The HTC Hero is Sprint’s first Android phone, and is arguably the best Android device on the U.S. market today. It sports HTC’s custom Sense interface for home screen multitasking, a 5-megapixel camera, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. Plus, this device offers pretty snappy performance, addressing the biggest complaint reviewers have had with the European version. These features—paired with its full Microsoft Exchange support—make the $179 Hero a top-notch smart phone.
The Hero differs slightly from its European cousin in that its boxy Jay Leno-esque chin has been replaced by a rounded, silver-accented bottom. The device has a smoky gray color scheme surrounding the 3.2-inch capacitive touchscreen display. The 480 x 320-pixel screen is gorgeous, and reacted with a high level of accuracy to our inputs. Measuring 4.5 x 2.2 x 0.5 inches, the Hero is similar in size to the myTouch 3G on T-Mobile (4.4 x 2.2 x 0.6), but it is heavier (4.6 ounces versus 4.1 ounces). The Hero’s main Home, Menu, Search and Send/End buttons are located below the screen, and all surround a centralized trackball.
The back of the Hero has a plastic gunmetal gray cover, which houses a silver-colored 5-MP camera; however, the camera lacks a flash. Volume controls are on the left side of the phone, while HTC’s proprietary charging port is on the bottom. The 3.5mm jack is placed appropriately on the top of the device, which helps prevent headphone cord tangles. We found it frustrating that there isn’t a dedicated camera button on the side of the device; instead, you have to manually choose the icon from the phone’s menu.
The Hero runs Google’s open source Android operating system, which, in addition to allowing third-party software makers to create apps for the device, also lets manufacturers install their own custom user interfaces on top of it. There are three primary buttons on the home screen: one arrow that brings up the application menu, another for accessing the phone app, and a third + button that lets you add widgets to the home screen. If you access the main application menu, you’ll be presented with a list of preinstalled apps that include NFL Mobile Live, Quickoffice, Sprint Navigation, and Sprint TV.
From the home screen, you can pull down a notification shade by swiping your finger down from the top of the display, allowing you to view missed calls, messages, or other alerts. This feature is part of Android, and has not been tweaked by HTC.
HTC’s Sense theme sits on top of the Android user interface, and creates a rich desktop experience. From the home screen you can swipe your finger (or roll the trackball) right or left to explore a total of seven screens that you can customize with widgets. To add a widget, simply hold your finger down and choose either Android Widget or HTC Widget. Sense comes preloaded with tons of custom HTC widgets that you can add to your desktop. These include Bookmarks, Calendar, Clock, Footprints, Mail, Messages, Music, People (your Contacts), Photo Albums, Photo Frames, Search, Stocks, Twitter, and Weather.
Each of these widgets updates in real time, so if you have the Twitter widget (powered by Peep) on your desktop, for example, you can view your friend’s status updates as they roll in. These Sense enhancements aren’t available on HTC’s other handsets (such as the G1 or myTouch 3G on T-Mobile), but HTC expects to include Sense in future device launches.
The aforementioned seven-panel home screen can be tweaked to your preferences, and you can save specific themes you’ve created. Different themes, or Scenes, as HTC calls them, can be applied by pressing the Menu button from the home screen and choosing Scenes. HTC includes a few basic ones, including Play, Social, Travel, and Work, all of which possessing predefined widgets that are designed to match the corresponding theme name.
Sense also contains some smaller (but important) touches. Inside the Contacts application, for example, you can create groups of friends, favorites, or even link people with Facebook to view updates or upcoming events. T-Mobile’s Motorola Cliq, which features Motorola’s MotoBlur interface, offers a similar widget interface, but your friend’s status updates from social networks like Facebook are presented directly in your inbox, which may prove to be a more seamless and robust experience when the phone launches.
The Hero doesn’t offer a physical QWERTY keyboard, so you’ll be relying entirely on the touch screen. At first, we had to be very deliberate with each key press, but over time we learned to type accurately and quickly. We appreciated the haptic feedback, which let us know when each key was pressed by giving off a small buzz sensation. You can type in vertical or landscape modes, but when we turned the screen to swap between the two modes, it took between a few seconds for the keyboard to reorient itself.
