Android is great, but HTC's broken, poorly coded skin is ruining its devices

Over the last couple days I came to the startling realization that HTC Corp.'s (TPE:2498) Sense UI is dangerously buggy.  (Version 6.0, if you want to be precise.)  I am unusure of whether the errors I have encountered are a fringe case or the start of a broader problem, but based on forum postings I've read I've come to the conclusion that other users are facing similar issues to me.  And the overwhelming conclusion I've drawn is that Sense UI is simply put -- pretty, but full of lurking garbage beneath the surface.

I. A Mess

After a relatively trouble-free first 6 months or so of use, my troubles with Sense UI began last week.  And they are serious and ongoing.

Sense is continuously crashing and restarting with no fix in sight.  What does that mean to the UI?  Well, in two words "disappearing keyboard."

Sure the popups warning me of Sense UI crashes are a pain.  But having your keyboard disappear is a catastrophic failure, if your device is locked with an alphanumeric password like mine was.

I've sent error reports to HTC.  But in the meantime I took matters into my own hands.

HTC Sense UI

As a disclaimer I'll state clearly for the record that I'm not an Android hacker or modder.  I'm not installing ROMs.  And my experiencing with ADB/Android terminal debugging is rudimentary at best.  I'm just a user who wants my phone to work smoothly and tries to research a fix when it doesn't.  So if you're some sort of super-modder don't sneer at this guide as it's not meant for you.

Rather, I'm posting this both to try to spur HTC into action and to list a set of fixes for users experiencing similar issues.

I own an HTC One M8 (2014) on T-Mobile U.S. Inc.'s (TMUS) network.  When these problems began it was still on Android 4.4.4 "Kit Kat" (and Sense UI 6.0) as I had been procrastinating on upgrading it to Android 5.0 Lollipop.  Well, over the weekend my battery died and I recharged my device.  When I turned it back on something bizarre happened.  Upon reaching the lockscreen I swiped up, but the keyboard had vanished.  In its place was a large empty spot.

Now that was a pickle -- I couldn't unlock my device.  And since I hadn't enabled debugging in my settings, downloading ADB post-mortem and trying to fix the settings remotely wouldn't be an option either.

The simple solution would be a factory reset.  But for me a factory reset was not a desirable answer as I hadn't backed up my photos in the last couple weeks.  Eventually I would find a fix, but it wouldn't be easy.

II. What Didn't Work

The first clue to what might be going on presented when I tried to open the Camera app or the Emergency Dialer apps from the lockscreen and got HTC Sense UI error popups (see above) that informed me the Input layer of Sense UI was flaking out.

If you happen to be in my shoes you probably started searching for "keyboard disappeared" on Google -- or something like that.  Based on my search, I could see that this problem was unusual but that some other people had faced it, as the discussion in this post shows.  A thread on a similar problem with a Nexus 7 (2013) tablet indicated that clearing the cache might help.

So I diigently cleared the cache.  To do this on an HTC phone you power the device off and then turn it back on with the "power" and "volume down" buttons pressed.  This takes it into the boot loader menu, which should look something like this.

HTC boot loader
[Image Source: HTC Evo Hacks]

From there you click the down volume button to reach "RECOVERY" and click the power button to reboot.  If you're curious this guide has the basic steps.  The recovery icon that greets you is still the same as it as with the good old HTC EVO:


To clear the cache, you have to push the "volume up" and "power" buttons, then quickly release them and press the down arrow.  If you time it right, you'll get a sort-of-secret additional menu of RECOVERY related options... including an option to wipe the cache partition.  (Navigation is the same -- volume buttons for up and down -- as is selection -- the power button.)

I wiped my cache, but unfortunately that didn't fix my problem.  Unable to locate an answer online I went to my local T-Mobile store.  It soon became apparent that the rep I was working with wasn't even familiar with the cache wiping option on my device.  Recognizing they were a bit outside their zone of expertise they suggested I either warranty out the device or call T-Mobile's dedicated tech support.

