- Stylish design
- Slim and well built handset
- Nice Android interface
- Very large but lowish resolution screen
- Beats headphones just aren't very good
- Review Price: £440.00
- Bundled with iBeats earphones
- Automatic Beats headphone EQ
- 4.7in, 480 x 800 pixel display
- 1.5GHz single core processor
- 8 megapixel camera
The HTC Sensation XL is the second HTC and Beats Audio phone to hit UK shores, after the HTC Sensation XE. However, unlike the XE, it doesn’t totally fit the bill as a top of the range handset as it only sports a single-core (as opposed to dual-core) processor. This is particularly odd as it’s an even bigger handset with an enormous 4.65in screen, compared to the XE’s ”mere” 4.3in. Indeed, this is essentially the HTC Titan but running Android rather than Windows Phone. We’ll talk more about this nitty gritty stuff later, though, for now let’s move onto where this phone really shines; style.
Well, for some it really shines. For others it’s as dull as a dish cloth. A quick poll of the office gave the majority vote to ambivalence erring on dislike, whereas some of us loved it. The matt white and sand-blasted aluminium colour scheme works well, and the simple Beats ‘b’ on the back is just right. Ultimately it’s clearly a case of personal preference but where we were unanimous was on the build and feel of the phone.
The slim (9.9mm), rounded back with its uniformly matt finishes, makes for a phone that – size notwithstanding – feels really nice in the hand. Those finishes will also hide scratches well, though the white may show up drifts of grime if you don’t give it a polish/wipe down every once in a while. On the front you’ve got a solid, tough slab of glass that should also resist damage well. All told, if you’re looking for a phone that feels premium, HTC has seldom let you down but with this handset the company has excelled itself.
There’s no getting round it, though, this is a ”big” handset! Sitting in the hand it feels a bit of a stretch to just grip it and when it comes to trying to navigate it’s near impossible to stretch your thumb to reach the far corner of the phone’s screen without significantly shifting your grip. What’s more HTC has kept with the convention of putting the screen lock button on the top edge, where again it’s damned difficult to reach when operating the phone with one hand. In fact, this is probably the first sign of how HTC hasn’t really properly thought through this handset, but we’ll return to this point later.
Other buttons consist of a typically (for HTC) stylish smooth metal volume rocker on the right edge and the four touch-sensitive navigation buttons under the screen. Again, these betray a lack of forethought as the absence of any physical buttons means you can’t activate the screen to unlock the phone, without stretching to the top edge power button. Otherwise, the touch buttons are nice and sensitive and easy to operate.
As for other hardware features, on the left edge is a microUSB socket, which is stylishly surrounded by a thin polished metal band – a really nice subtle piece of design. Up top is a headphone jack and on the back is the 8 megapixel camera.
Pop the back off and you can access the removable battery and SIM slot, but there’s no microSD slot. Instead there is 16GB of inbuilt memory, only about 13GB of which you’ll actually be able to use for storage (enough for about 200-250 albums). This may be enough for most users but for a phone that’s highly music oriented, it’s surprising not to see expandable memory. Moreover, if you start taking masses of photos and videos of your friends, you’ll soon have to drop even more music.
Less of a concern but still notable is the lack of HDMI, so you can’t hook the phone up to you TV for quickly and easily playing videos and music, or looking at your photos.
With it being so large, it’s somewhat imperative that the HTC Sensation XL’s screen also performs quite well. Unfortunately, while it’s not bad, it’s nothing special. Its chief problem is its lowly 480 x 800 pixel resolution that gives it a pixel density figure of approximately 200ppi. While this may not sound all that much lower than the 256ppi of the Sensation XE (which packs 960 x 640 pixels into a 4.3in display), it is clearly much worse than the 330ppi of the iPhone 4 and 4S, and the difference is noticeable.
The upshot of this is a display that, while it would be a slight exaggeration to say it’s out and out grainy, is notably softer than rivals, and simply can’t pick out as much detail. This is particularly obvious when viewing a webpage where you simply can’t make out text when zoomed out. Conversely, if you have trouble making out the fine details on small screens anyway, you may actually find the larger XL is easier on your eyes.
