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  • Android Skin Review: HTC Sense 5.0

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    In the second of a new series on Android.Appstorm, I look in turn at each of the Android manufacturers and the changes they make to Android’s start up, interface and basic functionality. In each case, does the end result justify the huge investment in programming time and the resulting delays for end users in seeing each new version and update for the Android OS?

    HTC’s Sense interface has received much criticism over the years, principally because it presented a face to Android that was just a little too different to stock. This was rarely an issue for new users, many of whom grew up with Sense, but switching from a Samsung or Motorola (or Nexus) device would typically involve a lot of head scratching and set-up time. Sense 5.0, here on the HTC One, is actually something of a rewrite — so forget everything you ever knew about Sense, this is more streamlined and refined. And, indeed, arguably close enough to stock Android that few may want to spend time hacking it around.

    Up front and central is the new BlinkFeed homescreen, of which more later. Integrating social feeds into Sense has always been something HTC has been keen on, and the company has knocked it out of the park here.


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    Start up Sequence

    Each manufacturer has come a long way in terms of guiding new users through a start up sequence that gets them a long way towards being productive, and HTC is no exception. Anyone remember the day when you were basically screwed if your data SIM wasn’t recognised — in terms of settings — immediately and you had to enlist the help of a friendly geek or twist and turn somewhat in order to get things set up on wi-fi?

    A basic language selection screen (gosh, does the HTC One firmware really contain all these tongues? — Very impressive!) and it’s immediately into the Connect to Wi-Fi pane, which is perfect. With fast connectivity in place, the rest should be a doddle.

    Language selection and Wi-fi selection, right up front.

    Language selection and Wi-fi selection, right up front.

    ‘Set up phone’ offers the chance to restore all your apps, settings and content from HTC Backup or even from the HTC Get Started system on the web. Recognising that this won’t apply to many users, HTC has also supplied an excellent all purpose import utility that will accept content from all other makes of phone and smartphone, all transferred using the magic of Wi-fi (for Android devices) or Bluetooth (for iOS, Symbian, Windows Phone and Blackberry devices). Having this as part of the start up sequence is much more friendly than expecting users to go and track down such a utility later on. Well done, HTC.

    Setting up the phone - two main options...

    Setting up the phone – two main options…

    ‘Set up from scratch’ gives more scope for completely new users and for geeks looking for a totally fresh installation. HTC does keep trying to push its desktop and web tools, including HTC Transfer — in fairness, these have the potential to make optimising BlinkFeed and the application loadout painless for brand new users, but anyone who knows what they’re doing (gentle Android.Appstorm readers, for example) will want to skip all this and go straight to the next screen, Accounts & Sync. Obviously, as a bare minimum, a Google account is required here, otherwise updates and installations won’t be possible.

    A wealth of transfer options from an older phone, including via ad-hoc Wi-fi if your phone is also Android-based

    A wealth of transfer options from an older phone, including via ad-hoc Wi-fi if your phone is also Android-based

    Each manufacturer seems to have done their own deal with a cloud storage provider — here it’s HTC and Dropbox, with a 25GB bump in your allowance for two years, all for signing in from a brand new, shiny HTC. Not bad, though I’m expecting something of a backlash in roughly a year’s time, when the first of these two-year deals expire and some people are suddenly locked out of being able to change files in a large chunk of their cloud storage. Expect a rush of ‘We’re so pleased with how things are going that we’ve decided to make everybody’s quotas permanent!’ press releases. You heard it here first….

    Setting up the first account on the device (left) and the chance for extra Dropbox space for two years (right)

    Setting up the first account on the device (left) and the chance for extra Dropbox space for two years (right)

    There follows something of a confusing dialog, offering to save copies of all photos and videos to Dropbox. Although the concept is easy to grasp, the majority of Android users will end up having auto-upload turned on as part of Google+, so why would they want the duplication of having to upload everything twice? A point which is made twenty-four times as valid, given the potential increase in photos captured if the user ventures into Zoe mode.

    As for videos, even over Wi-fi, isn’t it asking for trouble having any kind of auto-upload in place for these? At 1080p, we’re talking about dozens of Megabytes per minute of footage — enough that the upload process may unnecessarily drain the phone’s battery, strain your home’s Wi-Fi connection and start clogging up your Dropbox. The friendly ‘Turn on’ button on HTC’s intro screen here is, I contend, more than a little misleading in the context of this device and of Android.

    Turn on automatic uploading of media to Dropbox? Probably best not! Ditto the HTC permissions check-box...?

    Turn on automatic uploading of media to Dropbox? Probably best not! Ditto the HTC permissions check-box…?

    What’s this? Telling HTC what I’ve been up to? At least the ‘Help make HTC better’ check box is turned off by default. There are services online (Google Now is a good example) where sharing what you’re doing can improve your own future experience. This isn’t one of them though, it’s purely for HTC’s benefit and is best skipped!