III. A Workaround When Your OEM Skin Keyboard Disappears

I went the latter route.  Reaching T-Mobile's tech support, their first suggestion was unfortunately the one I just had tried -- wiping the cache.  But their second solution sounded more promising -- use Google Inc.'s (GOOG) remote password reset tool to change the device password (

Google Android

I gave it a go.  Noticing that Sense UI did appear to be displaying numeric keyboards in the Emergency Dialer interface, I changed my alphanumeric password to a numeric PIN for the time being.

Google Android password resetter

I submitted the change... and nothing happened.  I waited a minute or two... still nothing.  The same blank keyboardless screen was still greeting me whenever I swiped up.

Thus I continued on to the T-Mobile rep's final suggestion -- calling HTC's Tech Support.  But in the middle of my conversation (roughly 5 to 10 minutes after I got off the phone with the T-Mobile tech) something miraculous happened.  I swiped up...

Keyboard -- Sense UI read off the Sense UI error and there was a numeric keyboard.  Well this was new.

Keyboard Sense UI

Typing my new numeric password, I was greeted with a sweet, sweet sight.  My device unlocked.  Overjoyed I informed the HTC tech support of this development and proceeded to wrap up the call.

I was able to offload my content.

IV. Replacing HTC's Broken Keyboard

Unfortunately the problems aren't quite over.  I upgraded to Lollipop hoping it would fix my vanishing keyboards.  Nope.  I blame HTC's junky programming.  The company has pretty nice hardware, but in all honesty Sense UI has seemingly always been headache prone junk.

Having no keyboards is kind of an annoyance, to put it modestly.  You can't type IMs... you can't type text messages... you can't type URLs.  So my Lollipop equipped HTC One M8 can unlock itself now at least, but thanks to the Sense UI garbage onboard it's more or less a brick for all intents and pruposes.

Fortunately there is a solution to this problem too.  In the Play Store I downloaded Google Keyboard (which apparently HTC does not include!) and followed the setup instructions. The key step is to switch the active keyboard from the HTC Sense UI Keyboard by HTC to the Google Keyboard by Google.  Once I did that I was greeted by a beautiful Google Keyboard.

Google Keyboard

One small irony in all this is how silky smooth and intuitive the Google keyboard is.  Thus far the Google Keyboard makes the Sense UI keyboard feel like garbage and puts its predictive capabilities to shame.  The difference is so stark it makes me seriously question why HTC chooses to degrade its device with such grossly inferior stand-ins to critical OS components.

As a side note I would like to point out that during this mess I download HTC's Sync tool, which is supposedly compatible with my device.  Even after all my fixes, and after connecting my unlocked device to my PC via USB, it still can't recognize the phone.

HTC Sync

Apparently HTC Sync is as poorly programmed as Sense UI.

Given the extent of the Sense UI mess, I'm still actively evaluating whether to warranty out my device.  But thanks to the outlined fixes I was able to recover my on-device content and return the device to a workable state.

If you experience similar issues, please let us know if these fixes work for you. And if you have any questions ask.

I would like to give some kudos to the T-Mobile tech support phone rep for presenting a working solution to me.  As for HTC, they really, really desperately need to improve their firmware.  I would be very wary about buying another smartphone from them other than a Sense-free edition on Google Play, given this poor experience and the ongoing woes.

The only experience I've had with a smartphone that was this bad or worse was my snakebitten BlackBerry Ltd. (TSE:BB) Storm smartphone five years back.  When your UI is as buggy and broken as the Storm -- well, that's saying something.

And the real shame is that HTC's hardware and the base Android experience are terriffic.  It's purely HTC's decision to weigh it down with the bloated Sense UI that (almost) ruined its product for me (and I'm sure other customers as well).

"Well, we didn't have anyone in line that got shot waiting for our system." -- Nintendo of America Vice President Perrin Kaplan

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