The HTC Hero has been an object of lust for some time now for gadget enthusiasts. Even from the earliest days of leaked hardware shots and blurry demo videos of its UI, smartphone fans seemed to agree that the company had finally achieved what has been missing in the world of Android. Namely, a polished and attractive device -- polished enough to go head-to-head with the iPhone -- that kept its open source heart. So, here we are months later with an actual, bona fide Hero in our midst. Yes the reports were true, it is a beautiful device, both inside and out (though of course opinions differ on that chin). But does being a beautiful device mean Android is about to move to a bigger stage? Is HTC's spit-shine enough to overcome some of the hurdles that have plagued the platform? That question -- and more -- is answered in the text below, so read on for the full review.
In terms of overall design and layout, the Hero is very much a product of evolution. Like its forebears the G1 (or Dream) and MyTouch (or Magic / Ion), the general stats like screen size, technology, and resolution, button placement, unit size and weight, and basic aesthetic are pure HTC. Like those previous devices, the Hero contains a smattering of hardware buttons on the base (or chin as some call it) of the phone, including a home, menu, back, send, end, and dedicated search key. The device also sports a trackball in this area, which shouldn't surprise any Android aficionados.
Where the Hero breaks from convention, however, is in the overall look and feel of the phone. If the Dream and Magic felt plasticky and cheap (they did), the Hero is quite the opposite -- it's like a solid brick in your hand. The casing is made of a soft-touch material (Teflon on the white version to prevent dirt), and the shape of the device takes a much more severe, almost rectangular slant. The buttons along the bottom are small, evenly spaced ovals (save for the search and back key -- we'll get to that), the earpiece is covered in a stylish mesh, and the volume rocker on the side is a smooth, single button. The screen also uses a new oleophobic treatment (similar to the iPhone 3GS), and thankfully HTC has added a 3.5mm headphone jack to the top of the phone.
Overall the appearance is sleek and modern -- it's like the Magic was beamed to the year 3000 for a redesign. Besides the chin (which some people will nitpick, though we don't mind), the Hero is a home run when it comes to looks, though it's not without issues. One of our main gripes with the phone is the layout of the hard buttons. The four across the top don't bother us much, but the placement of the "back" key is a huge pain. It basically forces your hand into a cramp-inviting position -- it's an unnatural move for a key you've got to use a lot. If you're left handed, it'll seem fine (great even), but as a righty, we found it inconvenient and uncomfortable. It's actually perplexing as to why the back button lives where it does on the Hero -- the Magic's placement is much more accessible and a lot more comfortable to use for righties or lefties.
The guts of the Hero should seem familiar to most gadget buffs -- they're essentially identical to HTC's Magic (at least the Rogers version). What does that mean for you, end user? It means you're stuck with the same Qualcomm 528MHz CPU, the same 288MB of RAM, and a paltry 512MB ROM. The onboard radios include WiFi, GPS, Bluetooth, and a quad-band HSPA cell chip. The model we tested is the European release of the phone, and as such is only able to access EDGE networks here in America. Luckily for us we don't leave the house much, so most of the time we were on WiFi. So just to be clear, beyond the new screen coating, industrial design, and improved camera, this phone is the HTC Magic inside.
The display on the Hero is gorgeous, no doubt. Using a similar smudge resistant material as the iPhone 3GS, it certainly seems to repel oil, though you'll still find yourself wiping it clean on a regular basis. The 3.2-inch, 480 x 320 capacitive touchscreen works well, but not notably better than its predecessors -- in terms of color and clarity, however, the Hero's LCD is on par with the competition. One nice added feature is a proper light sensor here, so automatic dimming works as it should, whereas neither the Dream nor the Magic can take advantage of the eye- and battery-saving functionality. There's nothing particularly special about this screen, however we noted a bit less blurring while scrolling through long pages or detailed images, a problem which we've been bothered by with the Hero's Android brothers. One problem that plagued the unit we were testing was screen freeze ups -- it just simply wouldn't accept any input. This seemed to happen mainly on the homescreen, which made us feel like it might be more of a software problem than a hardware issue (we'll get to that momentarily).
