What I like in the new Sense 4.0, and what I don’t

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HTC Sense: you either can't get enough of it, or it's the bane of your existence. It's either the reason you buy HTC Android devices, or the reason you root them and install custom ROMs. Either way, love it or hate it, it seems like it's here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. The good news is that Sense 4.0 has gotten a lot better, although it's still not perfect.

Here are my impressions of the latest version of HTC's custom user interface, as implemented on the T-Mobile HTC One S.

What I like:

I really don't know where to start here: there is so much that is so awesome, and navigating through the UI seems so much snappier in general. Since HTC has focused on slimming down Sense for the sake of better performance, perhaps it's best to begin with the camera: it loads almost instantaneously, has almost no shutter lag, keeps everything in focus, and in general works better than any other camera software I've seen in other smartphones. Photo effects, video recording, settings, and flash are all easily accessible with one touch. It takes a bit more screen-pushes than I'd like to flip between front and back cameras, but that's really my only gripe here. In general, the camera software allows for some awesome pictures at the default settings, which is important to me since I have no clue what an "ISO" is.

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The lockscreen is another place where HTC Sense really shines. As we have come to expect since Sense 3.0, it's a lot more useful than Android's stock lockscreen. You can customize the individual app shortcuts (they match up with the launcher shortcuts on the homescreen), or you can forgo shortcuts completely (not really possible with Sense 3.0). As in previous versions of Sense, you can control music from the lockscreen, but you can also view the complete notification drop-down list from the lockscreen, too. You can have specific notifications appear on the lockscreen itself, and the amount of customization is unreal: you can choose to view missed call notifications on the lockscreen only from your mom or spouse, and not from work, for example. You can view calendar notifications from Monday-Thursday, but not Friday-Sunday. It's totally up to you.

I should also note that Android 4.0 also brings the much anticipated Face Unlock feature, which pops up after the lockscreen. I've found it incredibly useful, and you can expect a full review a bit later.

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App scrolling in the app drawer is now horizontal instead of vertical, which I have come to prefer. One thing that's missing in the app drawer is widgets; stock ICS includes them here. I actually prefer this, as I don't use widgets very often and I like to keep my app drawer uncluttered. However, I realize that this may be a drawback for some.

One thing that I especially enjoy is the "edit tabs" feature. This is available in several different places throughout Sense 4.0 and adds another layer of customization that is helpful for people who, like me, try to keep things as uncluttered as possible. 

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The homescreen is nice, with the characteristic clock widget that's gotten a more modern refresh. This time, Sense allows you to add or delete panels, which helps with the clutter, and widgets are easily accessible with a long press on any empty area. Homescreen folders are also easy to create, just by dragging and dropping multiple apps or shortcuts into the same space. The 3D carousel is gone, as are full-screen weather animations (those were gimmicky and resource-intensive, anyway).

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The keyboard has also received a nice refresh, and includes the navigation arrows at the bottom that a lot of people missed in Sense 3.0. The Swype-like Trace function is still here, and its accuracy has gotten much better; it's so good, in fact, that HTC doesn't preinstall Swype anymore.

The phone app has also been updated, and the Groups and Call History tabs are customizable, so you can remove them if you want. There's also a handy microphone icon so you can speak the name or number you want to dial.

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Regarding internet browsing, I know that a lot of Google enthusiasts will immediate download Chrome (it's ok, I did too). However, you still might want to give HTC's stock browser a second chance. It's speedy (it has awesome benchmarks to prove it), and it has some nice functionality, including an easy toggle for Flash in the settings.

Some other nice additions in Sense 4.0 include the ability to disable apps, 25GB of free bonus Dropbox storage for two years, and Beats Audio integration. HTC's music app now integrates nicely with several cloud storage services, and worldwide weather conditions have been integrated into the clock app, which is also a nice touch.

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What I don't like:

In the name of simplicity, and in the true spirit of touch-screen controls in Ice Cream Sandwich, HTC has taken away the hardware Menu and Search buttons, but it didn't go all the way: there are still Back and Home buttons, and a new Recent Apps/Multitasking button; the latter just doesn't really do much for me. I got used to my recently used apps appearing in the notification panel in Sense 3.0, or even by long-pressing the home button in some cases. Both of these features have been stripped from Sense 4.0.

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These oddly-chosen hardware buttons create another unwanted side effect, too: there's now an awkward menu button/bar that takes up way too much screen real estate. I understand that it's necessary to account for some apps that aren't very ICS-friendly, but in some cases it duplicates the menu button that's already included at the top of many apps. I wish that HTC had either kept all of the hardware buttons as before, or followed in the footsteps of the Galaxy Nexus and forgone hard buttons all together. This strange hybrid just doesn't seem well thought-out.

I have a few other minor annoyances, too: the Weather app only includes a four-day forecast (why not five?). I miss the Quick Settings menu in the notifications drop-down. You can't disable apps from the app drawer (you can uninstall certain ones, which is a step up from Sense 3.0, but stock ICS allows you to easily manage apps more completely).

So what do I think?

Honestly, the benefits and improvements of Sense 4.0 far outweigh the gripes I have, and I'm sure I'll learn to live with those minor annoyances as I spend more time with my HTC One S. All in all, I think HTC was very successful in keeping Sense as lightweight as possible, while still maintaining the essence of what it means to be a Sense-based device. It finally brings stock ICS elements together in an almost perfect marriage with those features I've come to love in Sense, so it really is a winner – at least in my book.

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John F

John was the editor-in-chief at Pocketables. His articles generally focus on all things Google, including Chrome and Android, although his love of new gadgets and technology doesn't stop there. His current arsenal includes the Nexus 6 by Motorola, the 2013 Nexus 7 by ASUS, the Nexus 9 by HTC, the LG G Watch, and the Chromebook Pixel, among others.

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