When I took a look at the original HTC Sensation last summer, I was left impressed by its qHD display and the speed at which the phone carried out tasks, thanks in no small part to its 1.2GHz dual-core processor. Apparently, I wasn’t the only person who enjoyed using it either, as it’s proved popular enough for HTC to partner with Beats Audio and release the new HTC Sensation XL with Beats earphones bundled in.
After setting the bar so high with the original model, though, can the Sensation XL live up to its name? Let’s take a closer look and find out!
As suggested by the “XL” tagged on to the end of the Sensation’s name, the new model enters the market with a screen that is 0.4-inches bigger than its predecessor, coming in at 4.7-inches. On the face of it the difference may seem marginal, but it actually changes the experience that you get from the phone dramatically. At this size, we’re approaching Dell Streak territory and we all know how that ended…
So how does the size increase change real world usage on the Sensation XL? If I was to say that it was as comfortable to hold as the Sensation I’d be lying, but like the Sensation this phone benefits from superior build quality compared to some of the cheaper devices in HTC’s line-up. The phone is encased with a nice quality plastic, unlike the kind that you’ll find on cheap looking Samsung phones, and the battery cover has been differentiated through an aluminium style finish.
Around the back of the phone, you will find the 8 megapixel camera taking pride of place at top centre, and there is a dual LED flash just to the side. The headphone jack and power button are where you would expect them to be and unlike the HTC Desire HD, the top of the device doesn’t stick up at an angle that would make it awkward to press the power button comfortably without adjusting the phone’s angle within your hand.
The 8 megapixel rear camera is joined by a 1.3 megapixel camera on the front of the phone above the screen, and the notification LED is located invisibly behind the plastic casing of the phone so that you can’t see it unless you have a notification. As you would expect from a modern Android device there are four capacitive touch buttons below the screen, which allow you to return to your home screen, access in-app menu functionality, go back and search.
So far, so good then! The Sensation XL has the makings of a great Android device, but how does HTC ship a phone like this with a set of earphones from Beats Audio without costing the end user an arm and a leg for the privilege of using it? Surely cutbacks have to made elsewhere in the device? Unfortunately, this is indeed the case, and those cutbacks are made with the screen.
Pixel density issues aside, the screen is well lit and I had no issues with it being too bright indoors or too dim when using it in the wild. It’s just very frustrating when you have so much screen estate, but the same number of pixels as a phone that’s 1.2-inches smaller, because there’s no actual gain in productivity unless you have ogre-like hands that are too big to use a smaller device.
Now that the elephant has left the room, let’s press on and check out what’s running this whole show behind the scenes. The dual-core 1.2GHz Qualcomm Scorpion processor that was found in the Sensation has been replaced by a single core processor, the MSM8255, although it does have a higher clock speed at 1.5GHz. When using the phone in the wild, I couldn’t tell any difference in the fluidity of the software that was running, so I highly doubt that any users would notice the missing core, even if it does score lower in lab tests.
Although the Sensation and Sensation XL share the same amount of RAM, the later model benefits from a big increase in internal storage, taking some pressure off the user to manage apps manually and shift them to the SD card. Compared to the 1GB of internal storage that was offered in the original model, the 16GB offered in the XL makes for a painless Android Market experience, and unlike most Android phones that are making their way in to the market at the moment, users won’t have an issue with space after installing an insignificant number of applications.
All of the earlier cutbacks that have had to be made, such as the screen resolution and single core processor, are no doubt due to the fact that HTC has partnered with Beats Audio to provide users with Beats earphones out of the box. Compared to the earphones that ship with most phones – don’t even get me started on the pieces of shit that Apple call earphones – the Beats are bound to be a big improvement, but can they compete with similar models from other brands, or do they just inflate the price of what is essentially a HTC Sensation with a big screen and low screen resolution?
When comparing the sound quality on the Beats earphones with the quality from a pair of iPhone earphones, there was simply no competition. The Beats clearly blow the competition out of the water when it comes to earphones that are provided free of charge with competing phones. The set that comes with the iPhone and iPods are the sheer definition of the word “tinny” and I couldn’t bring myself to listen to music through them for longer than a few seconds (although I am a self-confessed audiophile).
