(Pocket-lint) - The HTC 10 brings with it a new version of Sense that's moved a fair distance from the experience on HTC's previous flagship device, the HTC One M9, with a change in software emphasis.
We've been tracking the changes in Sense for a number of years, but the step to Sense 8.0 is perhaps one of the biggest. Not because it adds more, but because it changes less from the Android 6.0 Marshmallow core that it sits on.
It's not actually Sense 8.0
Let's clear this up first of all. The HTC 10 doesn't actually run Sense with a version number. Head into the software information of the device and it just says the Android version (6.0.1 at launch), whereas previous devices have given the Sense number. For example, the One M9 lists HTC Sense 7.0 and the One A9 lists HTC Sense 7.0_g.
When we asked HTC what version it was, we were told that the message was no longer about Sense versions, and that the HTC 10 officially runs "Android with HTC Sense".
Sense 8 on HTC 10 is cleaner, lighter and faster than ever. https://t.co/fhXTKimkIg— Drew Bamford (@drewbam) April 12, 2016
However, subsequently, we've seen Drew Bamford, head of HTC Creative Labs, and the driving force behind Sense refer to it as Sense 8, so we're doing that too.
HTC Sense 8.0: Continued app unbundling
We've mentioned this in our previous Sense examinations, so we'll keep it brief here. Central to HTC's software strategy is app unbundling. Most HTC apps are now updated from Google Play, so they are not tied directly to the version of Sense or Android.
This is the same as Google's own strategy, where core apps aren't tied to the version of Marshmallow, meaning that updates arrive to the app separate of the rest of the system - Gmail, for example.
HTC's approach is especially clean and brings benefits. Firstly, there's no duplication of app stores: rivals, like Samsung or Huawei, want to update from their own store, often meaning that you've a separate set of notifications and a different store, which is messy.
Secondly (and this is something of an aside), that policy also brings benefits to other devices. For example, HTC announced AirPlay support through HTC Connect on the HTC 10, but the app update brings that feature to the One M7, M8 and M9 as well.
HTC Sense 8.0: Home screen, launcher and BlinkFeed
The BlinkFeed launcher is still the default launcher in HTC Sense 8.0, so HTC's content aggregator is still in place and is very much the same as it was before. There's the introduction of page dots on the home screen which stay permanently visible, whereas on older models they only appear when the home page is touched.
There's also been a tweak to HTC's weather clock visually as it is smaller, and now you can have it automatically switch to the travel clock when you're roaming, which is a nice touch.
However, a long press on the wallpaper opens up the pop-up menu that's expanded on Sense 8.0, introducing one of the new features - Freestyle layout - as well as the options to change the theme of the phone and manage widgets or pages.
Where Sense 7.0 put HTC's Sense Home widget front and centre, showing apps you use in different locations, that's not been mentioned at all on the HTC 10. It's still available, however, if you want to use it, but HTC Sense 8.0 is more about removing clutter.
One other area on the home page where clutter has gone is the recent apps button. This opens in the standard Rolodex view that Android offers with a "clear all" option at the bottom. One thing you don't get is the option to switch back to HTC's old grid layout, something that HTC Sense 7.0 offered, but Sense 7.0_g didn't.
HTC Sense 8.0: Themes and Freestyle layout
One of the big changes that the HTC 10 brings is the Freestyle layout option. This follows the lines HTC's wide range of themes that were evolved in Sense 7.0, letting you change just about every aspect of the visuals of your phone.
The big change, however, is Freestyle layout. There are a range of Freestyle themes to download and they then behave very much like other themes in that you can change icons, fonts, wallpapers and sounds within that theme.
The main point of Freestyle however is that you can put an app shortcut wherever you like, escaping the grid layout. It's basically like having a selection of stickers and putting them wherever you want on your home pages. But in this case, the stickers replace your app shortcuts.
