Ginger Hero

Katrina Boemig did this piece of art!

My happy HTC Hero is now all gingerbread! It had a sweet life with a custom made Eclair (VillainRom), but now I needed to spice it up so that I would talk with our company’s calDAV (Android’s sync support beyond Google and ActiveDirectory is still embarrassing). Of course, I wanted to go for ginger with more SENSE but it was too hot from the oven for me. So I tried some of Elelinux bread. I’m on plain Android for the first time (UI wise) and that makes it feel even more new to me ( :

After a couple of hours of use, I miss the Sense dialer, however, and the Sense widgets for Facebook, Twitter, and the like. These social updates are still not integrated well enough… I got also used to 7 homescreens.¬†And it lacks the large screen widget for the calendar (I’d never thought that even that one came from Sense)!

I’m still not sure whether gingerbread “fits into” the older Hero. At the moment, it looks as if it is really taking the CPU to its limits most of the time… (particularly annoying: my homescreen icons disappear and take a couple of seconds before they show back up)

There is still hope for sensible Gingerbreads: Villain is baking, too. And, of course, honeycomb is on the watchlist.

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My Android phone: A Hero without (blue) Teeth

Exciting, exciting: the box half open

Exciting, exciting: the box half open

A couple of days ago I touched (ha!) my first Android phone. It’s more than just a test drive this time, I dropped my S60 Nokia for it. I “am” on a HTC Hero now. HTC is stepping out of its “just a OEM manufacturer” shadow once more with this phone (they was already building T-Mobile’s MDA and the O2 XDA).

Old and new, side by side

Old and new, side by side

How does it feel?

The unboxing gave me a solid first impression, from the packaging to the metal and rubber device casing. Also turning it on was of course a carefully designed pleasure but I also admit that I had all the information ready that you are asked for during your first steps (such as all your user accounts from social networks, Google login, etc.). For complete newbies that might be a bit overwhelming but I guess that this isn’t the target group anyway. Although it’s pretty large (esp. compared to my Nokia candybar) it’s also rather thin and therefore fits into pockets easily (the rubber makes it a little difficult to get it out of there again, however).

First doubts about everyday compatibility...

First doubts about everyday compatibility...

All you get in a box!

All you get in a box!

Two really good things

… in comparison to usual phones:

The Mail Widget (part of HTC’s own “Sense” UI) on one of the home screens provides you with your mail just a litteral fingerstroke away and even notifies you via the mailbox icon on the main screen. I had email on the Nokia, too, and it was really helpful to check for important messages in some difficult situations. But it was built like an annex to the regular SMS interface, took a long time to load and was just not so easy to use. Now, it is really an option e.g. to tidy up my inbox on a train ride home, including some smaller replies right away.

The second great thing, to little surprise, is the Android Market. The (Nokia) Symbian community is an active one, too, but you can’t access its fruits as easily (at the momet they are restarting anyways, with Symbian turned open source). And there are really surprising and playful apps, like the Metal Detector (by Kurt Radwanski) that makes unintended use of the built-in compass.

There are also a couple of nice aspects that are less impressive on their own but contributing to the overall experience, such as all the widgets that you can fill your many screens with, the Blackberry-like trackball, or a standardized mini USB connector for the power supply (still worth mentioning, unfortunately). A third point would be rooting the phone and discovering its Linux guts, but that’s more a fun “because you can” — oh wait. You also need it for tethering (i.e. phone as internet uplink for the laptop)!

There are downsides, too

(this section is relatively long because I was so surprised and disapointed that a phone of this class fails on what I would consider basic tasks):

Androids love to talk via wifi but they are almost silent on Bluetooth (you can attach Bluetooth headsets! wow!). Bluetooth, however, is an established method for exchanging data between small devices, like phone to PC and even more so phone to phone. In a recent study on young people and their phones done I did for my work, Bluetooth turned out to be the second important function of the phone (right after texting) because it is so easy to swap ringtones, pictures from the last party, vcards or anything. Any device has Bluetooth, anyone can use it. I had to install swiFTP (a plus for the Market but not for Android) to make my computer talk to my phone. I always made fun of the oh-so-avantgarde iPhone users who were still passing phone numbers via pen & paper. I would have never believed that a phone of today could make this misstake a second time.

The more I traveled for business reasons, the more I’ve learnt to appreciate my phone as a moving hotspot. 3G and Bluetooth drain down my battery like mad but my computer is online whereever I want (almost). The Android phone puts and end to this. No Bluetooth, no tethering. Now, most of the internet is on the Android phone already — true. But there are a couple of applications and stuff that I want to start from my computer (and note that you can’t attach files from your computer to emails on your phone without swiFTP or a cable). I read about Wireless Tether for Root that would still make it possible if I used some minor force to get root access. Which I did right away despite a couple of warnings that it also might brick the phone (thanks Jesterz and Dayzee). Having to digg so radically means that tethering wasn’t kind of forgotten but really made unavailable deep inside. WHY on Earth?

Then I have this nice Address Book on my Mac. Several hundered entries with birthdays and tags in the notes and so on. Android does everything for you as soon as you go to Google. But I don’t want to put all my addresses on Google (and I guess a couple of people in my Adress Book don’t want to be listed there, either). Google Contacts has no field for birthdays, too. So, how to sync? Android and iSync? No way (remember: Bluetooth doesn’t work). Android does sync via USB cable and HTC’s HTC Sync with Outlook (only), they say. I can barely remember such efforts and restrictions from my first Siemens phone 10 years ago. Can this be taken serious, additionally on the Mac and on-the-go?

  • Android and ActiveSync/Exchange? Granted, that’s built-in. But where would I find a trustworthy Exchange server (and for free because I think syncing my data with my devices should be nothing I pay for regularly).
  • I also tried vcardIO and Andook Lite (by Fezza) which would at least import address books from the SD card (i.e. no sync) but the applications failed before they completed their job (they are pretty beta and maybe my address book is too large). [update 2009-10-22] vcardIO had problems with the images included. Without it works very nice, except that birthday are stored as notes]
  • Android and SyncML? There is a Funambol client but it doesn’t seem to work with my o2 account. I never had to think about syncML with my Nokia, it just worked (everything was set up simply via configuration SMS!)

Overall

It’s still a great phone, the HTC Sense is a very welcome improvement over the regular Android interface and it’s all worth fighting with the downside issues. It’s completely inadequate for a phone built more or less with an open source attitude, however, to constrain the user so heavily in basic connectivity.

If there is someone out there with a non-paid, no cable, no Google solution for me, please let me know!

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