A few weeks back I took the plunge and placed a pre-order for a new Google Android based smartphone, HTC Hero. Mind you, it wasn’t an easy decision. Although I fall fatally in love with pretty much any new piece of gadgetry, my earlier encounters with HTC smartphones haven’t been exactly satisfying. In fact, I’d been burned pretty badly by HTC Diamond which turned out to be a rather expensive piece of crap. No, make that a complete piece of crap, barely worthy of stopping a door or weighing down a fishing line.

So, I naturally hesitated a bit when pondering on the possibility of forking over several hundred Euros for another HTC product. But then I read some encouraging articles about Google’s Android OS and never looked back. The phone arrived on Friday and I spent several hours getting to know it intimately (hur hur) that night. It was, in a word, a revelation. My trusty Nokia E71 feels like a clunky dinosaur and a downright embarrassment next to the Hero. I now understand why people have been so excited about the iPhone. Now, I’ve never used an iPhone – and with the Hero in my hands I probably never have to, either.

HTC Hero

Allow me to rattle off some main features really quickly. It’s got a 3.2 inch touch screen with 320×480 resolution, haptic feedback, internal GPS, HSPA/WCDMA support for up to 7.2 Mbps data download, Bluetooth 2.0 with EDR and A2DP, WiFi 802.11b/g, a 5.0 megapixel camera with auto focus, a proper 3.5 mm audio jack, 165 MB of RAM for applications and comes with a 2GB SD memory card.

Unfortunately you can’t install applications on the SD card — but that 165 MB goes a surprisingly long way, simply because the apps are quite small. At the moment, I’ve got 42 applications installed and there’s still 116 MB of memory left for more apps. The SD card is there as data storage for applications as well as for your music, photos and videos.

I purchased my phone at a UK webstore who shall remain nameless. As expected, the phone’s virtual keyboard did not have Scandinavian accented characters. I could get to them by holding down A and O, but it’s not the same thing. A quick Google search informed me some friendly Norwegian chap had created a Scandinavian keyboard for Android. This led to my first dip into the waters of Android Market.

It’s… well, it’s like the iPhone app store, I guess. Market offers hundreds of games and applications, most of them free. Actually, I don’t see any paid apps at all, but that’s because those haven’t been rolled out in Finland yet. Anyhoo, applications are sorted into several categories such as communication, entertainment, finance, lifestyle, multimedia etc. Downloading and installing them is extremely easy: you just tap the name of the app you’re interested in, read its description and, if you’re so inclined, tap the install button. The phone downloads and installs the app(s) in the background, even if you exit the Market.

Locating the Scandinavian keyboard was easy thanks to a Search function. A few seconds later I was using a virtual keyboard with Scandinavian accented characters in their correct places. Unfortunately the new keyboard has even narrower keys than the standard one, and those weren’t wide enough for my fat fingers. The virtual keyboard remains my biggest gripe with the Hero. Nokia E71 has a QWERTY hardware keyboard which spoiled me rotten. Typing on the E71 is very fast and there’s almost no chance of typos. Not so with the Hero. Having used the phone for three days I’m still making way too many errors; text messages typed and sent in less than 10 seconds on the E71 take 2-3 times longer on the Hero. I’ve read of better keyboards for Android but those seem to be paid apps and thus unavailable to me for the time being.

While we’re listing gripes, here’s another one: battery life. The phone comes with a 1350 mAh Li-ion battery which should have a standby time of up to 440 hours (says HTC). I’m not saying that’s impossible, but to achieve that I’m pretty sure you have to disable most of the phone’s features. Like, absolutely everything.

As I mentioned, the phone arrived last Friday. It’s now Sunday evening, and I’ve already ran the battery dry twice – and it’s at 16% right this very moment. There’s a good reason for all this and it’s called WiFi. You see, some of the apps I’ve installed wish to have constant access to the internet by default. Apps like Twitter, Facebook, Weather, Stocks, email and various others like nothing better than sucking bits off the internet constantly. And since I have several WiFi APs in my house, I let them. (Hah! Hero just beeped to announce the battery’s at 15% and recommends I attach it to a charger. Good timing!) To save battery, I’ve switched the WiFi off for the night. Regardless of that, I’m now charging the battery for the third time in three days. With the WiFi on, you can expect the battery to last for 10-12 hours while using the phone actively. You can extend battery life by telling apps to refresh less often or by setting them for manual refreshes only.

Hero scenes

That’s the biggest gripes done with. Let’s talk a bit about how bloody great this phone is. First, the UI. It looks gorgeous, it’s fast and responsive, and although it has a habit of stuttering briefly every now and then, I have to say I love it. Swiping your finger horizontally across the screen brings up more home screens, all of them completely open for user tinkering. You can very easily change the screen layout, delete app shortcuts, add new ones, change the wallpaper etc. You can do a lot of customization on this baby, that’s for certain. You can tweak the phone even further by buying a replacement Home (the UI, in other words) application, if the internet is to be believed. In fact, the phone comes with two different Homes: the default one is called HTC Sense, and if you keep the Home button pressed down for a few seconds, you can switch over to standard Android UI.

The touch screen supports more than one pressure points. This means you can zoom in and out by placing two fingers on the screen and doing a ‘pinch’ or a ‘separate’ move with them. You can also double tap to zoom in and out of a webpage quickly. Yeah, I’m aware this is nothing new to all you iPhone users out there, but do bear in mind I come from Nokia E71 with a Symbian OS.

I also like the trackball. It can really speed up navigation when used simultaneously with the touch screen. It also has a very nice, very hi-resolution granular feel to it under my thumb. You can also press it to select things, like clicking a mouse button. Aaaand it also lights up and blinks to notify you of incoming messages and other stuff.

But by far the nicest thing about the Hero has to be the Android Market. It offers such a wide variety of truly useful applications, and most of them are totally free! I’ve already expanded the phone’s feature set immensely by adding a bunch of apps. Sure, some of them run tiny ads at the bottom of the screen, but so far they’ve been very unintrusive. I’ve also bumped into a few ‘lite’ versions that have been stripped of some of the features available only in the full, paid version. That does irk a bit, but only because paid apps aren’t available in Finland yet. I can easily see myself paying a Euro or two for a useful app so how about rolling them out in Finland already, Google? I’m waiting, with money in hand.

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