Buying an HTC Hero in Australia is going to take a little more work than usual. You won't find it in any of the mobile phone stores you might usually visit, instead the Hero is available exclusively through Harvey Norman, which means no $0 upfront contracts and no carrier subsidies. So is it worth the extra effort?
The pictures do not do the Hero justice. The renders in our image gallery fail to show the subtle elegance of this handset, the mixture of the Teflon-coated plastic battery cover and the metallic border around its 3.2-inch screen is surprisingly attractive in person. In the hand, the cover feels like stiff rubber and never seems like its about to slip from your grip.
The screen is bright and sharp, with an HVGA (320x480) resolution and 65K colour display. It uses capacitive touchscreen technology and is extremely responsive to touch. The six standard Android navigation buttons run below the screen and alongside a small translucent trackball which you can use instead of your finger for scanning through the menus.
There are only two external ports, a mini USB port for charging and data transfers, and a 3.5mm headphone port located conveniently on the top of the phone. If you're looking for the microSD card slot, it lives under the battery cover, but not under the battery, so you can hot-swap cards without shutting down.
When you consider the specifications, the Hero is a great example of how Android phones are supposed to be, with web connectivity at the fore and business and media concerns following closely behind. For connecting to the web the Hero sports HSDPA web speeds (7.2Mbps downloads and 2Mbps uploads) and Wi-Fi, plus USB 2.0 and Bluetooth 2.0 for local connections. The Hero also employs a GPS receiver used to track your location and deliver accurate time and weather readings, amongst other purposes.
On the back of the Hero you find a 5-megapixel lens all by its lonesome — there's no flash in sight, but the software does include auto-focus. Business users will find the built-in MS Exchange software useful, and if you're a user of Active Sync then you should know that HTC provides compatible Active Sync software for the Hero on its website.
There are two disappointments worth mentioning though; finicky media file recognition and a lack of substantial internal storage. We tested several video file formats on the Hero but only had success with an MP4 format, even though the Hero should be compatible with WMV files as well. For storing media HTC, throw a 2GB microSD card in with the phone, but this won't help you with applications. At the time of writing, Android applications can only be stored on internal memory, of which the Hero has a paltry 100-plus megabytes available to the user.
Android and the Sense UI
In truth, the Hero's hardware isn't terribly exciting, the real showstopper is HTC's Sense user interface sitting on top of Google's Android OS. Sense is a stunner, an attractively designed workspace full of fantastic widgets designed by HTC and Google. There are seven available panes to use, on which you can place clock widgets, weather guides, calendars, or any combination of web-active widgets from the range available to download through the Android Market — there's a great BBC news widget there, for example.
In addition to these, HTC has developed two apps worthy of a special mention; Peep and Footprints. Peep is HTC's take on an always-live Twitter client, and it offers a pretty good range of functionality including a live, updating widget and the ability to filter posts by mentions, direct messages and favourites. Footprints is a geo-tagging photo album, which takes the fuss out of geotagging, letting you map your travels on Google Maps and send your Footprints via email to other HTC phone owners.
Strangely, the Hero doesn't ship with the latest version of Android, but instead ships with version 1.5. For standard phone use this doesn't pose much of an issue, but for people who want to take full advantage of the Android Market, this is a bit of a problem. Google released an updated version of the Android Market in the 1.6 version of the OS, and more recently gave access to turn-by-turn directions in Google Maps to owners of phones with 1.6 and up. This also means that some apps created since the 1.6 SDK became available may not be compatible with the Hero until HTC pushes out a firmware upgrade (which hopefully occurs sooner rather than later).
We're not sure if we'd describe the Hero as a "race horse duct-taped to a Scud missile", but it does operate at an impressive pace. From a cold boot, the menu navigation is silky smooth, moving between the seven home screen panes is seamless and scanning the list of available apps is almost lag-free (though you will see some mild juddering). We have noticed that the Hero can get bogged down after you've opened and closed a few apps. Android doesn't truly multitask, but instead saves instances of the apps you've used when you leave them and this process can bog the system down slightly after some use.
Web browsing is the real treat. Whether you're googling yourself, tweeting a friend or commenting on your Mum's Facebook status, the online experience is fantastic. Google's services (Gmail, Maps, Google Talk and the Android Market) are a highlight, with excellent interfaces designed for use on a small mobile phone screen. Calling and messaging are also solid, with HTC's auto-correction when typing messages working at least as well as similar software on the iPhone.
Battery life has been a concern with HTC's Android phones to date, and while our experience of battery life with the Hero wasn't outstanding, it was a marked improvement on what has come before it. With push email, Twitter, weather, Gmail syncing on constantly, a moderate use of calls, messaging and web browsing we easily got through a day with the Hero, and often through most of a second day as well.
We love this phone here at CNET. It looks and feels great, and offers one of this year's best touchscreen experiences. For basic phone use plus email and web browsing, the Hero stands out as one of the few phones capable of challenging the iPhone at making these everyday tasks much easier on a mobile device. Video playback is limited, and the Hero's lack of internal memory will put off hardcore users who plan to pillage the Android Market and take full advantage of the 10,000 apps available.
It's nice to know that HTC is so far committed to updating the Hero to keep it in line with phones it intends to release in 2010 (at least to Android 2.0). This future proofs the Hero for a short time, which is nice to know in a world where new phones are launched every other week.