Geek Foibles

Smartphone impressions: HTC Hero
January 3, 2010, 4:12 am
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Sprint’s HTC Hero is where things began to get interesting.  The Hero is the first phone I tried that lacks a hard keyboard, making it physically more similar to the iPhone that I’m used to.  I’m fond of hard keyboards, but I’m also comfortable relying exclusively on a soft keyboard, so that issue didn’t bother me.  And as I’ve said in my impressions of other phones, I don’t like moving parts, so the lack of a sliding mechanism pleases me.  The build quality was fine: while the bottom button assembly felt a bit plastic-y, it didn’t feel cheap to the point of concern.

The arrangement of buttons at the bottom was a little odd, with the menu, search, home and back buttons forming a square around the trackball, then with the start and end call buttons hanging off either side.  It’s a lot of buttons, and I feel like the four grouped in a square would serve better as a horizontal row above the trackball and call buttons.  Also, the center area of the button cluster is strangely raised.  I’d prefer a simpler design where it’s just flat with the trackball in the middle.  The buttons aren’t delineated at all by the gradual raising of the surface, so I couldn’t discern any benefit from the raising.  I’m sure I’d get used to both the button placement and elevation quickly enough, but the layout was still a bit odd off the bat.

Where things start to heat up, however, is in the software.  This is the first HTC phone to bear their “HTC Sense” user interface, and the changes to Android that come with it are really nice.  There are a lot of little visual tweaks about the place, most visibly being the tabs at the bottom of the home screen for accessing the phone and apps are redesigned as a single crescent and now features an “add” button for more easily adding widgets and shortcuts to the home screens.  While I find most of these visual changes appealing, they don’t affect function significantly.  What does are Sense’s “scenes” concept and a new soft keyboard.

“Scenes” is a new feature that HTC has brought to Android.  One of the great features of Android is how heavily customizable the home screens are.  You can add shortcuts to as many or few apps as you want, wherever you want, and you can add widgets, contacts and so on in addition to that.  This is already one of Android’s greatest advantages over the iPhone in my book, but HTC takes it even further.  Once you’ve set up your home screens the way you like, you can save that setup as a “scene”, and then start all over and create another.  Once you’ve got multiple scenes (and the phone comes preloaded with several), you can switch between them on the fly.  The most immediate use for this would seem to be having a work-oriented scene (with the e-mail widget, business contacts and so on) that you use during work and then a play-oriented scene (with Facebook, friend contacts and so on) that you switch to when you leave the office.

They keyboard has also gotten some significant reworking at HTC’s hands.  The rows of keys are spaced apart a little more, making things a little less cramped.  The list of auto-corrections now floats semi-transparently over the text field you’re typing into (rather than in an opaque bar above the keyboard), allowing the Sense keyboard to consume less space than the standard Android keyboard.  The Sense keyboard also indicates what alternate character you can get if you hold down on the key (for example, holding down on the “A” key will give you an explanation point).  Between the roominess, smaller footprint and increased functionality, the Hero’s new keyboard struck me as a big step up from the simpler soft keyboards I’d used on the Motorola CLIQ and Samsung Moment.

Speed was reasonable.  It wasn’t lightning-quick, but even with a few apps running and a couple of windows open in the browser, things remained responsive.  I didn’t get any notable delays when switching apps, tapping buttons, scrolling, etc.  Also welcome was the inclusion of iPhone-style pinch-to-zoom multitouch in the browser, something missing from the CLIQ and Moment.

Overall, I was pleased with the Hero.  After the lackluster (or outright disappointing) performances of the other phones, this was a nice discovery.  It’s not perfect, but it’s the first phone I’ve played with that I’d consider taking home.  We’ll see how the next few fare in the shadow of the Hero.