HTC Sensation XL review

The HTC Sensation XL is an odd one by HTC. It updates the screen size of this year’s HTC Sensation to 4.7″ and includes Beats Audio enhancements, but you lose a bit of processor speed – the HTC Sensation XL is powered by a single-core 1.5GHz brain.

The Sensation XL arrives running Android 2.3.5 which has been skinned with the version 3.5 of HTC’s Sense user interface, giving us the useful lock-screen shortcuts, HTC’s Watch film buying service, plus an e-reader and more.

This model has been supplied for review by Expansys, which is selling the HTC Sensation XL for £439 at time of writing.

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The Sensation XL doesn’t feel as huge as we were expecting. After taking it out of the box and laughing at the size of it for the first few minutes, it’s alarmingly easy to get used to the format. We are now used to the size.

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The white look makes it appear marginally more stylish from the front than the boring old black HTC Sensation. The backlit buttons – which automatically switch on when the sensor deems it dark enough – are also white.

It seems a little cheaper than the HTC Sensation. You don’t get the subtle rounded edge of the screen on the XL, for example.

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The power button could do with standing out more. For style reasons the power switch and the volume toggles are pretty much flush to the case, making it hard to find the power button without fiddling around for it and poking in a fingernail. Same with the volume up/down toggle.

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Round the back it’s all metallic effect, which is nice enough and makes the HTC Sensation XL feel tough and solid. It’s not quite as stylish as the diagonal swoosh of the original Sensation, but it’s pretty decent all the same.

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And you get Beats Audio headphones. Personally, I can’t stand these awful down-the-earhole things that are fashionable these days, as they’re uncomfortable, make your ears pop, always fall out and sound different depending on how far you ram them in and how close they are to falling out. Plus there are ear wax issues I won’t go in to. But at least there’s a good inline remote.

Having just rammed them down my earholes in the name of suffering for art, though, they do indeed sound loud and are very heavy on the bass. If you like having things poking in your ears and falling out all the time, they’re good enough examples and sound great.

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Anyway, let’s look at things we are better qualified to talk about. The HTC Sensation XL arrives running Android 2.3.5 skinned with HTC Sense version 3.5. So you get the ace lock screen with its customisable shortcuts, your choice of main background widget and music player controls.

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The lock screen is the same as that found on the HTC Sensation , coming with four quick-launch app slots you can open instantly by dragging into the circle beneath. It’s a great system, meaning you can get the camera app up and running in a couple of seconds without any fiddling.

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Unlock the phone by pulling up the big circle and you see the usual HTC Sense way of doing things. Seven Home screens (or fewer if you prefer), some huge widgets, with plenty of customisation options through visual Themes and Skins – and a few more to download if you login to HTC’s Hub app.

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Examples of the above.

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The Notifications menu is the same as in most of HTC’s recent Android phones, giving you an extra tab covering the most common setting toggles, plus a scrolling bar of recently used apps along the top.

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The big additions on HTC Sense 3.5 are its Watch app and widget, which will “rent” you films for around £3.49 or let you “buy” them for a quite ridiculous £9.99. Obviously we are not mad enough to do either. It’s a bit odd there’s no music-buying option as part of HTC Sense, though, as we’d be much more inclined to download MP3s through a phone-based shop than purchase a few awful Hollywood products.

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What you do get is HTC’s Reader, which is a simple e-reading app, pre-loaded with a few popular classics. Obviously Google’s recent launch of its Books service in the UK rather renders this slightly useless, but this one uses Kobo as it’s “back end” – which is popular with open source fans. So might win a few people over.

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The Sensation XL also supports RSS feeds via an anonymous app simple called “News”. This will automatically import all your Google Reader data, which came as something as a surprise.

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It’s a pretty simple app, with a clean text layout, plus it has better sharing options that Google’s official Reader app, since Google decided to focus its own RSS app entirely on Google+ and stripped out many of its social tools.

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The music player is a pretty simple thing as well, incorporating sharing of track data through your usual social network channels.

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Lock screen audio controls are always welcome, plus there’s an option to toggle the Beats Audio sound enhancements on or off present when listening through headphones.

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And an FM radio. And a Home screen widget that comes in various sizes.

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HTC’s camera app has really moved on. HTC’s put all of the options behind the on-screen toggles, so there’s never a need to press the Menu button.

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It’s a good camera. Incredibly fast when taking and saving shots, with a straightforward option layout. Results are good, bright and colourful, plus it does a good job of capturing difficult organic grassy and twiggy bits. We like it a lot.

