HTC Sensation Review

Jonathan Morris
June 3, 2011

With the HTC Sensation, it’s perhaps easy to raise concerns that HTC is at risk of getting a reputation for releasing too many minor upgrades to their range, with so many handsets similar in both looks and features as the model released before it.

It’s a problem for HTC, Samsung (with its ever growing list of Galaxy smartphones), LG (Optimus) and almost certainly Sony Ericsson with its deluge of Xperia branded mobiles coming out in the first half of 2011.

While Apple can get by with a single phone update once a year, or thereabouts, the rest of the industry is fighting a battle to keep ahead of the game, with the race well and truly on to up screen sizes, boost processor performance, and keep up to date with the latest Android OS.

It needs to slow down. Everyone accept this in the industry, but it simply doesn’t seem to be showing any signs of happening.

The problem is that each new flagship only sits at the top of the tree for a small time before something else comes along and climbs above. The result is that customers get disillusioned and begin to fear that their latest purchase will be out of date in a matter of weeks. They’re not wrong either.

In the case of HTC’s top-end models, we’ve come from the award-winning Desire to the Desire HD, the Desire S, the Incredible S, and now the HTC Sensation, all in little over a year. The Sensation is, however, the first dual-core device from the Taiwanese smartphone giant.

It still looks like many of the earlier HTC models from the back, but rather than the usual unibody design, the Sensation has a different construction where you don’t so much remove the battery cover from the phone, but rather detach the phone from inside the battery cover. Once you’ve placed the SIM and memory card inside, you slot the phone back and snap it shut.

The upside is that the phone feels very solid, with a toughened screen and solid back that should hold up well to the daily abuse of modern life.

The Sensation has the speed, the memory, a bigger battery (bigger for HTC, but not much more than the competition is already offering) and a huge screen to take the company a big leap forward. It also has an 8-megapixel autofocus camera with LED flash on the rear, and a VGA-resolution camera at the front, plus a light sensor, GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth V3 and all the other standard features on any Android phone.

Firstly, the 1.2GHz dual-core processor puts it up there with Samsung’s Galaxy S II on raw power, while the 4.3-inch Super-LCD screen matches that of the Motorola ATRIX, displaying 540×960 pixels (qHD-resolution).

However, it sneaks ahead of Motorola on the screen front thanks to its display being a ‘true’ pixel-for-pixel display, unlike the PenTile Matrix that Motorola opted for. However, Motorola chose its screen to reduce power consumption, so there may be a price to pay. That’s worth taking into account given the Sensation uses only a 1,520mAh battery, while Motorola went for a more heavy duty 1,930mAh pack in the ATRIX.

One thing the Motorola ATRIX has that none of the other dual-core devices do is the Webtop application, which – for extra money – allows you to hook up the phone to a TV or a rather innovative but expensive ‘LapDock’, and turn the phone into a mini-computer. With the Sensation, there’s only the ability to hook the phone up to a TV and mirror the phone display, but Webtop isn’t for everyone and if all you want to do is view pictures and videos, the Sensation works just fine.

Life is about compromises, and it’s actually quite nice to be able to find some real differences between the current crop of top-end devices. It proves that Android smartphones don’t all have to be clones of one another, even if it does make choosing the right model a little harder.

The one thing where HTC can certainly claim to lead the way is in its use of HTC Sense to greatly enhance the Android experience.

While there are people who would rather get an unadulterated version of Android OS that can be customised with third-party apps, in their own time and to their own needs, it’s fair to say that many more prefer something easy to use out of the box. Smartphones are mass market, so ease of use is more important than ever.

Given how many people like the simplicity of an iPhone, Sense UI makes getting up and running a painless experience. In fact, it’s actually really enjoyable to go through the setup process and see the phone populating itself with your existing data for virtually no effort.

From the first switch on, HTC takes you through a series of steps to configure the phone, from copying contacts over from another phone using Bluetooth, to logging in to your Google account (which will then sync your email, contacts and appointments), your account and then Twitter and Facebook for the integration of your social networking. Further support exists for Flickr and LinkedIn, with HTC able to add new services as and when they’re launched.

If you don’t have any of these accounts, creating a new one is equally simple. Before you know it, you’ll be a social media God. The online HTC Sense account enables you to view and backup information from your phone via the website, set up remote diverts, read messages and track or bar your phone if it is lost or stolen. You can also make the phone ring loudly in case you’ve mislaid the device around the home while in silent mode.

Once the phone goes on to link your existing contacts with any social networking contacts you have, you can use the Friend Stream app or its home screen widget to keep yourself fully updated on everything they’re doing, from the latest status updates to a record of all calls made and received, photos and videos, messages and locations. The phone will even remind you of birthdays when taking or receiving a call, so you won’t forget to say ‘happy birthday’.

The Sensation ships with the latest Gingerbread OS (Android 2.3.3) installed. Whether the phone will be upgradeable to the next Android OS (‘Ice Cream Sandwich’), which merges Android 2.x with the V3.x Honeycomb version designed for tablets, isn’t yet known, but you can expect routine updates and patches for 2.3 to come as they are released.

Although the front-facing camera isn’t very impressive at just 0.3-megapixels (nor is it likely to be used much), the rear camera is rather out of character for HTC. Most models make do with five-megapixels, but this has eight. The Sensation also captures HD video in either 720p or 1080p, at 30 frames per second, although I didn’t find it too hard to have it dropping frames when recording fast moving video.

The standard camera interface is also devoid of many special features. All you’ll get here is face detection, geotagging and some post-production effects like vignette, distortion, depth of field and vintage or sepia. The camera is also slow to load the first time, and focuses when you press the on-screen shutter button to add a further delay.

