There’s no doubt that HTC is getting behind Beats Audio in a big way. This summer the manufacturer ponied up $300 million for a 51 percent stake in Beats, and since then it’s been quick to bring to market phones like the Sensation XE and Rezound, which include Beats earphones in the box and a Beats-optimized music player. The latest phone to launch in Europe with Beats support is the Sensation XL. Originally unveiled at a glitzy event in London back in October, the 4.7-inch XL is pitched as the first European phone designed from the ground up around Beats Audio.
The Sensation XL isn’t a replacement for the original Sensation in the traditional sense. Instead, HTC seems to be positioning both devices alongside each other, with the XL geared towards big multimedia consumers rather than spec-obsessed enthusiasts. But with formidable (and technically superior) competition from Apple, Samsung, Motorola and others, does the Sensation XL do enough to stand out from the ever-growing high-end smartphone crowd? Read on to find out.
A well-built device with a bright, vivid screen and responsive, feature-filled software. Beats headphones and software optimizations make this a great phone for music on-the-go. HTC Sense 3.5 is faster and slicker than ever.
Lack of expandable storage. Screen resolution is lower than much of the competition. Disappointing video camera performance. No Beats support for third-party music players.
The Sensation XL might not represent the complete package for smartphone enthusiasts, but it's hard to fault the device as a whole. HTC's Sense UI is better than ever, and the bundled Beats hardware is a huge step up from the bog-standard earphones provided with most phones.
Inside this review
Initial hands-on video
With its massive 4.7-inch display, the Sensation XL is one of the largest Android smartphones we’ve tested. It’s not quite as ridiculously huge as the Samsung Galaxy Note, but it’s definitely pushing the limits in terms of pocketability and usability. Put simply, we don’t think smartphones can get much bigger than this without running into serious problems with basic one-handed use.
Whatever you think of the size, you can’t fault HTC’s build quality. Just about every HTC device we’ve tested this year has been really solidly constructed, and the Sensation XL is no exception. The phone takes one or two design cues from the Flyer, HTC’s 7-inch tablet -- the chassis is part white plastic and part aluminum, although unlike the Flyer, the front face of the phone is also white. And while the device has a more plasticky feel to it than its Windows Phone-toting cousin, the Titan, it still feels good in the hand, and has a distinctive, premium appearance.
Like a lot of current HTC devices, the Sensation XL’s battery door extends around most of the chassis, with a clip at the bottom of the device which allows the back to be prised off. We imagine the idea here is to better protect the phone from wear and tear, which is always a good thing considering most consumers will be expecting a smartphone to last them through a lengthy multi-year contract.
There’s nothing too out of the ordinary on the Sensation XL in terms of button, camera and port placement -- you’ve got a power button and headphone jack along the top, with a volume rocker on the right side and micro-USB port on the left. Camera-wise, there’s a 1.3-megapixel front-facer above the screen, with a more substantial 8MP shooter on the rear, backed up by a dual-LED flash. Our only complaint here has to do with the position of the power button along the top of the device. This, combined with the XL’s ginormous size, can make it a little tricky to find and press at times, especially if you don’t have large hands. On a 4.7-inch device, a power button on the right edge of the device would’ve made much more sense. Samsung has done exactly that on the Galaxy S II and Galaxy Nexus, making it easy to press with your thumb if you’re right-handed, or your index finger if you’re a lefty.
While we’re talking about that massive screen, we should point out that it’s a 480x800 (WVGA) panel as opposed to the 540x960 (qHD) display on the original Sensation. The decision to opt for a lower resolution screen on a larger device is a little baffling, and puts the Sensation XL at a disadvantage compared to competitors like the Motorola RAZR (qHD) and Samsung Galaxy Nexus (720p) in terms of pure pixel density. That said, the Sensation XL’s display actually looks pretty good, mainly thanks to the fact that it’s a Super LCD as opposed to the original Sensation’s regular TFT. This means the XL’s colors are far more vivid, with darker blacks and better viewing angles than the original. And of course the Super LCD is also less battery-intensive than AMOLED offerings like the RAZR and Nexus, with slightly better daylight visibility to boot. The bottom line is that it’s a good-looking screen, as long as you’re not examining things too closely.
