There’s a flurry of Android phones out there and not so long ago but the HTC Hero is different not only because it has a better physical design, but also because it has HTC Sense, a proprietary user interface extension that only HTC-branded phones have (unlike the T-Mobile MyTouch 3G, which is a white label phone). Yet, you can expect all the advantages that come with an Android phone: very good integration with Google services, decent web browsing experience and many 3rd party applications. In this review I’ll tell you how well the HTC Hero worked for me and if it lives up to the hype.
The way we use our phone influences how we perceive it and how various things, like battery life, will perform. Just like I did with other phones, I used this one as my main phone to check emails and Facebook updates (a lot) but I replied only moderately. I browsed the web a few times a day to check on news or stock quotes, and I used the map application, at least for a few minutes every other day. I don’t call much (10mn a day?) and I didn’t play games or use any other app very often.
Physical design (very nice)
This HTC Hero (from Sprint) is different from the one found in European countries, although the specifications and most of the user interface is similar. It construction is noticeably better than the MyTouch 3G (HTC Magic) from T-Mobile. Your hand won’t feel like touching plastic, because the back has a faux-leather feel, while the front is either glass or aluminum. It is quite nice to hold in your hand and to use. That said, it is also a little bulkier than the HTC Magic.
Just like other HTC phones, the HTC Hero uses a mini-USB port to charge/sync. This is very convenient because practically everyone has one of those cables around.
Also just like other HTC phones, it is not a “pure” touch screen device in the sense that you will have to use the hardware buttons to execute certain tasks like pop a menu or going back to the home page. I’ll say it again, I think that this is a mistake. The buttons should be accelerators (like shortcuts), but nonetheless *optional* for a touch screen device.
The HTC Hero’s touch display is more reactive than the HTC Magic, but not as reactive as the iPhone 3GS (I’m talking about the user interface here, not about the screen sensor). It is fast enough to not get in the way (most of the time) when you want to do something quickly, but if you’ve played with a 3GS, you will wish that the Hero was faster.
Basics (very good)
HTC made it very easy to find a contact with the dialpad by typing the name or the number (482 for ‘482’ or ‘hub’ for Hubert). The audio quality is good and the volume level should be sufficiently loud for most uses. The speaker volume is also good, if you are somewhere quiet (office). I’ve seen a few people in forums ask how to put the phone in “speaker mode”. You just need to press the “menu” button. I said above, it should be somewhere on the touch user interface too instead of displaying a black screen. Overall, all the basics are covered well.
Phone Settings (easy)
Just like other Android devices, the settings are fairly intuitive and easy to deal with. You can find frequently used settings (mail, WIFI…) very quickly. There’s no problem there at all.
Virtual Keyboard (good)
Virtual keyboards are quite an improvement when coming from a numeric pad phone, but they are often a step down if you had a phone with a decent physical QWERTY keyboard. Clearly, I don’t type as fast with the HTC Hero as I do with my Blackberry Curve 8900, but I can tell you that the HTC Hero has a better keyboard layout than the HTC Magic, but it is not as comfortable as the iPhone’s keyboard because of the narrower screen of the HTC Hero. I question the idea of displaying the alternate characters on each virtual key especially if there’s no “ALT” button. It just adds visual pollution for no good reason. That said, I’m relatively satisfied with this virtual keyboard.
I like how the word suggestions work in Android. You have to click to use the suggestion. On the iPhone, you have to click to NOT use it. It’s annoying if you are using a lot of technical terms or worse: if you write in a foreign language or in slang.
Web Browsing (good+)
Pinch and zoom, even not perfectly executed is much better than the zoom buttons
On average, the web browsing experience is good. It is better than on the HTC Magic, thanks to the pinch & zoom. Most popular websites work well, but there’s a room for improvement: the magnification is not filtered, so images appear pixellated when they aren’t displayed in their normal size. The zoom and pinch is also too fast or too slow, you don’t get the fine motion control that your fingers are capable of. That said, I’m just glad to have a working pinch and zoom on an Android device. There are things that the HTC Hero’s browser will do “better” than mobile Safari: once in zooming mode, it will wrap the text so that you don’t have to scroll left and right in addition of up and down. It can be handy.
No Flash support for Hulu, but some Flash games work
Although there’s a YouTube application, Hulu won’t work for example.We’ll get to the video quality later in the review, but I found the YouTube performance to be much inferior to the HTC Magic and the iPhone 3GS. I found Flash games that worked so there’s definitely Flash support in the browser, just not for everything. Note that none of the games were actually playable because they were too slow.
