Over the last year, HTC has established a reputation for fragmenting its proprietary Sense UI even within the same version of Android. Why, Gingerbread alone is the foundation for at least three different iterations (2.1, 3.0 and 3.5) of the firmware. The bump to Ice Cream Sandwich is no different, with legacy devices getting an update to Sense 3.6 and the One series (and presumably any future devices) benefiting from version 4.0.
When we previewed Sense 3.6, we were disappointed at its similarity to previous versions and the sloppiness of its integration with key features in ICS. Even though it marked an improvement in functionality and performance, it seemed as if the OS and customized UI were at war with each other.
Sense 4 is a different story. It's lighter, cleaner and much more visually appealing than older versions of the user interface, and it has the full suite of ICS goodies to go along with it. HTC also throws in its own imaging technology, dubbed ImageSense, to offer some cool new enhancements to the camera. Ultimately, HTC has successfully tweaked Sense's design in a way that keeps the spirit of stock Android 4.0 alive, while still offering something familiar to loyal HTC fans. The tour is about to begin, so park yourself in your favorite chair and join us.
Unlike Sense 3.x, version 4.0 adopts the appearance of Matias Duarte's horizontal app menu, but you'll notice one significant difference right off the bat: no widgets. Those can still be accessed by long-pressing the home panel screen, as we discussed earlier, and that's the only place you can find them. We assume this decision was made to avoid possible confusion when switching back and forth between apps and widgets, but it's a significant enough departure from the true ICS setup. In the top right corner you'll have a search button, Play Store access point and options menu at your disposal. Within the latter you can find the ability to manage, share or sort your apps. There aren't many options to customize the app menu -- you won't be able to move the icons around to fit your liking, but you at least still have more flexibility with Sense than the vanilla OS. Also, tucked between the icons and tabs is a menu progress indicator that tells you exactly where you are in the potentially vast expanse of app screens.
HTC has made it possible to edit the tabs lining the bottom of the app menu.
Last but not least, HTC has made it possible to edit the tabs lining the bottom of the app menu. If you've played with earlier versions of Sense and couldn't stand the frequent or download tabs, you can remove them on 4.0 simply by going into the app menu options on the upper right corner of the screen and clicking on "edit tabs." Boom goes the dynamite. If you like your tabs but hate the order they're displayed in, you can rearrange them however you'd like. The best part is that this isn't the only part of Sense that allows this -- a plethora of apps within the UI now offer the same ability. Customization FTW.
The multitasking (or "recent apps," if you prefer) menu is different. Very different. HTC's design choice took us completely by surprise, because it opts for a card layout that's actually closer in function and appearance to webOS and Windows Phone 7.5 than what we see in stock Ice Cream Sandwich. Each open application is presented as a card, and the entire series of apps is displayed in a horizontal setup that looks like it was inspired by Cover Flow. The slide to close feature is still around, but you flick the card up to get rid of it. We can't help but be reminded of webOS every time we use it.
Multitasking on Sense 4 is much closer to webOS or Windows Phone Mango than Ice Cream Sandwich. It's by far the biggest departure from Android you'll find in Sense.
While we enjoyed this method on webOS, seeing HTC adopt it on its Android devices is a bit of a letdown. One of our beefs with previous versions of Sense is that the UI is so involved, so overbearing, that it often takes you away from feeling like you're even using Android in the first place. HTC has sought to eliminate much of that same concern in its latest firmware and it largely succeeded in doing so by making the interface more closely resemble Matias Duarte's vision. The multitasking screen, however, is a gargantuan departure to that philosophy. It functions well, but it's as if we're using a completely different OS. Here's where it gets even weirder: Sense 3.6, also considered to be a heavier, more "watered down" version of ICS, uses the stock app switcher.
We have a feeling many ICS fanatics will shun the native Sense browser in favor of Google's own Chrome flavor, but there's still plenty to like about HTC's version -- and it's especially beautiful on a high-performance phone like the One X, given how incredibly smooth it works. We had a very difficult time finding any lag, and tiling on the browser was practically non-existent. And just like the Galaxy Nexus, Sense's version scored a perfect 100 / 100 on the Acid3 test. The native browser keeps many of the stock settings and adds a few of its own for kicks and giggles. Instead of throwing in extra stuff just for the sake of being different, however, the new features can actually become quite useful: a toggle switch to enable Flash, wireless printing (not new to Sense, but it isn't on the vanilla ICS browser) and an "add to" option which lets you easily stash your current page on bookmarks, an icon on your home panel or a reading list -- Sense's version of offline reading. Incognito mode is still there, but it takes you one additional step to pull it up; on Sense, it can only be accessed when you go through the action of adding a new tab.
The quick access shortcut menu in the native browser is still there, and HTC has added a couple more options to make it even better.
Also retained in this version of the ICS browser is the clever labs feature in which a semi-circle with quick access shortcuts can appear simply by dragging your finger onto the screen from the left or right bezel. Sense, not satisfied with keeping it precisely the same as what you'd find on vanilla Android 4.0, has added two extra options. In addition to buttons for settings, window toggle and URL bar, it allows you to add a new window and go directly to your bookmarks. They're not crucially important, of course, but it was pretty handy.
