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Review: New HTC Sense features on HTC Desire

As a previous HTC Hero user i was waiting for an Android 2.1 update for a very long time. It seems like the european HTC Hero will finally see the update now, but i couldn’t wait and got my hands on a HTC Desire in order to find out what HTC had in store with their new HTC Sense version. This article will point out all new features of the HTC Desire’s HTC Sense version compared to the previous one on the HTC Hero. To get a general overview regarding HTC Sense check out my in-depth articles about HTC Sense and HTC Sense widgets.

HTC Sense Homescreen

There isn’t much new to be seen on the HTC Sense homescreen, besides having a better resolution on the HTC Desire it’s pretty much the same as on the HTC Hero. You get seven homescreens to populate with widgets, links, apps and folders. HTC inserted new high resolution icons for nearly all HTC Sense apps. One thing you will also definetly notice is the speed bump, because the HTC Desire comes with a 1GHz Snapdragon CPU and 576 MB of RAM. Running on Android 2.1 doesn’t hurt either. The whole experience is probably 30-40% faster than what you got on the HTC Hero. Switching between homescreens if perfectly fluid, in fact MUCH more fluid than on stock Android devices like the Nexus One.

HTC introduces a new feature called “Leap View” which will show you an overview of your homescreens so you can easily jump between pages. To access this view you have to either pinch-zoom on the screen or press the home button twice. At first glance i really liked this feature with it’s smooth zoom effect, but on my daily usage i actually never used it. Most of the times it seemed to be faster to just switch pages using the usual swipe method. Especially when you are not using all seven homepages, the need for a leap view is not that high.

Animated wallpapers are another hyped up feature on Android 2.1. I never understood how this was praised as one of the main attractions of the Nexus One, when Android had MUCH more important issues to take care of at that time. In example supporting exchange calendar sync (which finally has been introduced in Android 2.2). The HTC Desire supports animated wallpapers too, and you will find all wallpapers from the Nexus One as well as a new exclusive one for the HTC Desire. So if you think your battery lasts for too long, or you like the fact that animated wallpapers will make your homescreen slightly laggy, you could give it a try. For me this is no option as i want to have good performance on the homescreens, and i don’t want to use any battery draining feature that doesn’t have any kind of real benefit.

Luckily HTC didn’t change the app drawer to something like the Nexus One’s 3D drawer, because the kinetic scrolling is much better and faster without the 3D effect.

HTC Sense Calendar

On of my biggest gripes with HTC Sense was the fact that the calendar month view was pretty much useless for me, as it would’t show timebars to indicate how busy each day is. It’s good to see that HTC fixed this problem by adding time bars similar to the regular Android calendar app. HTC Sense also supports full exchange calendar sync, while stock Android devices didn’t have this feature until Android 2.2. On Android 2.1 you could only sync exchange server emails and contacts. I still can’t believe how Google missed to add this feature earlier, because without calendar sync Android just wasn’t interesting for business users.

Another nice change was implemented on the list view. You can now scroll down to the very last item on your calendar no matter how far in the future that item is, instead of only seeing the upcoming two weeks like on the HTC Hero.

A new widget is also available, which will show a scrollable list of your upcoming appointments.

HTC Sense Contacts

Besides the new app icons, you’ll also find all-new icons within the HTC Sense apps as you can see at the bottom of the HTC Sense contacts app on the next screenshot.

The fullscreen contacts widget is not really new, as it was already available on some older devices which had more recent Android 1.5 HTC Sense builds.

HTC Sense Friendstream

On the social media front HTC implemented a new friendstream app, which is a unified view of all your friends facebook, twitter and flickr updates. I’m not sure if this is the right approach though, because showing all updates in a single view will cause some streams to be less apparent. In example if you have hundreds of facebook friends but only some twitter connections which are equally or more important, the facebook updates will flood your friendstream app causing the twitter updates to pass by unnoticed. And there is no easy way to switch between different streams. I prefer having seperate apps and widgets for different streams, as they also serve different use cases (facebook for friends, and twitter for anything blog related). Another problem some people report is that the friendstream app seems to be quite a battery hog.

As with any other HTC Sense app, there is also a widget available to show your friends updates on the homecreen.

HTC Sense News

Reading RSS feeds is one of my main use cases on a smartphone. There is no better way to keep up-to-date with the news around the world than using a handful of RSS feeds from the best blogs and news sites out there. Especially having a couple of feeds stored on your smartphone for offline reading can provide your news fix at any location, without the need for a mobile data connection. HTC added an RSS reader app called HTC News on their latest HTC Sense iteration, and it looks quite nice. Opening the app will show you an overview of all the RSS feeds you have subscribed to. You can easily add new feeds by touching the “add” button which you can see at the top of the screen. The second entry says “all stories” and will open a list of all downloaded articles. You can also open article lists for each feed seperatly by touching the corresponding feed name.

