HTC’s Sense UI has evolved over the years from a laggy train wreck in its early incarnations to something quite lean and serviceable in Sense 4.0. The newest version, Sense 5.0 — which will be launching on the HTC One — is yet another departure. But different isn’t always better.
The first thing you’ll notice is that your default homescreen is now what HTC calls BlinkFeed (middle panel in the image above). In previous iterations of Sense, all of the pages on the homescreen looked the same; they were little customisable desktops. This is something very different. BlinkFeed is sort of like Windows Phone live tiles crossbred with an RSS feed. You can customise the sources you want your news blips from, and it shows you everything at a glance. It also aggregates updates from your social media profiles, like photos and statuses from Facebook.
It’s laid out very nicely, and it’s easy to scroll through, but for a default home screen? No. It took all of 30 minutes to drive me insane. Most of us procrastinate enough as it is. Luckily, it’s easy enough to set a standard Android screen as your default desktop. That way you can flip over to BlinkFeed when you want, but it’s not distracting you when you’re trying to get down to business.
The lockscreen is customisable as well. You can set it to Productivity mode, which will display your unread text messages, your emails, and upcoming calendar appointments. Or put it in Photo Album mode, and it will scroll through photos from any album you select. You can also have it display music artwork, a wallpaper, or have no lockscreen at all.
All of the lockscreens also feature the new HTC clock and weather widget, which you’ll find at the top of the app drawer. It’s a simplified version from the original HTC clock (which you can still use as a pre-installed widget, if you’re feeling nostalgic). It’s cleaner, easier to read, and blends in better with Android Jelly Bean. This is all new stuff, and very welcome.
HTC’s updated camera app is extremely advanced, yet very easy to use. The app was good in Sense 4.0, but now it’s much more sparse and clean, allowing you to see more of what you’re shooting. Toggling flash on/off, recording video, and applying fun filters are all a single button-press away. Open up the settings, though, and you have fine-grain control over everything from resolution, white balance, contrast, exposure, and ISO. It’s also where you’ll find settings for self-timer, HDR (photo and video), and panoramic options.
There’s also a new feature in 5.0 that HTC calls Zoe, which captures a three-second video (one second before you hit the shutter button and two seconds after), and lets you chose one frame from it to use as a still. These videos play live in your gallery, and the phone also cuts together little montages of them and the various stills and videos you take during an event (“last weekend”, say) and puts them to music. They’re surprisingly entertaining.
The good news is that all of this added stuff doesn’t cost the phone in speed. We’re talking zero lag, fast app switching, and a lightning quick shutter. Whether that’s because HTC has gotten better at making software or because the Qualcomm S4 Pro 600 processor powering it is an absolute animal, I do not know, but who cares? It’s fast. It also comes with some improved widgets, including one for profiles, enabling you to switch from ringing, to vibrate, to silent super easily (all versions of Android should come with that). Sense 5.0 does have its share of flaws, though.
Most glaringly, it’s just harder to use. customising your home screen used to be a cinch Sense 4.0: see something in the app drawer that you want on your homescreen, hold down on it and drag it to where you want it to go. Adding widgets was just as easy. Now you have to long-press a blank spot on the desktop to get into that customisation mode, then flip through your apps again. It’s not ultimately that much harder, but it’s less intuitive. Before, customisation was something you could just do on the side while you were going about the rest of your business; now you have to set aside time for it. You can only customise the bottom button-bar when in that mode, too.
For some reason the app drawer’s default setup is a 3×4 grid with a seemingly random means of sorting the icons. Not only is there a ton of wasted space, but it’s really hard to find what you’re looking for. There’s a fix — you can go into the little menu and select 4×5 from the grid size, and alphabetical sorting — but why this wouldn’t be the default is perplexing. Also, the app drawer uses vertical scrolling, which went the way of the dodo with Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). If you’re scrolling from side to side in your desktops, you want to keep that same orientation in the app drawer. It takes a little while for the brain to adjust.
The other big womp-womp is the Sense keyboard. It’s just bad. It’s not worse than it was in 4.0, it’s just not better in any meaningful way. It offers suggestions for auto-correct, but if you click one of those options it doesn’t know to insert a space. Accidental elisions ensue. This is by no means a deal-breaker, since there are dozens of very good keyboards you can download and install from Google Play (we recommend SwiftKey 4), but a lot of people don’t know that, and it doesn’t excuse HTC offering a worse default alternative to stock Android.
HTC Sense 5.0 definitely provides an attractive user experience and it’s sure to woo some people, especially those who have been admiring Windows Phone. But while we like a lot of the new elements in Sense 5.0, it does seem like a regression in other ways. In Sense’s last iteration HTC was all about paring back, which created a cleaner, easier-to-use UI. We were hoping to see them continue down that path. Instead Sense 5.0 adds some functionality, but loses some of its intuitive edge.
Again, there are no deal breakers here, and all of our gripes are easily fixable. It’s just a shame the experience isn’t what it could have been right out of the box.