A trek to Shoreditch is generally not one of favourite things to do, but HTC's launch of the 'Hero' smartphone today and perhaps even more importantly its 'Sense' Android based UI were well worth it.
Running through the tech specs on the Hero first we find a 3.2in HVGA capacitive touchscreen display, 5MP autofocus camera, HSDPA, WiFi, aGPS, a digital compass, accelerometer, 3.5mm headphone jack and while there's just 512MB of onboard memory a microSD expansion slot means that won't be a problem. On the exterior a Teflon coated back feels good in hand and an anti-smudge screen doesn't eliminate all fingerprints but it certainly does a decent job minimising them.
So far so good, but where things get really interesting is on the software side.
For a start HTC has integrated multi-touch into the display so zooming in and out can be achieved using the same pinching gesture made famous by the iPhone. Then comes the company's coup de grace: it has taken all its Windows Mobile TouchFLO experience and built 'Sense', a beautiful and extremely thoughtful front end for Android.
Sense works remarkably well. As with Palm's WebOS and the Inq1, it seamlessly integrates with Facebook adding photos and status updates to profiles. Unlike these handsets however it then takes this to the next level by automatically sorting emails, Flickr photos, call history and even tweets to each contact. Clever stuff.
Much like WebOS and iPhone OS 3.0, HTC has also integrated a full handset search but thanks to a dedicated search button this box can be brought up at any time on any screen. Continuing to one-up the opposition the Hero also brings a web browser with Adobe Flash support, something that hadn't been expected until October with the release of Flash Player 10. Calls can be muted simply by turning the Hero over and yes, cut and paste is in there too.
So it sounds like a dream handset, but what are the caveats? In my brief time with the Hero I'd have to say not too many. The camera does lack a flash which is a shame and it is easy to cut back to the Android UI though that isn't nearly such a problem as it is with Windows Mobile. Most crucially however I did find the performance a little slow. This manifests itself primarily when browsing web pages but can also be found when switching between programmes. As you might expect HTC did stress these handsets were pre-release and did reassure us there was still some polishing to be done, but the Hero will have to go some to match the speed of the iPhone 3GS.
That said, the HTC Hero looks set to trump the visually similar Magic and while we still wait for a Palm Pre UK release date it becomes the most credible iPhone challenger to date. Orange and T-Mobile will be initial launch partners for the handset when it touches down in July. £40pm two year contracts will nab you the Hero for free on both networks but we await full tariff breakdowns. Let's hope they don't do an O2...
Update: T-Mobile is breaking from all logical marketing sense and rebranding the HTC Hero to the 'T-Mobile G1 Touch'. Given the original G1 is also a touchscreen handset this only looks set to confuse and frustrate potential customers.