Slick and classy, the Sensation XE looks like an upgraded version of the XE, with subtle red detailing and all-black back. Feels good, too
Android is easy enough, but in HTC's hands the phone is even more straightforward
As well as a strong camera and great screen, the stand-out feature is the Beats Audio, which is splendid
The 1.5GHz dual-core processor means the Sensation XE is whizzy at all times. A solid and effective performer
Idle battery life is better than most phones and in use you can still get a good day out of it, even with listening to music
Review by Sunetra Chakravati,12/12/2011 4:02:14 PM
Look and feel
Ease of use
Great styling, outstanding audio features
Battery life, though better, is still not perfect
On the whole, new versions of existing phones simply offer a different colour or a new screen size (like the HTC Desire HD, for instance, which was a new version of the popular HTC Desire but in a bigger format). The HTC Sensation XE, however, takes the Taiwanese company’s latest superphone and adds a difference to the sound, not the image.
Sure, there are visual details which set this hardware apart from the plain old Sensation: the red detailing on the earpiece grill, red Android icons and the red ring around the camera lens, for instance. But it’s the other bit of red that gives the game away: the words at the base of the phone’s back that read ‘Beats Audio’, alongside the distinctive red logo. This is subtle styling and looks good, especially the red detailing on the earpiece. If you can afford to choose, the XE looks better – smarter, with a more high-end feel to it.
This phone isn’t small but it’s no match in pocket-bulging terms for the HTC Titan or Sensation XL with their 4.7-inch displays – the XL has an all-too-similar name: don’t make a mistake when buying, though the XL does have the Beats Audio uplift, too. The XE packs a high-res 4.3-inch display that positively gleams, it’s so bright and richly detailed. The screen’s resolution doesn’t match that of the iPhone 4 and 4S, which manages 330 pixels-per-inch. Still, the XE scales the heights of pixel density with a respectable 250 or so ppi. Whatever, it looks great.
The first Sensation had the same display, even down to the slightly curved, concave effect. It doesn’t affect the sharpness of the on-screen image but means that if you put the phone down face first (and, seriously, what are you thinking?) you’re less likely to scratch it. However, the screen doesn’t quite have the flush edge-to-edge feel of phones with entirely flat displays, like the iPhone 4S, for example.
But it still looks good and is smooth to the touch, with the curved area stretching to the red Android icons at the base of the screen. These are easily visible when the screen is off, by the way, unlike on some Android handsets, and then light up if needed when the display does – an ambient light sensor controls this function. Turn it on and HTC’s lock screen appears. As you may know, the HTC lock screen shows an image of a ring. You slide this ring to unlock the phone and can choose whether you go straight to the home screen or instead drag one of four shortcut icons into the ring to launch that program. Which icons are there is up to you, though the default options are Phone, Mail, Camera and Messaging. These lock screen options are very handy.
If you choose to go straight to the home screen, you’re treated to HTC’s cool faux-3D animation, with the seven home pages spinning like a carousel and stopping on the signature flip clock and weather information. The familiar cloud-and-sun action appears (or if you’re in the UK usually just clouds), accompanied by sound effects. It’s very pleasing and tells the user instantly that this is not an Android phone but an HTC phone that happens to use Android. Flick from one screen to the next and the 3D theme continues to great graphical effect. If you’ve put a full screen Weather app on one page, say, you’ll notice that it’s layered: the temperature digits seem to float separately from the cloud animation – they even scroll in front of the cumulus. And no, you’re right, I don’t really have any idea what kind of clouds they are.
The Sensation XE comes with lots of HTC specialities, apps that are redesigned for Android with improved icons and extra features. For instance, if a call comes in when you’re in a meeting, you can simply turn the phone over to quell the ringtone (oh, that’s what the curved screen is for) or touch the Menu button and choose ‘Send Message’. This diverts the incoming call to voicemail and simultaneously sends a text to the caller explaining that you’re busy and will call them later. You can customise this message as you like.
