At a media event yesterday in New York, representatives from smartphone maker HTC passed around their latest creation: an Android-based device they're calling Hero. And... wow.
It bears saying I am not traditionally a fan of HTC products. Their TouchFLO interface for Windows Mobile I find to be an over-engineered abomination that lags and spasms its way through even basic tasks. Their hardware is usually pretty nice—the Touch Diamond is a great little machine, for example—but their first Google phone, the G1, feels like a big dumb ham sandwich in my hand. (Being an iPhone die-hard, I'm not a fan of pop-out keyboards.)
So it was with notable reticence that I took a shine to the Hero. The whole interface is skinned in HTC's own UI, which they call "Sense," built on top of Google's Android operating system, version 1.5 (aka Cupcake). Like other HTC-designed interfaces, it's beautiful. Unlike others, it works. Fast.
In fact, if there was one thing that left me ready to kidnap the Hero and leave my iPhone behind, it was the speed of the thing. What the iPhone lacks in snappiness (talking about the 3G here; the 3G S is plenty fast) and the G1 lacked in glamour, the Hero has in spades. Switching from app to app was crisp and quick, animations happened flawlessly, buttons were responsive (though the two bottom-most ones are awkwardly placed) and programs opened without lag. Typing was responsive and comfortable—better even than the iPhone—and spelling corrections dropped in seamlessly. Nearly everything I tried on the phone—which was running a prerelease OS—happened in a flourish of brevity and style. In two minutes, I was smitten. In the demo videos below, you may assume that operations have been sped up for your benefit, as with say, iPhone commercials. They haven't, really. This thing is snappy.
The device's most superficial menu is a dashboard-like flip screen that holds an arrangeable array of widgets, which can provide quick access to your contacts, Twitter feed, music player, calendar and weather-bugs, among other things. Once you dig into the Hero's customized apps, you'll notice that the contact flow has its own lovely Rolodex feel, akin to TouchFLO but more space-efficient and responsive. Likewise, HTC has ginned up its own custom on-screen keyboard (the Hero has no flip-out jaw, thankfully) and its own calendar, which look and feel as good as anything birthed in Cupertino.
The camera, backed by an excellent 5MP sensor with autofocus and digital zoom, takes pictures that shame the iPhone's (3G or 3G S), even though zooming is confusingly operable by the rolly nav ball instead of any of the soft keys. And the rest of the phone's physical chassis is above and beyond what we've come to expect even from a good hardware maker like HTC: the glass screen is oliophobic, so fingerprints wipe off easily, and the backing is infused with Teflon so it doesn't stain or fade with contact from palm or purse. The screen is crisp and bright—moreso than the iPhone—and the body itself feels more compact than Apple's device, although they're virtually the same size. Even HTC's trademark "foot"—the bend at the bottom of the device—seems refined from its odd incarnation on the G1.
Maybe the best parts? Unlike the G1 or the new myTouch 3G, the Hero has a 3.5mm headphone jack at the top, and unlike the iPhone, it plays Flash animations out of the box.
HTC says the Hero will go on sale in the U.S. this fall in two colors, black and white, but no price or carrier has been disclosed.