E-mail and Messaging Click to enlarge
As an Android device, the Hero is tightly integrated with Google’s features, so you can easily add your Google Calendar, Google Mail, and Google Talk accounts. You can also add IMAP/POP e-mail accounts. HTC also provides Exchange support for pulling down your e-mail, contacts, and calendar events from your Microsoft Exchange server. This feature will make the phone appealing to business users as well.
We easily signed into our work Gmail account by entering in our username and password, and our account was ready to access within a minute after the phone began syncing with Google’s servers. Likewise, setting up an IMAP/POP account was just as easy, provided that you have your account’s appropriate server settings.
Like the Motorola Cliq, the Hero comes loaded with Quickoffice; the program can be used to open (but not create) Excel, PowerPoint, and Word documents. DataViz’s Documents to Go is available in the Android Marketplace for $29.99, which will allow you to create Excel, PowerPoint and Word files.
You can also log into AIM, Windows Live Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger chat accounts, but messaging contacts aren’t unified across platforms and accounts—a feature that the Palm Pre offers, and one that the Motorola Cliq will offer as well.
The Hero sports a full HTML Web browser for perusing sites as they were meant to be viewed. With a full Sprint EV-DO 3G network signal, we loaded CNN.com in 38 seconds, but were able to begin viewing and navigating around it in under 30 seconds. We loaded the NYTimes.com in 13 seconds; unfortunately, we couldn’t load it in full HTML mode, even with the Mobile View option turned off under Settings. Our LAPTOP Web site loaded in 30 seconds, which is pretty zippy. By comparison, over T-Mobile’s 3G network, the myTouch 3G loaded CNN.com in 6 seconds, ESPN.com in 8 seconds, and Laptopmag.com in the same 30 seconds.
With Wi-Fi enabled, we loaded the LAPTOP Web site in 17 seconds, CNN.com in 25 seconds, and ESPN.com in just 4 seconds. The myTouch 3G loaded the same sites over Wi-Fi in 5, 5, and 26 seconds, respectively.
You can use multitouch gestures to zoon much like you would with the iPhone; pinching inward zooms out, and spreading your fingers outward zooms in, making it a breeze to navigate around such large HTML Web sites as Nationalgeographic.com. You had to use on-screen zooming buttons on previous Android devices (such as the myTouch 3G), so HTC has done a solid job improving page navigation with the Hero.
The iPhone 3GS is a hair snappier at rendering portions of the page when you zoom in and out, and it’s quicker for bouncing around the page, but the Hero still handled the task well. It takes about a second for the phone to change the view from portrait to landscape mode and vice versa, which is on a par with other Android devices we’ve seen with an accelerometer.
The Hero comes with a 3.5mm headphone jack that you can use with your own set of headphones, along with Amazon’s MP3 Store for downloading music over the air via EV-DO or Wi-Fi. If you load movies on a microSD Card (a 2GB card is included with the phone), you can play them back with the phone’s video player.
We loaded 311’s “My Stoney Baby” onto the Hero, and found the speakers to be loud enough for putting the phone on a coffee table and playing back music for a few friends. The tunes lacked bass and sounded a bit tinny, but they gets the job done. We also played an AVI movie (480 x 272 pixels), and were impressed by the popping colors and good frame rates, although it did stutter a few times. Audio came through loud and clear.
Unlike T-Mobile, Sprint integrates some of its compelling entertainments apps into the Hero, including NFL Mobile Live and Sprint TV. Sprint TV has a large offering of movies and TV shows. You can watch channels ranging from Disney, the NFL Network, and The Weather Channel. We watched Roundtable live on the NFL Network, and appreciated that it played back on the phone in full screen. However, the colors were dull, the picture was pixilated, and the voices were out of sync. An ABC News Now clip we played back on demand looked and sounded better.
While some reviewers of the European version of the Hero complained about sluggishness, we found our device too snappy. We didn’t experience much (if latency) during our testing, even while simultaneously running multiple widgets on the home screen. The Hero has a 528-MHz processor under the hood, and 512MB of ROM/288MB of RAM, which is almost identical to the T-Mobile myTouch 3G, but twice the ROM (and a bit more RAM) than the G1.