Internals, too, are something of a mixed bag. The Sensation XL is powered by a 1.5 GHz single-core Qualcomm Snapdragon CPU, with 768MB of RAM. There’s no getting around the fact that in terms of raw power and gaming performance, the XL is outmatched by the Sensation and most other high-end phones. But as we’ll discuss later in the review, HTC has done a lot on the software side to make Sense a faster, more responsive experience. So the lack of a dual-core CPU doesn’t automatically make the Sensation XL a slow phone, and in regular day-to-day use, it’s actually pretty speedy.
The other possible point of contention is the lack of removable storage. You’re stuck with 16GB of internal memory, of which just over 12GB is available as USB storage. Normally we’re not too bothered about this sort of thing, but given the phone’s multimedia focus, it seems strange to impose an artificial limit on the number of songs you’re able to cram onto the Sensation XL. And it’s stranger still when you consider that most HTC phones ship with a microSD card slot.
The big differentiator for the Sensation XL is its Beats Audio support, which we’ll dive into in more detail in the next section of this review. The phone ships with a pair of urbeats in-ear earphones (similar to the iBeats line, which is sold separately), and these are a big, huge, gigantic step up from the bog-standard earphones bundled with most HTC phones. They’re comfortable, well-designed and most importantly of all, they sound far better than any bundled earphones we’ve used. There’s no magical hardware included in the phone itself to make it work better with the Beats earphones, but the Beats Audio equalizer setting does a good job of providing better-than-expected sound quality across a fairly wide range of musical genres. More on this in the “software” section.
Finally, we found that the Sensation XL’s radio performance was good across the board, with no unexpected call quality or “death grip” issues. Mobile data and Wifi reception was comparable to other high-end devices, and voice calls were consistently clear.
The Sensation XL runs the new HTC Sense 3.5 on top of Android 2.3.5 -- more or less the last version of Gingerbread. HTC has already promised to update the Sensation XL to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich in “early 2012”, so you’ll have no worries about future OS upgrades if you pick one up. Gingerbread is Gingerbread, and we’ve seen it on dozens of phones this year -- the star of the show on the Sensation XL is Sense 3.5.
In the grand scheme of things, Sense 3.5 is a minor update to HTC’s software. It’s still a familiar experience to anyone that’s used an HTC phone over the past couple of years -- you get up to seven home screens, and a ton of shiny, translucent widgets with which to customize them. Sense 3.0’s cool-but-useless spinning carousel effect makes a welcome return too -- we’re suckers for a bit of 3D in our phone UI.
The only thing that’s really changed in the Sense launcher is its performance. In the past, Sense devices have been characterized by a persistent lag when jumping between home screens, even on faster devices like the Sensation. This has been all but eliminated in Sense 3.5 on the XL. You’ll see only the tiniest bit of stuttering if you’re using a live wallpaper, and if you’re just using a static image, everything will be silky smooth. Similarly, we managed to zip around the UI with absolutely no performance hiccups along the way. We should note that even on the original Sensation, a device with a faster dual-core CPU, there was still a little lag here and there. The fact that software performance is so markedly improved on a less powerful device demonstrates that HTC’s been doing a lot behind the scenes to make Sense as fast as it is pretty.
The Beats integration in the Sensation XL is handled in software, and when any headphones are plugged in, the phone automatically activates the Beats Audio enhancements. This may sound impressive, but in reality it’s a glorified EQ profile -- there’s nothing here that’ll magically improve the quality you get through low-end audio equipment. Use the Beats profile with the bundled urbeats earphones, however, and it’s a different story. As much as we hate to regurgitate marketing buzzwords, music just sounds noticeably richer when you combine the Beats software profile with the bundled Beats hardware. Of course, audio quality is an incredibly subjective thing, but we were surprised and impressed by how good our music sounded on the Sensation XL with Beats Audio. That said, it definitely emphasises bass more than most earphones, which may not be ideal for all kinds of music. If in doubt, run down to a store and ask for a demo.
We do have a couple of gripes to point out concerning Beats and the HTC music player, though. Firstly, the Beats software enhancements are only available in HTC’s own music app, so if you prefer a third-party player, or use a cloud-enabled player like Google Music, you could find yourself having to sacrifice Beats in order to use it. Secondly, the HTC player now lacks any kind of equalizer option -- you’ll have to choose between the Beats enhancements or the “HTC Enhancer”, which is what it defaults back to when Beats is disabled. We’re surprised to see such a basic option missing from a music-centric phone.
