We’ve been served some delightful tasters in the form of T-Mobile’s G1 and the HTC Magic, but now it’s time for the Android banquet to really begin. Over a dozen new Google phones are expected before the end of the 2009, and the HTC Hero, the first to heavily skin Android with a new interface, is here to set an Apple-bothering example.

While its predecessors ran Google’s mobile OS in its barebones form, the Hero glosses it with HTC’s new ‘Sense’ UI, adds multi-touch support and brings a strong feature set that includes a 5MP camera. The result is the closest thing we’ve seen to an iPhone-beating experience.

A bit chinny

Not that the Hero could quite be called ‘iPhone beautiful’. It's technically a candybar phone, but the pronounced ‘Jimmy Hill’ chin at its base makes it feel thicker than necessary and difficult to slip into tight pockets.   

Still, the protrusion does have ergonomic advantages – for example, when using the trackball – and the Hero is otherwise very well built, with a Teflon-coated back panel that gives it a far more durable feel than the Magic or iPhone.

Seeing Sense  

Boot the Hero up – a process that frustratingly takes over a minute – and it’s immediately obvious how much work HTC has put into revamping Android’s look and feel.

You get seven homescreens (that’s four more than the Magic), which you can then fill up with your choice of both HTC and Android widgets, and also application shortcuts.

Some of these are basic (clocks, calendars), but many are ‘live’, pulling information through from the web to update automatically. The Nokia N97 offers similar widgets on its homescreen, but the Hero’s, most notably the excellent Twitter app, are by far the slickest and most useful we’ve used.

Silky smooth interface

They also make the iPhone’s app-based approach seem a little clunky and disjointed. Rather than constantly opening and closing apps, you simply flick between screens and widgets using your finger or the trackball. Impressively, even with lots of applications on the go, there's also little noticeable lag.

Screen estate can run out fast, but a handy ‘Scenes’ mode provides acres more by letting you batch groups of homescreens under different scenarios such as ‘work’ and ‘play’. Use these effectively, and you'll have plenty of room to play with.

Social networker

This is just one of the areas where HTC’s ‘Sense’ UI adds great value to Android. It’s far from revolutionary, being quite clearly based on the TouchFlo interface it’s replacing, but brings a slickness not seen outside the iPhone.

For example, all of your contacts’ texts, emails, FaceBook updates and Flickr streams are pulled together and listed in one place. It's a shame Twitter updates aren’t listed here too, although the impressive ‘Peep’ app does handily split tweets into ‘@ replies’ and ‘direct’ messages. Android's handy notification bar at the top of the homescreen also lets you know when a new tweet is in.

Excellent keyboard

The Hero is big on social networking, but is an excellent all-round messaging device. The QWERTY keyboard matches the best for responsiveness and auto-correction, and acknowledges each press with a useful haptic vibration. Our only slight quibble is that the keyboard can be a little slow at turning into landscape mode, although this may just be an issue with our pre-production model.

Unlike the Magic, the Hero has native support for Microsoft Exchange, so setting up work e-mails is easy. It doesn't sync with Outlook, though there is a roundabout way of sending your contacts to Gmail, then get getting them to sync with the phone.  

Flash web browser

Web browsing is another strength. Unlike the iPhone, it supports flash video, which understandably doesn't play as smoothly as on a laptop, but ensures very little of the web is off limits. Support for multi-touch 'pinch to zoom' gestures is also welcome, with our only quibble being that scrolling around web pages isn't quite iPhone-smooth (though again this may be pre-production cobwebs).

The GPS is quick to get a fix on your location, though you can’t use multi-touch in Google Maps. There was also strangely no Street View option on our sample, although Android has just received its first turn-by-turn software courtesy of CoPilot (from a very reasonable £26).

Mixed musical bag

Where the Hero does lag behind the iPhone, though, is in the music experience. HTC has upgraded the software since the Magic to include coverflow-style graphics, and on-the-go playlists are relatively easy to compile. There’s also, crucially, a 3.5mm headphone jack.

But with a puny 512MB internal storage, the microSD slot placed awkwardly under the back cover and no sign of an Android app for Amazon’s MP3 store, it’s still an area for improvement.

Basic camera

While no worse than the iPhone’s, the 5MP camera is also a slight disappointment.

It certainly doesn't match the Samsung i8910HD or Nokia N97 and, while it offers decent resolution, colours are washed out, low light performance is severely limited by the lack of a flash and there’s no macro mode.

Solid battery

But this seems like small fry when the Hero is such a joy to use. The context-sensitive search button makes it  a cinch to find contacts, texts and emails. Like on the N97, you can set your own photos as wallpaper. And there's a generous amount of pre-loaded software, including PDF viewer, QuickOffice (inlcuding editing capabiltities), and Footprints, HTC's slightly pointless but fun geotagging app.

With a battery life that's not class-leading but certainly adequate (we got a day and half from moderate use) all that remains is for Android's Marketplace to fill up its shelves with more compelling apps.

It's still only a tenth of the size of Apple's App store, but if the mooted augmented reality apps and shiny widgets begin to multiply the Hero will deservedly tempt plenty of people over to the robot side.

Available to pre-order from Cleverkit.com


Stuff says... 

HTC Hero review

The perfect phone for social butterflies and the first serious iPhone rival we’ve seen