Either way, if you can see passed the low resolution then this is a good LCD display. It’s bright, has good viewing angles and produces really rich and vivid colours. Combined with its size, this makes it a great video viewer, though as HTC continues to offer fairly poor video playback support (mp4 and avi will play but divx, mov, mkv or rmvb won’t), you’ll have to re-encode your clips to get them to play.
The size of the screen also has some ergonomics benefits. If you have large hands and fingers, the larger icons and amount of space in which to work will appeal, and typing in particular is incredibly easy. Even we, who are used to typing at speed on smaller screens, found the extra space on this phone rather welcome, and could rocket along when bashing out some words.
This speed is in spite of the phone only running a single-core Qualcomm Scorpion processor. In actual fact, the chip runs at 1.5GHz, so it’s noticeably nippier than your typical 1GHz mid-range handset but nonetheless it’s behind the dual-core models sported by the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S 2 (1.2GHz) and HTC Sensation XE (1.5GHz).
It’s less that you necessarily need the power now but if you’re investing in a two year contract and you want a premium phone, picking one that’s behind the curve already isn’t the best bet.
Running a quick benchmark, the Qualcomm chip proved its raw power by scoring 2889ms in SunSpider, beating the 3780ms of the 1GHz HTC Rhyme but falling behind the 2261ms of the HTC Evo 3D.
In the real world we noticed a few more occasions where the phone would stutter when browsing the web, navigating GoogleMaps or running some graphically intense apps but they were relatively few and far between. Only running Flash video really caused the phone to become noticeably sluggish.
The HTC Sensation XL runs Android 2.3.5 with HTC Sense 3.5 running on top of this (it will also be updated to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich in due course). The combination makes for a mostly attractive and easy to use interface. We do have a couple of gripes but they’re mostly balanced out by other positive aspects.
For instance the general homescreen layout is rather nice. There are seven homescreens that you can fill with as many or few apps, app folders and widgets as you like, while below sit the three permanent links to the main app list, the phone dialler and the personalisation menu (where you can tweak the look and feel of the interface). Drag your finger down from the top edge to reveal the notifications list and you’ve also got quick access to a few useful settings. When playing music or connected to a computer via USB a small music player and a connection wizard (respectively) also appear in this section.
Go to unlock the phone and rather than just having the option to simply unlock the phone and get to the homescreen you can also jump straight to one of four customisable apps – really useful for getting to the camera app in a hurry.
Tap the Phone button at the bottom of the homescreen and you’re greeted by another great feature; the dialler/contacts list. This is still the quickest and easiest way of finding a contact that we’ve used on a phone – either grab the list and start scrolling or tap out a few numbers or letters and the person you’re looking for will soon be weeded out.
Social networking is also well integrated, making this a really good phone for quickly and easily getting to all the information you want about your friends.
As for those annoyances, going back to the homescreen, swipe too quickly from one homescreen to another and a pointless animation will be activated where the view zooms out and all the screens spin round like a carousel. It’s visually impressive but gets in the way of quick navigation. The constant presence of the ‘personalisation’ button on the homescreen is also a waste of space, considering you can call up this infrequently-used option via the main settings menu.
We also find the main app menu rather tedious as it’s been broken up into pages that you scroll through vertically. This just seems to slow down navigation.
Another suggestion of how HTC hasn’t necessarily thought fully about this device is the lack of interface and app tweaks to take advantage of the extra screen space afforded by such a large screen. Only the classic HTC weather/clock widget makes the most of things, with all other interface elements simply stretched large to fill the screen (again, those with poor eyesight may actually see this as an advantage though)
Ironically, considering the branding, we’re also not fans of the music player that has a rather cumbersome layout for navigating your library of music.
