It’s tough to look at the HTC Sensation XE and remember a time when HTC was just for the niche nerd crowd, pushing out cruddy Windows Mobile handsets with obstinate touch screens. How things have changed: the Sensation XE is just about the coolest cellie on the block right now. The best though? Let’s take a look, shall we?
VerdictWe like the Sensation XE, but a modest upgrade on a six-month old phone is a tricky sell when Ice Cream Sandwich has arrived – unless you really like the headphones
LoveBig, bold and accompanied by bad-ass headphones
HateScreen can’t compete with the incredible Samsung Galaxy S 2, no Ice Cream Sandwich yet
Specs:Screen: 4.3-inch, 960 x 540 resolutionConnectivity: 3G, Wi-Fi, GPSCamera: 8-megapixel cameraStorage: 4GB, 32GB expandable via microSDHCBattery: 1730mAhSize/Weight: 126.1 x 65.4 x 11.3 mm, 151 grams
Design and build qualityThe HTC Sensation XE has had more than a few tweaks under the bonnet, but visually, any change from the impressive HTC Sensation is purely aesthetic.
It’s the same curved slab of metal, which though thick feels much more reassuring than the plasticky, anorexic Samsung Galaxy S 2. Buttons and ports haven’t changed (So there’s still no dedicated camera shutter button unfortunately) but there’s nothing out of place.
What has changed is the colour scheme: in place of boring silver is a black and red design that makes us think that this thing could sting. even the four capacitive keys below the display glow red. There’s also the Beats Audio logo emblazoned on the back, but we’ll get to that shortly.
Like the Sensation, it isn’t actually unibody: the whole back plate lifts off to get at the battery. but it’s close enough to feel premium.
ScreenThe screen hasn’t changed since the original Sensation launched in May, although it wasn’t really in need of fixing. The 4.3-inch touchscreen is sharp at 960 x 540 pixels, it’s bright and it boasts reasonably wide viewing angles.
What’s so impressive is that because of the 16:9 screen ratio, it makes the entire phone feel smaller than it actually is. Its older brother, the HTC Desire HD, sports the same diagonal screen width, but is much more cumbersome for those without great big man-paws.
This is just about as good as LCD gets, to be clear, but we still prefer the luscious contrast of Samsung’s Super AMOLED plus screens: they really lend themselves to HTC’s heavy reliance on black in its software themes, so here’s hoping HTC gets access to some soon.
Key featuresMobile moves fast. Too fast sometimes, and it seems the relentless pace the likes of Samsung are setting on hardware development is almost a bit too much for HTC. The HTC Sensation XE is a modest update to the Sensation, with a slightly faster processor, but it also represents the start of a shift towards an Apple-style business model, where it’s not the specs that count but the services.
To that end, the HTC Sensation XE is the first phone to come with Beats Audio integration and headphones. Beats is the famous earphones brand pioneered by Dr Dre, which HTC snapped up a big stake in earlier this year.
UsabilityDon’t let the HTC Sensation XE’s size put you off: we’d say it’s more than manageable for most. Do however spare a thought for the software interface. The Sensation XE runs Android 2.3.4 (Not Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0, sadly, although an update is coming), which has more apps than you can shake a stick at, and is fast if sometimes a little confusing.
HTC has modified the Android OS with its custom Sense skin that does make it more manageable: it manages your contacts and social network friends adroitly. We’ve grown tired of HTC’s QWERTY keyboard for Android however, which is easy enough to use, but doesn’t make best use of the huge screen.
This last point is actually quite a good litmus test. If you want complete simplicity in your smartphone, check out the Windows Phone-powered HTC Titan or HTC Radar instead. If you’re prepared to hunt out another keyboard that suits your need, Android is definitely for you.
ConnectivityAndroid smartphones require quite a few inputs and radios in order to meet Google’s stringent standards, and the HTC Sensation XE packs the usual bits and pieces in this regard: 3G, Wi-Fi, GPS. Android allows you to share that 3G connection as a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot, while the Wi-Fi can be used to stream media via DNLA to other connected devices on your network, either with HTC’s Connected Media app, or the superior (and free) Skifta app available on the Android Market.
Lastly, the HTC Sensation XE can output its screen and video to an HDTV, but you’ll need a separate MHL adaptor (which plugs into the micro USB socket) to do so.
Camera and media playbackHTC rarely impresses with its smartphone cameras, which is more than a bit of a pity, so it comes as no surprise to find that the HTC Sensation XE grabs decent stills in perfect lighting, and then promptly drowns in noise at the first sign of dimming. The eight megapixel shots aren’t bad, don’t get us wrong, but they’re nothing to worry the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S as Android camera phone numero uno.
On the video front, 1080p video is crisp, though perhaps a little washy compared to the sumptuous footage shot by the Galaxy S 2. In a nice touch, you can trim your footage before uploading to YouTube and the like, though it’s still not comparable to the powerful iMovie app for iPhone.
HTC as usual doesn’t rock the boat with format support: MP3 songs, MP4 videos, that’s about it. but the HTC Sensation XE is a little different to most Android phones, because of Beats.
In the box, you get a pair of custom iBeats head phones with an added in-line remote (rare for Android, and extremely useful for skipping through tracks, even if volume controls are still absent). They look the part and simply refuse to tangle. Whether you’ll like the sound quality though is up to you: Beats have a habit of boosting the bass just to make your tracks sound impressive, rather than authentic, which works for some musical genres more than others, and that certainly seems to be the case here. but! They look amazing.
Pop the Beats headphones in, and a custom Beats profile is also triggered, which does some fiddling with the EQ curve. You can turn this on or off from the drop down notification tray, but it also highlights the problem with Beats’ integration here: you could just do it yourself, but to do that, you’d need a different music player from the Android Market, such as PlayerPro.
And guess what! This automatic profile doesn’t work with them, or the lossless audio codecs they can open. Ultimately, we have to conclude that Beats is for hip-hop stylists rather than audio purists.
AppsAs part of HTC’s move to a serviceable smartphone operation, it bundles its flagship phones with heaps of apps. The HTC Sensation XE comes with Locations, its mapping service which doesn’t require a data connection since you can download the data in advance. but our favourite inclusion is HTC Watch, the company’s movie download and rental service designed to combat iTunes. Google has recently introduced movie rentals for all Android devices via the Market, but it’s extremely confusing right now, and the choice isn’t great, so this is still a great selling point for film fans.
Call quality/battery lifeHTC rarely puts a foot wrong with call quality and reception, and we had no problems in this regard with the HTC Sensation XE, although world travellers might be put off by dual-band 3G where the Galaxy S 2 is penta-band (which means it supports five different frequencies used globally).
If truth be told, the slight boost in clock speed to 1.5GHz doesn’t visibly affect performance – the Sensation was already blazingly fast – but the good news is that HTC shoved in a bigger battery anyway. The 1730mAh cell (as opposed to 1520mAh on the Sensation) lasts a full day of moderate use, with a good third to spare: an hour or two of web surfing, repeated email checking and half an hour of calls, with all accounts syncing.
Check out our HTC Sensation XE review photo gallery: