Hands-on: HTC Sensation XE Ice Cream Sandwich review

We've got our hands on the HTC Sensation XE Ice Cream Sandwich update that rolls in Android 4 and Sense 3.6. This isn't a leaked ROM, it's the bona fide FOTA update from HTC, going out in a select preview programme to a lucky few. 

HTC has told us that Sense 3.6 and Sense 4, as seen on the new HTC One X, were developed in parallel and Sense 3.6 is going to roll out to the Sensation and Sensation XE. We still don't know if Sense 4 will be available to older devices, but we've asked. You can check out Sense 4 in our HTC One X pictures here for a comparison.

We're still exploring the new update, so if we don't cover anything, or there is something else you want us to examine, then please use the comments section below.

First things first, the update is 283MB and you are given the option to go Wi-Fi only or via mobile data. Once downloaded, the update will take over, restart the phone and takes about 10 minutes. 

Kiss goodbye to the old home screen

The HTC home screen has been iconic since its arrival on the HTC Hero in 2009. It hasn't changed much until now. Picking up Ice Cream Sandwich's "favourites tray", which HTC calls the "launch bar", it's now much more dynamic, dropping the old apps/phone/personalise buttons.

 

We're sure this is one of the biggest complaints that current HTC owners have, as HTC's solution up to Sense 3.5 really wasn't that useful.

A central "All apps" button opens the apps tray and is flanked by four spaces for shortcuts or folders. Press and hold an icon and you can switch it out as normal for Android. Drag one icon on to another and you'll instantly create a folder on your favourites tray, which you can name as you wish.

You still get up to seven home screens, but you can cut them down if you don't need them. In Sense 3.5 you could spin the entire carousel of home screens and you still can in Sense 3.6. Interestingly you can't in Sense 4 on the new HTC One series, you can only go left and right.

Buttons and controls

Ice Cream Sandwich rolls in on-screen controls in favour of traditional or capacitive buttons. With the HTC Sensation XE featuring four capacitive buttons across the bottom of the display, this is obviously a difference that needs to be dealt with.

In fact, it's not that different or complicated. The home, back and search buttons work exactly as they always have. The menu button opens the menu in the app you're in, except now things are presented in Ice Cream Sandwich style - ie, simpler and cleaner.

Of course, menus differ from app to app, one of the criticisms of Android. In some cases the menu button will open a menu exactly as it was before, like in the Skype app for example. In other apps, where you'd expect Ice Cream Sandwich's three dots menu icon, they're simply missing and the menu opens from the bottom of the screen.

In reality, apart from the inconsistency, it makes little difference: if you want the menu you press the menu button and we haven’t found an app yet where you get an on-screen option that duplicates the capacitive menu button. 

Recent apps and apps tray

One of the highlights of Android 4 is the move away from the old and tired approach to multitasking. A long press of the home button will pop-up the recent apps list for you to scroll up and down and swipe away to kill that particular app.

 

As executed here, it's the same visually as on the Galaxy Nexus, which we like a lot. However, in Sense 4 on the HTC One X, HTC has customised this view, so it will rotate in to landscape and offers larger thumbnails. We actually prefer it in Sense 3.6: it's less fussy than Sense 4, and more like Android. 

A press of the "all apps" button in the centre of the launcher opens up the apps tray - which is the same as it was before, scrolling between pages vertically, and offering tabs across the bottom to skip over to frequent or downloads. In this case, Sense 4 is slightly better, offering search and access to Android Market from the same screen, which you don't get in Sense 3.6.

Widgets and customisation

When we upgraded our HTC Sensation XE, all the customisations we'd made were retained. Shortcuts and widgets were all the same, all the apps, accounts and settings appeared to all be the same, except the sound profile, which did change.

HTC's widgets are all here as you'd expect and in some cases they've replaced standard Android 4 widgets. However, some default Android widgets still survive and some are resizeable, so can be dragged out to suit your requirements.

Customisation is still high on HTC's agenda. From the home screen, a long press on the wallpaper takes you to a familiar "personalise" page where you can change the appearance and add widgets as you could before.

