Pseudo-erudite fuckwits often dribble that “it’s about quality not quantity” – these people are morons. History shows that over a greater number of versions, the more refined a product becomes – the first iPhone now looks more primitive than Wayne Rooney discovering fire, and not much has changed over two generations. HTC has become one of the most prolific mobile phone handset manufacturers in a fraction of the time. Their team-up with Google, as a platform for the web-giant’s Android Operating System, has shot the “quietly brilliant” Taiwanese company into the realm of gadget infamy bringing out a new handset, it seems, every twelve seconds. From HTC’s apparent strategy of throwing handset after handset at Apple to compete with the iPhone, a champion has emerged – the aptly named, HTC Hero. I’ve been sent a model from the phone network 3 to review the phone and the Spotify, Skype and Windows Live Messenger apps. This is the first time I’ve been asked to review a device so yes I am palpably excited about it.
I should mention that, quite a while ago now, I did a comparison between the top five smartphones, including the Hero.
Note: The poor picture quality is more of an advert against the Palm Pre’s camera.
The Hero itself is a teflon-coated masterpiece of construction, albeit one blemised by the unsightly and pocket-cumbersome chin that HTC initially adopted as a staple design feature but appears, thankfully, to be undergoing a swift phasing out. The casing is good to hold but it’s kryptonite appears to be colour: models I’ve seen come in a choice of either a sexy dark blue/black or a dull cream like the puke-stained lino flooring in a particularly underwhelming nightclub. The latter colour tries so hard to play off Apple’s “sterile white” motif on some models of Macbook that it’s remarkable to turn this thing on and not be confronted with the stoic apple symbol that you automatically associate with crushing dejection. I make such references to the colour because my review model came in this ghastly cream that will quickly start to grow murky and give the handset the colour of an old plaster.
The Jay Leno chin houses a standard trackball and a search and ‘back’ button for web browsing, the chrome portion below the screen flaunts the standard phone keys to navigate the Android OS. The top and bottom edges are for the ports, standard headphone jack atop and mini-USB port for charging beneath. Save a volume rocker, itself barely visible as it matches the casing colour, HTC have elected to keep the edges of the phone fairly bare, no doubt harkening to Apple’s iPhone strategy of having only the bare minimum in ports and buttons. The back sports a rather good 5 megapixel camera that delivers a remarkable picture quality that far outstrips my Palm Pre (as the handset images above clearly indicate). Crispy 320×480 screen with 16-bit colour offers a passable display, but not one you’d want to watch a particlarly high quality video on, the recessed screen creates a poignant seperation between touchscreen and viewscreen that was slightly offputting to use but not a significant problem.
HTC have superimposed their own “Sense” User Interface to the Android OS, allowing features such as multiple customisable homescreens and multi-touch web browsing, to leave their own mark on the device. This additional UI includes a plethora of built-in widgets and gizmos to make personalising the fully customisable homescreen easy and reduce the need to go wade through app stores on your first use of the phone; one of the best widgets is the Twitter widget that includes a real-time feed and allows you to tweet directly from the home-screen. Other widgets include a website bookmark slideshow, message displays and the ability to customise multiple home-screens for different purposes, such as having one set up for work purposes and another for day-to-day, toggling between them with a simple side-swipe. This is the first Android phone to support multi-touch, pre-installed through the tweaking that HTC provided in ‘Sense’ – however, it’s far from the comfortable pinch-zoom you get on the iPhone or Palm Pre and can sometimes feel jittery and unresponsive. The onscreen keyboard is standard Android, which I feel is where ‘Sense’ has missed a trick, the keys are small and hard to manipulate properly and writing anything at length was a nightmare (which is odd because my nightmares usually consist of my flatmates attempting to shave my legs). As usual with Android, they’ve done what they can and heavily integrated text-prediction systems can turn even something as obscurely typed as ‘wrotwra’ into ‘writers’ without needing to be prompted, though this can lead to some confusing moments when you try and enter a non-dictionary word (particularly applicable when tweeting) as it persistently tries to correct you, like the aforementioned pseudo-erudite fuckwits at a dinner party.