Then there are the bigger deals, like Locations, HTC’s mapping solution which allows you to download maps in advance so you can use the phone to find your way. Nokia has a similar option, though its offering includes free turn-by-turn voice instruction. The maps here look better than Nokia’s and the killer feature common to both set-ups is that as you’ve downloaded the maps over Wi-Fi, using the phone as a sat nav won’t cost you in terms of data usage, even if you’re abroad where costs rise fast.
Smaller, but still important, HTC apps include Peep, a cute Twitter browser, a great contacts program called People and a useful music player, which we’ll come to later. HTC has a gift for taking basic apps and making them look glitzy while still staying accessible.
The Sensation XE is is a little faster than the first Sensation, thanks to the improved dual-core 1.5GHz processor, up from 1.2GHz on the original model. Although the original wasn’t slow, this phone is speedy in every respect. Apps pop into view in a trice, webpage loading is quick and butter-smooth.
The Sensation XE packs an impressive eight-megapixel snapper. There have been better camera phones, notably the Nokia N8’s 12-megapixel model, but this has a lot going for it. Not least, HTC promises an “Instant Capture” camera and while that’s a slight exaggeration, it was certainly the case that shutter lag was much shorter than on most camera phones. Results were strong, with plenty of manual overrides like white balance, self-timer, geo-tagging and face detection among the options. There are also special effects from vintage to negative, solarise to sepia. Lots of ways to explore how the camera works, then. Video is good, too, shooting at full 1080p resolution. There’s a front-facing camera so you can make the most of video-calling and self-portraits on the VGA front-facing snapper.Battery life on smartphones is always less than it should be, mostly because they do so much that you don’t want to put them down. This is forgivable, but some smartphones discharge half their juice overnight when you’re not using them, which is less forgivable. I’m happy to report that the overnight depletion is minimal here, so you aren’t forced to place the phone on a charger when you’re sleeping. This is because the battery has been improved over the original Sensation: if you’re thinking of getting either the Sensation or the XE, this is a strong reason to opt for the XE, even if music matters little to you.
Anyway, on to the main event, the Beats Audio enhancements. HTC spent $300 million for a 51% stake in Beats Audio. So how does it work on the phone? Plug in headphones – any headphones – and when you launch the music player and press play, the Beats logo and name appear at the very top of the screen. This lets you know that the Beats Audio magic is being worked. Don’t like it? Pull down the notification bar and tap the Disable box that appears. The Beats logo greys out.
But, frankly, you’re not going to take this option. The Beats effect is impressive, as though the sound has been pushed right into your ear. It’s clear, sharp and crisp, with detailed mid-scale notes and decent bass. Try turning off the enhancement and you’ll turn it straight back on again. Without Beats, it’s like you’re listening through a piece of cloth. I listened first with standard HTC earbuds, themselves better than many supplied ‘phones. The Beats effect was like night and day. But then I plugged in the supplied Beats Audio earphones and there was a real upgrade in sound. These sound much better even with Beats off. Turn it on and there’s a subtler but perceptible difference – the bass is particularly impressive, managing to sound much bigger than you’d expect from a small pair of buds like these. The fit is good and there’s a noise-isolating quality, which improves the sound further.
They also look stylish with black earpieces, red cable and chrome-coloured plastic on the in-line controls. These are for Pause and Play, Rewind and Fast Forward but also handle answering a call if one comes in when you’re transported by the music. They’re comfortable, even for extended periods, and give a great effect of a wide, expansive soundstage. Vocals sound especially good – vibrant, rich and really present. Of course, this kind of magic trick, turning MP3 files into something golden and warm, is what Beats by Dr Dre headphones are known for. Buying part of the company was a smart move by HTC and will enable it to have a cool differentiator – perhaps as important as the Walkman label has been to Sony Ericsson. Note that the audio enhancement is also available when you’re watching video – handy if you’re planning to use HTC Watch on the phone.
HTC has taken one of its best-ever phones, the Sensation, and improved it with a faster processor, longer-lasting battery and, of course, the first fruits of its new part-ownership of Beats Audio. The sound on the supplied Beats headphones with the Beats Audio effects is tremendous. Throw in a good camera, HTC’s excellent overlay on basic Android and you have a tremendous all-round smartphone.