The Hero's 5 megapixel camera is pretty darn amazing, we must say. Coming off of most devices with their paltry 3-or-so megapixel entries, it's a real treat to have an onboard cam which can actually stand in for a proper shooter. While the image quality isn't up there with dedicated point-and-shoots, it's certainly leaps and bounds better than the nearest competitor, with near-macro focus length. We take a little bit of issue with HTC's UI design on the camera app -- using the sometimes-slippery trackball for both zooming and snapping shots seems kind of ill-advised to us, though we didn't have much trouble with it (a toggle to cancel zooming would be nice). As with most phone cameras, the colors weren't quite as vivid as we would have liked -- bright hues somehow came out murky with the Hero -- but we weren't expecting the world here. HTC seems to have tweaked shutter speeds and processing as well, as snapping photos was noticeably faster than on the earlier Android phones, though we still think the iPhone 3GS and Pre feel tighter (of course the Pre doesn't have to worry about that pesky focusing stuff).
On the other hand, video recording on the Hero wasn't quite as awesome an experience as still photos were; the maximum resolution is a pathetic 352 x 288, and even at that resolution we experienced noticeable hiccups and stalls in our videos. We're not asking for much, but we'd at least like some smooth VGA here. If you plan on using this for any kind of decent video -- think again.
We're big speakerphone users, so the external audio of a device is actually important to us (besides, how else can we entertain friends with the "Ras Trent" video while out and about?). The speaker on the Hero is definitely up to the task, producing loud and clear audio while on calls or listening to music. Of course, no one is really going to jam this way very much, but at the very least you can make our your tracks pretty clearly. For calls, the speaker and microphone seemed pretty outstanding to us (we were testing mostly with T-Mobile, mind you).
We were impressed with the Hero's staying power, though we'll reserve our final judgments till we have a device running US 3G to look at. On EDGE / WiFi, we saw impressive, full day use with a single charge. Standby didn't seem to pull much power, though it was obvious that many of the widget updates were just waiting till we woke the phone up, which made for maddening floods of syncing and updating (a real drain on speed). Overall, the Hero beats the pants off of our G1, and gives the Magic a run for its money. Battery life was favorable in comparison with the iPhone 3GS, and obviously puts the Pre in a world of hurt.
HTC's take on Android
As you should know, HTC has sunk a huge amount of time (and money, we assume) into giving Android a major makeover. If you're familiar with the company's work on Windows Mobile devices, then the look and feel of the new HTC-ified Google OS should make perfect sense to you. Sense is a good word, actually, since the company calls its new UI the "Sense Experience," which is really another way of distancing itself from TouchFLO iterations of the past (though there is clearly a lineage here).
Essentially, almost every aspect of Android has been reskinned and tweaked on the Hero. From the windowshade notification area to the dialer, HTC has left its mark across the device -- and it's a pretty handsome mark. The general design is much more on par with contemporaries such as the Pre, iPhone, and recent versions of the BlackBerry OS. You probably know what that means: lots of alpha layers, dark, shiny blacks and grays, and the occasional brightly colored highlight hue. It's all extremely slick -- if you didn't know Android well, you might assume it's a completely different OS... and maybe that's what HTC is hoping. We obviously like the reworked graphics, but it's annoying to see how the fresh paint job bogs the phone down in places. In particular, the calendar app which is fairly nimble on standard builds of Android seems sluggish here, and we noticed the same kind of jittery behavior in other apps which function just fine on our Dreams and Magics.
Two other changes of note are somewhat major in the Hero build of Android. Firstly, as has been widely reported, the phone can access Exchange accounts -- a feature not found on any Google-branded devices (though present in the Rogers variations of HTC's other phones). Secondly, the device has an underlying social networking tie-in (a la webOS) which can pull in Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr data in various spots on the phone, and also allows you to move media and messages between the services.
What is notable is the fact that the underlying guts here are really no different from Android 1.5, save for some HTC-specific tweaks such as the company's onscreen keyboard (more on that in a moment), aforementioned dialer, and other nips and tucks, largely cosmetic. For instance, instead of providing a tab to pull up your applications, HTC provides a button reminiscent of the Pre's home icon (which incidentally does the same thing). Still, there are quite a few functionality tweaks onboard as well, including the addition of multitouch in the Hero's photo app and standard (but heavily skinned) Android browser. Sorry Google Maps fans -- no love on that front.
Google's touch keyboard has been completely dashed here in favor of HTC's iteration, and that's a good thing... to an extent. The keyboard is certainly usable -- even good sometimes -- but it's hardly a competitor to Apple's onscreen QWERTY, and not even in the same universe as a physical keyboard. We know a lot of readers have been on the edge of their seat about whether the Hero's lack of keys would be a detracting factor, and despite a tremendous attempt by HTC here, it certainly is (of course we feel similarly about the Magic). We found ourselves regularly frustrated by the speed of typing (which can sometimes hang painfully, a la iPhone OS 2.0), and some of the auto-correction, which is typically good, but can be maddening when incorrect. Keep in mind, we really, really wanted to like this keyboard, but the more time we spent with it, the more frustrated we became by it. Trying to tap out an address in Google Maps while walking somewhere, for instance, was a truly unpleasant experience.
