HTC today held dual events – one in London, UK and the other in New York, US. The dual events were one of the most publicized and anticipated by HTC fans and the technology community world over, and sure enough the company had a lot to dish out. Besides the launching of their next flagship smartphone the HTC One, the company also made a number of other announcements and launches, one of the most notable being the upgrade of the user interface on their smartphones from Sense 4 to the new and improved Sense 5.
As we say, hardware isn’t anything without software, the major upgrade of HTC sense means that users will have a whole new or improved experience in using their devices. HTC 5 arrives as Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is being rolled out to most HTC devices that had 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and users will be able to upgrade, in time, to enjoy the new user interface even on their current devices. In this posting, I will highlight some of the most notable changes, improvements or new introductions in the user interface.
a) Blink Feed
Graham Wheeler, the director of Commercialization at HTC once hinted of a ‘new imagination of the homepage’ technology to come to their HTC devices. This technology has come in form of Blink Feed, available on HTC Sense 5. This feature is designed to enable users to glance at a device and gather important information at a blink, hence the name Blink Feed. Over the years, HTC have put a lot of effort in providing a lot of information on a device home screen without making it too cramped, hence the introduction of newsfeed-type and social media widgets on Sense 4. There has been a big improvement on Sense 5 as the company changed from tiny widgets to a swipable tool that will pull up BlinkFeed when Swyped. This means that accessing social feeds, in excess of 1,500 news feeds and other information is easy and fast and does not demand that the user opens a browser screen or press through a widget and wait it to load.
Simply put, Blink Feed is a form of content aggregator that collects pre-selected information from multiple sources and sites such as Facebook, blogs, websites and over 1,500 sites. The resulting mosaic content enables the user to browse and select what to read, to share or publish.
Blink Feed is a new Homepage on HTC Sense 5 which can be turned off. If you try it and do not like, you can customize the Home screen to whatever you want – even the conventional Sense 4 scree type with widgets and shortcuts. However, if you are someone who wants a home screen that is customizable and offers a personal feel and look, something better than the HTC flip clock, then HTC Sense 5’s Blink Feed is the best choice.
b) Lean Interface
HTC Sense UI is geared towards a high performance, very responsive and simplistic screen. Over the years, HTC had come under a lot of criticism that their devices were ‘too heavy’, especially since the devices then were not as generous with RAM as current devices. Even with a powerful smartphone, having a too demanding user interface can be a battery drainer. HTC Sense 5 is a lean user interface, way leaner than Sense 4, and one of the first things a user will notice when comparing the two is that the new user interface has much less bloat applications and shortcuts and instead is a stripped interface with only the essential tools, widgets and applications.
This minimalist interface is not focused on widgets and there is no ubiquitous flip-clock that had grown to be HTC’s signature – instead a Blink Feed feature that focuses on providing useful information to the user. The interface is also more customizable than its predecessors – with a lot more functionalities including HTC Sense TV for an interactive TV guide. Smartphone-based remote control for TVs and Set-top boxes and a ton of other great tools that maximize the usability of the phone and particularly the interface.
c) Launcher and Apps Tray
If you have an HTC device with Sense 4 or have used one before then you will know just how awkward the arced launcher which has a non-deletable ‘Personalize’ button on it. For many users, the shape of the launcher was, or is, just a bore. Sense 5 addresses this issue by doing away with the launcher altogether and introducing something new, more like a simplistic native Android launcher and improving the icons by making them simpler, hence cleaning up the screen. The result is a clearer, neater and less bloated launcher with an improved visual experience.
The center launcher has undergone some changes too. The apps tray can now be used to switch between apps and between apps to Blink Feed with the icon changing with the switch. This lets a user switch to the Blink Feed without landing on the home page, thereby making it simpler to switch and get back to the previous applications. Managing applications is now simpler and faster and you have the option of changing the sizes of the apps grids to fit more or less applications, create folders within applications menu and access them with ease.
d) Gallery and Music Player
The media gallery on HTC Sense 5 has been revamped and transformed to a ‘motion gallery of memories’ rather than the conventional photo gallery on HTC Sense 4. The new gallery now features HTC Zoe and 3 second animations which combine video and still imagery, thereby ‘capturing such moments in HD’ and automatically making a ‘compilation of integrated highlight films’ from the content in the gallery.
HTC is popular for its Beats Audio music hardware and software. This has been improved on HTC Sense 5 and now users can enjoy the experience of Beats Audio and BoomSound on their stereo speakers. It is a complete re-design of the Beats Audio on Sense 4 and focuses on simplicity, a concept borrowed from Google’s native Holo theme. The player now comes with bonus features including lyrics mode. Sense 5 comes with 6 different themes for users to choose and it comes with additional features and tools such as metadata like maps, titles and captions.
e) Zoe Camera
HTC launched a new technology in image and video capture on smartphones today with their Ultrapixels camera on HTC One. The hardware is specific to the new phone and if you want to take pictures with ‘ultra-clarity’ you will need to buy the phone. However, HTC Sense comes with Zoe camera, a feature that captures a variety of information via the phone’s camera when the application is running. This new one-of-a-kind feature technically just pulls in video without interfering with the other functions of the camera. For instance, Zoe Camera will run in the background while you take pictures and video with the phone.
The actual beauty of this feature is that the content it captures in the background (or foreground) is collected and mashed together, therefore producing zero-edit movie clips for sharing and for you to summarize a particular event or adventure. It achieves this by capturing content on an ‘events engine’ which can be ‘camping’ or ‘a day at the beach’.
What’s new, what has been removed
- Locations and Footprints are no more with HTC Sense 5. This means you can click a link on an email or calendar and it opens Google Maps or Navigation right away.
- The hubs on HTC Sense 4 are no longer on HTC Sense 5. The music hub is history and instead you now get a default folder for music applications.
- A new feature of TV control which works with the phone’s inbuilt IR transmitter means you can control a set-top box or TV right from home screen. It presents channels on the phone graphically to make it easy and fast to select what to watch.
- HTC Watch app is a bundle with the TV control. This enables a user to choose content to watch on the phone then send to the TV via the HTC Media Link HD. This feature also makes it simpler to get information on future episodes, related programming and others on Blink Feed.
- The music player on Sense 4 could retrieve media album artwork from Gracenote but users now have the option to tap a button and switch to visualization mode which enables them to view song lyrics.
- A new Kid mode on Sense 5, something that we saw on Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8, now comes with Sense 5 for HTC devices. This mode makes the phone safe for handling by kids and prevents accidental calling or starting of applications when the phone is in the hands of the minors.
In a nutshell, HTC Sense 5 is much lighter and has been greatly improved from Sense 4. Although it could use a few improvements such as hardware toggle for high performance devices on the home screen and a non-skinned browser, it is an amazing user interface that is simpler to use and focuses on provision of relevant information rather than cosmetics.