HTC Hero review

23 11 2009

One of the best Android handsets yet

What: HTC Hero

How much: Varies, but Orange and T-Mobile both have the Hero for free on a £30/24-month contract (rebranded as the G2 Touch on T-Mobile). Or you can buy it outright (SIM-free) for about £370 from a number of online retailers.

To my long-suffering Aussie friends: you should be able to buy it outright from an online retailer for about A$580 (seeing as no carriers have picked it up).

In the US there are two CDMA versions of the Hero platform: Sprint offers it in a different (blander) shell, and Verizon offers yet another mild variant renamed the Droid Eris.

The good: HTC Sense UI adds a lot of polish to Android OS; excellent usability; access to thousands of Android applications; solid hardware design; aggregation of contacts and linking to Web services is good; build quality is excellent.

The bad: The launch firmware was buggy and slow (make sure you update to the latest version from HTC); same basic hardware platform as the cheaper Magic; no Mac OS support for HTC desktop software; contact aggregation doesn’t give enough options for managing contacts or choosing which to sync; the customised version of Android means HTC takes longer to keep up with “official” Android platform updates.

Buy it if: You want one of the most polished Android devices on the market, or one of the best smartphones.

Don’t buy it if: There’s no real deal-breaker here, unless you want to wait for one of the new Snapdragon-based Android handsets, or you prefer a proper keyboard.

Summary: HTC has been steadily improving its Android handsets with each iteration, and the Hero is easily the best so far, eliminating most of my quibbles with the Magic and adding a huge amount of polish through its Sense UI. The software is the highlight, offering loads of customisation options, excellent usability and expandability through the Android Market. As I write this, with the latest firmware version the Hero offers one of the best smartphone experiences available. In fact, I was really sad when HTC asked for the loan version I was using back. However, you’ll need an unlimited data plan, because like all Android handsets it’s constantly transferring information over the network.

Software

There has been a real proliferation of Android handsets since I reviewed the HTC Magic a few months ago, and it’s become much more difficult for manufacturers to differentiate their devices from their competitors’. HTC has done so by customising the Android UI with its own Sense UI, which I think is a significant improvement on the standard Android build (as seen on the Magic). The Hero I reviewed is running on HTC’s modified version of Android 1.5, but the work HTC has done is a really impressive demonstration of how much Android can be improved: it’s very pretty and the extra functionality really makes the Hero stand out from its competitors.

Sense ties all of your Google contacts and Facebook contacts together, and can link to Flickr profiles. What this means is that you can easily see all of your interactions with a person, check their status, contact them or view their photos all from one place. It’s a good idea and works well for the most part, although it does take some time initially matching some contacts with their Facebook profiles. I would really like to see better control of which contacts are imported from Google: the Hero insisted on downloading all of my Google contacts, resulting in dozens of random email addresses in my phone contact list – it would be better if I could select a group of contacts to download to the phone.

I also had trouble when adding new contacts to the phone: the Hero saved them as “phone contacts” on the handset and wouldn’t sync them to Google. You can select this when creating a new contact, but you can’t change them after the fact. There is also no ability to merge duplicates on the device, so contact management is all done on the web.

These are my main complaints about the Hero’s software. Otherwise the experience is almost seamless, whether it’s downloading and installing apps from the Android Market; taking and uploading photos to Facebook, Twitter or Flickr; setting up email addresses; using the Calendar; Google Maps; installing widgets on one of the seven (!!) homescreens… it all just works.

In fact, it’s pretty much the smoothest phone user experience I can think of (bearing in mind I am not an iPhone user). It’s won a few awards from gadget magazines and industry groups, so it seems I’m not alone in thinking so.

The Hero is slightly larger than a BlackBerry Curve 8900

Hardware.

The Hero has all the standard specs you would expect on a phone at this price point: Qualcomm 528MHz CPU; A-GPS; HSDPA; WiFi; 5.0MP camera with autofocus; capacitive touchscreen; 3.5mm headphone jack (yay!!). It doesn’t stand out from the crowd in terms of specifications, and in fact the Qualcomm MSM7200 chipset is starting to look a little long in the tooth compared to the Snapdragon and Cortex A8 chips starting to appear (HTC’s flagship WinMo device, the HD2, runs a 1GHz Snapdragon chipset). But the hardware does the job, running nice and smoothly for the most part.

The industrial design and build quality are both rock solid. I really like the angular shape of the Hero, and the form factor sits comfortably in the hand or in the pocket. The screen is not huge, or especially bright and colourful, but it does the job.

The 3.5mm audio jack is a really welcome addition, as it means you can use the Hero as a media player without fumbling around with a pointless adaptor. The music playback software is excellent on the Hero, and sound quality to my ears was adequate (though not mind-blowing, it is good enough to stop you carrying a dedicated media player in most situations).

The camera is… ummm… well, it’s useless in low light because it lacks even an LED flash. In broad daylight it’s good enough to snap the odd pic, but not replace a dedicated camera (there are many better camera phones on the market).

Images taken with the Hero are usable on the web, but dynamic range, colour and sharpness could all be better.

