Buying the HTC Hero in Shanghai

22 Aug 2009

Photo by louisvolant

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).

Language Issues

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.

Why Now?

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”

Hero Reviews: Engadget, Gizmodo

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Hey John, great post, I’m thinking getting an Android phone too.
    Since you have your HTC Hero, you can’t miss this forum hiapk.com

    You may want to try the GPS software (I’m not sure if it works on Hero but it does on G1 and Magic), see here
    http://www.hiapk.com/bbs/thread-4295-1-1.html

    and some IME apps
    http://www.hiapk.com/bbs/thread-15631-1-1.html

    notice: you may need to register first. Good luck! :p

  2. I got HTC Hero last week, imported from UK (I am in US where it’s not released yet). Of course, everything is in English (at least British English), but it only displays pound sterling (₤) when I visit the market. Anyways, I love it! Beat iPhone 3GS or whatever it is!

    Yeah, I use Google Pinyin IME and Simeji (Japanese IME). I tried to look for this Chinese IME coming with handwriting recognition that Taiwanese or Hong Kong HTC Hero supposedly has: http://is.gd/2npYa

    It’s kind of risk installing it. I don’t want to screw up my phone.

  3. Some friends bought HTC handsets in Taiwan. I don’t remember exactly what they did, but they either swapped and/or flashed the ROM to change the language support. YMMV..

  4. Looks nice. I today finally got the X1 I’ve long wanted – has the upside of Office Mobile and a QWERTY keyboard, and only 2750 (plus 300 for the 16 g card). They gave the same spiel, that no one needs such a big card, but I always err on the size of caution with such things – you never regret having too MUCH space.

    I’ve never been tempted by the iPhone precisely because of its toy-like factor, while this and other smart phone have workhorse reps. It’ll take me a few days to figure out the interface and OS, but this phone is supposed to be great for customization. Has a system from HTC, so probably similar.

    You can solve the language input problem through software called CEStar. My vender installed it for me, doesn’t work great but at least it works.

    Enjoy!

  5. If you are willing to do a little hacking, here is the best input method IMHO. http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=512530

    Also, Giz post on fixing that speed problem:
    http://gizmodo.com/5340981/software-update-fixes-the-htc-heros-only-real-problem

  6. It is indeed a nice looking phone.

    I think I’ll definitely be waiting for one of the next generation, China-market devices, though. I really want to try out the China Mobile OMS, and see what it has in comparison with a stock Android phone.

  7. I’ve got an older Touch. Hopefully you won’t run into the language issue I’ve got where any change to the system language requires a complete wipe and reinstall of a ROM in the appropriate language. I just left the whole thing in Chinese figuring I’d know all those characters at some point anyway, as useless as computing vocabulary is to me otherwise.

    I’d still prefer an iPhone, strictly for the ease in pairing it to my macbook.

  8. Wow. I wanna buy one, too. It looks awesome and I’d love to use Google voice to get around my current 13NT a minute “stick it to the laowai” rates I’m paying for cell phone calls with my pre paid IF card. The thing that concerns me, is how easy getting a plan as a foreigner will be here.

    I’m sure it’s a different story there, but I’m still curious how the monthly rates worked out for you.

  9. kastner,

    Thanks for the links! I’ll check that out…

  10. lin,

    Ugh, this is what I have to get into…

    With the iPhone, it was all about the iPhone OS and its .IPSW files, and unlocking and jailbreaking using QuickPwn or redsn0w or whatever.

    With Android, I now have to learn how to flash ROMs, fastboot, root the phone, etc. etc. It’s a little intimidating at first, but I’ll get there…

  11. Lisa,

    CEStar, huh? I’m pretty set on Google Pinyin (I love how you can sync it with your Google account, and my phone supports this function), but I will check it out.

  12. Mark,

    Google Voice only works in the US right now. I was lucky enough to be there when I got my invitation so that I could claim my account, but for now, I can only use it to get voice mail (through my free new US number) and send SMS messages.

  13. I could never figure out how input systems work. I own a Nokia N78 and for the first handful of times I was switching back and forth from english to chinese it always let me have pinyin and stroke order input, then yesterday, all of a sudden, switching back to english I got the T9 instead of pinyin. Baffles me.

    A word of warning, don’t update your firmware by yourself, it will go back to watever localization the phone originally was. Been there, done that, did not like it at all. I almost bricked my phone.

    BTW, I live in Chongqing and using EDGE connection I can access FB, Twitter, Youtube.

  14. hey john, great news I am very interested in the Hero. Could you please post your opinion of the flash support specifically related to cpod ie can you play all of the media files, exercises etc on the full site. I would also be interested to know if you find a way to get popup translation (like 水货 on this page) to work, I don’t know if the ball works like a mouse. It would be great to have a mobile browser that can do this.

