- Great build
- High quality bundled earphones
- Fast processor
- Screen quality iffy
- Camera autofocus unreliable
- Red trim a bit tacked-on
- 4.3in 960x540 pixel S-LCD
- Dual-core 1.5GHz processor
- Android 2.3.4 Gingerbread
- HTC Sense 3.0 UI
- 2GB ROM
Aside from the hints of red, spread over the HTC Sensation XE’s body, the design of this Android Gingerbread phone is mostly identical to the original Sensation. The screen is 4.3in across, it has an 8-megapixel main camera and a fast dual-core processor. It has the same 11.3mm-thick aluminium unibody frame too, but this time it’s finished in brushed black to supply a moody look.
The metal exoskeleton dominates the phone less than several of HTC’s top-end phones, including the Titan and Desire S. Most of the front is given over to the glass screen top layer, which is slightly curved at the edges, and on the back the metal strip cuts a modest diagonal path through the mostly soft-touch black plastic backplate. The three-part look of the back seems to suggest the bottom bit might pop off to reveal the microSD and SIM slot, but the whole of the back is one single slab.
It’s a blueprint those who are familiar with HTC’s phone line-up may have seen before, and it means that this phone doesn’t really have its own personality – beyond the flecks of red. The speaker grill of the earpiece, the touch sensitive nav buttons and the ring around the camera lens all bear the signature red of Beats. They look rather tacked-on because, well, they are.
This is essentially a Beats signature edition of the Sensation, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some worthwhile changes. Unlike the original model, the XE has a super-fast dual-core 1.5GHz processor and Beats audio processing inside. We’ll examine whether these make much difference later. Perhaps the most obvious addition to this model, though, is the pair of iBeats (rebranded as UrBeats, but not conspicuously so in the sample we received) headphones that come in the box.
These metal-bodied earphones sell for up to £80 on their own, and easily outdo the earphones that come bundled with most phones and MP3 players. We’ll have a full review of the iBeats headphones up on the site soon, but we’ll also cover their sound later in this review. However, if you want to use the Sensation XE as a music player, you’ll have to buy a large memory card. There’s only 1GB of user-accessible internal memory and our review unit came with a measly 2GB microSD card. Hardly enough for a decent set of tunes.
The HTC Sensation XE runs Android Gingerbread with the HTC Sense 3.0 user interface laid on top. There is a newer version of Sense, 3.5, but at present it only runs on the Sensation XL, which is the 4.65in alternative to this phone.
We expect most of you are already familiar with Google’s Android OS at this point, but in case you’re not – it tends to be buggier and less easy-to-use than the iPhone iOS or Microsoft’s Windows Phone, but gives you loads of scope for tinkering and customisation. You can fairly easily swap-out the interfaces for core phone features like text messaging, without hacking your phone, and use third-party UIs with the mere install of an app.
It’s a Sense-ation (no-one’s ever made that pun before)
HTC Sense’s key features include now-iconic clock widgets, a neat homescreen dock and the ability to launch apps directly from the lock screen. Additions brought by version 3.5, not included here, include minor aesthetic tweaks, new widgets and a new dedicated Facebook chat app. We’ll miss the advanced widgets, but version 3.0 includes the most important custom basics.
Top of the list is HTC’s custom keyboard. It’s well laid-out, and the 4.3in screen is easily enough space to make typing quick and accurate. It’s perhaps not quite as good-looking as the Windows Phone 7.5 and iOS 5 keyboards, but it has a button which is missing from its rivals – one that makes the keyboard disappear. This comes in very handy, stopping you from having to reach down for the back button too often.
The iOS and WP7.5 keyboards arguably look a little nicer
HTC Sense also boasts the best social network integration of any custom Android UI. Contacts can be automatically harvested from Facebook and Twitter, and once they are, their latest tweets and status updates appear within People – HTC’s version of the phone book. The XE automatically suggests accounts to link to a contact, and all it takes to tie them together is a tap from within that contact’s page.
HTC also offers its own attractive Twitter client, Peep, as well as the long-standing Friend Stream widget. This collates social networking updates into a single stream that you can dump onto a home screen. Twitter clients and interfaces tend to be things twitterers form a strangely strong bond with, and Sense’s ones don’t offer anything to blow the competition out of the water. But they’re not bad. The Facebook client is the social network’s own one – some things are sacred.
The Sensation XE’s operating system is fast but, as ever with Android, there are occasional momentary pauses between actions – most notably when returning to the home screen from an app or the main apps menu.