Otherwise, as we said, the interface is mostly intuitive and nice to use. Android may still be a bit more geeky and less integrated than iOS or Windows Phone but not to the point of being difficult to use. All the basics, from email to web browsing, are easy to use and powerful, and you get a huge amount of versatility thanks to the customisability of the software and the wealth of apps in the app store. The quantity of quality apps and games isn’t quite as high as iOS but more and more apps are becoming cross platform so the line is blurring.
Of course, what this handset is really all about is its music playback, and aside from the mediocre music app, the experience is rather good. As well as the aforementioned music player in the notifications drop down, you can also access the player from the lock screen, so it’s easy to pause your music or skip a track.
Part of the reason this phone makes a good audiological impression is the included Dr Dre Beats Audio earphones, which are branded urBeats. Now these aren’t to our tastes at all as they blast out far too much bass, making everything sound a bit muffled, but if you’re a fan of big booming bass – or more specifically the Beats Audio sound – then you’ll love them.
Each earpiece is made from metal and does feel reassuringly solid. They’re also stylish thanks to a muted combination of gun metal grey and black, and of course the signature red cable. They also come with an inline remote and microphone that allows you to take a call, play/pause music and skip back and forward between tracks. You can also call the last number you entered, which is a mildly useful addition but is a bit too easy to accidently activate.
A version including the more premium Beats headphones will also be available
When you plug in the Beats, or any other, headphones, the Beats audio mode is activated. This applies an EQ setting that boosts the high-end and mid-range to get the best out of the Beats earphones and give the audio a more dynamic sound, which it indeed does. However, we can’t help but feel that if the earphones were any good in the first place, they shouldn’t need EQing? Nonetheless, as we say, if you’re a fan of the Beats bass heavy sound you should be happy.
One area we weren’t expecting the XL to excel in was photography. HTC doesn’t have a great track record with the cameras on its phones, as the ultimate image quality tended to be worse than other rivals with the same core specs. However, recent models have improved greatly and the 8 megapixel shooter on this phone is very good. Results are crisp and colourful and properly exposed, while the twin LED flash really helps out in the dark. They’re certainly not a new benchmark for quality but so long as you don’t zoom in too much they’re satisfactory.
What makes the camera quite so nice to use, though, is the interface. You’ve got a host of settings including things like ISO level and white balance, and there are all sorts of fun filters you can apply to your photos in real time. Once you’ve taken your shot you can then edit it, applying sharpening and colour enhancement filters, cropping it and rotating it.
Overall image quality isn’t spectacular but about average
The depth of field mode allows you to pick out a subject from the world around it.
Various fun effects are available to add some fun to your snaps.
Video is also well catered for. The 1080p footage packs in the detail and comes across smooth and very watchable, while again you can apply real time filters for some fun effects. You can also top and tail (trim) your footage to get rid of shaky bits at the start and end, and it’s a cinch to then share it via facebook, youtube, dropbox and many other services.
Coming back to the real basics, we found the phone to deliver good call quality, with the earpiece being loud enough and the noise cancelling microphone delivering clear audio to those on the other end of the line. The speaker is okay, but nothing special. Battery life is also middling with us getting around a day and a half of average use.
We almost like the HTC Sensation XL. It’s stylish, easy to use, has a great camera, the large screen has some benefits and the Beat Audio headphones we know will appeal to some. However, you pay for the privilege of getting those headphones, and on most other fronts this phone just doesn’t add up. It’s screen is low res, it’s processor is slower than the competition, and all told other handsets simply offer more for the money. If you want a Beats phone then the HTC Sensation XE is a much better bet. Or you could just get an HTC Sensation and buy some even better headphones.
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|
|Available Colours||White and silver|
|Screen Size (inches) (Inch)||4.7in|
|Screen Resolution||480 x 800|
|Internal Storage (Gigabyte)||16GB|
|Camera (Megapixel)||8 Megapixel|
|Front Facing Camera (Megapixel)||1.3 Megapixel|
|Camera Flash||2 x LED|
|3.5mm Headphone Jack||Yes|
Processor and Internal Specs
|CPU||1.5GHz single core|