Spotify mobile came out late last year as a subscription-based service, allowing music streaming across your data connection. The app, which has been provided for the review model by 3, lets the user find and play songs, create/import playlists and save them directly to the phone (albeit in a DRM laden format that will only work within the phone itself). Perhaps my biggest criticism of the phone comes in here, it’s sound quality can be tinny at times – it has two rear speakers with a larger one on the front of the phone for phone calls, but when, for example, music is playing the device and is placed on it’s back the sound is severely muffled. This shouldn’t be a problem for calls and can be resolved by placing the phone on it’s side, though this is an awkward solution that you wouldn’t use long term. Songs on Spotify come in at a reasonable quality, when using headphones, the same as you would experience from a standard MP3 file, and will buffer and play astoundingly fast for it’s standard 3G connection in the Reading area. As this is a premium service, the app comes sans-adverts that you hear on the free computer software and is available for £10 per month. While you can upgrade to a higher bitrate package, also lacking the adverts, with a standard 3G connection and larger files to stream, this may be more trouble than it’s worth. The app is intuitively laid out, allowing you to switch between ‘Now Playing’ and search modes without interrupting the song or getting lost in a haze of settings; a five button lower menu allow you to move between all the commonly used features and an ever-present search button allows you to find a song faster than Nick Clegg’s popularity fluctuates.
Skype is a useful, responsive app that integrates VoIP into your phone so you can call other Skype users in the same way you would call someone’s mobile being so bold as to use Android’s self-same UI. It integrates all the same chat features as you get on the real thing and contacts are imported easily, as yet there’s no clear feature to include video chat. The best bit of the Skype app is that is is completely free, requiring no data plan nor pay-as-you-go minutes, giving it a key advantage over phone calls, the only problem I see is that this is a featur that you could only use in certain situations given the relatively niche user-base of Skype over the ubiquity of mobile phones. On a call to Tech-Squared co-host Louis, I was told that the call quality was very good, precisely what you’d get on a phone call, which leads me to my conclusion; overall, the Skype app is a nice touch but, I can’t help feeling, an ultimately hard sell given it’s competing, more or less, with the telephone. A great tool for business calls as it includes the conference features you get on normal Skype, but only really useful if you know a lot of key people who use it. Besides, if you have the data contract to affordably browse the web and use other data-heavy features of the HTC Hero, you probably have a decent amount of voice minutes. This is not a criticism of the Skype app, as it’s definetely worth keeping on your phone because it’s both free and, when used right, can be invaluable, it’s a expected disadvantage with any web service – if Facebook or Twitter had a low number of users, they’d have a hard time presenting their services as cohesive Web 2.0 tools, Skype appears to suffer this problem. Windows Live Messenger apps are quite useful, laying out conversations in a manner strikingly similar to the SMS display on the iPhone, that’s not a criticism, however, as it is extremely well organised and intuitive to use, though it’s become apparent that a lot of people are defecting away from WLM and heading towards Facebook Chat, so if I were to make a recommendation to these developers, I’d say look into that. Ultimately, the Skype and WLM apps are fantastic tools but are, due to the rapidly changing Web 2.0 landscape, a little bit outdated. As apps for VoIP and IM services, they still stand on their own merits, but if they were directed more at the current tools, rather than ones of now-dwindling popularity, their use would be wider.
Of the latest phones, HTC and Android are so ubiquitous they’re becoming the phone equivalent of a screensaver. The HTC Hero handset is fairly standard, the operating system, on the other hand, is saved from repetitive drudgery by HTC’s addition of the innovative ‘Sense’ UI which, though far from perfect, has a lot of potential for HTC to drop their Google overlords in favour of their own refined OS (which, considering the release of Google’s Nexus One phone, looks increasingly likely). If you’re looking to unify your phone and MP3 player, I recommend the Spotify app, £10 per month for unlimited music (incidentely, if you’re not on an unlimited data plan, avoid it like the plague) on a portable device is a great system, just check your phone’s audio quality to make sure it’s worth it first. Skype is free so worth a go and WLM is fantastic if you’re a heavy user.
My overall rating – a comfortable 8 out of 10. A perfectly usable phone saved from being another unremarkable HTC/Android lovechild by the inception of the ‘Sense’ UI allowing customisation and a very fun user experience. The phone has some design issues, however, which have detremental effects elsewhere, like in sound quality or the awkward feel the chin gives an otherwise very sturdy handset. The Hero is aptly named because it shows that the previously shy HTC are beginning to experiment on their own products and not be ruled over by Google – the HTC Hero is your cheap, flashy comic book superhero, but more the literary underdog hero that you can invest in both emotionally and, in the case of a phone, functionally. Given that Google have a history of being ball-breakers for companies they join up with, I just hope that HTC won’t need to bring out the Tragic Hero.
UPDATE: It was previously stated that the Skype app required a data plan, later information indicated that it doesn’t. This has now been corrected.