Underneath the fancy HTC Sense user interface, you've got one feature-packed smartphone running Android 1.5. While the HTC Hero can do many things, it wouldn't be worth much if it couldn't do the most basic and core function of a phone: making calls. Fortunately, the Hero handles that task well (see Performance for more) and offers a number of voice features, including a speakerphone, voice dialing, conference calling, speed dial, and visual voicemail. Bluetooth 2.0 also allows you to connect the Hero with mono and stereo Bluetooth headsets, hands-free kits, file transfer, personal area networking, audio/video remote control, and more.
The Hero offers a contact management system similar to the Palm Pre's Synergy function, but not quite as sophisticated. When you first set up your device and enter login information for your various e-mail and social networking accounts, the Hero will automatically pull and import contact information into your address book. We say it's not as sophisticated as Synergy because the Hero doesn't necessarily merge all the information (different e-mail addresses, IM handles, etc.) and get rid of duplicates, so we had numerous entries for the same person. Also, you have to manually link up Facebook and Flickr profiles to a contact, which on the one hand, gives you more control over what you want attached to a person's page, but on the other hand is a time-consuming and tedious task, especially if you have a lot of friends.
That said, we do like how the Contacts pages are set up. From the main directory, you can view all your friends in one massive list, but along the bottom of the screen, you'll see tabs where you can filter down the list to Favorites, Groups, and Call History. There's also a tab for Updates and Events, where you can see upcoming events or any updates people have made to their Facebook profiles and so forth.
The tabbed interface carries over to individual contact pages and is even more handy, since it aggregates any text messages and/or e-mails you've exchanged with the person. It's just nice to see all this information in one place so you don't necessarily have to go through your in-box to find that one e-mail you've been searching for. You can also view call history, status updates, and any albums they have on Facebook and Flickr. On the main screen of a person's address book entry, you'll find the standard information, such as phone numbers, e-mail addresses, birthday, and here, you can also assign a picture or custom ringtone for caller ID.
The HTC Hero has some added messaging capabilities over the T-Mobile MyTouch 3G that mostly benefits corporate users. Like the MyTouch 3G, the Hero can sync with Microsoft Outlook e-mail but unlike the MyTouch, the Hero can also sync your calendar and contacts. Setup was easy as we entered our e-mail address, log-in and OWA (Outlook Web access) information and within a couple of minutes, we had our e-mail, in-box folders, and appointments. The Calendar app color-codes appointments based on which account they were created in (e.g., Outlook, Google Calendar), so you can easily distinguish them on the fly.
Another new feature is the ability to open and view attachments right from Outlook. You no longer have to save it to the memory card first and instead can download it directly from the e-mail and open with the Documents to Go.
The Hero supports other accounts as well. Being a Google Android device, Gmail obviously takes top billing, but the smartphone can be configured to access a variety of other IMAP and POP3 providers, including Yahoo, Windows Live, and AOL. Instant messaging clients for the aforementioned accounts as well as Google Talk are also preloaded on the smartphone.
As we noted in our review of the T-Mobile MyTouch 3G, there are some usability issues. For example, deleting an e-mail requires a couple more steps than it does on the iPhone or Pre. The same goes for manually refreshing your in-box. You certainly can set the Hero's e-mail settings to retrieve messages as they come in, but this also puts a strain on your battery, so we'd like a refresh button easily accessible from within the in-box rather than having to press menu button first.
The big news in the browser department is Flash Lite support--a first for an Android smartphone. As you might have seen through the Adobe Open Screen Project, the HTC Hero's Google HTML Web browser allows you to view Flash content unlike most any other smartphone out there, but before you get too excited, we should warn you that we got mixed results. We checked out a couple of movie trailers from Yahoo Movies, and the site took forever to download, but we eventually got the clips to play. Double-clicking on the video will blow it up to full screen in landscape view. The video quality wasn't the best with a pixelated picture, but the trailers played with minimal interruption. On the other hand, when we tried to watch CNET TV videos, playback was jerky and consequently, audio and video didn't sync up. (Look for a video example soon.) We also couldn't get any Flash games to play. Obviously, not quite the experience we were looking for, but hopefully we'll get the real deal when full Flash Player 10 is released on devices.
The browser itself is quite decent. You can open multiple windows and it supports visual bookmarks, copy/paste, and the capability to share sites via e-mail, text message, Facebook, or Twitter. The HTC Hero offers Wi-Fi and Sprint's EV-DO Rev. A network for getting online. On Sprint's network, CNET's full site loaded in about 35 seconds, while CNN's and ESPN's mobile sties loaded in 8 seconds and 6 seconds, respectively. Of course, the multitouch capabilities benefit the Web browsing experience greatly, but we found that the navigation experience falls behind the iPhone Safari browers. For example, we didn't like that we had to bring up the browser menu to do basic browser navigation such as Back and Forward.
The multimedia capabilities of the HTC Hero are largely unchanged from the MyTouch 3G aside from the camera. The Hero gets a nice upgrade to a 5-megapixel lens and offers video recording capabilities and geotagging. To complement the geotagging, HTC offers its Footprints app, which we first saw on the HTC Cruise and enables you to capture the coordinates of where a photo was taken, add voice and text notes, plot them to Google Maps, and export them. It's a nice way to capture moments along a trip or save some of your favorite spots for shopping, dining, and so forth. Other features of the camera include zoom, autofocus, flicker adjustment, ISO settings, effects, and more.
