Caption by: Sandra Vogel
Google's Android smartphone platform hit the ground running in its first two incarnations — the T-Mobile G1 and more recently the HTC Magic from Vodafone. The UK's third Android handset is an altogether different beast in that it lacks Google branding and carries an HTC interface, Sense UI, which exploits the company's experience of layering TouchFLO on top of Windows Mobile.
The Hero is unmistakably an Android handset, sporting the eccentric 'lip' at the bottom end of the casing that also adorned both the G1 and the Magic. Although this feature helps to bring the microphone a little closer to the mouth and protect the screen from scratches when the device is face down on a table, it also makes the Hero less likely to fit comfortably in a tight pocket. The lip is no problem when you're actually using the phone, though.
Like its Android brethren the G1 and the Magic, the Hero has a distinctive 'lip' beneath the screen.
The Hero measures a reasonably trim 112mm tall by 56.2mm wide by 14.35mm thick and weighs 135g. The touch-screen measures 3.2in. across the diagonal corners and has a resolution of 320 by 480 pixels. These screen specifications are by no means leading edge, but the display is pleasantly sharp, clear and colourful. HTC claims an 'anti-fingerprint' screen coating, although this didn't stop it from attracting our paw-marks.
There is a white version of the Hero that uses Teflon in its coating to provide a soft-touch chassis that's more durable than usual. The white version is available SIM-free: Orange's Hero is graphite in colour, while T-Mobile's is black.
Beneath the screen is a bank of six buttons plus a mini-trackball. Some might consider the latter overkill with a touch-screen, but we found it quite useful at times. The outer two buttons of the main quartet fulfill Call and End functions; inside these are a Home button and a context-sensitive Menu button. The two remaining buttons are on a rocker with Search and Clear functions. The Search feature is context sensitive: if you're in the Contacts app, it lets you look for a contact, if you are on the web it opens up a Google search window, and so on. The only other control is a large rocker for volume control on the left-hand side.
We mentioned the home screen. In fact, there are no fewer than seven of these, which you scroll between with a finger-sweep. This might seem like overkill, but you can populate each screen with applications and shortcuts and they at the core of HTC's Sense UI.
HTC's Sense user interface provides seven customisable screens that you can populate with applications and shortcuts. Sets of related screens can be saved as Scenes.
You simply tap and hold on an application shortcut on the main menu to put it onto the currently active main screen, where it will sit as a small icon ready to be tapped. You can have as many as 16 of these on a screen. Or you can add Android or HTC widgets, many of which can occupy the entire screen and provide quick access to content.
For example, you could put HTC's Twitter widget onto one of the home screens, where it will expand to fill the whole screen and offer you not a shortcut to Twitter but actual tweets and the ability to tweet. Ditto the weather applet, which again fills the whole screen, this time with today's weather and a five-day forecast. The Web Bookmarks applet is similarly large, requiring a whole home screen of its own and providing thumbnails of four web pages at a time, through which you scroll with a finger sweep.
Facebook gets special treatment too: new contacts can be linked to their Facebook profile so that their contact photo is drawn from their Facebook profile with status, events and other details drawn from FaceBook.
You can configure several suites of seven home screens and save them as 'scenes', which you can then switch between. This makes the HTC Hero extremely customisable and appropriate for people requiring a device whose entire look and feel can quickly change to suit 'work' and 'leisure' modes. HTC has pre-named the 'scenes' as HTC, Social, Work, Play, Travel, Clean Slate and Current. Only the 'Current' scene can be renames to your preference. Scene switching is relatively fast, and background wallpapers help create an ambiance.
There's another aspect of the Sense UI worth mentioning. HTC has decided to bring different contact elements with an individual together in a single screen. So, when you call up a contact you can see text messages, emails and call history in a single view, along with Flickr photos and Facebook status.
The HTC Hero ships with a minimal set of extras. You get an AC adapter, a PC connection cable, a stereo headset, a microSD card and a printed quick-start guide.
Powered by a 528MHz Qualcomm MSM7200A processor, the HTC Hero is not always lightning fast, but we could live with the short delays that sometimes occur. There is 288MB of RAM and 512MB of ROM, plus a 2GB microSD card that fits into a slot on the right edge of the casing, accessible by removing the battery cover.
This extra storage will be welcome since the Hero, like other Android devices, has an on-device software store: Android Market offers applications for direct download to the device, many of which are free.
Fortunately, considering that you may find yourself doing a lot of over-the-air activity with this handheld, the HTC Hero is a well-connected device. It's a quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE phone with HSPA support for downloads at up to 7.2Mbps and uploads at up to 2Mbps. Wi-Fi (802.11b/g), Bluetooth (2.0+EDR and A2DP) and GPS are also built in. There are plenty of applications available that take advantage of the latter, including Google Maps with support for Street View and Latitude. An accelerometer and digital compass are also present, and both proved to be very responsive.
The microSD card that comes with the HTC Hero includes a PC application that allows you to synchronise your calendar and contacts with Microsoft Outlook — Microsoft Exchange is supported out of the box, and you can also configure the Hero up to read POP and IMAP mail.
Music playback is catered for, of course. The headset connector is a 3.5mm jack that sits on the top edge of the device. HTC gets two ticks here, one for using the right connector type and another for locating the connector where it will not snag your pocket. The only downside is that the headset itself is a one-piece affair of moderate quality. We also found it hard to keep the saucer-shaped in-ear buds in place.
Web browsing works well. The Hero supports pinch-to-zoom, which we found to be responsive and efficient. HTC says the Hero supports Flash, although we had trouble viewing some sites, such as the BBC's news site. The integrated YouTube client did a good job of delivering clear and flicker-free content.
Text entry is a reasonably comfortable experience. HTC does not provide a stylus with the Hero, believing that the user interface is finger-friendly enough. You may disagree with this when trying to use the Hero's soft keyboard in portrait mode, as the keys are quite close together. Turn the device to landscape mode, however, and the wider key spacing makes the soft keyboard very usable. HTC has used an idea from TouchFLO 3D whereby you can hold a key down to access its shift function — for example a number or often-used symbol. This is a real boon to speedy typing.
There's no front-facing camera for two-way video calling, and the main camera is a lackluster affair. HTC is not good at on-device cameras and although the Hero has a 5-megapixel unit, photographs are a little washed out. There's no flash, so shooting in low light conditions is a challenge.
Performance & battery life
The HTC Hero performed well on the whole. Automatic screen rotation is fast enough, applications don't lag to the point of irritation, while touches like pinch-to-zoom in the web browser greatly enhance the user experience. Our problems with viewing video via the web were irritating, but a firmware upgrade should fix this.
Battery life is average. HTC says you should get up to 470 minutes (7.8h) of talktime on GSM, or 440 hours on standby. Our usual rundown test asked the Hero to play music from a full battery charge for as long possible, which it did for 6 hours and 8 minutes. If you make full use of Wi-Fi, HSPA and GPS you may find you need to recharge quite often. A handheld like the Hero relies on an open connection to function optimally, and enthusiastic users may need to recharge more than once a day.
The Android platform has come of age in the Hero. HTC's Sense interface is superbly implemented, the device itself is intuitive to use, and the software is largely well thought-out. We'd have liked more internal memory, longer battery life and a better camera though.
Caption by: Sandra Vogel
Caption by: Sandra Vogel