By Brandon Miniman | January 26, 2012 1:43 PM
We recently had the opportunity to check out a non-final build of HTC Sense 4.0 which will be likely be first seen on the rumored HTC Ville (pictured above) and the HTC Edge. For HTC, Sense represents a point of differentiation among a sea of Android devices: the interface touches each and every built-in application, it defines the home screen experience, and it bridges all of HTC’s assets together, like HTC Watch and HTC Listen. Those who have been critical of Sense’s increasingly-bloated feel in Sense 3.5 and below will likely find Sense 4.0 to be a step in the right direction.
Buttons and interface
HTC has put an emphasis on improved typography and reduced visual clutter. As an example, turning the device into landscape orientation will provide tabs on the right, instead of the bottom, to maximize the amount of content that can be on the screen at one time. Speaking of landscape, Sense 4.0 will finally bring landscape support to the home screen. All sliders in Sense 4.0 will be gray with buttons that have rounded square edges, instead of the bubbly circular icons found in current versions of Sense. Also, all buttons contained within the Sense sliders are labeled with the button’s function.
According to a trusted source, HTC Sense 4.0 devices will not have on-screen keys as found on the Galaxy Nexus. Also, devices in the near future will go with a 3-button configuration for Ice Cream Sandwich devices, instead of the current 4.
Also new is the task switcher, where you are provided with a card-like three-dimensional view of your open tasks. We found this view to be a little bit cumbersome, compared to the traditional icon-based task switcher.
The lockscreen also has further functionality. In Sense 4.0, you can also see an accumulation of notifications (similar to iOS 5), have a task list displayed, or see a list of your favorite people, as to be able to call them quickly. Also new to the Sense 4.0 lockscreen is that you access your notification shade without unlocking.
Email has been substantially updated in Sense 4.0, and for the better. It’s possible that HTC has created the best-looking and most functional email client available for Android. Read and unread states are indicated by a pleasant horizontal color strip on the left side of each message. Instead of using check marks to multi-select messages, Sense 4.0 email uses circles. Threaded messages are handled beautifully both in the inbox view and in the message view. When you’re in the inbox and there are multiple messages associated with an email, you get a numeric indicator. Pressing on the number will show you the associated messages presented with a great-looking depth effect, making the additional messages appear “sunken in”. Then, when viewing a threaded message, a gray line divides each message, providing a short preview of the subsequent messages.
Another interesting new feature of the mail application is an improvement on Push email when you use an Exchange account that should save battery. Smart Sync will intelligently predict your usage habits so that, for example, mail isn’t synchronized during long stretches of time when you don’t usually use your phone. Smart Sync will appear as an option in the Exchange settings screen.
Browser, Guest Mode
Improvements have been made to the browser. There’s a new Reader feature, similar to what can be found in iOS 5, that strips away ads, but not all images. There’s also a new Read Later and Watch Later function that lets you mark content for later reading or watching with a corresponding widget on your homescreen.
Another feature that got us very excited was Guest Mode, a feature that allows you to specify which apps display if a guest wants to use your phone. In Guest Mode, the phone is disabled, and the guest cannot access your data. You can enter the Guest Mode through switching Scenes.
Camera, DropBox Integration, Beats Audio
The camera app has a neat new feature that should prevent a photo from being spoiled by a subject blinking. When it detects faces, the camera will take five consecutive photos and intelligently pick the best photo.
HTC Sense 4.0 will have deep integration with DropBox. In fact, when you set up the phone for the first time, you’ll get 50GB of space for free. Then, DropBox storage will be handled like another drive on the phone. When you attach a file to an email from DropBox storage, the DropBox link will be added to the email and not the actual file, as to save data.
Beats audio will be universal in HTC Sense 4.0, allowing the enhancement to work with third party apps like Pandora. Previously, Beats would only work with the default music application.
Most people, especially power-users, haven’t found much to like about Sense in the past. It’s often graphic-intense, and a bit too cutesy for the average user. Overall, Sense 4.0 looks mature, functional, and more approachable than ever before, and it’s possible that this version of Sense might be the one that doesn’t get replaced by a third party launcher.