Review by Sunetra Chakravati,
10/6/2011 5:02:02 PM
Neat design, superb audio, impressive display
May be too big for some hands, no expandable memory
So you've seen the HTC Titan and you liked the size and slimness of it, plus the big screen and powerful camera, but you're not a Windows Phone fan? HTC knew you were there and has made this Android phone for you, complete with Version 2.3.5 of the software - the latest iteration of Gingerbread. The handset is even bigger than the Titan, though only because it's 1mm taller. The other dimensions are the same - in other words it's plenty big.
But the look is very different. Where the Titan is dark, demure and means business, the Sensation is whiter than white, glossy with an edge-to-edge screen and matte aluminium back. If you know the HTC Flyer, the company's seven-inch tablet, this is a very similar styling. Metal on a phone often looks glorious, and usually means the build quality is enhanced so there are no creaks or noises as you move it - which is the case here.
But it's hard to get a signal through metal. No surprise, then, that the plastic element at the base of the back has HTC's trademark pairs of pinholes which help send the voice and data signals on their way. Let's say now, this works well - the phone has good call quality and signal reception was consistently strong.
Pick up the phone and you'll see first that it doesn't suit small hands, of course, and second that it feels great. The combination of the glossy front screen and matte metal back work well together for a pleasant tactile experience. The size isn't a problem, though for the first time ever, I found myself yearning for Samsung's power button placing. I've never really liked the way Samsung puts its power button on the upper right side of its phones, instead of the more sensible top edge. But with the Sensation XL in your hand, stretching up to the top edge isn't quite as convenient as two thirds up the side. Not that I'd like HTC to rewrite its design language, mind.
Before we move on from the Titan, though, let's note a few more similarities. There's no memory card supported with Windows Phone, and HTC has followed this restriction here. Microsoft doesn't allow dual-core processors and though Android does, HTC has opted for the identical Qualcomm chip as in the Titan. That other phone is hardly a slouch and certainly there were no longueurs waiting for the phone to catch up here, either, but the chance to go for an even whizzier, dual-core processor hasn't been taken. And the lack of a memory card may be an issue, given that the phone's storage, at 16GB, is decent but not outstanding. The screen on the Titan had the same resolution as every other Windows Phone handset, 480 x 800 pixels. HTC has chosen to stick to that resolution here, though some similarly sized displays have higher resolution. Most notably, there's the Samsung Galaxy Nexus with its 720x1280 resolution – a lot more pixels in a slightly smaller display.
Side by side, the Nexus is way better but if you're only looking at the Titan or Sensation XL, you won't be disappointed - this screen looks terrific. Choose the HTC weather live wallpaper, for instance, and you're treated to a glorious animation of clouds and sunshine - or whatever the appropriate weather is - filling the screen. Of course, this looks best when the weather is nice, too, though as even the cloud video is shot from above cloud level, even that is reasonably sunny - or moonlit at night.
It's also great when you're playing back video. You can watch stuff you've shot on the phone, files you've loaded on to the phone and HTC Watch, the video download store. This is an improvement over the Titan, which doesn't have downloadable videos yet as Windows Phone hasn't yet supported it.
Here, though, you can choose to download the latest movies - Green Lantern had just arrived on the review handset - with options to rent or buy and trailers to help you decide. These video files look pristine and attractive - and this screen is actually big enough to be immersive.
As usual with HTC, it's the company's take on Android that's a big part of the phone's success. So, as you know, the icons look nicer in HTC World, with a unified, classy style and simple, recognisable images. Then there are the HTC extras, from simple ways to reject a call with a text message saying "I'm busy, I'll call you later" or whatever you'd like it to say. And the pull-down windowshade common to all Android phones is customised, too. It shows recent programs and notifications, but touch the Quick Settings tab on the draw-down menu and you can access Airplane mode, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and more in a trice.
I've written before about the joys of the fake 3D effect to the home pages, the free mapping service Locations so you can download maps in advance and save data traffic when using it abroad and the super-versatile lock screen so you can go straight to selected apps instantly. These features and lots more make every HTC phone would be unmistakable, like the industrial design, even if the label had fallen off.
The camera power here, on the eight-megapixel snapper, is decent enough. It doesn't make the phone bulge in quite the same way as on the Titan, though many users like this bulge for its subliminal suggestion of power so great the phone's chassis couldn't otherwise contain it. There are plenty of cars with a bulge on the bonnet to suggest a powerful engine trying to get out.
The other visual element not discussed yet is the Beats Audio logo on the back of the phone, which confirms that like the Sensation XE this is a phone with sonic extras. Like the XE, the XL comes with spiffy in-ear headphones from Beats Audio, the brand HTC has part-purchased. The XE has black and red headphones, here they're white and red. An even better set of over-the-ear Beats headphones are available, too. Plug them in and start playing music and the Beats logo glows red in the notifications bar. Don't fancy the Beats optimisation? You can turn it off, but it sounds great so we doubt you'll want to. It's louder, richer and with greater bass than when it's turned off.
There's no doubt that the Beats Audio enhancement is a great-sounding addition which is worth having if you listen to music on your phone. The only drawback is the limited space - once you've filled the 16GB capacity, you can't expand it on the microSD card found on most Android phones, but not this one.
This is an effective, speedy phone that offers all the joys of Android, adds the considerable expertise of HTC and tops it all off with superb audio enhancement from Beats Audio. Tremendous all round, but the phone fails to win a fifth star because of a seeming oversight that's surprising - without a removable memory card, the 16GB of storage seems too little for a phone that's perfect for storing lots of music as well as video, apps, emails and so on. If you think the storage is enough for you, and the handset's size doesn't daunt you, don't hesiate.