(Pocket-lint) - HTC Sense 7.0 made its debut on the HTC One M9. The M9 was announced at MWC 2015, hitting stores at the end of March 2015. HTC Sense 7.0 follows Sense 6.0, one of the first times we've stepped forward without an incremental point upgrade between Sense versions.
Since the launch of the M9, we've seen the update of the One M8 to Sense 7.0, along with Android 6.0 Marshmallow, and we've updated this feature to cover all bases for Sense 7. The big change here is supporting Flex Storage, which we'll talk about below.
With the HTC One M9 and the One M8 in front of us, we've been through Sense 7.0 with a fine-tooth comb. The HTC One M9 is currently still on Lollipop, the HTC One M8 is now on Marshmallow.
So whether you've just received the update on the M8, you're an HTC fan considering the M9, or just have a penchant for a deep dive into a smartphone UX, then read on and all will be revealed. Welcome to our detailed HTC Sense 7 review.
A note on app unbundling
A strange place to start, perhaps, is app unbundling. We've just mentioned that Sense 6.0 didn't have a point upgrade and in part that's due to unbundling of apps. Just as Google has hacked pieces off Android, HTC has been doing this for a while too.
That means that it isn't necessary to have a complete Sense upgrade to make a few tweaks to a specific function. For example, HTC Gallery is updatable through Google Play, so you could receive some changes to an existing device without that step to Sense 7.
This unbundling means that updates are more loosely tied to software versions, but we'll cover them here where appropriate so you know what all the changes are.
A home from home
HTC Sense 7.0 isn't a huge change from HTC Sense 6.0. The look and feel is very similar, just as the M9 and the M8 are very close in appearance. HTC's aim has been to nip and tuck, to fix things that didn't work well, rather than introduce swathes of new features.
Around the home screen you'll see that the top icons have been refined. They're slightly smaller now so they take up a little less space, meaning you have a little more room for notification icons rather than system icons.
HTC Sense 7 (left) vs HTC Sense 6 (right)
At the bottom of the home screen on the default HTC BlinkFeed Launcher, the dividing line that sat above the navigation bar has now gone too. This makes things a little cleaner and more in keeping with Lollipop and Marshmallow's cleaner interface.
The stock launcher is still BlinkFeed and you still have the same layout of navigation controls across the bottom, although these are now customisable, which we'll come to shortly.
Hit the recent apps button and it will spring into the (old) grid view by default, with the option to switch to the card-style view that is more in keeping with stock Android and we find it much nicer to use when switching apps.
In the original Sense 7.0 on Lollipop the navigation controls were sitting on a grey background in recent apps, rather than float as they did in Sense 6.0. It doesn't look as clean as it did before, and with the update to Marshmallow, the bar seems to have been dissolved away.
Sense 7.0: Customise navigation controls
Customisation is one of the big themes in Sense 7.0 and the navigation controls get some genuinely useful additions. It's great to see this option coming to Sense, as others - like LG - have been offering this for some time.
You can have up to four controls on the navigation bar, but you cannot de-select the standard back, home and recent apps. You can change the order, so if you're left- or right-handed you can switch things around to suit how you hold the phone.
Then you have to option to add one of the following: turn off screen, notifications, hide navigation bar, quick settings, and auto rotate. Of these, notifications (for quick access without a swipe) and hide navigation bar, are of immediate interest. The quick settings option is almost irrelevant - as the notifications shortcut will also open the quick settings with a second press.
For those with smaller hands, being able to tap a button on the navigation bar rather than stretch up to swipe down notifications is a real bonus. We also like the option to hide the navigation bar; although some Android apps default to full screen (like games and media apps), if you want to remove those nav controls when browsing Twitter or Facebook, you can.
Annoyingly the navigation bar doesn't stay hidden when you open the keyboard. If you wanted a little more space when messaging, you lose it again, as it pops up as soon as the keyboard appears.
A double swipe down, or a two-finger swipe will open quick settings, as standard for Android. The flashlight has now been added in Sense 7, so if you want to turn the torch on, it's only a couple of taps away. That was something that was missing in Sense 6 on Lollipop, but remember you can also turn the torch on with an "Ok Google" voice command.
Sense 7.0 on Marshmallow cleans this up further, shrinking the time slightly, making the date clearer and removing the top line dividing that information from the operator (as seen below).
One thing that's removed from Lollipop was do not disturb, as this function was removed in favour of Android Lollipop's interruptions/priority notifications option, which we'll talk about later. On Marshmallow, do not disturb is back, as Android rearranged the slightly chaotic arrangement of volume settings and alerts, away from the precedent set in Lollipop.
