HTC has decided to still go down the path of skinning Android, for better or worse, with the inclusion of HTC Sense 4.0 atop Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" starting with the HTC One Series devices. I've already reviewed the HTC One X, and while I mentioned how incredibly amazing the hardware is, the software leaves many things to be desired.
So without wasting any more time on an introduction, let's get right into the review of HTC's Sense 4.0 Android skin.
Devices with HTC Sense 4.0
While I took my impressions of HTC Sense 4.0 in this review directly from my experiences using the flagship HTC One X, there are also a few other devices that come loaded with HTC Sense 4.0. Most of the features listed in this review will be available with the devices listed below, and if anything is missing it will be listed in the respective device review.
- HTC One X
- HTC One XL
- HTC One S
- HTC One V
Also, I highly recommend checking out my Android 4.0 review before proceeding, so you know what the stock appearance is and some of the features that are included with the update.
Since the original Android handset with Sense appeared, the HTC Hero, HTC has taken many steps in the development of the skinned user interface. They've refined the feature set, removed unnecessary bloat and improved the overall smoothness of the software. One thing they haven't done though, is seriously refined the actual looks and design of the skin since the original release.
I think the problem is highlighted best when comparing Sense 1.0's progression to Sense 4.0 against Android 1.0 to Android 4.0.
Sense on the HTC Dream (left) has developed into Sense 4.0 on the One X
Android 1.0 on the HTC Dream (left) has developed into Android 4.0 on the Galaxy Nexus
The difference between Sense 1.0 and Sense 4.0 is definitely noticeable, but the difference between Android 1.0 an Android 4.0 is simply staggering. In the three and a half years that Google has been improving Android since the original release in October 2008, they have improved and changed so much that the list of things that stayed the same is practically non-existent. The end result, Android 4.0, is a stunning cultivation of modern design, hard edges and minimalism.
To be fair, Sense 1.0 came out just over six months after Android 1.0, and at the time it was a revolutionary skin that greatly improved not only the looks of stock Android, but also enhanced the features present. I owned both the original HTC Dream and the follow-up HTC Hero and I definitely preferred the looks of Sense that accompanied the Hero.
Now to the problem: while Google has updated the look of Android to the beautiful, futuristic 2012 design of Ice Cream Sandwich, I can't help but feel that many parts of Sense are still stuck in 2009. The color scheme used around the skin is more cartoon-like than sleek and modern, and the overwhelming presence of shiny gradients holds the UI back from looking amazing.
The design isn't horrible by any means, in fact without stock Ice Cream Sandwich to compare it to it would be really great, but whenever I take a glance at it I can't help but realize what it could have been.
The future of Android design doesn't lie with curves, gradients and cartoons as I'm seeing with Sense 4.0, it lies with sleek lines, hard edges and solid colors like I'm seeing with ICS. The latter is the current/next-generation of design while the former cannot be described as anything but last-generation. And I've gotta say, it's really disappointing from HTC who once made visually great skins for Android and Windows Mobile.
The problem is heightened when you go into an app that utilizes the Ice Cream Sandwich design guidelines. Temporarily, you leave HTC's world and enter Google's, noticing the clean looks with solid colors and no gradients; the beautiful design that should have made it to Sense in some way. It definitely looks strange coming from the world of Sense (of course, meaning it lacks design conformity and unity), but it seems like you have taken a step into the future whenever you use an app like Gmail or YouTube.
Then there's the strange occurrences of unskinned system elements, for example if you choose to add a Google account during the HTC-made set-up you will be sent to an ICS-styled set-up. Also the important Search app is unskinned, as is the instant voice input box, which leaves a great amount of inconsistency in the design and included elements of the OS. Then there's the ICS face unlock feature, which in the set-up inexplicably switches from Sense to ICS styling mid-way through, and the actual lockscreen implementation is horrible.
And then there's the issue with the enormous legacy menu button that appears in some apps because HTC chose to use capacitive hardware buttons, none of which is a menu button. I have nothing wrong with using capacitive buttons, and generally I like the now-standard three Android buttons, but surely there is a better solution for when a menu button is needed.
There are a couple of other things that annoy me about Sense 4.0 as well, but I'll save those rants for the sake of space and sanity.
I mentioned in my Android 4.0 review that the design of Android is now good enough that skins aren't needed to enhance the looks and keep it up to date with other OS offerings. My experience with Sense 4.0 simply reaffirms that in my mind, and I just wish that devices like the HTC One X were loaded with stock Android so I could enjoy the experience so much more.
Now while the above statement remains true, there are some design elements of Sense 4.0 that I really like. For one, and while it's not particularly important, I really like the collection of wallpapers that HTC has included.
