22 August 2009

HTC Hero

A week and a bit ago I upgraded my phone (a Nokia 6120 - read the saga that led to me getting that one here) to the HTC Hero and thought I'd share my experiences thus far. I'd been following the progress of Google's Android OS for a while and really quite like the T-Mobile G1 but I'm on Orange with no plans to switch network so was pretty excited when I heard Orange were introducing the HTC Hero just in time for my contract expiring. The big screen, WiFi and GPS were plus points and, whilst I would have preferred a real qwerty keyboard like that of the G1, this being effectively the third version of that phone it should hopefully have a fair few bug fixes and refinements.

HTC HeroFirst off it comes in a pretty nice Apple-esque white box and after you've phoned the connections people and turned it on you're presented with a detailed and bright screen. Setup is straight forward and you're up and running in no time.

I should mention that I'm a pretty big user of Google services; Mail, Calendar, Docs, Reader are apps I use every day. I've blogged in the past about syncing my phone contacts with those held in Google Mail and it was great to not have to do the usual chore of copying all my contacts over from my old phone. Once I set up my Google account details in the Hero my contacts were all synced down - brilliant! What's better is that my calendar was now synced too which didn't work with SyncML on the old phone. My only criticism of this being that "My Calendar" in the phone is not the same as my "Derek Fowler" Google calendar - this isn't immediately apparent, in fact the two calendars even share the same colour coding, but if you add an event to "My Calendar" it's not synced up to Google. Once you realise this and pick the [your name] calendar that option remains selected and you can even hide "My Calendar" on the phone to make things clearer.

A really nice extension to the contact list added by HTC themselves is the ability to link phone contacts to their Facebook and Flickr accounts so that whilst browsing contacts you also get their Facebook updates, their Facebook profile picture appears in the contact list and Photo Albums on the phone will also browser your contacts Facebook and Flickr photos in addition to any you have stored on the phone. All in all some brilliantly functional Web 2.0 integration.

Google Mail on the phone is pretty similar to the app you can get for other handsets and, oddly, is separate to the actual "Mail" app. Admittedly GMail has features like Labels that you don't get with normal e-mail but still. Text messaging is presented nicely with messages between you and a particular contact appearing as a never ending conversation - something that really does make a lot of sense and I'm surprised it's taken handset vendors this long to think of it.

The browser on the Hero is excellent. It renders pages well and has multi-touch for zooming which is invaluable when you're browsing normal pages rather than those tailored for a small screen. A double-tap zooms in until the object tapped on fills the screen, double-tap again returns to the full page view - very similar to the iPhone browser.

One of the things that I've found to really let the Hero down is the onscreen qwerty keyboard. Whilst it's quite usable in landscape mode it just isn't big enough in portrait mode and, comparing it to the one on the iPhone you can instantly see it's considerably smaller. Thankfully there's the compact qwerty and phone keypad modes you can switch to which are usable, I've stuck with phone keypad.

Other let downs are battery life and the odd bit of lag. Initially battery life was pretty poor, being less than a day between changes however after a few full changes it's now up to about two days. Whilst it's not the two weeks I was used to with the Nokia it's okay considering the big screen and multitude of devices inside the handset. Lag wise it's most noticeable when switching from portrait to landscape mode however in general the phone is very responsive and what lag there is generally isn't enough for you to start getting impatient so that's good.

The Google Market is already full of a wide variety of apps and what's brilliant is that most are free. Highlights I've come across so far are:

  • AndNav - a SatNav app that uses OpenStreetMap maps, no 3D view but promising
  • beebPlayer - an unofficial BBC iPlayer app that supports both on-demand replay of old TV and radio shows but also live TV and radio!
  • Last.fm - streams your recommendations, friends, neighbourhood etc radio
  • Layar - augmented reality browser, shows you a view through the phone camera with markers pointing you in the direction of particular things
  • Google Maps - excellent use of the built in compass in Street View to allow you to look around as if you're in the place
  • Google Sky Map - similar to normal Maps it makes use of the compass to allow you to look around the sky, the app telling you what stars/constellations you're looking at and it even has a search function that will guide you to looking at the correct point in the sky for a particular object

Finally I have to mention one aspect that had me pleasantly surprised about the Hero. If you read other articles on this blog you'll gather that I'm a pretty big hi-fi nerd so I was very impressed when I plugged my headphones in to the Hero (via the 3.5mm jack) and had a listen. Sound quality is really excellent with an airy detailed delivery - I'd be willing to bet it would give most portable music players a good run for their money.