A dual-core 1.5GHz processor offers a lot of power, but thanks to Android’s system architecture it’s unlikely to ever be quite as fast as the locked-down Windows Phone 7. We are talking about fractions of seconds here, and within the world of Android, it’s a top performer – and swish-but unobtrusive animated transitions make it feel smooth . In day-to-day use, you’re not going to notice a great deal of difference between the 1.2GHz processor of the Sensation and the upgraded 1.5GHz model here.
The HTC Sensation XE has a 4.3in screen. This year, the size has become something of a standard for top-tier Android phones, used in the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S, a handful of HTC phones and the Motorola Atrix 2.
We still believe many people will find this size a little too large. Apple hasn’t kept the iPhone’s screen at 3.5in for five generations for no reason, after all. If you’re moving up from a smaller device, do try and get your fingers around a phone of similar size before ordering.
If you can stomach the 126mm by 65mm dimensions, the screen is excellent in some respects. Its 540×960 pixel resolution doesn’t offer a pixel density to rival the iPhone 4S or Samsung Galaxy Nexus – it has 256dpi, where they have 326dpi and 316dpi – but it’s sharp enough for the difference to be inconsequential to most eyes. Text appears pin-sharp, and is even readable when you’re zoomed out within the browser, to an extent most people would never hope to read at.
The quality of the S-LCD panel isn’t perfect, though. It’s bright enough, but there’s some colour shift when viewed from an angle, turning greens into a yellow looking shade and – a cardinal sin – robbing the TrustedReviews orange of its vibrancy. The luminescence of the backlight becomes quite visible from this position too, reducing contrast.
The Sensation XE’s capacitive touchscreen is responsive, and feels great on your finger thanks to the hard glass surface layer. Decent touchscreens are virtually a given for all but budget phones these days, although without one, a touch phone is sunk. It supports four simultaneous points of touch, which isn’t all that impressive when some manage 10, but it’s enough for any Android uses we’ve come across.
Multi-touch zooming within the browser feels just as good as it usually does, and HTC Sense employs its own gestures too. It lets you use the pinch gesture on a home screen to zoom out, making all seven visible.
Adobe Flash support is currently up to version 11 in Android Gingerbread, giving you access to rich web content and Flash games. iOS and Windows Phone still don’t offer Flash support, giving the XE an upper hand over the iPhone 4S and HTC Titan. However, Adobe recently announced its plans to wind down support for mobile Flash, so the end of the road is near for this feature. We don’t imagine it’ll disappear, but it won’t get any more updates.
The HTC Sensation XE’s large screen should make it a great portable video playback buddy. And while it benefits from the improved codec support of HTC’s high-end late 2010 and 2011 models, it’s still not perfect.
It will play the standards of MP4 and H.264 without problems, and supports the popular DivX and Xvid formats too. However, MKV support is still missing, along with other slightly more obscure formats. MKV may be most popular among the pirate crowd, but when it’s a crowd that supports whole sections of the electronics market – external hard drives, media players that plug into TVs and so on – this omission seems a bit silly. Samsung’s top-end Android phones still win out here, with more impressive codec libraries.
There’s also no proper video player app, which seems bizarre when HTC covers more bases with its custom apps than most manufacturers. HTC Watch lets you watch trailers and download paid-for movies, but it won’t let you watch your video files. Instead, you watch them through the gallery, where your pics are held.
We imagine this is, in part, to give HTC Watch a greater chance of success, but when there’s even a DLNA interface built-in, not having a proper video player feels odd. Plenty of interfaces are available from the Android Market, though. Although the built-in player struggled with some HD content, videos look great on the screen, and we believe 4.3in is just about large enough to comfortably watch a 40-minute TV episode on.
There are thankfully no missing bits in the camera line-up. The Sensation XE has two sensors, a basic VGA user-facing one for video calls and an 8-megapixel main sensor. It has a fairly powerful dual-LED flash and autofocus, with touch focusing also an option.
We found the autofocus a bit on the slow side and occasionally unreliable, more so than with the recent HTC Titan, resulting in more slightly out-of-focus pics than we had hoped to see. Given good lighting conditions, it’s capable of replacing a compact for casual use – but nothing too serious.
Manual control is decent, though. There are settings for ISO, face detection, white balance, and the usual scene and exposure/contras/saturation/sharpness controls. What’s missing is a panorama mode, which strikes a good balance been fun and usefulness. A trip to the Android Market is required to fill this gap.
