Buying the HTC Hero in Shanghai
22 Aug 2009
On Thursday I went with coworkers Hank and Jenny to get an HTC Hero. Jenny’s Taobao research had revealed lots of vendors advertising the new Google Android smartphone, but with fluctuating prices and changes in stock. (The phone has not officially hit the Chinese market yet, so these are all unofficial imports, or 水货 in Chinese.) Anyway, we finally settled on a vendor near Shanghai Train Station.
When we found the shop on the sixth floor, Jenny also noticed that there were other shops selling the phone at competitive prices. We stuck to our original guy, though. His price was 3800 RMB, without SD card or GPS software installed. He was selling all sizes of SD cards, recommending the 8 GB one for 200 RMB. Hank and I both wanted the 16 GB card, which sold for 360 RMB. It was kind of funny… the vendor tried to talk us out of it, saying everyone gets 8 GB, and there’s no need for more than that. We both got the 16 GB (partly, I suspect, because we both had 8 GB iPhones).
The phone was evidently imported from Eastern Europe. The “Locale and Text” options included options like “Čeština (Česká republika)” and “Polski (Polska)” and “Polski (Węgry)”. The most appealing options for me, as an English speaker, were “English (Romania),” “English (Slovakia),” and the like.
The interface of the HTC Hero, when presented by the vendor, was entirely in Chinese. It looked great, but I wanted to try the smartphone out in English first, so I went to the “Locale and Text” setting and chose “English (Poland).” What I didn’t notice at the time was that Chinese was not an option in that menu. Once I changed away from Chinese, I couldn’t change back! In addition, once out of Chinese interface mode, you don’t have access to Chinese input. You can install Google Pinyin IME on the phone (awesome!), but there’s no way to actually access it when you type because it doesn’t appear in the input select menu like you’d expect.
This is a short-term issue; the phone clearly does have built-in support for Asian languages, and HTC is a Taiwanese company, after all. For now, I can receive Chinese SMS text messages just fine, I just can’t write them. I’m confident I can resolve this issue, either with or without the vendor’s help, but it’s one of the hassles of a buying a version of a product that wasn’t meant for your region and its special needs. Chinese vendors will likely solve this problem soon, but the Hero is still a very new arrival.
When I figure out how to add Chinese input to the Hero (and it’s gotta be Google Pinyin input!), I’ll post an update. [Update: I have figured it out and written a blog post called Google Pinyin for the HTC Hero.]
Drawbacks of the Hero
Localization issues aside, I’ve noticed a few of the negatives pointed out in the Gizmodo review of the Hero. Yes, the phone is a little bit sluggish at times.
Living in China, I have a special list of grievances, which are entirely not the Hero’s fault: the lovingly built-in integration of YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook are all wasted for me, since all of those services are currently blocked in the PRC. This really irks me.
One of the more frustrating problems is the apparent inconsistency of the Android Market search functionality. When Google Listen for Android was released yesterday, Hank searched “listen,” found it immediately, and installed it. The same search on my phone turned up nothing. Neither of the two methods Google suggests work for me. I’ve found other similar reports online, and it seems that Android market content is inconsistent for different locations. Likely what happened is that Hank was using a proxy when he installed Listen, so he was actually accessing the American market. It’s a bit confusing, although not exactly the phone’s fault, either.
Hero vs. iPhone
Photo by TeppoTK
My phone up until this past week was a first generation 8 GB iPhone, purchased about a year ago, also in Shanghai. While I’ve enjoyed my iPhone for the most part, I’ve experienced firsthand the frustrations and delays caused by Apple’s mismanagement of the iTunes App Store. This makes Android’s open app market very appealing. Furthermore, I love the idea of Google Voice and the new freedom it can bring the end user, and I’m disgusted by the Google Voice-Apple debacle. So I was looking for an excuse to switch to an Android smartphone, and the Hero looked like a pretty good reason. Still, I wasn’t going to switch to a clearly inferior device.
Apple puts a ton of work into beautiful design, and it shows. The iPhone is a slick, polished little machine. The Hero, while well-crafted, isn’t quite as amazing on the design front. Still, while perhaps “less perfect” (or less polished, anyway), the Hero’s design works well in its own way. It feels more solid in my hand, whereas the iPhone, in its slick bubbliness, feels like it could slip out of my grasp at any time. While the simplicity of the iPhone’s single “Home” button is aesthetically pleasing, I’m finding that having the additional “back” and “search” buttons off the screen and always under my control can be very useful.
The UI of the Hero (HTC’s “Sense,” built on top of Google Android), is attractive, but it lacks some of the minimalism and intuitiveness of the iPhone experience. As someone that likes to explore settings and features, I didn’t much mind this. In fact, I was quite pleased with the wealth of settings and options I discovered. Surrendering more control over the device than the iPhone does, the Hero just feels geekier. Hank’s reaction: “this makes the iPhone feel like such a toy.”
Interface aside, the iPhone touchscreen is also more responsive. With the iPhone, you almost feel like your finger is actually moving the screen contents at times. The Hero’s responsiveness, while adequate most of the time, just isn’t the same experience. The Hero does, however, ship with a 5 megapixel camera and video capability, features Apple has only recently matched with the iPhone 3GS.
A good reason to switch to an Android smartphone soon is that Android phones are starting to appear in the Chinese market in large numbers. Yes, the iPhone is coming en masse too, but the open nature of the Android OS means that Chinese developers will have a much easier time developing for it. Furthermore, with multiple mobile phone makers all releasing Android phones, development time spent on the Android platform will likely carry over to more devices.
The bottom line is that I expect tons of cool apps coming out for Android devices in China in the near future. There are already an impressive number of free apps in the Android market, but I’m really looking forward to seeing more apps created by China for China.
Hero Purchase Details
I’m grateful to Jenny for doing the research on the Hero. There are already so many vendors selling (or claiming to sell) the Hero in Shanghai, and the price is still fluctuating. It’s quite confusing. I don’t think Jenny would make the claim that she found the best possible deal in town, but it was pretty decent considering how new the phone is. Here are the details of my own purchase, for your reference:
– Purchase date: August 20, 2009
– Purchase location: Tianmu Road West, Buye Cheng, 6F, No. 97 天目西路188号不夜城6楼97号 (near Shanghai Train Station) [Taobao Shop] – Base price: 3800 RMB
– SD cards: 8 GB mini-SD card for 200 RMB, 16 GB mini-SD card for 360 RMB
– Software extras: China GPS software installment + 1-year “software warranty”