Review: HTC Hero

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There is a fairly standard montage in the canon of bad 80s movies. It involves the protagonist(s) working hard to build/do/invent something to beat the stuck up and dismissive antagonists. See, for example, Summer Rental, a John Candy vehicle in which Candy and crew convert a seafood restaurant that was originally a boat back into a boat in order to win a big, rich boat race against snobs. I don’t quite recall why they needed to win the race, but that’s immaterial. In the end [SPOILER ALERT] they thumb their noses, triumphantly, at the crews of the other, more richly appointed boat. It’s the tale of the underdog – an important tale to be told in that dark decade – and it is applicable here.

This brings us to the HTC Hero, HTC’s first Android phone to use the company’s new Sense UI. In one sense the Hero is “just another Android phone”; in another sense, it’s an entirely new direction for HTC and the platform.

The Hero is a great phone. It is on par – and ultimately better – than the Palm Pre and, some would say, the iPhone on many points. It also turns those lumbering Windows Mobile and Symbian into something that you will fondly remember from your youth, a set of dinosaur technologies now extinct.

Furthermore, we can easily extend the metaphor above to say that the Hero is John Candy lacquering the deck while Apple and Palm are the rich, stuck-up yacht club members laughing at the upstart. I’m here to tell you that these yacht club members should ignore this upstart at their peril.

The Phone

The HTC Hero is quite slim. It is, except for the chin (which we’ll talk shortly) about as big as the iPhone. It’s slightly thicker and slightly shorter, but it’s just about the same size.
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The model we tested was clad in soft touch rubber in black and brown. The white Hero is the only one covered in the smudgeproof Teflon. The 3.2-inch screen itself stays surprisingly clean under daily use thanks to an oleophobic screen. The phone is featureless except for six front buttons (Call, Home, Menu, Hang up in a line above the chin and Search and Back on the lower right side.) There is also a small glowing trackball on the front. There are small LEDs above the top speaker and there is a 5-megapixel camera – no flash – on the back. There is a full-sized headphone jack on top and Mini-USB on the bottom. Two unmarked buttons on the side control volume.

The phone also has the G1′s “chin.” This is a small protuberance under the screen that is bent out at a 30 degree angle. HTC explained that this was more a design choice than a functional choice. The chin defines HTC’s android line in the same way the home button defines the iPhone: it’s a deliberate grace note to a minimalist design. I don’t think this design gets in the way of portability or usability and you don’t notice it in your pocket.

On the whole the Hero is amazingly small and quite attractive. It is a well-designed phone with no rough edges, a la the Pre, and none of the iPhone fragility. You could feasibly drop this without much thought, something you’d want to rethink with the iPhone.

Call quality was fine in both handset and speaker phone mode. I have a T-Mobile SIM in the phone and I found the reception to be quite poor in general. This is a function of T-Mobile’s coverage in the area, however, so I can’t make an ultimate assessment on reception at this time. The phone runs on HSPA/WCDMA 900/2100MHz and supports Quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE. 3G does not work in the US under T-Mobile or AT&T in this model. The device also supports Bluetooth and Wi-Fi b/g.

The camera is about standard with 5-megapixel resolution and autofocus. I uploaded some photos straight to Facebook. The middle two photos are of the same scene, taken from about five feet from the subject. The first is zoomed all the way in and the second is zoomed out.

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Here is sample video:

The battery lasts about a day on one charge with everything, including Wi-Fi and GPS, turned on.

The OS

Android is messy. It is like a good Linux distribution – visually impressive some of the time and technically impressive all the time. But, like a good Linux distro, it is unfamiliar to the lay user and this could cause it to be considered an exotic. I believe that Android will, in the end, replace Windows Mobile and Symbian as the OS of choice for most smartphones. However, it is still a work in progress.

It’s been a little over nine months since I encountered the first Android device, the T-Mobile G1. If you weren’t around to read Peter Ha’s review then I’ll summarize it for you here: the G1 and Android sucked back then. With the passing of two seasons, we’ve found that it’s a much more robust and useful OS than we initially thought.

The Android Market is no match for Apple’s App Store, but it doesn’t need to be. In fact, it’s better than the App Store. You see, the majority of apps cluttering the App Store are full of entertainment value and nothing else. That’s fine if you’re into entertaining yourself, but if you take a look at the Android Market you’ll notice it’s much, much different.

There are many more apps than there really needs to be simply because the Market is open and free. While this makes for some dumb apps, it allows the really good apps to shine. As you browse through the Market you find odd apps everywhere: What’s this ToggleWifi app? Oh, it let’s me toggle Wi-Fi on/off without having to dig through the menu? Can the iPhone do that? Nope. Google Voice? It’s there and it’s free. Find My iPhone? Sure, Android has the same functionality. Thanks to Wheres My Droid I can send a quick text to it and it starts chirping. Need to fuss with Transmission, the bittorrent app, from the phone? You can do that with Transdroid.

I think you can see where I’m going with this. You might consider the Android Market homebrew, but what’s wrong with that? That’s the great thing about being an open platform. Android, on the whole, is a great platform.

The UI

Separating out the UI from the OS is difficult, but let me try to comment on the HTC’s homebrew Sense UI while trying to avoid all of the limitations placed upon it by Android.

