The phone so nice, we're reviewing it twice

HTC Sensation 4G

This is the HTC Sensation 4G. Look familiar? It should -- you likely just read Alex Dobie's excellent review of the European version, the HTC Sensation. So we've now got it here in the states, on T-Mobile. And that's where the "4G" part comes in. This one has access to T-Mobile (USA's) HSPA+ network, meaning faster data speeds.

The Sensation 4G also brings along the latest version of HTC Sense, along with Android 2.3.3. That's Gingerbread, folks.

We're going to take a slightly different look here at the Sensation 4G for our second time around. Less clinical, more colorful. Again, go back and check out Alex's HTC Sensation review. It's a must-read. As for me? I'm smitten. And it's going to show.

Initial hands-on

Youtube link for mobile viewing

The hardware

Let's back up a little. I recently put down by Nexus One. Haven't touched it in weeks, in fact. There was always just something about it. Not so much the "Pure Google" experience, which is fine and all -- I'm a big proponent of developer phones -- but it was the hardware that I'd fallen in love with. Just the right size, with that 3.7-inch screen. Curvy in all the right places, yet able to take the abuse that comes with being the main device of a smartphone blogger.

The Sensation 4G picks up where the Nexus One (which was originally released unlocked on T-Mobile) left off. Big flat glass front, soft, curvy behind. (Or, if you prefer, a mullet. Business up front, party in the back.)

HTC Sensation 4G

Let's start with the screen. The specs don't get much better than this right now. You've got 4.3 inches of real estate, with a qHD (540x960) resolution, all protected by Gorilla Glass. We've been plenty happy with a 4-inch screen, but we're not going to turn down that extra three-tenths of an inch, either. We've had mixed experiences with the higher qHD resolution. On the Droid X2, it was underwhelming. On the Sensation 4G? It just works. The pixels are packed tight enough that you'll be hard-pressed to make out individual dots.

There's an interesting design feature here, too. And the more I look at it, the more I think it's what's really standing out. While the touchable area of the display is flat, it curves up ever so slightly as it meets the body of the phone. It's just barely concave, and you might not even notice it at first. Whether it's a design thing or an aesthetics thing, it's pretty attractive.

HTC Sensation 4GHTC Sensation 4G

HTC Sensation 4GHTC Sensation 4G

Capacitive buttons are on the the bottom. The speaker grill (with notification lights!) and a front-facing camera make up the top. Volume rocker and microUSB port on the left-hand bezel. Standard fare. There's no HDMI-out port, but you can use an MHL adapter if you want. (Remember that the MHL adapter is unpowered, so you'll have one cable running from the phone to the TV, and another running from a power source to the phone. Lame.)

HTC Sensation 4G

It's probably not too much to call the rear of the Sensation 4G a work of art. It's a mix of two soft-touch panels, flanking a metal panel. And it has the same curves as the Nexus One, which fits oh-so-nicely in the hand. You'll see five little pinholes in the back cover. No, those aren't noise canceling microphones or anything. Like on the HTC ThunderBolt, they're used to attach antennas that are inside the battery cover.

HTC Sensation 4G

Removing the battery cover is a little different on the Sensation 4G. There's a small button you have to press on the bottom bezel of the phone. You then lift up the bottom part of the battery cover, then slide the phone out of it. There's actually a little lip on the front of the Sensation, at the top. That's where the battery cover actually slides in. And you get an interesting look at the earpiece speaker (it's actually much smaller than the grille would have you believe), notification LED, and front-facing camera. Cool stuff.

Replacing the cover is easy. Slide the phone back into the top of the case, the click it into place at the bottom.

What's under the hood

HTC Sensation 4G speedsThe HTC Sensation 4G has one of the first 1.2GHz dual-core processors we've seen in a Qualcomm device. Along with that, you get 1GB of internal storage, and 558MB of free RAM, according to Elixir.

The Sensation's got all the usual sensors -- gyro, G-sensor, compass, proximity, ambient light, etc. The usual stuff.

As for battery life, we were pleasantly surprised. Got through a full day's use with nary a problem. That's with the stock 1520mAh battery, in a good HSPA+ coverage area. Your mileage may vary.

An interesting note about data speeds on the Sensation 4G. In a full HSPA+ coverage area, like Miami, speeds were pretty darn good. We saw an average of around 7 Mbps downstream, and 1500 Mbps or so upstream. Returning to my infamously EDGE-only home, the Sensation 4G would still often show a 4G icon on the home screen, then struggle to break 300 Kbps downstream. Point is: 4G works great on it, and battery life was surprisingly good.

The software

Hallelujah, the Sensation 4G runs Gingerbread. Android 2.3.3, to be exact. And it's about time we're getting phones that actually run the latest version of Android.

