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Review: HTC Sense 3.0 (HTC Sensation) – Better than vanilla Android?

HTC Sense was the reason why i switched from Windows Mobile to Android. I was looking for something new as Microsoft didn’t innovate with Windows Mobile for many years, but at the same time vanilla Android running on the T-Mobile G1 just wasn’t attractive enough for me. The user interface looked like it was in beta stage, and a lot of functionality was missing (i.e. full exchange server support, 3rd party apps). Then HTC came along and introduced the HTC Hero, which sported a unique hardware design and Android with the new HTC Sense skin. Actually ‘skin’ is the wrong word as HTC made some deep changes within Android and also provided a lot of additional widgets and apps. Suddenly Android looked much more professional and since i was already using many Google services which were perfectly supported by Android, the time was right for a change. But after a while i couldn’t bare waiting for the next Android (2.1) update which was postponed multiple times for the HTC Hero. At the same time Android evolved quite fast, and vanilla Android wasn’t looking as bad anymore. When HTC and Google presented the Nexus One i knew that this is the device i need to have in order to be always up to date with the latest Android features. I never switched back to a non-vanilla Android device after that. In the meantime there have been many new HTC flagships and the current one is called HTC Sensation sporting HTC Sense 3.0. Since it has been quite some time when i reviewed the last HTC Sense device, i was very interested to see if HTC Sense is still something the Android platform really needs.

HTC Sense 3.0 Homescreen

One area where HTC Sense was always better than vanilla Android is the homescreen. On Android 2.3.4 the homescreens are STILL laggy and slow, while everything is perfectly fluid on the HTC Sensation homescreen. HTC also added a cube 3D effect when switching through the pages, which i don’t really like. It reminds me of those old Windows Mobile today screen plugins which had many effects, but none of them had any usability benefit. The same is true for the 3D effects of HTC Sense 3.0. It’s just (mediocre) eye candy without any usability gain.

You got to respect HTCs eye for details though, as slowly switching the homescreens will show some nice 3D effects on widgets and app shortcuts.

All the old features including the possibility to define different homescreen setups (called ‘scenes’) for specific days are also back.

So the homescreen doesn’t provide a lot of new stuff other than some visual effects.

HTC Sense 3.0 Lockscreen

Samsungs first Bada device had an interesting feature, where you could drag notification icons and app icons to a specific place on the lockscreen in order to directly access them. HTC Sense 3.0 introduces a similar functionality by letting you drag apps icons to a ring which is placed at the bottom of the display. This way you’ll open the app without the need to unlock the device first. It’s also possible to just unlock the device by pulling the ring up.

Furthermore you can choose between a number of animated live information streams which will be shown on the lockscreen like weather, social media updates and stock data.

This makes the lockscreen much more functional than before, although there are already 3rd party apps available (Widget Locker) which provide even more customizability.

HTC Sense 3.0 Contacts

Vanilla Androids contacts app is as ugly as ever, despite some updates in the past. It’s just a plain list on black background. Windows Phone 7 proves that a contacts app can be attractive as well as effective, and HTC Sense 3.0 also provides a very polished approach.

The general layout is much easier on the eye than vanilla Android and i like the way you can access social media updates of your contacts via the different tabs in the detail view.

Not to forget that the list scrolls silky smooth, without any hiccups. Devices like the HTC Desire had some performance issues, but on the HTC Sensation you won’t notice anything like stutter.

HTC Sense 3.0 Calendar

You’ll find a few cosmetical changes to the calendar too, as the items on the calendar views have been redesigned. Weather data is also shown within the day view. This is another detail which is not new to HTC Sense 3.0, but still noteworthy.

When adding new meetings there is a preview option which will show your calendar in order to make sure that you have no conflicting items.

Other add-ons include the selection of the meeting location by accessing different sources like nearby places, footprints, current location or map searches. This is a great idea, and I can imagine that feature being very handy at times.

The month view has been left nearly unchanged, as the usual time bars are there and only the edges of the bars are not rounded anymore which is a nod to the general Gingerbread UI.

While there have been no big changes, the mentioned little calendar and meeting additions make sense and do provide additional value.

HTC Sense 3.0 Browser

I know that i’m repeating this on nearly every review but we have to give HTC credit for introducing text wrapping to mobile browsers. For me this is one of the most important features for mobile surfing. The Sense 3.0 browser on the HTC Sensation is among the best in the market. It’s fast, fluid and has a lot of features.

Bookmarks can now be tagged, which is great if you have a lot of favourite websites and want to organize them.

