With the launch of the new HTC One (M8), it's hard not to focus on hardware -- but the snazzy new phone also shows off some pretty interesting changes to HTC's Sense software.
With Sense 6, HTC is refining its take on Android and taking some positive steps in making the software more intuitive to use. And the changes won't just affect the new One, either; many of them will roll out to last year's HTC One lineup later this spring as well.
Here are six noteworthy new touches that have stood out to me during my time with the One (M8) so far:
1. HTC has corrected a lot of its weird and annoying UI quirks.
Back when the original One launched, I had a lot of concerns with odd and arbitrary UI changes that took a negative toll on the user experience. With Sense 6, many of those quirks have been corrected.
For instance, dragging a shortcut from the app drawer to the home screen no longer requires cumbersome extra steps; when you long-press an icon, you're just instantly taken to the home screen, where you can place it anywhere you wish and even create a new panel while you're dragging it.
Similarly, adding shortcuts to the Favorites Tray no longer requires you to navigate through a virtual maze; you just drag the icon down from anywhere in the system and drop it where you want.
Sense no longer places an unnecessary permanent clock and weather widget in the app drawer, either, nor does it require a persistent notification for "Power Saver" that you can't disable.
All those little things add up to make a big difference in user experience.
2. BlinkFeed is better than ever -- and easier to disable, too.
When BlinkFeed first came around, it seemed like a sensible concept that wasn't quite there yet. With Sense 6, I think it's safe to say BlinkFeed has finally arrived.
The tool -- a Flipboard-esque stream that lets you scan through interesting articles and social media tidbits on your home screen -- gets a visual refresh in the latest Sense. The clock and weather widget is gone from the top. BlinkFeed now has loads of available content, too, and adding areas of interest is satisfyingly simple to do.
And -- here's the kicker -- if you don't want to use BlinkFeed, getting rid of it is easier than ever: All you do is head into the home screen customization tool and delete it just like you would any other home screen panel.
HTC also no longer makes BlinkFeed the default home panel, as it used to; instead, it sits one spot over from the default, just like the Google Now panel in Google's new Nexus launcher. Here, though, you can change the default panel to be anywhere you want, which is a valuable option to have.
3. There's a new long-press menu on the home screen.
Sense 6 simplifies HTC's previously messy home screen customization process with a single new menu that appears anytime you long-press on your home screen. The menu has three options: "Home screen wallpaper," "Add apps and widgets," and "Manage home screen pages."
The first item is pretty self-explanatory, but it isn't insignificant: Previous versions of HTC's software required you to jump through lots of hoops just to change your phone's wallpaper. No more.
"Add apps and widgets" is mainly a way to place widgets on your home screen, though you can also get to regular app shortcuts there. (And yes, that does add a bit of confusing overlap with the app drawer.)
"Manage home screen pages" is the really weird one, as it doesn't do anything that you can't also do in "Add apps and widgets." But hey, baby steps -- right?
4. There's a new simplified lock screen.
Say so long to the giant swipeable clock of yore: In Sense 6, the lock screen gets a major revamp that brings it closer to the stock Android look.
The clock and weather widget is basically now just a regular lock screen widget -- albeit one that's permanently locked in place in the default position. You can add your own custom lock screen widgets to its right (once you've enabled that option in the phone's security settings), but curiously, there doesn't seem to be a way to move any of them into that primary spot.
Swiping up anywhere on the lock screen unlocks the phone normally. Swiping to the left unlocks directly to your home screen, regardless of what you were doing last. And swiping to the right opens directly to BlinkFeed.
You can also swipe up on any of the shortcuts from your Favorites Tray to jump directly to those applications.
5. There are a bunch of gestures that work while the screen's off -- and they actually work quite well.
You've heard about these new gestures by now, right? While your phone's off, you can double-tap the screen to turn it on -- similar to the KnockOn feature in LG's latest devices, except it seems to work far more consistently here.
That aside, just like on the regular lock screen, you can swipe up anywhere on the screen while it's off to activate the display and unlock the phone; swipe left to activate the display and unlock directly to your home screen; and swipe right to activate the display and unlock directly to BlinkFeed. You can also swipe down to open an HTC voice dialing program, which is unfortunately just a simple voice dialer and far less useful than the native Android Voice Search utility (and there's currently no way to customize and change what any of the gestures do).
Last but not least, you can pick up the phone in landscape orientation and press the volume up or down button to unlock the device directly into the Camera app. Pretty useful stuff all around, really.
6. Starting with Sense 6, Sense is getting decentralized.
With Sense 6, HTC is following the lead of Google -- and, more recently, Motorola -- and starting to decentralize its services from the main operating system in order to offer them as standalone apps in the Play Store.
That's an extremely significant shift, as it means HTC will be able to update those apps on its own and push out new versions without the need for an over-the-air OS rollout or any carrier intervention. And, as we've seen with both Google and Motorola, that means users can get fixes and new features faster and far more frequently than before.
Already, HTC is separating its launcher (the "BlinkFeed Launcher"), its Gallery app, and its Sense TV app, among others. Make no mistake about it: This is an incredibly good trend for us as consumers.
There's so much more to discuss with Sense 6 and the new HTC One (M8) -- including all the new stuff with the phone's dual camera setup and refreshed Camera app -- but these are six interesting software elements I thought were worth singling out to start.
Stay tuned for my full real-world review, coming soon to a website near you.
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