Super-smart phones based on Google’s Android operating system have been relatively slow to take off since the first one appeared a year ago. Despite Google’s iconic brand, they have yet to develop the strong bond with U.S. consumers achieved by the Research in Motion (RIMM) BlackBerry or the Apple (AAPL) iPhone. And, after a year, Android has less than 10% of the 85,000 apps the iPhone now offers.
But Android is beginning to blossom in the market for this class of device, which is really a hand-held computer that performs many laptop-like functions.
In August, T-Mobile began offering a new $200 myTouch Android phone. Motorola (MOT) will shortly launch a new $200 Android model called the CLIQ. And, on Oct. 11, Sprint (S) will start selling perhaps the most unusual Android phone so far, the $180 HTC Hero. I’ve been testing the Hero, a touch-screen phone without a physical keyboard that has some important distinctions from earlier Android models. In general, I like the Hero and can recommend it to Sprint customers, or others looking for something powerful, but different.
HTC, a veteran Taiwan-based maker of phones, has altered Android more than anyone else so far. It has been gradually developing its own signature software layer that sits atop phone operating systems. With the Hero, it has applied this software for the first time to an Android phone, and that’s what sets the Hero apart from its Android brethren. The latest, beefed-up, version of this HTC software is called “Sense.”
Sense includes handsome, large widgets with extra features that go beyond the vanilla Android experience supplied to everyone by Google (GOOG). So the Hero looks and behaves somewhat differently. For instance, a contact page in the address book application consolidates that contact’s Facebook and Flickr accounts. The music player and photo album look better, and the Hero with Sense can use Microsoft’s Exchange service to synchronize mail, calendars and contacts.
Sprint’s HTC Hero
Sense also offers something called Scenes—entire collections of sets of screens and apps, either canned or customized, that can change the phone software’s look and feel. With just a couple of clicks, you could switch between a work-oriented “scene,” that prominently features apps such as a stock tracker and your work email, and an entertainment-oriented scene filled with the music player, photo album and other apps.
As with Sprint’s Palm (PALM) Pre, the Hero’s price is a bit deceptive. To get the phone for $180, you must remember to mail in a rebate form worth $100. At purchase, you have to put up $280. On the other hand, Sprint’s monthly fees can be much cheaper than those for other carriers. You’ll have to pay at least $70 a month to use the Hero, the same minimum fee that AT&T charges iPhone owners. But Sprint’s fee, unlike AT&T’s (T), includes unlimited text messaging and unlimited free calls to any mobile number on any network.
The Hero’s hardware isn’t especially beautiful. It’s a dull grey, noticeably thicker than the iPhone, with a smaller screen and six buttons plus a trackball, which adds another navigation option to the touch screen. It’s the same length as an iPhone, but is a bit narrower and lighter. It comes with just two gigabytes of memory, compared with eight gigabytes on the $99 iPhone and 16 gigabytes on Apple’s $199 model, though the Hero’s memory, unlike the iPhone’s, is expandable via a hard-to-reach slot under its removable back cover.
One big drawback is battery life. Sprint is only claiming up to four hours of talk time for the Hero, versus five hours for the Pre and iPhone. But, unlike the iPhone’s, the Hero’s battery is removable. Another drawback: I sometimes found the touch screen unresponsive, requiring multiple pokes at an icon.
On the plus side, the Hero has a much higher resolution camera than the iPhone’s or Pre’s—five megapixels versus three megapixels.
It also functions as a video camera, and in my tests, both still photos and videos I took looked very good. Phone calls, even on speaker phone, were clear and strong, and the phone has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in addition to Sprint’s high-speed network, which in my view is better than its reputation. Web browsing was adequate.
HTC’s Sense gives the Hero seven screens on which to place apps, versus Android’s standard three screens.
And, in addition to the standard Android apps and the 8,000 downloadable apps from Android’s Market app store, there are a variety of large, beautiful HTC “widgets” you can use. The downside of these is that they can occupy an entire screen.
The most impressive widget is called People. It’s an address book in which each contact’s page features a scrolling bar at the bottom with icons that allow you to see that person’s most recent Facebook status, photos from Facebook and Flickr, plus emails and text messages she’s sent to you and recent calls between you. This is somewhat similar to Palm’s Synergy feature, which is also based around people.
Overall, I found the HTC Hero to be the best Android phone I’ve tested, and a worthy competitor to the iPhone, the BlackBerry and the Pre.