Making sense of Sense

, posted: 4-May-2012 15:22

Regular readers of my reviews at AndroidNZ and the Clove Blog may have noticed that I tend not to write a great deal about the user interface of the devices I review. Given how thorough (some might say lacking in succinctness) my write-ups tend to be, I can see how that might seem odd.

Let me explain myself.

I’d place myself in a group of smartphone users called “Power-users”. We use our devices heavily, and often for a breadth of purposes that regular users don’t (yet) use theirs for. I say yet, because over time lots of the things we do on our devices now become the things regular users will do on their devices in months or years to come. Because of the diversity of our use, most manufacturer’s visions for the user interface (UI) tend to fall a little short for us.

That’s part of life on the bleeding edge, awesome stuff happens, but you tend to have to find your own ways to get things done. That’s part of the beauty of Android, users are allowed to exert a lot of control over how they interact with their device – even without resorting to Rooting or other more extreme measures.

One of the simple ways to do that is with a Launcher replacement, and there are a myriad of them out there. Launcher replacements usually have a plethora of customization options unavailable in stock Launchers, including a good many that enable much quicker access to the stuff you need than any stock UI.

To give a brief example, below is the homescreen of my Galaxy Note:

What you’ll notice first is that the homescreen is extremely spartan. It’s clean and uncluttered, which is how I like it. That’s not to say it is lacking functionality though – I can directly access 22 different things with a single touch on the homescreen. Here’s the list:
  1. The inbuilt clock/alarm/stopwatch app
  2. The calendar
  3. Weather forecast
  4. Battery usage statistics
  5. App drawer
  6. PowerAMP
  7. Contacts
  8. Dialer
  9. SMS
  10. Gmail
  11. Play Store
  12. Google Maps
  13. ICS+ browser
  14. WiFi hotspot settings screen
  15. Dice Player
  16. YouTube
  17. Camera
  18. Quickpic
  19. Main Settings screen
  20. Soundhound tagging
  21. Screen Filter on/off
  22. …and finally a swipe down anywhere on the screen pulls down the notification drawer, which is   ideal since that’s difficult to do one-handed with the Note otherwise
…if you ask virtually any power-user of an Android device whether they use a stock Launcher the answer, almost invariably, is no. That’s why I don’t tend to bother reviewing stock launchers. As a general rule they typically detract from a users’ experience of an Android handset, and don’t represent how many people user their devices in the real world.

It’s worth pointing out here also that Google have made large strides forward in the design of the stock Android UI in Ice Cream Sandwich, the latest version of the Android operating system. In terms of design cohesion and user-friendliness Android has never been better. That puts an even greater onus on manufacturers if they want to add their own skin over the top of Google’s fine work – it has to be worth it to end-users. It has to offer not only a clear value proposition over stock Android, but it also has to compensate users for the delays they’re going to face in getting Android OS updates because of the skin.

By this point you’re probably wondering when I’m going to get down off my soap box, and actually tell you what this editorial has to do with the One X. Fair enough (and if you’re still with me, thanks!).

You see, the One X sports HTC’s “Sense UI, version 4.0”, its’ homegrown UI overlay for Android. Sense actually has quite a long history, going back to HTC’s days as a Windows Mobile device manufacturer if you trace it to its’ beginnings. Possibly that goes back a little further than some readers recall, but suffice to say that the Windows Mobile UI was a dog. Truly terrible. HTC’s “Touch Flo” UI, as it was known back then, was a breath of fresh air. It brought a visual flair and usability to touch screen interfaces that only one other company had yet elucidated. Stated simply: it added value. A whole lot it. Fast forward to HTC’s beginnings as an Android manufacturer in its’ own right, stock Android devices aside, and it wasn’t hard to see that Sense was still adding a lot of value to their brand – just look at the reception the HTC Desire enjoyed.

Design hubris, Sense 3.0 style: wasted space on the dock, functionally useless 3D animation on the clock...

On this background one can understand why HTC became so convinced by, so enamoured with, Sense. It was a big part of what had taken them from being a small Taiwanese phone maker that hardly anyone had heard of, to a major player on the world stage. They were experiencing stellar sales growth, and everything looked rosy.

Like many a company in that position they lost their way a little, they became so caught up with their own success that they couldn’t see past it. If I can draw the analogy, they started to follow a rather Nokia-esque trajectory from that time. By that I mean they started releasing many different handsets, usually with relatively small incremental hardware upgrades. They gave up really pushing the envelope from a technological point of view. I think they failed to take into account how important a part of their rise that was with groundbreaking handsets like the HD2 and Nexus One. Instead they focused a lot of effort into polishing Sense and pushing unwanted services on users. Unfortunately the ‘polish’ tended to take the form of increasingly resource hungry “whizz-bang” graphical flourishes, rather than added functionality.

These two trends continued until we saw their culmination in last years’ flagship the HTC Sensation. They still hadn’t stepped up to using a gigabyte of RAM in their top of the line handsets, and yet Sense was devouring more of the system resources than ever before. I’d had mine barely a day before I started to get out of memory errors, or had to wait for Sense to reload because I’d been playing a game, or browsing with multiple tabs. I cried foul over that, and I wasn’t the only one. Sense had crossed a line, it just didn’t make sense anymore.

So, after all the preamble, the essential question here is “Has HTC made sense of Sense?” For the most part I think the answer is an optimistic yes. HTC have taken stock of their position at the end of last year, and responded to criticisms about their direction. The One X is the first signal from HTC that they’re listening.

