Smartphones are computers that happen to be able to make phone calls, and that leads to some interesting possibilities. I've been trying out the new HTC Hero thanks to the lovely folk at 3MobileBuzz who sent me one to have a look at for a week. The Hero uses Google's open source operating system Android, which is based on Linux and is optimised for smaller devices. HTC mobiles are available on many of the mobile phone networks, and they are not alone in using the Android operating system on certain models, manufacturers such as Motorola have recently joined them. The Hero is 3's first Android device and the model I looked at also has a bundled Spotify subscription (worth £9.99 per month), it currently costs £97.86 upfront with a two year contract that will cost you £35 per month, so this is toward the premium end of their range. Quite a bit of cash to hand over, but what do you get for your money?
The Hero is a bit larger than your average "candybar" type mobile phone, sporting a touchscreen, the distinctive, but controversial "chin" (an end section at an angle to the rest of the phone) found on many Android devices and some helpful buttons that make using the device a bit easier. On the side is a volume control (that I initially thought was an SD card cover), on the front a shortcut key to take you straight to the phone function, a "home" button, a button that brings up a context sensitive menu, a hangup/power button, a "back" button and a search button (really useful when trying to find the answers in pub quizzes!). Also on the front is a mini trackball. I'm glad HTC put some buttons on it, it makes life easier. I'll never forget having to use Google to find out how to alter the volume on an iPod Touch, something that should have been very easy to work out. On the top of the unit is a headphone socket that will take the supplied headphone/microphone combination or even a standard pair of headphones with a 3.5mm plug. The Hero also has a micro SD card slot with a supplied 2GB card, GPS and an accelerometer. It also has a camera on the front.
I'm unsure about the "chin", apparently it can protect the screen if the phone is dropped, but is a bit strange, on the plus side it gives it gives it an unusual look, one that is reminiscent oflandline telephones, on the negative side it makes the phone seem bulkier than it needs to be (and according to my friend Amanda might lead to problems carrying it in clutch bags!). Interestingly, in the US a version of the Hero in a slightly different, chinless case is on sale. The device was very comfortable to operate though. The camera is not great, and the Hero lacks a flash which means that it might not be great for recording memories of being with your friends on a night out for example. It seems many smartphones don't have a flash with their camera, something I hope changes before this class of device goes mainstream. The poor performance of the camera in low light, as demonstrated so vividly by Adonismobile adds to the photographic disappointment.
When you power on the device you are in to the powerful Android environment. The "home" screen is in fact one of six virtual desktops, you can screen between them using the trackball and there is an indication on the screen of what desktop you are on. Linux users have had virtual desktops for years and will feel right at home here. Users of other platforms might not have experienced this feature, but once they get used to it they will like it. On these desktops you can have shortcuts to applications and also applets that can do a range of things like your Twitter updates, update you on the weather or the value of your stocks. Adding new applets and icons was really easy, just tap and hold and select what you want to add from the menu. A big win for the Android platform is that it is multitasking. You can keep these applets running, listen to music, "scrobble" it to last.fm and interact with Twitter all at once for example. Multitasking makes the device really entertaining and useful. If, like me, you use a variety of methods to keep in touch with people it is a great bonus as you can keep Twitter, Facebook and Email applications all running and device will notify you of updates. On the social side, the operating system supports keeping you signed on to Facebook, Twitter and Flickr so you do things like take a photo and upload it straight to Facebook.
The Hero comes with a number of applications already installed, including a decent web browser (on which I tried to load Google Wave, which didn't quite work but rendered in a mobile friendly way, so hopefully that capability will be available soon). You can use multitouch with the device so you can do things like zoom in and out on a web page by making a sort of pinching gesture with your fingers on the screen. It is also possible to drag a web page around the screen so if you are reading a page that doesn't quite fit on a mobile device you can scroll around it easily and quickly. A wide range of additional, and sometimes free, applications are available through the "Market". This operates a bit like the Ubuntu Software Centre and installing applications is easy. The only thing that might concern users is the warning messages that are displayed when you install an application. These are designed to show what access to the device's resources you are giving to the application, for example the application might need access to your photos. This is fine, and is best to make sure that people are aware of what the application is doing, but when I see these types of warnings I get concerned that there is often no context to explain what the messages actually mean.
