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By Thomas McKinnon 14 October 2009

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The HTC Hero has set gadget geek tongues wagging since its announcement last year. While exciting, the first generation Android devices, the Magic and Dream, just lacked a certain degree of sophistication in terms of user-interface and styling. With big claims that the Hero “gets you”, HTC are setting the device apart as the first Android handset that’s also user-centric.

HTC is putting a lot of marketing spin on the “Sense Experience” user-interface that lies on top of the Hero’s Android OS. This supposedly creates a far more intuitive device. After a week of testing the device we can report back that it isn’t all just spin- HTC’s work on the UI and other aspects thoroughly impress us.

The look

The Hero looks like an evolved hybrid of the Magic and the Dream. Like the Magic it lacks a hardware QWERTY and is rather slim. But it also sports the Dream’s “Mr. Incredible” like chin. This chin gives it a distinct look and angles the phone’s mic in towards your mouth, which we quite like. 

The Hero feels solid and has a Teflon finish in matte black. This is a clear move away from hyper-gloss smartphone trends. Consequently, it looks sophisticated and is up to the wear-and-tear of normal use.

Like it forerunners it offers hardware buttons below its respectable 3.2" capacitive touch-screen. These buttons include a home, menu, back, send, end, and dedicated search key. The placement of the back button troubled us a little as you need to be double jointed to reach it with your right thumb when using just the one hand. The trackball is still there which proves useful in navigation and as a means of notifying you of incoming calls and messages. An obvious omission is the lack of a dedicated camera button on the side, which would have rounded off its hardware controls nicely.

Hardware

While the Hero received a nice style makeover the same isn’t true of its hardware offering. You get the same processor and internal memory specs we saw on the Magic; a Qualcomm 528 MHz CPU, 288 MB of RAM and 512 MB ROM. This is a little disappointing as HTC’s improvements to the Android UI would really have enjoyed a little more zip in the processing department. This is most obvious when browsing and switching between portrait and landscape mode.

On a more positive note the Hero features a decent 5 megapixel, auto focus camera. Captured images are of sufficient quality to make leaving your old compact digital at home an actual debate. Although the lack of a dedicated camera key, the fact that you need to use the trackball to zoom and snap the shots and the omission of a flash are problematic.

The handset’s battery life is decent too. We were able to enjoy a full day’s use without the need for a recharge. The “life anxiety” that comes with owning a smartphone is still there as attempting two days without a recharge would have you on edge, but generally speaking a full day of battery is decent enough. 

The other bit of hardware that comes much appreciated is a 3.5 mm jack. It’s not something HTC often add but with all the effort they put into customising the device’s music player it would have been pigheaded to leave out a jack.

On the connectivity front the Hero has all the bells and whistles you could want. There’s Wi-Fi, 3G HSDPA, Bluetooth and GPS. So no complaints there since you can run all your location based apps, browse the web, access Google Maps and download apps from the Android Market.

User-interface

HTC’s Sense Experience really adds a bit of class to the Android interface. While the interface is distinctly Android the Taiwanese manufacturer has made some important additions to the look and feel by including seven home-screens that can be customised with widgets and app shortcuts. You can theme each of the screens in terms of the types of apps you place and even change the backgrounds.

What we really enjoyed about HTC’s work on the interface is the makeover of functions like the dialler, the calendar, contacts and QWERTY keyboard. HTC’s iterations of these functions are just smoother and more user-friendly than Android’s Cupcake. By pulling in data from Twitter, Facebook and Flickr to various parts of the phone, like the contacts, the phone is also personal almost from setup.

Other functions like the Music player and Albums have also been overhauled to be more user-centric. The music player is now a treat to use while the addition of multi-touch in your picture albums is a nice addition as well.

HTC Widgets

The inclusion of distinct HTC widgets is perhaps one of the most useful additions to the Hero. Rather than a barebones Android offering the Hero now features exclusive HTC widgets like the weather and clock widget we’re used to on their Windows Mobile handsets, a Twitter widgets named Peep, a location based widgets called Footprint, a messaging widget and a number of settings widgets to toggle functions like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on and off.

All these can be added to the home-screens and offer live updates/ previews of data from each of the apps. For instance you can update your Twitter status and follow other people’s updates from your homescreen. For more functionality you simply launch the app from the same widget. This is very useful and really gives you a sense of always being connected. The settings toggles are also particularly thoughtful as you rarely have to delve very deep into settings to enable or disable battery and data hungry connections.

Final word

The Hero is a truly remarkable device. It ‘s quite obviously a second generation Android handset and as such is a real competitor in the smartphone market. Its distinct look and improved user experience really go a long way to tailor Android for the average consumer rather than a gadget geek niche.

Its shortcomings are as obvious as its triumphs however, being underpowered on the hardware side. The other thing to bear in mind is that you’ll need a data contract to feed this monster as you find yourself in a perpetual state of connection, be it social networking, browsing or looking of the next most amusing app.Comparatively it is also well priced at a recommended R6788.

PROS
Sense Experience is a great interface skin.
CONS
Its underpowered on the memory and processing front.
USER COMMENTS

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