Battery life is quite respectable compared to equivalent handsets. you will still need to recharge every 24 hours, but that’s not bad considering how much data the Hero sends and receives.

I guess that’s about all there is to say… I really like the Hero and have recommended it to a few friends who have also been very happy with it. By no means is it perfect, but it’s definitely one of my favourites at the moment.





HTC Magic review

29 04 2009

The HTC Magic is the second phone to be released with Google’s Android mobile OS, and I was lucky enough to have a few days to play with one just before its launch, supplied by Vodafone UK. The Magic uses the latest version of Android (1.5) which adds support for an onscreen keyboard, better video handling and a bunch of other tweaks and improvements. There is plenty of interest in Android, both from geeky consumers and from industry people. This is partly because anything Google does is pretty interesting (and potentially game-changing and scary) and partly because it looks like a genuine challenger to the iPhone, but with a more open philosophy. I found the Magic to be a real joy to use, and I think it does a great job of showing Android’s potential as a consumer mobile OS.

Slimmer and prettier than the BlackBerry Storm

Slimmer and prettier than the BlackBerry Storm

What: HTC Magic
How much: Vodafone UK is initially offering it for “free” on a two-year, £35 a month contract (including data), with a variety of other more expensive options available. It is also on other European carriers at launch, including in France, Spain, Italy and Germany, so check your local market.
The good: Awesome integration with Google applications; easy set-up; great user interface is very fast and intuitive; web browser is the best I’ve seen on a mobile; form factor is slim and feels good in the hand.
The bad: Lacks a 3.5mm stereo jack (requires a separate adaptor); camera pretty much sucks.
Buy it if: you’re a Google fan and already use Google apps; you want a web-centric phone with plenty of third-party apps; you want a touchscreen phone that isn’t an iPhone but offers a comparable user experience.
Don’t buy it if: you think Google is evil; the thought of carrying a headphone adaptor fills you with rage; you’re using it for corporate stuff.
Summary: I liked the Magic more than any phone I’ve used lately, and I think that Android is really exciting from a consumer point of view. The Magic is the best Android phone currently available, but you might want to wait until Samsung launches its first Android device in June 2009 (it has a headphone jack AND a 5MP camera!) for comparison. Apple will also have a new version of the iPhone out, probably around July (educated guess, not inside information). The Magic goes to the top of my “most wanted” list… for now.

Software

Home screen is pretty basic, but effective

Home screen is pretty basic, but effective

Android 1.5 is pretty awesome to use, especially if all your stuff is already on Google. I use Gmail, Calendar and use Google Sync to sync my contacts so they are all already in Google’s system (being able to sync contacts to the web is pretty handy when you change phones as often as I do). I use Google Maps most days (GPS + gmaps = cycling around London without getting lost). So being able to type in my Google password and have the phone automatically sync all my information with a couple of button presses is, well, ace. This is nothing new to Android users and those who have been paying attention, but for the people up the back it’s worth pointing out that it really is very, very easy to set up.

Using it is also a breeze, flicking through menus is intuitive and applications all launch fast. This is the easiest phone I’ve used for ages, possibly ever (I don’t have an iPhone). I had fun playing with it, and found myself using it for things that are awkward and off-putting on other phones. I wanted to use the web, to send email, to check the weather… all of these things that “smartphones” are supposed to enable are executed really well in Android 1.5.

The web browser is stonkingly good – I would say it is the best mobile web browser I have seen, because it renders pages perfectly and really quickly, scrolls around like butter on greased teflon, and doesn’t actually feel much like a mobile browser at all, more like a desktop browser on a really tiny screen.

The Gmail application is similarly impressive, rendering full html email beautifully. It actually made me want to send emails.

The media player looks nice, and works well

The media player looks nice, and works well

The media player is good, if not as pretty as Apple’s version, and apart from the headphone jack thing (not the software’s fault) the Magic is a competent music player. It picked up all the album art, and seems to support playlists (but I ran out of time to test this properly). It does support AD2P stereo Bluetooth, so if you have a set of Bluetooth headphones you may not care about the audio jack (in case you haven’t noticed, I do care).

The Android Market is picking up momentum and there are plenty of cool apps available on it (also plenty of crap, but that’s not exclusively Android’s problem). I particularly liked the Shazam app, but I didn’t have time to download and test a huge range of apps.

Android will continue to improve as the development team chips away at adding features and polishing the UI, but with this release it has gone from an impressive novelty to being a genuine alternative for many people. Of course, owners of the G1/Dream will also reap the benefits of Android 1.5 when the software upgrade is pushed out to them, but the Magic is a much prettier and smaller phone, so I’m sure it will prove popular.

Hardware

Yep, I even switched it on!

Yep, I even switched it on!

The critical change that HTC has made to its line of Android devices is the lack of the physical keyboard on the Magic, which makes it slimmer and sleeker than the G1. Version 1.5 of the Android OS is the reason, as it has support for a soft onscreen keyboard. So the form factor of the Magic is really the main reason to favour a Magic over the G1 (which will receive the 1.5 software update and have all the same software features as the Magic).