Picture quality was bit disappointing for a 5-megapixel camera. We would have liked a little more richness in color, but we were more frustrated with the fact that it was hard to get a clear shot. There's a bit of shutter lag, so you have to be careful not to pull away too quickly after pressing the trackball/capture key. Even when we were cautious, we'd still end up with somewhat fuzzy images. Unfortunately there's a bit of sluggishness in the camera feature. First, there's a bit of a shutter lag, so be sure not to pull your hand away immediately after pressing the trackball/capture key, otherwise you might end up with a blurry image. Also, the camera options didn't always appear after pressing the Menu button. Often, we had to press it several times in order for it to surface, so that was puzzling and frustrating.
With the images you have taken, you can view them through the Albums app and then share them with the world via Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, e-mail, or a multimedia message. Videos can also be shared through e-mail and multimedia message, and there's an option to upload them to YouTube right from the device.
The built-in media player is decent enough. It supports MP3, AAC, AMR-NB, WAV, MIDI, and Windows Media Audio 9 format and includes shuffle, repeat, and playlist creation. You can advance and revisit previous tracks by tapping the forward and back buttons or you can swipe the album covers using the touch screen. The main issue with the HTC Hero and any of the previous Android phones actually is that there's no syncing software to help you manage and transfer your music. As it is right now, you have to use the old drag-and-drop method using the USB cable. It'd also be great to have a file manager so we could more easily find files from our SD card.
Of course, you can also download songs via the Amazon MP3 store. The store allows you to browse by album, song, artist, or genre, and single tracks cost about $0.99, while albums can range anywhere from $2.49 to $10.99. You can download the DRM-free songs over Sprint's 3G network or over Wi-Fi. The HTC Hero offers 512MB ROM and 288MB RAM, and the microSD expansion slot can accept up to 32GB cards.
Music playback on the HTC Hero was just fine. Thanks to the 3.5mm headphone jack, we simply plugged in our Bose On-Ear Headphones and jammed away to tunes. Songs sounded pretty rich with a nice balance of treble and bass; not surprisingly, the quality was a bit more on the hollow side when we blasted tunes through the speaker, but there was certainly enough volume. We also downloaded the "The Complete Billie Holiday" album from the Amazon MP3 store with no problem.
Video performance was another story. We've already told you about our experience with Flash video from the phone's browser. YouTube videos are the only ones that played without problem from the browser, though the picture was a bit blurry. Though HTC says the Hero supports WMV 9 videos, we couldn't get one to play on the device. We were able to get an MPEG-4 clip to play, and picture and audio were synchronized and playback was relatively smooth.
Android Market and Sprint services
As a Google Android phone, the HTC Hero obviously supports a number of Google services--Google search, Google Maps, and Google Calendar--but it also comes with a number of standard personal information management tools, including a clock, a calculator, a voice recorder, and a PDF viewer. In addition, you get a handful of extras, including Documents to Go, a Twitter app called Peep, and the new Facebook for Android, but you can have access to plenty more utilities and games through the Android Market, which now has more than 8,000 apps in the catalog. Unfortunately, you still can't save apps to a microSD card; you must store them on the phone's shared internal memory.
In addition to the Android goodies, Sprint throws in a few of its own services on the Hero, including Sprint Navigation, NFL Mobile Live, and Nascar Sprint Cup Mobile, which are all included with Sprint's Simply Everything plan.
We tested the dual-band HTC Hero in San Francisco using Sprint service and call quality was mostly good. On our end, voices sounded rich and clear with just the slightest bit of a background hiss, though nothing disruptive. We also had no problems interacting with an airline's voice-automated response system nor did we have any dropped calls during our review period. Friends weren't quite as generous with the praises. Callers said while the sound quality was OK, they've heard better.
On the other hand, they were completely impressed with the speakerphone quality and was surprised that it actually sounded better than regular voice calls. We also enjoyed good audio quality from the speakerphone, and there was plenty of volume even in louder environments. Finally, we paired the HTC Hero with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset and the Motorola S9 Bluetooth Active Headphones with no problem.
The HTC Hero features a 528MHz Qualcomm MSM7600 processor, so you're not getting any power boosts over the T-Mobile G1 or the T-Mobile MyTouch 3G. We were a little worried after reading the reports, including one from CNET UK, about the GSM Hero's laggy performance. However, HTC released an update for the Hero that looks to have fixed a lot of the issues, and HTC assured us that the Sprint Hero includes the latest ROM update.
Generally, the smartphone did OK in everyday use, but there were definitely some moments of sluggishness. It was a little reminiscent of the Palm Pre, where it took a few seconds for applications, such as the browser and Documents to Go, to launch. And while we were able to navigate through the panels without any problem, it took a second or two for the accelerometer to kick in when changing screen orientation. The delays weren't crippling, though, and we didn't experience any crashes or system meltdowns during our testing period.
The phone's GPS performed admirably, locating our position within a couple of minutes. It also tracked our movements accurately as we drove around San Francisco but was about half a block off when we used the Footprints application. We certainly didn't expect to be dead-on with the address, so we're not going to knock the Hero for this. We also used Sprint Navigation to get driving directions from the Golden Gate Bridge to CNET's downtown headquarters. Route calculation was fast, and a quick glance at the route summary showed accurate directions. Once on the road, the app checked for traffic along our route and we could hear the voice prompts clearly, and text-to-speech pronunciation wasn't too bad. The only complaint we had was route recalculation could be a little slow.
The HTC Hero features a 1500mAh lithium ion battery with a rated talk time of 4 hours. In our battery drain tests, we were able to get 5.75 hours of continuous talk time on a single charge. Just in everyday use, we noticed that the Hero lasted about a day with a good amount of use, including Web browsing, e-mail, and occasionally, GPS. However, to get more mileage out of your phone, we'd recommend turning off GPS until you need to use it and reducing the frequency of e-mail retrieval. Also, we noticed the Twitter and Facebook widgets do a number on battery and performance, so think about using those minimally.