It’s the Android phone we’ve been waiting for. Almost.
The HTC Hero is as much a champion for HTC as it is for Android: It’s the first genuinely gorgeous piece of hardware running Android, and the Sense UI is the most ambitious, polished software HTC has developed yet. The Hero is flawed, though, in ways that are truly depressing in light of its potential and how much it does get truly right: It’s often sluggish, which absolutely destroys the user experience. It’s a particularly unfortunate affliction as the iPhone 3GS and Palm Pre emphasise speed, making the Hero feel that much slower.
Design and Build
The angles don’t just give it a sense of Star Trek machismo—they’re what make it so comfortable to hold. While the basic silhouette of the phone resembles the Dream and Magic, the left and right edges taper from the display’s bezel at about a 45-degree angle, giving your hand a serendipitously positioned surface to grasp.
Compared to the Hero, the Dream feels bulky and clumsy, while the Magic feels like a cheap plastic toy (this is partly because the Hero weighs more, about as much as the iPhone). The back on the darker phones is rubberised, more so than the Dream, so rubbing it a lot makes your hand feel weird, sweaty and dried out at the same time. (The magical Teflon coating is reserved for the white phones.)
On the face, there are six buttons—the same set as the Magic, though back and search are now part of the same rocker button, set to the right of the more-pronounced trackball. I would’ve preferred the back and search buttons split apart, both for functional (it’s easy to press search when you mean back) and aesthetic (read: symmetry) reasons.
Despite its more aggressive shape, Hero is noticeably thinner than the Dream, and ever-so-slightly thicker than the iPhone, though it’s a bit shorter and narrower. The Hero feels more secure and natural in your hand than both, though less comfortable in your pocket, because its fat jaw makes people think you’re happy to see them, or that you’ve shrunk Jay Leno and shoved him in your pocket just to give Conan a break.
If you’ve used the Dream or Magic, the 480×320 screen will seem like an old friend. It’s still really good. Next to the Dream, while the brightness is the same, it’s very obviously warmer, however—like on the same order of magnitude as the jump from the original iPhone to the iPhone 3G. The colour temperature seems fairly close to the iPhone 3G, actually, maybe even warmer, though it’s hard to tell precisely since the iPhone 3G’s screen is a tiny bit brighter.
It is a multitouch display, as the other Android phones, but this time it’s actually enabled. The first time you pinch to zoom out in the browser, the feeling is both shock and matter-of-factness: “Holy crap, multitouch, this is so much better than those stupid plus and minus buttons,” followed by “of course this is better, where the hell was it before?” While the touch accuracy is very good, I would rate it slightly behind the iPhone and Pre, and equal to or slightly better than the Dream. However, I suspect this is at least partially a software issue. It is good enough to type confidently, at any rate.
Is there a way to disable autofocus? It’s the Achilles’ Heel of the Hero’s biggest spec upgrade over the Dream and Magic: the 5-megapixel camera. It’s maddeningly slow, even with brightly lit subjects. I mean like, up to four seconds after I push the trackball to take the shot kind of slow. Which, by the way, when you’re holding the sideways like a point-and-shoot is about as a dumb an input method for snapping a photo as the iPhone’s touch button, since the natural inclination to use your thumb is met by the scary reality of the phone slipping from your hand if you’re trying to naturally shoot one-handed, unless you’ve got it in a awkward death grip between your thumb fat and index finger. Just add a dedicated camera button to the side that’s natural easy to click and that instantly activates the camera app, like if I were shooting with a real camera, ‘kay? Thanks.
Back to the actual photos. They’re a mixed bag. While some of the low light shots are somewhat impressive for how much you can actually see, and certainly better than what the Dream takes—at night in the rain, and of the delicious pizza at Keste—the daylight shots range from thoroughly mediocre to shockingly bad. Check out the blacks in that street sign. Mosey on over to some samples from the N97’s 5MP shooter and the iPhone 3GS’s camera to see why these are so disappointing. Also, um, where the hell is some flash? Not even asking for crazy Xenon strobe lights, some LED action would be just fine.
Video isn’t a much happier story—the max resolution is 352×288, though the default is 340×280, which we shot sample video below in. Motion looks pixels running through time warp blender.
