HTC One software hands-on: Sense 5, BlinkFeed, Sense TV and new Sync Manager

HTC One software handson Sense 5, BlinkFeed, Sense TV and new Sync Manager

Now that you're done drooling over the HTC One's shiny body, let's take a look at the phone's generous bundle of software features. Sense 5 on Android 4.1.2 is quite possibly the boldest step HTC's ever taken in terms of Android interface, in the hopes of offering a radically simple experience out of the box. First off, the phone comes with just two soft keys: Back and Home. You can still access the app-switching page by double-tapping the Home key, but instead of the old 3D interface with dozens of app cards, you'll now only get a grid of nine app cards to keep things simple. And like before, simply flick the cards up to dismiss the corresponding apps. Read on for more and our hands-on video.

By default, there will only be two home screen panels out of the box: a "BlinkFeed" page and a classic Android home screen on the right. Yes, just two panels, as HTC found out that 80 percent of users have three panels or less, and surprisingly, 35 percent of the same group use just one panel! But fret not, as power users can always add more. Similarly, the app tray is set to a leaner 3 x 4 grid by default (which we found to be rather pleasing to the eye), but you can also switch back to the usual 4 x 5 version for nostalgia's sake.

Now, BlinkFeed. This is simply a Flipboard-like tile interface that sits permanently on the main home page. Created in collaboration with Mobiles Republic, this tool pulls in content from various publications and social networks (Twitter, Plurk, LinkedIn, Flickr, Zoe Share and more), as well as your calendar and TV shows from the TV app (more on that later). You won't be seeing emails here, as HTC positions BlinkFeed as a place for more ambient info rather than critical updates. Regardless, the feed can be customized to suit your needs, though the first version won't let you add custom RSS feeds just yet. On a related note, an SDK will be provided for developers to let their apps publish to the BlinkFeed. As you'd expect, fresh content automatically comes in from the top, and it does so every two hours over mobile data, but more frequently over WiFi. Either way, HTC's conducted many tests and is pretty confident that battery life won't be a big issue here. The good news is that should you eventually find this feature slightly stale, you can disable BlinkFeed altogether and just have the plain old Android home screens.

Visually, Sense 5 benefits from a new choice of font -- Roboto, in a specific weight -- along with a simpler keyboard with little gap between keys (but performance unaffected, of course) and cleaner widgets (though the classic HTC flip clock widget is still available). Likewise, the new music player has received an interface redesign, as well as a visualizer and automatic lyrics scroller. Here's hoping that HTC will eventually add a vocal suppressing feature to satisfy the karaoke freak inside you.

HTC One software handson Sense 5, BlinkFeed, Sense TV and new Sync Manager

Continuing the multimedia theme we have the Sense TV app on the HTC One, which is actually a Peel-powered universal remote software that combines a good-looking electronic program guide with the IR blaster embedded within the phone's power button. At launch, the app will support all major US cable services along with Hulu integration, whereas the UK will get some love from the likes of Virgin Media, Sky, Freesat and Freeview. We've heard that other regions will provide similar EPG support for the One's Sense TV app, so keep an eye out for your local announcements. Alas, there's no Netflix support at launch, but we assume HTC is still working on that end.

The TV app's interface needs little explanation, and it'll come with a huge library of remote control IR codes to ensure maximum compatibility with your TV or set-top box. Once the app is activated, you can access the basic controls and recent channels in the notification tray, and you can even use the controls on the lock screen. The best part of this is that you can set to have upcoming episodes of your favorite TV shows to show up in BlinkFeed as a reminder. Pretty neat for couch potatoes, huh?

Now, here are a couple of software features that help new owners set up their HTC devices. The first one is HTC Get Started which, if you haven't seen it work with the One X+ already, lets you set up your phone from the web on your desktop. After all, it's probably easier to type out your credentials for your various email and social network accounts using the desktop keyboard and display. Additionally, the service also lets you configure your feeds, apps, sounds (including an MP3 ringtone trimmer), bookmarks, wallpapers and lock screens; so this is quite a nice improvement from the existing version of Get Started.

The second feature to support new users is a beefed up version of the HTC Sync Manager. Where previously you could only transfer iOS contacts to an HTC device over Bluetooth, now you can use the new Sync Manager to grab your various types of iOS content: contacts, calendar, pictures, DRM-free videos and DRM-free music. The trick? This is actually done via iTunes, so you'll need to make sure it has the latest backup of your iOS device before you start the migration. Sadly, there's no way to sync text messages and matching apps across the two rival platforms just yet, but it's probably just a matter of time.

Things are more straightforward with Android-to-Android migration: with phones as old as HTC devices carrying Sense 3.6, you can directly transfer the same set of data plus text messages, bookmarks and a bunch of Android settings directly from one to another, all done without going through the Sync Manager; whereas older Android devices can still only transfer contacts over Bluetooth like the good old days.

Once you get the ball rolling, you can use the cloud backup feature in Sense 5 to dump an encrypted backup on either Dropbox or Sina Vdisk (in China, where Dropbox is blocked), and these are tied to either a Facebook account or a Sina account (since Facebook is also blocked in China), so in the future you can restore by simply logging in using either credentials. Here's what you can back up: BlinkFeed, TV, home screen layout (including folders), accounts (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Flickr, Exchange and Hotmail), user dictionary, alarm clocks, widgets, apps (sans data) and over 150 system settings. Pictures and videos aren't included, as HTC believes that many users already use other methods to back them up, which is fair enough.

To summarize, this is certainly a generous and much improved package HTC is offering with the One, but in case you missed it, do also check out Zoe in our HTC One camera post. That's the real wow factor of the show.

Mat Smith contributed to this report.