Editors' note: We have lowered the rating of this product in the wake of the HTC Droid Eris release.
Sprint was one of the first carriers to join the Open Handset Alliance when it was founded in November 2007 to promote Google Android. However, unlike T-Mobile, which released the T-Mobile G1 and the T-Mobile MyTouch 3G, the carrier wasn't so quick to offer an Android handset to its customers because it simply didn't think the operating system was "good enough"; that is, until now.
Starting on October 11, Sprint will offer its first Android device, the HTC Hero, and it looks like the carrier's waiting game might have paid off. The Hero offers a number of notable enhancements to make it the most advanced Android device to date, including Outlook calendar and contact synchronization, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and multitouch capabilities. HTC also refined the hardware and added its own touch with the HTC Sense user interface that adds even more personalization options to an already highly customizable device.
The Hero isn't without its faults, though. The smartphone can occasionally be sluggish, and we'd still like to see improvements made for media syncing and file management. Also, there's still a bit of a techy feel to the phone, so it doesn't quite have as broad of an appeal as the Palm Pre or Apple iPhone. Still, the HTC Hero is a very capable smartphone that will surely please many a gadget fan. The HTC Hero will be offered for a reasonable $179.99 with a two-year contract and after a $100 mail-in rebate. Be aware, however, that the smartphone requires a plan with unlimited data.
While they share the same name, the Sprint HTC Hero looks nothing like its European GSM counterpart. Gone is the signature "chin" that became the trademark of HTC's Android devices, including the T-Mobile G1 and the T-Mobile MyTouch 3G, which surprisingly got some boos from readers. We always thought the chin looked a bit weird and weren't too fond of it, but of course, style is subjective. If anything, it did give the phones a distinctive and memorable look whereas the Sprint Hero kind of blends into the crowd.
That said, the Hero is still an attractive handset. Without the chin and sporting rounded corners, the smartphone has a smoother, streamlined look. It's also quite compact at 4.46 inches tall by 2.2 inches wide by 0.54 inch thick and weighs 4.5 ounces. It fits nicely in the palm of your hand and even though it shares a similar shape to the MyTouch 3G, the build quality of the Hero is much better. It doesn't feel slick or plasticky, thanks to the soft-touch finish throughout the body of the phone as well as the brushed metal plate just under the front display.
Speaking of the display, the HTC Hero features a 3.2-inch, 480x320 capacitive touch screen, which isn't any different than the others and still shows images and text beautifully. A built-in light sensor automatically adjusts the display's brightness so you can read the display no matter what environment you're in, but like many others, the screen tends to wash out in bright sunlight.
There's also a built-in accelerometer that automatically changes the screen orientation from portrait to landscape mode when you rotate the phone, but be aware that it only works in certain applications, such as e-mail, photos, and the Web browser. There's a slight pause during the transition, but there were never any significant delays, and the screen never froze during the transition while we had it for review. Unfortunately, the smartphone is not equipped with a proximity sensor, so it won't lock the screen when you hold it up to your ear during phone calls.
One thing that the Hero has that its Android siblings don't (and it's a big one) is multitouch capabilities. That's right. Now you can zoom in and out of Web pages and images by pinching the screen just like the Palm Pre and iPhone, which is so much more convenient than tapping the screen multiple times or digging through menus. Admittedly, it didn't feel quite as smooth as the Pre or iPhone, and interestingly, you can't use the feature with Google Maps (you'll have to revert to the magnifying glass icon). Still, having multitouch function for Web pages and photos really improves the user experience, so we'll take it.
As we mentioned, the screen is capacitive, so it will only respond to the touch of a finger and not a fingernail or stylus, though there are special styli you can buy that work with capacitive screens. Overall, the Hero's touch screen was responsive. You can scroll through long lists, such as your address book, with a flick of the finger and stop the motion with a simple tap of the screen. You can also do a more controlled scroll by slowly swiping your finger up and down the screen, and to move through the home screen panels (more on this below), simply swipe to the right or left. As with the other Android phones, you can do a long press on the screen to bring up a menu of options relevant to the app you're in.
