Review by Sunetra Chakravati,
6/20/2011 3:24:55 PM
Spacious HD screen, efficient new unlock screen, HTC?s standard ease of use, new 3D look and feel, great email and web features, excellent touch-screen
Mediocre camera, HTCSense.com backup service still doesn?t work, very little change in Sense 3.0 bar aesthetic upgrades, 3D effects are love-or-hate
Gadgets tend to get more powerful faster than software can keep up - at least up to a tipping point whereupon suddenly everyone gets the idea and you're treated to a deluge of amazing new possibilities on something you only used to make phone calls on. It feels like we're just before that tipping point right now. The HTC Sensation runs on the very latest version of Android - Gingerbread 2.3.3 - and is currently one of the the most powerful smartphones on market, but it can't actually do anything more than its slightly less powerful competitors. That's not to say HTC hasn't loaded on tons of enjoyable new features that perhaps would slow down a less able smartphone, but its edge over other superphones like the Apple iPhone 4 and Samsung Galaxy S II will mostly be down to personal taste. The Sensation is currently exclusive to Vodafone but will launch on other networks from the end of June.
The quirky looks of HTC phones have always been divisive, HTC's predilection for Teflon casing a love-or-hate affair. The Sensation is probably likely to win the most fans though, with a Desire S-esque metallic unibody with triangular rather than rectangular matte rubber accents that give it a more stylish feel. At just 11.3mm thin, it's one of the most slender HTC phones, making its 4.3 inch screen diameter feel more pocketable than the similary screened Desire HD.
The touch-screen also packs HTC's highest-resolution display ever, at 540x960 pixels and S-LCD tech. It's bright and clear, but still just a touch duller than the iPhone 4's Retina display and the Galaxy S II's Super AMOLED Plus, which are both also more visible in direct sunlight. The touch display stretches over most of the phone, with four touch-sensitive areas at the base for home, menu, back and search. A VGA front camera allows video calls (if you download an app such as Tango or Fring), while an eight-megapixel autofocus camera with dual-LED flash sits at the back. There is a pair of speaker vents front and back that are capable of surround sound.
Under the hood, the Sensation packs HTC's most impressive spec list with a 1.2GHz dual-core processor rivalled only by the Galaxy S II for horsepower. Though Android 2.3.3 supports NFC tech that would allow a phone to be used to make contactless payments (a la Oyster card), the Sensation doesn't have the required hardware. It has 768MB of RAM versus the 1GB found in other top-end smartphones, but thanks to the Android OS's increasingly sophisticated multitasking algorithm, we found no lacking in the speed of general navigation. We did however note a few freezes when using the video player.
HTC's new Sense 3.0 interface adds some nice flourishes to the Android 2.3.3 OS. Most noticeable is the unlock screen, which now features a ring into which you drag one of four shortcuts (customisable) to unlock the phone and head directly into that app. You can also just drag the ring upwards to unlock the phone into the home screen. There are six unlock screens to choose from, including a very swish weather screen that has a 3D weather animation when you bring the display to life. If you want to save on battery life, or if you simply can't be bothered to watch a mini cut scene before you can turn the phone on, you'll want to stick to the standard unlock screen.
The seven customisable home screens are now arranged in a 3D carousel that when swiped, can viewed 'side-on' as if you are rotating a cube - just another of the cute design touches we love about HTC Sense. Pinching on any home screen lets you view all in helicopter mode. The dashboard along the bottom lets you hit the dialer, personalisation menus and all programs from any home screen. Usefully, all programs now has two addition tabs for your frequently used apps and downloaded apps.
HTC's Friend Stream widget is now de rigeur in terms of its social feed aggregation - the Galayx S II for example works with more social networks - but it's still a pleasure to use and a breeze to setup, thanks to startup screens that prompt you to add all networks, as well as email accounts.
Disappointingly, the HTCSense.com backup service is still only half functional. Though it'll sporadically back up the last calls, messages and contacts you have, the remote access option is frozen, so you can't locate your device from afar, lock or wipe it, or utilise the call- and message-forwarding features that set it apart from other backup services like Apple's MobileMe.
With HTC's biggest screen, clearest display and beefiest processor, the Sensation has been pipped as the company's multimedia flagship phone. At 540x960pixels, this gives the screen a qHD resolution that can display true 16:9 widescreen. Movies stretch over the full front of the phone, and the native video player supports full-HD (1080p) playback, as well as Xvid and H.264 video, two common file formats you'll find HD movies in. However, it doesn't support MKV, an increasingly popular codec in which a lot of HD video is compressed. If you find a lot of your video isn't playing, you'll want to download the Rock Player app for Android, which supports almost every codec under the sun.
You can sideload media files over USB. Plugging in the phone lets you choose from using it as a disk drive, which lets you drag and drop files, or running HTC Sync to automatically sync contacts and calendar events. Surprisingly, there's no HDMI port to play HD files on a bigger screen, but the Connected Media app lets you connect wirelessly to a player - such as a PS3, or Windows 7 PC - to play music, video or photos. Both devices need to be on the same Wi-Fi network and streaming works smoothly.
You can also download movies and TV series on Watch, HTC's new iTunes-rivalling service. It's still sparsely stocked in comparison and a tad more expensive, with HD video going for about £6.99-9.99 to buy, or about half that to rent. There's also no PC version, so all downloads have to be done on the phone. Its USP? Watch also supports streaming and a great buffering system, so you can watch high-def video just as soon as you decide you want it.
The Sensation will also be able to access OnLive, an on-demand game streaming service. An accelerometer and Adreno 220 graphics chip means it should be able to handle heavy duty gaming, including motion-sensitive titles. At press time, the service hadn't launched. We'll update our review online when it does.
Meanwhile, that dual-core processor is evident in the decreased battery life of the Sensation - about 12 hours of heavy use versus the 15 hours we got out of the Incredible S.
By now, HTC has perfected its email and web recipe. An Android quirk means Gmail is still kept separate from other mail (which is accessed via the Mail app), so though Mail supports a universal inbox, it won't include the main Gmail account. You can get push email as well as contacts/calendar sync on Gmail, Hotmail and Microsoft Exchange accounts. The Sensation is also the first HTC phone to come with its 'trace' keyboard, which lets you type quickly by dragging your finger from letter to letter. The biggest boon from this is that you can type one-handed.
The preloaded web browser supports pinch-to-zoom and copy paste, or you can download Dolphin for the tabbed and private browsing.
HTC still hasn't nailed the camera though. Though the eight-megapixel camera occasionally turned out good snaps in daylight with sharp images and true colours, we just as often got over-sharpened photos with a green tinge. In lowlight, it's even less capable despite the dual LED flashes and pictures definitely look like the standard from phone cameras. The camcorder supports DVD-quality recording in theory, but our results were average only, with a similar green tinge on videos especially when we used the LED light. Audio sounded echoey and background noise was picked up too much.
The Sensation is a lot more powerful than HTC's last few phones, which were all pretty much indistinguishable, but the new Sense interface features mostly cosmetic improvements. It's disappointing that HTCSense.com still doesn't work, and that the camera is still lacklustre compared to the iPhone 4 or even the Galaxy S II. There are plenty of great reasons to buy the Sensation if your current smartphone was purchased, say, a year or more ago, but despite being more expensive (free from £36/month versus £25) there isn't much difference between it and the Desire S or Incredible S, nor can it actually do more than flagship phones from other manufacturers... unless you really like 3D effects.