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A longterm Windows Mobile user switching to Android – Part 4: HTC Sense review

I have written a lot about the HTC Hero hardware in the past parts of my review series, now it’s time to go into the details of HTCs custom made User Interface for Android called HTC Sense. When HTC announced the HTC Hero and HTC Sense, it made a huge impact on anybody who was hesitating to get an Android device because the user interface on devices like the G1 just looked too half-baked. It seemed like google wasn’t willing to give the user interface the overhaul it needed, so other companies like HTC had to fullfill that part. And HTC Sense does deliver, you can see on first sight that HTC has a lot of experience in polishing an OS with a professional User Interface, since they are doing this for many years on the Windows Mobile front. They essentially helped Android mature with HTC Sense. Let’s take a quick peek at how HTC Sense is looking on the following screenshot.

HTC Sense Home Screen on HTC Hero

I think nobody can deny that the difference between the default Android homescreen and HTC Sense is very noticable, and i haven’t even mentioned the HTC Sense apps or widgets yet. HTC managed to give the Android UI a much more professional look and feel. My goal is to provide in-depth informations about each HTC Sense app with this part of my review series, so every reader can get a good impression of how many different possibilities HTC Sense really offers. Following this part i will add another chapter exclusively about the HTC Sense widgets next week.

The HTC Sense Homescreen

Let’s start with the homescreen: you have actually seven pages instead of the default three pages on Android. The different pages can be accessed by swiping to the left or to the right on the touchscreen. As you can see on the screenshot, there are some more differences between the HTC Sense homescreen and the default Android homescreen. HTC added a menu on the bottom of the page, which you can use to open the app list (this is also possible on pure Android devices), access the telephone menu and add new elements to the homescreen page.

HTC Sense Homescreen on HTC Hero

HTC also introduced the so called “scenes” which are different sets of homescreen configurations. You can basically configure many different homescreens with all seven pages, and save them. Depending on your demands, it’s possible to have different layouts for different situations. In example you could define a scene for working hours, and a completely different homescreen layout for the weekend. Check out the example beneath for an example of a HTC Sense scene.

HTC Sense scene

Now only having a different homescreen wouldn’t really be anything to make any fuss about, since there are already some homescreens alternatives available for rooted Android devices. Luckily HTC didn’t stop here, they overhauled MANY apps like contacts and added a bunch of very good widgets to the mix. I will start with the contacts app and then go through every single app and widget that HTC Sense offers.

The HTC Sense Contacts App

For me one of the most important apps on any mobile phone is the contacts app. While smartphones are like little computers, since they can be used for many different use cases, at the end of the day they are still mobile phones and therefore should provide sufficient PIM (Personal Information Management) possibilities. The HTC Sense contacts app does a great job in giving you all informations like messages, emails and social media updates of your contacts within the app. This idea is not new since HTC takes a few pages out of Palm Pres synergy by incorporating different information sources like Facebook and Flickr to your contacts, but nonetheless it works great. The UI is very clear and nicely done. I like it much more than the default Android app, or the default IPhone contacts app.

HTC Sense contacts app

There are many similarities between the Android HTC Sense and the TouchFLO 3D UI, which HTC developed for Windows Mobile devices. One of them is the “treadmill” bottom navigation, where the user can slide between different pages or views of the current application. The contacts app provides following tabs:

– People
– Favourites
– Groups
– Updates
– Call Log

People and favourites tabs are the basic views, which show all contacts or only the starred onces. The groups tab provides the option to assign contacts to self-defined groups like “work” or “family”, that way it is easily possible to access specific peoples contact information quickly and even send emails or messages to all group members at once. It’s really a nice option. On the updates tab you will see all recent social media updates of your contacts, if you have connected them to their facebook or flickr profiles. I think i don’t have to explain what a call log is, you can access the log as the last option on the main view.

This is how the general updates view for all contacts looks like.

HTC Sense contacts app facebook updates

The detail view of a contact shows all communication channels like calls, messages, emails and facebook updates very nicely. You can access those channels by touching the appropriate icon on the bottom of the screen.

HTC Sense contacts app details

Of course messages are shown in the dialog view.

HTC Sense messages app

The following screenshot shows the facebook updates of a contact.

htcsense_contacts_app_facebook

You can view the facebook picture galleries of your contacts too.

HTC Sense contacts app facebook album

HTC managed to develop one of the best contacts app i ever used, it has a great UI and is really fun and effective to use. There may be many contact apps out there, but the HTC Sense app is so good that you won’t even start searching for any contact app on the android market. Gone are the days where i had to resort to pcm contacts on Windows Mobile because the default app was just too bad.

