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HTC Hero preview hands on

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Following on down the path trodden by the G1 and Magic, the HTC Hero is an Android-powered device. However, it’s also the first phone to feature HTC Sense, HTC’s attempt at really adding to the basics of the Google Android OS. At the phone’s launch, the company positioned itself as the third biggest player in terms of the amount of development man-hours being put into the OS, after Google and Microsoft naturally.

This being a device that tries to bridge the gap between non-smartphone users and smartphone functionality, any revolutions are in a way underplayed as a natural progression from the bog standard feature phone. HTC Sense focuses on social networking, letting you view Twitter streams, Facebook updates, your friends’ events and your emails right from the phone’s home screen.

So, unlike the iPhone, you don’t have to actually run an application to get hold of any of this, it’s all available right there on your home screen. Of course, actually fitting all this information on one home screen would be impossible. Ok, so it might be possible, but a 20×20 pixel Twitter box wouldn’t be much fun to look at.

Instead, the HTC Hero gives you seven home screens, which you can flick between with a horizontal swipe on the touchscreen. You can customise these screens as you like. Adding a new widget, whether the Facebook updater or a more standard calendar, is a simple case of clicking the plus button at the bottom right and following through the menus.

Customising home screens is nothing new in Android phones, but new for HTC Sense are the 14 HTC-crafted widgets that include such delights as the new Twitter updates widget. Most of them come in several varieties too, large or small, depending on how much space you want them to take up on your home screen. Deleting them is even simpler. You just have to press down on them for a second or so and then drag them down to the bottom of the screen. Here’s a quick rundown of the customised HTC widgets:

  • Internet bookmarks
  • Calendar
  • Clock
  • Footprints
  • Mail
  • Messages
  • Music
  • People
  • Photo album
  • Photo frame
  • Search
  • Settings
  • Stocks
  • Twitter
  • Weather

Other than these, you can put any standard Android widgets on your home screen and drop links to any other programmes there too. Another feature HTC was keen to reiterate was the way that you can save different layouts as profiles. So, you might have your phone looking one way for use during the week, only to give it a complete facelift for the weekend. The possibilities are endless, and quite disturbing.

Not content with just giving you easy access to your favourite social networks, HTC Sense also keeps track of the latest updates from everything – whether Twitter, SMS messages or online photos – sorted by the person involved. So, look up one of your friends and you’ll be able to see what they’ve been up to recently, as well as pictures of precisely that. Again, exciting possibilities with a side order of the disturbing thrown in for good measure.

In a similar vein, you can type in someone’s name rather than their number when you’re dialling. With a tagline of ‘make it mine’, it’s no surprise to see more personal touches like this included. Underneath these friendly tweaks, designed to combat the tech alienation that’s arguably one of the last walls manufacturers need to knock down to allow the surging tide of the smartphone to wash over the market, the interface is much the same as it was on the HTC Magic and G1.

Actually work your way to the bog standard applications menu and its very simple- and not all that attractive. It amount to yet more evidence that the HTC Hero wants to be operated almost exclusively from the home screen, after having been thoroughly customised.

This puts even more emphasis on the touchscreen as the key navigation tool, but thankfully the HTC Hero’s offering is highly sensitive, and just as sound as the Magic’s screen, which we were highly impressed with. HTC also claimed that it’s fingerprint resistant, but the phone we got out hands on was pretty grubby. It had no doubt already been mauled by a score of other journalists by that point though.

The front rollerball is still useful when browsing the web, and the Hero adds a new feature here designed to make reading online text even easier than before. The multi-touch screen allows for the pinch zooming manoeuvre that we’re now fully at home with, but now when you centre in on a tract of text and zoom in, it’ll re-jig the text so that it wraps to fit the screens width. Although this sounds like it’ll mess with the layout of the phone’s screen somewhat, it all reverts back to normal when you zoom out with a double click.

A lot of your web browsing is likely to be covered by the home screen widgets though. No more surfing over to Facebook.com required.

In form factor terms, the HTC Hero is sleek and attractive, but lacking the cute factor of the Magic. The bevelled edges and 15-degree lip at the bottom of the device are designed for comfort, but it ends in a disappointingly square coda. If HTC is really forever trying to hook in less smartphone-centric users, the curvy and friendly look of the Magic is probably a better tactic to employ than the rather more serious lines seen here.

Other than the rollerball and few useful shortcut softkeys on the front of the device, there’s almost nothing to see on the device apart from an inconspicuous volume controller, which looks like it’s USB port cover rather than a controller, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. And 3.5mm jacks are always welcome. The microSD slot, which is of course compatible with SDHC, sits out of view underneath the backplate.

We weren’t able to get a proper look at the images the 5-megapixel camera produced, but the preview screen was pretty slow at refreshing when compared with other high-end phones from just about every other manufacturer on the scene. Then again, it’s at least a step up from what was included in HTC’s last Android phones.

Having had some time alone with the HTC Hero, it does seem like a refinement of the HTC Magic’s already highly usable implementation of the Android OS. Its home screen versatility allows for a little more creativity on the part of the user than the iPhone does, although the Android Marketplace still isn’t giving the App Store a run for its money in terms of covering just about everything under the sun. If only it didn’t look quite so serious. Where’s my nail file? We’ll get those curves sought out in a jiffy.

Take a look here for our video demonstration.

 

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