The HTC Sensation almost has a clear run. With no new iPhone in sight, Motorola’s Atrix stuck on one network and LG shooting itself in the same foot time and again, HTC’s super-phone has the limelight. Its only real competition? The awesome, dual-core Samsung Galaxy S 2 – Electricpig’s favourite gadget of the year so far.
That leaves upgraders with something of a dilemma. We’ve been testing out HTC’s new blower to rescue you from your quandary, so read on and find out what we made of it in our full HTC Sensation review.
Hand the HTC Sensation to a first time smartphone owner and they’ll be hooked. But there are many people now on their second, third or even fourth smartphone, and they won’t be so easy to please: let’s take a look at what it offers…
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Build quality & design
We’re almost sorry to report that after the rather striking, testosterone-filled HTC Incredible S that the HTC sits back down on its design laurels with the HTC Sensation. It’s a narrower HTC Desire HD, with similar curves on the top to a HTC Desire S, and the same mixture of aluminium and teflon. It certainly feels comfortable to hold, though at 11.3mm deep it couldn’t be called thin whichever way you look at it.
Of course, a sleeker, more aerodynamic HTC Desire HD is no bad thing when it comes to function, and the HTC Sensation functions quite nicely. We had no problems using the four capacitive navigation buttons below the screen, and ports are kept to a bare minimum. You’ll find a micro USB slot on the side and a 3.5mm audio jack on the top next to a slightly lopsided power/lock key, while the LED notification light hides under the speaker grille next to the front facing camera – there’s no camera shutter button.
There are two things worth noting however: firstly, HDMI-out to connect the HTC Sensation to your telly requires an MHL adaptor that plugs into the USB hole, just as with Samsung Galaxy S 2. And you don’t get one in the box. D’oh.
Secondly, although the HTC Sensation looks unibody, the back case actually wraps around every edge of the screen and comes off via a button at the bottom. It’s a bit surreal, and leaves it looking exposed and fragile when you need to switch out the micro SD card or removable battery.
Ultimately, we prefer the face-slappingly thin chassis of Samsung’s top-end rival, but HTC’s not in the business of simply flogging phones with the best specs – and rightly so.
The HTC Sensation’s display is superb, producing accurate colours and respectable viewing angles for watching video in landscape mode, but as ever, it simply cannot compete with Samsung’s Super AMOLED smartphone screens, and is almost as difficult to see in direct sunlight. As you can see in the picture below, the Google Nexus S looks as if it’s powered off when displaying blacks (technically it is), where as the Sensation appears to have been coloured in with a cheap black felt tip. We also noticed that the screen only recognises four multitouch points at one time, though we can’t see this ever being a problem in day to day use.
It’s a small price to pay for a wonderfully sharp display however: the 540×960 qHD resolution 4.3-inch screen looks stunningly sharp, and we really struggled to make out individual pixels. That resolution, by the by, is wider than that on most smartphones: 16:9 in fact, and it makes the phone feel smaller and more suited to dainty hands, and movie viewing absolutely marvellous. But more on that shortly.
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HTC Sense 3.0: A clever twist on Android
We’re not going to dwell on Android 2.3.3 itself. In short, it’s a powerful mobile OS with many apps and games you’ll actually want to use, and that number continues increase exponentially.
The reason we won’t linger is because, HTC has stripped out the most visible new features in 2.3 Gingerbread, ditching Google’s fantastic keyboard (available free in the Android Market, FYI) for HTC’s own QWERTY, and replacing the native launcher and homescreen with HTC’s now instantly recognisable Sense overlay.
HTC’s Sense software skin has in fact been given a big bump to version 3.0, but it’s not the radical upgrade you’d expect: the only real additions are a non-plussy 3D effect when scrolling through homescreens, a new lock screen and HTC Watch.
We’ll come to HTC Watch shortly, but the lock screen is worth talking about, since it can only be a matter of time before Google itself nicks the idea: you can set various shortcuts to drag and drop into the central ring, and these will then open once the phone is unlocked. You can also have photos or friends’ updates float on through in the background. It is sadly home to the only major bug we noticed as well: launching the camera from it launches a camera without the ability to take photos, just frame them, making the shortcut useless.