All in all, the camera, which should’ve been one of the biggest points over the previous Android phones, falls flat, like if someone had a tummy tuck, and instead of coming out all skinny, they had a bunch of loose skin hanging around. But the software is fair enough—you can adjust settings like white balance and exposure, and it takes just two clicks to upload a photo to Twitter, Facebook, Picasa, Flickr, or send via email or MMS. The photo album app is slick enough, and features another guest appearance by multitouch, whose zoom gestures suspiciously match the iPhone’s.
Powering Hero is a 528MHz processor virtually identical to one inside the Dream and Magic, and it has the same 288MB of RAM as the latter. Frankly, it’s not enough. At least not with HTC’s custom user interface, more than a couple of widgets and an application running. Killing all of the widgets—especially the Twitter one—does help. But moments where the phone does nothing for a second or three after you’ve tapped, flicked or swiped happens far too often. Which is to say, a lot, especially after it’s been on for more than an hour. Fast, totally smooth transition animations are infrequent enough I’m pleasantly surprised when a desktop screen immediately and gracefully slides to the left or right without a hiccup. It’s frustrating.
But holy mother of god, there’s a 3.5mm jack. And it’s not even a cruel joke where you need a special dongle to make your headphones fit, even—they just work. You have to pop off the back cover to get to the microSDHC card slot, but you don’t pull out the 1350mAh battery to get to it, at least. There’s no futile plastic cover hiding the mini USB port, which retains HTC’s typical funky shape. Speaking of the battery, HTC claims it will net you 420 minutes of talk time over 3G, though we never got the chance to test its 3G capabilities (or deficiencies)—this phone is a final product for the UK, but it doesn’t run on the 3G bands used by AT&T or T-Mobile.
To roll all of that up into a pair of bullet points: It’s fantastically designed and sculpted, amending many of HTC’s past sins, but it needs more processing powah and a better camera.
This is not a Google phone. Android is the hidden golem running stuff behind the scenes, but the Hero is HTC’s show. The scope of Sense UI is remarkable—it goes way, way beyond a skin, and shows just how radically Android can be transformed.
The stock Android user interface isn’t ugly, but it is wildly inconsistent—text messaging looks completely different from mail, which is nothing like Google Talk, and settings and the Android Marketplace have another look entirely. HTC’s user interface has a (mostly) consistent look across the phone. Most of the oh-so-glossy interface looks like it was molded out of plastic, with nots of black and the occasional shock of neon green, plenty of gradients ,and no corner that isn’t rounded. Universally, text is white on black in menus, and black on white within apps. It looks polished, if philosophically somewhat less sophisticated than the webOS’s user interface.
The way you unlock the phone is weirdly emblematic of the Hero’s UI, and how it at times makes expected behaviours an unpleasant surprise: If simply you stare at the screen, it’s not immediately obvious how you’d go about unlocking it. Fumbling around the screen for a few seconds with your fingers, you’d probably wind up tapping the curved steel bar that cuts across the screen 2/3 of the way down. It’ll tell you to drag the screen down. But if you slide your finger down from the top of the screen, nothing will happen. Not until you reach the bar, at which point the lock screen will slide away like a window shade in reverse.
Or you could’ve just pressed the menu button, which the standard Android would helpfully tell you. Oops.
Like Android, HTC’s interface has multiple desktop spaces—but like, seven of them. On the bottom is a persistent HUD with one-touch access to the phone app and main app list, which works pretty damn well as an interface convention. There are widgets, oh what widgets. Besides the stock Android ones, HTC supplies 15 categories of their own. They’re pretty, and useful, for the most part. There’s the familiar HTC flip clock with local weather, naturally.
More than that, the Hero has multiple desktop themes, with different backgrounds, widgets and shortcuts, called Scenes. It comes with nine, like a “work” scene packed with a pair of clocks, calendar, email and stock widgets (since everybody who works looks at stocks right?). You can save custom configurations as well. It takes a couple seconds to switch from one scene to another, but being able to completely rearrange your entire desktop almost instantly around whatever you’re doing at the time is incredibly awesome, especially if you’re trying to maintain some kind of work/life balance. The problem is that if you load up a scene with a ton of widgets, it kicks the phone’s performance in the nuts, so you’re better off running lean.
