5 ways that HTC Sense 4 is a step backwards from stock

first_imgWhen Google released Android 4.0, we all knew it was not going to put an end to the various flavors of Android out there. Like every other Linux distribution, there are those who feel like their way is better, so the primary code base gets forked to accommodate their changes. By having their own version of Android, the manufacturers are able to control things to some extent, instead of letting Google take the reigns and run.While I personally believe that the stock Android experience is the way to go, there are those who prefer the variations on Android. One of the most pronounced in the group is HTC’s Sense UI. For Android 4.0, HTC released Sense 4 as their fork. There’s plenty of the old familiar improvements, but also some changes that seem to effectively get in the way of Android 4.0.The LauncherFor Android 4.0, the application launcher was completely re-designed and the experience was greatly improved. There exist gour spaces on the launcher dock that are completely user defined, even to the point where folders could be attached to the dock for multiple apps. The launcher drawer itself was re-imagined to so as to not just be for apps, but for anything that could be placed on the homescreen which meant that now widgets had their own, easy-to-navigate home. In the past, HTC has been able to offer improvements to the previous versions of the Android launcher, but I am not convinced that the Sense 4 launcher makes things easier.You’ll notice immediately upon opening the Sense 4 app drawer that things are different. Your apps are all pretty much in the same place, but your widgets are gone entirely, moved to the homescreen and accessible by long press. In Android 4.0 stock, when you long press on the homescreen, you are presented with the ability to change you wallpaper. Since HTC’s wallpaper preferences are inside the Personalize setting, a feature HTC includes to act as a theme manager.Additionally, there are several ways you can organize your apps in HTC Sense 4. Instead of just listing them alphabetically, you can allow the apps you use more frequently to float to the top, or you can manually sort the apps the way you see fit.All told, more features is rarely a bad thing, I take issue here with HTC’s implementation however. Most of the improvements made by HTC are just re-arranging the location of things to better suit their services, and as a result increase the number of actions needed to complete any given task on the Launcher.The SettingsHTC has had a long-standing history of messing up the Settings in Android. They take functions that are already in plain sight and bury them inside of other menus, out of some backwards intent to make the menu look better. In previous versions of Android, HTC would hide things — like the hard reset function inside of the Privacy menu — completely displacing them from where they were previously located. There wasn’t any benefit to this, it was just for aesthetics. Android 4.0 adjusted a lot in Settings, and added a few new things as well. Unfortunately, Sense 4 doesn’t have room for that nonsense.The Data tool, arguably one of the most important new features of Android 4.0, allows the user to set limits for how much mobile data is being used. You can be given warnings when you use too much, or just cut yourself off altogether when you reach a certain point. The information provided there is critical, especially in a world filled with data limits and overage fees. In stock Android 4.0, this feature is made easily accessible from the main Setting screen. HTC Sense 4 hides this function under the More section in the Settings, making it generally harder to find.This isn’t a terrible thing, just a minor inconvenience, but it’s a shining example of HTC’s priorities when designing the interface. HTC felt that Airplane Mode and the ability to disable your mobile data were more important, so the icon got moved. In fact, they even managed to modify the interface for data usage to make it easier to see things like how many minutes you were using and how many texts you were sending. The implementation, and the decision to usurp such an important tool from users, seems like a significant mistake.Selecting Multiple ItemsGoogle has always been a huge fan of the long press — the almost hidden function that brings a whole new context to whatever your doing. In fact, when designing Android 4.0, Google made it very easy to use the long press function to select multiple items in a list or grid. Take, for example, the photo gallery app. When I want to take multiple photos and email them to someone, or post them as an album on Google+, or upload them to Dropbox, I can just long press on the files I want. When I select multiple files, those files gain a faint blue border to tell me I chose that file. If I long press again, it goes away. From here, I can tap the share button and the files go wherever I sent them.HTC Sense 4 does something similar, but in a different order. When you get to your gallery, you can choose an individual item and press share. If you want to share multiple items, you