On the whole the Sense UI is as impressive as the Palm Pre’s and, from a purely functional standpoint, better than the default interface for the iPhone. The Pre, for example, has pages, just like the Hero, but the pages in this case are actually “widget containers” that can hold multiple data points and controls on one page. For example, you can dedicate one of the seven pages to entertainment apps while other pages can be dedicated to email accounts.

The device also has Scenes, an important addition to the UI. Scenes are “themes” defined for set activities. For example, the Work theme has stock information and a world time clock while the Social scene has a prominent calendar and social networking features up front. This is a great feature and works around some of the widget and page limitations imposed by the OS.

The HTC widgets, which differ from the standard Android widgets in that they’re offered exclusively by HTC, are beautiful. The clocks, for example, are quite attractive. Watch lovers willy be happy to know that some are an homage to Bell & Ross’ aviator-style watches.

The Sense UI also adds social network awareness to your contacts. This means you can watch your friends in real time, picking up tweets, updates, and Flickr images without thinking about it. The Contacts app, for example, has an “Updates” tab that allows you to connect your contacts with their Facebook profile. It also keeps track of all the exchanges you had with that person, including text messages and emails. Finally, it shows that person’s current Flickr stream. This system isn’t foolproof but it works better than the Palm Pre’s.

The search system is quite nice inside apps but outside of any app it defaults to a Google Search. Not so good.

The notifications bar at the top of the screen slides down to show recent activities including emails, tweets, and alerts. It’s great to see all of these in one place and very useful. All of the settings are quite easy to control straight from pages including Wi-Fi on and off as well as Bluetooth controls.

To further extend the Summer Rental metaphor, Sense is WebOS built on a platform with an already vibrant developer community. While Palm was working on that blasted “ribbon” thing and drinking martinis, the scrappy kids at HTC were building a simple overlay that mimics everything that is good about the Palm Pre.

The browser, for example, expands on the standard Webkit installation by adding smart reformatting and zooming. Rather than making the page generally bigger the browser zooms in by making the font bigger and the images wrap quite nicely. Interestingly, Flash also works in this build. I was able to browse to the Flash welcome page and load the small bit of code there after a long wait. This is Flash, verily, but it isn’t quite fast enough yet.

The onscreen keyboard is also very usable, once you get the hang of it. The keyboard auto-completes most English words and to pick out special characters and numbers you hold down the alphabet keys until alternate keys appear. Most of the time there is only one alternate key – a colon, perhaps, or a plus sign – but for most letters you find almost all of the international symbols needed for casual correspondence.

Email set-up was simple – you just pick your provider or input POP/IMAP settings. It can support multiple accounts. It also supports Flickr, Facebook, and Google App content natively.

Google Maps works as expected. It can pinpoint your location and get you from point to point without fuss.

In general the Sense UI is a triumph. It’s that good. They’ve made Android amazingly usable and that’s quite exciting.

The Bad

Now for the bad news: the Hero widget engine is very slow. It runs a 528MHz Qualcomm MSM7200A chip with 256MB RAM compared to a 600MHz with 256MB RAM for the iPhone 3GS. There is no reason, then, that this device should be so slow to update the widgets. Sliding from page to page is fast enough, but once you’re there you’ll notice a definite lag. For example, when you slide to the email page, it’ll take about 5 seconds to see the latest email. Then when you go back to the default clock page you’ll notice the clock is stuck at a previous time – say ten minutes before – and updates a few seconds later. It’s frustrating to see this lag front and center on the device. Once you dig deeper, however, you find all the rest of the apps are more or less speedy enough. It’s only this one sticking point and could frustrate potential users.

The Bottom Line

At the end of Summer Rental the heros win against the evil yacht club people and everyone hugs it out. I don’t know if the way is as clear here, in this case, but I think the HTC Hero is the dawn of a new era of Android usability. Windows Mobile and Symbian should be shaking right now and Palm execs had better be planning a built-in vibrator/teleportation device combo in the next WebOS phone because anything they can do, it has been shown, HTC can do better. The iPhone is still #1 in my book but this is #2, supplanting my long-held love for the Sidekick LX.

The Hero is well-designed, usable, and powerful. The OS and UI combo is almost perfect and the future is bright for the phones running Sense. My official recommendation – if anyone is listening – is for HTC to abandon Windows Mobile development and to dedicate their team to Android development. They already pretty much own the space, with other manufacturers just hopping on the bandwagon now; with the proper resources allotted, they could lead the way for years to come.

I’ve always been on the fence about HTC. I thought their smartphones were derivative and, when not derivative, too “fancy” for their own good. Now, however, they’ve creating a perfectly balanced smartphone with some of the best software on the market.

As I recall, Summer Rental ends with Candy’s ragtag crew winning the race and sailing off into the sunset. It won’t be as easy for HTC to win this race but they’re definitely ahead of the pack. Other manufacturers are just hopping on to the Android bandwagon now; with the proper resources allotted, HTC could dominate this area for years to come. This proves Androids value in the mobile ecosystem.

This is a phone for the masses, yet it still has the power and geek chic of Android. To paraphrase Candy’s character in the movie, the Hero is fun for the whole family.

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