ChaCha is a fun, free and useful cell service

If you're sitting in front of a computer, it's easy to look up information on the Web. It's almost as easy if you have a sophisticated cell phone with a decent Web browser and you're in a place with a good Internet connection where it's possible to type.

But what if you only have a standard cell phone with a lousy Web browser -- or even the best Web-browsing phone, but it lacks a fast data connection? What if you're speeding down the road in a car, where typing is dangerous?

Now, there's a way to get your questions answered despite those hurdles. It's a free cell phone service that lets you ask any question answerable via a Web search, using any cell phone, by simply making a voice call. It's called ChaCha, and I've been testing it out.

To use ChaCha, you just dial (800) 2chacha (224-2242) and state your question. In a few minutes, you'll get an answer via text message. In one test, I asked ChaCha who was the winning pitcher in the previous night's Red Sox victory against the Yankees. In a few minutes, I received a text message with the correct answer: Daisuke Matsuzaka.

ChaCha requires no registration and works on any cell phone carrier. It needs no special codes or key words. You just state your question as if you were asking a friend. If you prefer to type your question, you can text it to "ChaCha," or 242242. Though ChaCha itself charges no fees, your phone carrier may charge for the minutes you use, or for the text messages.

The service works by routing your questions to one of 10,000 hired "guides" -- students, stay-at-home parents, retirees and others -- who look up the questions on the Web and reply. They get paid 20 cents per answer.

Naturally, these guides vary as to their speed and accuracy. If you don't like the answers they give you, or you want related information, you can call back or reply to the text message with a follow-up question. For instance, after learning which pitcher had won for Boston, I asked who lost the game for New York. I was quickly informed it was Phil Hughes.

Overall, I liked ChaCha. In most cases, I received fast, accurate, useful answers. But it has two weaknesses. One is that the low-paid, part-time guides can provide inconsistent service. When I asked for the best Mexican restaurant in D.C., for example, ChaCha came up with a choice that few locals would cite.

The other is that, unlike many other cell phone information services, ChaCha doesn't automatically know your location. So, unless you include a location in your query, it's clueless about questions such as "Where's the nearest drugstore?"

ChaCha is hardly the only information service for cell phones. Google offers a text-message service where you can ask questions on a wide variety of topics, and a voice-based service that locates businesses near your location. Microsoft's TellMe subsidiary just introduced a voice-based service that answers location-specific questions about businesses, weather, traffic and movies, and displays the answers on the screens of BlackBerrys.

But these competitors are more limited than ChaCha in key respects. Google's broader mobile-search service, Google SMS, requires that questions be sent via text message using special key words. Its voice service, Goog411, finds only local businesses. TellMe's new service is limited to location-based information and works only on certain phones.

I tested ChaCha using three very different phones: a cheap, bare-bones Samsung flip phone from Sprint; a midrange Motorola Razr from Verizon; and an Apple iPhone running on AT&T. I asked questions via voice and text from various locations, including my car, where I used a hands-free microphone.

I asked about sports, TV shows, journalism, history, weather, nutrition, demographics and shopping. ChaCha handled most of these inquiries correctly and was able to fix most of its errors after I asked follow-up questions. For each question, it sends two text messages: one restating your query and saying it's working on it, and the second containing the answer.

Each ChaCha answer is accompanied by a Web link. If your phone has a decent browser, you can go to that link to learn who the guide was, and what his or her Web-site source was.

ChaCha gave me the weekend weather forecast in Boston, the date of death of Abigail Adams, and the cast of the TV show "Brothers & Sisters." It provided Peyton Manning's salary and the sodium content of a McDonald's quarter pounder. Its most impressive performance came when it correctly answered an obscure historical question: "When was the Gaspee burned?" The Gaspee was a British tax-collection ship burned in Rhode Island in 1772 in what is often considered the first act of war of the American Revolution.

The company is working on adding automated location knowledge, at least on certain carriers and phones. For now, you can tell it your location by sending a special command via text message. But even without the location features, ChaCha is a fun and useful service.

© 2008, Dow Jones & Co. Inc.

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