Some of the nice little touches in Sense, the app drawer here has more levels of organisation than stock ICS, getting you in touch with the app you want more quickly
At a fundamental level the One X is a polar opposite to the Sensation – it’s a major hardware revision in concert with a minimization of Sense’s drag on system resources. While you can induce still some traces of lag here and there, these are a very minor exception, and not the rule. Sense flies, and even with HTC paring back its’ visual flair it still offers more appealing eye candy than you’ll find most places (fans of Apple’s skeuomorphic school of design may beg to differ here I guess).

Performance and eye candy aside, there still remains the (more?) important question of whether Sense is adding to your experience from a functional point of view.

There is a lot to answering that question, only some of which I’m going to cover here. The myriad improvements HTC makes to numerous stock apps like the browser, contacts, and the media experience, is better covered in review sections dealing with those things specifically. Suffice to say that there HTC add a lot of value overall in these stock apps, as they do almost uniformly to the Launcher experience.

You see, it seems that HTC just couldn’t help themselves here and there, they just had to add a bit of gloss to proceedings. I guess it takes more than one handset to completely reform your adoration for functionally deficient eye candy. Case in point? The recent apps/task switcher.

On the left of the image there is a stock(ish) implementation of the stock ICS task switcher, on the right HTC’s take on the same thing. Now I’ll grant you that HTC’s design is much more visually appealing than the stock version – a lovely high res screenshot of the app as you left it, replete with snazzy reflections beneath – but how does it compare functionally? Well, regretably it’s not a patch on stock.

You can see some of the points of difference - one app is visible instead of four and the screenshots are easily confused by orientation switches (or any app that runs in landscape for that matter), both of which make it functionally inferior.

What you can’t see is a crucial design inconsistency, which for me is a clanging bell of discord. In ICS Google did this wonderful (if obvious in a “I wish they’d done that ages ago” sort of way) thing; they unified gestures throughout the OS. In notifications swipe sideways to dismiss a notification, in the task switcher swipe sideways to dismiss an app, in gmail swipe sideways to move between emails, and so on and so forth. It’s intuitive and makes operating disparate parts of the OS easier, because they obey the same design language. In HTC’s task switcher you swipe up to dismiss them. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Certainly doesn’t sound like the egregious design faux pa that I’m making it out to be, does it? The thing is, when our Telecom Tech group first cracked these open an experienced Android user (and all-around clever cookie to boot) asked aloud how to dismiss apps. That exemplifies bad design right there. No value added, only subtracted.

Another area where HTC meddled is the Settings area. You can see here that they’ve changed the order of the items in the Settings menu, giving you Personalize, Accounts & Sync, Location, and Security, where stock ICS gives you Sound, Display, Storage, Battery, and Apps. For my money the stock placement gives you the settings you’re likely to use most right up front where you want ‘em.

It’s not a major by any means, but it’s not isolated either. I don’t want to dwell overly on negatives when the whole is actually really good, but it’s the accumulation of these small user-unfriendly decisions that stops me from whole-heartedly endorsing Sense 4.0 as the next coming in mobile UIs.

So, while Sense 4.0 may not exactly be a return to the kind of value-added UI that Touch Flo heralded all that time ago, it’s certainly a vast improvement over what’s emerged out of HTC’s stables in the last couple of years. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s the one manufacturer UI skin that I don’t actively dislike, which coming from a power-user is high praise indeed (and fortunate too, since I feel like I need to stay with stock for the duration of the review). Regular users, with more typical usage patterns, will love Sense for its’ inimitable mix of performance and style – especially now that HTC have pared it back to a level where the style bit isn’t hurting the performance bit.

Rest assured I’ll be talking lots more about HTC’s software improvements in subsequent sessions dealing with multimedia, browsing, the camera and so forth, but for now I’ll just leave you with a few shots of the Launcher elements of Sense 4.0 in action:

Left to Right: The dock allows customisation even to the level of adding folders, HTC's Weather application still looks incredible, and the Clock selection remains as sumptuous as ever (note too the easy to navigate tabs and search button for widgets)

Left to right: The best looking and most functional stock lockscreen in the business, a plethora of options available too whether it be social network updates on your lockscreen or checking your stocks, HTC's pinch-gesture enabled "Leap" view

About the author

My name is Murray Winiata. When I'm not on my own time I work as a medical doctor in General Practice, and when I am on my own time I'm a dad, blogger, obsessive home barista, audio enthusiast and guitarist.  Online I'm probably better known by my handle "NZtechfreak" via my participation in many online forums including, but not limited to, Geekzone, XDA-Developers, AndroidForums and Head-Fi. Previously I've blogged for Clove Technologies in the UK, and more recently at my own blog Like most smartphone owners I'm fully social-media'd up, and you can find me on Twitter, YouTube, Google+ and Facebook. If you've got burning questions about the HTC One X you'd like me to try and answer, or you want my up-to-the-minute impressions and experiences with the One X, then Twitter would be the best channel to tune in to. Besides that, I'm always available here at Geekzone, which remains one of the best little corners of the internet (even in spite of my membership!). Naturally I'm thrilled to have been chosen to blog about the HTC One X here at the TelecomTech blog, and plan to bring my trademark objectivity to the fray once again. Catch you here again soon!

Other related posts:
HTC One X: Bring on the Games!
You've got mail
HTC One X Movie Editor

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Telecom Tech is a different type of blog. We're sponsored by Telecom New Zealand, but most of the posts here are from every day users like you.

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