Apr 06 AT 2:11 PM Nick Gray 24 Comments

The HTC One (M8) Software: a Sense of Evolution

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We all love Android because of its power and flexibility. Unfortunately, the flexibility aspect of Google’s mobile operating system has been contorted and misused, giving phone and tablet owners a user experience that’s bloated and unintuitive.

If we turn the clock back a few years to when Android was still learning to crawl, HTC introduced the HTC Hero to the world. Compared to the HTC Dream and Magician, the Hero was a work of art. The phone’s Teflon-coated metal body picked up a handful of design awards for HTC, but the true selling point for the phone was HTC Sense – the world’s first Android skin. When Sense was introduced, it delivered dozens of new features which were not yet available in Android. HTC pulled the Android experience into the modern era, just as it had done with TouchFlo and Sense on Windows Mobile.

Since then, all major manufacturers have opted for their own custom UI’s on top of Android, allowing them to offer unique software experiences intended to enhance the user experience. But things have gotten a little out of hand. All the enhancements that were packed on top of Android started getting in the way, causing more frustration than delight.  HTC, Samsung, Sony and LG were adding features simply to out-feature each other rather than add meaningful functionality for those who had to live with these devices on a day-to-day basis.

HTC noticed the error of its ways and started toning things back when the company released Sense 4 with the HTC One X and has continued in the right direction with every update to its software since then. HTC Sense 5 was a complete redesign which introduced us to BlinkFeed, Zoes and Video Highlights. The new software was praised for being lighter and more intuitive than previous versions, but HTC decided to take things a step further with Sense 6.

A splash of color

Fondly referenced as “the Sixth Sense” during the HTC One (M8) launch event in New York, the latest version of HTC’s Android build carries over the basic feel of Sense 5. HTC’s kept the same icons from last year and BlinkFeed is still just a swipe away from your home screen. But don’t let the familiarity of the main UI elements fool you; Sense 6 is a lot more refined than you might expect. HTC has ditched the dark gradients it has used in the past in favor of vibrant colors throughout its apps, making them feel fresh and playful. The color actually extends into the notification bar at the top of the screen, giving the impression that HTC’s apps are “one with the phone.” Having so much color scattered across Sense is a little off-putting at first, but you really come to enjoy it once you switch back to the 2013 HTC One with Sense 5.5 or even the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 with the latest version of TouchWiz.

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With the latest version of Sense, HTC now gives a handful of new ways to personalize your phone. You have the usual wallpaper and lock screen customizations, but Sense 6 gives you the ability to select between four themes (green, orange, purple and dark gray) which change the app and accent colors through the phone. If you want more of the traditional HTC Sense feel, the dark gray theme is sure to please you. Those looking for just a bit more personalization will be happy to learn that HTC Sense 6 now allows you to choose between Helvetica, LCD or the default Sense font – a feature which have been available on Samsung and LG phones for quite some time.

Simple and clean

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HTC Sense 6 is cleaner, brighter and more in line with what you’d expect to see on a Nexus device. The UI is as simple and flat as can be, giving stock Android a run for its money. All of HTC’s apps on the HTC One (M8) now conform to Android’s Holo design language – all the way down to the settings, action bar and contextual icons. While most of the apps are fairly intuitive, HTC has infused its new software with helpful how-to tips scattered through its apps which help guide you through its features the first time. These little pop-ups should be extremely helpful for those learning to customize BlinkFeed or creating a Zoe Highlight for the first time.

It’s nice to see that HTC has listened to user feedback, but they seem to have taken so much out of the UI that things feel a little generic and uninspired.

BlinkFeed

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The Duo Camera on the HTC One (M8) may be the most controversial feature on the phone, but let’s not forget about BlinkFeed and all the commotion is stirred up last year. For those who don’t know, BlinkFeed is mainly a social media and news aggregator which has lived within the Sense launcher since last year. Think Flipboard, but instead of launching an app, BlinkFeed is just one swipe away from your home screen.

The idea which inspired HTC to develop BlinkFeed was that most people love to snack on little bits of information and not necessarily read every single piece of news, tweet or Facebook status update. BlinkFeed is perfect for that, allowing you to see upcoming calendar events, social media updates from Google+, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram mixed in with stories from thousands of different news sites from across the globe.