You can reassign stickers to different apps, so if you want a picture of a rabbit to access Gmail, you can. The idea is to have something utterly unique and it's a great idea as you can have a phone that's completely personalised - and about as far from Apple's grid of icons as you can get.
It's fun, but it definitely takes some getting used to.
HTC Sense 8.0: Apps tray
Believe it or not, but whether you have an apps tray or not could be the biggest thing in Android software right now. There was a furore over the possibility that Android N could drop it, but rest easy: HTC offers you the apps tray.
It's pretty much the same apps tray that has been in Sense for some time letting you easily change the arrangement via the drop-down menu, create folders or custom layouts.
One change is that there's now the option to add a wallpaper to the apps tray from the apps tray menu, whereas previously it was in the theme edit section.
HTC Sense 8.0: Volume controls and Do not Disturb
If the apps tray is the new hot potato in Android, then volume control was the previous. In Android Lollipop volume control went haywire and didn't really work. Marshmallow fixed that and in Sense 8.0 you have standard Android volume controls, tied into Do not Disturb.
In Sense 7.0 on Marshmallow HTC hung on to one of the fixes it implemented to give more control, so when you run the volume down to silent, you're presented with a menu offering Do not Disturb controls and options for notifications - on/priority/off - as well as the length of time and the option to play alarms.
In Sense 8.0, however, this is simplified, so when you run the volume down to silent, you enter the "alarms only" Do not Disturb state, without all the other choices.
To access the full set of controls you simply tap the Do not Disturb button in the quick settings menu instead.
When it comes to listening to music, the options will obviously vary depending on which device you have, with the HTC 10 offering a Personal Audio Profile option to tune your headphones, as well as Dolby Audio enhancement. Whether this will come to other Sense 8.0 devices or not, we can't tell.
HTC Sense 8.0: Quick settings and settings
Where Sense 8.0 takes a huge leap towards Marshmallow is in the quick settings. These are the settings you swipe down from the top and this is one area where the One A9's Sense 7.0_g paved the way for Sense 8.0.
These quick settings are essentially the same as stock Android, although HTC has changed the selection of shortcuts to its liking, adding extreme saver and calculator as options here. The visual design is much nicer than Sense 7.0, which has overly-fussy icons, lines, menu buttons and is very cluttered.
There's also now a manual brightness slider in quick settings. This is separate from the auto-brightness option in the display settings menu, but lets you move the brightness up or down easily, rather than tapping the button as you did in Sense 7.0.
On Sense 7.0 you were offered menu buttons in the quick settings on some options. This is unnecessary, as a long press on the quick settings icon takes you through to the menu anyway, which is a standard Android feature.
One thing you lose, however, is the option to customise the quick settings menu. That's also the case in stock Marshmallow, with access only being granted via the System Tuner UI, an experimental menu option that's hidden from regular users. The option to unlock it isn't offered by HTC either, so there's no customisation here.
That means in Sense 8.0 you get what you're given, whereas in Sense 7.0 you could opt to change the order as well as make a wide variety of changes to the options you're presented.
Main settings menu
The settings menu is where you spend a lot of time in a device as you tweak and change things. The menu is cleaner, simpler and just like stock Android.
The order of things it pretty much the same as it was before, but the fussy switches are gone for simpler sliders and the icons are simpler – losing the engines on the aeroplane icon for airplane mode. It was only a few Sense versions ago that these were all fully coloured, which in reflection now seems like a massive waste of time.
There are little details, like being able to search for apps in the settings app list, which saves a lot of scrolling if you just check the permissions on a particular app, for example.
HTC Sense 8.0: Photos and editing
One of the biggest changes in Sense 8.0 is losing the Gallery app. This has been a huge app for HTC for a long time, and in Sense 7.0 the Gallery was the focus lots of features, like photo shapes and so on.
Of course when Sense 7.0 made its debut on the HTC One M9, the immediate question was why HTC was giving frivolous features so much time, when basics like the camera just weren't up to scratch. With the HTC 10 that position is very different: the phone is very much better and there's less of that bloat.
