HTC’s third Android OS smartphone, the HTC Hero ($180 with a two-year contract from Sprint; price as of 9/23/2009), is a giant leap forward for the company’s family of Android phones, both in hardware and software. It isn’t without its flaws, however: Performance can be slow, video playback is unreliable, and the touch keyboard isn’t the easiest to use. Even so, the Hero is jam-packed with features, and I appreciated all of its easy customization.
Compared with the European Hero, the Sprint-branded version looks like a completely different phone. Its corners are much more rounded, and it no longer has the trademark HTC chin (also seen on the T-Mobile G1). The hardware buttons are rearranged and now surround the trackball, instead of being placed above it. I’m not really a fan of the chin, so I found that these design tweaks actually improve the ergonomics of the phone.
In pictures, the Hero looked a bit bland with its black and silver motif. Once I got my hands on it, though, my opinion changed. The Hero is eons beyond the T-Mobile myTouch 3G in build quality; while the myTouch 3G feels cheap and plasticky, the Hero is sturdy and solid. And it has sleek lines, too: Measuring 4.5 by 2.2 by 0.5 inches thick, the Hero is about the same size as the myTouch 3G, but a bit heavier at 4.5 ounces. Still, the Hero is by no means bulky, and a little added weight is a small tradeoff for sturdier construction.
The Hero has a softness in the casing that feels really nice in the hand for long phone calls. Call quality was very good over Sprint’s 3G network with ample volume and no static or hiss. Callers on the other end of the line reported little background noise, even when I was standing on a busy city street. I had only one instance where a colleague reported that my voice sounded faint and distant.
The brushed metal navigation area has six buttons (Talk, Menu, Search, Back, Home, and End/Power) surrounding a BlackBerry-esque trackball. The Talk and End/Power buttons are small, but slightly raised. The other buttons are set flush with the metal case, but are not hard to press. The trackball is brightly lit (which, as far as I can tell, you can’t switch off and could become an annoyance in a dark room) and glides smoothly through the menus.
Like the myTouch 3G, the Hero has a 3.2-inch, 480-by-320 capacitive touch display. The screen is gorgeous with bright colors, sharp details, and the perfect amount of brightness (thanks to a built-in light sensor). But there’s one big difference between the Hero and its Android siblings: Multitouch.
Yes, this means you can pinch to zoom Web pages or gallery images and flick to scroll. Unfortunately, the Hero’s multitouch capabilities aren’t as smooth as those found on the Apple iPhone. Pinching to zoom sometimes caused the magnifier to increase or decrease more than I wanted. Scrolling was a bit jumpy and sometimes a slow experience, depending on the page’s content.
The accelerometer was also sluggish sometimes. For example, while typing an e-mail in portrait mode, I decided to switch to landscape mode (you’ll understand why in the next paragraph) and the accelerometer lagged for a good four seconds. It was quicker in other instances; however, I found such lag and inconsistency annoying.
Like other Android devices I’ve tested, I had some issues with the on-screen keyboard. Although it is slightly altered from the standard Android keyboard, I still found the keys too narrow–even in landscape mode. Also, as you’re typing, the magnified letters disappear too quickly from the screen, same as on the myTouch 3G. But the haptic feedback is helpful (if you don’t like it, you can switch it off in settings), and I found no lag between what I typed on the keyboard and what appeared on screen.
HTC knows how to develop a great user interface; it managed to make Windows Mobile sexy and touch-friendly, after all. And now, HTC’s Sense enhancement brings even more customization options to Android. Leading the list: Rather than three home screens, you get seven. While seven might seem excessive, the extra space can be useful. If you’re a frequent app downloader, for example, you can organize them by category. You can also drop Android and some new HTC widgets (namely Twitter and the geotagging app Footprints) into the panels.
If you don’t want to take the time to set up all those panels, there’s a feature called Scenes, which automatically sets up themed panels. You can pick from Work, Travel, HTC, Play or Social themes. Social, for example, shows a giant clock widget and shortcuts to your list of contacts, messages, browser, and camera. This feature isn’t really for me, as I’m a bit of a control freak regarding my phone, but I can see it appealing to others.
The Hero automatically imports your contacts’ information when you log into your various e-mail and social networking accounts. It is kind of like the Palm Pre’s Synergy feature for contacts, but syncing wasn’t as smooth. You’ll get duplicate entries, for one thing, and your contacts’ full information isn’t automatically synced. You have to manually add Flickr and Facebook information, for example. Still, I liked the way each contact’s information was tabbed (messages, e-mails, call history), so you can keep track of your most recent communication with that person.
A small, but important difference in Sense is the background color of the launch menu. Rather than a gray background, the launch menu is black so icons pop out more. It is little changes like this that make the Sense UI an all-around improvement to Android. (We noticed a similarly black launch menu background on Motorola’s forthcoming Cliq Android phone for T-Mobile.)
Like the myTouch 3G, the Hero supports Microsoft Exchange for e-mail, but it goes a few steps further and also supports your calendar and contacts. Setup can be a snap if you have all of your Outlook information on hand. You can open and view attachments directly from Outlook using the Documents to Go app, which obviates the hassle of saving it to a memory card first.
One of the biggest draws of the Hero is that it is the first Android handset to support Flash Lite 9. Unfortunately, video playback was a mixed bag. I couldn’t play any videos on PCWorld.com, CNN.com, or even YouTube–a major disappointment.
A noteworthy addition: HTC has finally listened to our gripes and shameless begging for a 3.5-mm headphone jack. At last, I can use my better-quality Skullcandy to enjoy my music. Sound quality was great through my headphones, but a bit tinny through the external speakers. The music player supports album art, lets you build playlists, and uses touch controls.
The 5-megapixel camera is definitely a step up from the myTouch’s 3-megapixel shooter. Pictures had rich color quality and no graininess. While some reviewers reported the European version’s camera had shutter lag, I didn’t have any problem with the Sprint version. Video quality was on a par with the iPhone 3GS. And as with the iPhone 3GS, you can upload captured videos directly to YouTube.
Although it has some quirks, the variety of features and the high customizability that the Hero offers is hard to beat. Sprint customers torn between the Palm Pre and the HTC Hero might consider this: The Hero is for the true tech lover. It is ideal for those who want to take the extra time and steps to tweak and organize their phone to their liking and want access and space for hundreds of apps. If you’re looking for something easy to set up and in a prettier package, however, you’ll want to go with the Pre.