Glove mode has also been added as an option here, along with the renaming of Media Output to HTC Connect.
New widgets: Weather Clock and Sense Home
Two of the visual changes you'll notice in Sense 7.0 are the stock widgets used. The iconic Weather Clock is now transparent, whereas it was solid before. It's actually a new widget - if you prefer it solid, that option is still there.
We've noticed that this new widget gives you the sunset times too as you approach the end of the day, which is great if you want to know when to grab that perfect holiday photo.
Sense Home is the other notable addition, and it's one of HTC's headline features in Sense 7.0. At a very basic level, Sense Home is an app management widget.
It sits on the home screen and will intelligently offer you different apps based on what you're doing and where you are. There are three locations: home, work, and out.
At home you might want games, Netflix, perhaps your central heating controls. At work you might be more interested in your calendar or to do list. When you're out, then it might be music, transport apps and so on. You get the idea.
There's space for eight app shortcuts and they are automatically populated. Delete one and another swings into place, changing with frequency of use. You can also create folders within the widget too, so you can have all your productivity apps neatly grouped together in the work area, for example. You can pin apps and folders too, so they don't rotate out if you're not using them and if you want more, you can expand the widget.
There are two default folders in place, one for downloads and one for suggested apps. Suggested apps might be controversial, as it's an outside intrusion, but you can delete both folders if you don't want them through the settings menu.
The Sense Home app widget is really designed to benefit those who don't change everything around. Many power users will probably dismiss it and just use folders on the navigation bar, but for those who don't tinker, it has the potential to offer up the apps they use most commonly at particular times and make sure they are right there on the home screen.
BlinkFeed gets additions
BlinkFeed is one of the most distinctive elements of Sense and it has had a few refinements in its latest guise in Sense 7.0. There's now the option to add content as soon as you open the menu, which is handy.
There a new option, which is called "mealtime recommendations". This will put suggestions of where to eat on your lock screen, occasionally springing up with a suggestion of a local restaurant. In the time we've use Sense 7.0, we've not found it useful.
HTC followers will know that personalisation has been an option since Sense launched on the HTC Hero. The Personalize menu in settings offers all the options it did before, but now adds font controls, keyboard colour and dialer colour.
We've mentioned that the navigation bar options are in there, and there's also the option to change and edit the theme, as well as change the accent colours.
The latter option contains a range of options that changes the colour for app headers, highlights, backgrounds of switches and so on. There's also the option for a custom colour, although only 16 colours are on offer. But, if you absolutely need more pink in your phone, it's here that you can do it.
HTC Sense 7: Themes
Themes is both an independent app in the apps tray and linked through to from the Personalize menu and other areas of the device. Through Themes - again one of Sense 7's headline additions - you can customise just about anything in the UI visually. Although it was very much the talking point when the M9 launched, it's also now available on the M8, which is a great addition.
HTC has made Themes really powerful by letting you automatically create a theme from any photo you have and then automating the process. The app scans the image, picks out highlight colours and uses them across your device. Once it's done, you can select from suggested themes, or customise anything you like about it.
That means fonts, icons (shapes, colours), you can change the navigation icon styles, as well as the colours used for highlights and so on as we've already mentioned.
Not only do you get to make these changes, but you can save them and it looks like HTC intends to let you share them, meaning that you can make themes for others - perhaps a team theme, work theme or just a comedy theme based on your pet, loved one, Christmas or anything else. Yes, narcissists can make themes from their own selfies.
At any rate, the new Themes app is really powerful. If you're the sort of person who likes to change phone design a lot, or wants a unique look - beyond just the wallpaper - then this is how you can do it. We were a little skeptical about it, but in the couple of weeks we've been using the M9, we've played with Themes more than we expected.
Photos: Themes, Gallery, Editor
As we've mentioned, you can create a theme from any photo and this extends into the Gallery too. Take a great springtime shot that you want to apply across your phone, you simply open that picture and hit the Themes button and the automated process starts.
The Gallery is very much the same as it was before, with the option to integrate online albums using Cloudex (Facebook, Google Drive, etc), and the varied array of views you can use to manage your photo collection.
There's also the option to open the photo editor, which has been rearranged in Sense 7.0. It's now a fully formed independent app - and once again, there's an app shortcut in the apps tray. It contains many of the same functions as previously, but it's organised with a conventional left-hand drawer to make it easier to navigate.
