For most of my time in the Android community, Android meant software. It meant an Operating System (“OS”) based on flexibility, malleability, and power. I viewed all devices—owned and desired—from the software perspective. My first phone was a Droid Incredible, complete with Sense 1.0. Surely, you remember Sense 1.0—its home screen weather widget had flashy animations like wiper blades and blinding rays of sunshine depending. It was colorful, with reds, oranges, yellows, and greens thrown about like a Jackson Pollock acid trip.
Sense 1.0 was also a bloated, sluggish, and gaudy mess. My Incredible ran Sense 1.0 for barely a week before I discovered the wondrous rabbit hole that was CyanogenMod.
From that point forward, I was a “Nexus man.” I was a "hacker." I flashed roms and kernels more often than I checked the mail. Eventually, I traded the Incredible for a Verizon Galaxy Nexus (the “fake” Nexus for some), and I constantly fawned over its gorgeous Ice Cream Sandwich (“ICS”) and Jelly Bean (“JB”) operating system. I created my Nexus in my image, a pattern continuing with the Nexus 7.
But now I own an HTC One. I traded unlimited data on Verizon, arguably the most reliable network in the Union, for a mobile share plan on AT&T. That is how radically my Android focus changed from software to device quality. For those who owned a Galaxy Nexus, you have lived with several constants over the past year or so: poor build quality; poorer radio hardware and reception; grainy, blotchy, tinted, and burned-in AMOLED screens; and a carrier that abandoned the phone almost immediately after its launch. The One symbolized all that the Nexus was not, and I have embraced it wholeheartedly.
Significantly, I have embraced Sense 5. The purpose of this post is to go through common moments of despair and confusion that folks, who like me, take the plunge and trade in a Nexus device for Sense. Those moments, initially, will not be few and far between. It took me the better part of a week to get used to the application drawer. It took me days to make Blink Feed work to my needs and desires. I ripped off the Band-Aid so that you, The Android Channel user, can get a head start. So if you are reading this, sit back, grab your One, and stop worrying about the constant flurry of updated images in your feed or the “creative” placement of the settings/menu button. It is time to enjoy your device, which I might add, is the best Android device one could own this very minute.
Wait, where the hell are my soft keys?
The most alarming change from AOSP to Sense 5 will be the basic keys—back, home, recent applications, and settings/menu. Since ICS, the set up has been fairly straightforward: Back – Home – Recent Applications, with the settings/menu button popping up to the right of Recent Applications 90% of the time, application dependent.
With the One and Sense 5, your world has turned completely on its head.
The One places the keys in the traditional “bottom of the screen” position. However, unlike the Nexus devices, these keys are not on screen “soft” keys. “Back” is a capacitive key, and has largely the same functionality as it does with AOSP, although I have been finding new and creative ways to befuddle myself (like trying to get out of the application drawer).
In the middle, you have an HTC logo. Because Android is beautiful, this can be “mapped” (once unlocked/rooted) to have functionality. Past that, it is useless and simply serves to remind the user that they did not purchase an iPhone, GS4, or a heinous DROID-branded unit.
Finally, the “home” key, like the back key, is capacitive. It largely functions like the home soft key in AOSP, except a double tap will reveal your recent applications. Unlike AOSP, the One and Sense 5 does not have a dedicated button for this function, and the feature is simply “hidden” within the home button.
For those who fell in love with the “3 dot” settings/menu key, great news! The 3 dots have persisted. Bad news! They persist within an additional black bar placed immediately above the back/home keys, unfortunately taking up precious screen space. This is probably the only “feature” that I hate about the One and Sense 5, and it will take some time for you (and me) to get used to. Hopefully an update cleans this up, but I would not hold my breath.
Personally, I suggest you use your device a lot when you first receive it. You will hit that HTC logo more often than not, and the only way to get used to it is to build up some muscle memory and eye-hand coordination. After a week of ownership, I am just about there, and you will be too. Once you adjust, using your One will be much less frustrating and much more rewarding.
This is not your mother's Android home screen.
For AOSP users, the One’s default home screen will drive you insane. It has a new feature called Blink Feed, comprising of static blobs that create a stream of readily available and updatable information.
Think Windows Live Tiles, but more . . . Android-esque.
At first, I was hesitant to try Blink Feed. See, I was an early supporter of the Chameleon Launcher, which promised a very similar concept of constantly updating “windows” of information. Unfortunately, for pretty much anyone who preordered the beta for a whopping $10 (like me), Chameleon was cumbersome, slow, resource draining, and often crashed or needed manual tweaking to get the windows to function appropriately. Undaunted, I gave Chameleon a solid two week tryout on my Nexus 7 before enough was enough. Stupidly, I gave it another try on my Galaxy Nexus not a month or so ago, but alas, if a quad-core tablet could not handle Chameleon, neither could a phone with 2011 specifications.
