HTC Sensation

The HTC Sensation is the Taiwanese company’s flagship 2011 device. Announced in April, it’s now in in our hands for a full review, which some might see as quite a quick turn around, but in the flesh it doesn’t feel rushed. The HTC Sensation is set to be the phone that hangs-on to the high-end, leading a wide range of devices in their march to Android victory. 

Design

Supplanting the HTC Desire HD, it makes better use of body space; although it is still a large device, it doesn’t feel too big in the hand. It’s only fractionally larger than the LG Optimus 2X, but offers you a mite more screen space (0.3in) as it moves from the conventional 5:3 800 x 480 display to 16:9 960 x 540.

It’s instantly recognisable as an HTC device from the metal cut-outs for the speaker, but it moves on from the single piece design of previous devices to a more conventional back cover arrangement. However, rather than having the screen set into a bezel with a seam half way around the edge, HTC have chosen to have the back cover wrap around the edges meet the display edges, so you still get that seamless look and feel.

Of course it isn’t seamless on the rear, because you have two plastic panels set into the metal back, incorporating contacts to support the radios inside and make sure you don’t end up with the grip of death. It’s an elegant looking phone, and at 148g there is some heft to it. It measures 126.1 x 65.4 x 11.3mm but thankfully in this body you get a 4.3-inch display.

The controls run across the bottom of the display, giving you the normal run of home, menu, back and search. Around the sides of the device you’ll only find a volume rocker and a Micro-USB port, in conveniently placed for any left-hander who wants to use the phone whilst charging it. On the top is the power/standby button and the 3.5mm headphone jack. 

Display with a difference

The 4.3-inch display gives you a slightly higher resolution than average on Android. It matches the Motorola Atrix in offering 960 x 540 pixels, but with a slight larger display the pixel density is a touch lower at 256ppi. One of the interesting design features of the Sensation display is the slight contour at the sides, adding a little detail so it has the appearance of being slightly concave (in contrast to the Optimus 2X which by the same measure is convex). 

In practice on both devices this becomes more about differentiating design than anything else as the screen is actually flat. While HTC seem to be paying a little more attention to their display on the HTC Sensation, resolution isn’t everything. Fortunately it also offers plenty of brightness, nice bright whites and vibrant colours.

If anything, the screen can sometimes make HTC Sense look a little flat: the stock wallpapers don’t seem to make the most of what the screen can do: they could do with being a little more punchy, although you may just be hankering to put your own picture in. We also noticed that the icons are a little soft on the display, but weirdly, the icons in the menu, or in HTC Sense’s new unlock screen are sharper. We suspect this is something to do with the 3D (graphically not visually) carousel that makes up the homepages for HTC Sense.

HTC Sense 3.0

The HTC Sensation arrives with Android 2.3.3 and HTC Sense 3.0. HTC Sense is familiar to many by now and Sense 3.0 ushers in a new range of features and tweaks. For many this could potentially be their third HTC Sense device, during which time it hasn’t changed dramatically in terms of overall look. HTC have lavished attention on their favourite things - the animation of the homescreen and weather. The new way that pages roll from side-to-side is welcomed and we can see how this would easily work on a real 3D display…

Weather will still overlay a full screen reflection of your current location’s conditions when you awaken the phone, but diving into the weather app gives you a richer weather experience. Oddly, both are supported by sound effects, so when you grab your phone in the middle of the night and unlock it, you might be greeted with some eerie noises (easily disabled in the settings). 

  

One new major upgrade is the lockscreen. Previously we’ve seen a lockscreen offering a little more functionality from the INQ Cloud Touch, but HTC have really gone to town on it. Rather than just swipe to unlock the phone and return to its former state, you can now select up to four applications to unlock directly to. These are easily customised through the menus, so if you are always using Gmail, Google Maps, Spotify and the camera, you can have exactly that arrangement. 

But that’s not all. You can change the lockscreen wallpaper too, with a range of six different options to select: wallpaper, photos album, Friend Stream, weather, stocks and clock. This is a great feature, but obviously if you use the music player, you’ll find the music lockscreen control takes over whatever else you selected.

HTC’s keyboard crams a lot of detail in. It offers alt characters on all the letter keys, so a long press will bring up numbers and your main symbols and punctuation. In some ways it’s convenient to not have to open a separate tray for those characters, especially for the likes of hyphen or @. Predictive words are offered, but it won’t string together your thoughts like SwiftKey will, but you’re always free to use a different keyboard. We found that there was no lag to the keyboard, so text entry was nice and fast in both landscape and portrait.

