The HTC Hero (also known as the T-Mobile G2 Touch) is a fantastic touchscreen smart phone with enough style and power to take on Apple's iPhone 3GS and come out alive. It's got zillions of useful features that make it a pleasure to use, from an address book that links to Facebook to a Teflon coating that dodges finger grease. We wish it were slightly faster, and its little chin may scare babies, but the Hero could rescue us from our iPhone addiction.
The Hero is available from free on a £34.25-per-month contract with Orange, but be sure you
get the £4.89 add-on that gives you 500MB of data each month. It will also be available from T-Mobile, although
the company hasn't announced prices yet. You can pick it up SIM-free for around
We feared for the Hero when we first saw its publicity snaps. It looked like a trimmed-down version of its ugly older brother, the T-Mobile G1, due to its oddly angled chin. Thankfully, the Hero is much better-looking in person, although we still prefer the looks of its predecessor, the HTC Magic. Rakish bevelled edges, a subtle brushed-metal trim, and a matte surface on the case -- made of fingerprint-fighting Teflon -- all add up to a phone that we'd be proud to wield.
The Hero is the first phone to tweak the user interface of the Android operating system. HTC is calling its user experience 'Sense', and we love what it's done.
There are seven home screens that you can swap with the swipe of a finger, and you can add a range of widgets and shortcuts, as well as customising the wallpaper. You can use Android widgets, and download more from the Android Market, but the ones that HTC has built for the Hero deserve special mention. The Twitter widget, for example, shows a live stream of tweets, and the email widget lets you flip through your email right from the home screen with a flick of a finger. The design of some of the widgets reminded of us the Palm Pre's 'deck of cards' UI, and it's a good look.
You can also change your whole configuration, depending on your mood, by creating your own themes, known as 'scenes'. For example, if you don't want to see your work calendar on your home screen on the weekend because those Monday meetings stress you out, you can switch to your 'fun' scene, with your music-player widget and relaxing beach wallpaper, instead.
So many choices could be overwhelming for some people, but the phone is set up well right out of the box, so you don't have to change anything if you don't want to.
Social network in
We loved how the Hero grabbed our Facebook and Gmail contacts and merged them together in the address book. This feature can be a nightmare if your Gmail address book is unorganised, since it will drag in everyone you've ever emailed, so definitely clean up before you sync. But we liked how our friends' Facebook profile pictures and birthdays were merged with their numbers and emails, especially since the Hero ignores friends that aren't in your phonebook.
The Hero also pulls in your Facebook and Flickr photo
albums, and your friends' albums, and shows their photos alongside their
contact info. Unfortunately, it doesn't support any other social-networking
sites. HTC told us there's no plans for MySpace, Bebo and the like to get a
look in. You can grab apps and widgets for those sites from the
Android Market, but you won't see them in the address book and photo gallery.
The Android Market is less censored than the iPhone's App Store, but that has both positive and negative consequences. There are loads of great apps on there and most of them free, but they don't tend to be as slick as iPhone apps, and finding good ones is tougher. When you do find good apps, though, they're easy to install.
The truth about
One of the most important features on a touchscreen phone is its on-screen keyboard, since you can't fall back on physical buttons. The Hero's keyboard is one of the best we've seen, both in its landscape and portrait modes. It offers a Qwerty layout, with excellent predictive text, and you can run through a training mode to help it learn your particular tapping quirks. There's a separate number keyboard, but you can hold down a letter key to insert punctuation and numbers into text without having to switch -- a handy feature for typing things like passwords, which often contain a mix of letters and numbers.
Like the iPhone after its most recent update, the Hero supports cut, copy and paste. There's even spell-checking functionality, although it's turned off by default.
Life in the slow lane
But it's not all sunshine and lollipops. Sadly, HTC has saddled the Hero with its old favourite Qualcomm 528MHz processor -- the same as the Magic. Using the keyboard reveals the Hero's occasional sluggishness -- switching between the landscape and portrait keyboards takes ever-so-slightly too long. Similarly, the phone sometimes seems to hesitate slightly when you're swiping around the home screens and interacting with the widgets.