HTC has armed the cameras in its Sense 4 devices with a new weapon: ImageSense. This technology is made possible by integrating a custom chip and enhancing several other parts of the camera like the lens, sensor and software in general. While all of these elements are crucial to ensuring ImageSense works as advertised, we'll focus on the cam's user interface specifically. With Sense 4, there are no more specific "modes" in which you need to access a toggle switch to move back and forth between still and video. Instead, both options are available to you together to the right of the viewfinder, the two buttons hanging out together in peace and harmony as one mode. We appreciate this setup because it's much more convenient when you need to quickly choose one or the other, such as when a precious moment is going on. Switching from still to video (or vice versa) ends up taking a few seconds you just won't get back, after all. But it's also structured this way to accommodate one of ImageSense's biggest features: the ability to take still pictures and videos at the same time.
NFC/Android Beam: Naturally, this little bit will only apply to HTC devices that offer NFC functionality, but Sense 4 does indeed support Android Beam -- and on the One X, it works flawlessly. We were able to share URLs, directions, apps, contacts and even YouTube videos with our Galaxy Nexus without incident. We were also able to download Google Wallet directly from the Play Store, but carrier restrictions still apply.
Keyboard: HTC loves its virtual keyboard so much that the layout remained nearly identical, with the exception of a standard set of arrows on a fresh row at the bottom. This means if you weren't a fan before, nothing's going to change your mind now. Of course, part of the beauty of Android is the fact that you can simply download a new keyboard and use it instead, so this really isn't a make-or-break factor when you're thinking of purchasing a device. On a positive note, we were quite pleased to see the trace functionality still baked into the Sense keyboard, and it worked brilliantly. Calendar: Sense's calendar is colorful and easy to read. You can view multiple calendars and incorporate tasks, contact birthdays, Facebook events and more. The weather for the city of your choosing is spread out across the top of each individual day, but if the daily layout isn't for you, just touch one of the tabs at the bottom to switch to week, month and agenda views. Phone: The layout is very much what you'd come to expect from Sense, but a few elements have been tossed around to make room for uniformity with other parts of the UI. For instance, tabs now run across the bottom of the app and the rest of the keypad has shifted up the screen to make room for them. Two of them -- groups and call history -- can fortunately be removed if necessary. What can't be taken away, though, are the phone and contacts tabs.
Beats Integration: HTC must have received a lot of complaints from customers upset that Beats Audio couldn't be used in third-party apps, because the company added the functionality into Sense 4 and used it as one of the update's key talking points at Mobile World Congress in February. While only certain legacy devices (such as the Vivid) will get the feature alongside version 3.6, every phone or tablet bearing 4.0 will likely boast this capability. We checked it out on the One X, and was indeed able to take advantage of Beats on several third party apps. Widgets: Most widgets made available by Sense 4 aren't all that different from any other HTC device that has come before it. There are a few native Android widgets scattered about, but be prepared to wade through a much larger sea of available options with Sense than you would have on pure ICS.
Disabling apps: Not every app or process can be disabled in Sense, and there doesn't appear to be any rhyme or reason to which ones are affected. The camera app and bluetooth share can't be disabled, for instance, but the dialer and contacts apps can. With that said, there are still plenty more options to get rid of stuff on Sense 4 than any Gingerbread-running version. Dropbox: The One series is lacking in expandable storage, but we'll give HTC credit for trying to come up with a solid alternative method to make up for it. The Taiwanese company has once again partnered with Dropbox to hook you up with 25GB cloud storage space when you're rockin' on a Sense 4 device. This is more than plenty of real estate for many people, and it's most likely sufficient if you've been taking advantage of other cloud services or streaming music options such as Google Music, Spotify or anything else. Our primary concern here isn't a matter of running out of space; it's the fact that nearly all of these services end up becoming a huge drain on capped data. If you don't have unlimited, you'll want to be incredibly picky about how much you listen to on a regular basis. As a sidenote, we're unsure if you can still get the same amount of storage via Dropbox if you port the new Sense firmware onto an older device, but we'd love to find out from any aspiring devs who want to give it a shot.
Clock: Gone is the desk clock tab, and the world clock has undergone a makeover. While the same clocks are still there, they've been restricted to the bottom half. Taking its place on the top section of the screen is a Google Earth-style globe that can be rotated, tilted and zoomed, all the while displaying weather conditions in major cities as you go. Nearly all of the other tabs within the app have barely changed, with only slight variations in style. Screenshots: Yes, Virginia, screenshots are included in Sense 4. Hold down the power and volume down buttons and kapow -- the shot is stored in your gallery, and you can do whatever the heck you want with it. Easter eggs: Perhaps only a handful of people really give a darn about if their phone comes with hidden easter eggs, and perhaps HTC agrees, because Sense doesn't come with the typical stock Android gems. There, there, heartbroken reader. You're a trooper, everything will be okay. Test menu: For those that like to dig really deep into menus, we combed through the test menu (accessible by dialing *#*#4636#*#* in the phone app) and found it to be identical in setup to stock Ice Cream Sandwich.
Ah, Android skins. We've vehemently opposed many of them over the years, because each manufacturer chooses to value differentiation and "user experience" more than the nature of the OS itself and completely misses the point. Additionally, a healthy portion of these skins are loaded up with so many extra frills and gimmicks that the performance of the actual device suffers as a consequence. HTC's proprietary UI is no exception to this, and in the past has been one of the worst offenders. With the exception of a few questionable nips and tucks, HTC's latest UI, Sense 4, has avoided this same reputation. Peter Chou's company has largely succeeded at its goal of bringing a lighter version of its skin to the One series. While it doesn't look like a copy of vanilla Ice Cream Sandwich, it's able to maintain its unique personality but still holds on to the spirit of what Matias Duarte has been working hard to accomplish with the Android OS. By this, we mean offering a fresh design, important new features and great performance -- all of these being elements that were sorely needed. For the first time in ages, we're loving the experience of a Sense-powered device.