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For what borders on an eternity in the wireless world, T-Mobile was the only U.S. carrier to boast an Android-powered handset. As the nation’s fourth largest carrier, T-Mobile laid claim to the much anticipated G1 with Google and later the myTouch 3G that began its life with arguably more muted beginnings as rumors swirled of impending releases of a veritable army of Android devices.
It was only recently that Sprint decided to join in on the Android revolution, declaring the mobile operating system ready for primetime and becoming the second U.S. carrier to welcome an Android handset onto its network. Sprint’s first Android phone comes in the form of the HTC Hero, a device that in many ways vindicates Sprint’s decision to wait to hop aboard what is quickly becoming a sizeable Android bandwagon.
When compared to the G1 and myTouch 3G, the HTC Hero is undoubtedly the most advanced Android device to date. With full Microsoft Outlook synchronization, including email, contacts, and calendar, the Hero makes a strong play for business users. The device also sports HTC’s highly customizable and attractive Sense UI, a 3.5mm headphone jack, a 5-megapixel camera, WiFi and 3G support.
Although the U.S. HTC Hero bears the same name as its European counterpart, our domestic Android device lost its characteristic “chin” and underwent a complete stylistic makeover before it made its trip across the pond. While there are certainly sleeker and more uniquely styled devices, the HTC Hero is an attractive smartphone with a superior look and build quality than that of the G1 and myTouch 3G.
The body of the phone is a slate gray color with a silver metallic band encircling the sides that extends to the bottom of the device where it meets HTC’s miniUSB port. Thanks to the slightly rubberized backing, the Hero feels great in the palm of the hand and avoids the somewhat plasticky feel of the myTouch 3G.
At 4.5 inches tall, 2.2 inches wide, just over half-an-inch thick, and weighing in at a trim 4.5 ounces, the smartphone is a compact device that will slip comfortably into most any pocket or purse.
The left side of the phone is home to a volume rocker, while there are no buttons of any kind on the right side. On top of the Hero is a standard 3.5mm headphone jack. The on-bard 5-megapixel camera can be found on the back of the device surrounded by a speaker grill used by the phone’s powerful and clear speakerphone. There’s a microSD expansion card slot found underneath the back cover along the right side.
The front of the Hero features two indicator lights on either side of the earpiece as well as a uniquely configured array of hardware buttons found below the touch screen. There’s a menu button, home button, search button, and back button in addition to send (also launches voice commands) and end keys. While most every action can be performed by a touch of the screen, there’s also a large trackball that will help you get the job done.
The 3.2-inch capacitive touch screen display is crisp and vibrant, making images, text and video look great. As the screen is capacitive rather than resistive, it will only respond to finger presses and not a standard stylus or fingernail. The touch screen is accurate and responsive, rivaling that of any other capacitive screen device on the market.
As has come to be more or less expected these days with higher-end smartphones, the Hero has a built-in ambient light sensor that will automatically dim or brighten the screen based on the phone’s surroundings. Of course, the device also sports an accelerometer that will change the screen’s orientation when the phone is turned from portrait to landscape orientation in applications such as email and the browser. There’s often a pretty average delay time of one to two seconds when switching orientations.
The Android user interface still has a ways to go if it is to leapfrog formidable competitors including the sleek and graceful user interfaces of Apple’s iPhone OS and Palm’s webOS. Yet, just as we’ve seen HTC do with its Windows Mobile lineup in the form of TouchFLO 3D, the company has developed its own eye-catching interface to work on top of the standard Android interface.
Dubbed Sense, HTC’s Android interface brings a slew of customization options to the Hero including seven home screen panels that can host application shortcuts, folders, Android widgets and a number of pre-installed widgets developed by HTC. Home panels can be navigated with either a flick of the screen or touch of the trackball, and an on-screen indicator shows what panel is currently being displayed.
A navigation bar remains static on the bottom of each panel providing one-touch access to all installed applications, the on-screen phone dialer, and customization options. HTC’s available widgets include (to name just a few) a people widget that allows for elegant speed dialing of favorite contacts, as well as a Twitter widget, weather widget, and music control widget.
As part of the Sense interface, HTC has included a feature called “Scenes.” Scenes allows users to quickly switch up the seven home screen panels depending on what they are doing at a given time. Custom Scenes can be created, and there’s a number of pre-installed Scenes available including Social, Work, Play and Travel. The Travel Scene, for example, displays a clock widget for two programmable cities, a shortcut to Google Maps and the camera application, a weather widget, and more.
As we’ve seen with previous Android devices, the Hero handles notifications — e.g. new voicemails, email and text messages, instant messages, etc. — with a function termed the “window shade.” The window shade is a menu that can be pulled down from the top of the screen that provides access to all current notifications. Tapping on a text message notification, for example, will display the messaging window.
If all of this seems a little bit overwhelming and perhaps difficult to fully wrap your head around, that’s because it is. As is one of the hallmarks of Android devices, the Hero is infinitely customizable and capable of being modified however its user pleases. With this great flexibility, however, comes a learning curve that may not appeal to those looking for simplicity and ease-of-use right out of the box.
The HTC Hero is equipped with a 528MHz Qualcomm MSM7600 processor, lending the Hero no leg up over the G1 and myTouch 3G in the realm of processing power. While there was some occasional sluggishness and lag during our time with the Hero, we were generally impressed with the smartphone’s ability to multitask and handle the relatively heavy day-to-day routine we put it through.
As we’ve seen on HTC’s devices with TouchFLO 3D, the Hero takes an innovative approach to contacts. When accessing an individual contact, a tabbed menu offers the option to easily call, email, or text that contact, see text and email messages exchanged with that contact, access call history, and see that contact’s updates from Facebook and Flickr.
