rest of the keyboard. There's also a Switcher button on the left side of the phone to quickly browse through the quicklinks on the home screen, though we were again confounded that we had to hit the big OK key in the center instead of being able to select using the jogger button itself -- by holding it down over a particular link, for example.
Bundle and Extras
Special commendation must be made for the ingenious use of a single USB cable to both connect to the PC and a power outlet. There's a small USB input on the power plug, which essentially turns your data cable into your power cable as well. Sadly, the two megapixel camera isn't up to par, even by featurephone standards, and there's no 3.5mm jack to be found, but at least the bundled headphones -- which double as a useful handsfree kit -- are a notch above the usual mediocrity you typically find bundled along. Sound output was satisfactory to our uneducated ears, and the media player app did what it was supposed to do, including throwing up the controls to a playing song as an extra widget to your home screen, saving valuable clicks and taps.
The major thing here is accessibility. Sure, you could buy a smartphone, outfit it with the requisite apps for Twitter et al, but that will always cost you more than the Mini 3G both in terms of time and money. And the social networking integration on this thing runs deep. You go to your messaging inbox, and your Facebook Inbox and Skype Chats sit alongside your SMS in-tray. As already noted, your home screen already gives direct access to pretty immediate status updates, and when you take a photo you're confronted with an "upload to Facebook" option. The address book builds on this, by keeping track of when and where your friends are online, and letting you get in touch via whatever internet-enabled communication medium is most convenient.
Navigation is done primarily via the quicklinks at the bottom of the home screen, and there's a selection of widgets, like time, weather, internet search and RSS feeds that you can slap on up top. It's not foolproof, but it's also not going to tax anyone unduly. Yes, even your grandma could probably figure out how to make a couple of calls and tweet about the latest Kanye West meme. There is, however, one major shortcoming to an otherwise commendable execution -- lag. There's a certain feeling of wading through water with this phone, as every time we went exploring the menus, we were met with a delay long enough to make us doubt our keystrokes registered. This isn't so much of a bane once you set everything up to your liking and get direct access to every app from the home screen, but again, it's there and could be a deal breaker for some.
In spite of its flaws, the Mini 3G conveys an inescapable air of cheerfulness. From the bright red backplate, to the quirky ringtones, to the oversized navigation pad, it just feels like a shiny happy thing, and the equally colorful and zany UI further reinforces that notion. The target audience must certainly be considered -- a social networking phone that foregoes a QWERTY keyboard for old school numeric keypad input is clearly aiming to be picked up by the masses of ultra-skilled T9 touch-typists from the "youth" demographic, and seen through their giddy eyes, this might just be the ideal phone.
The biggest advantage of this phone is undeniably going to be its dirt cheap price. Arriving in the UK in October, it will be free on 3's £15 ($25) a month tariff, or £59.99 ($99) without a contract, rendering it by far the most affordable means to stash your internet-powered pseudo-social life in your pocket. It isn't going to be the phone for those of us who had to sign up to Twitter just to test out its functionality, but the Mini 3G will do what the vast majority of people want from it, and it offers a value proposition that is difficult to ignore.