Then there's the set of widgets that come with Sense: they really fit in well with the Sense design and some of them look really amazing, such as the standard clock/weather widget and the photos widget. All of them are smooth to use (on the One X at least) and can present a good deal of information without being a huge eyesore. It also offers some nice widgets that aren't available with the stock set from Google, which are also included.
Also I really like the improved app switcher that is activated at the press of the Recent Apps button (the right-hand one) on the face of the HTC One Series devices. Rather than getting an overlaid list of apps with small pictures and a rather cluttered menu, you get a 3D scrolling menu that has full-sized window snapshots and a fluid interface that reminds me vaguely of the Flip 3D window switcher on Microsoft Windows.
Now some applications included with Sense 4.0 are simply skinned versions of their stock Android 4.0 counterparts, or they are actually stock. I'm not going to put too much focus on these as they don't really add any new features to the mix, but I have listed them below.
Apps that are simply skinned or stock:
- Calculator (skinned)
- Messaging (skinned)
- Phone (skinned)
- Play Store
- Settings (skinned)
On to the other more interesting applications.
Homescreen, lockscreen and notifications
Just like the HTC Sense 3.0/3.6 I saw on the HTC Sensation, the lockscreen features the interesting ring-pull arrangement. Here you simply pull up the ring to unlock the device, and you can also drag one of four application icons into the ring to quickly open those apps, all of which are changeable in the settings menu. You'll also see the time and date featured towards the top of the area.
The lockscreen also can feature different information depending on the situation. If you so enable it, the lockscreen can show you the upcoming weather for your location in the morning, it can show a short snippet of incoming messages and it can also display the music you are playing. Simply dragging any of these large information panes into the ring will open the respective application just like with the app shortcuts.
If you set up lockscreen security, such as a PIN, password or even facial recognition, this will appear after you pull the ring up on the main lockscreen, adding another layer and of course time until you can fully access your device. It can make using these security options more tedious, which is why I generally choose not to enable them save for demonstrating the "coolness" of face unlock.
The homescreen area has seen a revamp, replacing the old curved launcher with a new dock that has spots for four pinned applications and the app drawer icon in the middle. You get a maximum of seven homescreens, each with a 4x4 grid of icons and no fixed search bar like with stock Android ICS. While at the homescreen, pressing home again or pinch-zooming out will show a preview of all seven homescreens, and strangely here the taskbar is semi-transparent while it is solid black in applications.
Widgets are added by long pressing the homescreen, which brings up a huge menu of every widget available (by default there are 26 pages of widgets). Luckily you can fine tune the selection by searching or using the drop down menu, and you can also add apps and shortcuts from the same menu. Most widgets are resizable like they are with stock Android, and by pressing and holding any existing widgets/apps/shortcuts you can drag them to the top to edit or delete them. By dragging icons on top of eachother you also create folders, like stock ICS.
Strangely there is no option from within the homescreen to change your wallpaper, instead this must be done from the Personalize section of the Settings application. From here, you can also choose different "scenes" to suit your mood and device usage, just like with previous versions of Sense.
The app drawer changes the up/down scrolling of previous Sense versions for left/right as with stock Android, and there are tabs for frequent applications and downloads, along with shortcuts to search apps and go to the Play Store. Overall the app drawer isn't particularly exciting, and doesn't add any new amazing features.
The notifications pane is essentially a skinned version of the stock Android 4.0 pane, allowing you to swipe to remove notifications and access it from the lockscreen. The quick settings icon is also there, and if you are playing music there will be a persistent option to pause the music and enable Beats audio.
Generally speaking the improvements to the basic features of Sense are welcome in Sense 4.0 and revert closer to a stock Android look, although unfortunately not all the way. The selection of widgets is particularly good as I mentioned earlier, and the lockscreen adds a decent amount of functionality and makes opening your favorite applications quick and easy.
The People app is similar to the stock Contacts application on vanilla Android ICS. You basically have a list of people, each with photos that when tapped brings up a skinned large contact card. Towards the bottom are the tabs for your contact groups and call history.
In the actual information pane for contacts you'll see the standard list of information featuring a large contact photo, although there is still no good way to get high quality photos of your contacts by default. If you choose to sync Facebook, Twitter or other social networks, you'll be able to see updates and photos through the respective tabs, which is a nice touch. There is also the Thread tab that displays recent messages, emails and calls, although if you use Gmail you won't be able to see your emails here.
I definitely appreciate the improved social networking features in the People app, but occasionally I had issues getting the latest statuses from Facebook synced to the Updates tab. Also, I was disappointed to see the lack of high-resolution images being pulled into the People app from HTC's Facebook integration.
