There’s no escaping the blistering pace of technological progress when it comes to Android smartphones. Last year’s 1GHz monsters are already being left in the dust by a slew of new multicore devices from the likes of Motorola, Samsung and LG. The recent launch of the Sensation in Europe sees HTC arriving fashionably late to the dual-core party, with a phone that combines a 1.2GHz chip with a brand new version of HTC Sense, and a new, sharper 4.3-inch qHD display.
HTC has a track record of consistently producing high-quality hardware and software, and so the Sensation instantly shot to the top of many consumers wish lists when it was announced just a couple of months ago. But now that the hype has settled down a little, how does it perform in the real world? Join us after the jump to find out.
The HTC Sensation is a seriously sleek-looking piece of kit. There’s the aluminum unibody design we’ve come to expect from HTC phones, combined with a contoured 4.3-inch Super LCD display and two rubberized areas at the rear to make it easier to hold. The Sensation’s design will remind Android fans of the Nexus S, as well as HTC’s own Nexus One, but it’s also a highly attractive phone in its own right.
Like just about every other contemporary HTC device, the Sensation looks and feels solid, and fits really nicely in the hand. Lately HTC has hit a near-perfect balance between sturdiness and aesthetics, and we’re happy to report that this is a trend which it has continued with the Sensation.
At the bottom of the phone you’ll find the standard four capacitive buttons -- home, menu, back and search. The power button, volume rocker and headphone jack can all be found in the usual places too, and HTC’s stuck with its decision to move the micro-USB ports to the left side of its phones. Our working theory is that this is to make it more difficult to knock the device off a table or desk when it’s plugged in, a fate which has befallen this reviewer’s HTC Desire too many times to count.
The Sensation sports a front-facing VGA camera alongside an 8-megapixel rear camera with dual-LED flash. The front camera is a basic fixed-focus sensor, designed for quick video calls rather than any kind of serious photography. That's where the main camera comes in -- it boasts 1080p video recording alongside the aforementioned 8MP stills. We’ll have a more detailed breakdown of camera performance later in this review, but one welcome design feature we noticed immediately was the fact that the Sensation’s camera is more or less flush with the back of the chassis. This is great to see, as earlier phones like the Desire HD have suffered from large, protruding camera lenses.
Moving onto the internals, the main attraction is the 1.2GHz dual-core Snapdragon processor, which is backed up by 768MB of RAM. Some may have been expecting 1GB, like some other dual-core phones, but in our opinion this is overkill for a smartphone, as there are often performance bottlenecks in other areas. The current phone version of Android might not be able to exploit dual-core hardware quite as well as the tablet branch, but there are still clear benefits to be had, such as 1080p video playback and recording. On the subject of video playback, the Sensation supports HDMI connectivity via a MHL connector, but we were disappointed to find that no such cable was provided in the box. However, this is made up for by the phone’s Wifi streaming capabilities, which we’ll discuss a little more in the “software” section.
The Sensation offers 1GB of internal storage for apps, and again, this has been singled out for criticism by some. But let’s be realistic here -- 1GB will still let you install a humongous number of apps, and that’s before you even consider moving anything to the SD card. Speaking of which, you’ll get a reasonably spacious 8GB card included with the phone.
The Sensation ships with 540x960 “qHD” display, a step up from the 480x800 panels offered in most HTC smartphones to date. This has been a major part of HTC’s marketing push for the Sensation, and although the extra pixel density is noticeable, and of course welcome, the difference isn’t staggering. That said, text is easier to view on web pages at greater zoom levels, and multimedia content looks great thanks to the higher resolution. And as you’d expect from a modern LCD, use in direct sun is good, too.
Unfortunately, we noticed that the Sensation's screen had inferior viewing angles and slightly less vivid colors when compared to some other Super LCD panels, including the ones used in HTC’s “S” series of phones. That’s not to say the Sensation’s screen is bad -- far from it -- it’s just slightly disappointing to see steps backwards in terms of viewability and color quality.
Finally, we noticed no issues with call or signal quality when using the Sensation. Calls were nice and clear, and signal strength was comparable to other smartphones. Interestingly, we found that the Sensation's Wifi performance was superior to most current Android phones. This will come as good news to mansion-dwellers and neighborhood Wifi thieves alike.
On the whole we were very impressed with the Sensation's hardware -- both on the outside and the inside. It's a powerful, good-looking phone which delivers a large, high-resolution screen without being excessively heavy. Once again, kudos to HTC's design team.