  15. I also bought the Hero in Shanghai and made the same mistake of switching over to the English interface and losing Google Pinyin. To fix it, run the application called CustomLocale that will give you the option to switch back to Chinese. Don’t change Locale from the Settings, as you will only get the East European options. You can re-install Google Pinyin from the Market and to select it as an input method, press & hold the text input box when entering a SMS and the option should come up a couple of seconds later. Also check out TouchPal (also on the Market) which I find better than Google Pinyin.

  16. Google blocks full-featured Skype from Android phones:
    http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/2009-08-20-google-internet-calls-apple_N.htm

  17. Man, I love Google Input. I haven’t got a lot of interest in Android as a platform, at least not yet, but Apple’s Chinese input for the iPhone really sucks, and although it’s at least possible to switch input languages, there’s no real provision for people who have more than one input language/method set up, so that when I want to switch from Simplified Chinese (handwriting) to English, I have to cycle — slowly — through Simplified Chinese (keyboard), Traditional Chinese (handwriting), and Traditional Chinese (keyboard) to get there.

  18. Brad,

    Well, that’s not very sportsmanlike.

  19. Brendan,

    Yeah, that used to really annoy me too. Eventually I abandoned all but simplified Chinese pinyin input, simply for the pure convenience of one-press toggle.

  20. This is such a sweet phone! Looks like I will have to replace my G1 with it. 🙂

  21. […] When I first got the phone, it already had Google Pinyin installed, but apparently it was an old version that didn’t work properly. I had to uninstall it and reinstall it. To uninstall, go to: Settings > Applications > Manage Applications, and uninstall it from there. The applications may take a while to all load, but Google Pinyin, if installed, should be at the very bottom, listed by its Chinese name, 谷歌拼音输入法. Select it to uninstall it. […]

  22. Matt Kennedy Says: August 27, 2009 at 11:31 am

    Hey,

    One of the main reasons I want an iPhone or this HTC would be for a Chinese-English dictionary, so when out and about in China I can write on the screen an unfamiliar character and get its meaning. I realise there are some dictionbary apps for the iPhone – what about the HTC, any good ones available currently? are apps for the iPhone useable on the HTC hero?

  23. @Matt,

    The iPhone is probably going to be the first one to get a good Chinese dictionary, as Mike Love of Pleco is working on an iPhone version of the software. There are currently a number of free dictionary apps out for the iPhone (and I assume for Android as well), but they’re based on CEDICT and I wouldn’t recommend them for use by grown-ups. The WeDict app for the iPhone allows for the import of custom dictionaries, but it’s unbelievably poorly designed and implemented, so even if you do loan on a custom dictionary it isn’t really usable.

  24. It does look cool I have the iPhone 3g in Chengdu and now am using china unicom with 3g service. It runs great and fast around 10x speed of edge. I am not sure what type of 3g service this phone had but I would look into it. The other day our office Internet went down and I had a skype conference call on my phone for an hour and drove a few KM to a starbucks to finally use there Internet. I also use gizmo5 with google voice. It works pretty good to get phone calls from the states and gets through 95% of the time. For SH or BJ I would also look into http://www.rebtel.com which gives you a local BJ or SH number to call people in other countries. It cost me 2 cents to call america. They also get a number to call you on and it is 2 cents when they call you. I add the IP 17951 in front if the number for china mobile when calling fro
    Chengdu to make it cheaper

  25. […] Buying the HTC Hero in Shanghai | Sinosplice: Life […]

  26. A friend of mine bought T-mobile G1 in MY which I think is updated with http://www.hiAPK.com ROM. The GMAIL and Contact is in Chinese.

    I tried to restore it to original ROM using steps outlined in the following URL, but failed. Bootloader won’t load “dreaimg.nbh” file. Screen stuck at multicolor with text “Serial0”

    http://tutorialninjas.net/2009/06/27/unroot-restore-android-g1-factory-settings/

    I appreciate any pointers from those who uses G1 with http://www.hiAPK.com ROM. Thanks.

    Model Number HTC Dream
    Firmware Version 1.5
    Baseband Version 62.50S.20.17H_2.22.19.23
    Kernel Version 2.6.27-04102009-daproyDan@lab709
    Build Number kila-user 1.1 PLAT-RC33 126986 ota-rel-keys,release-keys

  27. Has anybody else read the reviews on the Hero? Granted, they called it the best android phone yet, but they also called it laggy, and it’s multimedia capabilities aren’t ranked so great either. It looks like i’ll be waiting for some real world reviews by some of you early adopters..Share your views at http://www.HTC-Hero.com would love to heard what you think.

  28. just picked mine up the other day, no google PinYin installed (at least in the applications section but i can choose gu ge shu ru fa when switching typing language) but i can type in chinese and english (also can’t switch back to Chinese for OS after changing).