Email (very good)
I use Exchange for work and Gmail for my personal stuff. Exchange syncs flawlessly with contacts, email and calendar. The HTC Magic did not sync with Exchange contacts or calendar, which made it unsuitable for work. Exchange runs in the “Mail” application in which you can also add other POP/Imap account, if you want to. GMail has its own application, and as you can expect, the integration is well done. If you own a hotmail account, you can just enter your credentials and everything else is automated. I expect Yahoo and other popular email services to be as easy to setup. Again, this is better than the MyTouch 3G, which will ask you for the pop/imap server information more often.
Copy/paste issues: strangely enough, the copy/paste of the HTC Hero does not work like the HTC Magic. For both phones, it is not great and I found it frustrating to copy/paste simple stuff like an email subject. In the email application, moving the trackball tends to send you to links, instead of moving a cursor that would help you copy text content. Copying everything is relatively easy (just keep the finger pressed until the “copy” menu pops), but selecting a subset of text is ridiculously perilous. Honestly, this is not really a deal-breaker, but it is frustrating to see something so basic so poorly implemented.
On another topic, the HTC Hero comes with a PDF reader, which is great for attached .pdf files. I tested it on a few eventbrite receipts and it worked flawlessly.
Security (good enough)
Security on the HTC Hero consists in an unlock pattern that replaces the usual 4+ digits codes found on other phones. If you use a 4-points pattern, it is theoretically weaker than a 4-digit code, but you can go to a stronger 9-points pattern, but it becomes frankly annoying to unlock your phone. It’s a trade-off that you will have to think about. I’m personally fine with a 4-points pattern as I don’t have anything that is so secret (financial info etc…).
Note that Android does not come with a remote wipe, but you can look at third party apps like Mobile Defense to get that job done. It would be great to have something natively.
The HTC Hero captures photos that would be great for web use (resized down to less than 1024×768), but I noticed that practically all the photos were not as sharp as the Nokia N97 or the iPhone 3GS. This should not be a problem for your Facebook albums, but the Hero won’t snap the highest-quality possible on a handset.
On the video side, the quality and framerate are average. The Framerate is about 15fps, which is on the low-side. The resolution is low as well: 320×240. In short, the HTC Hero records only 1/4 of the pixel at 1/2 of the framerate when compared to the iPhone 3GS. It’s a bit disappointing for a high-end Android device.
Performance (good, but…)
The HTC Hero performs well. The display reactivity is much better than the HTC Magic. As I’ve noticed with other Android handsets, the phone can become quickly sluggish if you have multiple applications open.
Closing apps is also not a trivial task (All Programs>Settings>Applications>Manage Applications) unless you download something like “Task Killer”, a free utility. Out of the box, and after using it “normally” (email+web browsing…) for a couple of hours, I had about a dozen apps running in the background:
HTCIQagent, Voicemail, SprintTV, TouchInput, Weather, Browser, Gmail, Settings, Calendar, Market, PC Sync, com.htc.provider, Messages, HTC Sense, OMADM and Task Killer.
It’s easy to find yourself with a bunch of apps running
Some apps have to stay on, but others aren’t needed all the time. The Browser and SprintTV come to mind. Interestingly enough, the SprintTV widget came back after I killed it…
Even after closing unused apps, it still takes a second or two between when I click on an email and when I can actually see its content. It’s not the end of the world, but on my BlackBerry, this step is quasi-instantaneous. The phone works well, but it would be very nice if it could be more reactive.
Music: Music playback very well, and it is possible to search by album, artist, playlist, genre or song. There’s no text-based search, which can come in handy if you really have a lot of songs/albums. Obviously having a normal 3.5mm jack connector is great. I really liked the music player widget that lets me pause/skip the current song from the home page. If I want to see the full player app, I can simply click on the current song, and voila.
Photo gallery: Thanks to the good display, photo slideshows look very good. It is possible to zoom in and out with the (relatively slow) pinch & zoom gesture. However, the speed at which you can flick from one photo to the next, in full screen view, is relatively slow. Fortunately, there’s a “film mode” that makes it much faster and easier to go through a photo album.
YouTube Video: the YouTube video quality is a big disappointment on this handset. Videos are pixellated and the resolution seems poor in general. The side-by-side photos are pretty clear. The fact that HTC Magic does much better tells me that this is a software issue that I hope will be fixed in the future. As of now, video quality sucks, and bizarrely I haven’t seen another review talk about this problem.
Video update: the YouTube player sometimes kicks in “low-quality mode”. If the video quality is really bad, try Menu> More > Watch in High Quality (thx Jeff T.) and if your connection allows, you might get the higher quality stream. The video will then be on par with the MyTouch 3G and iPhone. Mystery solved.
The audio output is done via the phone’s speaker. It’s not great, but next to the image quality issues, it seemed like a mild problem.