You don't always have to rely on the touch screen, however, as there are some physical controls below the display. For example, you can also call up menus using the (this is going to sound crazy, but stick with us here) Menu button right below the display. You also get Talk and End keys, a Home shortcut, a back button, a Google Search launcher, and a large trackball navigator.
Keyboard and keypad
For text entry, the HTC Hero features a virtual QWERTY keyboard in both portrait and landscape mode. However, instead of the standard Android keyboard, HTC has swapped it out for its own, which is fine by us. The buttons are larger with more spacing between the keys, and they provide haptic feedback when pressed (you can also turn this feature off).
As expected, the keyboard in portrait mode is fairly cramped, and we often had mispresses. We'd say it definitely rates behind the iPhone's but with more practice, we got used to it. Still, more often than not, we resorted to switching to landscape mode to avoid frustration. The Hero also offers functions like spell check, word prediction, and auto correction, which were all pretty decent.
To copy and paste, simply do a long press on an editable text and a menu will appear where you can select Copy text. You can then drag your finger or use the trackball to highlight the text and copy to a clipboard. To paste, do another long press or push the trackball down to copy over the text. It's not the most streamlined process, but we definitely think it's better than the Pre's system.
The onscreen dialpad is easy to use and smart. You can simply start entering numbers and the Hero will search your contacts list, which runs in the background, to find any matching results by name or number. There's also an option to hide the onscreen dialer and just surface your full address book or you can add people to your Favorites list where you can then choose to call, text ,or e-mail said contact.
What really makes the HTC Hero different is its user interface. Much like it did for Windows Mobile with its TouchFlo 3D interface, HTC developed its own user interface, called HTC Sense, to replace the standard Android interface. The benefit of HTC Sense is that you get more opportunities to customize the device to your lifestyle and personality than before. So now, instead of three home screen panels, you now get seven that you can navigate through by sweeping your finger to the left and right. On each panel, you can add various shortcuts and widgets, including standard Android ones and some that HTC has added like Twitter and Footprints, which is an app that lets you geotag photos and add voice memos and notes (more on that later).
To add items to a panel, you can tap the plus icon located along the main toolbar along the bottom of the screen. This will bring up four main options: Shortcut, HTC Widget, Android Widget, and Folder. Touching the small arrow icon next to each of these will surface a drop-down menu of all your options, and there are plenty. To remove any shortcuts or widgets, the process is the same as the G1 and MyTouch 3G; simply do a long press on the icon and then drag it down to the remove section on the bottom of the screen. Don't worry, this does not delete the app from your device; it simply removes it from the home screen.
On top of all that, there is something called Scenes, which lets you change the theme of the phone depending on whether you're at work, traveling, or out on the town. For example, the Work scene shows you things like upcoming appointments and stock quotes, whereas the Travel scene will display more relevant apps, such as Footprints, two clocks, and weather information. The idea is that you can change your phone's identity to match what you are doing on that day.
To change Scenes, just press the menu button below the display and select Scenes. From there, you'll be able to choose from one of the default options (HTC, Social, Work, Play, Travel) or create a custom Scene. No matter which panel or Scene you're in, though, you get a toolbar along the bottom that gives you quick access to the phone app, full list of apps, and the ability to add widgets and shortcuts. One carryover from the old Android UI is the notification system that alerts you to new messages, tweets, missed calls, and so forth at the top of your screen with a pull-down menu system where you can see more details.
We'll be honest; this is all very overwhelming at first, and the menu system isn't as neat or intuitive as some of the other touch-screen phones, but after you take the time to customize the various screens to meet your needs, it really comes in handy. And that's part of the beauty of the Hero is that you can personalize it to your lifestyle.
We also found that the Scenes feature helps in some ways to get out of work mode. Even though, you're technically just a couple of taps away, switching to Social or Play is nice in that you don't have all your appointments and work e-mail staring right back at you from the home screen.
There isn't much to the rest of the phone, but there's one feature that should definitely be pointed out and that's the 3.5mm headphone jack on top of the device. Pause for applause. Finally, you don't have to use a cumbersome audio adapter to plug in your headphones to enjoy tunes. Volume can be controlled with the up/down controls on the left side of the phone, and there's a mini USB/power connector on the bottom. On back, you'll find the Hero's camera and the microSD expansion slot is located behind the battery door along the right edge.