When HTC used Mobile World Congress to announce a pair of new Android phones, it also took the opportunity to unveil the all-new Sense user interface. The new Sense is rolling out first to the European Legend and Desire, and CEO Peter Chou said the Hero line of devices -- which should include the Sprint Hero and Droid Eris -- will see updates.
A leaked HTC Desire ROM is up and running on the Nexus One, which is a very close cousin. (Check out Redmond Pie's excellent installation instructions here.) Remember that this is an unofficial build, there are bugs, and that what we end up seeing officially in the United States may vary some. (At the very least, the clock wouldn't default to 24-hour time, we'd see temperature listed in Fahrenheit, and the date would be listed as month-day-year.) But we think this ROM gives us a pretty good feel for what's in store. If you haven't already, check out our video hands-on. Then join us after the break as we take a deeper look at the new version of HTC's Sense user interface.
The home screens
Like a stock Android home screen, the Sense home screen actually comprises a number of screens. In this case, it's seven, up from the three screens officially on the Motorola Droid and five screens on the Google Nexus One.
The telltale HTC clock, weather and date make up the center screen, along with a four-by-two icon area below. Four shortcuts -- Messages, Mail, Internet and Camera -- are on the screen by default at startup. Beneath them are the buttons to bring up the application list, phone dialer and "add to home," which adds widgets, programs, shortcuts or folders to the home screen. You also can tap and hold on the home screen to add content.
You flip through the home screens by moving your finger left and right on the screen. To the right of the central clock home screen are favorite contacts, the "News" RSS reader and a black screen on which to put whatever you want. Flip left from the central clock screen and you get a full-screen e-mail widget (strangely, it supports Exchange ActiveSync and POP3/IMAP protocols, but not gmail), "Friend Stream" (more on that in a bit) and the full-screen weather widget.
A little slider indicator just above the dialer button shows where you are in the order of home screens.
Leaping through the screens
Also new in Sense is the ability to "Leap" from one home screen to another. Pinch your fingers on any of the home screens and you zoom out to see all seven screens at once. From there, you can leap from one to another, without having to flip through all the rest.
You also can "Leap" by pressing the Home button while on the central clock screen. That's a testament to HTC's attention to detail. On a stock Android build, pressing the home button on the central home screen does absolutely nothing. HTC's making the most of the UI here.
Notifications work just as in any other Android build. Slide your finger down from the top of the screen at any time.
Actually, saying there are only seven home screens doesn't really do it justice here. As in the previous versions of Sense, there are a number of "Scenes" from which to choose, basically giving you multiple canvases on which to design whatever home screen (or home screens) fits your needs at any given time. That's a whole lot of real estate for widgets, contacts, clocks, shortcuts, calendars -- whatever you can think of. By default, the Scenes comprise HTC, Social, Work, Play, Travel and Clean Slate.
Probably the other biggest new feature in Sense is "Friend Stream." In a nutshell, it aggregates three of the largest social networking sites today -- Facebook, Twitter and Flickr -- and feeds them into your Android phone. Little icons in their profile pictures indicate whether you're looking at something from Facebook, Flickr or Twitter.
You're given the option to sign in to the services when you first set up your phone. (You also can add or delete an account at any time after that.) Sense then integrates the services into a stand-alone Friend Stream app (and a home screen widget), and you can get the waterfall of information under the app's "All updates" tab.
That may sound like a good idea at first, but it's going to quickly get out of hand if you have more than a half-dozen friends on Facebook, Flickr and Twitter. Fortunately, information is parsed out somewhat. You can turn off a service's updates without actually having to turn off the service.
You also can start whittling down your information stream with the Status tab. That sorts things out to just Facebook status updates, as well as Tweets. Again, if you're following a scant few people, it's a handy little thing. But most of us follow dozens and dozens (if not hundreds and hundreds) of people on Facebook and Twitter. Keeping up with the sheer volume of data in a single stream is next to impossible. And for that reason I'll likely still be using separate Twitter and Facebook clients. (Also note that Friend Stream and the Peep twitter client only support one Twitter account. That's another deal-breaker for me.)
