We've seen a trend in 2011 that we didn't really see in previous years: the "update phone". HTC kicked off 2011 with a wide range of "S" models and we've had "plus" models from Motorola and Samsung. The pace of change sees Android manufacturers clamouring to update their hardware almost as soon as the phone hit the shelves.
So where does that leave the Sensation XE? It isn't a new phone, but is it any more than an incremental step-up? Does HTC's Beats acquisition really bring anything to the table that we haven't seen before in a smartphone? We've been walking on the wild side with the HTC Sensation XE to find out.
A Design for Life
The HTC Sensation XE is identical in design to the original HTC Sensation, except for a few colour changes, with red highlights picking up on the red of the Beats brand. You'll now get red backlit controls across the bottom of the screen. Around the back there's a red ring around the camera and then there's the Beats logo.
It's a design we like, and HTC have been clever with how they put the phone together to avoid unsightly joins. The "back" actually wraps around the sides so the bodywork is all one piece even though in reality it is composed of a metal frame inset with plastic panels to ensure you get a good signal.
There is no real sign of flex, although ironically, the only bend you get from the back of the phone is when you press on the Beats logo, which happens to be placed on the weakest part of the structure, although this is hardly worthy of consideration.
The screen is tapered towards the edges, giving it a beautiful finish. The HTC Sensation is an attractive phone to look at, but we think that something like the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S steals the show when it comes to looks. It is big though, at 126.1 x 65.4 x 11.3mm and heavy, at 151g.
In the hand is snuggles down nicely thanks to the curves that universally adorn it, with the tactile feeling of those plastic inserts providing a little more purchase so you're less likely to drop it. It's also nice and comfortable to make calls with and we found the calling quality to be good.
One area where the HTC Sensation XE does get a boost is in the internal specs department. It now sports a dual-core 1.5GHz processor over the Sensation's 1.2GHz. If it makes any real difference to the speed, it's difficult to call as we had little complaint with the performance of the original. You get 768MB RAM, 1GB of available internal storage, along with the microSD card slot to expand this, with our review sample coming with an 8GB card bundled in the box.
The screen gives a good showing for itself with a resolution of 960 x 540. This makes it a touch sharper (256ppi) than most average displays (800 x 480) you'll typically find on Android smartphones, but it'll soon to be unseated by the by the next wave of HD screens. Such is the life of a phone that's already 6-months old at launch.
It isn't the greatest display out there, it lacks some of the punch and wow factor that Samsung delivers with Super AMOLED displays, but it is bright and vibrant enough. The size is also welcomed, giving you plenty of space for your fingers to play.
The battery in the back is a 1730mAh cell, which you can at least access and change, should you find the need to buy a spare. Battery performance is obviously one of the biggest problems with smartphones at the moment. This isn't the highest capacity battery around so some rivals, like the Motorola Atrix or devices with a more modest specification, will outperform it.
Getting through a busy working day with the Sensation XE is a struggle, so you'll need to ensure that a charger is never far from reach. Taking power saving measures will of course help sustain things, but the minor increase in battery capacity over the original doesn't yield a huge benefit.
Stop Making Sense
The HTC Sensation XE arrives in our hands with Android 2.3.4 and HTC Sense 3.0. It's a minor Android step over the 2.3.3 that the original arrived with, but aside from that, the HTC Sense experience and the user experience, is the same. This is slightly odd given that other devices - the HTC Rhyme and the HTC Sensation XL - land with Sense 3.5, with a number of tweaks and refinements.
In reality you probably won't notice and the Sense version perhaps isn't as significant as the Android version. The HTC Sensation XE is on the list of devices due to be upgraded to Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich, and we assume that new versions of HTC Sense will roll with it, incorporating some of the nicer features of Google's latest mobile OS.
We hope that HTC do take advantage of the opportunity to change, as visually Sense hasn't changed much since the 2009 launch of the HTC Hero. At the time, it was a great refinement of what Android offered, but as Android continues to strengthen it's core offering, we can't help feeling that the "less is more" mantra might be starting to ring true.
In some cases, like the slightly disjointed handling of streaming media, a cleaner solution can be found through the Android Market. We're also not impressed with HTC Locations, especially as it hijacks the locations in your calendar or contacts and doesn't offer anywhere near the search skill that Google Maps does. You can get around it with the aptly named “Select Other Map for HTC”, free on the Android Market. Not huge problems, but niggles you shouldn't need to mess around with.
With all that said, you get all the integration that HTC Sense brings and the widest array of widgets that you'll find anywhere. The UI works on the basic principle of letting you customise your seven homepages with whatever you want, be that weather widgets, bookmarks or apps.