A screenshot of the 3GS (left) and HTC Hero playing a YouTube video. Note that the HTC Magic as a playback quality similar to the 3GS. Larger image on our photo gallery
Sprint TV: This application delivers video via Sprint’s 3G network. Upon launch it will ask you to disable the WIFI connection in order to work (you’ll have to turn it back on “by hand”, ouch). Depending on your network, you might get good results, but due to low network reception, the service doesn’t work in our office next to the Potrero Hill Caltrain station in SF… To be fair, we seem to be in a hard-to-reach spot and T-Mobile’s reception is non-existent here, but with them, we have UMA to compensate for that.
The HTC Hero from Sprint comes loaded with apps and widgets, much more so than the T-Mobile MyTouch 3G. Some of it is Sprint-related (TV, Sports), but many are just useful apps, like Amazon MP3, Voice recorder or Quick office.
Maps: Good mapping is a must-have for any smartphone and the HTC Hero doesn’t disappoint. The Map application is very usable and should get you were you need to go, especially in pedestrian mode. You can also drive, but I found the lag to be much higher than in-car navigation devices, so I tend to use my phone only in pedestrian mode. This is true for all the smartphones that I have tested so far.
Google Voice is not on the iPhone yet…
Google Voice (GV): GV is great for people like me who change phone often (for testing purposes) because it lets me keep a single number that I can use for all the phones. It works just as advertised and should be completely transparent to you and the person you call. They will just see your Google Voice number. Additionally, you can benefit from having much cheaper rates for international calls.
USB Mass Storage mode: when you connect to a computer via USB, it is possible to mount the phone as a USB drive. From there, you can import content just like you would do for a camera or an MP3 player. You can also browse the files on the phone. It is simple and efficient.
Temperature: the phone gets warm pretty quickly in the back. I haven’t done anything particularly intensive in the past 20mn, but every single app that I opened since is still alive and running in the background. That’s always a good sign that you should close some programs.
Voice dialer: The MyTouch 3G came with a cool (Google) voice search, but the HTC Hero has voice commands instead. This is convenient if you can’t use your hand AND if you are in a quiet environment. That said, we found the voice command recognition to be inferior to the MyTouch 3G search voice recognition. Also, if the phone is in sleep mode, it takes one swipe and two clicks to launch the voice dialer app. The good news is that the app loading is “instantaneous”. This would be a good candidate for a hardware button…
Battery Life (normal)
Just like most smartphones, you will have to charge it on a daily basis. The battery usage varies simply too much to provide a definitive answer. For what I do, it seems no better or worse than other smartphones that I have been using recently.
Things that could be better
Copy/paste: This version is worse than the HTC Magic / MyTouch 3G, needs fixing ASAP.
Performance: This is the most important thing that could make a good phone an excellent phone. Even if the graphics are faster than the MyTouch 3G (HTC Magic), it is still slower than the iPhone 3GS. The phone needs more reactivity overall. Waiting one second to open an email or to get a “reaction” is too long. Also, you have to pay attention to what software is running in the background because they can make the phone somewhat sluggish. I really recommend downloading the TaskKiller app to quickly see what’s going on and shutdown apps. It does impact performance a lot.
Video playback quality: I really hope that the video playback quality will be fixed in a future update.
Video recording quality: The iPhone 3GS can record and compress 8x more pixels per second, there’s clearly some room for improvement here.
Admit it, it looks good…
Because it is faster, better built and has HTC Sense (user interface improvement for HTC phones), the HTC Hero is simply the best Android smartphone on the market today (in the U.S at least). The native and complete support of Exchange makes it suitable for small businesses and therefore a good potential replacement for Windows Mobile devices. Its web browser has pinch and zoom support and the Hero has a number of things that were in our MyTouch 3G (read our MyTouch 3G review) wish list: multi-touch, more widgets, 3.5mm audio connector (and full Exchange support). That said, it is also more expensive to own than the MyTouch 3G, because the T-Mobile plan costs $55/mo instead of $70/mo* for the Sprint plan (ALWAYS look at the total cost of ownership over 2 years). Obviously, you will have to compare all the features and decide if the difference is worth the price. Sprint is supposed to have a better network than T-Mobile, but check how it performs in YOUR area.
Inevitable comparison: The HTC Hero is a good phone, but it’s not where the iPhone 3Gs is, in terms of reactivity and speed. On the other hand, the platform is more open. so you might find apps that don’t exist on iPhone. Also, if for some reason you don’t want to have AT&T as a carrier, this is one of the best touch phone that you can get.
*As of today, and on Sprint.com, the HTC Hero goes for $179.99 with a 2-yr contract. The cheapest plan was a 450mn+unlimited data for $70/mo