Tuesday, December 20, 2011

HTC Sensation XL review

Display sizes in smartphones has been growing out of control lately. What were once too large just two years ago are now normal. There comes a point when someone must say enough is enough. Samsung proved with the Galaxy S II, people wanted phones with 4.3" displays, and they were right. But was HTC right to further increase this with the Sensation XL? The 4.7" display here is massive, and that is before considering the Samsung Galaxy Note's rather outrageous 5.3" display.

Still I expect devices like the Sensation XL to find a nice niche among people who requires a display this size. After all having used the Galaxy S II for six months myself, it took some getting used to with the XL. But first let's have a look at what's underneath this beast.

  • Qualcomm MSM8255 SoC with 1.5GHz ARM8 Scorpion CPU
  • Adreno 205 GPU
  • 768MB RAM
  • 4.7” S-LCD 480 x 800 display with multi-touch
  • 8MP AF camera with dual-LED flash with 720p video recording
  • 1.3MP front camera
  • Quad-band GSM with EDGE
  • Tri-band 3G with HSDPA 14.4 Mbps, HSUPA 5.76 Mbps
  • A-GPS, WLAN 802.11 b/g/n, DLNA, Bluetooth 3.0
Specs wise the Sensation XL is a disappointment. For something that screams 'XL', you would not only expect a bigger screen but also more of everything else. Where's the dual core processor? The Sensation XL bears no resemblance to its smaller but more powerful HTC Sensation distant cousin. Instead the XL is actually based on its Windows Phone 7 sibling - the HTC Titan. The two shares everything from the CPU specs, camera sensor and battery. In fact the only way to tell the two apart is by the slightly different design, colour and number of touch-sensitive buttons on the bottom the display.
HTC Sensation XL comes with Beats, but is it any good?
The design is almost immediately recognisable as a HTC. Whether good or bad, at least HTC has a unique design language that they can call theirs. Still, the design is rather uninspiring and dare I say it, boring. I do wish HTC will attempt to differentiate more in 2012 when it comes to smartphones, perhaps even seek to create a couple of distinctive design languages for their smartphones. Still as far as smartphone design goes, the XL is good enough – just not as memorable as the iPhone or Lumia 800.

HTC has always been rather fond of using metallic materials on their phones, and the Sensation XL is no different. The XL's unibody battery cover is clad almost entirely in metal, with only the bottom bit covered in plastic - no doubt to help improve the reception. A dual antenna design resides on the bottom of the phone. The rest of the body is made of tough plastic, with the front covered entirely in false. The built quality of the XL is solid and at no time did I experience any creaking. My only complaint was the decision to use a metallic back, or at least the smooth finish - the phone was much too slippery to hold.
The solid unibody battery cover. Notice the dual antenna design on the bottom
Speaking of display, the 4.7" S-LCD screen is large, sharp and provides colour saturation that almost rivals AMOLED displays. With such a large display however I expected HTC to have gone with a higher resolution screen. In any case while the pixels are noticeable, at least the 480 x 800 screen is sharp enough for web browsing, and the 4.7" display does make watching videos less of a chore on the eyes.

Below the screen you will find all four standard Android keys - menu, search, back and home. All four buttons are touch sensitive. Just above the display resides the earpiece speaker, a front camera for video calls, ambient light sensor and proximity sensor. A 3.5mm audio jack sits on the very top of the phone right next to the secondary microphone and power on/off button. The volume rocker can be found on the left side of the device.
The 8MP back-illuminated camera sensor takes decent pictures in low-light conditions
On the right of the device lies the micro USB charging and data sync port. The USB port here is MHL compliant, meaning you can connect the Sensation XL to a HDMI TV via a compatible MHL cable. The bottom is bare bar the microphone hole and battery release latch. Turning the Sensation XL over, you will find the 8 Megapixel camera with Autofocus and the dual LED flash. While the LED flash isn't exactly strong, it works well for illuminating subjects when taking videos in low light conditions. The loudspeaker sits right next to the camera. Below the battery you will find a decent size Li-Ion battery and none-hot swappable SIM card slot. The battery size is 1600mAh, but could have been bigger for such a large phone.