Smartly, HTC left Android’s brilliant dropdown window shade alone for background notifications, so it still does its thing, same as always. But with all of the other work HTC did, it actually makes us want the universal search coming in Donut that much more.
The Hero pulls one hell of a Palm Pre Synergy turn with the way it handles your contacts and social networking. When you turn on the phone for the first time, it asks for your Facebook, Twitter and Flickr logins—after your Google one, natch. But rather than dump all 900 of your Facebook friends into contacts, it keeps the friends list in the background for when you need it. Instead, you have to link up Facebook and Flickr profiles to your contacts manually. This is a pain, for sure, but the Facebook connection here is deeper and more useful than what the Palm Pre makes of it.
As you scroll down your contacts list—which has the familiar iPhone whiplash when you hit the bottom—if you’ve linked someone to a Facebook profile, under their name it’ll show their most recent status update from Facebook. A contact’s page is divided into six tabs: The main contact tab, with their numbers, email address, photo and birthday (the latter two are pulled down via Facebook); text messages, with all of your SMS conversations; email history (from HTC’s app only); their recent Facebook updates and events; albums, with their Facebook and Flickr photo albums, and at the end, call history (which shows you what’s really important here). It’s not the single flowing stream of conversation across multiple networks that the Pre offers—it’s more like an organised collection that manages to be in some ways, both more functional and oddly less fulfilling than the Pre’s Synergy. What’s utterly bizarre is that it doesn’t just fail to integrate any kind of IM—even Google Talk—or Twitter status into the profiles, it’s completely blind to anything going on with actual Google apps, even Gmail. Maybe HTC’s software isn’t allowed to access that data on the phone, but it’s a pretty stunning gap in what’s otherwise the best attempt since the Pre to pool the vast amount of social data and connections you likely have into a single place.
Also somewhat strange is that while you can access your Facebook friends list to assign them to contacts and update your status from your own contact page, there’s not an actual Facebook app to do any real Facebooking. Same deal with Flickr, though it’s easy enough to upload photos and see your friends albums. It’s made more mystifying by the fact that HTC includes its own Twitter app, called Peep, which is built on top of Twidroid. HTC’s app is more stripped down, but it’s also prettier and easier to use, even if it still isn’t quite as nice as some of the better iPhone apps. The Twitter widget for the desktop is slick, if a bit slow, both to refresh and react. But hey, at least you don’t have to fire up Peep every time you wanna kill 30 seconds checking out Twitter.
The other major upgrade HTC made to Android is the browser: They’ve tacked on not just Flash support, but multitouch. Now that Palm’s whipped its balls out, I guess nobody’s afraid of Apple anymore, since the gestures are identical to the iPhone’s: Pinch to zoom out, spread to zoom in. The implementation is jankier—zooming sometimes happens really really fast, so you’re nowhere near the zoom level you wanted, and sometimes it drags. But it still beats clicking stupid little plus and minus buttons. Flash support is more miss than hit—don’t expect to play Hulu videos (crash), or YouTube videos (they just won’t play, no matter how many times you mash the giant play button). Looks like we’ll have to wait for that more official implementation this fall, for a real solution. But, uh, at least something is there? Regardless, the core WebKit browser is still one of the best mobile browsers around.
While HTC only puffed up the keys a tiny bit, the keyboard is noticeably more comfortable and accurate than the standard Android soft keyboard on the Dream and Magic, and while it’s closer than ever, it’s still not quite as good the iPhone’s. (But it’s still pretty damn good.) They managed to carve out some extra room by shrinking the number/symbol key, which was made feasible by giving you an alternate way to type numbers and symbols. Long pressing a key acts like shift—the floating pop-up from the key will turn into its alternate symbol or number. I’ve gotten fast enough with the iPhone’s method of alternate key input that I felt slowed down every time I stopped to punch in a number, but this actually seems more logical for beginning touchscreen typists.
