HTC Sensation XL review

If you like inches, you'll love the HTC Sensation XL. Picking up the form factor of the HTC Titan - effectively the same handset running Windows Phone 7 - the HTC Sensation XL sits on the top edge of what we'd call a phone. Any bigger and it steps in to tablet territory, like the Samsung Galaxy Note "phablet" as we like to call it here at Pocket-lint.

In playground terms, the HTC Sensation is the big kid, the one you want on your side in a scrap. But it is big, brutal and dumb? Will it only win because size matters, or does it have hidden depths?

Design

The HTC Sensation XL harks back to previous "big" phones from HTC. From the back you can see glimpses of the HTC Desire HD, the HTC HD2 and the HD7. It is inherently slab like, unlike the curved Samsung Galaxy Nexus that has a screen size only slightly smaller, but sits more naturally in the hand.

The problem we have with the HTC Sensation XL isn't the design per se, but the choice of finish on the back. The aluminium plate has an attractive anodised finish, but it doesn't offer much by the way of grip. Where plastics may offer a little more natural grip, the finish of the XL means you might send it skittering across the floor when you pull it from your pocket.

This is compounded by the fact that the chassis is pretty large. Gripping and manipulating the phone so you can touch all areas of the screen, or prod the power/standby button on the top, especially one-handed, can be a precarious affair, particularly in these colder conditions when you have drier skin.

Otherwise the layout of controls is entirely typical for an HTC Android phone. There are four touch controls under the screen, offering home, menu, back and search and a volume controller on the right-hand side. That power/standby button on the top is joined by the 3.5mm headphone jack and the Micro-USB is on the left.

"Big, bad, stupid looking"

Using our favourite Dragnet quote isn't fair, but it's easy to pick fault with the specification of the XL: it isn't dual core, there's no microSD slot, the screen resolution is lower than the regular Sensation. The key question is whether these things matter.

In a world where specs and stats have gained so much significance (rightly or wrongly) the Sensation XL will be dismissed out of hand by some. We've been using it in parallel with the Sensation XE, and it isn't fair to do so. But we do suspect the specs have more to do with the HTC Titan than anything else.

The lack of a microSD card slot is quite an issue. HTC have created a huge phone that could potentially be a great media player, but once we'd synced all our music using DoubleTwist, we'd all but filled it. Our suspicion is that HTC use the same component assembly process for the Titan and didn't want to change this, and incur additional costs, for the XL. As a result you get 16GB memory, of which only 12.64GB is available to users. It isn't the end of the world, but if you have a lot of media, it is a negative.

When it comes to the display, the 800 x 480 resolution is typical for an Android device, but it's typical for one with a screen an inch, or more, smaller. In real terms, that means the pixels are larger and less densely packed. The 198ppi is relatively low in smartphone terms, but higher than most tablets. You can't resolve detail as easily as you can on the Sensation or XE, but at the same time Android fits nicely and looks good. Most apps look completely fine too, but there was the potential for a display that offered greater depth to movies or images.

Beyond resolution, the display is reasonable, but it does darken when viewed from an angle. Colours are nice and vibrant, but not quite as punchy as we've seen on some other handsets. That said, watching movies it works nicely, the opening sequence of Clash of the Titans had plenty of depth to it, aided by that big screen.

Driving the whole package you get a single core 1.5GHz Qualcomm MSM 8255 chipset and 768MB RAM. It isn't the most powerful, but it's smooth and fast in daily operation, which is an important consideration. The lower spec comes with some limitations on what the phone will do, like the lack of Full HD video capture, but in reality, we haven't found it to be noticeably slower than its more powerful little brother.

Of course, stepping up and moving forward, the limited specs of the Sensation XL will see it age more quickly than other more powerful devices. As demands increase, for more enhanced gaming for example, it will be the XL that falters and as a new device, that may be a worry for some when it comes to longevity. When we came to fire up BackStab HD it refused to play.

A little less Sense

Where the Sensation XL trumps its brother, at the time of writing, is in arriving with Android 2.3.5 and HTC Sense 3.5. It also sits on the list of phones that will be updated to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich when that time comes. In the meantime, the Sense experience on the XL is better than elsewhere in the range. Much of it is the same, but a few tweaks here and there make the difference.

