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Ok, first of all, to anybody of a younger age reading this, the title of the review is a play on the popular Bonnie Tyler hit, "Holding out for a Hero". I do not advocate the practise of all night love-ins with any telecommunications devices.
Anyway, here we have the HTC Hero, the difficult third album to follow up the cult favourites, the Magic and the Touch. This phone is being touted as an iPhone killer, and many reviews will be written with only this in mind. I, however, will try and judge the phone on its own merits before squaring it up to Apple's most recent effort. I bought this after several happy years with the Nokia N series phones, so this is my first experience with the highly praised Android operating system.
Most noticeable on the Hero is its distinctly superhero-esque "chin". Opinion is divided on this but I can say that not only do I happen to like the way it juts out at the bottom, it also makes it very easy to use in side-on camera mode.
You'll find 6 buttons on the front - a call key, home key, menu key, an end call/power key. Underneath these on the right is a search key which will open up Google, and finally a back key for cycling back through various menus. In the middle you will find a small tracker ball which can be used for navigation should you not like using touch screen. The tracker ball also glows white when you get emails or texts, which I found rather nifty.
The phone is available in brown, white or matte black, which is what I have. I wholly support matte phones rather than lashings of polish and chrome, since markable surfaces make a phone look old very quickly, and this can kill resale value. The touchscreen has a coating to prevent it getting scratched or dirty and after a month of having mine, I can say it works a treat. Yes, it gets fingerprint-y but a glasses cleaning cloth cleans it up instantly.
In other news, the camera is on the back and in the middle with no slide cover. The USB/charger socket is at the bottom on the chin, and there is a 3.5mm headphone jack on top. The charger is rather handy - the wall plug has a USB port in the back, so the USB cable just plugs into the back when you want to charge it, meaning just the one socket is needed on the phone.
The one criticism I would have about the appearance is the volume rocker on the left. The fact it is on the left and also very large means when the phone is being used horizontally, it is far too easy to catch the rocker and mess with the volume.
This is my first time using the Android system, and I have to say I am hugely impressed. It takes a little getting used to but within a couple of hours of use you will be whizzing through all the features without a second thought.
You actually get seven home screens, and you can completely customise each one. You slide the screens left and right for each one, depending on what you need. To give an example, on mine, I have the clock and shortcuts to 8 of my most used apps (depending on the size of the clock you pick, you can have up to 15 shortcuts on screen - 20 without the clock). Sliding to the left I have my Hotmail inbox, to the right I have my text messages. To the right of that I have a weather app which updates in real time, and finally a list of bookmarks to my favourite websites. I still have two screens yet to fill - that's how much space you get to customise.
The menu button is context sensitive and will bring up options relating to whatever you're currently doing, and there is a touchscreen button to access your apps menu. To lock it, you simply quick press the end call button. To unlock it, press the key again and slide your finger down the phone. You can even security protect it by drawing a pattern linking a grid of 9 dots, which the phone then remembers and you have to repeat to unlock it. Ok, it's quite involved but if you live in London or the like, it could be a very handy feature.
The touchscreen is incredibly responsive and completely fluid - exactly like the iPhone. The keyboards are also inspired, acting very supportive of ham fisted buffoons such as myself. If you mis-spell anything, it usually works out what you meant by looking at the keys near the ones you've accidentally pressed. Of course, like all phones you have to teach it all your favourite swearwords, but this is the most user friendly touchscreen interface I have ever used. I can't fault it in any way.
Now this is a tricky one. The glory of this phone is there is very little about it you can't change. I have some incredibly good apps on mine, but they are almost all removeable or can be stored on your laptop or PC if you were looking to save space. I'll start with what you get as standard and then mention a few good apps I have found.
As standard, the phone will link up to your GMail account if you have one. I highly recommend GMail anyway, but if you get one of these phones I can't recommend it highly enough. Once this is done, you can get one touch access to your email, instant alerts to new emails, and a completely personalised Google service, including the ability to make shout outs via google maps, should you want any of your friends to see where you are (they need your permission to see where you are on Google maps, don't worry).
The 5 megapixel camera is...passable, I suppose. In comparison to the iPhone, it's vastly superior, but it's nowhere near good enough to replace a purpose built camera (it has no flash, for example). If you're after a good camera phone, you should probably be looking at the Sony Ericsson Satio. The video camera is very poor, recording at just 15fps but again, this phone has never been marketed as a high end camera phone. Having said that, the camera does perform admirably in good light, and there are a host of apps you can use for photo editing.
Other programs of note which come as standard are the weather app, which uses the GPS to work out where you are and update the eather accordingly (and with freakish accuracy in my experience). GPS and wifi can be turned on an off with a switch on the main screen, which is fantastically simple. Aside from this, the phone does all you would expect any modern phone to do - it has Bluetooth, mp3 playback, vibration and voice command (which I've yet to use, since if you can use the phone with your hands, you should. You look like an idiot telling your phone what to do).
The phone has expandable memory of up to 16GB by micro SD card. I'm honestly not sure what the internal memory is as I can't seem to find any information on it, but I think it's around 2GB.