My biggest gripe about text input is the autocomplete bar that hovers above what you’re typing, constantly offering suggestions, ready to leap into action at a tap of the space bar. As far as word prediction and correction goes, it’s pretty decent—neither as sentient or aggressive as the iPhone—but the bar is totally obnoxious. I can’t help but think “get the hell out of my way” most of the time I’m typing, even as it’s helping me type better, faster. Isn’t there a way to make it more subtle?
For the uninitiated, copy and paste works like this—put your finger down on the text until a context menu pops up. Tap “select text” and then using the trackball to highlight whatever text you wanna copy. Push the trackball, and it’ll let you copy it. Long-press the screen or hold down the trackball, and you can paste. Not quite as fast as the iPhone’s implementation, but more elegant than the Pre’s finger gymnastics.
Sweet christ, Android needs a media syncing application. Dragging and dropping just doesn’t cut it now that the Hero has a real live 3.5mm headphone jack, especially given the awkward way you have to mount and unmount the SD card when you plug into your computer. Fix that crap, seriously. Otherwise, the music player listicle interface cribs a bit more liberally from the iPhone’s than the stock Android UI, but otherwise it’s pretty standard, and all of our MP3s and album art imported and played just dandy.
Video is another issue. HTC boasts that Hero natively supports MPEG-4, H.263, H.264 and Windows Media Video 9. We couldn’t get WMV files to play it all, and the playback quality of the MPEG-4 and H.264 videos we dropped onto it were asstastic—choppy and full of artifacts. Maybe we just done did it wrong, but that just shows why it needs a media syncing application. Also, it’s not immediately apparent that to play videos, you have to go into the albums app, where it stores your photos. A dedicated video app would be nice (yes, we know there are ones available in the Android Market, but if HTC’s gonna go all out, they should go all out).
Speaking of typing on the toilet (or just typing), HTC replaces the default email client—not Gmail, that’s still there and the same as always—with their own, which supports IMAP4, POP3 and, oh yeah, Exchange out of the box. It’s a pretty decent email app—full HTML support and the like—but it also has a threaded conversation view and lets you separate attachments. Messaging is also skinned, though the changes are more subtle—it uses HTC’s universal scheme with rounded corners and black text on white, but the threaded conversation view also uses contacts’ photos as icons, so it looks more like an IM conversation.
I find the standard Android dialer interface to be less confusing, honestly, since it’s immediately obvious how to get to your call log, favourites, and contacts, though the Hero does have sleeker dial buttons. (With the Hero’s you have to type menu.) When you start dialing a number manually, it starts pulling up contacts that match the number, which is a neat touch. Call quality is better than average—not knock-you-on-your-ass loud and clear, but it’s good.
The Google apps, as far as we can tell are the exact same as they are on the other Android phones: Maps is Maps, Gmail’s Gmail, Google Talk is the same, you get the idea. They’re all still great. The Marketplace has gotten way more mature over the last 8 months—enough what we run a monthly roundup of Android apps that’s increasingly packed with bigger names in software. In short, 9 months after launch, the Marketplace is very nearly ready for the masses.
The Hero is a really good phone. It might even be a great phone. HTC’s done a fairly remarkable job transforming Android’s rough surface into something slick and glossy and palatable while integrating social networking features that go beyond any phone but the Pre. And the Android Marketplace has come into its own, so that as a platform, Android easily stands up there with the other major smartphone OSes.
The biggest drag on the phone is that it, well, drags way too often, smooshing the other solid user experience into a goopy ooze of the awesome sauce that you hoped the Hero would be. It’s like finding out that Arnold is actually a 110-pound French guy in an inflatable suit. The performance issues are persistent enough to tarnish what HTC has done,
especially considering that Android already feels slower than the iPhone 3GS. Which adds to the feeling that in the end, as much spitshine as HTC has rubbed all over Android, it’s still not quite as polished or elegant as the iPhone or Palm Pre. With two companies compromising on the interface, perhaps it never can be.
That said, the Hero is still the best Android phone yet. The phone’s design, revamped interface and features like totally integrated profiles carry it over the rest of the (admittedly small) Android pack, and make it a real alternative to the iPhone and Pre, even if it doesn’t quite rise to meet the occasion. It sets a new standard for the overall Android package by showing the potential for future phones with beautiful, powerful hardware and awesome custom interfaces, even if it falls somewhat short of brilliance itself.