Featuring HTC's Sense user interface, the HTC Hero is feels like a proper rival to the Apple iPhone 3GS, leaving the T-Mobile G1 in its wake. The HTC Hero is available on contract from Orange, T-Mobile and Vodafone.

The HTC Hero's design is distinctive. Apart from the stylish white casing with an etched silver finish, the Hero distinguishes itself thanks to a unique angled lip at the bottom of the phone (often referred to as a Jay Leno chin in the US). The angled design houses the Hero's controls, including a BlackBerry-like trackball, answer and end call keys and dedicated home, menu, search and back buttons. The Hero's design has divided opinion; we feel it looks better in the flesh than it does in pictures.

The HTC Hero's build quality is impressive and the Teflon coating is a highlight. The HTC Hero can be handled without leaving any fingerprint marks. A week's worth of use resulted in some small scratches on the rear, but they were barely noticeable. In comparison to the iPhone 3GS' glossy, fingerprint magnet coating, the Hero definitely wins.

The Hero's 3.2in screen is slightly smaller than the iPhone 3GS' display, but it's as good. The screen has an anti fingerprint coating which makes it easy to keep clean and viewing angles are good. However, it can be difficult to see in direct sunlight.

HTC HeroThe big selling point of the HTC Hero is HTC's Sense UI, developed specifically for the Android platform. Unlike many other smartphone UIs, Sense isn't just a layer on top of the regular Android interface; almost every aspect of the interface has been upgraded or tweaked since the HTC Magic. The good news is that most of the changes look superb: the graphics are rich and colourful and the end result is an extremely user friendly smartphone that is full of eye candy.

The home screen is where many of the Sense UI's benefits can be seen. Consisting of seven screens, the home screen can be swiped from side to side to reveal any number of shortcuts, folders or widgets (both Android widgets and specific HTC developed widgets). The seven home screens are completely customisable; for example, you can have the native Twitter client on one screen, the clock and calendar on the other and your email on the next. Because these are all live widgets, there is no need to delve into the main menu to access these features. The Twitter, clock and weather widgets are a few of the most impressive (though the weather widget in particular does seem sluggish, and can result in some slow down).

One widget worth mentioning is Footprints. This allows you to take a geotagged photo and store the image in a particular category, for example restaurants or shopping. You can then instantly share the content with others via email.

Although the changes the Sense UI brings are largely positive in both looks and functionality, there is one issue: speed. At various times using the HTC Hero, it felt sluggish and struggled to keep up with the UI, particularly the widgets on the home screens. The lack of grunt is something you'll eventually get used to. However, when used alongside an iPhone 3GS, it's clear the Hero is missing the necessary power that would make using this superb interface an even better experience.

Another impressive feature of the HTC Hero is the integration of contacts with social networking sites such as Facebook. Contacts in your address book can be matched with Facebook contacts, so you can use a person's profile picture, see details of their birthday and view status updates all from a single contact screen. When you view a single contact, you can also see all interactions with that particular person: information, messages, mail, updates and events, photo albums on both Facebook and Flickr, and call history. This is an excellent feature and one that isn't available on the iPhone.

The HTC Hero's on screen keyboard has also been tweaked from the standard Google Android version seen on the Magic. Although it's useable and comfortable in most instances, it lacks the polish of the iPhone's on screen keyboard. We often found ourselves having to tap more than once to register a key and there is noticeable lag when typing at fast speeds. We also preferred typing in the regular portrait mode rather than tilting the phone sideways to use the landscape keyboard. On a positive note, we found the auto correction excellent in most instances.

Like all Android devices, the HTC Hero's integration with Google services is excellent. Android automatically synchronises your Google calendar, mail and contacts over the air. When you add a new contact or calendar event on your PC, it will automatically appear on your phone and vice versa. If you don't have a Google account, you can create one on the HTC Hero itself; you can then easily import a contact list from Microsoft Outlook or even Apple's address book. Support for Microsoft Exchange is included out of the box.

As a multimedia device, the HTC Hero fares much better than both the Magic and the Dream, mainly thanks to the inclusion of a regular 3.5mm headphone jack. The music application and widget are slick and polished but lack the smoothness of the iPhone. The Hero has a 5Mp camera without a flash. It's annoying taking a photo using the trackball: your finger can slide around when attempting to click the trackball. The quality of recorded video is poor, but it remains a solid cameraphone. The Hero comes with 512MB of flash memory, and it also has a microSD card slot for extra storage.

The included web browser is excellent and, unlike the iPhone, the HTC Hero supports Flash. The browser is responsive, polished and easy to use. Like Safari on the iPhone, it also supports multitouch, so you can zoom in and out by pinching your fingers on the screen. A version of the Google Maps application is strangely absent, though it is downloadable from the Android Market - Android's application store.

We found the HTC Hero's battery life to be slightly better than the iPhone 3GS', though it's still not great compared to other smartphones. The Hero just lasted a full day even with hourly push email, Twitter, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth all turned on. You can squeeze some extra precious hours out of the Hero by turning off some of these settings, though they are all part of the experience.

OUR VERDICT

The HTC Hero is without doubt one of the most impressive smartphones we've reviewed. The design is distinctive, the user interface is absolutely superb and it's packed with all the latest features. Unfortunately, the Hero doesn't seem to have the hardware needed to keep up with its innovative software, resulting in a sometimes slow and frustrating user experience. It remains a superb phone that is really only let down by slow performance.