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HTC Hero and Droid Eris

November 28th, 2009
The most important Android phone of 2009.

HTC's Hero is the company's first signal that it's serious about taking the lead in Android smartphones; it's the first to try and improve in a significant way on Google's platform -- including multi-touch and in-browser Flash -- as well as the first to reach multiple North American carriers. Much is riding on its success, especially as it's one of the most important phones for Sprint, Telus and Verizon (through the Droid Eris) all at once. Our review hopes to gauge whether the phone has the strength to carry that burden and give the iPhone serious pause. the Hero's design: Telus, Sprint, Verizon

Discussing the ergonomics of the Hero is difficult than for most smartphones simply because of the liberties HTC has taken with customizing the design for different regions. While our review unit is the world version that ships to Telus, the Sprint model and the Droid Eris at Verizon have both undergone major cosmetic overhauls.

Having said this, we prefer the original design that has reached our hands. The Sprint and Verizon handsets are still arguably attractive, but they've had most of the edge rounded off; the original Hero is deliberately angular and centres on its kink (an HTC Android phone signature) below the screen. It's an understated design that manages to be unique while remaining comfortable in the hand. Moreover, it's even more practical: the kink puts the microphone closer to your face during a call. Its only quirk is that the bend prevents the phone from fitting perfectly into a tight pocket.

Every version does have something in common, however, and most of these are positives as well. The Hero is the only major smartphone outside of the iPhone 3GS to have an oleophobic (oil-resistant) touchscreen. Once more, this is an indispensable feature: it keeps the bright and sharp screen relatively clean for longer periods and results in a surface that's consistently smooth. At least the white-colored international model also has a soft touch, Teflon-coated back, which keeps scratching to a minimum but provides a very stable grip . Our unit, a black example, doesn't have this coating but was surprisingly clean even after significant use and being carried without protection in a pocket, suggesting the material choice here is still very resilient.

All controls fall fairly easily to hand, and it's appreciated (though not really necessary) to have a trackball to use the phone one-handed, even with gloves. The "stealth" volume rocker on the left-hand side provided a mixed reaction: we found ourselves accidentally pressing it, but only when the phone was locked and the rocker had no effect. The 3.5mm headphone jack (present on all Hero models) is not just essential to the phone's media player credibility but fairly well-designed, resting flush with the angled back but still capable of using most headphones.

There are still some complaints to register, though these matter less on the Hero than they have on past HTC phones. The most prominent is the placement of the microSDHC card slot underneath the battery; it's not hard to pry the back and battery off, but the move prevents owners from quickly swapping out cards to offload data to a computer. Thankfully, microSDHC cards are at least affordable enough now that a 16GB card is a reasonable option.

HTC's insistence on its proprietary ExtUSB port also shows its face no matter which version you get. Where owners of newer BlackBerries can borrow a micro USB to full USB cable from other devices, those who pick up a Hero or Droid Eris will have to buy an HTC-specific replacement. The headphone jack does minimize the severity of the flaw as it keeps the outlet free for playing audio while you charge up or use an accessory.

Android and Sense UI

Underneath, the Hero is running the same Android 1.5 as the Magic and T-Mobile myTouch 3G first did when they shipped. We won't completely rehash the interface, but we will say that it's the only other smartphone platform we've seen outside of OS X iPhone that truly feels modern. It has an intuitive multi-screen home display with live widgets, a genuinely accurate and contemporary web browser, and great built-in utilities like Google Maps. The background notification system remains one of the most elegant we've seen, although we found ourselves having to carefully manage notifications so the phone wouldn't either constantly send alerts or drain its battery from constant data access.

The iPhone still excels in a few key areas, particularly in its more advanced media controls, but unlike most rivals, Android phones like the Hero at least feel competitive.

Android Market has grown significantly even in the few months between the Magic and Hero, and as of this writing there's now easily over 10,000 apps -- still a fraction of the more than 100,000 iPhone apps available, but enough to outdo BlackBerry App World and the Palm App Catalog combined. Even in the short space of time with the review unit, we found several quality social networking clients, games and media streaming apps that extended the usefulness of the phone well beyond what's already installed. Google's restrictions on what apps can reach its store are much looser than through Apple's store, so while you may occasionally find a too-rough beta release, those who want to share video over a service like Qik or even directly modify the phone interface without hacks should certainly look first at an Android phone.

What we miss most from the underlying OS is simply that HTC and its partner carriers haven't bothered to refresh Android on this particular device. Even as of the Telus launch in November 2009, the Hero has remained at 1.5 while the Motorola Droid has shipped with 2.0 and HTC's own Dream (T-Mobile G1) and Magic have both been updated to Android 1.6. That leaves the middle child of the lineup not only without decisive advantages like Google Maps Navigation or the HTML5 browser in 2.0 but without the redesigned Android Market portal, whose interface makes it much easier to find apps you haven't heard of through other sources.