need to press share first, and the choose the destination. Once you have a destination, you are taken back to the gallery and shown a series of photos with check boxes next to them. You need to select the item you want and when you are finished, the items get sent to their destination. The result is the same, but the steps are confusingly different.After presenting several people who had never used Android 4.0 before the HTC One S, not one of them was able to guess the correct order of operations on their own. There’s no instructions for this action, and it is not at all obvious that HTC even offers the ability to select multiple items. HTC seemed only interested in removing the long press function for the sake of the user, but would up making this process more complicated as a result.The Menu ButtonFor their first batch of Android 4.0 devices, HTC opted not to use software buttons, like the ones you see on the Galaxy Nexus. HTC Also decided that the typical four soft button layout of the previous generation of Android devices wasn’t modern enough. So, in an attempt to look fresh and new, HTC switched to a three button layout for Android 4.0, very similar to how stock Android 4.0 looks about 85% of the time. For the first couple of minutes that you use a new HTC Android phone, you don’t even notice the problem with this layout as it applies to Android 4.0.Google’s new UI standards include the ability to move your menu button to the top right of the screen. It takes the software button and moves it to a place where it is typically out of the way. Many Android app developers have begun to optimize their apps for the Android 4.0 experience, but like most things it takes time. It is not enough to simply offer the change, but you must offer a compelling reason to change. If you’re a big important social network like Twitter, you might feel like you don’t need to optimize for a version of the OS that less than 5% of the Android userbase is even using at the moment. As a result, you get a software menu button that takes up more space than any software button has ever taken up in Android.A large block stripe stretches the width of your screen, filling the space to provide you with a menu button, since your HTC phone does not have a hardware menu button. As long as that app is not optimized for Android 4.0, you are stuck with this black bar that takes away valuable screen real estate and provides a single task that would otherwise be used by a software button, or even an older phone with a soft button, has been completely wasted.USB Host Mode DisabledThere’s no, and I mean absolutely no, good reason for this choice HTC made. In the past, one of the most common exploits for a phone was an attack on the security locking the phone down from the microSD card. As more and more phones remove the microSD slot in favor of onboard storage, the only way to add removable storage to an Android 4.0 device is with USB Host Mode. This allows you to connect a variety of devices — not just storage — to an Android device and use them on the phone or tablet. Flash drives, Xbox 360 controllers, and even a printer or two work using this method. It is a great feature for the power user to have, slowly bridging the gap that defines your smartphone as anything other than a tiny computer.HTC removed this functionality, with no real explanation as to why. When you connect a device that is not approved by HTC into their Android 4.0 devices, nothing happens. Many users won’t even notice, but for the users that do notice, this just becomes yet another reason to root the phone. Since the feature was disabled at the kernel level, once the source code for HTC’s devices are released, the intrepid Android hacker and modder community will bring the feature back in the form of custom ROMs. By removing the feature, all HTC managed to do was further encourage users to achieve root access on their phones.This isn’t a first for HTC, either. The company helped carriers slow the onslaught of users trying to use the Wifi Hotspot feature implemented in Android 2 by removing the feature altogether on their devices. Eventually, the carriers adapted their plans to include tethering, and the feature was restored on most devices. There’s no carrier to blame for removing this feature, so HTC remains silent on why they made this decision.Final ThoughtsThe fact of the matter is that HTC is the best of the forked versions of Android out there. Despite the flaws highlighted here, Sense 4 is by far the closest thing to a complete thought. Many users who have never used a stock Android device won’t even find most of these things to be problems. After all, they have nothing to compare the experience to. HTC’s changes to Android allow them to brand this version of the OS as their own, and gives the company more than enough hooks that exist as standalone features. This way, if the company drops Android, they can keep a great deal of the features and functions that their users have grown accustom to.In short, Sense 4 is the final word on HTC ever going back to a stock Android experience. It is unlikely to ever happen again.last_img read more