    We’re into standard Android start up screens next, with the standard Google location permissions dialog and time and date set-up.

    At this point we’re around seven screens into the set up and I can imagine new users starting to get a bit weary. HTC Backup is offered, potentially backing up all user data to HTC’s servers. It’s a great idea but as the user data here includes applications, which might include multi-Gigabyte games, the option is again sensibly left off by default. Games aside though, I’d be tempted to turn this on, suspecting that it would do a better job of remembering everything than Android’s own back up routines.

    HTC Backup for apps and settings? Hmmm..... maybe. It can't do a worse job than Google's servers here? (left) - Right naming my Sense phone (right)

    HTC Backup for apps and settings? Hmmm….. maybe. It can’t do a worse job than Google’s servers here? (left) – Right naming my Sense phone (right)

    Finally the set-up process ends, by naming the phone — I’m not sure why HTC bothers with this. Presumably it’s to avoid confusion should either the user have more than one Android smartphone (likely, though the default here is just the first part of your email address) or there be more than one ‘HTC One’ in the house?

    BlinkFeed and Homescreens

    The hub for all your streamed information and updates, BlinkFeed is central to the HTC Sense 5.0 experience, with social applications and the default web browser launched as needed, should the graphical snippets and mini-stories presented, Flipboard-style, not be enough.

    Introducing BlinkFeed, and rather splendid it is too, with some of the default news sources

    Introducing BlinkFeed, and rather splendid it is too, with some of the default news sources

    Rather cleverly, on a virgin device, the three visible BlinkFeed panels link to set-up and help screens — HTC really have thought of everything. Tapping on ‘Get started’ offers a wealth of suggested news sources – one tick for each and the user is up and running. You won’t find any specialist news web sites listed though — everything’s strictly mainstream.

    Swiping left, reveals more about BlinkFeed — options for including Facebook and Twitter (via the official applications), plus Flickr and LinkedIn. Calendar entries, when applicable, will also show up in BlinkFeed.

    Linking up Facebook as a BlinkFeed err.... feed(!)

    Linking up Facebook as a BlinkFeed err…. feed(!)

    The Flipboard comparison is a good one in terms of both layout and scope, though I’d argue that BlinkFeed goes further in terms of what it integrates and how it looks — it’s prettier, faster and more usable. By default it’s your ‘home’ in Sense 5.0, always sits at the left of your homescreen array and can’t be removed. Although, once you’ve worked out that pinching in on the homescreens still gives something of a linear overview, clever users will also spot that by long-pressing on a homescreen thumbnail there’s the option to set that as ‘home’ instead. 99% of Sense 5.0 users won’t get that far though and BlinkFeed will be what they see a dozen times a day.

    And that’s not a bad thing. Every time I went back to BlinkFeed I found new and interesting content, beautifully presented. It’s the public face of Sense 5.0 and it’s gorgeous.

    Feed filters and the combined BlinkFeed/homescreen main menu

    Feed filters and the combined BlinkFeed/homescreen main menu

    Pulling down on the BlinkFeed vertical panorama brings up a pick list of filters, so you can (for example) just see news or social updates from a particular source. There’s also an Android 4 style menu, giving access to fine tuning your BlinkFeed ‘Topics and Services’ and to homescreen ‘Settings’.

    Settings (I love that BlinkFeed can be disabled on cellular data and restricted to Wi-Fi only) and personalisation menus.

    Settings (I love that BlinkFeed can be disabled on cellular data and restricted to Wi-Fi only) and personalisation menus.

    This latter finishes up with Personalize, which emphasises just how much HTC Sense has grown up. It largely comprises Wallpaper, Lockscreen style — including the tantalising No lock screen option, for ultra quick device access! — and Customise home screen, which, if you think about it, are most of the public face of HTC Sense just a few versions ago but now find themselves relegated to a setting within a setting. But that’s not a complaint, it just means that power users who really do want to fiddle have to dig a little deeper.

    Two of the half dozen Lockscreen themes - choices, choices! The option to have NO lockscreen is particularly intriguing

    Two of the half dozen Lockscreen themes – choices, choices! The option to have NO lockscreen is particularly intriguing

    Google Now is implemented in Sense 5.0 on the HTC One via a long press on the Home icon, with a double tap set to bring up the grid of (up to nine) recent applications. A lot was made, on the One’s release, of its use of just two Android controls rather than the traditional three (or even four), but the system works well enough here and the home button combinations work from anywhere in the interface.

    Google Now (long press of home) and the Recent Apps grid (double tap)

    Google Now (long press of home) and the Recent Apps grid (double tap)

    Widgets

    This wouldn’t be HTC Sense without a prominent clock and weather, would it? From the photo realism of earlier widgets, HTC has dialled this back to a more diagrammatic banner at the top of BlinkFeed, but it works well enough, with taps (left and right respectively) revealing a beautiful globe and world clock, plus an animated cloudscape indicative of the current weather. The latter is pretty but not that useful, but (thankfully) a swipe to the side then reveals hourly and daily forecasts, so all bases are covered.