Other enhancements include an RSS feed icon on the left side of the URL bar which can be used to subscribe to a feed, and the possibility to sent pages to a printer.

I also like the fact that you can switch between desktop and mobile views easily by changing the setting in the browser options. On vanilla Android devices you have to use a debugging mode workaround which is cumbersome.

HTC Sense 3.0 Email Client

While the GMail app is identical for all Android smartphones, most manufacturers create their own email client. HTC Sense 3.0 also provides a client which has more functionality than the default Android client.

You can switch between regular and threaded views, and the search feature is something i miss on my Nexus One dearly. Finding company contacts is also possible by searching the exchange server phonebook.

This is also supported on vanilla Android devices, but HTC implemented the feature much better as it’s faster and i prefer the HTC UI in this case.

HTC Sense 3.0 Lookup

HTC Sense lookup is completely new, and basically lets you search using different services within one app.

After putting in the search term or marking text within the browser you can easily switch between different searches like Google and Wikipedia. The standalone app is not that interesting for me, but i love how HTC added the possibility for quick searches in other apps like the browser or HTC Footprints.

HTC Sense 3.0 Messages

Messages have been updates graphically and each message looks like a paper note now.

You can also create an attachment to a message directly on the conversation screen.

Attachments can be pictures, videos, audio, contacts, appointments, locations as well as app recommendations.

HTC Sense 3.0 News

I’m a heavy RSS user, because there is no better way to keep up with the fast living tech news and world affairs at the same time. HTC throws an RSS reader called HTC News to the mix. Using HTC News you can either add feeds manually or import them from your Google Reader account. There is no full 2-way sync with Google Reader though, so if you need full syncing then you should check out one of the many options on the Android market like NewsRobor the official Google Reader app.

HTC News is fast and has a nice layout, but there are some features missing. One of them is the possibility to download webpages. Many websites provide only short feeds with some teaser information about the article, so while HTC News has an offline mode (which means all feeds are stored locally for each sync, and can be read without internet access) it doesn’t have the feature to additionally download the full article webpage of a given feed. Another thing i would have liked to see is scheduled syncs, so you could set up specific times for automatic syncing.

HTC News is a very solid RSS app with a lot of options like labeling feeds, writing notes, offline mode and directly subscribing to a feed via browser. But heavy users might miss some features that the best RSS readers on the Android market already provide.

HTC Sense 3.0 Footprints/Trips/Nearby

If you like location based apps, you’ll be happy to see that HTC included multiple apps like Footprints, Trips and Nearby to cover your needs. Footprints was there from the start, and is basically an app which can be used to take screenshots and save the location of each picture with notes. All of your entries can be found in the maps view, so this is a nice feature if you want to add further informations and memories to your snapshots.

HTC Nearby is actually very similar to Google Places as it will show you different POIs around your current location. So if you are searching for restaurants or attractions this is the app to use. While this is a nice feature, i don’t really see the need of having a HTC version of location searches as Google already provides Google Places which probably has the much bigger database anyway.

The last of the bunch is called HTC Trips. Using HTC Trips you can plan future sightseeing tours and create a list of places you want to visit.

During the trip you can check the map for orientation or directions to any of the planned destinations. You can also access the paid premium navigation option, which will provide full turn by turn directions. This feature can be very interesting when abroad, and it makes the most sense if you also purchase the offline maps from HTC so you don’t have to rely on your wireless connection to download map data.

HTC Sense 3.0 My Shelf/ Reader

HTC Sense 3.0 introduces many media centric services, like an own eBook reader and eBook store. I didn’t have enough time to check out the store in detail, but the selection was good enough for the regular customer who doesn’t search for very rare stuff.

The eBook reader can show your books in a cover flow like fashion, or as a list. Viewing options include text size and color/background settings, overall quite similar to Amazons Kindle app.

There is a nice page flipping animation whenever you proceed to the next page. It’s just eye candy but at least provides a little bit of a real book feeling.

HTC Sense 3.0 Video Store

Besides books you’ll also find the new HTC Sense 3.0 video store, where you can rent movies and watch them on your smartphone. I’m not a big fan of watching movies on the go though, as i would rather read news articles or a book. Movies should be seen on large screens in my opinion.

Having said that, there are a lot of people who love to use their smartphones to watch some new episodes of a sitcom or a blockbuster movie every now and then. So HTC has an own movie rental store now, with prices which are roughly on the same level as the competition. We have to wait and see whether HTC will continuously work on expanding their movie library or if this is only a half hearted attempt at a market which is already quite crowded.

