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10/9/2009
06:03 PM
Marin Perez
Marin Perez
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Thoughts On The HTC Hero

Many smartphone fans are anxiously awaiting Sprint Nextel's very first Android phone, and the HTC Hero is full of high-end smartphone features. But does the touch-screen smartphone live up to the hype?

Many smartphone fans are anxiously awaiting Sprint Nextel's very first Android phone, and the HTC Hero is full of high-end smartphone features. But does the touch-screen smartphone live up to the hype?Hardware

The original Hero had the familiar chin like the T-Mobile G1, but the Sprint version ditches this for a more traditional design. I think it looks much better, and the Hero is definitely an attention-grabbing handset. The large screen is bright and responsive, and the capacitive nature means you can do multi-touch input like pinching to zoom in.

The display does take up much of the face of the device, but there are also six buttons and a trackball for navigating. The Menu, search, home and back button are essentially built into the silver finish which means it's tough to hit these without looking for them. It's not a big deal really, but I thought I'd point it out. There's also a volume rocker on the left side of the spine, a USB port on the bottom, and a much-appreciated standard headphone jack on top.

I would have loved a dedicated camera button because the Hero packs a 5-megapixel camera that's pretty darn good. There's absolutely no flash though, which is kind of a pain. It also has what you'd expect from a high-end smartphone including Wi-Fi, 3G, Bluetooth, microSD slot, and a GPS chip that's pretty darn accurate but eats battery like there's no tomorrow.

I really like the design of the Hero, it's a sleek-looking device that maintains a minimalist appeal, but there's still various ways to navigate beyond just the touch screen. That's not to say the touch screen isn't good, but it's always nice to have multiple options. It's very light in the hand but it still feels substantial, and the accelerometer worked with very little lag most of the time.

Software

HTC has a tendency to layer on their own user interfaces on their phones, and the Hero is no exception. The company threw the Sense UI on top of Android, and it adds a lot of visual panache. The home screen consists of seven panels, and it's quick and easy to add new widgets for things like the weather or Twitter, as well as applications or shortcuts to folders. Scrolling through the panels is a breeze, and there's a logical navigation approach to finding other apps and settings. It's not just the home screen, as they've tweaked the Internet bookmarks interface to provide a visual way to scroll though Web destinations.

As for Android itself, it's essentially a computer operating system with a heavy phone emphasis - this has its positives and negatives. On the bright side, this means it's very easy to multitask, as I routinely download files in the background while browsing the Web with a very good Webkit browser. This is true mobile computing folks. The Google roots of Android also means there is tight integration with the search giant's online services like Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Voice. The Hero also comes with Exchange e-mail and calender support through Active Sync, and this works pretty well.

As a full touch-screen device, the software keyboard can make or break the Hero, and I found it to be excellent. The screen vibrates slightly when you hit a kit to provide much-needed haptic feedback, and the auto-correction software is very accurate and simple to learn new words and tendencies. The kudos for the keyboard should go directly to HTC who have tailored it to be better than the stock virtual QWERTY on other Android devices.

The notification bar is also the best in the business. New e-mails, texts, alerts, and missed calls show up in a bar at the top and you can pull this down like a curtain to view the notifications. It lets you know what's going on without being intrusive, and it's an intuitive way to handle incoming tasks. My only wish is that you didn't have to extend the curtain all the way down to interact with notifications, but that is a very minor quibble.

There's also quick access to the Android Market where you can download apps from the 10,000-strong catalog. Unlike some other platforms, Android lets you download programs that duplicate existing functionality, so you can nab a new music player or Opera Mini. I honesty use the browser, mail, and calendar apps for 80% of my needs, but I did find a few gems in the market including QuickOffice, Qik, and Layar. The Hero comes preloaded with Sprint's exclusive apps for mobile television, Nascar, and the NFL, and these are good for what they offer. The contact management system is pretty slick as well, as it will pull in info from various social networking and e-mail clients. It's not quite as good as the Pre's attempt though because I had to weed out a bunch of duplicate information.

There are so many good things about the Hero and its software, but I don't think it has the horsepower to pull it off flawlessly. There are many times when I'll launch the e-mail app and have to wait a good 15 seconds for it to load. The Hero essentially has similar guts to the myTouch and G1, so I guess we'll have to wait for something like the Samsung Moment for an Android phone with a high-powered processor.

But it's not just hardware woes, as there needs to be an easier way to completely kill apps or programs once you've exited them. I downloaded the Advanced Task Killer app to help manage this better, but this does lead to the device getting noticeably slower the longer you use it. There are also some odd quirks - opening a downloaded audio file from the notification bar means you can't switch from the music-playing app without stopping playback. Additionally, the Flash player in the browser is supposed to be a draw, but I found it to be sluggish and it didn't work all the time.

Overall, I'm still a big fan of Android, and none of the warts on the Hero are necessarily deal-breakers.

Call Quality, Data, Multimedia

This thing is still a phone, and call quality in San Francisco was pretty good. I experienced no dropped calls over a two-week period, and voices sounded clear. HTC has really been doing a good job with its speakerphones lately, and the Hero is no exception. Bluetooth pairing was simple and had range, and Sprint's EV-DO Rev. A network provided speedy mobile data pretty much everywhere I wanted it to. The stock media player's pretty boring but it does the job for most video and audio files. I didn't think video playback was all that smooth though, and the market is really crying out for a solid desktop multimedia syncing client for Android.

The battery life was also pretty bad, as I would just barely get through a full work day with a charge. My usage pattern was not extremely demanding either - I'd wake up, download a podcast over the air, listen to it while surfing the Web for about 20 minutes on my commute, and then the phone would sit on my desk receiving texts, e-mails, and calendar updates. I'd listen to music for another 20 minutes or so on my commute home, and the battery would be at the 15% market. This is with sending a few text messages, but very little talking. There is absolutely no way I could go from work for a full night out and expect the Hero to stay alive all evening, and that's just a shame. I'd highly suggest getting an office charger.

The Final Take

Sprint is quietly building up a very strong lineup of smartphones with the Pre, Pixi, Hero, and the upcoming Moment. If you want to jump into Android and don't mind not having a physical keyboard, you could do a lot worse than the Hero. At about $180 with a new contract starting this Sunday, I think the Hero is going to find a wide audience. I'm probably going to wait for a device with a stronger processor before I take the plunge though.

It looks like we're going to see an army of Android devices soon, and I'll soon have some thoughts up on the myTouch 3G. The holiday season is surprisingly close, and little birdies are saying we'll see some brand new BlackBerrys soon, so keep watching this space.

Any thoughts on the Sprint Hero? Feel free to leave a comment here, or you can shoot me an e-mail at [email protected], or tweet me @marinperez.

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