HTC Sensation: A Review of HTC’s New Beast

The Android platform has seen manufacturers constantly try to one-up each other over the last year, regarding who can get the highest powered processor in their device, often at the expense of other necessities for a phone to really be considered great. Sure, a bigger processor will normally result in better performance over a lower end processor, but that’s only a tiny part of the real experience of a phone.

After Google released the Nexus One back in January 2010 the processors in smartphones began to be seen as the most important aspect that manufactures seemed to care about – with 1GHz processors being the bare minimum if you wanted to be considered a high-end smartphone, irrespective of how your phone performed. You can see why these firms like HTC, Samsung and Motorola went for that strategy: it was about marketing.

HTC were actually late comers to the Dual-Core game, which is unusual for the company that has a reputation for being first to everything (Android and 4G in USA to name a few), but will their entry, the HTC Sensation, be worth the wait, or have they too entered the market purely for publicity? Read on for the review.

Hardware

HTC Sensation Review

Sensation, iPhone 4 and Wildfire S

First thing you will notice about the Sensation is that it is huge, due to its whopping 4.3 inch display. As you can see, it’s bigger than the iPhone 4 and dwarfs the Wildfire S. The phone feels small, however, and I don’t find it any less comfortable in my hand than my iPhone 4, primarily due to the rounded edges of the unibody frame that fit nicely into the palm, and its solid weight of 148g (only 11 grams more than the iPhone 4). It’s also only 11.3mm thick, which is slimmer than the Wildfire S

HTC Sensation Review

Showing depth of iPhone 4, Sensation and Wildfire S (far right)

Inside you’ll find a 1.2GHz Dual Core snapdragon processor powering this beast, with 768MB of RAM and 1GB of internal storage – plenty of room for your apps – and with an expandable SD slot underneath the back cover of up to 32GB your media should be fine as well. Speaking of the back cover, in typical HTC style, it’s very difficult to open and you won’t find yourself doing any quick SIM swaps or battery replacements on the go. Of course it also comes with the usual Bluetooth 3.0, Gyros, Compass and other standard modern smartphone features.

HTC Sensation Review

Back, top and left side of the Sensation

On the back of the device you will see the 8MP camera on the top left with dual LED flash (more on this later), speaker on the right and multiple ‘pin holes’ which I assume are microphone sensors for better background noise reduction.

Along the left hand-side you will find a volume rocker and a micro USB slot. I have always found that the volume rockers on HTC handsets are a bit flimsy and hard to tell, if you press in the middle area, whether it will turn the volume up or down. On the top of the device there’s the normal 3.5mm headphone jack and a lock button – again a bit flimsy and sunk into the handset almost completely. There is nothing on the right or bottom of the handset.

On the front you have your proximity sensor, an earphone grill with embedded LED notification light, and the front facing VGA camera; along the bottom is the default HTC Android configuration of buttons. Whats interesting about the front is that there is a curved element to it; unlike the Nexus S’s contour display, where the actual display was curved, it’s just the very edge of the front that forms the “lip”. This makes it easy to know when you’ve reached the end of the screen and gives an overall slightly better grip with your thumb when holding it in one hand.

The battery is 1520 mAh and this is a fairly average size for high-end Android smartphones; however with the high processing power and large display I would have liked to see a bigger battery. What I will say is that its perfectly capable of lasting two days, or maybe even three with light usage such as occasional internet browsing and normal phone usage. But who buys one of these for that?? You are likely to be recharging every night, like most smartphones, due to browsing, playing some Angry Birds, downloading some apps, listening to music… basically, if you are a power user you will find that the battery life is reasonable, but nothing special.

Display

As I’ve already mentioned, the display on the Sensation is pretty large, 4.3″ in fact, and I felt it deserved its own sub-section because its just so damn gorgeous.

At 540 x 960 px the display has actually fewer pixels that the iPhone 4′s 3.5″ retina display, but we’ll forgive HTC just this once. This is because of the qHD display which gives it 35% more pixels than the normal 4.3″ display, meaning you not only get more on the screen, but the standard icons and widgets are in a higher resolution and thus noticeably crisper.

