First of all, I have a confession to make: I have been a total Android fanboy for a year and a half now. You might think this makes me biased, but there’s a flipside to that coin: after having spent countless of hours reading about Android, the expectations of my first device running Google’s OS were of course sky-high and anything but the best would be a letdown. So, did the HTC Hero live up to these expectations? Oh yes. The title of this piece could just as well have been “What do I love about the HTC Hero? Everything!”.
In reviews, both the Hero and the upcoming Motorola Droid have been described as a gadget and tech geek’s fever-dream: the ultimate devices for nerds. I fully agree, and that’s the exact reason for my mild obsession the past 18 months, as I’ve detailed in the article Android and I – A Love Story.
One day before my birthday, on the 23rd of September, I finally got my first Android phone. Within 24 hours I had installed more than 60 awesome freeware applications. Within two days I had written down everything I loved about it, and now I’m writing an article about it. In my eyes, Android has almost seemed too good to be true, and now when I’ve had a chance to get personally acquainted with the OS – it still does more than ever. I can’t believe how great Android is in comparison to other mobile platforms, and it has lived up to its favorable reputation with interest.
The HTC Hero underlines how far Windows Mobile has fallen behind – and unfortunately, in many ways also Symbian with its 5th Edition merely adding touch support and little else. With both these platforms and with most of the devices I’ve owned over the years, I have often felt that the developers haven’t even tried their hardest or paid attention to detail: I have every now and then gotten the frustrating feeling of how things should have been done. Perhaps it’s less lack of effort and more that the coders and designers simply haven’t been very good at their jobs. They’ve failed to make things work the easiest, fastest, most intuitive and clever way – but with Android, I hardly ever get that feeling. This is the way a mobile OS should be, and the Hero is the best phone I have ever had – no contest. The only thing it lacks is a hardware QWERTY keyboard, and it would have been nice with a better camera and a larger screen with a higher resolution, but these are merely trifles for what I get in return.
For a while I had my mind set on the upcoming Motorola Droid or Sony Ericsson’s Xperia X3 (a.k.a. X10, Rachael or whatever they decide to call it), which both seem like even better Android devices, but I just couldn’t resist the urge to get me some Android action and bought myself a Hero.
I will try to list the many concrete and tangible ways in which Android and the Hero have improved my mobile experience, in no particular order. I have been a Symbian power-user for more than three years, and lately I’ve also dabbled with Windows Mobile, so these are so to speak my initial impressions from that point of view.
I guess one can say that Android provides a fresh and different experience and philosophy. It’s all incredibly convenient, slick and unintrusive. I love that applications run in the background and are handled by the OS. If a program’s not active for a certain time, it’s automatically closed. You can’t close applications manually, and there’s no need for it either since Android takes care of that for you. Generally the entire system is superfast. There are of course third-party tools like Taskkiller and Task Manager that lets you end tasks, but I trust Android to make these decisions for me, even though it took some getting used to.
In the center of Android’s unintrusive approach is the notification bar at the top of the screen. Pretty much anything that goes on with your device is shown there: text messages, emails, new tweets, missed calls, incoming IMs et cetera. Android displays an icon for the various events like most other platforms, but the great thing is that if you want to get more information, you can just swipe down the entire notification bar with your finger at your convenience. I love it.
Symbian in contrast shows many pop-ups that block the entire screen for a brief time, like when you get a text message or install an application. Android doesn’t, simply because it is redundant. Symbian even blocks the screen with a “Sending text message” notification. If you tap the Send button you kind of take for granted that the message will be sent, right? There’s no need to fill up the screen for me to know that. If for some weird reason there’s an error sending the message, then you can inform me. Another example of this approach on Symbian is the online confirmation pop-ups for widgets. Why the hell would I not want the Facebook widget or the Gmail Java applet to access the Internet? You can ask me once for security reasons, sure, but never again please.
The hardware Menu button on the Hero is brilliant. The interface is clean, consistent, visually appealing and uncluttered, and to bring up the menu options, you just press the dedicated button below the screen. That way there’s more space left for the applications to use: a great way to save screen estate and it’s also more practical.
Another thing that strikes me is how the fonts and objects are so clear and easy to read on the Hero. Somehow it feels like the screen on the Hero can hold much more simultaneous information than the Nokia 5800, even though the 5800 has the exact same display size (3.2″) and a higher resolution.
The Android browser is by far the best, fastest and most enjoyable I have seen on a mobile device. Pages look better (just like they do in Firefox but smaller, really), work more smoothly and I have even discovered new features on some sites that aren’t available on my other phones. Of course, this is most apparent in Gmail’s mobile website which has tons of more functions on Android (the iPhone gets the good stuff as well). Another nice browser feature is that you can tap on telephone numbers and addresses you come across that aren’t even links, and you’ll get the option to make a call or open the address in Google Maps. The browser has multi-touch, and the rows of text are automatically adjusted to fit the screen at each zoom level, so I never have to do any annoying side-scrolling and that’s a relief.
