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.