    Animated photorealism, full-screen or (more usefully) an actual forecast (one swipe away)

    Animated photorealism, full-screen or (more usefully) an actual forecast (one swipe away)

    Just as Samsung did with TouchWiz, HTC have eschewed the stock Android way of adding app shortcuts and widgets to the homescreen. Google’s idea is that you go hunting for apps/widgets in the main galleries, and then think about where to put them. Whereas most real world users start with an empty homescreen and think “Hmm…, now what I can I put in here?” There’s no one right answer, though I think Samsung and HTC’s way of doing things will make sense to more people.

    Sense 5.0 is relatively light on added widgets, perhaps because of the giant that is BlinkFeed, above. A People widget provides a nice graphical gallery of favourite contacts — tapping through shows the usual contact methods. There are a host of 1×1 toggle widgets, for airplane mode, auto-rotate, Bluetooth, mobile data, and so on. Interestingly, the original (more colourful) Weather Clock from previous Sense versions is also included, should you feel the need to go ‘retro’.

    Browsing and selecting widgets for a homescreen (left); A typical Android drop-down notifications screen (right)

    Browsing and selecting widgets for a homescreen (left); A typical Android drop-down notifications screen (right)

    Notifications

    There’s little different to report here, with notifications swiped away sideways or multi-touch expanded (remember, Sense 5.0 is running on Jelly Bean now) and with a one-touch ‘dismiss all’ icon at the top, plus a direct shortcut to the Android Settings application. It’s all a bit bare bones compared to Samsung’s TouchWiz shortcuts carousel and other embellishments, but it’s clear and to the point.

    The permanent shortcut/toggle for HTC’s Power saver functions is a little offputting and can’t be disabled, sadly. I’m guessing that the company simply wanted to make all users aware of the facility at all times. And, with a sealed battery in most new HTC smartphones, being all too aware that saving power is crucial has got to be a good thing for most people.

    Power saver options and battery reports

    Power saver options and battery reports

    Applications

    Not actually part of HTC Sense, but part of HTC’s standard loadout these days, are 7digital, a licensed music store and Watch, HTC’s attempt at a music store. The latter is set to close throughout the second half of 2013 and, to be honest, neither application is needed by the user, given the presence of Google’s Play Music and Play Movies.

    Duplication is also a factor in the presence of Internet, HTC’s version of the stock Android browser and included in the dock by default, plus Chrome, Google’s next-gen browser which will surely push the old browser from device firmwares in the coming year.

    Polaris Office is present on most Sense 5.0 devices, in full editing form, which is great to see, along with a custom HTC PDF Viewer utility, which works well.

    One slightly confusing aspect of HTC’s application panes (which scroll vertically, as in days of Android old, rather than horizontally) is that applications which are already in the bottom-of-screen dock don’t show up in the main lists. Although this is logical, I’d rather the application list was definitive and not missing the four or so apps which have been marked as favourites in this way.

    Hints and Tweaks

    HTC does like to add its stamp to the core Android applications, tweaking the look and feel of People, Calendar, Gallery, and more, with some examples shown here, though there isn’t space to evaluate each against their stock counterparts here.

    One thing I loved was HTC’s hints system. When you access many application screens and dialogs for the first time, mock hand-drawn pointers and comments are overlaid, to show new users what to look for. The way the original layout is dimmed to bring the hints up in relief is rather beautiful and really very effective.

    Friendly hints pop-up to annotate the displays and guide new users for common actions

    Friendly hints pop-up to annotate the displays and guide new users for common actions

    Finally, there’s an explicit ‘Tips & Help’ application, with a gallery of tutorial videos to download (they’re not preloaded for obvious space reasons) and a wealth of textual ‘how to’s to browse through. Combined with the hints system, HTC have eliminated the need for a paper manual or guide — all you get in the box is a slip of paper showing how to insert your microSIM card.

    There are a huge number of Help topics and guides onboard a modern HTC Sense device

    There are a huge number of Help topics and guides onboard a modern HTC Sense device

    Wrap up

    Just as with Samsung’s most recent TouchWiz, I found that HTC’s Sense 5.0 has grown up, banishing the gimmicky ultra customisations of earlier versions to the corners of Settings and introducing elements that add real value. And again to my surprise, on balance, I find myself recommending the customised, skinned Android experience here over stock Android for new users. HTC has worked hard with BlinkFeed, with the extended set-up wizard, with the hints and help systems and with the choice of lockscreen schemes, to hold a new user’s hand every step of the way.

    Sense 5.0 isn’t perfect, and yes, it’s still galling that the Android experience on an HTC One differs so much from that on a Galaxy S4, but HTC has certainly done enough to keep most One owners happy and stop them contacting a knowledgeable friend and asking about new launchers or stock firmwares.