This would usually be the point in our review where we'd explain that this is an HTC Sense phone, and that Sense is Sense and nothing has really changed. But in this case, everything has changed. The Sensation is the first device to ship with the new HTC Sense 3.0, and there’s a lot to see in the new Sense, which in this case runs on top of Android 2.3.3. That's right, it ships with Gingerbread.
The new stuff begins as soon as you unlock the device. Gone is the relatively plain Sense lock screen of old -- in its place lies a customizable, animated affair complete with widgets and shortcut icons. Simply drag a shortcut icon into the ring to load that app straight up, or alternatively drag the ring upwards to unlock the phone as usual. As heavy as this is on eye candy, it’s actually a really useful feature too, and can save valuable seconds when you’re out and about and want to check your email, or fire off a quick text.
The lock screen is controlled via the ever-growing Sense personalization menu, and there are six layouts to choose from out of the box. These include a basic wallpaper-only option, a heavily-animated weather screen and other setups which bring in photo and social networking content. Of course, the four shortcut icons on the lock screen can be customized too, allowing immediate access to any app on the phone.
HTC’s launcher app has also undergone a 3D refit. When you first unlock the phone, the ring of home screens spirals into view before landing you onto the middle screen, where you’ll most likely be greeted by the familiar HTC clock widget. The seven home screens now form a connected loop, which you can freely swipe through. Scroll fast enough and you’ll briefly launch the phone into carousel mode, which serves no practical purpose, but, we have to admit, looks pretty cool. HTC’s home screen widgets have made the transition across to the third dimension too, and you’ll see when swiping between screens that they’re now made up of multiple layers. Visual changes aside, though, most of the widgets function just the same as in Sense 2.1.
While we’re on the subject of visual finery, HTC should be praised for its excellent work with the Sense 3.0 weather animations. These are showcased briefly in our hands-on video at the top of the page, and are all absolutely gorgeous. In particular, the full-screen graphics shown in the weather app itself remind us why HTC is the king of animated clouds on a smartphone.
We only have one serious complaint with the Sensation’s UI, and that centers around the launcher. Slap some widgets around the place, then set up a live wallpaper such as “Streak,” and you’ll notice a sizable performance hit on your home screens. Swiping through screens will be choppy and slow until you eventually yield and scale back some of the eye candy. Excessive live wallpaper and widget use will slow down any launcher eventually, but the Sensation’s 3D launcher seems particularly vulnerable graphics-related lag, which is disappointing considering the beefiness of its hardware.
As well as shiny new Sense 3.0 UI and some new apps, which we’ll discuss below, you also get all the features from earlier versions of HTC Sense. We’ve covered these in more depth in earlier HTC phone reviews, but here are a few highlights:
- Unified contacts system - Combines social networking information with Google Contacts and other sources to bring all your contacts to your phone.
- Friend Stream - Social network aggregation for Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Flickr.
- HTC Hub - Online hub to download additional content for your phone, including new wallpapers, widgets, apps, ringtones and more.
- Connected Media - Stream music, photos or video to any DLNA-compliant receiver.
- HTC Likes - A selection of HTC-approved apps from the Android Market.
- Transfer my stuff - Allows you to transfer personal data like contacts and messages from a range of other devices.
- HTCSense.com - Back up your messages to the cloud, and remotely track, lock or wipe your phone if it’s lost or stolen.
- Locations - An alternative navigation and maps package which works offline, eliminating the need to maintain a data connection while you’re travelling.
- Notification area - Contains a list of recent apps for fast task-switching, as well as a quick settings tab for controlling things like Wifi, Bluetooth and GPS.
Now, onto the new stuff. HTC has included two new content portals on the Sensation, the first of which is HTC Watch. Watch is the result of HTC’s acquisition of Saffron Digital earlier this year, and as such you’ll find a reasonable amount of TV and movies to buy or rent. Watch isn’t exactly overflowing with content, but given that it’s only launched in the past few weeks, we’re willing to let that slide for now.
As far as playing your own content goes, there are plenty of options available on the Sensation. The built-in gallery app will play just about anything you can throw at it, from MP4 to 3GP to Xvid to WMV. And the Connected Media app lets you stream any natively-playable content to a DLNA-supporting TV, console or media center. The HTC music app functions much as it always has, and as with some earlier HTC phones, you can enable SRS enhancements to improve playback through the built-in speakers.
If e-books are your thing, HTC has included the HTC Reader app, which comes pre-loaded with a few classics like Alice in Wonderland, The Art of War and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Text is clear and easily readable on the Sensation’s qHD display, and there are options to increase or decrease text size to suit your tastes, too. More books can be purchased via Reader’s Kobo-powered e-books store.