Sound quality is very clear, and video playback is excellent, so long as you convert the videos you want to H.264 format first (if you download Videora for free and tell it to convert videos for iPhone use, this works fine). The phone also has ready built access to YouTube. Streaming is fast but not the greatest quality in the world. However, watching videos is a risk since the battery life isn't fantastic. I won't say woeful, since I know of at least two phones which are far worse (Samsung innov8 and the iPhone 3G), but if you use this phone throughout the day for even the basics, it will run the battery down by about half.
You will find on your phone a link to the Android Market, and it's this little button that makes the magic happen. Around 80% of all the apps currently available for the Hero are completely free. Aybody with programming knowhow can put their apps on the Android market, and while a few can seem a little odd and pointless (making your phone sound like an electric razor), most are amazingly clever. This is the first phone I have had which has changed the way I actually perform day to day tasks. There is an app which will scan barcodes and then tell you where you can get that product cheaper. There is one which will use GPS to show you where the cheapest petrol in your area is. There are speaking translators you can download, thousands of themes and wallpapers, programs to run office documents...the list is endless. Even the ones you pay for aren't hugely expensive (£5 the most expensive I've found so far, and that was an app which allows you to photograph documents and save them as .pdf files, effectively turning your phone into a scanner). I could talk about the apps all day long, but if I had to recommend a top 5, they would be:
Shazam: It's been around a while and you can get it on most phones, but this is the software that listens to songs and tells you the name of them. An absolute godsend in the pub when you hear something new and catchy.
Locale: This is genius. It uses the phone's GPS to work out where you are, and you can have the phone perform tasks based on location. As an example, I opened locale, located my office, and set it so that whenever I walk into my office, the phone automatically switches to silent. It can also flag up memos based on location, run programs - whatever you need it to do.
Layar: Opening Layar will turn on your camera and activate the GPS. You simply type in what you're looking for (eg: Train Station), and what radius you want to search in and you get a real time, radar-type readout overlaying the camera display, which will turn as you turn, showing you everything in the alloted radius, how far away it is, and more information on said locations should you want it.
Fring: A universal IM service, meaning you can talk to all your Yahoo, Skype, MSN, Googletalk and AOL friends in one place. Also allows Skype calling, so you pay nothing for the calls.
Magic 8 Ball: Ok, not life changing, but makes good use of the phone's in built accelerometer. Shake it and get answers. This app has pretty much taken the place of our manager in the office when it comes to making decisions.
I could talk all day about the programs available, and I have just scratched the surface. The only fault I can find is that you can only effectively browse the market from your phone - the website you access with a computer only shows a fraction of what's available and isn't hugely user friendly. Also, a lot of the apps won't close just because you exit them, and after a while this can slow the phone down. As a bonus sixth app, I recommend any kind of appkiller program, which will list all currently running programs. You just check off the ones you want to close, press the close button and bingo bongo, you're done. This hugely improves battery life and keeps the phone's interface running lightning quick.
Oh, and the phone software has the world's easiest app installer on it. 90% of the time you will download programs direct to your phone, but on occasion I've had to use my laptop to find a particularly elusive app, but you simply plug in the phone, select "install app" from the HTC software menu and it does it.
WHAT ABOUT...Y'KNOW, PHONE STUFF. CAN IT DO THAT?
Yes, very well. Reception is always excellent, it has quad band and works abroad just fine and dandy. Texts send almost instantly too. The phone has incredibly high speed internet on it, not vastly slower than my laptop's broadband connection. The only slight annoyance is with the way the phone locks when you are talking. This is obviously done to stop your face from dialing the Kingdom of Bhutan while you're talking to granny, but in this one instance, you press the home key to reactivate the screen, should you need it for an automated service. Because you press the call end key at any other time to reactivate the screen, this can be frustrating if you end a call when you just want to see the screen.
Well, the phone is currently only available on T-Mobile and Orange. However, I'm on o2 and I unlocked it with next to no effort. The only downside to this approach is manually entering proxy settings for mobile internet, but these can be found fairly easily from the various phone network forums.
The price is the real treat here. This is a phone that is metioned in the same bracket as the iPhone 3GS, which retails at £440 in the shops (and not vastly less on ebay, thanks to it's status symbol image). So how much did I pay for this? £400? Nope. £300? Guess again.
Now I will admit that the iPhone may have the edge with speed of program access, but is that really worth paying an extra £200 for? Especially considering the Hero has a better camera, expandable memory and replaceable batteries? On top of this, most of the Hero apps are free, the phone is more durable, and if you are the kind of person who likes to be seen with their phone, you can actually rejoice in the fact that you aren't one of these smug types who thinks it's cool to go into an Apple store and part with £5,000 for a wall charger. And since it's not chromed up and open to scratching, it will always look new. This is basically an iPhone for nice, sensible people.
Having said this, I will say that in order to get everything out of this phone, you really do want a contract that enables permanent internet access. I know on o2 it's a £7.50 a month bolt on, but it is so very worth it. With any smartphone of this calibre, you can't even explore half its potential unless it's hooked up to the interwebs.
I am still very much in the honeymoon period with this phone one month on, and it shows no signs of stopping. Just before writing this review, I found a free photoshop app to edit my photos with, and this is indicative of how amazing this phone is. If you get bored with any aspect of it, just go to the Android market and get new stuff. It's almost living in your dream home. Yes, from time to time you may get bored with the surroundings but you just change the furniture and paint the walls and then everything is shiny and new, but still all inside that great house. I cannot physically recommend this phone strongly enough.