Open Editor from a photo you're viewing and you're taken to an essentials view, where you can apply filters, use basic tools (rotate, crop, flip, straighten), or remove red eye.
Open the side drawer and you'll find the options for flair (frames, draw), effects (shapes, double exposure, elements, face fusion), and touch up (which is all about improving your face really - bigger eyes, etc).
The shapes will let you apply all sorts of interesting effects to photos. You can overlay shapes, blend that with other images, create a kaleidoscopic effect, merge two photos in double exposure, and use the hilarious face fusion. Yes, that is the author fused with a marble bust.
It's a comprehensive array of editing options, and some might say there's just too much. The auto enhance option, for example, is hidden as a custom filter, when it should really be right there as soon as you open the editor to help you adjust a picture that hasn't come out too well.
Of course, with the M9 not offering the Duo Camera features, those editing options aren't available. On the One M8, they simply slot into the lead under the Effects section of the Editor.
HTC Sense 7.0: HTC Camera
The HTC Camera is another app that's independent, so can be updated separately from the core Sense version. This happened, for example, to add the HTC Eye Experience on previous devices on Sense 6.
The new HTC Camera hasn't changed greatly from the existing version in terms of layout, but there has been a big change in switching camera modes. The swipe mechanism previously used to move from rear to front camera has now been extended to include all the different cameras.
Previously you could swipe from selfie, to camera, to split camera. Each swipe took a while to fire up the new mode, so it was a little laborious. Hitting the icon would let you access other modes - like panorama or photo booth.
Now, however, all the camera modes are available on that swipe action. So you can swipe to panorama, for example, or custom cameras you've saved. But even better, you can remove modes you don't use - like split camera, perhaps - so you don't have to bypass them.
Previously you could save custom cameras, meaning you could setup something specific from all the settings and save that. We've used it to quickly access HDR, and now, once saved, you'll be able to swipe straight to it, which we really like. There's no auto HDR offered by HTC, but this draws that sting a little.
There's one criticism we have of this action, however. Each change is accompanied by a sound effect. Even if you have the shutter sound turned off, you still get this clunk noise as you switch camera. That's more annoying if you are listening to music, as it breaks to play the noise before your music resumes.
We've mentioned that you can delete those modes you don't want. When you delete them, they return to a camera store of sorts. In here you'll find additional modes. HTC announced that RAW shooting would be coming "as a camera" for the M9 and we think it will drop in here. If you don't want it, you can ignore it, but it gives HTC an easy way to add to the camera's functions and give you more options in the future.
On the M9 we've found that the 4:3 shooting mode is replaced by 10:7, but we suspect this is only down to the sensor size, as the M8 retains 4:3.
Volume controls and interruptions
Volume controls? Really? Believe it or not, volume control is a hot bed of debate in the Android world. To bring you up to speed, Android Lollipop introduced a new way of managing interruptions from notifications, but at the same time made volume handling slightly awkward. Marshmallow then changed this, making things much more sensible. You can read all about this volume waltz in our Android 6.0 Marshmallow review, as well as more information on the new Do Not Disturb function.
In Sense 7.0, HTC incorporated Lollipop's interruptions controls into the volume, as you'll find in stock Android. This wasn't in Sense 6 which had HTC's home grown "do not disturb" feature instead. This was the situation at launch for the M9, but the M8 bypasses this in Sense 7.0, moving straight to the new arrangement dictated by Marshmallow.
This is where Sense 7.0 on Lollipop (M9 at the time of writing) and Sense 7.0 on Marshmallow (M8 at the time of writing) are slightly different.
When you hit the volume button on the M9, the controller has options for interruptions: none, priority and all. Those are self-explanatory, but be warned that none really means none, not even alarms. Alarms count as priority interruptions and through the settings you get to decide if event reminders, calls and messages count as priority too.
On the M8, things are much better. Rather than "interruptions" you now have Do Not Disturb again. This you'll need to set up to define what is a priority and what isn't. There's also a check box letting you allow alarms. That means you can silence your phone (for a time period, or until you turn alerts back on) but you'll still be able to have your alarm wake you up in the morning, which Lollipop didn't allow. Silent in Lollipop was silent, silent in Marshmallow lets you have alarms.
On both M9 and M8 you can drill down further and nominate at an app level what is a priority and what isn't. In this sense, controlling interruptions is now the same as stock Android. You can also nominate favourite contacts as a priority.