There are some minor software additions too, including the new Task Manager app and "Trace" keyboard. The former provides an easy interface for users to identify any misbehaving apps which might be slowing their phone down. The latter is HTC's attempt at a Swype-like on-screen keyboard, which has unfortunately turned out to be a bit of a dud. After enabling it on the keyboard settings screen, you'll be disappointed to see that it doesn't work everywhere in the UI, and even more disappointed to find that it's frustratingly inaccurate and difficult to use. To put it bluntly, we found that it was just nowhere near as good as Swype. However, it is an optional extra that you'll have to find and enable yourself, so most users will likely never stumble across it.
We don't want to end on a negative though, because the Sensation's software experience is arguably its most valuable asset. Some users criticize Sense, calling it pompous and bloated, but we disagree -- in Sense 3.0, HTC has itself an attractive 3D UI with a ton of functionality that's lacking in most devices from other manufacturers.
You might expect the Sensation’s dual-core processor to be locked in a constant struggle with its 1520 mAh battery, but thankfully this isn't case. It’s an incredibly energy-efficient device (as dual-core processors are supposed to be), and with normal usage you shouldn’t have any trouble going 24 hours between charges. With less intensive use, we've even managed to push it to 48 hours.
As we always point out, though, certain smartphone tasks are more battery-intensive than others -- video recording is one, video streaming is another. Every user treats their phone differently, so we’re not claiming everyone will be hitting the two-day mark on a single charge. But unless your usage patterns are completely insane, the Sensation will certainly see you through the working day, and then some.
The Sensation has a front-facing VGA camera for video calls (or checking your hair in the Mirror app), and as we’ve mentioned, this is a fixed-focus camera that’s of little use for anything else. The 8-megapixel rear camera, however, gave us excellent-looking still shots in well-lit environments. In Sense 3.0, HTC has improved the camera app to allow for instant capture of stills, and this works really well on the Sensation. On some other smartphones, including earlier HTC devices, you might press the shutter button and have a short delay before being left with an off-looking, slightly blurred shot. Not so on the Sensation, in fact it’s quite difficult to capture blurred stills at all.
Unfortunately, it’s not all good news, though -- still image quality degrades rapidly indoors or in low light, as you’ll be able to see in the final sample image. The dual-LED flash goes some way towards mitigating this, but it seems the main problem here is one of sensor quality.
Video recording on the Sensation follows a similar pattern -- in daylight, it produces some of the best footage we’ve ever seen from a smartphone camera at 1080p with a buttery-smooth 30 frames per second. Go indoors, though, and it’s a different story. A considerable amount of image sharpness is lost, and the frame rate quickly drops down to around 20 fps.
Once you’ve shot your video, the Sensation’s video trimming app allows you to cut it to the right length and quickly re-save. It’s not quite a complete video-editing suite, but it’s nice to have a little more control over your videos right there on the phone.
HTC recently made a lot of nerds very happy with the news that it’s going to stop locking the bootloaders of its new phones. However, what this means for devices which have already shipped, or, like the Sensation, are in the process of shipping, is unclear. The phone may be officially opened up in a future over-the-air update, but for now it’s fully locked down -- S-ON, locked bootloader, signed recovery.
In our opinion, it’s quite likely that HTC will completely unlock the Sensation at some point in the near future, but until that happens you shouldn’t expect to have it rooted or running custom ROMs anytime soon. Hopefully this is the last time we’ll have to write something like this in an HTC phone review.
The Sensation takes a sizeable step beyond the likes of the Desire S and Incredible S, bringing to market an impressive, high-performance device which boasts the most fully-featured software experience on any Android smartphone.
It may not be quite the quantum leap that some were hoping for, and certainly, we were able to find things to grumble about. The camera performs poorly in low light; the launcher lags, chronically at times, if you use a live wallpaper. A bundled MHL cable would’ve been nice, as would pre-loaded video-calling software.
Of course, no phone is perfect. But when you consider everything that the Sensation offers, it’s difficult not to recommend it to anyone looking for a high-end smartphone. Competitors might be faster in some areas, but we found the Sensation more than sufficiently speedy. Other phones may be slimmer and lighter, but with the Sensation you get a reassuringly sturdy build quality and a sleek unibody design. And while the it isn’t the best at everything it does, the Sensation is, in our opinion, an outstanding dual-core all-rounder.
The HTC Sensation is currently available on-contract from Vodafone in the UK, and will be launching on other networks over the next month or so. SIM-free prices are expected to be around £500 in the UK and €600 in the eurozone. In the US, the HSPA+ capable Sensation 4G will launch on T-Mobile later this month.
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