First Look: HTC Sensation

The HTC Sensation is a phone about numbers: except for sidestepping the “world’s thinnest” competition, it smacks down a heavy spec sheet: 1.2GHz processor, dual-core, 8-megapixel camera, 1080p video recording, 4.3-inches, 960 x 540 pixels. About the only number that isn’t big is the internal memory, but with high capacity microSD cards being so cheap, do you really care? 

Let’s be honest, we walked away from Mobile World Congress where HTC announced a run of devices, a little disappointed. The HTC fan base was disappointed too, we know, you told us. But we always knew that the Desire HD would be updated and we suspected that it would have a slightly longer active lifespan that the 7 or 8 months it will be in circulation before the HTC Sensation touches down.

We were at the UK launch of the HTC’s new Android superphone and had the chance to play around with it and explore some of the features on offer. Of course, this isn’t a definitive review, but we felt there was enough to say about the HTC Sensation to put pen to paper, or rather finger to keyboard.

The HTC Sensation doesn’t feel as big as it perhaps should. Measuring 126.1 x 65.4 x 11.3mm it is longer but narrower than the HTC Desire HD. It may only be a few millimetres, but it’s noticeable. This is down to the true 16:9 display, making the device slightly longer than average. It weighs in at 148g, noticeably lighter than the Desire HD. As a result it almost instantly makes the Desire HD seem somewhat antiquated: the HTC Sensation feels fast and dynamic and fit to battle off rivals.

The design will be familiar to fans of HTC devices: the unibody element is actually only the back cover, but it wraps around the sides of the device to come up and meet the screen. In effect, the screen has the entire phone stuck to the back of it and the metal body covers it all over. The familiar plastic patches contain contacts for various aerials, thereby avoiding the sort of Antennagate  issues that plagued Apple with the iPhone 4 launch. The final result is a phone that appears not to have any joins on it, so it shouts premium handset from the off.

The display is bright, vibrant and sharp thanks to that chart-topping higher resolution. It does bump up the resolution slightly over the Android average. It's a Super-LCD display and the displays haven't been fantastic on recent HTC devices, so this is a point we'd like to examine in more detail in the future. The subtle curved edges do add interest however and it's a nice touch.

Not only does the HTC Sensation offer the latest version of Android 2.3.3, but it also comes with Sense 3.0. The look, feel and features are essentially the same as previous versions of HTC Sense, but there have been a number of tweaks that continue to refine HTC’s Android skin.

One of the biggest changes in terms of user interface is the lock screen. We’ve seen features creeping onto the lock screen to add functionality and we were impressed when we saw various options on the INQ Cloud Touch back in February. HTC, of course, have taken it a step further. Not only do you get the option to unlock the phone direct to an app, but you have a choice of four that you can define. Rooting through the lock screen settings, you can select an icon to change and it takes you through to a standard app list - you can’t unlock direct to a contact or shortcut, but you can open up the camera, emails, phone, games or whatever else. Note that if you PIN lock your phone, you’ll still be presented with that before you reach your app of choice.

But wait, there’s more. The background isn’t just a lock screen wallpaper - no, they’re live. You can choose from a number of options, the most notable seem to be weather and Friend Stream - from which you can grab passing messages and drag them into the ring to open them up directly. Of course, live lock screens may have an impact on battery life, but they do look stunning. 

The second notable addition to Sense 3.0 is HTC Watch, the movie service born out of HTC’s deal with Saffron Digital. The arrival of HTC Watch is more significant than it might seem because up till now Android hasn’t had a movie service to rival the Apple iTunes experience. With music coming from Amazon MP3 and Movies from Watch, HTC have closed the entertainment loop within their devices.

We haven’t spent much time with HTC Watch, but playing with the app it seemed simple enough with new content being featured. We don’t know exactly what the final resolution will be or how well they’ll output via the HDMI adaptor, but we know that you won’t be able to stream them over DLNA because of DRM. We’ll have to have a close examination when we get the phone in for a full review in May.

One of the other headline media features is the new camera setup. The HTC Sensation arrives with a front-facing camera for all the video calling you may or may not be doing, but around the back is an 8-megapixel sensor. As well as offering up high-resolution stills, the HTC Sensation’s camera will now capture Full HD video, thanks to the power afforded by the 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon MSM 8260 chipset. This rivals the LG Optimus 2X that we’ve seen previously. HTC have also added an app to help you trim your video do to just the essential parts - you simply drag the sliders in and cut it down to size.

In our quick play with the camera we found a number of settings - with an abundance of video resolution options and touch focusing in both stills and video. A new instant capture feature is supposed to do away with shutterlag, but we couldn’t really evaluate this in the restricted conditions. We recorded some Full HD footage but were unable to get it off the device. We did take a couple of still shots from inside the press demo area, but it would be unfair to comment on quality if the devices weren’t final software.

The iconic HTC homepage carousel also now rolls around to the start again if you reach the end - previously you’d be swiping side-to-side and back again, now you just keep going and you get back to the start. That might be useful for widget fans cutting about the place, but there is another neat feature which is if you start scrolling really fast it starts to spin. It looks fancy but is probably of no real practical value outside of novelty.

From what we’ve seen so far the HTC Sensation is blisteringly fast and very smooth in operation. Apps opened and closed slickly enough, but these were demo devices and that’s no indication of how the phone will behave once out in the wild. It has the specs to suggest it will be hugely powerful and we’re hoping that the 1520mAh battery will at least get through most of the day. We can’t judge that from what we’ve seen so far and we’re sure that there is still some degree of optimisation to be done from HTC’s end before we arrive at the device software that will hit the shelves.

Verdict

The HTC Sensation has the spec sheet to make it competitive with the other headline handsets arriving this year and it looks to be the most fully featured and powerful delivery of HTC Sense so far. The Sense experience is a comprehensive reworking of Android and HTC have evolved it to cover pretty much every aspect of entertainment and connected social networking on the move. Some parts of Sense do look a little unloved, like the native Peep Twitter app for example. With Android having evolved hugely since the early days of HTC Sense, the challenge from rival devices that offer a lighter take on Android can’t be doubted.

However, for HTC fans wanting a powerful phone, this is the device you’ve been waiting for. It looks and feels great, the Sense experience appears very slick and we can’t wait to get our hands on it for a full review.

There are just a few final niggling points. Why didn’t HTC announce this at Mobile World Congress and then trickle out their other handsets? We’re sure that the Desire S, Wildfire S and Incredible S could have all waited in the wings. Is HTC’s Android portfolio too expansive? Is the HTC Sensation going to eclipse the likes of the Desire S and the Incredible S and swat them aside?

And why is it named after a brand of Walkers crisps?

 



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