Although much of Android’s appeal is the ability to sync with your Google account over the air (meaning you’re up and running with Gmail, calendars and contacts within 5 minutes of lifting the phone from the box), there is still sometimes the need to hook up to your computer. HTC are the first people we’ve seen to really customise this option too, making it easier to ensure that when you are hooked up the phone is doing what you want it to.

We also like the new Dock Mode. This will give you a weather background, clock, your next calendar appointment and an update from Friend Stream. It’s a nice view, but also offers icon links to trigger a photo slideshow, connected media or the calendar. The idea is that this is the screen you see when you dock the phone and we’re a little surprised there is no choice between connected media and a straight music player but there you go.

HTC’s approach in the Sensation seems to be to provide all the hardware and software avenues you might want to exploit. As such it’s a very complete package and you can accomplish many of your demanding smartphone tasks without having to venture wider than those apps pre-installed. HTC, in HTC Sense, take a more considered approach to Android than any other current handset manufacturer and the attention to detail is phenomenal.

Therein lies the problem for some: it does everything for you and at times it feels as though the Android adventure has been prepackaged and made safe. We can understand those who rave about HTC Sense being the best Android skin, but we can relate to those who prefer Android unfettered so you can find your own way. The Samsung Galaxy S II provides something of a middle ground, a lighter touch on Android, and these two devices are likely to be going head-to-head for the Android crown at the high-end. HTC’s announcement that they will be unlocking boot loaders will open the door for modders on HTC, so we’re guessing there will be many more custom devices in the future.

Getting social

Walk the HTC Sense path and you’ll find that things are pretty much covered for your social networks, with the likes of Twitter and Facebook weaved into the web of Sense, along with other services. Keeping track of updates takes place through Friend Stream, an app we’ve knocked plenty of times in the past. However, in Sense 3.0 on the HTC Sensation, the Friend Stream app feels more useful and immediate than it did in the past. 

  

HTC’s own Twitter app, Peep, however, doesn’t seem to have kept up with changing trends and it looks a little tired compared Android’s own Twitter app, or more advanced offerings like Plume. Facebook, on the other hand, seems to find itself scattered around the place - Facebook albums in the Gallery, updates in Friend Stream or in your contacts and rolling through Friend Stream to break out images, links, locations and notifications. At times it feels a little abstract, as though Facebook has been broken apart and no longer exists: in reality, we prefer using the app just because it retains a Facebook identity. The point to be made is that although HTC Sense covers pretty much everything, the build-it-yourself approach offered by raw Android can at times be more straightforward. Fortunately, you can exploit all the Android Market has to offer, as well as that which HTC provides you to strike a balance that works.

Talking of Android Market we did find that some apps didn’t fit the screen on the HTC Sensation from the off. The newly launched BBC News app didn’t on the first day (it’s since been updated) and Skifta (the DLNA streaming app doesn’t) with a black bar across the bottom of the phone. Obviously we only played with so many apps, but it’s something to watch out for and will probably not be a problem as apps adjust to a new run of devices with wide range of screen sizes. 

Entertain me

With a device like the HTC Sensation, entertainment is high on the agenda. Rolling out with an expansive screen, 1.2GHz dual core Qualcomm chipset, 768MB RAM, G sensors and support for DLNA out of the box, there is plenty on offer here.

One of the new offerings is Watch. Watch is HTC’s video app, letting you buy or rent movies to watch on your device. At the moment that’s it, they are stuck to your HTC device and the selection isn’t especially wide. There seems to be a lack of really recent releases, but this is early days for the app. They do look sensational though, but we can’t help thinking that it will be a service from someone like Lovefilm/Amazon or Google themselves that runs away with the Android video crown. Prices come in at £3.49 to rent and £9.99 to buy.

Through HTC’s revamped Gallery app you can drop down the menu to access media servers, which picked out our Cisco server and offered to play back its content. To support the audio offering you’ll find SRS enhancement in place, enabled by tapping the icon when playing your chosen track - it only really makes a difference when wearing headphones, but it is a welcome one. 

You get the same SRS offering in the music player, which has now been stripped of its Amazon MP3 allegiance. What you’ll find now is that the HTC Music player has sharing built right into the main view, so you can play a track and then opt to share it over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth assuming you have supporting devices (just as you can with videos). You also get direct access to media servers again in the music player, so you can draw down your network-stored music. Completing the picture are lockscreen controls in addition to notification bar controls, so it’s comprehensive all in all. There is also an FM radio.

In terms of raw video support, the HTC Sensation coped well with 720p content from a camcorder, but fell over when faced with higher-bitrate 1080p MPEG4 video, although it will play lower quality Full HD video. Format support is reasonable and we were pleased to find it tackled most of our test videos, although DivX/DivX HD support is a notable omission here from the default codecs.

