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    HTC Sense 4 review

    Brad Molen

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    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.

    Gallery: HTC Sense 4 home, lock and notifications | 24 Photos

    HTC Sense 4
    • Fresh, attractive design Significant camera enhancements25GB Dropbox storage includedLighter, less processor-intensive
    • Multitasking at odds with the stock ICS wayNo major improvement to the Sense keyboard


    The latest version of Sense stays true to the spirit of Ice Cream Sandwich, and marks a major improvement to HTC's proprietary skin.

    Home screen

    The home screen of Sense looks like, well, a slightly modified version of Sense. As silly as that sounds, HTC didn't break a lot of new ground here. Perhaps the company figured this was a great way to help ease customers into the transition from yesteryear to the new era. Unlike stock ICS as seen on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and Nexus S, Sense 4 doesn't feature the non-removable Google search bar at the top of every panel (though it's offered as a removable widget by default), and it also lacks a virtual row of navigation buttons on the bottom of the display since HTC opted to use three capacitive keys on the One series instead. We can't just assume that this means the manufacturer will never try the virtual buttons on for size down the road, but it seems rather unlikely at this point. Even though the virtual buttons aren't offered on Sense 4, HTC still made sure to throw in an ICS-style launch bar along the bottom of the screen, with app menu access flanked by up to two customizable app shortcuts on either side. You can choose whatever app you want -- heck, you can even toss in a folder if that's what really moves you. The launch bar's also a tad different here than it is on 3.6, since it's chopped off on each side and uses only one color tone (in contrast to a two-tone black and grey motif). This means there's a little extra space in the two bottom corners; it's not enough real estate to take advantage of, but it lends a greater feeling of minimalism, as well as a cleaner appearance.


    The signature clock / weather widget is still there, eating up the entire top half of the screen, but it has a more modern look to it. The massive dark grey box that serves as the backdrop for the entire widget is gone, which makes it seem less intrusive somehow. And, as always, you can simply remove the widget if it's taking up too much space. Easy enough. It's not like you'll be hurting for clock options, considering HTC spared no expense by throwing in a wide variety of possible widgets to choose from. Good news: the 3D carousel in older versions of Sense that spins your main panels around and around like you're playing the Wheel of Fortune? Retired.

    The 3D carousel in older versions of Sense? Retired.
    Another Sense staple that's sticking around for the long haul is the overview screen, which gives you a card-style view of all seven home panels. It's still accessible by tapping once on the home capacitive key or using pinch-to-zoom, and once you arrive here you'll be able to change the panel order and even add or remove unwanted screens. This comes in handy if you're looking to avoid clutter. Finally, long presses have changed a bit. For instance, performing this gesture on the capacitive keys no longer do anything. Doing it on one of the home panels, however, takes you into a modified screen with a layout that emulates what you'd see if you did the same thing on a Honeycomb tablet: it pulls up a menu that shows thumbnails of your main panels on the top, tabs for widgets, apps and shortcuts on the bottom and a section in the middle that allows you to choose from a variety of options related to whichever tab you've selected. When looking at widgets, for instance, you can use a drop-down menu or do a search to quickly find something specific. This part of Sense seems to take advantage of the ICS design style, but the screen itself is nowhere to be seen on the stock version.

    Personalization options


    Also predominant in past versions of Sense has been the personalize menu, which was featured as a non-customizable shortcut on the launch bar. Essentially, this screen was an extension of the settings app, with several options for display, sound and shortcuts. It's still around (minus the shortcuts option, since you can find that by long-pressing the home panel), but it seems to have lessened in priority now. How can we tell? The only points of access to this screen are in the settings itself and as a shortcut in the app menu that can be added to whatever spot you want it to go. But that's the key: you can do whatever you want with it. Freedom to choose. No longer is this menu stuck on your home screen without any way of removing it.



    When it comes to staying true to stock ICS, the notification bar in Sense 4 may not be a direct copy, but at least it gets much closer to the general idea than 3.6 does. Individual lines take advantage of the original style, and you can swipe each one to the left or right to get rid of them. And just like the pure vanilla version, you can find buttons to clear notifications and access settings on the top, but HTC pushes them over to the top right corner and adds words to each symbol, helping you understand exactly what each one is there for. Instead of going the same route as Sense 3.6, which offers a section for recent apps near the top and a quick settings tab at the bottom, HTC kept only one tie to earlier versions of the UI: it keeps ongoing processes and one-time notifications separate.

    The notification bar in Sense 4 does a much better job of exemplifying the spirit of stock Ice Cream Sandwich.

