Last month, I put the Vodafone Magic to the test, which is essentially the same phone as the HTC Hero reviewed here, bar the design, the lack of a 3.5mm headphone jack and a lower resolution camera.
Despite this, side by side the Magic is still the nicer looking phone, although that might be partly down to the colour of the Hero we got in for review. Orange supplied us our handset, which has the phone in a rather bland graphite colour. T-Mobile’s version, renamed the G2 Touch, is in a colour more like that of the Magic, as well as black. I suspect that any other colour would be preferable, but I’m not convinced that it will be enough of an issue to see people changing their network as a result of a colour – although stranger things have happened.
More than the colour comes the design itself, with a more curved ‘chin’ than either the G1 or the Magic. For all of the great advances that have come from HTC, design is something that remains a real hit and miss affair, right from the days of the SPV smartphones on Orange, through to the ridiculous Lobster TV phone produced for Virgin Mobile and the questionable appearance of the first HTC Diamond (prompting T-Mobile to redesign its MDA variant). For some reason, HTC likes to experiment with design, but runs the risk of alienating thousands of customers in the process.
It’s the small things
Looks aside, the HTC Hero has a few other changes over the Vodafone model. HTC has added more of its own applications and widgets to the Hero, like the TouchFLO system on its Windows Mobile devices, which increases the number of pages you can scroll through on the standby screen. HTC calls the new system ‘Sense’, yet the application is still called TouchFLO, as I discovered when it crashed on a single occasion.
The idea is that you can place a range of live HTC and traditional Android widgets anywhere, giving you access to weather forecasts, your latest Twitter updates (it has its own Twitter app called ‘Peep’)and a look at upcoming appointments etc.
It also gives quicker access to incoming emails and texts, plus there’s integration with Facebook – so you can see status updates and other details when you access the modified address book – a feature that is very much like those on the INQ1 and the forthcoming Palm Pre.
What Android still doesn’t have (although that’s likely to change by the time you read this) is an official Facebook application. Instead, you can install third party apps, but without the full functionality of the iPhone or BlackBerry versions. You can upload photos to Facebook or Twitter though, as well as sending pictures to Flickr, but hopefully the official Android Facebook application will make everything more integrated.
Flash new browser
The web browser has seen further improvements, including the support for Flash without slowing down to a crawl, and visual bookmarks. There’s the option of having thumbnails shown on the home screen, which makes the web browser even more accessible.
All of the widgets update when you scroll around the individual pages, but there’s a delay of a few seconds, which is frustrating when you’re trying to scroll between any one of the seven panels to keep up to date.
The reason for the delay is presumably to save excessive data usage by having content updated even when you’re not looking at it, as well as preserving battery power, but even with two valid reasons it’s still annoying.
Another drain of power is having GPS enabled to track your location, which can then display information relevant to where you are. This might be to show the correct time, the local weather or updating your location on Twitter. The feature can be turned off, not only for power but for privacy, but it does mean some apps won’t work properly, at least until you switch it back on.
When you load the messaging application, there’s another pause that could mean waiting five or ten seconds to see the SMS you’ve just received. There’s no such delay on the Magic, so it makes me wonder how proficient in coding HTC currently is for the Android platform.
All of this leads to a bit of a conundrum. The Magic is nicer looking, but the Hero is better specified and with the more advanced applications. It also has the 3.5mm headphone socket and a 5-megapixel camera, but is that enough to stop you getting Vodafone’s version? Then, there are the other devices (see left) coming soon.
Neither the Magic or the Hero is particularly amazing when it comes to music and video. The Hero will let you manage the controls when the phone is locked, and has a range of widgets to display the player, playlists or album covers, but when you move on to video things really fall down. The Hero can play a number of video formats, including H.264, but not DivX or XviD, and only when converted to play on a mobile (compared to the Samsung I8910 HD which can play almost anything).
Re-encoding video makes sense from a storage space point of view, but the video player is as basic as they come. There’s no easy way to fast-forward or rewind (instead, you can drag a bar that on a movie may mean jumping 10 minutes at a time) and there’s no way to resume the video from where you left off if you stop watching to continue later. Like the Magic, the Hero is no threat to an iPhone if you want to enjoy iPod-style functionality.
The camera is no real improvement over the Magic either, despite an extra two million pixels. Some photos aren’t too bad, if you’re in optimum lighting conditions with no glare or backlight, but most will end up out of focus regardless of how still you try and hold the camera. You must also take photos by pressing the rollerball button, meaning the focussing takes place afterwards and this introduces a second or two delay before the picture is taken. How’s that for shutter lag? There’s no flash either, meaning HTC has made the camera as useless, possibly more so, than the one on the latest iPhone.
So, it’s bad for video and takes rubbish photos. Why, then, do I still like the Android platform so much? Well, in a world where you want to be connected 24/7, the phone really comes into its own. From the genius pull-down notification screen that has all the key information at a glance, to a clever gesture pattern that can be set to unlock the phone instead of entering a PIN, Android shows innovation and is easily adaptable to suit your taste – especially with HTC’s additional work.
The camera might be as it is, but if someone produces a half-decent media player for Android, then this complaint disappears. There are new apps being added every day, so I’m ever hopeful.
To get the most from the phone, you must have a Google account. This isn’t something optional to add later, as you’ll be using it to synchronise contacts, appointments and email. Then you’ve got all the other optional stuff like Google Latitude (sharing your location with friends and family) or the iGoogle homepage. Everything keeps in sync automatically, making this the perfect companion to a PC, Mac or whatever you use to go online.
For a phone that’s so well connected and hooked up to all the popular social networking sites, most users will lap it up. at least until the novelty wears off, or someone is caught out for being somewhere they shouldn’t.
For a fully connected device, battery life is the last big concern. It’s not exactly small (1350mAh), but the two things sure to drain a battery quickly is being online and having GPS enabled.
Lack of communication
Finally, there’s one thing that could be a dealbreaker if you like to send and receive files over Bluetooth. Android, like the iPhone, just doesn’t support it full stop. Bluetooth is strictly reserved for audio, and that means more than just no file transfer, as it also stops it being possible to use the Hero as a modem for your PC wirelessly. This should be fixed with a future operating system update, but for now there’s nothing official to solve the problem.
It’s normally quite easy to conclude a review, but there’s this nagging feeling that the Magic is still the better choice, despite the extra work that HTC has put into the Hero. In October, HTC should be adding Sense support to the Magic and that makes the decision even harder again.
Until then the Hero is probably the winner, but there are certain issues that may not be fixed until the next version of the Android OS is released. If you don’t mind waiting, the Hero won’t let you down. Finally here’s a message for HTC: when you release the next generation models, give the phone a decent camera.
The Hero isn’t a huge step beyond the Magic (exclusive to Vodafone) but there is a higher resolution camera (albeit with a poor control system), 3.5mm headphone jack and HTC’s new ‘Sense’ front-end that gives you seven panels to show widgets and other ‘connected’ information. With an ever increasing selection of applications, integration with Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and other online services, the Hero is the perfect companion for people living their life on the Internet. The biggest disappointment is the camera, which HTC must fix on its next model.