One of the significant changes that Sense 3.5 on the XL brings is the ability to change the number of homepages you have. No longer are you stuck with seven pages, you can now cut it down to just one or two, if you prefer. And we do prefer. You still get the curved dock at the bottom of the screen but once you've set the number of screens you want you can just hop through them as normal.

Things do seem a little too sensitive in homepage navigation however. We often found ourselves looking at the overview, or triggering the spinning carousel of pages, rather than just switching to the next the queue. You'll need a light touch at times.

This change is perhaps an acknowledgement that people don't always want pages full of widgets. We think the omnipresent 'personalize' option is also getting a little tiresome. Not only does it hog prime real estate in the dock on homepages, but it also then appears in the menu and with a long press on a wallpaper.

As normal you'll find HTC's run of widgets in place (except the nice shortcuts & clock offered by the HTC Rhyme) and the whole thing can be customised as you see fit. HTC Sense integrates your social networks deeply and with this iteration you'll find a nod to Evernote, and Dropbox preinstalled.

As such, HTC Sense is a comprehensive skin sitting over Android and there is little that it doesn't do. It offers pretty much every generic service you'd want from a smartphone, but it doesn't always do so in the best way. This is the beauty of Android: if you don't like the media streaming then there are free alternative apps. If you don't like the slightly cluttered keyboard, there are better alternatives.

With that all said, however, the experience is slick and smooth. Rarely does the Sensation XL stutter or fail in regular tasks. It handles your run-of-the-mill smartphone tasks with aplomb and if nothing else, the Sense experience is very nice on the Sensation XL. But there is one slight problem with it, which is related to resolution.

There is only one item - the classic HTC clock and weather widget - which feels like it has been designed for the size of the HTC Sensation XL. Everything else looks and feels like it does on other HTC devices, only bigger. Having a huge screen is great when you get to use it, but if your keyboard and text is all larger, you don’t get any great benefit. The same is true of the menus. The page is larger, but the number of app icons is the same. The icons could be smaller, more tightly packed without issue; we feel that the Sensation XL could make better use of the space it offers.

Now if you like things big and brash than that's no problem and during the time we've been living with the Sensation XL it hasn't been a problem, but we do find it a little annoying we can't just resize everything to make it more compact.

Let me entertain you

With a device with a 4.7-inch screen and a Beats logo on the back, entertainment is going to be high on the agenda. On the audio front, of course, you have Beats Audio sound enhancement packed in along with a set of urBeats headphones. The combination is great, with HTC telling us that the headphones have their own custom sound profile. Whether this is the case or not, we found that Beats Audio software also worked with other headphones - we tried it with a pair of Bowers & Wilkins C5 headphones and still got access to the Beats settings.

The headphones themselves are great (and plugging the urBeats into any other audio device will prove that) and come with a selection of different tips in the box to get the best possible noise isolation for the shape of your ear. The urBeats also feature an in-line control which offers play/pause and track skip buttons, but unfortunately gives you no control over volume, so you'll have to use the buttons on the phone. The central play/pause button will also redial your last number, so be careful when frantically prodding it.

The music player itself is ok, giving you access not only to local music, but also network music sources via a drop-down tab at the top. You also get music controls from the lockscreen and in the notifications bar, so it's essentially easy to get to what you want, when you want.

The problem with music across the device, however, is that Beats Audio only works when using the default music player (as it does with the default video player). HTC has previously said that they would be opening up the Beats Audio API to third-party developers, but as and when we'll see the results of this, we don't know. Until then, you'll be stuck with the stock media players unless you are willing to forego Beats Audio enhancement.

You'll get Beats enhancement in the default video player, so this also applies to local video and video you choose to stream. If you prefer to use an app like Skifta to stream content from a media server, you then get the option to use the HTC player with offers Beats Audio enhancement anyway, so you don't lose out. HTC offer its own streaming solution too and the tweaks made to the Gallery make this slightly cleaner, and in our tests faster, than it was previously.

