It took almost a year, but at last Google's Android operating system seems to have grown up. That's thanks to the HTC Hero, the latest Android-based smartphone, and the first in the U.S. to run on a network other than T-Mobile's.
The HTC Hero is a gorgeous smartphone that takes the best of the two previous Google Android phones -- the T-Mobile G1 and the myTouch 3G -- and builds on them. It's certainly not perfect, but the HTC Hero is, so far, my favorite Android phone, without a doubt. And it's earned a spot on my list of the best smartphones available today.
Price and Availability
The HTC Hero will be available from Sprint on October 11 for $180, after a $100 mail-in rebate. It's a reasonable price, especially when you consider that T-Mobile is charging $199.99 for the myTouch 3G, and $150 for the G1.
The HTC Hero's design is the first evidence of how far Android phones have come. The G1 was boxy and bland; the myTouch 3G was sleek. The HTC Hero takes the myTouch 3G's polished appearance and steps it up with a more professional look. Where the myTouch feels plasticky, the Hero feels solid and smooth. And the myTouch 3G's colored case (it comes in white, merlot, or black) looks immature next to the Hero's copper and silver design.
Like the myTouch 3G, the Hero lacks a hardware-based QWERTY keyboard. You're limited to using an on-screen keyboard for data entry, something that may turn off some users. While the keyboard on the G1 didn't impress me -- its keys were too flat for my taste -- using even a sub-par hardware keyboard can be easier than typing with an on-screen keyboard.
The touch screen on the HTC Hero was markedly better than the one on the myTouch 3G. At times, I had to press harder than expected to get it to register my taps, but, for the most part, scrolling felt as effortless as it does on the iPhone 3GS.
The screen itself is gorgeous, too. It measures 3.2 inches in diameter, and is bright and clear. And -- unlike either of the previous Android phones -- the Hero's screen supports multitouch. That means you can pinch and spread the screen to zoom in and out, just as you can on the iPhone. It's a very welcome addition.
Call quality on the HTC Hero was very good. My callers sounded loud and clear, and they said the same about me. The phone's slim, light case is comfortable to hold during calls.
The HTC Hero also handles extension better than other Android phones. On the myTouch 3G and the G1, you have to reactivate the touch screen by tapping the menu button, and are then required to hit another button to bring up the keypad so you can dial an extension or input a voicemail code. The HTC Hero just requires you to hit one button, which automatically brings up the keypad. It's much quicker and easier.
The Hero runs version 1.5 of the Android operating system, but also features HTC's Sense user interface. Sense keeps the look and feel of Android -- which is a good thing -- but allows you more opportunities for customization. Instead of three home screen pages, you get seven, so you have more room for placing shortcuts and widgets. You also can create Scenes, which lets you change the theme of the phone for different uses, such as work and leisure. The Hero comes with some default themes (like Social, Work, and Travel), but you also can create your own.
The HTC doesn't come with a lot of apps installed on it, but you can find more in the Android Market. While its selection can't rival that of the iPhone App Store, the Android Market is growing. You can find a decent selection of apps for work and play, including a free version of Documents To Go, which allows you to view Microsoft Word and Excel files. (A paid version adds editing privileges, among other features.)
Google Gmail users will love the tight integration that Android offers with their accounts. To set up the phone, you need a Google account (if you don't have one, you can sign up easily); you enter your user name and password, and your entire Google account, including your Gmail, is automatically synced to the phone.
While Gmail accounts get top billing, the Hero supports any IMAP and POP3 e-mail accounts, too. And where the myTouch 3G wouldn't allow me to use the included e-mail client to access my free Yahoo account, telling me it required a paid Yahoo Mail Plus account to work, the HTC Hero allowed me access to my Yahoo account without any problems.
Like the myTouch 3G, the HTC Hero will sync with Microsoft Exchange e-mail accounts, and also adds the ability to sync with Outlook contacts and calendars, something missing from the myTouch 3G.
Browsing the Web
The HTC supports Sprint's 3G (EvDO) network and Wi-Fi wireless networks, so you have options for speedy browsing. And, in my tests, browsing was speedy. Web pages loaded quickly, and downloads were fast.
The overall browsing experience is much improved from previous Android phones, thanks to the addition of multi-touch. The fact that you can pinch and spread the screen to zoom in and out on Web pages makes browsing the Web much easier. But, like other Android phones, the Hero forces you to use a menu or the phone's buttons for tasks that should be accessible from within the browser window -- like accessing the address bar so you can type in a new URL. This is an annoyance I wish they would fix.
The HTC Hero features a 5-megapixel camera, a big step up from the myTouch 3G's 3.2-megapixel camera. It captures video clips as well as still photos, and both looked good. I did notice a significant shutter delay, though, so moving subjects sometimes came out blurry. You get autofocus, but no flash, and few built-in editing tools, such as crop and rotate.
The HTC Hero comes with one-touch access to Amazon's MP3 store for DRM-free music downloads. You also get a basic music player for organizing and playing back tunes. But the Hero comes with one notable improvements over previous Android phones: it sports a standard headphone jack, so you don't need a clumsy adapter to connect headphones.
Sprint also adds a couple of its multimedia services to the HTC Hero. You get access to Sprint TV, which lets you access a mix of live TV channels and pre-packaged content. It also includes access to a variety of radio stations.
Also on the Hero is Sprint's NASCAR and NFL Mobile Live services, plus Sprint Navigation, which delivers turn-by-turn directions to your phone.
Additional features include access to Google Maps, which can deliver driving directions using the phone's built-in GPS. You also can find more software, including GPS, music, and video apps, in the Android Market.
The HTC Hero has some flaws -- it is occasionally sluggish to use, and learning to master all of its features can take a while -- but it's an attractive, powerful phone. The HTC Hero is my favorite Android phone, hands down.