On the other hand, HTC has made marked improvements in the phone functionality on the Hero, making the dialer and contact management pages a joy to use. Getting to number quickly is a cinch since you're able to use the numeric keypad to call up both strings of numbers and names, and the company has forgone tabbed entries on contacts for a combined recent / missed page coupled with your contact list. HTC has also improved the music player here (a badly needed upgrade), though like so many other applications on the phone, it feels sluggish when compared to its rivals' experiences. We had the same feeling when using the browser -- another spot where the software falls victim to the phone's underpowered hardware -- the web experience on the Hero was typically slow and frustrating.
Overall, the changes the company has made with Android do make the OS feel more complete and modern, but it seems to be at the expense of performance. We could almost feel the 528MHz processor struggling to keep us as we paged through seven homescreens of widgets -- most accessing data in the background -- and when we took at a look at the task list, it was clear that most of our memory was being sucked up with scores of little processes. It seems like HTC has made a software suite for their next generation of phones, but tacked it onto its current one, and the combo is a bit messy at times. We won't knock them for aiming high, but we don't know how much we enjoy the lag and stutter of the current Hero build.
Widgets and new applications
HTC has loaded the phone with a slew of new applications and widgets -- and the company has made a lot of the right choices. We've also felt that one of the really untapped resources Android had was its widget implementation, so it's really nice to see that HTC has taken up the mantle here. Unfortunately, these aren't standard Android widgets, so as far as we know, you're only going to be seeing them on HTC phones.
Of course there are the standard clock and weather widgets (both beautiful, mind you), though the company has provided a number of other options that really do improve the day-to-day use of the phone. We're not going to run through every single one, but we do want to mention the notable additions.
To start with, HTC has gone to the trouble of creating it's own Twitter client, Peep. The application lives in two places on the phone; the first is a variable sized widget for your homescreen which allows basic functionality like reading recent tweets and updating your status. The second iteration is a full-on app which offers robust options along the lines of Tweetie for the iPhone. While the application is excellent at what it does, there is some disconnect between the widget and the program itself. Like other parts of the OS, Peep seems to be hampered by the slower CPU and limited RAM as well -- scrolling can sometimes be stuttery, and it often takes some doing to refresh its content.
Another notable widget / application combo is Footprints. The premise is simple: it allows you to quickly snap a photo and geotag your location, then gives you options for sorting the content as favorites, restaurants, shopping, etc. It's actually a pretty clever little idea, and for those who travel or are planning a trip, along with that 5 megapixel camera, it's a nice addition to the phone.
Interestingly, our favorite widgets are actually simple toggles -- switches which allow you to flip services like WiFi, mobile networks, Bluetooth, and Airplane Mode on and off without jumping into your settings screen. During testing, we found ourselves putting these small, icon-sized micro apps into heavy rotation. It's a thoughtful inclusion which shows HTC is actually paying attention to how users operate their phones.
So Flash is kind of a big deal on new smartphones. The iPhone doesn't have it, the Pre doesn't have it, BlackBerry devices don't have it... but the Hero does. Unfortunately, in our testing, we found the inclusion actually hurts operation of the phone more than it helps. When browsing to a site heavy on Flash (there are many), the browser loading times were abysmal. Furthermore, trying to view videos in-window produced choppy, nearly unwatchable results. You may have a better experience with lighter kinds of content, but in our opinion the main reason to introduce Flash into a mobile environment is to allow for broader media viewing options, and in the current state of this Flash player, you're not really going to get much mileage out of it.
The Hero represents a valiant effort from HTC -- though unfortunately, the company appears to have bitten off more than its last-generation hardware can chew. If this build of Android were to be loaded atop the guts of a 3GS or Pre, the performance would likely be astounding, but fused with the two-year old architecture of previous devices, it's mostly disappointing. We're not saying this isn't the best build of Android on the market -- we think it is. What we are saying is that this build is a bit too much for a device like the Hero to handle, and that makes for an uneven, sometimes frustrating experience. Going into the review, we desperately wanted to love this phone, but given the combination of a few poor hardware choices and an OS which outclasses the device it runs on, we can only recommend that you enter at your own risk. HTC has an explosive entry in the smartphone category with what its done on the software side... now it just needs the hardware to match.