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But with Sense 6, HTC kicked up the voltage a few notches, improving the social media updates that it pulls in  and opened BlinkFeed up to third party developers. FitBit is the first developer to take advantage of HTC’s open API, populating data from its app directly into the BlinkFeed feed. It’s not a direct replacement for using the FitBit app on the HTC One (M8), but viewing your daily step count status mixed into your other content may remind you to take the steps up those three flights of stairs instead of waiting for the elevator. We’re honestly excited to see how other app developers work their app content into BlinkFeed in the coming months.

As much as we enjoy snacking on content, there are those who like to keep their news and social media separated into their dedicated apps. For them, HTC has kept the option to remove BlinkFeed from the launcher. A simple two finger pinch on your home screen and you’re presented with the option to drag the BlinkFeed panel to the trash.

Motion Launch

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Motion Launch gestures

Have we mentioned that the HTC One (M8) is quite a large phone? The device feels very comfortable in the hand, but it’s nearly impossible to reach the power button on the top edge of the device. Fortunately, HTC has taken a few notes from LG’s playbook and have introduced Motion Launch gestures to facilitate turning the phone on and launching a few other select features.

  • Double tap: pick up phone in portrait orientation and double tap to wake
  • Swipe left: pick up  phone in portrait orientation and swipe left to launch the widget panel
  • Swipe right: pick up  phone in portrait orientation and swipe right to launch BlinkFeed
  • Swipe up: pick up  phone in portrait orientation and swipe up to unlock
  • Swipe down: pick up  phone in portrait orientation and swipe down to wake phone and launch voice dialing
  • Volume buttons: pick up phone in landscape orientation and press the volume button to wake phone and launch the camera app

HTC’s Motion Launch gestures work perfectly. Almost too perfectly. You’ll notice in the descriptions that you have to “pick up phone” to initiate any of the gestured. The software uses the phone’s internal g-sensor to track its orientation, only allowing the gestures to be recognized if the device has been moved. This means you can’t double tap of the One (M8)’s screen to wake it if it’s just sitting on your desk. The implementation is a bit frustrating, but we’re told that the limitations are in place to conserve battery.

Since there are a total of six different gestures available, it would have been nice if HTC gave users the ability to customize a few of them to launch specific apps. The fingerprint scanner on the back of the HTC One max was able to launch different apps based on which finger was used to unlock the phone, so we’re guessing we could see something similar in a future update to Sense 6.

Sense TV

Remember the days where universal remotes were all the rage? You can still go out and buy a Harmony remote from Logitech for a few hundred dollars. Or you can use your HTC One (M8) to do the same thing without spending any extra cash. The phone sports an infrared sensor built into the power button, giving users the ability to control their media system at home or the TV at your local bar, GYM or waiting room that seems to always be stuck on a channel that no one should be watching.

The Sense TV app has two main functions: infrared remote control and TV guide. The smart setup process will get you connected to your TV, gaming system, cable box and surround sound in less than five minutes. Once you’re done with that, tell the app where you live and what services you use for content (cable or satellite provider, Hulu Plus, Crackle and CBS streaming) and Sense TV will give you a complete lineup of what’s currently playing or what’s coming up next. You can even tell the app what your favorite shows are and it will pull them into BlinkFeed and remind you when the next episode of The Big Bang Theory of Law and Order is about to start. Once you figure out what you want to watch, just tap the show or movie cover art the app will switch your TV or cable box to the appropriate channel.

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We have nothing against Sense TV, but the app is definitely geared towards people who subscribe to a full media package through their cable or satellite provider. It’s nice to see Hulu Plus, Crackle and CBS streaming options all aggregated in one place, but we’re probably only going to use Sense TV at the bar until Amazon and Netflix are included as well.

Common Sense

Overall, we came away quite impressed with HTC Sense 6′s new look and functionality. Features like BlinkFeed and the outrageously bright colors throughout the UI has be off-putting, but they tend to grow on you once you spend some quality time with the device. Some seem to think that in a perfect world, HTC Sense would not exist. If that’s your stance, we’d encourage you to take a look at the Google Play edition HTC One (M8). Sense 6 still isn’t perfect, but we’d definitely recommend the HTC One (M8) with HTC’s full software experience if you want to take advantage of every last feature the phone has to offer.

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Nick is a tech enthusiast who has a soft spot for HTC and its devices. He started HTCsource.com (the first HTC blog) back in 2007 and later joined the Android and Me family in the summer of 2010.

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