I love little details like the fact that you can sort your bookmarks alphabetically, by popularity or date, and that’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I love that it’s so easy to switch between pages in the browser with the press of a hardware button, and the convenient tabbed browsing. I love how the pictures are sorted into albums corresponding to the folders they’re located in, and not just being displayed in one huge list like on Symbian. How the Hero lets you delete pictures and add tracks to playlists for example, are both very simple and effective as well. Messaging is handled superbly, the YouTube client is first-rate, HTC’s geotagging app Footprints is quite useful and text messages are threaded the way they should be (why Symbian still doesn’t display the Inbox as conversations is beyond me).
Overall, everything is surprisingly logical, intuitive and easy and fun to use. The Hero does things faster and smarter than any other cell-phone I’ve had. The way things should be. The way you’ve always wanted them to be. The Hero is a highly customizable device, and the possibilities are plenty. The panorama desktop (seven different homescreens) with shortcuts (you can link to pretty much anything, even Gmail labels) and clever widgets pretty much work like on your computer (only better), and I’m particularly fond of the Live Folders. How the system takes use of long-press actions is exemplary. Everything just work, no hassle. The N97’s widget implementation appears pale in comparison: its widgets are allowed to do less, and not least are there much fewer of them available.
The HTC Hero is a connected device (after all, Android is developed by Google), in the true sense of the word. Nokia’s slogan for the N97 is “online as it happens”. Well, that tagline suits the Hero much better. It automatically displays recent Facebook status updates, messages, email correspondence, photo albums (Facebook/Flickr) and call history for every person in my contact list – all neatly and seamlessly integrated.
Any changes I make in my calendar, contacts or mail account on the Hero are automatically and almost immediately reflected on my desktop, and vice versa. I love that someone can contact me on Google Talk, and I get the message in an instant without the need to have the client on my phone launched. Tweets are displayed as they drop in. The Hero is truly “online as it happens”.
Another thing I love is the software offering. Almost every application I have tried so far is very polished, modern and has a great user interface. In the same way that Windows Mobile applications generally are plagued by the same issues as the platform they’re running on, Android software benefit from its operating system’s strengths. I can’t stop being fascinated by how delightful it is to use the Hero – the exact opposite of Windows Mobile.
I’m in awe of how Android applications in general are of so much higher quality and how much more innovative they are than on Symbian and WinMo. Take a look at this list of Symbian freeware, and if you have an Android device you’ll notice how sad Symbian software look in comparison. In the OVI Store, they charge $10 for applications that are rubbish compared to the freeware equivalent on Android. I have around 80 freeware applications installed at the moment, many of them are better than anything I have on my Symbian and WinMo devices and the abundance is almost a bit overwhelming.
I’m not saying that the Android Market is perfect, there’s certainly room for improvement, but Nokia’s OVI Store still has miles to go until it reaches its level. I love how the Market installs applications in the background without interrupting me, keeps track of all my downloaded applications and automatically tells me which of them can be updated to a newer version.
After this shameless tribute, I think some minor points of criticism are in order: the call quality on the Hero isn’t that great, especially compared to most Nokia devices. The camera is slow, lacks a lens cover and has no flash whatsoever. The Hero can only capture video in low resolution. And how come Google Maps is less advanced and has fewer features than Google Maps on other platforms? After all, Android is Google’s own OS. Why neglect your own platform? That will soon change though, and Android 2.0 even sports Google’s new Maps Navigation. Fortunately, the HTC Hero will receive the Android 2.0 update from the current v1.5.
The only thing that really bugs me about the Hero is text-input: the on-screen QWERTY keyboard is very frustrating to type with. Even though it is intuitive enough to correct errors (and most of the time it guesses right), I’m far from the 280 characters per minute (without typos I might add) texting speed that I reached on my Nokia N73’s alphanumerical keypad. I almost managed to achieve the same speed on the Xperia’s hardware QWERTY, but with an on-screen keyboard it takes ages just to bust out a simple text message. Surely the speed will increase over time as I get used to it, but it’s frustrating nonetheless. I was aware of the drawback of not having a keyboard when I got the Hero, but I will never buy an all touchscreen device again.
To sum it all up: the HTC Hero is easily more enjoyable to use than any other device I’ve ever had. I’m glad to find out that I was right about getting so Android obsessed back in the spring of 2008 (thanks, Wired Magazine). I still at times just can’t seem to wrap my head around what an excellent phone the Hero is.
Still, as Cat Steven’s sang back in the late 60s, the first cut is the deepest, and the last couple of weeks I have found myself using the Symbian powered Nokia N97 (I actually recently won it in a competition, believe it or not) more than the Hero. The main reason for this is the N97’s larger screen, the 32GB of internal storage, its hardware QWERTY and the just about twice as good camera and video recorder. I can also use the N97 as a portable game console, since all Gameboy Color, Gameboy Advanced, Nintendo and Super Nintendo games can be played flawlessly with Vampent’s emulators. Another reason is that Symbian is, well, so safe and familiar. A mix between the Hero and N97 would form the ultimate mobile device, and perhaps we’ll see such a phone in the next couple of months as Android continues to get more powerful hardware. Android is the tune that the greatest phones in the world will be whistling for years to come, that’s for sure.