The HTC Hero (also known as the T-Mobile G2 Touch) is a fantastic touchscreen smart phone with enough style and power to take on Apple's iPhone 3GS and come out alive. It's got zillions of useful features that make it a pleasure to use, from an address book that links to Facebook to a Teflon coating that dodges finger grease. We wish it were slightly faster, and its little chin may scare babies, but the Hero could rescue us from our iPhone addiction.
The Hero is available from free on a £34.25-per-month contract with Orange, but be sure you
get the £4.89 add-on that gives you 500MB of data each month. It will also be available from T-Mobile, although
the company hasn't announced prices yet. You can pick it up SIM-free for around
We feared for the Hero when we first saw its publicity snaps. It looked like a trimmed-down version of its ugly older brother, the T-Mobile G1, due to its oddly angled chin. Thankfully, the Hero is much better-looking in person, although we still prefer the looks of its predecessor, the HTC Magic. Rakish bevelled edges, a subtle brushed-metal trim, and a matte surface on the case -- made of fingerprint-fighting Teflon -- all add up to a phone that we'd be proud to wield.
The Hero is the first phone to tweak the user interface of the Android operating system. HTC is calling its user experience 'Sense', and we love what it's done.
There are seven home screens that you can swap with the swipe of a finger, and you can add a range of widgets and shortcuts, as well as customising the wallpaper. You can use Android widgets, and download more from the Android Market, but the ones that HTC has built for the Hero deserve special mention. The Twitter widget, for example, shows a live stream of tweets, and the email widget lets you flip through your email right from the home screen with a flick of a finger. The design of some of the widgets reminded of us the Palm Pre's 'deck of cards' UI, and it's a good look.
You can also change your whole configuration, depending on your mood, by creating your own themes, known as 'scenes'. For example, if you don't want to see your work calendar on your home screen on the weekend because those Monday meetings stress you out, you can switch to your 'fun' scene, with your music-player widget and relaxing beach wallpaper, instead.
So many choices could be overwhelming for some people, but the phone is set up well right out of the box, so you don't have to change anything if you don't want to.
Social network in
We loved how the Hero grabbed our Facebook and Gmail contacts and merged them together in the address book. This feature can be a nightmare if your Gmail address book is unorganised, since it will drag in everyone you've ever emailed, so definitely clean up before you sync. But we liked how our friends' Facebook profile pictures and birthdays were merged with their numbers and emails, especially since the Hero ignores friends that aren't in your phonebook.
The Hero also pulls in your Facebook and Flickr photo
albums, and your friends' albums, and shows their photos alongside their
contact info. Unfortunately, it doesn't support any other social-networking
sites. HTC told us there's no plans for MySpace, Bebo and the like to get a
look in. You can grab apps and widgets for those sites from the
Android Market, but you won't see them in the address book and photo gallery.
The Android Market is less censored than the iPhone's App Store, but that has both positive and negative consequences. There are loads of on there and most of them free, but they don't tend to be as slick as iPhone apps, and finding good ones is tougher. When you do find good apps, though, they're easy to install.
The truth about
One of the most important features on a touchscreen phone is its on-screen keyboard, since you can't fall back on physical buttons. The Hero's keyboard is one of the best we've seen, both in its landscape and portrait modes. It offers a Qwerty layout, with excellent predictive text, and you can run through a training mode to help it learn your particular tapping quirks. There's a separate number keyboard, but you can hold down a letter key to insert punctuation and numbers into text without having to switch -- a handy feature for typing things like passwords, which often contain a mix of letters and numbers.
Like the iPhone after its most recent update, the Hero supports cut, copy and paste. There's even spell-checking functionality, although it's turned off by default.
Life in the slow lane
But it's not all sunshine and lollipops. Sadly, HTC has saddled the Hero with its old favourite Qualcomm 528MHz processor -- the same as the Magic. Using the keyboard reveals the Hero's occasional sluggishness -- switching between the landscape and portrait keyboards takes ever-so-slightly too long. Similarly, the phone sometimes seems to hesitate slightly when you're swiping around the home screens and interacting with the widgets.