You get a range of integrated social services, pumping through in Friend Stream (if you want them too), you get that great unlock screen that will let you customise what app you want to head directly to and you get a full offering of media features, including Watch, HTC's video rental offering.
Overall navigation is slick and fast, browser rendering is nice and slick and the keyboard is responsive, if a little cluttered. We also had no problems tackling the Flash video TV services we wanted. If we're being picky, we'd say the finger tracking should be better on a high-end device like this, but over the experience is good.
I Need a Doctor
With its acquisition of Beats, HTC has picked up one of the hottest brands in headphones and thrown them into the box. If nothing else, it means you get a fantastic set of headphones, something that is extremely rare with mobile phones these days. Open the box and you'll find your red-cabled iBeats earphones, with a range of silicone tips to get the perfect fit for you and a nice pouch to keep them in.
Of course, you can use your Beats earphones with any gadget you like, although the inline remote functions not might work in all devices. That would be a shame, because they can play/pause/redial and track skip. Yep, don't be too heavy with the central button, as you'll be redialling your last called number. Sadly there is no volume control.
But the headphones are excellent quality and come with brand value that's almost insurmountable at the moment, if that's what interests you. In the phone, this is partnered with Beats Audio software. This is a toggled sound enhancement that fills the gap where previously you would have found SRS and a virtual surround sound offering. It also doesn't matter if you don't use the iBeats. We tested it with a pair of Bowers & Wilkins C5 headphones and got the same Beats Audio notification on the screen.
HTC say that Beats headphones have custom audio profiles built in, but you don't get to access or control of this. There is no option to alter the balance of sound, or customise it to your preference. Fortunately we like how Beats handles our preferred genre of music, with plenty of bass. The supplied iBeats also offer great sound isolation, so the music does sound great, but it's worth knowing that you don't get a sack load of options when it comes to sound.
HTC's music player does offer you a range of options, like control from the notification area and from the lockscreen, so it's pretty good overall.
Do bear in mind though, you won't get access to the Beats Audio sound enhancements if you choose to deviate from HTC's default apps. Use the Galley video player and you can toggle Beats Audio. But if you decide that you don't like HTC's media provision, or you want to expand video format support with a third-party player, then you'll lose that Beats Audio enhancement. Fire up Spotify, DoubleTwist or watch something on BBC iPlayer and Beats is irrelevant. Arguably, then, one of the unique propositions of this phone walks out the door when you step off HTC's path.
Reality Killed the Video Star
We liked the camera on the original Sensation and the offering here is the same. It's a comprehensive reworking of Android's camera app, with a collection of settings and effects that can be tweaked, if you feel the need. Some of the effects are nice, although not as dramatic as you'll get from a decent third-party app like Vignette.
HTC's instant capture is here, which is basically a manifestation of continuous autofocus, i.e., the phone is focused on the subject before you press the button. Touch focusing is also offered, so you can get things nice and sharp, or a nice focus pull effect. Unfortunately the days we've had to test the Sensation XE camera have been a little dull, but the results are reasonable enough.
On the video front, the HTC Sensation XE ambitiously offers Full HD capture with stereo sound. The sound isn't especially good - something you notice more in a quiet scene than in a noisy one - and the data rate on this video capture isn't especially high, so although it's pretty good, it's not the best out there. It works best in good light, as it doesn't handle low light very well at all.
We like the focusing though, with HTC offering continuous autofocus during video capture as well as touch focusing, which is nice and fast. The iPhone 4S might give better quality video results, but we'd argue that HTC's focusing is more dynamic.
The HTC Sensation XE, the first Beats handset, perhaps should be something more than just an upgrade. But that's a position it can never really escape from. It feels like the Sensation released back in May 2011, but then that was a fantastic phone.
With HTC Sense 3.5 on other HTC devices and Android 4.0 just about to emerge (at the time of writing), the HTC Sensation XE might initially leave you slightly on the back foot. Whether the Beats side of things really works for you will come down to how you like to consume your media. If you want things your way, you lose the ability to turn on the software enhancement. Device-wide support is something HTC need to address.
But in our time with the Sensation it hasn't failed to deliver. It's done everything we wanted it to and it has been stable and fast throughout and the battery hasn't critically failed us either. Pull it out in the pub and it still draws admiring glances, as do those very capable headphones in the box, which come with almost limitless street cred.
If you're looking to buy a Sensation, get the XE if you get the choice. If you're feeling jealous as an existing Sensation owner, buy yourself some decent headphones and relax.