Generally the calendar application is not particularly exciting, but HTC has managed to include a few handy features. The two I find most useful is having the weather for the next seven days embedded right into the daily calendar, and as I work for an international website the ability to include two time-zones into the calendar is very handy for work deadlines.
Other than that there is a tab dedicated to event invites, and also when creating an event you can choose an option that ensures the event does not clash with other events in your schedule. Features of the ICS calendar such as pinch-to-zoom have also been included in the Sense calendar, however the general look has been skinned.
HTC's Gallery apps have generally been pretty good, and the one included with HTC Sense 4.0 is no exception. In the main screen in the app you get easy access to all the albums included on your phone, and there is a handy button that takes you straight to the camera. From a simple drop-down menu you can also access your photos on numerous online services including Facebook, SkyDrive, Dropbox, Picasa and more.
When opening an album you get a grid of photos with some fairly unimpressive text links at the bottom to share photos and play a slideshow of images, among other things. When actually viewing the photos the pinch-to-zoom levels are not particularly amazing but it is incredibly smooth to use. There is also an edit option that opens HTC's-own simple photo editor rather than the stock Android one; the editor is good for basic enhancements but from memory the stock ICS editor actually has more features.
The Gallery app also plays videos, and it has some good features that expand over the stock offerings. For one, the large camera button on the right enables you to take an easy snapshot of the video you are watching, and secondly there is the option to use HTC audio enhancing which improves the volume of the sound; especially useful for quiet films. There is also an easy link to trim (aka edit) videos, but it seems this only works with those videos you have recorded on the device.
Music & FM Radio
Music is one of my favorite apps included with Sense 4.0, namely because it looks reasonably good and it packs some decent features. Right from the music home screen you can not only choose to play music from your device or recently played list, but you can also choose from a number of other services such as SoundHound, 7digital's music store and TuneIn Radio for internet radio streaming. Not only that, but it's possible to add other third-party apps to this section so you can quickly launch things like Pandora from the music app.
The music player itself is reasonably well set-out, with prominent controls and album art (with the option to update the art if you like). There is also the strange inclusion of a SoundHound button for music information: it doesn't do a text-based search for the music your playing, instead it does an audio search, which is of course completely useless if you are listening through headphones. Perhaps a better option here would have been to integrate SoundHound's information directly into the app.
The large homescreen widget for music is quite good, showing recently played tracks along with controls and again a SoundHound button. The music player also integrates with the lockscreen so you can see what you're playing and control the playback via a locked device.
HTC devices also generally include an FM Radio so you also get that application to compliment the media selection on your phone. There's really not much to say here other than when you plug headphones in, it seems to work reasonably well.
Obviously the browser is a hugely important app on a smartphone, so you would hope the HTC browser (actually named "Internet") does not take skinning too far. One thing I was initially disappointed with the browser was how the notification pane disappears after a webpage has loaded. While this does give you slightly more browsing screen real estate, I like to see the time and network connection while I'm browsing.
The interface is in some ways good and in some ways bad in the browser. The address bar is easy to use and the persistent back button is helpful, however the second bottom bar of text links to bookmarks and various things are somewhat hard to access and make appear. Sometimes these buttons would appear while scrolling, and other times they would not, so I really have no idea what actually triggers them appearing.
When you do actually manage to get them up you get quick access to your bookmarks, saved items and tabs. Saved items is essentially the same as the stock ICS feature of saving webpages for offline reading, but the HTC interface for viewing saved articles is improved by splitting the items into a reading list (for articles) and a viewing list (for videos).
Occasionally when browsing sites that the browser identifies as news websites you may also notice a Read button appear next to the address bar. Clicking this button in an article turns the cluttered web interface into an easy-to-read text entry that removes all the clutter, focusing on the news. It certainly works well when it does identify news, although it infrequently fails to recognize news sites; for example it didn't recognize Neowin as a news site for some strange reason.
Note that most of the added features are enhancements to the stock browser, so you still get the good performance that comes with the ICS browser.
Friend Stream is basically HTC's social network aggregation app that takes status updates from Facebook and Twitter (and a few other networks) and puts them all in the one place. It's mostly used for the home screen widgets and it has also been included in previous versions of Sense, so it's really nothing new.
The app is good for posting to all your networks at once, but generally I prefer to use separate apps (usually the official Facebook and Twitter apps) to browse the respective social networks.
Clock, Weather & Stocks
Like with previous versions of Sense, the Clock app comes with more features than just your regular time and alarms. Here you also get a stopwatch and timer (both effective) and an awesome world clock feature that shows you the time in different cities of your choosing not only in a list, but also on a 3D globe. The globe puts dots on your selected cities and shows the weather there along with the time, so it's a great visual representation of your favorite destinations.