Of course much of this depends on how you handle notifications. If, like us, you have most notifications (Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, G+, etc) silenced, and only have messages and calls vibrate and make sounds, then things are easier to manage.
Aside from that change to the volume controller, you still have the same sliders as you did before, meaning you can hit the button to change ringtone, media and alarm volumes.
Ironically, as soon as you open a media application (a game, Netflix, music, anything that uses the BoomSound speakers or headphones) the options to control interruptions drops out of that volume control panel. This is defined by Android, so we have to live with it, sadly.
HTC Sense 7.0: Marshmallow brings Flex Storage
As we've just been talking about Marshmallow, it makes sense to attack the issue of Flex Storage right here. It's a new feature in HTC Sense 7.0 on the M8 and we assume it will come to the M9 too. It's probably the single thing that will make the biggest difference to how you use your phone.
Flex Storage is a little talked about element of Android 6.0 Marshmallow. No one talks about it because it's not supported in Nexus devices as you need a microSD card slot to use it. Essentially, Flex Storage lets you format microSD to use as internal storage.
The updated Sense 7.0 on Marshmallow adds this feature, meaning you can effectively expand your internal storage capacity. If you had a 16GB M8, it's time to go out and buy a 128GB microSD card (the fastest you can afford to buy). You'll have to consider what to do with the content of any existing cards (photos, etc), as once a device is formatted for internal storage using this feature, you can't use it in another device.
However, using Flex Storage means you can increase the number of apps you've got, or app data, which in previous Android versions could only be stored on the device's internal memory. We think it's a great addition to the M8, but make sure you make a copy of anything you have stored on a card before you go through the process.
HTC Connect replaces Media output
HTC made a lot out of HTC Connect at the launch of Sense 7. You can trigger it with a three-finger swipe gesture, just as you could with Media Output previously.
HTC Connect will find Chromecast, Bluetooth, DLNA, Miracast, AllPlay or BlackFire devices to stream to and letting you select them. You can also select what type of device you want to scan for, so if it's only DLNA, you can just select that in the settings
HTC is still customising a keyboard and this hasn't changed a huge amount from the previous version, although there's more key spacing now and you have more options to customise with that colour change option.
HTC's keyboard is ok, but only ok. We still think that SwiftKey responds better and offers better suggestions. But more recently, we've found that the stock Google Keyboard (available in Google Play) has been getting better and better. You'll need to download one, however, as HTC only supplies its own keyboard in Sense.
There's one really annoying thing - regardless of what keyboard you're using - and that's HTC's insistence on putting the keyboard selector in the navigation bar in the bottom right-hand corner. It's so easy to hit. During a furious typing sessions, you're likely to snag it with a flying finger and have the keyboard selector pop up mid-message.
Pre-installed app changes
In Sense 7, HTC Internet - the company's own browser - isn't pre-installed. If you want it, you can download it from Google Play. We can't see why you would, as Chrome is far superior. If you're updating from Sense 6, you'll find it stays in place. Fitbit's deal with HTC has also ended now, so that app isn't bundled on the M9 as it was on the M8.
HTC Watch - the TV and IR controller - has now been unskinned. In its place you'll find Peel Smart Remote instead, which is the same thing. Unskinning it, i.e., removing HTC's branding, means you get updates from Peel directly. It makes sense to do this. For those updating from Sense 6 on the M8, you'll find it changed.
HTC's Messages app can now also be themed. If you run a theme, the Messages app will get the same wallpaper, so it's a little more interesting than a plain background.
If you're moving from Sense 6.0 to Sense 7.0 on Marshmallow, you'll also find that HTC Backup no longer functions. You'll be able to restore from an existing backup, but for those wanting to backup, HTC now directs you to Android's native backup function instead.
We've walked through most of the changes in HTC Sense 7 and although we've covered a lot of ground, they aren't too major. The addition of Themes, a new home screen widget and the changes to the camera are the big differences. Elsewhere, it very much feels like a house keeping job. There's a dab of polish applied here and there to make things a little tidier, but this isn't a major overhaul.
With HTC pushing updates to Android 6.0 Marshmallow on the M8, that brings a range of additional features, although many of the visual changes are governed by Sense. With the M9 still waiting to update to Marshmallow, we're yet to see the full impact on Sense 7.0 and will update when it's done. The biggest hardware change is supporting Flex Storage.
Of course, with Sense 7.0 having just arrived in January 2016, we're acutely aware that the year is nearly up and Sense 8.0 will likely appear on HTC's next flagship handset, expected in February at Mobile World Congress.