HTC Sense 3.0 Widgets

Widgets have always been one of the strong areas of HTC Sense, as they have been designed very professionally some offerings from the Android market. And HTC Sense 3.0 continues that tradition by adding widgets for every new app, as well as for some older ones. I like the new people’s widget especially, which will show a list of your favourite contacts with their picture and latest social media entry.

HTC Sense 3.0 offers 81 widgets overall, which is a huge selection and will cover the needs of most users out-of-the-box without having to purchase anything from the Android market. For more widget screenshots check out the HTC Sense gallery.

HTC Sense 3.0 Notification Drawer & Quick Settings

I love Androids notification system, because it’s simple, clean and very effective. Having all notification icons on the top trey and expanding them by pulling down the shader is ingenius. Even Apple admitted this by introducing their new ‘notification center’ which basically copies the whole concept that Android introduced.

HTC added a second tab to the notification drawer, where you can access quick settings like wifi, airplane mode, ring mode and more. When using my HTC Sensation testdevice i couldn’t shake the feeling that there was another difference to vanilla Android. After taking out my Nexus One it became clear to me that you have to pull down the shader much farther on the HTC Sensation in order to see the first notification entries.

While it was enough to pull the shader only a tiny bit on my Nexus One to see the first entry, HTC Sense requires you to pull down the shader at least until the half of the screen before the first list entries show up. This feels awkward and i don’t know why HTC changed the regular behaviour. Having a large 4.3 inch screen makes this even more annoying.

HTC Sense 3.0 Skins

Besides ‘scenes’ which represent different homescreen setups, HTC Sense 3.0 introduces ‘skins’. By changing the HTC Sense skin you can alter the general color scheme.

Text, backgrounds, menus and highlighting colors will be changed according to the current active skin. There are three skins preinstalled: default, blue sky and a dark theme. Additionally there are more skins available from HTC.

HTC Sense 3.0 Task Manager

Task manager have always been a very hot topic for Android, because there are people who can’t live without them and others which claim that Android doesn’t need a task manager at all. Usually the argument is that Android handles everything perfectly fine, and if the RAM should ever become critically low, the OS will automatically close some apps to free memory.

I was using a popular task manager for a long time and decided to try out Android without the help of a task manager. And i have to admit that i don’t miss it, the only real use case is to kill off an app which is stuck. But this is possible with regular Android tools, by searching for the app in the app list and force closing it. Interestingly HTC added a task manager which shows each app with their memory usage, as well as information about free memory. You can easily close an app by hitting the x button on the right side. While it’s faster to kill an app this way, i’m not sure if there is really a need for a separate HTC Task Manager as Android already provides this functionality out-of-the-box.

HTC Sense 3.0 Data Migration Tool

The more you use an HTC Sense device the more details emerge which prove that HTC has a good eye for all the small things that matter. A good example comes in the form of the data migration tool, which is basically a wizard aimed to help you getting the data from your old phone to the new smartphone.

This is especially handy for old phones without Android OS. While i couldn’t try this out, as i don’t have any feature phone lying around, it’s a very cool feature for anybody who just bought his first real smartphone and wonders how to migrate all his data like contacts to the new device.

HTC Sense 3.0 – The Verdict

I was curious to see if HTC Sense is still one of the best 3rd party user interfaces around, and whether it justifies touching vanilla Android and therefore keeping the customer from getting Android updates without delay. After using the HTC Sensation for a few weeks as main device i have to say that HTC Sense is still the best Android UI out there, even though techsavvy people will still prefer a pure Android experience. Regular customers won’t be concerned too much about Android updates, as long as the current device delivers all the needed features. And HTC Sense 3.0 is a very good package of great apps, professional design and good performance. Neither Samsung, nor any other manufacturer can keep up with HTC when it comes to providing additional value to the Android experience. I had some issues with HTC Sense as it got stuck a few times for no apparent reason, but at the same time you’ll get apps like the HTC Sense email client or the contacts app which are much better than the vanilla Android counterparts. One thing i don’t see as positive is the addition of all those htcsense.com services like contacts syncing. I just don’t see any good reason why an Android user, who is most probably using the Google cloud for his data anyway, should use HTCs services instead. And while it’s nice to see all those media services for ebooks and movies i don’t think that HTC can keep up with Google and Apple when it comes to building big media libraries. But even though not all HTC Sense 3.0 additions are essential, getting an HTC Sense device will satisfy the needs of most customers with its overall quality.