The thing about cell phone reviews is that they're usually written after no more than a week or two of using a particular device. Anyone who's ever owned a cell phone (or any daily use gadget) knows that the longer you stay with a cellie the more you get to know its ins and outs, strengths and weaknesses, and particular quirks. As such, a "professional review" written after only a week or so of testing simply can't tell you what six months' worth of talking, texting, and tweeting on a handset can.
But you don't want to wait six months to read my review of Sprint's Hero, so here goes: After a whopping five days with my review unit (my second unit, actually - the first arrived the day before with an utterly destroyed display), I have no trouble proclaiming Hero the best Android phone to ever be released anywhere. I'll also tell you that having spent all of two hours playing with the Motorola CLIQ at a press event a few weeks back, that title could well be up for grabs whenever T-Mobile and Moto see fit to start sending CLIQ loaners out to us media types.
What makes Hero so great? Multitouch. Yeah, the Sense UI is cool. Yeah, the five megapixel camera is a nice upgrade from the 3MP shooter found on the G1s and myTouch 3Gs of the world. Yeah, we finally have an Android phone with a standard headphone jack. But it's really the multitouch display that makes Hero heroic.
Okay, HTC's customized virtual QWERTY board helps, too.
Before I go any further, a few nuts and bolts: Call quality was very good in my testing in the East Bay near San Francisco, CA. Signal strength was generally strong, data transfers over EV-DO were speedy, and WiFI worked well. Battery life was fine but not great; I never ran the thing all the way down in a single day of heavy (but realistic) use, but I did get the low battery warning a few times. Now, then …
Most people who bother to own a smartphone are going to type on it. You'll type in Web URLs, you'll type out SMS and Email messages, and you'll type all sorts of other stuff, too. Typing on a touchscreen isn't, for me, as efficient as typing on a hard QWERTY board - hence my mention of the forthcoming CLIQ - but quality hardware and software can make virtual QWERTYs pretty darn usable. Love it or hate it, Apple's iPhone has a pretty nice soft QWERTY. What makes it so good? The multitouch display - it's responsive, accurate, and can handle rapid fire two-thumbed typing in landscape orientation.
HTC's Hero runs a close second to iPhone in the race for the best soft QWERTY ever. Hero's software is actually better than iPhone's, as the autocomplete/spellcheck system is more flexible and there's an easily customizable user dictionary, too. HTC also made good use of Android's "long press" command to give one-touch access to punctuation marks, numbers, and symbols from the QWERTY board. The keyboard works in both landscape and portrait modes, and optional haptic feedback provides a nice little buzz of vibration with each key press - so you'll know you actually pressed a key.
The only multitouch-enabled Android phone currently on the U.S. market, Hero has a leg up on T-Mobile's G1 and myTouch 3G when it comes to typing. Two-thumbed typing on a single-touch display is an exercise in restraint, as the displays simply can't keep up with a facile user's thumbs (or, I suppose, fingers). Hero handled my thumbs with relative ease, and for that alone I'd recommend it over those other Android devices. Hero's display is smaller than iPhone's, and some may find landscape mode to yield a slightly cramped typing experience. But five minutes with Hero will make an iPhone user wonder just what Apple has against user dictionaries. Smartphones should be able to learn whatever words their owners want them to learn, without the need for silly workarounds.
I've written and videoed at length about Hero's many features, including the HTC-built "Sense UI," which takes the place of many of Android's core smartphone features. Sense's many hooks and widgets center around keeping you abreast of what your contacts are up to, whether it's a phone call, Email, Facebook update or new photo posted to Flickr. Android has fast built a reputation for embracing user customization via homescreen widgets, and HTC has upped the ante by building some very cool widgets of their own but also rewriting core apps like the "People" contacts manager to connect more of your Android experience directly to The Cloud (Google services, social networks, and so on).
Hero also trumps other Android phones with a few additions like Flash Lite support in the Web browser, more extensive MS Exchange support, and an HTC-made Mail app that I much prefer to the stock Android program.
Sprint added a few goodies of their own to Hero, including Sprint TV and widgets for NFL and NASCAR coverage. These are nice little bonuses, particularly if you're a football and/or racing fan. The NFL widget is actually quite well done, and that's coming from a diehard basketball fan. Sprint also redesigned Hero's exterior, much to the chagrin of some hardcore fans of the original phone's trademark chin. Me, I've got no problem with Sprint's makeover. The phone looks rounder where the original was angular, and a bit more metallic what with its gun metal grey backplate, chrome accent strip, and the brushed metal look of the front panel buttons. Yes, the buttons are actual buttons and not touch-sensitive controls - two of them are raised while the other four are hidden beneath that brushed metal overlay. Press down where you see a label and you'll feel an actual button clicking beneath the one-piece exterior panel.
Much has been made in the blogosphere about the original Hero's "lag" problem, and whether or not the Sprint version would suffer from a similar slowness. The answer is No and Yes. No, I'm not having issues with "lag" on Sprint's Hero (nor did I have them when I tried an original Hero that'd been updated with the latest firmware). But yes, I do run into some slowness from time to time in using the device. But that's relative.
Does using Hero get frustrating because of slowness? No, not really. Is Hero slower than G1 or myTouch 3G? Nope, not really. If I spend an hour Web surfing and Emailing on an iPhone 3GS, an hour performing those tasks on a Palm Pre, and then a third hour doing all again on Sprint's Hero, will I notice a speed difference between the devices? Yeah. Yeah, I will … In fact, I did.
Hero, iPhone 3GS, and Pre are all multitouch devices. Pinching, zooming, flicking and tapping work well on all three phones. But they work better on iPhone 3GS and Pre than they do on Hero. Zooming in and out of Web pages and photos, in particular, is a smoother experience on the Apple and Palm phones than it is on this HTC. It all works on Hero, don't get me wrong. It's just not quite as smooth and speedy.
That said, I think Hero is my new favorite phone offered by Sprint. Palm Pre's software is smoother and prettier than Hero's, but Hero's hardware is nicer. Hero feels solid in my hand where Pre is kind of plastic and wobbly, and I'd actually rather type on Hero's touchscreen than Pre's hard keyboard - Palm's buttons are just too tiny for my thumbs. Beyond that, Android's building up a head of steam with several thousand apps in the Market and a handful of new devices slated to ship before year's end, while Palm's WebOS is still ramping up to speed when it comes to apps, carriers, and devices both in the U.S. and globally. That's not to say WebOS doesn't have a bright future (I hope it does), but that you can do a bit more with an Android OS device in the near-term.
So Hero's the belle of Sprint's ball, at least for now. But what about that Motorola Android phone I mentioned at the outset? The big deal with Cliq is the slide-out QWERTY board and the fact that Motorola's "Blur" interface is a collection of widgets that can be turned off and on as you please. HTC's Sense is more than skin deep, and can't be turned off. So if Hero's slight sluggishness is an issue for you, you might want to wait to see how Cliq (and the rumored Motorola "Tao" for Verizon) perform once they start shipping.
Enough with the futurespeak. Hero is here, now, and it's the best thing Android's got going for it. Multitouch is great, Sense is cool, and the whole package is quite a nice one. Hard to beat Sprint's pricing for voice and data plans, too. Winner winner, chicken dinner (I haven't said that in awhile), nice job HTC and Sprint.