First impressions of the HTC Hero (widgets, web browser, and social networking)

Yesterday I wrote a rant about a few of Android’s shortcomings but my faith in the Google-led OS has already been somewhat restored (not that it had waned completely). A few minutes after hitting publish, a helpful courier dropped off a review loan of the HTC Hero, courtesy of mobile carrier Orange. The Hero is the first Android-powered device to be heavily customized in terms of User Interface, with HTC’s Sense UI, something that we’re going to increasingly see handset makers do. Just last week, Motorola unveiled its own social networking-driven take on Android, and INQ, makers of the so-called ‘Facebook’ phone, have revealed plans to do the same.

But back to the Hero. A few notable improvements over the standard ‘out-of-the-box’ Android include…

See also: Review: HTC Magic (Google Ion, T-Mobile myTouch 3G)

Much better looking and more useful widgets

The widgets that HTC have developed have a familiar look to anyone who has ever used the company’s Touch Flo layer on its Windows Mobile devices, especially the weather and clock widgets. Graphically, they look really polished but there is also some genuinely useful functionality too. I particularly like the Twitter widget (and included app) that allows for updates to be viewed and published from one of the Hero’s revolving home screens. Other nice touches include quick toggle on-screen switches for WiFi and Bluetooth, and speed dial favorites that feature avatars pulled from Facebook, Gmail or your own locally stored contact photos.

An improved web browser with iPhone-esque pinch to zoom

I hadn’t picked up on this from the various reviews that I’ve read but the web browser in the HTC Hero has the same multi-touch gestures for zooming in and out of a page as the iPhone. An inverted pinch zooms in, while a pinching gesture zooms the page out. Best of all, a double tap on an area of text zooms right in and columns are re-flowed almost instantly to eliminate any horizontal scrolling (see video above). Again, just like the iPhone.

Social networking integration (Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Google)

One of the most fun aspects of the Hero is the level of integration with third-party web services. When you first set up the phone it not only asks you for your Google account credentials so that it can set-up the Gmail client, pull in contacts and sync with Google Calendar (presuming you use all of these Google services) but it will also, optionally, ask you for your Facebook, Twitter and Flickr account details.

Facebook friends are then added to your address book and their latest status updates from the social networking site, where available, are then displayed in each contact field. (The Hero attempts to converge contacts across more than one service, with mixed success.) The Twitter widget is also ready to go, and any photos taken can be uploaded to Facebook or Flickr. The result is that the Hero is no less a Google Phone as it is a Facebook Phone or Twitter Phone, and so on.

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last100 is edited by Steve O'Hear. Aside from founding last100, Steve is co-founder and CEO of Beepl and a freelance journalist who has written for numerous publications, including TechCrunch, The Guardian, ZDNet, ReadWriteWeb and Macworld, and also wrote and directed the Silicon Valley documentary, In Search of the Valley. See his full profile and disclosure of his industry affiliations.

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