The Sensation XL runs on Android 2.3.5 Gingerbread, the latest OS available from Google when the XL was released (Google traditionally only release their latest OS – in this case Android 4, to their Google Nexus hardware partner, hardly an ideal solution for an ‘open source’ OS). The standard Android UI has been ageing badly for some time in comparison to the fresh Windows Phone 7 Metro interface and even iOS. HTC has promised that the Sensation XL will eventually receive ICS, but it is not known when the update will roll out.
The Sensation XL is large, but not quite as large as the Galaxy Note
In any case, Android 2.3.5 is good enough, for now. HTC has also included their home-baked HTC Sense UI. I have never been much of a fan of HTC Sense and rightly so. Despite the speedy 1.5GHz processor, HTC Sense feels laggy to use. Power users will likely want to install a third party launcher right away, but most inexperienced users will have to put up with this. At least with Sense you get some additional HTC-specific out of the box features like the rather nice lockscreen. Still if Sony Ericsson can create a launcher that works well on a 1GHz CPU, why coudn't HTC, with a device that is clocked quicker.

As this is an Android device, you will need a Google account to make the best use out of the device. Access to the Google Market, as well as backing up your details onto one of Google's cloud servers is highly guarded by said Google account. Contacts can also be downloaded from various sources, including Facebook, and then paired together in the phone book. It isn't as elegant as Windows Phone, but it works just as well.
The Sim card slot isn't how-swappable
Once you have your Google account set up, you can pretty much do anything with the device. Download the latest Google Maps to use with the built-in A-GPS or Facebook and Twitter for your social networking needs. While the Android Market is still behind Apple’s AppStore in terms of both quality and quantity of apps, it is growing at a nice rate. If there is an app you would like, there is a chance you will find it here.

The Sensation XL is a Monster Beats-branded device. This doesn’t mean much, and I implore anyone reading this not to judge a device’s audio quality based on a simple logo and treat it as simply a marketing gimmick. Having said that, the Sensation XL is good enough to replace your portable audio player. While the sonic fidelity that comes out of the 3.5mm headphone jack and its bundled urBeats in-ear headphones aren’t mind-blowing or clean to be something that will get readers of Head-Fi rushing over.
Unsurprisingly due to the software ‘enhancement’ that comes with such branding, the Sensation XL excels are certain type of music genre – mainly beats (duh, the clue is in the name). Bass is overemphasis, even more so when I plugged my Sennheiser IE 8 in. If you are serious about your music, there are far better none-Beats smartphones out there worthy of your consideration. The iPhone 4S is one of them.

HTC has come a long way in improving the quality of images captured from its camera. While in the past, HTC devices has always been known to offer some of the worst in imaging, the Sensation XL, I am happy to report, is actually rather good. The 8MP wide angle camera with autofocus works well in both bright and low-light conditions. In fact, of all the modern smartphones with 8MP camera modules I have tried, the Sensation XL is only beaten by the Galaxy S II and iPhone 4S. Despite the improvements, the camera still suffers from poor dynamic range - but that is expected from such a small sensor.

Here are a couple of unedited samples (resized due to blogger restriction):

Sadly the camera only supports up to 720p video recording, likely due to the lack of dual core processing power to encode 1080p. Still the details captures via the camera are good enough for YouTube, and certainly better than some smartphones like the Lumia 800. Here’s a video sample I recorded at a recent event:

So the big question remains, is the HTC Sensation XL good enough? Yes it is - but you can do so much better. At £430 sim-free, the Sensation XL is rather expensive and you do not get a lot for your money. Some would argue that the urBeats IEM is worth £50 alone - I disagree here. Even then you are looking at £370 for what is essentially a giant smartphone that barely runs Android well.

With the XL, one would even expect to get excited by the number of tech improvements that HTC would be able to cram into the larger body. The Sensation XL costs £40 a month on the Three UK network, and for the same tariff you can easily get the Galaxy Nexus - a far superior smartphone with an amazing 4.7" Super AMOLED HD display and comes with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich to boot.

Great camera
Great build quality
Better than normal bundled headphones

No microSD expansion slot
HTC Sense UI a poor user experience
Better alternatives out there

Many thanks to Three UK for loaning the HTC Sensation XL. Go follow their amazing social media team here.