    The new version of HTC's user interface also throws in extra choices for viewing notifications. Not only can you pull down the bar to see the full list without even unlocking the phone -- standard for Ice Cream Sandwich -- you can also choose a new lock screen style that lets you view a small selection of notifications directly on the lock screen. You can view missed calls, messages, email (from the standard Mail client, but not Gmail) and calendar events this way. What's more, you'll be able to pick and choose specifics: display missed calls from Bob only, view calendars A and C but leave out B, show messages from your wife. We have no idea why Bob's calls would be more important than your spouse's, but you certainly have that option at your disposal.

    Lock screen


    The standard Face Unlock feature is available, as is the standard Sense ring and accompanying quick access shortcuts at the bottom. The apps featured here will ultimately reflect whatever you have hanging out in your launch bar, regardless of what it is. And since you can choose the number of apps you have laying on the bottom of your home panel, this means you can have anywhere from zero to four shortcuts to choose from. Just as with vanilla ICS, you can pull down the notification bar directly from the lock screen. And if that's not quick enough access for you, it's not a bad idea to choose the "productivity" lock screen style mentioned earlier. Calendar events and changes in the weather will also pop up from time to time, and it's easy enough to simply dismiss them and get those notifications out of your way.

    App menu

    Gallery: HTC Sense 4 app menu | 12 Photos

    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.

    Gallery: HTC Sense 4 browser | 22 Photos

    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.

    Gallery: HTC Sense 4 ImageSense camera | 20 Photos

    The ability to do stills and videos at the same time is absolutely stunning, and very few manufacturers have chosen to offer a similar service (Samsung being one of them). Update: it appears that stock ICS has this feature, but it looks as though manufacturers are still able to add it in or take it out of their custom skins -- as evidenced by its absence in Sense 3.6. When you're recording video, the camera shutter button is still available just in case the moment is so memorable that you want to take an image without turning off the camcorder. If you forget to do this, all is well: it's possible to grab photos in the same manner after the fact. When you're watching the video in the gallery, the same shutter button hasn't gone anywhere, still accessible on the right side of the screen.

    ImageSense's ability to do stills and videos at the same time is absolutely stunning.

    Before we get to the gallery, let's turn back to the main camera UI. In addition to the pair of shutter buttons to the viewfinder's right, you'll also see gallery access on the bottom corner, with a odd blue lens on the top. The blue lens, when pressed, shows you a menu of different effects and modes to take advantage of: depth of field adjust, distortion, dots, vignette, vintage and the usual suite of greyscale, sepia, negative and others are all there. These aren't anything new to the Sense UI, but you definitely won't see them in stock ICS. The opposite side of the screen reveals three options: settings, flash mode and camera scenes. You get the usual HTC smattering of settings, such as resolution, ISO, white balance, exposure / saturation adjustments, face detection, video stabilization and so on. Continuous shooting -- which lets you hold down the shutter button to fire off a machine gun-style round of images -- is also available as a toggle here. Moving on to camera scenes, there's plenty to choose from. Panorama, landscape, low light, HDR and slow motion are a few examples of various options here. Also, the bottom of the viewfinder offers a slider for zoom in / out.


    A few more words on continuous shooting. One of the biggest feature enhancements in the new Sense is speed: first you'll notice the 0.7-second startup and a 0.2-second autofocus. Then, by holding down the shutter button, you'll be able to rapidly fire off a full series of continuous shots for as long as you'd like (though there is a setting in which you can choose to limit the number of captures to twenty). When you've completed your series, you're automatically taken into an album-within-an-album in which you can look at each individual shot that you captured and pick and choose whichever ones don't fit the bill. Or, you can choose to keep just your favorite shot and delete all the rest. Now, the gallery. We already mentioned the shutter button that's available when you're previewing a video, but what about the rest of the options? On the top right you can adjust volume and brightness. The bottom left reveals a share button, where you can choose to export the video to several possible apps. Along the bottom is the back / forward / pause and play, as well as a slider to fast forward or rewind your current selection. Finally, the bottom right corner offers a "more" button that gives you more choices. You can go here to find a Beats toggle, go into full screen mode, lock controls or trim the video (although anyone looking to do more with their movie can use Sense's movie editor app). With Sense, you have the standard photo album view in the gallery, but you can choose to hide certain ones that you don't want to look at or let someone else see by accident. When going into an album, you'll first see the full layout of the images along with options to share, delete or even play the whole thing as a slideshow. When you go into an individual image, you can edit the specific picture, set it as your wallpaper, share it or print. And just like previous versions of Sense, if you begin flipping through the album the pictures turn into smaller thumbnails and scrolling between each one becomes much faster. This comes in handy if you have a plethora of photos to scan through and want to save extra time.


    Gallery: HTC Sense 4 miscellaneous screenshots | 48 Photos

    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.

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