We found the Hero to be stable, and, unlike the Magic, it rarely hung or crashed, but the occasional lag could get annoying when you're using the phone every day. One way to reduce the lag is to turn off the widgets, but we think that's a real shame, since they're among our favourite features.
Another area where the Hero bests the Magic is battery life. It's quite good for a touchscreen smart phone. We had no trouble getting a full day's use out of the Hero, even with plenty of Wi-Fi surfing and use of Bluetooth.
Solid Web surfer
Surfing the Web on the Hero is a pleasure, thanks to its accurate browser, which includes Flash support, so you won't miss a single whizzy ad. In our tests, however, the Hero didn't handle Flash video very well -- our Crave TV videos were far too jerky to watch. And, unfortunately, the BBC iPlayer site's version of Flash didn't seem to be supported at all, so we had to rely on the dodgy beebPlayer app. We couldn't watch videos on the YouTube site either, but the built-in YouTube app worked perfectly.
The Hero has good connectivity, with Wi-Fi and 7.2Mbps HSPA for faster data over 3G, but we found the browser didn't load or switch windows quickly enough. We look forward to installing Opera and seeing if it does a better job. One fantastic addition to the Hero, as opposed to earlier Android phones, is multitouch capability, so you can zoom into pages with a pinch of your fingers to get at those tiny links.
Multitouch also comes in handy for zooming into photos, but, unfortunately, it's nowhere to be found in Google Maps. We had to use zoom buttons on the screen, which means we could only zoom into the centre of the map. We were very disappointed to see Google Maps working less well on a Google Android phone than on the iPhone.
There's also a trackball for navigating your way around. It could be useful with Web pages and text, but we think it's overkill when there's such a responsive touchscreen at hand. Overall, in terms of navigation, overkill is the name of the game, with way too many buttons on the front suggesting that the touchscreen can't be trusted. The Hero's nowhere near as over-zealous as the Nokia N97, but, compared with the elegance of the iPhone, the plethora of context-sensitive menus and options occasionally left us feeling exhausted.
The Hero has a 5-megapixel camera that takes decent shots in good light, but it's almost useless in low light due to its lack of sensitivity. It also shoots video, but it takes forever for the camera to get up and running. As with most phones, the camera on the Hero is fine for snapshots, but it won't replace your compact snapper.
Getting your snaps off the phone, and music onto it, is a different process from that of most phones, because there's no dedicated syncing software for the Hero. Instead, it connects to your computer via USB, just like a flash drive, so you can drag and drop the files you want or sync using most music software. We hate being chained to iTunes with the iPhone, but the lack of syncing software means there's no way to easily back up and restore all of your applications and configurations, and you must use over-the-air syncing with Gmail or Exchange to back up your contacts, although there are apps that can help.
Also, we didn't like that we had to 'mount' the Hero each time we connected it by USB before we could access it. It does help if you just want to charge the phone without it being detected as a USB drive by your computer, but we like to transfer data frequently, and it's an extra step we don't need.
There's plenty missing from the iPhone, like Flash support, but what's there works fantastically well. Android, like the Linux from which it was spawned, has always had a whiff of geekiness about it -- you're free to bolt on everything but the kitchen sink, but it's not a perfectly polished jewel that's always a pleasure to use.
The HTC Hero smoothes many of those rough edges, with a shiny new UI that covers Android in widgety goodness. Additions like multitouch zoom, lovely Flickr and Facebook integration and a great keyboard make the Hero the best Android phone yet, especially since it's not as ugly as we feared. In fact, we've grown to like its jutting jawbone. If only it were slightly faster and slicker, we'd consider it an iPhone killer. As it is, we'll class it as an iPhone peer.
Edited by Charles Kloet