Having said that, the Beats came up against a bigger challenge when I paired them against my beloved pair of Bose in-ear headphones. The Bose unit retails at £120, so it may be a little unfair to compare them directly with the Beats, but the whole purpose of selling a phone with decent earphones out of the box is to provide users with a musical experience that is much better than what they are already used to, so why not compare them to a pair of industry leaders?
I tested the earphones with various tracks of differing genres. Each track was lossless, so there was no sound quality lost through file compression and both pairs sounded as good as they possibly could do. Although I much preferred the Beats to standard iPhone earphones, which sounded very tinny, the Bose earphones in turn made the Beats sound tinny themselves. When listening to tracks with prolonged bass, the Bose earphones really came to life and engrossed me in the music. The Beats on the other hand lacked a lot of bass and it felt like I was listening to a track that was still a work in progress at Abbey Road.
After comparing the Beats with earphones from both ends of the quality spectrum, there’s no doubt that this pair lies bang in the middle of the two. Do they make the HTC Sensation XL a phone that audiophiles can purchase and use out of the box without buying any additional earphones? Certainly not, but to the average music-listening, pirate-loving Joe, they are a big improvement over what he will probably be used to.
When the HTC Sensation shipped, it came with HTC Sense 3.0, which brought video rentals, stock application improvements and more to HTC’s Android line-up. Fast forward a few months, and the HTC Sensation XL is shipping with Android 2.3.5 (Gingerbread) and Sense 3.5, the latest and greatest version of the company’s skin. Although the changelist of Sense 3.5 isn’t quite as drastic as that of 3.0, it still includes a number of noticeable features.
Before Sense 3.5, HTC Android users have had to live with seven home screens, without the ability to delete any of them out of the box. For users who want to slim down the number of home screens that they have to manage, you can now remove any unwanted screens. This is great news for people who aren’t lovers of widgets, as it means that they will no longer need to flick through empty home screens that were once populated by HTC’s widget collection.
Of course if you do happen to love the collection of widgets that ships with HTC’s phones, then you aren’t left out of the loop either; the new version of Sense includes improvements to existing widgets and some new ones to go along with them. Other improvements that have been made will be noticed by all users of HTC Android devices. The browser, for example, has seen a bit of a makeover compared to what it looked like in the previous version of Sense.
As it’s running Android Gingerbread, the Sensation XL will be immediately outdated from the moment that it’s bought, now that Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) has made its way into the limelight and on to the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and other devices that have been promised support from their respective manufacturers.
When it comes to HTC devices, however, this transition is always a little less clear. Due to the extensive skinning that HTC phones undergo before they are released to the market, it is difficult for the company to push updates in a short time scale. At the time of writing, there has been no announcement from HTC regarding the availability of an upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich, although I wouldn’t rule it out just yet. If you’re looking to get a phone that is always running the latest and greatest version of Android, then a HTC phone is one that you’ll probably want to avoid; go for a Nexus phone such as the Samsung Galaxy Nexus instead and you’ll find that it is updated far more regularly.
There’s no doubt that the HTC Sensation XL is a good top of the line phone, and many people will undoubtedly be over the moon with a phone that looks and performs as good as this does. The main concern I have here is that the earphone to spec trade-off isn’t worth it. For a pair of mediocre earphones, you’re sacrificing a high resolution display and a dual-core processor, but still paying the same amount (if not more) for a phone that fails to impress on all fronts.
I would have loved to see HTC push the boat out with the XL’s screen after making it a whopping 4.7-inches big, but reducing the resolution at the same time as increasing the screen size is a big drawback as far as I’m concerned. If you really want to go for a HTC phone that comes with Beats earphones, then I would have to recommend the HTC Sensation XE first. It’s essentially the same as the original Sensation, down to the screen size, pixel density and processor, but it comes paired with Beats earphones instead of the standard ones that you’ll find with other phones.
The HTC Sensation XL is available from Three on their fantastic One Plan for £40 a month. That will give you unlimited data, 2000 minutes and more texts than your fingers can handle. If you fancy going for the Sensation XE instead, it is also available on the One Plan, this time for £37 a month.