The next screenshot shows the article list of engadgets RSS feed. You’ll find the news header, an Image as well as an excerpt for each article alongside a star icon which can be used to mark favourite articles. Scrolling within the article lists is very fluid and HTC managed again to create a very stylish and usable user interface. The app stays true to the general HTC Sense concept by giving you different navigation options at the bottom of the screen.

On the article detail view you have the options to jump to the next article, share the current article or delete it. On the top right corner you’ll find a star icon which you can touch to mark an article as favourite.

The widget is also pretty nice, as it provides a full scrollable list of your rss feeds. I think the news app is a good addition to the HTC Sense collection, but sadly it doesn’t support Google Reader sync. And if you compare it to the best RSS readers for Android, you’ll notice that there are more features missing, like the possibility to download full webpages if the RSS feed only provides a few teaser lines. Grouping RSS feeds is also not supported. Overall HTC News is a very good looking and professionally designed RSS reader app with basic functionality.

HTC Sense Radio

Also new to HTC Sense is the HTC Radio app. I didn’t really use it much, but it seems to work just fine without any surprising features. You can save a list of Radio stations, and access them over the menu button.

HTC Sense camera

Cameras with good picture quality where never a strong point of HTC devices, but i was quite surprised to see the HTC Desire cam performing quite well. Especially since HTC added a flash light, which helps producing some nice pictures in dim surroundings. But don’t expect anything which can compete with dedicated mid-priced digital cameras though. Some features like touch to focus are already known from the HTC Hero, but the user interface has been redesigned. You can now access all important options directly via the slide out menu.

The cam definetly performs better than on the previous Android flagship HTC Hero, as you don’t have that much of a lag when making a picture. On the HTC Hero it would take ages from the moment you pressed the button until the picture was taken. Therefore it was extremely hard to get a good picture. This is much better on the HTC Desire.

HTC Sense Clock

The clock app was also redesigned and provides a better looking user interface, as well as some new features like showing weather and battery information on the alarm clock view.

You can switch to night view, which will dim the screen but not turn it off.

Android 2.1 features

Besides the new HTC Sense apps and widgets you will of course also benefit from all Android 2.1 features like i.e. universal search, exchange server sync and multiple google accounts support. For details regarding those features, check out my in-depth Android 2.0 review. HTC also added a backup feature, which will store your data (i.e. text messages) and device configurations like the homescreen layout on your SD card. I’m not sure how good this feature works though, because there are no details about what exactly is stored. As far as i could see, apps configurations are not stored in the backup file, so you have to re-install and configure apps manually after wiping the device. A backup feature has officially been added to Android 2.2 (FroYo).

As discussed on my Android 2.0 review, one of the interesting features Google added is the battery consumption view. If you have a rogue app which eats up your battery, it’s very easy to identify it by checking this list of your apps, sorted by the level of battery consumption.

The verdict

I already mentioned in the beginning of this article that the HTC Desire performs very well, the homescreens are fluid and react perfectly to touch input. Switching between apps is done in an instant, scrolling through lists is also very fluid. Interestingly the scrolling in the messaging app is still laggy, and i don’t know the reason for this as EVERY other list including the contacts list doesn’t have any stutter issues. But other than that the performance jump compared to the HTC Hero is quite big. I’m curious to see how much faster it will be when the Android 2.2 (FroYo) update arrives. The Android update topic also brings up the biggest worry for me, as it took ages until HTC provided the Android 2.1 update for the HTC Hero. It’s just a lot of effort to update custom Android user interfaces like HTC Sense in order to get them working on a new Android version. Furthermore there are strategic decisions which keep companies from updating their devices too quickly, as they want to sell as much of their new flagship devices as possible prior to updating old models. So keep in mind that purchasing any device which has a custom built UI has the risk of getting Android updates very late or not at all.

HTC has made some nice tweaks and additions to HTC Sense although it feels more like a HTC Sense 1.5 update than a major new version, as there aren’t any big changes to be found. They simply concentrated on streamlining the details which isn’t a bad thing at all. Even without an complete overhaul HTC Sense is still the best Android custom UI you can currently get. No other 3rd party UI can keep up with the great style and efficiency of HTC Sense. I also love the fact that HTC identifies current Android weaknesses (like i.e. the missing exchange calendar sync on Android 2.1) and remedies them.

Add the great hardware specs and built quality of the HTC Desire to the high quality user interface HTC Sense and you have one of the very best Android devices out there.