HTC Hero

The most noticeable and oft talked about feature of the HTC Hero is the "chin", so it's a good place to start. It was there on the Magic and now we have the Hero chin: pronounced, strong, defined.

HTC told us the chin was more than design quirk, it was a practical design feature and it's true. The chin gives the Hero a nice curve so it feels like a phone against your face, unlike the slab-like iPhone, TG01 or i8910. More importantly, if you put it face-down, as you might in the pub or a meeting, the screen doesn’t lie on the table top, so it doesn't get scratched or dirty.

People have asked about how it feels in your pocket – if you are the kind of guy who wears Spandex everyday, then it might irritate, but we found it to be averagely phone-like in the pocket.

The white Teflon-coated handset feels great too. The soft angles of the back means it fits neatly into the cup of your hand and the curved edges mean it doesn’t put a hard line against your ear when you make a call like the iPhone does.

Calling buttons, home and menu form a line under the screen. Search and back lie on the chin beside the backlit trackball. Discrete volume buttons sit on the left-hand side, a 3.5mm headphone jack on the top and HTC's bespoke connection on the bottom – it's a shame they couldn't just stick to Micro-USB, although we found a Mini-USB cable would fit and charge it (but you won't be able to use HTC's cable in other devices).

The screen is a 3.2-inch 320 x 480 pixel resolution. It isn't the highest resolution display, but it doesn't seem to matter. There are no rough icons or dirty pixellated patches and HTC's Sense UI brings with it rich and vibrant colours. The screen is bright enough to stand-up in sunlight, but doesn't have the punch that some non-touch models have in direct sun.

The Sense UI is essentially a shell that sits on Android, giving you a series of seven screens which you can scroll though. You can swipe though them on the screen, but we found the using the trackball gave a more precise movement.

These seven screens can be populated with pretty much whatever you want. HTC has already set-up a number of sets of screens (which is what Scenes is). Out-of the box these breakdown into HTC, Social, Work, Play, Travel and the clean slate. They are welcomed, but like Nokia's Mode Switching, we soon found that we didn't want to change Scenes – we’d rather have one custom Scene with everything we wanted in one place. Fortunately, you are free to do that, so there is scope for everyone to get what they want.

The Hero nudges you right from the off to enter the details for you Twitter, Facebook and Flickr accounts. Of course you also set-up your Google account details and if you have calendars and contacts you'll quickly find them falling into place.

The seven Scene pages work really well with HTC's widgets. The email widget lets you swipe through your list of emails without opening the whole thing up; ditto the text message widget. Otherwise you can drop shortcuts to applications or folders and move them around as you please.

Like the BlackBerry Facebook app, the Hero runs off and links your Facebook friends with your contacts, pulling in details and giving them a photo. Contacts are handled well, giving you more than just a few boring fields.

The more details you have in your original contact list the better it works. The address has a link so with one press find them in Google Maps. You can scroll sideways to access text messaging, emails, Facebook events, Flickr updates all from the same application. It means that everything feels a little more complete, more person-centric, and very sociable.

Out of the box you get Exchange and POP3/IMAP support, as well as the option of using the Gmail app. We like the latter because of the simplicity of searching Gmail on the server, regardless of what's on your device.

From any Sense page you can press on the widget/shortcut it dive into the application proper. The Menu button handles most of the options and it works very well. The response to buttons is good, with search working from almost any page: search the map, search your emails, search your contacts, search the Internet.

Across the bottom of the Sense widget pages you always have three on-screen buttons: All programs, Phone and Add to Home (the "+" icon). Enter the phone and you can just start typing a number or name and contacts are suggested, just as the BlackBerry does. All programs gives you access to all those apps you download from the Android Marketplace.

Notifications appear in the top bar with little icons: it's informative without being overly intrusive. Drag down from the top left corner and you can read, or clear, notifications, or press to enter the application concerned.