But, the most important thing is picture quality, and unfortunately HTC still seems to struggle here. Pictures lack detail and sharpness, and to further spoil things, the photos are heavily compressed so they can end up under 1MB in size. With the phone supporting memory cards of up to 32GB in capacity, and the company supposedly working on a phone with a camera that can capture in RAW format, it’s not as if storage space is at a premium.

Given the performance of the rest of the phone, you may not be too worried about the camera not being of a professional quality – especially if you’re only ever going to take pics to share on Facebook or Twitter – but HTC could surely do more.

Inside the phone is the very latest Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, with two cores and the very latest Adreno 220 graphics co-processor. In a group-test of all the latest handsets, missing only LG’s Optimus 2X, the Sensation came out top for its 3D graphics performance, rendering at exactly 60 frames per second.

Not bad for a phone that has a higher-resolution screen than every phone, bar the ATRIX. Mind you, given the Sony Ericsson Xperia arc wasn’t far behind, despite only using a single-core Snapdragon processor and the older Adreno 205 GPU, it does still prove my point that dual-core processors are far from realising their full potential.

HTC makes a big deal about its Sense UI and with good cause. It’s incredibly well thought out and you’ll never find yourself wanting to read a manual or view lengthy tutorials. It really couldn’t be much easier to do things, and the Sensation launches the third incarnation of Sense UI to users.

Changeable scenes allow you to choose the layout of the home screen from a number of different presets, such as ‘Social’ which puts the emphasis on social networking updates, complete with notifications shown underneath the main clock, to ‘work’ for showing upcoming appointments and ‘travel’ to show things relevant to travel – from world times to navigation software.

You can download more preset scenes, but at any time you can also create your own by manually picking and positioning application shortcuts and widgets on one of the panels. Sense UI V3 now introduces a 3D scrolling effect between each panel, which is hardly groundbreaking but certainly looks nice and definitely gives it depth.

The customisation doesn’t end there. HTC also offers skins, which changes the colour scheme, wallpaper and the design of things like the notification bar. You can’t, however, change the system font as you can on LG and Samsung devices.

It keeps going too, with a new feature of the latest Sense UI revision; lockscreens. Now you can customise your lockscreen in a similar way to the scenes, allowing you to choose what key information is displayed without actually having to unlock the phone. You can choose between photo album, Friend Stream, weather, stocks and the usual clock.

On every lockscreen, you can set four apps at the bottom that can be launched without unlocking the phone. At the very bottom is the top of a circle that you pull up to unlock the phone. However, drag an app down to within the circle and it launches the app straight away, unlocking at the same time. This could be a shortcut for making a call, checking email or activating the camera.

It’s an excellent idea, with only the INQ Mobile Cloud Touch currently offering this same feature. No doubt every other phone maker is already thinking ‘why didn’t we think of that?’ and kicking themselves, hard. And, of course, copying the idea for their next release.

The phone also has other HTC-exclusive apps, like its own navigation software (based on Route 66) called Locations, which offers true 3D mapping and navigation using maps downloaded to work offline. You also get Google Maps and Google’s own Navigation app too. Locations is useful for using navigation in areas of poor coverage, or to avoid eye watering phone bills when roaming.

What’s more, it continues to run when you get an incoming call, so you won’t suddenly get lost because your mum phoned to ask how you are at the worst possible moment.

HTC Likes is another HTC app that recommends apps for the phone, while HTC Mirror activates the front-facing camera (designed for video calling first and foremost) to show your face as if you were looking at a mirror. That will either be looked upon as the most pointless app ever, or the most essential.

The big new app for the Sensation is HTC Watch, which the company recently launched to allow customers to rent or buy movies to watch on the phone, or via a TV using the HD output. The phone uses the new MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link) connector, which combines a micro-USB and HDMI output into a single connector. So far the Sensation and the Galaxy S II are the only two handsets to use this connector, but expect this to become an industry standard in the coming months.

HTC Watch may or may not be a success, but there’s no obligation to use it over copying content via more traditional means (e.g. copying via USB) or using Google’s forthcoming movies service.

Despite the camera experience being slightly disappointing, the HTC Sensation is definitely the best phone from HTC to date. It’s a top performer and the battery just about keeps up when put under pressure. Heavy usage of the processor, or GPS for navigation, can kill the phone quickly – but no more or less than any other phone.

It would have been nice to see a battery that was something closer to 2,000mAh, as you will be forced to use the phone conservatively if you know you’re not going to be near a charger for a while. This isn’t any more of an issue here than on any other smartphone, but left on standby the Sensation was out of juice with our Motorola ATRIX still on 40%. That’s quite a difference, but by no means a scientific test (for one thing, each phone was on a different network).

Like the Motorola, HTC offers a series of power saving options that can boost the battery life if you’re willing to disable certain aspects of the phone, from Wi-Fi, to auto syncing of data, and the screen brightness. If you are going to be unable to charge your phone for a while, turning these things off will make a massive difference and ensure you can use it as a basic phone to make and receive calls.

If you’d rather not turn the phone into something akin to a £4.99 prepay phone, you can let the phone adjust the power saving features automatically as the battery drains, such as only letting the phone go into full-scale panic mode when you’re down to around 15% battery life remaining.

Besides the other dual-core offerings, none of which feature HTC Sense, there is one reason not to get the Sensation and it’s called the Incredible S. This offers an experience that is almost as good, if you can live without the latest Sense UI features or HTC Watch, and will cost less money. It is also the model that looks the least like other HTC devices, if you’re after something a bit different.

However, if money isn’t your main concern and you’re after the best-of-the-best, the HTC Sensation is almost perfect.

Ratings (out of 5)

[wpgalleryimage title=”Editors-Choice-5Star” float=right]Performance: 4
Features: 5
Usability: 5


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