Format support leans towards the common rather than the comprehensive (the same can also be said of music), so your MPEG4 files will do just fine, but your DivX HD files will not. That said, we mostly do use MPEG4 SD or 720p video files on mobile devices and in this case the Sensation XL copes admirably. The screen size is welcomed and we really enjoyed watching video on it, even if once you dive over to something like the BBC iPlayer app, you lose your Beats Audio enhancement.

Internet browsing, naturally, is one of the nice aspects of the Sensation XL. There is plenty of space to move around pages, although that restricted resolution means that you might have to zoom a little more than necessary. We found the browser to be swift and slick in loading pages and put side-by-side with the Sensation XE, we couldn't detect any difference in the speed.

Camera

The camera app has been reworked slightly in Sense 3.5. Essentially it brings the effects options into the corner of the display, rather than taking up space in the menu bar, meaning the settings can also be accessed directly, rather than by touching the device menu button. It's a minor thing, but does make it slightly easier to get around.

We like HTC's arrangement when it comes to focusing, offering touch focusing to minimise the amount of messing around you have to do. It also will prefocus, leading to what HTC call "instant capture" when the phone has essentially focused on the scene before you go to press the button. In some devices, focusing takes place after you press the button, so the process seems longer.

The results are good too. As we've seen before from HTC, fed good light, the camera does rather well. A dual LED flash sits in support, but it doesn't really give you clean or consistent illumination when the natural light drops. Low light shots tend to be noisy, but this is common to all phone cameras.

When it comes to video capture, the HTC Sensation XL hits one of its restrictions and that's the max capture at 1280 x 720 (720p), rather than 1920 x 1080 (1080p) which other premium phones now offer. The results aren't that good either. Although we weren't blessed with the best conditions, the video is still rather lacking in detail. It does offer continuous autofocus which is a bonus and this is generally fast.

Of course, whether you are capturing photos or videos, sharing is as seamless as ever, be that through HTC's take on social networks, or via the native apps.

Final details

Calling on the Sensation XL is reasonable, although we found that the size of the phone meant that we often drifted off the sweet spot for the ear speaker. The narrow slit design does mean it offers a more limited field than some, and we'd often have to move the phone back into place when we couldn't quite hear callers.

With a huge screen you'd expect the battery life to be poor. Inside you get a 1600mAh battery, although the cell is exactly the same size (physically) as that in the Sensation XE, which is 1730mAh. Again, we're not sure why HTC went for the lower capacity battery when it could, very easily, have made things better. However, given the limited specs, the battery lasts longer than you'd expect, certainly longer than many dual core rivals.

We found that the Sensation XL would last over a day with power saving measures and light use. Step into the real world and start pushing the phone and it will be dead before bedtime. So don't go out with less than a 100 per cent charge, or you might be caught short. In this, however, it is no different to other top tier smartphones.

Verdict

There is a lot about the HTC Sensation XL that we like. Watching videos and listening to music is an absolute joy. In fact the Android experience is a joy, be it browsing the Internet, flicking through Twitter or a chasing stars on Angry Birds. Many of the day-to-day things just feel and look good on the Sensation XL because of the size it offers.

But what it lacks are the elements that take this from being purely a big phone, to an exceptional phone. The specs limit what it will do and restrict the potential of the phone at the cutting edge in the future. The screen resolution doesn't measure up, so you lose one of the advantages of a richer visual experience of your rival. The HTC Rezound deals with some of these issues, but the Samsung Galaxy Nexus blows it out of the water.

As a media proposition the lack of a microSD card is probably the biggest problem, as you lose one of the things that people really like about Android. Beats Audio is great, but we feel it has more value from a brand point of view than actual audio enhancement when put up against the likes of Dolby Mobile or SRS. All are good, but it's the headphones that really make the difference here, and third-party support is badly needed.

The final result is a phone that we want to love, but can't. Having initially thought the screen would be too big, we now accept that 4.7-inches works. But the list of things that don’t quite work leaves the HTC Sensation XL feeling like a stopgap and us eyeing a replacement in early-2012. For the hardened Android fan that might be a problem, especially if gaming is on the agenda, but for those that want to browse the Internet, listen to music and just enjoy the simpler things about Android, the HTC Sensation XL will still serve you very well.