Everything else remains the same meanwhile. As ever, you’ll find recent apps and connection toggles neatly tucked away in the pull down notification menu, and if you’ve bought a HTC Android phone in the last six months, you’ve likely got all the features on the HTC Sensation, including Locations mapping, its Connected Media DLNA streaming app, as well as HTC’s omnipresent Stocks and Weather apps.
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That’s either a plus point or a major no-no: if you’re upgrading from an HTC Android phone, you’ll either be happy as a puppy that you can move all your contact shortcuts and People favourites over in a second, or you’ll be tired and looking for a new experience entirely. Decide which camp you fall into before you buy: having used every HTC phone for the last couple of years, we’re getting a bit bored of it, but we’re confident that newcomers at least will love how HTC seamlessly merges your Google, Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Videos & photos
The HTC Sensation can’t match the Samsung Galaxy S 2 for movie codec and container support: it’ll open your regular MP4 files (and now DivX AVIs) but that’s it. This puts buyers in a bit of a pickle: the Samsung Galaxy S 2 is superior at playing video, but the HTC Sensation makes it easier to acquire said video in the first place.
HTC Watch lets you buy and rent movies and TV shows right there and then on the device (Google Movies will soon provide a similar service on Android phones in the US, but there’s still no word on it coming to the UK). And they’re decent ones too, with everything from Inception and The Town to The Godfather at reasonable rental prices (£3.49 for a movie).
Oh, and Two And A Half Men, but we digress. The point is, files download quickly, look fantastic on the widescreen display, and could prove the perfect solution for boredom on long flights and train journeys – it’s the first real step towards taking on Apple’s iPhone+iTunes ecosystem, and it’s one HTC should be applauded for. Although everything you download is DRM-locked, you can play it on a HDTV through the MHL/HDMI connection: unfortunately we weren’t able to test this.
The HTC Sensation is also an adept camcorder, scoffing impressively smooth 1080p HD video. You can then trim it down on either end – it’s not a comprehensive solution as iMovie on iPhone is, but it is fast and non-destructive, saving your new clip quickly as a copy.
Things aren’t so swell when it comes to photos: 8-megapixel shots came out ill-defined, with poor macro shots and a complete inability to recognise the colour red. Our two favourite cameraphones, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc and Nokia N8 have nothing to fear from HTC.
Performance: second to one
The HTC Sensation uses a dual-core 1.2GHz Qualcomm processor paired with 768MB of RAM to keep things flowing smoothly, and it certainly does the job. While HTC Android phones were once famed for getting bogged down by homescreen widgets, the HTC Sensation doesn’t falter, running game smoothly and zooming in and out of webpages rapidly, and hovering around the 2,000 mark on the Quadrant Standard benchmark. In other words, only the Samsung Galaxy S 2 is faster, and even then, the speed differences at this point are almost superfluous: all you need to know is that the HTC Sensation won’t let you down in day to day use.
Continuing the somewhat counterintuitive trend of dual-core phones, the HTC Sensation’s battery life seems more than a match for slower single-core rivals. With brightness cranked to maximum, account syncing on and connections whirring, its sips power in standby noticeably slower than our Google Nexus S, and we’re confident you’ll be able to clear a day of normal use with it – something we certainly can’t say about the Desire HD.
Sound quality on the other hand is a tad disappointing from such a beefy phone. Regular calls are nothing out of the ordinary, but the speaker is raspy rather than loud. If crystal audio quality is what you’re after, we’ll point you in the direction of Motorola, but it’s worth remembering that with a portable computer of this power, you likely won’t be spending more time making calls on it than using its screen – in fact, if that is the case, you should consider a cheaper phone that puts the dialler front and foremost still.
The HTC Sensation is a superb handset, and certainly the best phone this year for iPhone converts who want simplicity rather than raw power. Impressively, HTC’s slight screen ratio tweak makes a 4.3-inch screen feel much more manageable no matter how small your hands are, and the power underneath isn’t in doubt.
It all comes down to whether you find HTC’s friendly software tweaks are either welcome (because they are sensible), or boring (because HTC has used the same basic layout since 2009). Both statements are true.
We’d stick with the stick-thin, stupidly-fast Samsung Galaxy S 2: it may not have a movie download service but its screen, sheer power and same basic OS help keep its crown.
HTC Sensation review unit supplied by Vodafone