Other changes in Sense 3.5 include UI tweaks here and there to make commonly-accessed options a little easier to find. For example, the quick settings tab in the notification area now displays the wireless network you’re currently connected to at the top, or a shortcut to view wireless settings if you’re not connected to a network. The Sense browser has also undergone a minor facelift, with a couple extra buttons now placed alongside the address bar. Like we said, minor tweaks here and there to make things more usable -- HTC’s not reinventing the wheel here.
There's also a new usage monitor app, which allows you to keep track of how many minutes, texts and bits you've used. It's not as sophisticated as what's offered in Ice Cream Sandwich, but it does have the advantage of tracking all three types of usage, as opposed to just data.
In addition, you also get all the features we've come to know and love from earlier versions of Sense, including --
- 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.
That 1.5GHz Snapdragon might not be the fastest chip out there, but it is incredibly efficient. During our testing, we found that the phone’s 1600 mAh battery was more than sufficient to power it through a full day of heavy use consisting of browsing of browsing over HSPA and Wifi, music playback using the Beats earphones, a little video streaming and the occasional voice call. So we feel confident in saying that the XL should be able to get you through all but the craziest of full working days on a single charge.
And since many of you’ve been asking this, no, there wasn’t any noticeable increase in battery drain when using the Beats functionality.
HTC’s been making a concerted effort to improve the quality of its cameras lately, and as such the Sensation XL is fitted with a tricked-out 8-megapixel rear camera along with a standard 1.3-megapixel front-facer. The main camera features an f/2.2 lens and a BSI (backside illuminated) sensor, and these new additions both aim to improve camera performance in low light, an area which has been particularly problematic for just about every HTC camera we’ve tested.
In many ways, though, it’s a case of one step forward, two steps back. Low light performance has improved markedly, but other issues remain. We found that the XL camera’s dynamic range was poor compared to the original Sensation’s 8-megapixel shooter, and video recording performance was mediocre across the board. Jerky transitions between light and dark areas, heavy artefacting and low frame rates were among the most problematic issues we came across. Even in ideal lighting conditions, we struggled to get more than 24 fps out of the Sensation XL’s camera in the highest-quality (720p) video mode.
That said, still shot performance was, on the whole, decent, although we found our images were a little washed-out, and those pesky dynamic range issues still persist. So it doesn’t quite measure up to leading smartphone cameras, but the XL is still a capable point-and-shoot device. And on the software side, HTC’s camera app remains as feature-filled as ever, with a wealth of scene options and real-time distortion effects.
HTC has been quick to add new phones to its list of bootloader-unlockable devices, but so far the Sensation XL is nowhere to be found on HTCDev’s list of unlockable phones. It is possible to root the phone the old-fashioned way (using software exploits), but unless you’re desperate to try out some early custom ROMs, we’d recommend you wait until HTC officially opens things up on HTCDev.com. The good news is that as a phone with a fairly standard WVGA screen, Snapdragon CPU and Adreno GPU, it should be relatively easy for developers to get popular custom ROMs ported over to the Sensation XL in the months ahead.
As much as we could complain about its gigantic lower-res screen and lackluster camera, the Sensation XL is another solid all-rounder from HTC. It delivers just about everything we could want from an Android 2.3 device, along with outstanding musical capabilities thanks to Beats. SIM-free prices are gravitating towards the £400 mark, too, and we think that’s the right price for this sort of mid-to-high-end smartphone.
Other phones have it decisively beaten in terms of pure hardware muscle, but the Sensation XL is fast where it really counts to most people -- in the slickness and responsiveness of its software. That’s all down to the refinements that HTC’s made in Sense 3.5, and we’re really hoping to see this trend continued in future HTC phones.
It’s not going to dethrone the Galaxy Nexus anytime soon, but then HTC isn’t aiming for the super high-end of the market with this device. Instead, the Sensation XL is focused very much at mainstream smartphone buyers who are more interested in features than numbers. If that’s you, and you don’t mind carrying around a hefty 4.7-inch phone, then you should certainly take a look at the Sensation XL.
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