So for me, the Chameleon experience scarred me. Thankfully, Blink Feed is a welcome step in the right direction. It updates upon a simple pull-down, and comes complete with a robust list of customizable topics, individual websites, and sources of information including Facebook, Twitter, and HTC Sync. It loads without lag, and the pictorial interface is rather beautiful when you casually scroll through it. Unfortunately, opening Facebook status updates is a cumbersome exercise because Blink Feed opens the actual Facebook application, an application horrifyingly bad at almost every possible measure.
Sitting below Blink Feed is your standard Android dock, complete with application drawer. At first, the drawer is a small, 3-column grid. Luckily, you can change that to a 4-column grid, change the order of icons, and move items into folders on or off the dock. Or, you can eliminate everything and go with a third-party launcher such as Nova, Apex, and Action.
I plan on using the stock Sense launcher for as long as I can stand it. Will I end up replacing it? Possibly. But it is Blink Feed—a nice feature to some and a gimmick to others—that keeps me from installing Nova Prime or Action. Give it a chance. If you like it and use it, awesome. If you hate it, it takes about 34 seconds to rid it from your phone.
Media, Media, Media.
Let us be honest: Nexus devices, with marginal exceptions of the Asus/Google Nexus 7 and the Samsung/Google Nexus 10, are terrible media devices. Sure, you can watch Netflix or listen to music with a Nexus device, so long as you have headphones and enjoy less than stunning clarity (Nexus 4 aside, maybe, hopefully). Nexus devices do many things well and many things marginally well. Media consumption falls in that latter category.
Of course, part of that criticism turns on what Nexus device you use. The Galaxy Nexus, upon debut in the fall of 2011, had a very nice AMOLED screen with oversaturated colors bursting out of the glass. It also had putrid low-light banding on gray-toned backgrounds, image burn in, pink/yellow/blue tinting, black blotching, and the status bar area eventually turned blue from the constant use of Holo/ICS blue. In sum, Samsung’s AMOLED technology in the Galaxy Nexus had its ups and its downs.
The Nexus 7 did not have such qualms with its LCD panel, but unfortunately, its resolution and overall image quality leaves a lot to be desired. Personally, I use my “grouper” daily, as it is perfect for bedside reading and browsing. But how is it with video playback? Not ideal, but that might be due to the abundance of HD panels currently proliferating mobile gadgetry. Moreover, its washed out black and dark colors do nothing to help its case. The Nexus 7’s speaker is also mediocre at best, although some cases (i.e. Portenzo’s book case) help “direct” the sound towards the user.
Safe to say, compared to a Nexus device, the One is a font of entertainment.
With the Galaxy Nexus, I avoided 3 activities like the plague: video playback, gaming, and anything requiring use of the hole Samsung passed off as a speaker.
Since I acquired the One, I have discovered a newfound obsession in finding 4K-resolution video. It is not that the One could handle such a native resolution, but seeing it in the One’s 1080p HD makes you behold just how far and glorious screen technology has come in 2 short years. Heck, I sometimes watch with the sound muted, gazing at the stunning clarity of the image and wondering how in the hell such a screen could fit in my pocket. It becomes even more bewildering when I look up and realize that my 47” LG LED/LCD TV has the same resolution.
(The still is from this amazing video.)
The sound, like the video, is remarkable. Front-facing speakers are not necessarily a new invention (the Nexus 10 has the same setup). Even so, most phone manufacturers have made a conscious decision to hide the speaker on the back of the device, almost begging the user to inadvertently muffle it with their hands. The One’s “BoomSound” setup presents audio up front and with unexpected clarity. “Beats” helps, I suppose, but that may cause distortion if some applications cannot properly utilize it (e.g. YouTube). Clarity aside, the One at even half volume is louder than any device in recent memory. For those that will use the One as an alarm clock, if you sleep through an alarm be rest assured, for you are in Elysium and you are already dead.
(And even then, the One will probably wake you up eventually.)
As for gaming, I have not really bothered. I have found serious gaming on a device smaller than a 7” tablet to be a fruitless endeavor. Some may trudge ahead unfazed by the size, but I have pudgy, calloused fingers, and precision is everything these days with virtual D-pads and the like. I have played solitaire on the One, and that was a pleasant experience, for what it is worth.