But while that's important, it's not really what has us excited about the Sensation. Instead, it's the new Sense 3.0 that you'll be writing home about.

HTC Sensation home screens

If you're new to the smartphone thing, here's how it works: Android is the operating system. And you'll hear a lot about "stock Android," which really just means there aren't a lot of customizations done to the home screens, menus, etc. HTC has been skinning operating systems for years, and it's pretty darn good at it. It's trademark is a series of large, easy-to-use widgets, plus the analog flip clock that's makes an HTC device instantly recognizable.

HTC Sense 3.0 lockscreenSo what's so big about Sense 3.0? First thing you'll notice is the new lockscreen. (Here's how to customize it.) It's actually the same as we've seen on the HTC Flyer tablet, which also runs Sense 3.0. There's a big ring in the middle of the lock screen. Drag it outward to unlock the phone. But what about those icons, you ask? Those are customizable -- you can pick whichever apps you want. To open one of those apps directly from the lock screen, slide the icon into the ring. Easy as pie, and it's a great way to quickly get to the camera, e-mail or any other app. Our only beef is that you're limited to four apps. We'd love to see that doubled.

Another cool feature of the Sense 3.0 lock screen is the background. You can set it to be the wallpaper, a photo album, HTC's Friend Stream app (so you can quickly see what's going on in Facebook, Twitter or Flickr), the excellent Weather app, stocks or a big clock.

Sexy, it is. We'd love to see something like this on every Android phone. It's easily the best lockscreen we've seen come pre-loaded on a device.

As for the rest of Sense 3.0 -- it's largely the same experience you get in previous versions, but better. More refined. Transitioning between home screens now has a nice little 3D effect. It's cool, but nothing we haven't seen on other launchers. And if you manage to flick your finger across the screen just right, you'll get a neat little spinning effect. But it seems to be a bit inconsistant in whether it actually wants to work -- and we'd rather just use the Leap feature or flip through one at a time if it's going to be that finicky.

The app drawer has given up the perpetual scroll and instead goes screen by screen. Still not a fan of that.

A funny thing happened on the way to this review

Oh, how quickly things can change. If you haven't noticed by now, we're pretty enamored by the HTC Sensation 4G. But between our time with it and the publishing of this review, a funny thing happened. The HTC EVO 3D happened. And there's something noticeably different between the two.

Youtube link for mobile viewing

What's up with that? The Sense UI on the Sensation has some readily apparently lag when swiping between homescreens. Both phones sport dual-core processors running at 1.2GHz. The EVO 3D shows 803MB of total RAM on Elixir, versus 558 on the Sensation. Figure between that and inevitable tweaks that are inherent on devices on different networks, and, sure enough, there's a definite difference. Here's to hoping a software update can iron out a bit of that lag.

The camera

The camera app in Sense 3.0 is pretty darn good, with quick access to switch between video and stills, and the front and rear cameras. In still mode, the Sensation will shoot up to 3264x1840 resolution (or 8MP). In video, it'll shoot up to full HD at 1920x1080, but that makes for a pretty big file size. Our 37-second test video below was almost 48 megabytes.

The rear camera's decent enough. Shutter lag will make any motion look blurry, though. Nothing new there.

 Images below open in a new window in full resolution. You've been warned.

HTC Sensation 4G camera testHTC Sensation 4G camera test

HTC Sensation 4G camera testHTC Sensation 4G camera test

HTC Sensation 4G camera testHTC Sensation 4G camera test

Be sure to watch this in full 1080p resolution

Other odds and ends

  • Call quality: Just fine.
  • Speakerphone quality: Passable.
  • Preloaded software: You've got all the usual HTC stuff (Peep, the new mirror app, etc.). There's a decent amount of stuff from T-Mobile (T-Mobile TV, T-Mobile Mail, Visual Voicemail). Maybe you'll use it, maybe you won't.
  • Like other T-Mobile phones, you've got Wifi calling available.
  • GPS worked like a charm.
  • HTC's standard Android keyboard is there, but it's got an added "Trace" feature. Think Swype, only by HTC.

The wrap-up

Let it be known: The HTC Sensation 4G is one of the better phones of 2011. Don't let that talk of lag scare you away. It's something that should be noted, but it's definitely not a deal-breaker.

You've got a great hardware build from HTC (at least in the short term; we've seen phones go downhill over time). The design is top-notch. T-Mobile's HSPA+ data was fast and reliable where we tested it.

Drawbacks? Tough to find them at this point. If you're looking for a phone to hack, well, the Sensation's not it -- yet. But if you're looking for a top-of-the-line Android phone on T-Mobile, you can hardly go wrong for $200 on contract.