The Hero comes with a few applications installed, such as the aforementioned Amazon MP3 Store, NASCAR Sprint Cup Mobile, and Quickoffice for making light edits to documents, but you can also download thousands of applications from the Android Market. Paid apps (most of which costing 99 cents to $3) are purchased using Google Checkout, which is linked to your Google Account. Google Checkout accepts American Express, Discover, MasterCard, and Visa. Some of our favorite apps include Twidroid for Twitter and Facebook.
Camera Click to enlarge
You can take 5-megapixel pictures with the Hero’s camera—practically the same resolution as you’d find on low-end point-and-shoot cams)—as well as record video. When you’re done snapping a photo, a small icon on the screen lets you quickly upload it to Facebook, Flickr, or Twitter, and you can even quickly e-mail or send it as an MMS text.
Under bright lights, the camera can be a bit sluggish as it adjusts, but we found it to be a very good shooter for up-close objects (such as flowers and text) thanks to its built-in autofocus. It only takes about a second for the camera to focus, so you won’t lose the shot, but you can always turn this option off.
Shots taken outdoors with the camera came out well; the reds and blues in an American flag contrasted well with the white cloudy sky behind it. However, the clouds weren’t defined; the entire sky was a bright shade of white, which bled a bit into the surrounding buildings. Close-ups of a flower using autofocus came out well, and we could make out the details of its buds.
Thanks to the Hero’s built-in GPS chip, you can also geotag photos with the location that you took them in. Such pictures can become part of HTC’s own Footprints application, which is a compilation of geotagged photos, complete with brief descriptions for each.
The Hero can record video at 20 to 40 frames per second at 480 x 320-pixel resolution, which pales in comparison to the 640 x 480 footage the iPhone 3GS captures. Video taken outdoors looked noticeably blurry; we couldn’t read store signs across the street or make out facial features of people passing by, but the action was relatively smooth. Bikers pedaled and cars drove from one edge of the screen to the other without any skipping.
GPS Click to enlarge
The Hero’s GPS chip can be used for Google Maps, Sprint Navigation, and for geotagging pictures. Sprint Navigation costs $9.99 per month and is powered by TeleNav. You can use it to find local points of interest such as ATMs or restaurants, or put it in your car for voice-guided, turn-by-turn directions.
You have to manually turn on GPS support by going into Settings > Location Services before Sprint Navigation will be able to lock on. After doing this, the Hero pinpointed our location in a lengthy 54 seconds, but then routed us accurately in just 6 seconds to our apartment. After the first run, the Hero pinpointed us in four seconds, which is on a par with other devices, such as the Palm Pre, which also uses TeleNav’s Sprint Navigation software. Overall, we love Sprint Navigation on the HTC Hero because it’s easy to tap in instructions (you can speak them as well), and the large screen makes it easy to see your route.
Call Quality and Battery Life
During testing, we were able to get a full workday out of the HTC Hero before its battery ran out of juice. However, we toyed with it nearly nonstop, so if you’re just using it to check e-mail and occasionally browse the Web throughout the day, you should easily get a full 12 hours out of the battery.
When we made a few test calls, our friend said we sounded “a bit far out,” and that they could easily make out background noises. On the other hand, we thought our caller sounded excellent; he came in loud and clear. When we left a voicemail on our landline, we found that the audio actually sounded excellent. While there was some minor background noise, we could hear our whole message without any clipping. Overall, we were pleased with the call quality of the Hero.
The Hero isn’t just another Google phone. Its HTC Sense user interface puts a wealth of information at your fingertips while making this smart phone highly customizable. At $179, the Hero is mostly competing with the Palm Pre and the Apple iPhone 3GS (priced at $149 and $199, respectively). You won’t get the robust application store that Apple offers, but you’ll have a higher resolution camera and the ability to multitask. And while the Palm Pre has a cleaner, more elegant interface, in addition to a physical QWERTY keyboard, the HTC Hero combines a well-rounded feature set with an increasingly compelling app market.