There are some pretty impressive applications, one of which is Google Skymap (thanks to Stuart Brown for telling me about this) a great augmented reality application that provides information on what you can see in the night sky (if you are not familiar with the term "augmented reality" it is basically a posh way of saying that the application will overlay what you see through the camera with information on what you are seeing). I did not have much time to explore the applications on offer but it is exciting to think what such a powerful device and operating system must be capable of. The Android platform is open, there is nothing to stop you installing applications that are not in the Market, so there are no artificial barriers to innovation on this platform. There is also a Skype application available if you go to the default 3 home page on the Hero's browser.
One of my favourite pastimes is listening to music so I was particularly interested in the bundled Spotify service and the audio quality. As part of the contract 3 offer a Spotify premium subscription bundled with the phone (it is also possible to get it separately) . This means access to any track in the Spotify catalogue whenever you like without interruption from adverts. it is possible to stream music over a 3G or Wi-Fi connection (but not a GPRS connection), it is also possible to cache these tracks offline, a useful function for two reasons, firstly very handy for when you cannot get a signal and also it saves downloading tracks repeatedly which avoids using up the bundled Internet allowance. TheSpotify service generally works well and it is easy to find the music you want. The only problem I found was once when it refused to play the cached tracks because it wanted an unavailable connection. I don't know if it was trying to verify that the subscription was still active but it did mean I could not listen to the tracks. The audio quality on the device is really good, pretty loud with good bass, all I ask! You can also load music and video files onto the device as it has a built in media player. Last.fm is available on the Android platform too.
On a recent trip to London I noticed a poster claiming that it is quite common for people to be carrying around £3,000 worth of gadgets in their bags. Seems a bit of an exaggeration to me, but since we have established that the Hero could replace your phone, your MP3 player and digital camera (if only the built in camera was a little better), what other gadgets could it replace? One surprise was how easy it was to use it as a mobile broadband modem underUbuntu. All I had to do was to go to Menu -> Settings -> Wireless controls on the Hero, tick "mobile network sharing" and plug it in to my Ubuntu netbook with the supplied USB cable. After that Ubuntu recognised the connection and configured itself! Easy! So that is the mobile broadband dongle that can be left behind. You might even be able to leave yournetbook or laptop at home too. Browsing the web, keeping up with your email and social networks are all easy on the device and the powerful mulitasking operating system makes using the device for all sorts of purposes possible. Text entry on the device takes some getting used to though as fitting a full size qwerty keyboard on something that size is a bit of a squash so perhaps novel writing on the device is out. At some point you might even be able to leave yourSatNav at home too if the newly announced Google Maps Navigation makes it way to other Android devices from the Motorola Droid.
Modern mobile devices need to offer so much more than telephony though and the HTC Hero rises to this challenge in an impressive way. The Android operating system and the software supplied are very good, full of nice touches that make it a pleasure to use. The phone is a bit let down by the camera, but the rest of the hardware seems very good. I am convinced now that my next phone must be an Android phone, it is quite clearly the future. There is a learning curve involved in getting used to it, at the start of the week it was taking me a little while to find everything, but at the end I was finding my way around with few problems. I cannot say I was in a hurry to give it back at the end of the trial! However, if the nearly £1,000 cost of having the device over the lifetime of the contract is too much for you then good news might be on its way. Last week at the "3 Meet Up" (an event organised by 3MobileBuzz where bloggers get to meet staff from 3's head office and ask them questions) I asked about the future pricing for Android phones and was told that later on next year will see the introduction of cheaper devices. This could be the start of Android becoming a mass market mobile phone platform which would be a very exciting development.