Unfortunately, Facebook integration is relatively limited, synching only a contact’s Facebook picture and birthday and alerting you to the fact that a contact has updates without going into any detail such as displaying an actual status update. If you are synchronizing with both a Google account and Outlook, you may be disappointed to discover duplicate contact entries given the Hero does not merge contacts from different sources.
The dialer screen is simple but effective. There’s a favorite contacts shortcut, and the option to view a flick-able list of recent calls and all stored contacts. You can also use the on-screen numerical dial pad to quickly search through contacts by name or phone number while the matching results are narrowed down in the background as you type.
The HTC Hero is the first Android device with full support for synchronization with Microsoft Outlook. While the myTouch 3G allowed for email synchronization, the Hero adds the ability to automatically synchronize with the contacts and calendar on an Exchange server. While this added functionality is likely irrelevant to Gmail users and those who don’t rely on Outlook to manage their contacts and calendar, corporate users can finally embrace an Android device.
The Hero can be set to retrieve email anywhere from as often as once a day to as new messages comes in. Naturally, the more often the device is set to receive email, the shorter the battery life. Users can also manually refresh their inbox, although this option requires accessing the inbox’s menu and then hitting refresh ‚Äì a process that becomes mildly cumbersome if you check for new email multiple times a day.
Of course, the Hero has a separate Gmail application that provides seamless integration with the popular email service. There’s also support for most other types of email accounts, including any IMAP or POP3 account. The Hero has pre-installed instant messaging services including Google Talk, AIM, Windows Live Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger.
HTC opted to use its own virtual QWERTY keyboard rather than the standard Android keyboard. The keys in both portrait and landscape mode are slightly larger than on Android’s standard keyboard, and we found them easy to press with minimal mistakes.
As is the case with most any device without a physical keyboard, text entry is significantly easier while the device is turned in landscape mode given the keys are bigger and better spaced. The Hero also offers auto correction and word prediction which is an extra bonus and particularly handy for longer words.
As seems to be a continuing trend, the Hero offers a superior browser to than that of both the G1 and myTouch 3G. Perhaps the biggest improvement is the addition of multitouch capabilities, making zooming in and out on web pages a much easier process. The Hero’s browser also features Flash Light support, enabling the device to display basic Flash content.
The browser offers a number of enhanced and handy options, including the ability to have multiple browser windows open, visual bookmarks, and the ability to share links on Facebook and Twitter or by email and text message. For the most part, pages rendered quickly over Sprint’s EVDO Rev network. As was our complaint when refreshing the email inbox manually, navigating to a new web page or running a web search required accessing the menu instead of just tapping an area of the screen — again, a minor inconvenience that might prove irritating for frequent web browsers.
When it comes to entertainment options, in most areas the Hero doesn’t disappoint. The device supports Sprint TV, providing streaming video content including full-length TV shows and live TV. There’s also a basic YouTube application that offers content from the popular video-sharing site at good but not great quality over Sprint’s network. Other entertainment options include NFL Mobile Live and Nascar Sprint Cup Mobile.
The music player is aesthetically attractive and provides the usual options such as shuffle, repeat, and on-the-go playlist creation. The Hero also includes a functional music widget for easily playing, pausing and advancing songs. Unfortunately, HTC elected not include any music synchronization software with the Hero, meaning getting music on the device’s microSD card requires a drag-and-drop process. The Hero supports playback of MP3, AAC, WAV, MIDI, AMR-NB and Windows Media 9 files.
The 5-megapixel onboard camera with autofocus is a significant step up from other Android devices, but still lags behind some of its equally equipped peers in photo quality. Photos weren’t quite as vibrant as other 5-megapixel cameras, particularly in darker lighting. Video quality was pretty decent, albeit slightly choppy.
There’s no flash, unfortunately, and there’s a couple-second shutter lag, making taking pictures of anything in motion somewhat of a tall order.
The camera offers a number of options and settings including a zoom, self-timer, flicker adjustment, white balance, ISO, and a number of photo effects. After taking a picture or video, you have the option to upload to Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, Picasa and several other sharing options.
The HTC Hero is equipped with WiFi and Bluetooth v2.0, offering a number of profiles including stereo headset, hands-free, file transfer, remote control, personal area networking and a couple more. The device also has built-in GPS, and provides turn-by-turn driving directions using Sprint Navigation.
Other extras include a voice recorder, visual voicemail, Google Maps, voice web searching, and voice commands. The Hero also comes with a number of pre-installed applications including Stocks, Footprints (for capturing the GPS coordinates of where pictures were taken and voice notes recorded), Peep (a Twitter application) and Teeter (a maze-like game that uses the accelerometer). There’s also a PDF viewer and document reader.
Of course, the Hero supports the Android Market, which provides access to thousands of additional free and paid applications.
After some lighthearted debate, we’ve all come to agree that HTC’s latest Android device brings a hero to Sprint’s smartphone lineup. The Hero boasts HTC’s impressive Sense interface and full support for Microsoft Outlook synchronization including email, contacts, and calendar. From Wifi, to GPS, to 3G support, the smartphone didn’t leave us sorely missing any desired feature big or small.
Yet, as is the case with all great heroes, the HTC Hero does have its flaws. With the virtually limitless customization options available on the Hero comes a learning curve that may scare off anyone looking for an intuitive phone and on-the-go email solution that “just works.”
Looks alone, the Hero also isn’t likely to stand out in a crowd. Other small quirks that were mildly irksome included limited Facebook integration and duplicated contact entries when synced with both Google and Outlook. As 5-megapixel cameras go, the Hero didn’t take superior photos.
If you can overlook some moderate shortcomings and are either somewhat of a gadget guru or willing to accept a bit of a learning curve (with great rewards), the HTC Hero may make a great pick for your next smartphone.