By now we're all used to seeing our friends' Facebook default pictures used as contact photos. From the Friend Stream app, you get a feed of all your friends' photos, uploaded from Facebook and Twitter.
Friend Stream also integrates Facebook and Flickr photos into your phone's Photo application, making it a one-stop source to see what they've been shooting. There are separate tabs for photos on your camera, a list of all your Facebook friends (click on one to see their FB photos), and a tab for your Flickr friends.
This one's pretty self-explanatory. If one of your Facebook friends posts a link, you'll see it here. Not sure if it's better or worse that links in Twitter don't appear here. That's probably a crapshoot.
The browser brings Flash support
Yep, you read that right. We got a look at Flash 10.1 on the Nexus One at Mobile World Congress, and it wasn't all-the-way good, which we suppose makes it not half-bad. All we're saying is that this point we could take it or leave it. But since it's here, let's talk about it.
Adobe Flash Lite is up and running. (Again, see our video hands-on.) It works fine on smaller, less intricate objects. But while it loads larger objects such as games, it was noticeably laggy at times. Maybe that's the ROM port or an incomplete build, or maybe that's just how Flash is going to be. It's a little too early to tell just yet, but you guys go ahead and have yourselves a good ol' time in the comments.
Oh, by the way, pinch-to-zoom is on board. But that's old hat now, isn't it ...
Other software odds and ends
Friend Stream, Leap and Flash are really the biggest changes in the new version of Sense, though certainly there's more than enough eye candy to go around, too. And the app suite that HTC adds in is nothing to be sneezed at. Here's a rundown of what else you can find.
The clock features a main view, desktop view, alarm, stopwatch, time and world clock.
The calendar app has been refined a bit. You can pick and choose from any of your Google calendars to be displayed. Different HTC scenes (see above) also offer different calendar widgets out of the box. And there are always plenty to be downloaded from the Android Market, though they might not quite fit the design motif. Weather information is listed for the next four upcoming days.
HTC's photo geotagging app is still on board, though it's not one I've ever really cared for/about. But it's there if you want it.
I'm quickly becoming a fan of HTC's "News" RSS reader app. You can import and export OPML feeds, but it doesn't sync directly with Google reader. That's going to be an understandable deal-breaker for a lot of people.
Yep, it's still here, and it still works fine.
It's version 3.4 out of the box (at least in the Alpha 7 version of MoDaCo's Desire ROM), so you'll want to update to 4.0.
It's there for all your office-type needs.
HTC's own Twitter client's ready to go. Again, it only supports one Twitter account at a time.
It's worth another reminder that we're running an unofficial ROM from the HTC Desire on the Google Nexus One. While it's also an HTC-manufactured phone, the Nexus One was made for Google and the Google experience. The HTC Desire doesn't have the charging contacts at the bottom, and doesn't support the Google desktop charger. Notification lights are a little wonky. In other words, we're reviewing an unofficial ROM on a device for which it is not intended. But we believe it's complete enough to get a pretty good feel for what's officially coming.
All in all, this is a worthy upgrade to Sense. I'm not always a big fan of aggregating numerous social networks under a single roof, but HTC's Friend Stream does so gracefully, so long as you don't mind a slightly muddy stream if you follow a large number of people. That said, the photo integration is top-notch.
And Flash Lite in the browser is a good thing, if you're the type who lays awake at night wondering just when you're going to see Flash. Us? It's just not that big a deal. If you just HAVE to have Farmville on your phone, then waiting on Flash may be the least of your issues.
The bottom line is this is a nice evolution in Sense. And so with this we await with open arms the release of the HTC Legend and Desire, which will bring the new version of Sense to Europe, and we expect to eventually see new (and current) devices with it here in the States.