    Have you rooted your phones?

    The new update from HTC is essentially out which is supposed to eliminate all the lag (not laggy in my opinion, but i’m coming from a 200RMB LG phone as a comparison).

    The new update, however is worldwide English. I’m assuming installing google Pinyin would make chinese input possible again.

  29. Hi John,
    It’s been a long time I was looking for a mobile phone like the Hero.
    (I’m fed up with Windows mobile and not a Apple lover either…)
    I regret there is no LED flash and I was (I’m still) worry about the small amount of internal memory and do not know if it will be enough for installing applications. But after reading this post, I just went to nearest shop and get the phone. I’m very happy with it 🙂
    Now I wish it could handle the Chinesepod Writing practice (Skritter)!

  30. Hello John,
    Thanks for the writeup. You did not mention if you can get 3G connection in China. You are saying it is probably imported from eastern Europe, so it will work on European 3G network. But does it connect to the TD-SCDMA, the Chinese 3G version?
    Thanks.

  31. I finally bought the HTC HERO yesterday. http://www.ch999.com.cn/ and they have a stored in computer street in Kunming. I payed 3370 for the phone. Its the first smart phone i ever buy, before that, i was on simple low end Nokia. As for 3G, i found out that China Unicom offers WCDMA.
    Could anyone spare a Google Voice invite? slabosticos [at] gmail . com
    Thanks

  32. i just purchased a hero as well, however i am not able to connect to my google account, i have tried the hard reset and still nothing, any ideas.

  33. HI All,

    I bought the HTC Hero 2 weeks ago and I do not manage to browse Internet.
    And yet, I have already change the Network settings to:
    – tick MObile Network ON
    – Tick Data roaming
    – Untick “Use only 2G networks”
    – Tick”Enable alwys on mobile data”

    the networks which appears when I do search are CMCC and CHina Com.
    With CMCC, I always have “Web page not available” when I want to browse
    With China Com, it says my SIM card does not allow me to connect.

    THANKS A LOT IN ADVANCE for your help

  34. Anne: you have to setup the APN (Access Point Names) to get data to work. Name: cmcc, APN: cmnet, MCC: 460, MNC: 02 (this is for China mobile)

    this works for me.

    Since this seems to be the Hero China thread, does anyone else have trouble downloading from the Android Market over GPRS? I have no problem over Wifi. Is this perhaps because China mobile is doing their own market and block the intl market?

  35. […] was pretty excited when I first got my Android phone. Yeah, the Hero a bit sluggish, but that’s been fixed, and […]

  36. You got the Hero for 3800 RMB in Shanghai? I just got the HTC Tattoo for my gf in Xiamen for 1700 RMB and I noticed the Hero is going for 2300 RMB now. Amazing how fast prices drop huh? Anyhow, I’m glad I did not jump on the Hero when it came to China. The Nexus One should be coming soon to China via 水货 and about four months via official channels. It is superior to the Hero, Droid, iPhone or whatever.

  37. Today i got a price quote of 3100RMB for HTC hero. I am now confused with the 2300RMB that you have mentioned in your post.

  38. @ Sohail. Don’t get a Hero. HTC has a custom interface with that and they will always be slow rolling out the updates (if they do at all) cause they got to make the new Android builds work with their GUI. The Nexus One is direct from Google and I do believe it will receive updates from Google. There will be no need to root it and cook roms to to run the latest build cause Google will keep it up to date. You can order a Nexus One for 3600 RMB to the US, UK, Hong Kong ect. I’m thinking of having a buddy in HK order one and ship it to me. If you can’t arrange something like that then wait till it hits the grey market in China. It will be around 4000 to 5500 RMB though.

  39. Ni hao,
    Hero still selling for ~3000 rmb here in Kunming. As for the Nexus one, is there a GSM version out yet? i though its only for the US market now. Anyway, even if you get yourself an N1, you could still want to root it. Are you allowed to install apps directly, not from the market?
    I would wait for the Nexus to be available in GSM, then buy the Hero. you dont need a 1Ghz CPU on your phone, im still jealous though. But seriously, it wont make much difference before software issues are fixed. Handwriting recognition? Hello ???? Unless you want a games or want to watch videos on your bigger screen PDA, dont get the latest gadget. Not worth it.

    PS.The one i got was meant to be sold for Airtel India. Almost a year after initial HERO release, Airtel India still does not have an updated ROM ready.

  40. Naim:

    Nexus One is GSM only at this point in time.

    Specs

  41. @ Naim. I have been following the Chinese bbs forums and they seem to believe judging from the specs that the N1 will work on China Unicom’s 3G network. I will post back when I am 100% sure. Here is the bbs.

  42. OK, its been 100% confirmed the Nexus One works on China Unicom’s 3G network. Here is the link.

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