The HTC Sense Calendar app

Ok, so the contacts app is a clear winner, let’s go ahead with the calendar app. The main calendar view shows the current month with flags on every day which has an event. And this is already my biggest gripe with the calendar: Why did HTC choose to change the much better default month view of Android, which shows timebars for each day so you can actually see how many events you have for any day, with a calendar layout reminescent of Windows Mobile default calendar? The problem here is, that i can see on which days i have an upcoming event, but i don’t see HOW MANY events are coming for each day. In order to get that information i have to access the detail view of each day, and that’s really not efficient at all. I want to open the month view to get an idea about how many meetings i have for the coming weeks, but the available month view doesn’t help at all.

HTC Sense calendar app month view

There is also a second view which shows a list of upcoming events. It’s a nice option, but i don’t like the fact that it will only show the events for one week. That’s just not enough for me.

HTC Sense calendar app agenda

Adding a new item is very easy, you just have to touch the plus button which will open the new item form. On this form you can specify all neccessary data like reminders, notes, attendees and so on. There is no setting i can think of which is missing here, so it should satisfiy any demand.

HTC Sense calendar app new item

As already mentioned earlier, my only gripe with the calendar app is the useless month view. If HTC fixes that so we will have the option to show time bars on the month view i will be completely happy. Until then i’m hoping that there is a 3rd party developer which will finally release a professional calendar app like Pocket Informant soon. This kind of professional PIM app is badly missing on the Android market right now.

The HTC Sense Browser

On Windows Mobile there are many browsers like Opera Mobile, Skyfire, Iris and NetFront available, and Opera Mobile is still the best option overall. It sports the best combination of efficiency and usability. HTC added their own flavour to the Android browser, and i was curious to see how well it compared to the best Windows Mobile browsers out there.

HTC Sense browser app

One thing which i noticed immediately is that the HTC Sense browser will always open the pages in zoomed-in view. I don’t really like that as default behaviour, since most of the time you will see a result like the screenshot above showing my blog. It’s not practical at all to see only the top left corner of a page, Opera Mobiles way of opening the page in zoomed-out view is much better in my opinion.

HTC Sense browser app zoom

The rendering quality is up to par with the best browsers on Windows Mobile and IPhone, and it does support multitouch now. Multitouch is a nice feature to zoom pages using two fingers, like Apple introduced on the IPhone. It’s not as fluid as on the IPhone, but i think this feature is overhyped either way. Yes, sometimes it’s nice to have the possibility to use multitouch to zoom, but in 99% of all cases i don’t see why using the double-press with one finger to zoom is any worse. To the contrary, i like the single finger zoom because you can actually work with it using only one hand, while the multi-zoom requires you to use both hands (one hand to hold the device and the other hand to make the two finger gesture).

HTC polished many areas of the browser like the bookmarks view, the windows view (which shows all currently open tabs) and so on. The bookmark management is better on Opera Mobile though, because you can setup folders for your bookmarks. On the HTC browser having many bookmarks will result in one very long list, which is not that comfortable to navigate. Regarding the main menu, the HTC browser offers all usual options like history, site informations and downloads.

HTC Sense browser app bookmarks thumbnails

Configuration options include:

– enabling, disabling picture download
– Popup blocker
– mobile view activation
– javascript activation
– text coding
– cookie options
– password cache
– form cache
– security warnings
– cache size
– plug ins
– google gears settings

Overall the browser is great, it can easily compete with Opera Mobile or Safari, and while it has some areas which could be enhanced (bookmarks, default zoom level) it’s still a very good browser.

The HTC Sense Musicplayer app

The music player isn’t anything special, but this doesn’t mean its bad. It gets it’s job done and provides all standard features musicplayer nowadays have. You get the HTC version of Apples coverflow, which is a little bit laggy.

HTC Sense music app

That’s not that important for me since i don’t use the coverflow view. Instead i prefer the artists or genre tabs of the musicplayer to quickly find what i’m looking for. Using the bottom slider you can access your music library sorted by artist, album, playlist, song title, genre and composer as shown on the following screenshot.

HTC Sense music app artists

The HTC Sense Twitter app “Peep”

Social media is all the hype right now, nearly all new smartphones from Windows Mobile to the recently announced Nokia N900 incorporate many social media features. Besides the Facebook and Flickr integration in the contacts app, HTC also added a standalone Twitter app called Peep. The app has a sleek UI and works quite well. Scrolling is very smooth, and all important Twitter functions like direct messages, replies and starred tweets are available. One thing i miss from my old Windows Mobile days with PockeTwit is the grouping feature. When following many people on Twitter you get very long update lists quickly, and a group function helps a lot to organize those people in seperate lifestreams.

There are some people complaining about the automatic updates which don’t always work, but i didn’t have that issue until now. I had some internet connection issues with my HTC Hero, which are more of a general problem and not exclusive to the Twitter App.