Scrolling through the Scene pages in Sense is 99% without problem, but you soon start to see some quirks. Arrive at your Twitter widget (handled by HTC Peep) and you'll see that it isn't current. Go to weather and you'll find that the moon is still showing in the middle of the day. The problem is that all the widgets aren't really updating in the background. It even applies to the main clock, which needs to spin round to the right time when you arrive at the screen.

Let's use Twitter as an example: you've got a notification saying you have new Tweets. Enter the application and it updates, because it isn't showing the new Tweets already. Read things through, send an update, exit to the widget and it's not current either.

This is an experience that we found across a range of widgets and applications. They do all, at least, openly show you when they last refreshed and you can punch Menu and force an update in many cases. We still love the approach and the experience that the Hero gives you with HTC Sense, but we can also see how it can be bettered.

In terms of tech specs the HTC Hero packs in everything you would expect from a fully loaded smartphone. It has HSPDA for all that data at high speed, Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth. There is no FM radio though, which might annoy commuters. Sitting around the back is a 5-megapixel camera, but with no flash.

It's not pitched as a camera phone, so it's no surprise the camera offering is a little basic, although the full resolution shots are reasonable (see sample photo). Video capture is available too, but at a maximum resolution of 352 x 288, it isn't good for anything but sharing online, but even then it's behind the times.

You can send photos or videos direct to YouTube, Facebook, Flickr or email and mms as you like, but strangely there is no Bluetooth share option by default for beaming them over to your PC.

Onboard storage amounts to nothing, but there is a microSD card slot that lives under the back cover, meaning you can expand the memory to fit your music collection and give you somewhere to stash videos you want to take with you on the move. We found a 1GB card in the box, but slapped in a 16GB microSDHC instead.

The Hero doesn't shout about being an entertainment device, so it's no surprise that it doesn't support a wide range of formats out of the box, offering basic audio and video support. There is an onboard Flash player built-in however, so when browsing YouTube, the HTC Flash player will swing into action when you want to watch a video. BBC iPlayer is accessible too through the app in Marketplace, which offers a no-fuss solution, but our MPEG4 test videos caused it to struggle, unlike the i8910, which delivered then with aplomb.

The 3.5mm jack does at least mean you can swap the bundled headphones for your own to boost the audio performance. The bundled headphones are white with an inline mic but we found them uncomfortable and lacking audio quality.

Browsing is good, with the default browser quick to navigate full web pages and giving you that full internet-in-your-pocket experience. It quickly picks up on text for reading, and you can swoop around a page with a finger, or use the trackball to jump to links and select them – so much better than the poke and pray approach of some devices. It supports multiple pages too.

Copy and paste is here – press and hold and you'll get a copy option, but unfortunately it highlights under your finger, so you can't see what you are highlighting, so it isn't as good as the iPhone's recent addition.

We've saved the keyboard for last, perhaps because the on-screen keyboard is something of a deciding factor on devices. Fortunately HTC have done it right on the Hero. Responsive and with good predictive suggestions, it gives you a pop-up to confirm the character you have pressed. Press and hold pulls up the alternative character as well as other accented versions. It works well in both portrait and landscape and we never found text entry to be a problem.

On some occasions you'll find that the predictive option isn't there, and sometimes you'll have to remember to close the keyboard so you can return to the page behind and confirm you've entered the text, but on the whole, it’s a very compelling experience. We'd say it is up there as one of the best touch devices we've played with for text entry.

Battery life is reasonably good we found, although like most other data-hungry touchscreen devices, you'll be wanting to charge everyday, but even with regular tinkering we found it got through the day with no problems.

Verdict

Overall the Hero lives up to it's name: it's an easy to use device that out-of-box delivers much of the connected experience that other phones will have you scrabbling around to find apps for. Tying together contacts with your social networks is great and brings a sense of completeness.

We love the design and the build too, and the flexibility of an open source operating system like Android excites us: the community is there, making applications to enhance the experience so the phone can give that seamless integrated experience.

It's not perfect and it's the room for improvement that really excites: you know the Hero can get better, and with a few software tweaks no less. We've waited a long time for a smartphone to be confident about challenging the iPhone as number one, and finally the HTC Hero arrives as a viable contender.