HTC's extensive customizations may be at least partly responsible, and it's here that the Taiwanese firm at least offers a very good consolation prize through Sense UI, its own custom interface. The package is really a balance between the heavy alterations made in HTC's TouchFLO front end for Windows Mobile and the raw Android interface. The actual takeover of the main interface is light and almost exclusively helpful: it primarily offers a slew of widgets that save the trouble of having to launch apps only to back out a moment later. We particularly liked the music and weather widgets as they almost always came into play. We could also see a use for the Facebook and Twitter widgets, though they provide relatively little information and are mostly useful for a quick status check.

In many cases, these widgets link directly to custom-written apps that effectively override Google's own or, sometimes, provide features out of the box that aren't built into Android. For the most part, we actually like these a good deal as they provide an attractive and simple interface for tasks that either have a more austere interface or would push you to download an app from Android Market. It's not all flawless: HTC's Twitter client Peep is attractive but relatively limited compared to established apps like Twidroid, for example. The app for third-party mail also doesn't have an easy way to mass-delete messages or mark them as read. But if nothing else, it provides Android beginners a simple way of getting more out of the Hero.

There are some welcome additions in software that are rare in Android devices. Outside of the Motorola Milestone (the non-US Droid equivalent), the Hero is the only other Android phone to support multi-touch input in its out-of-the-box state. Browsing on the Hero is much more intuitive than on most of these devices as result, as is navigating photos. The phone is also notable for being the first with in-browser Flash and can show animations and even lightweight games without having to quit to an external app. Other Android phones get this in 2010, but it's a treat to have it early, if just to see some websites without conspicuous gaps where Flash boxes would be.

These features aren't quite as important as some might make them out to be, though. Multi-touch is useful, but it isn't universally applicable; as HTC had to write the code itself before it became an option in Android 2.0, third-party apps won't recognize the input. Flash is also something of a placebo as it simply can't provide the desktop experience. You can't really play regular web games like Plants vs. Zombies, and even Flash videos will invoke a separate player app rather than try to play in the browser. Until Flash 10 officially arrives alongside overall faster devices, much of the incentive to use Flash isn't there.

We also have a slight qualm with the on-screen keyboard. The design found on the Hero (and the Magic/myTouch) is quite functional and is relatively easy to get used to, but the smaller screen size combined with relatively light auto-correction leads to more typos and other accidental key presses. It does bring haptic (vibration) feedback for those that miss physical buttons.

Performance is our primary issue with the implementation of Android on the device. Most of the time, the phone runs smoothly; when scrolling or zooming in the browser, or simply running a large number of apps, the relatively old processor in the Hero becomes obvious. It's the same 528MHz Qualcomm chip as in the Magic/myTouch and many other HTC phones, and while acceptable lags significantly behind the Droid's more advanced chip, let alone the 600MHz, latest-generation chip in the iPhone 3GS. Faster HTC phones are coming, but we'd suggest those that absolutely thrive on speed consider another device instead.

camera quality

The most tangible hardware upgrade in the Hero versus its predecessors is the camera: it touts a 5-megapixel sensor versus the 3.2-megapixel unit that was in all earlier HTC Android phones. You'd be forgiven if you had trouble noticing the difference, however. Other than the higher resolution leading to more detail and less visible noise at typical viewing sizes, it's not substantially different. Colors tend to be somewhat muted, while the image has that slightly "smeared" quality that makes it apparent you're using a plastic lens. There are a fair amount of image editing options; it's possible to set white balance, contrast, saturation, ISO levels and most other settings you'd normally find on a compact camera before taking the shot. But aside from having a fairly intelligent autofocus, still image capturing is certainly not the Hero's central feature; direct Flickr uploading is its main saving grace.

The situation improves somewhat in the movie mode. Image quality isn't much better here, as significant motion tends to blur and the sensor doesn't handle the transitions from light to dark environments very smoothly. But it does capture at decent resolution, and it has a fairly well-equipped uploader for YouTube that can apply naming and tags before a video ever reaches the web. HTC's main issue isn't that it handles video capture badly -- we've seen worse examples, even recently -- it's only that there are phones that do it better, including the technically lower resolution but overall sharper and more responsive iPhone.

call quality, the Telus network and battery life

Your experience with call quality is likely to depend entirely on whose network you're on. As our phone was on Telus' fledgling HSPA network, it arguably had the best quality: calls were loud, clear and free of any unwanted effects. The Sprint and Verizon phones will actually take a hit in this regard as CDMA phone networks normally produce a tinny-sounding effect; we've never found it bad enough to affect our experience, but those switching to the HSPA Hero from a CDMA phone on Telus should notice an improvement.