The onscreen keyboard, luckily, is damn good. It is accurate and provides haptic feedback (vibrates) when you press it, and it works in portrait or landscape view (although landscape is much easier to type on). I like physical keyboards, and after using a BlackBerry Bold swore that I would always prefer real buttons over virtual ones (the Bold is a great device, btw). The Magic nearly changes my mind – it really is excellent.

You might ask why a touchscreen device needs a trackball as well. The answer is because some things really benefit from the extra precision a trackball provides – things like hitting small links in web pages not designed for a mobile screen and touchscreen interface, and editing typing errors (RIM, are you listening? The next Storm should have a trackball, we both know you do trackballs well).

Err... where do I plug my headphones?

Err... where do I plug my headphones?

The only port on the device is the proprietary HTC extUSB jack on the bottom, which combines all the normal things that a mini-USB jack is used for, but makes it a slightly different shape (although you can still plug a standard mini-USB cable into it) and adds a couple of pins for audio output. To use headphones with the Magic you need to purchase a special adaptor that plugs into the extUSB jack, and then plug your headphones into the adaptor (for the sake of argument I’ve ignored the bundled headphones, as bundled headphones are generally not worth the effort of unwrapping them). I think it’s a terrible omission to not have a standard audio jack, and if HTC is going to insist on doing it then the box really should include an adaptor.

The camera, well the less said the better, but it’s pretty ordinary. It has autofocus, but the images are soft and noisy. There are no real options for adjusting settings like white balance or night mode, and there is not even an LED flash. The good news is Android 1.5 supports video recording, but if you really want a phone with a half-decent camera, get a Nokia N-Series.

So that’s about it. As you can probably tell I’m a big fan of the HTC Magic, and I would probably buy one if I wasn’t allergic to long contracts. Thanks for reading, and please ask any questions in the comments.





Mobile developers’ choice: money or flexibility

25 11 2008

One of the really exciting things that’s happening at the moment in the world of mobile handsets is the growth of several key platforms for mobile application development. Recently I had a chance to chat to the developer of a third-party email application for the iPhone, Android and Symbian. I thought I’d share some of the issues that he raised which affect the way developers choose which platforms to work on, and his comments about two of the most popular mobile application stores. Developers of mobile apps balance risk and reward when deciding where to invest their time and effort. If they want to make money, they’ll need to balance their chance of making a profit with the difficulty of producing an app and getting it onto users’ devices.

In this little post I’m just going to discuss two of the most headline-friendly platforms, the iPhone and Android, which take very different approaches to getting applications onto handsets.

Apple

Apple is well known for tightly controlling what gets onto its App Store, with no apps that compete with Apple’s own core apps or anything being sold by Apple’s carrier partners allowed (along with numerous other tough conditions). For example, a developer could spend months on an application, only to see it rejected because Apple has been developing a competing product in secret. The process for approving and publishing applications is slow (two weeks) and opaque (apps can be refused or removed without explanation, despite complying with the stated terms of the SDK Agreement). Pushing updates and bug fixes to end users is frustratingly slow.

Our contact admitted that if the iPhone wasn’t so successful at making money for developers (100 million apps downloaded in the first two months of the App Store is phenomenal), he probably wouldn’t bother with the iPhone at all – the process really is a headache. From an end-user point of view, Apple has nailed the App Store, and the ease of downloading, installation and billing is what drives the high volume of app downloads and makes the headaches worthwhile for developers.

Google

In contrast, Google’s approach with Android is much more open – as long as developers don’t violate the basic terms of the Android agreement (generally no scams, pr0n or illegal stuff) they’re good to go. Uploading apps to the Android Market is practically instant, and developers know they won’t be wasting their time as long as they adhere to the clearly stated conditions of the Android Distribution Agreement. So what’s the downside? Android hasn’t yet proven itself capable of making money for developers, it hasn’t got the market traction that Apple has, and there is uncertainty around the potential for device fragmentation. But with a company as big as Google backing the platform, I think a lot of developers will be happy to take the bet, even if only to keep Apple honest.

Anyway, I drew a diagram. If Android can prove itself and developers see they can make money producing applications for it, it will be interesting to see if Apple is forced to loosen the shackles. But Apple has a large and growing captive audience, is a proven money-maker and has its developers by the short and curlies, to some extent. Of course, I haven’t even mentioned the others: the platform with the largest market share in North America, RIM (also launching an App Store in early 2009); or the Symbian/S60 platform which has by far the largest global deployed base (several hundred million handsets worldwide) and widespread industry support; or the creaking Windows Mobile OS. Everyone’s getting in on the game, so I think it’s going to be interesting watching where the consumers, handset manufacturers and developers go over the next couple of years.

Mobile developers choosing between the iPhone and Android platforms have a tough decision between a proven revenue winner with tight restrictions, or an unproven platform with far fewer constraints.

Mobile developers choosing between the iPhone and Android platforms have a tough decision between a proven revenue winner with tight restrictions, or an unproven platform with far fewer constraints.