HTC Sensation ReviewThe 960 x 540 pixels provide a 16:9 ratio which means that it’s practically perfect for portable media. So what you will be getting is a huge screen that has a pretty high resolution and some very nice colours – overall great for watching movies on the go.

However it does have some shortcomings, such as poor viewing angles. When compared to the iPhone 4 you will immediately notice that the Sensation has a slightly slight poorer display in terms of the resolution and is harder to read at extreme angles — not that you’re likely to be in a situation when you have to read at 170 degree angle, but if you want to share your viewing with others, the outside friends may not be able to see the content very clearly.

One more advantage is that the monster of a screen is made from Gorilla Glass, which means it’s highly durable against scratches and scuffs, and is even more protected by the slight curve of the front which stops the display from ever actually touching the surface you lay it on.

Software and Performance

HTC Sensation Review

Some of the new aesthetics of Sense

Sense 3.0 has arrived on this device (along with the Evo 3D and Flyer) and it’s safe to say that it’s the best Sense so far. There are some new features, like the lock screen that provides shortcut links to apps and a mini HUD for Stocks, photos and multiple other ‘lock screens’. But the biggest addition to sense 3.0 is the 3D aspect to everything; navigating the home screens is like turning a cube and swiping rapidly will give you a spinning carousel display of all your home screens. This is a nice gimmick, but there’s no real benefit apart from a fancy trick in seeing all of your home screens flying around (and it’s actually not particularly easy to grab one as its hurls past you.) 

You’ll also find an updated and immersive weather application (as if it wasn’t in-your-face enough), as well as the new instant capture camera which is a great addition – no prizes for guessing what it does. One of my favourite new features is HTC Watch – an iTunes-like app for Android that lets you purchase or rent movies on the go. The best part about it is that it uses progressive downloading which means you can start watching the film while the rest of it is downloading. However, it does seem that you can only watch it on the device and not on a computer, which is a real let down when you compare it to the simplicity of iTunes.

HTC Sensation Review

The standard Gingerbread Sense features - still deeply appreciated

Apart from a few minor adjustments mentioned above there are few additional features to Sense that we haven’t seen before; there’s the new launcher page with your apps that shows ‘All’, ‘Favourite’ and ‘Downloaded’, as well as the Quick Settings tab in the notification bar – but all of these were already present in Sense on Gingerbread.

With a 1.2GHz dual core snapdragon you’d be expecting some pretty radical speeds, am I wrong? And to the most part the Sensation does not disappoint. On the whole the OS is fairly snappy, at least the fastest Sense experience I have ever used; launching and switching apps is quick and web pages seem to load quickly, in fact quicker that on my iPhone 4 on the same WiFi network.

But the Sense UI is like all Sense UIs before it; it works nice and snappy if you are using it lightly, but as soon their intense widgets come into play and you start getting that processor whirling then you are going to notice a slight lag from time to time – nothing that will make you think the phone has frozen, but enough to question whether there is any hardware acceleration in this device. I know I keep making comparisons to the iPhone 4, but its a good base to test features and speed to; and I am sorry to say this won’t be as fast as your single core iPhone 4.

HTC Sensation Review

Showing some impressive test results

Now I know some people are benchmark crazy and while I think that everyday usage is a far better indication of a device’s capabilities, it doesn’t hurt to give you some idea of what to expect. The Quadrant benchmark scored in at around 2000, which is a very respectable score. While Linpack hovered around 45 MFLOPS which is equally impressive. 

To sum up the Sense 3.0 performance I would say that it’s resource-intensive eyecandy, and while it sure is pretty, the functionality and stability is just not there to be considered an iPhone 4 iOS killer. However, even the power users won’t find anything wrong with this phone and if you’re not doing anything too challenging for the processor then you won’t notice a thing wrong with performance.

Camera

People have had mixed opinions about HTC’s cameras on their phone, and while many have proclaimed them to be horrendous, I disagree and think they are actually quite good. As you may or may not know the number of megapixels in a camera is really not that important (compared to, say, the lens) — so can the 8MP replace your happy snappy point-and-shoot, or is it still only a last resort camera? In short: it’s not going to replace your pocket camera, but it still doesn’t take bad photos.