The Weather app has also been in Sense before, and here it shows you a nice animation of the current weather as provided by AccuWeather, along with a forecast and the weather throughout the day. You can also add different cities here to show the weather around the world, and the service is also used to power the homescreen widget. AccuWeather is, ironically, not the most accurate weather service for Australia so a third-party app for your region might be more effective than HTC's app
Stocks is also included from past Sense versions, and it gives you a great visual representation of stocks thanks to Yahoo! Finance. I usually don't use this app, but it provides good basic stock functionality for those that do want to use it, and again it powers a widget.
Notes & Tasks
The Notes application included in Sense 4.0 reminds me a lot of the useful note-taking app included with the HTC Flyer I used mid-last year. It has since been improved, but core functionality remains similar. You can add text, images and sound to your notes and then sync them to the Evernote cloud for access at a later date. There is also a button that allows you to draw things for your notes, which can be useful if you need to put in formulas or things like that.
It's pretty good for an included application, but you can probably find a more feature-rich application on the Play Store so it's not really a killer feature. Neither is the Tasks app, which basically shows tasks from your cloud services (like Google Tasks) in a pleasant interface with a reasonable amount of features; again it probably does what most people want without being amazing
Locations & Car
Locations is HTC's app that tries to make a better offering than the stock Google Maps app. In some ways it succeeds because it does have some good features: you can view offline maps, set "footprints" (places you have been that you like), view trips and history along with see "premium directions". You might have guessed that premium directions means you have to pay, and you'd be right beyond the 30-day trial. After that I wouldn't see why you would go back; instead you could just use the free navigation included with Google Maps.
Also, I found the app to often be sluggish in loading maps when compared to Google Maps, making it even less appealing in comparison to Google's solid offering.
Locations is a companion app to Car, the latter of which is basically a HTC-skinned car mode when docked. It has large buttons to play music, call people and go to Locations, but it lacks the ability (as far as I can tell) to swap out the large icons for better selections. I would like to swap Locations for Maps but I can't seem to do that; not a huge deal, but some missing functionality.
Movie Editor & Watch
Compared to the Movie Studio app that is included with stock ICS, I have to say I'm disappointed in the Movie Editor included with Sense 4.0. While the stock app allows you to create a movie from just the video, photos and music on your device, the HTC offering only allows you to put your media into a "theme" (like "birthday" or "travel") and effectively turns it into a video-rendered slideshow. There is no included option to simply make a film from scratch.
However for what it does the Movie Editor works well, and it was reasonably quick to render (mostly due to the powerful One X I tested it on). I don't think that there is a huge market for making films on a smartphone, so a mediocre offering from HTC is not really a big deal.
I was also able to, for the first time, check out the Watch app in my location. It's basically a movie rental service that streams the latest films straight to your device for a price, and the interface is quite usable. Pricing is occasinally quite good too, such as this weekend you could have rented select action flicks including critically acclaimed Star Trek and Black Hawk Down for just $0.05. Regular pricing seems to be ~$1 cheaper than the pricing in the Google Play Store, at least in Australia.
The final application (of sorts) that I'd like to talk about is the keyboard. It takes the standard HTC rounded look and improves it slightly, while keeping it very usable. I found that it was one of the easiest-to-type default keyboards included in a custom skin, and the large keys (at least on the HTC One X) makes errors infrequent. Autocorrection is also very good, although the prediction doesn't come close to what SwiftKey offers.
The one major beef I have with the keyboard is the pointless row of directional arrow keys. Seriously, I have never used them and they are a complete waste of screen space that could be better purposed to show the text you are typing. With the row of arrow keys and predictions displayed, the keyboard takes up half the 1280 x 720 One X's display, which is frankly stupid and unnecessary.
A good mate of mine expressed perfectly what Sense 4.0 is: skinning for the sake of skinning. Using Sense 4.0 just leaves me with the impression that HTC skinned all the stock apps for the sake of being different rather than actually providing a quality product. Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich in its stock appearance is a quality, well presented operating system that has a fantastic, futuristic design. I can't say the same for Sense.
I'm sure that HTC could have inlcuded every single one of their amazing Sense features, such as the great music player, solid widgets, good Gallery and Calendar apps and social integration, without deviating too much from the Android style guidelines. It would have been taking Google's great design and tweaking it to make it better and more appealing for the consumer; alas they tried tweaking the old Sense design and it ended up feeling like a simple cut and polish of a 2009 product.
Don't get me wrong: the design is certainly one of the best skins out there, it improves greatly on previous versions of Sense and on its own it looks great; but then there's the Ice Cream Sandwich it stands alongside, tempting us with it's sweet goodness. And it's that reason why HTC hasn't succeeded with Sense 4.0.
It's simply not as good as stock Android.