HTC Sense twitter app

The reply menu is accessed by tapping and holding on a tweet. You will get the option to reply, direct message, retweet, add to favourites or to show the profile of the Twitter user. As a frequent Twitter user i’m working with this app on a daily basis and i’m very happy with it. A grouping feature is missing, but other than that the app is really useful. There are some other Android Twitter apps in the market which may have more functions, but i’m sticking with Peep for the time being, because the widget is very nice too. But i’m going to save all widget related stuff for my next part of this review series, so you will see more info on that topic later.

The HTC Sense Footprints app

Footprints is what HTC calls the app which stores pictures and attaches them to gps position, and notes. Using this app you can basically have a kind of travel diary to store your memories.

HTC Sense footprint app

There are different categories available, so you can tag your new footprints to favourites, shopping, restaurants and more. The whole concept of footprints is a nice idea, and while i haven’t really used it yet, i can imagine that this can be interesting when on the road. I have to check whether GPS signal only is enough to use this app, because i don’t want to have to enable my 3G connection in other countries, since it will mean additional costs.

The HTC Sense Stock app

Well, the stock app looks nice and it seems to work. That’s about all i can say about the stock app, because i don’t have a clue about stocks and what informations are the most important on this topic. You can add and delete stocks from the list, and your device will fetch updates according to your settings.

HTC Sense stock app

The HTC Sense Camera app

Smartphone cameras have always been the weakpoint of the hardware. Nearly all devices i had were really cutting edge on many fronts, but the camera wasn’t ever anything special. And this is also the case for the HTC Hero cam. It sports 5 Megapixel with autofocus and can make some decent shots on bright days, but the shutter is really slow so you need a VERY steady hand to get good results. And don’t even try to make pictures in dark surroundings because you won’t recognize anything on the picture later. The cam app itself is ok, nothing special. After the recent ROM update you can choose focus area by tapping on the screen and holding the finger on the screen will make a picture. This is much better than the old way, where you would have to push the trackball which lead to many shaky shots.

HTC Sense camera app

Of course you can also switch to camcorder mode to record some movies, and the same restrictions apply to camcorder: as long as the surroundings are bright everything is fine, but as soon as it gets dark the results get ugly.

The HTC Sense Album app

The general style of all HTC Sense apps is just very polished and the picture viewer is no exception. You get a nice picture flow, which shows all pics side by side for comfortable and smooth scrolling. Touching a picture will zoom it in. There is also a list view available, and the option to upload the picture to social media sites like Facebook, or to send them via email. The picture viewer does also support multitouch for zooming.

HTC Sense pictures app default view

The HTC Sense Weather app

Windows Mobile users will recognize this app, as it’s very similar to the weather app on HTC TouchFLO 3D devices. Even the animations are excactly the same. The weather app will show you the current day and the next four days.

HTC Sense weather app

You can add multiple cities and scroll through the weather panel for all of them by swiping down or up.

The HTC Sense Clock

Using the clock app you can set up the timezone or multiple alarms. There is also a stopwatch available and a timer in order to set up timed notifications.

HTC Sense clock app

And that’s the last HTC Sense app for this review. There is actually one app missing which is the HTC Sense Mail app. I’m not using it currently and therefore can’t give any in-depth informations about it, but i will setup an email adress and add a section for that app in this review later.

The verdict

This has been the biggest review i have written for my blog up to this point, and it has a reason: HTC overhauled the Android experience with their HTC Sense UI big time, and brought it to the next level. For the first time casual users are attracted to an Android device and not only the early adopters or the gadget fans. You can see how many things HTC optimized by the sheer size of this article. And i haven’t even talked about the widgets yet. The widgets will be reviewed on the next part of my review series.

So what is the verdict of a former Windows Mobile user? The HTC Hero and HTC Sense are truly impressive, i can’t name any third party UI on Windows Mobile or Android which can compete with the style and sleekness of HTC Sense. Even HTC TouchFLO 3D has no chance against the full Homescreen experience with seven tabs sporting HTC Sense widgets and all the updated HTC Sense apps. While HTC Sense has been announced for Windows Mobile devices too, it’s not clear if we will get all functionalities in Windows Mobile devices or if this is just a renaming of HTC TouchFLO 3D. We will have to wait and see if HTC can pull off the same quality that they did on the HTC Hero. Either way in my opinion there is no competition for HTC when it comes to UI polishing, and even the new UI from Motorola called MotoBlur has no chance against HTC Sense, since it’s just not as clearly structured besides having a great style. This is the right way for Android to go, if it wants to be up to par with other players like Apple and Palms WebOS. And i’m sure that HTC Sense will only get better on each iteration like HTC TouchFLO did. For now HTC Sense deserves a near-perfect 4,5 stars rating.

Rating: ★★★★½