That means that Google's Photos app is now the gallery app in Sense 8.0. We like the Photos app, as it's easy to navigate and updated with new and clever features regularly. That also means that HTC can ditch the Cloudex/One Gallery online album it offered before, again reducing bulk. Remember, as a Marshmallow device, Photos is something you get as standard anyway, backing up to your Google account online.
Of course, HTC's photo editor (which was excessively over-featured) is gone too, but Photos has its own editor which is easy to use.
However, Photos now supports much more, including raw capture that HTC's cameras have offered for a while. You can view raw files in Photos and these are labelled as "raw". There's a raw enhancement option too, offering a single hit edit that basically rebalances your shot and restores contrast, much in the same way that the auto mode in Photoshop or Lightroom might.
One thing to note is that raw shots aren't backed up to Google and this makes sense: at about 23MB a photo, they'd quickly eat your online storage allowance. However, the raw images are saved alongside jpeg versions of the same photo in the 100MEDIA folder, so they're easy to find.
Overall, we feel this is a nice balance of options. Removing the overwrought Gallery leaves a simpler photos position, but you don't miss out on anything that really matters. While we're at it, it's worth saying that the arrangement with raw capture is much better than Samsung's TouchWiz on the Galaxy S7, which lets you capture, but then provides no means to even view those files on the device.
HTC Sense 8.0: Camera
The camera in Sense 8.0 is completely redesigned, replacing the Sense 7.0 camera that evolved from the HTC Eye camera experience. Gone is the ability to swipe from one type of camera to the next, with a more regular pop-out menu to replace it.
This is mostly a two-tiered proposition: for example, if you select video, you then get the option to tap through the resolution of capture; if you select the pro camera, you can select the self-timer and aspect and so on.
One of the big new additions is auto HDR something that rivals have offered for several generations, but HTC has previously failed to embrace. Now it's applied to the standard camera, balancing out highlights and shadows for a more even result. When auto HDR is operating, a small green dot appears next to it.
For selfies you now have the addition of selfie flash, using the display to illuminate you and this flash colour changes depending on the ambient light, so you look natural.
Zoe camera now sits in this side menu, having evolved through its life from highlight feature on the HTC One M7, attempting to become a social network for video sharing, to this final form where it's returned to offering 3-second video clips in place of photos.
Zoe camera actually works nicely mixed with the Zoe Video Editor app, as you can quickly have it mix together short video clips rather than just static images, which makes more sense. Still, Zoe has never really blossomed into the feature that HTC wanted, but the video editor app is well worth using as it does everything for you.
Back to the camera and the other big change is that previously HTC wanted you to add other camera features to your selection. In Sense 8.0, the camera app has everything in there, offering video, slow motion, selfies, hyperlapse and the pro mode, without some of the other features previously offered, like bokeh, photobooth and split capture. Again, less is more.
There's also a new launch gesture for the camera. If you swipe down on the display twice when picking the phone up, the camera launches. This replaces the "pick up and press the volume button" to open the camera. Yes, both are too complicated and we wish that the standard double press on the standby button was in place, as on the recent Nexus devices.
HTC Sense 8.0: Phone, People, Messages
The Phone app and the People app are intrinsically linked as one feeds into the other. The arrangement of the dialler is very much the same as it was before, with tabs across the top for call history, people, favourites and so on - which can be edited if you don't have any favourites, for example.
Within the People end of the app, the design has changed slightly, switching contact photos to round rather than square images. This matches the general material design of Android, as you'll find round contact images across Gmail, Google+ and so on. It makes for a lighter app with more white space, also removing the divider lines.
Another aspect removed from People is the contact's updates. This is actually one of the earliest features of Sense, first launched as a people-centric user experience. It would allow you to browse a contact and see what they'd been up to. In Sense 8.0, it's all gone.