One caveat for Telus owners may be the condition of the network, though it should also depend entirely on when you're reading this review. When we reviewed the phone, Telus' HSPA backbone was just two weeks old. This may have come through in our testing as there were two moments where the phone dropped a call. Most of our calls went through and were of good quality, so we suspect this may be evidence of the network not yet having perfect coverage. If you read this on or after February 2010, you may have a more reliable experience as Telus (and its partner Bell) should have finished fleshing out its upgraded network.

Battery life is strictly typical for a smartphone and roughly comparable to the iPhone: that is, it should last for about a full workday of moderate use that mixes calls and data, but nothing more. It's definitely necessary to recharge the phone once a day if you plan to use it often, and very demanding tasks like GPS navigation or games will run down the battery much faster if used for extended periods. We'd also shy away from leaving the phone on standby for more than a couple of days without charging, since it tends to use about 15-20 percent of its charge overnight while it downloads mail and other information in the background. Be sure to turn Wi-Fi off if the phone won't stay plugged in for extended periods.

It should be noted that we did have a temporary power problem where the phone inexplicably refused to turn back on after going to sleep, but removing and replacing the battery solved this. It never occurred beyond that one instance.

How this is reflected in your actual experience can change significantly due to those background processes. If you have the phone set to check mail, Twitter, and many other apps very frequently, you're going to lose a substantial amount of runtime versus just checking one or two processes at far-apart intervals. We can understand why Apple has been hesitant to implement full-fledged multitasking after using it here. It's entirely possible to be responsible and limit your approach, but having enough apps continuously running or polling for data can quickly sap energy in addition to hogging the phone's resources.

wrapping up

The Hero has a knack for creating an oddly emotional attachment with its owner. While we've had gripes with the strictly average performance or the lackluster camera, the subtle but unique design and the customizations to Android make it feel like a constant companion. Its design always seems tailored specifically to help you, especially in terms of long term wear and tear. The Sense UI additions also provide just that much extra help, saving the trouble of going one layer deeper or having to resort to an outside app. Combined with a very Internet-aware OS with a robust app market, the net effect made us eager to hold on to the phone for as long as possible -- something we can't often say for the phones that pass by our desk.

Our only true disappointment is that the Hero at times feels more like a bug fix for the Magic than the follow up you'd expect. Besides expanding carrier choices, there doesn't appear to be any real reason for the Hero to exist without the Magic being phased out. A truer upgrade should be available soon with a 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor and other possible improvements, so if you're willing to spend the premium those are likely to command, consider that option first.

Sprint's Hero or Verizon's Droid Eris won't have the design advantage, but they're still well-shaped. Whether or not the handset is a good deal depends entirely on which of the three networks you use, even so. Arguably, those worst off are Sprint customers: the phone there costs $180 on contract and comes only with a 2GB microSD card, which will be enough for photos and apps' content storage but far from adequate for serious media playback. In the States, the Droid Eris is the better bargain as it not only costs $100 but packs a much more reasonable 8GB card. The international version we tried with Telus sits somewhere in between: it has the anemic 2GB card and requires a three- year plan, but it too costs $100 and has the best call quality and design traits of the three.

Sprint customers may have the option of levelling the playing field by shopping through a third-party or simply waiting for a sale; we should also add that Cellular South has the Sprint version of the phone for $100 if you happen to live inside its coverage area.

Regardless of how your geography dictates your purchase, the Hero is arguably the best touchscreen-only Android phone in North America for 2009, even when pitted against the technically more advanced Samsung Behold II at T-Mobile. HTC's ability to balance hardware and software design makes it a tough phone to defeat, and if it weren't for the existence of the Motorola Droid, we'd consider it the go-to phone for Android, full stop. We don't think it will unseat the iPhone from its throne as the iPhone 3GS' speed, browser and media features still give it an edge, but anyone disillusioned with Apple's policies in the App Store, who craves multitasking, or who simply wants to be different will be satisfied with a Hero.

- Subtle, elegant, long-lasting design.

- Sense UI a significant help to Android.

- Good call quality on at least HSPA networks.

- Android more flexible for third-party apps.

- Multi-touch and in-browser Flash.

- Cheap on Telus and Verizon.

- Still running Android 1.5.

- Same CPU as the Magic/myTouch 3G.

- Camera not much of an upgrade.

- Flash support somewhat oversold.

- Expensive on Sprint.