Performance predictably falls apart as light levels drop, but in good sunlight images are sharp
The 8-megapixel sensor can also capture video at full 1080p resolution, and with touch focus throughout shooting supported, it’s a pretty versatile portable video device. It can record stereo audio alongside, and there are options for white balance, sharpness, colour saturation, contrast and exposure. There are scene modes too, for beginners or the less technically confident.
Autofocus enabled good close-ups, but getting a perfect focus is tricky here
Detail captured in video in decent, but motion isn’t completely smooth and re-focusing can look a bit awkward. And while sound is in stereo, the oddly high level the mic is set at, tends to make it sound harsh and ugly. Much like its stills skills, it can replace a pocket camcorder, but only for fairly casual shoots.
The billboard feature of the Sensation XE that sets it apart from other high-end Android phones is Beats audio. This manifests in two main ways.
There’s a Beats audio DSP (digital signal processing) mode and the bundled iBeats earphones. Beats DSP automatically engages when earphones are plugged in, but you can turn it off with a press of a button within the notifications bar.
HTC (or the Beats peeps) has gone out of their way to make the Beats mode sound vastly different from the standard ouput, in part by simply upping the volume. The rest is equalisation, and what sounds like a bit of compression.
The result is pleasant, filling out the sound a bit and helping to reduce any harshness within recordings – but don’t be fooled into thinking anything too clever or high-end is going on. Media players like Cowon’s J3 offer similar sound customisation, as well as giving you oodles of control over exactly how the signal processing affects the sound. You have no control here – it’s on or off. Like the Beats headphone range, it’s nothing that’s going to impress audiophiles.
Perhaps more important are the bundled earphones, a pair of Beats iBeats (rebranded as urBeats). These retail for around £80 on their own, and are much higher quality than the pairs included with most (if not all) mobile phones. They have hardy little metal bodies, a reassuringly thick red cable, in-line remote plus handsfree housing and noise isolation via the included rubber tips.
As with all IEM pairs, several sizes are bundled to ensure all but the oddest ears will find a good fit. They’re somewhat similar to the Olive design used by Klipsch and Shure, and are very comfy.
The sound quality is good too – warm and bassy without being too boomy, in a manner that’s surprisingly easy-going for a Dr. Dre-endorsed product. He’s a doctor of gangsta rap, not medicine, after all. They wouldn’t get a hearty thumbs-up at £80, as they lack clarity and bite resulting in a sound that’s unchallenging and doesn’t bring out the best in music, but these are bundled buds you won’t need to upgrade too quickly from.
Getting back to the core phone features, though, the Sensation XE’s battery runs down rather quickly, considering it’s a 1730mAh capacity unit. Its stamina runs to about a day’s use, putting it in the more irritating end of the Android battery life spectrum. You can of course switch off mobile data apart from when it’s needed, which will boost longevity hugely if you’re keen enough in stripping down those features. Running the AnTutu battery benchmark, it scored 479 – but as it’s a new test, we don’t have much context to assess how good a figure this is. One for the archives.
Call quality is good, with a loud and beefy earpiece speaker. It also employs noise cancelling, using the pinhole mics on the back, to make calls in noisier areas less stressful.
The HTC Sensation XE is a powerful phone with a powerful brand attached to it – Dr. Dre’s Beats. However, for the most part it’s just like the original Sensation. It has a faster processor, but this isn’t hugely apparent in normal usage. Build quality is great, it’s fast and has a large, sharp screen, but the quality of the S-LCD panel isn’t great and the Beats red bits don’t mesh entirely well with the design. It’s certainly a decent phone that can more-than do justice to Android, but when the original Sensation is now available for about £100 less, you can get better audio quality by spending the difference on a great pair of earphones, instead of the just-good Beats bundled pair here.
How we test phones
We test every mobile phone we review thoroughly. We use industry standard tests to compare features properly and we use the phone as our main device over the review period. We’ll always tell you what we find and we never, ever, accept money to review a product.
Score in detail
|Operating System||Android OS|
|Screen Size (inches) (Inch)||4.3in|
|Camera (Megapixel)||8 Megapixel|
|Front Facing Camera (Megapixel)||Yes Megapixel|
|3.5mm Headphone Jack||Yes|
Processor and Internal Specs
|CPU||1.5GHz dual core|
|App Store||Android Market|