HTC Sensation Review

Left and bottom right shots taken in fairly high light areas, top right in low light

As you can see the images taken in daylight came out very well, actually, and the instant photos were true to their word; however, the ones taken in low light (such as the rug) were a little slower to take and the quality is not up to the iPhone 4′s camera. Still you’re unlikely to be upset with the quality of this camera, considering it’s on a phone.

Downside

HTC Sensation Review

before (left) and after (right) - this is covering the entire back of phone with hand

Apart from the occasional lag and average battery life, you won’t find much to criticise about this phone; there is however one problem that has sprung up on the interwebs from Sensation owners, and that is WiFi reception.

Much like the dreaded iPhone 4 antennagate, if you cover up the back of the Sensation with your hand flat over the entire backplate, you will suffer signal loss. However this may not be as severe as you might think, because not only does this only really happen if you lie your entire hand completely over the back (which is rarely how you are going to hold it), but also, it doesn’t seem to affect the actual WiFi signal. It may just confuse the receptor into thinking it’s got less signal, because I tried browsing the Internet and even streaming from Spotify and no matter what I did, the WiFi reception was never compromised.

Conclusion

So you’ve got this far and you may be thinking that its a good phone, but with an expensive price tag (RRP of £499/$799) and wondering if it’s the phone for you. Well you’ve got to weigh it up; yes there are certain downsides, like the average battery life and the general heft of the device, but the stunning screen and performance of this beast make it, in my opinion, a great buy for any Android enthusiast who wants a top-of-the-range smatphone. If Sense isn’t for you then you always have the multiple optional launchers from the Android Market.

Overall it’s a very impressive piece of kit; it has a few shortcomings, but what phone doesn’t?


Summary

HTC's first dual core smartphone hit the ground running and offers a very impressive performance, if slowed only slightly by the bloaty Sense 3. The phone is fast and with a huge 4.3" display at qHD, if you love media, you're going to love this phone with its inbuild HTC Watch for downloading movies on the go.

8
  • Mas0n

    The Sensation is a really good smartphone and I’m happy to own one as a replacement of my good old HTC Hero. But now after almost two months of usage I have the same problem like many other users of the Sensation. There are two small points with dust under the screen. And that really sucks, especially because this is the current top model of HTC and you can expect top quality…

  • Devon Rodgers

    Hey, Fluffy…just curious…did you review the Sensation without the recent update that happened last week and it will reach most Sensations by the end of September? The Wifi issue improves, and on my Sensation, has greatly improved the device.

    I dunno what it is, but I don’t get or have the antenna issue with the hand placement.

    All in all, HTC Sensation 4G is a great phone…regardless if it’s on T-mo or Vodaphone.

    • Fluffy Raving

      Yes I do have the latest software update I believe, I have software number 1.35.707.1
      Like I said, I don’t feel the wifi issue is really much of an issue, more of a statistical mistake by the device maybe and it has never affected my use of it :)

      • Devon Rodgers

        Cool, not making fun of your knowledge or anything like that, just a strong lover of the phone. Thanks for the article though!

  • Sergey

    It is with a heavy heart that I have to announce that the Gorilla Glass on Sensation is a lie. Scratched my phone yesterday, badly, and didn’t even notice how. And no I, never kept it in a pocket with keys, I even wore it in a cloth bag to protect from harm.

    What a bummer.

    • Fluffy Raving

      thats a real shame Sergey. I’ve not had any problems with the surface of the screen and found it to be quite strong. Is it bad enough to get the screen replaced?

      • Sergey

        There is more to this story! This is how my phone looks today after a 80-cm (32-inch) drop from my pocket:
        http://dl.dropbox.com/u/4821368/IMAG0048.jpg

        • http://michaeljameswilliams.com/ Michael James Williams

          Ouch :(

        • Fluffy Raving

          wow thats not good, although on the plus side it looks like that picture was taken with the Desire HD and thats not a bad phone at all :)

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