Contacts are still linked to social accounts and there's now a single Twitter update, linking through to the Twitter app - it's just that your contacts app is no longer a place to browse social updates, which makes sense.
The design theme from Phone and People flows in to Messages, HTC's own SMS and MMS app, again better matching Android's material design. Sure, Android has its own Messenger app, but HTC lets you block contacts and put messages in a secure box if they contain sensitive information, perhaps nuclear launch codes or the sordid details of your affair.
HTC Sense 8.0: Keyboard changes
Another element that gets the axe in Sense 8.0 is HTC's keyboard. In Sense 8.0 on the HTC 10, the keyboard is now TouchPal, although it's labelled as "HTC Sense version".
TouchPal is available as an app in Google Play, but the difference here is that it's completely integrated. When you open the settings in Sense 8.0 via settings > language and keyboards, you go straight to the TouchPal settings.
If you install the app from Google Play, tapping the keyboard in the settings menu would open the app, offering themes and other elements. Instead, these reside in the Personalisation settings in Sense under the option to change the keyboard colour.
As a keyboard, TouchPal offers plenty of customisation, although we've not found it to be quite as proficient as SwiftKey for accuracy of input. Of course, you're free to switch to any keyboard you like and there are plenty on Google Play.
We've also noticed that HTC still offers the option to switch your input choice when using the keyboard. In Sense 7.0 this was irritatingly in the bottom right-hand corner and now it appears in the top left. That's a better place for it, but really we don't know why we'd want to be changing the input method all the time.
HTC Sense 8.0: A whole load of apps are gone
Sense 8.0 drops the HTC calendar for the stock Google calendar. This is the default calendar for Android and it's marvellous, easy to navigate, lovely and graphical and fitting the design of the rest of Android.
There's a range of other apps from HTC that are also gone in Sense 8.0: Car has been scrapped, Fit Fun has run off, HTC Backup has backed down, Kid Mode has moved out, Music has been dropped, Polaris Office 5 has dissolved and Scribble has been rubbed out.
Of course, this is the state of the HTC 10 with Sense 8.0 and we suspect that when older devices get updated - like the One M9 - some of these apps will stay.
But this app removal tells the real story of HTC Sense 8.0 and the HTC 10: it's about focusing on getting the essentials right, rather than giving you a load of clutter that you don't need. Although we've been long-time HTC users, there's nothing missing in Sense 8.0 that we miss, in fact it moves closer the changes we usually make ourselves.
For those interested in what third-party apps are pre-installed, you get Facebook, Messenger and Instagram. As pre-installs, these can't be removed, but can be disabled.
The other addition is Boost+, an HTC app designed to help you optimise your phone, clear junk and monitor your apps to make sure there's nothing untoward going on. Boost+ also offers to save battery life when gaming, as well as letting you lock apps, adding another layer of security on apps you might want to keep from prying eyes. If you use WhatsApp to plan bank robberies, this is a useful addition.
However, Boost+ is available in Google Play as as standalone HTC app, so anyone can give it a go - although it's designed to work the best with HTC devices.
HTC Sense 8.0 marks a change of direction for HTC as it focuses on getting the basics right and drops a lot of software bloat from previous devices. There's still a fair amount available to differentiate HTC from other Android phones and we can't say we'll miss anything that's gone.
Compare Sense 8.0 to TouchWiz, LG's Optimus UX 5.0 or Huawei's EMUI and you now have HTC sitting closer to Android than ever before. That makes the Android with HTC Sense position work, and that's going to be the future for other HTC devices too.
As Android 6.0 Marshmallow is more refined than ever before, and Google's own apps offer a better experience than most device manufacturer alternatives, then HTC Sense 8.0 gives you a great place to play.
This move from the original Sense up to Sense 7.0 and then a step down through 7.0_g to Sense 8.0 is for the better, leaving HTC with a modern Android handset that's slick, fast, and mercifully free from clutter.