One thing we did find a little unusual was that the backlit touch controls across the bottom of the display didn’t dim when watching video in the dark, so settling down in bed to watch Ross Kemp in Afghanistan you’re faced with those glowing symbols.

Flashy browsing

Fire up the browser and you’ve really got space to roam around and take in websites. The 16:9 aspect screen arguably isn’t as good for reading as 5:3 displays, but the higher resolution means you’ll be able to resolve text on websites with less zooming. Being Android it also brings with it the benefits of Adobe Flash compatibility, so you’ll get a fuller internet experience than some lesser devices. 

We found Flash worked nicely on the Sensation and firing up the 4OD website, we were able to watch The Inbetweeners without a problem, which is a credit to HTC - it’s a fiddly site and many devices get caught up with trying to figure it out, even when they support Flash. The same applies to the BBC iPlayer, so you’ll have no problem picking up your favourite online videos. The external speaker is reasonable quality but you don’t get the best from it holding the phone. Place it down on a table and you’ll get a much better result, ideal for watching the odd video. 

The Reader app offers some flashy page turning graphics of its own, offering books from the Kobo book store, but importantly also letting you authorise the Sensation with your Adobe account. This means you’ll be able to read existing DRM protected EPUB ebooks you already have.

Smile, you’re on HTC video

There is a forward-facing 640 x 480 fixed-focus camera above the screen which you can roll out for self-portraits or those Blair Witch moments, or even video calling if the fancy takes you and when your app of choice supports it. 

Most of the interest will be in the 8-megapixel autofocus camera around the back which is supported by a dual LED flash. HTC have long been customising the camera interface on their phones and the HTC Sensation offers up a number of extras. First up there are a range of easy access effects, which have expanded in their offering from previous HTC devices. Dots is perhaps questionable, but we like the vignette and depth of field offerings, which means you can add some digital magic to your photos. While the effects are accessed through the on-screen icon, the rest of the settings languish under the menu options. Here you’ll find image tweaks amongst other settings and one we used regularly was to switch between 16:9 and 4:3.

The camera is helped by offering touch-focusing which also meters the scene. It makes it easy to ensure that focus is on the point you want, rather than all just based around the centre. The default results are nice, perhaps a little contrasty and over-saturated although the limitations of having a small lens and sensor are still apparent: it won’t replace your digital camera. 

One new feature is “instant capture”. It seems to do this by continuously autofocusing, so when you press the button it doesn’t need to do so first. It seems to work well enough, but we have a whole collection of shots of the pavement and our feet, which seem to be a resultant side-effect of instant shooting. 

Video capture keeps up with the best offering Full HD video. 1920 x 1080 pixels at 30fps as 3gp. The results are pretty good too, with plenty of detail. There are scene modes which will offer you macro focus (as will auto mode) the big difference being that in macro mode you can’t then switch to a distant object by pressing the screen using touch focusing like you can in auto. 

HD video can be shared using DLNA or via the Micro-USB connection, although you’ll need an MHL adapter (about £20) to then be able to hook it up to HDMI on your TV. Naturally you’ll be able to share your Full HD video with it uploading to YouTube in full resolution if you wish (as long as the file isn’t over 1GB in size).

Final points

It’s too easy to overlook calling on modern smartphones - they do so much more after all. We had no problems with call quality on the HTC Sensation. The thing that rarely gets overlooked though it battery life. The HTC Sensation doesn’t have a hugely high capacity battery coming in at 1520mAh, quite a way short of the Motorola Atrix with its 1930mAh battery.

It didn’t perform as badly as we’d expected though and we did get through most of the (working) day on a single charge. Performance does depend very much on what you ask it to do - firing up the camera on 30% battery will see it drain itself in almost no time at all, so like all modern smartphones, you’ll want to leave the house with a full charge, be prepared to charge overnight, every night. 

Verdict

For the most part the HTC Sensation runs very smoothly indeed. We did find that Wi-Fi went to sleep overnight and on a couple of occasions we had to prompt the Sensation into reconnecting, but it’s not alone in this. We found that the HTC Sense experience is more refined than ever, it doesn’t stutter or hiccup as you move around the place and the animations make it more visually engaging than before, even though it sticks very closely to the original Sense design.

It’s certainly a worthy adversary to the Samsung Galaxy S II, its closest rival, and we can see that both will be extremely popular. While the SGSII feels more powerful at times, the complete package that HTC offers in the Sensation will appeal to many and it comes highly recommended.

Thank you to Vodafone for the loan of this sample.



>