However, previously you had that button on the launch bar to open the personalise pages and here it has snuck into the menu options. Hit the menu button on the home screens and you'll get personalise, wallpaper and settings, pretty much a duplication.

Lock screen

The lock screen remains the familiar customisable affair, but with a difference. Previously you had the option to select those apps that you wanted to unlock to. Now the only option is to have the launch bar shortcuts, or nothing. So, whatever you place on that launch bar will appear on your lock screen.

 

In reality, we quite like that option. Rather than having to set the individual apps again, you only need to set-up your launch bar the way you want it. The chances are, if there's an app you want to unlock to, you probably have it on your launch bar anyway. 

You also get face unlock, one of the ICS features. This will let you set face recognition to unlock the device, which is mostly a bit of fun and not a high-security feature. It acts just like the pattern or PIN unlock, so you can still use lock screen shortcuts - you just have to deal with security before your app opens.

You also get access to notifications on the lock screen. Drag down from the top of the screen and you get the normal HTC notification bar, so you can open recent apps, change settings, or go straight to those messages and alerts. You can swipe notifications away to clear out the list too.

Core Google services

In real terms, the apps that have been hit with the biggest dollop of Ice Cream are those from Google itself. Many, in fact most, third-party apps are pretty similar on Gingerbread or ICS, but things like Google Maps or Gmail do look different. 

 

The biggest change is in layout of actions. Where you used to have to open a menu to get to some options, you'll now find some of them across the bottom of the app or in a dropdown list. This makes use a little faster in some cases, like using forward or "reply all" in Gmail, which is cleaner than in Gingerbread. The use of people tags, instead of straight names is also convenient.

As we've already mentioned, some apps don't stick to ICS's menu conventions because of the capacitive menu buttons, so aren't the same as you'll find on other ICS devices.

Browser

The browser looks the same as previously, but there are a few changes behind the scenes. You don't get the convenient ICS tab navigator, which is a shame, as you still have to press menu>windows to get to other tabs. 

 

But you do get to force desktop mode. This means that you can avoid those irritating mobile sites, or those that refer you to an app, like ITV Player. We fired up The Only Way Is Essex to prove it worked, which it did. Of course, we watched TOWIE using Incognito mode, another useful feature.

Summing up

We've covered some of the major features that Ice Cream Sandwich introduces to HTC Sense 3.6 and the more you dig around, the more comes out. The screenshot feature is present with a long press of volume down and standby. You'll also find that in some places you hit a glorious raw Android menu - like in face unlock - which either HTC has missed, or not bothered to change. The latter is likely, as we’ve seen a spelling mistake too, so some polish is still to come.

There is a lot here that hasn't changed. The keyboard is still HTC's, the camera app is the same, music and media remains just as it was. So is the integrated People app and the HTC apps you'll be familiar with.

If you dive into the Settings menu you get a great example of how Sense and Android sit together. Below we've used one native ICS screen grab (left) and one from Sense 3.6 (right), displaying the same thing. Raw Android is more efficient with space and HTC's tinkering isn't always to your benefit, although bear in mind these screenshots are from devices with different resolution displays. 

 

It's worth remembering that this is a sneak peak preview of Ice Cream Sandwich in a legacy HTC device, designed to give you an idea of what you can expect when Android 4 rolls out to your device. The HTC Sensation, HTC Sensation XE Ice Cream Sandwich updates are due in March.

The HTC Sensation XL, HTC EVO 3D, HTC Incredible S, HTC Desire S, HTC Desire HD Ice Cream Sandwich updates will follow later in the year. If you want to know more about Android 4, be sure to read our Ice Cream Sandwich review.

Overall it's a very welcome update, bringing quite a refresh to the Sensation XE and we've had no problems with it in the recent hours we've been playing with it. Certainly the biggest change is that launch bar, which is the thing we'll appreciate the most.

Anything else you'd like to see? Any questions? Just let us know via the comments below...



>