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It’s pretty good indoors, too.

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And it has comedy modes. Everyone loves a comedy mode. The fun we had.

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That’s the camera’s digital zoom. It’s not a crazy multiplier, but it does make the end result look a little worse. So you’ll ever use it.

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That’s the secondary front-facing camera to the left. It produces shots at 768×1280 and does a good job of it, too.

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Although it’s an 8megapixel unit as also found in the old HTC Sensation, we like the resulting pictures much more. They seem less noisy, better in low light and generally sharper than they were via the original Sensation. Either there’s a better sensor in the XL or we’ve lowered our standards.

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The video records at a maximum resolution of 1280×720, so there’s no 1080p boast here. What you do get is a bonus slow motion mode, which records at double speed so you end up with a good quality slow-mo clip – although slow motion clips are reduced to a max res of 480×800.

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By default, the camcorder’s focusing uses the tap-to-focus system, so you’re encouraged to take manual control. In fact, you’re forced to, as we couldn’t find any sort of continuous auto-focus option. That’s not a problem – if you know what to do.

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Here’s a still from a 720p film. The digital zoom works while recording, and results are good. Bright, colourful and without too much loss of detail. If you’re not obsessed with the idea of having 1080p capabilities, it’s a good little video camera.

Download the unedited sample here [46MB].

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The HTC Sense email app supports ActiveSync, POP3 and comes with automated set-ups tools for a few common email providers. It’s not very exciting. But it works.

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What else is there? A data use and calling plan monitor (left) and HTC’s own Notes app, the latter of which lets you create Evernote-compatible documents containing text, photos, your own drawings and sound files. It’s well nice.

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Power options for squeezing the last bit of juice out of the battery. Nice to have a little integrated ‘sleep mode’ for properly powering it down overnight, something third-party apps have been offering for years.

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Battery life itself was fine. Not the apocalyptic performance we were expecting from a massive 4.7″ screen. The relatively modest 1520mAh battery made it through a day of mid-to-heavy easily enough, and we didn’t find it any worse than its peers.

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Oh, nearly forgot our joke about the dialer! It has all the numbers, from 0 all the way up to 9. This lets you input complex sequences of numbers and telephone people. Calling quality is great. Loud and clear. No complaints.

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And the keyboard. Very nice. Incredibly easy to type on such a huge screen, plus you even get HTC’s own clone of the Swype line-drawing text entry system AND an array of cursor control keys along the bottom for easy text entry.

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And a benchmark for all the specialists out there. Should I be using a different benchmarking tool? Quadrant doesn’t seem to have many new phones on it?

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Internet. Very nice on the big screen, supports Flash and does a great job of scrolling pages around – even when embedded videos are playing. It would be nice if HTC stopped hiding its bookmarks behind the Menu buttons, but you can still do a long-press on the Back button to pull up your History and get to your favourites that way. So we can’t complain too much.

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Anyway. Summary time.

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It’s big, but not as stupidly big as we imagined. It’s well balanced and perfectly usable. It’s hard to believe we’re already completely happy with using a 4.7″ phone.

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And despite the single-core processor which some may consider a “downgrade” on what the original Sensation offered, it’s perfectly fast, doesn’t glitch, installs apps quickly and handles the web with ease.

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Stylistically it could do with being a bit more exciting and we still prefer the design of the Xperia Arc, but the Sensation XL is up there with the best Android has to offer today.

HARDWARE: 8/10
It doesn’t have the same unibody case and subtly curved screen edges of the original HTC Sensation, but the 4.7″ screen is very bright and responsive, while the capacitive touch buttons are totally reliable. It’s a slightly boring lump, but it works perfectly and the camera’s excellent.

SOFTWARE: 9/10
HTC Sense was looking a little tired earlier this year, but there are some nice enhancements in this newest 3.5 update. The email app’s much more impressive than it was, the lock-screen shortcuts are the best thing HTC’s done for a long time, plus it all moves quickly and without glitch.

PERFORMANCE: 9/10
Again, no problems here. The box says it has a 1.5GHz single-core processor, but there’s no indication that it’s technically less capable than the original Sensation or the faster Sensation XE. It’s rock sold and very fast throughout.

OVERALL: 9/10
We wanted to hate it. We thought it’d be too big and clumsy, and were planning on saying that HTC Sense had been eclipsed by the other mobile interfaces. But it’s not. And it hasn’t. The Sensation XL is slim and well balanced, so the size is something you’ll soon come to think of as normal, plus HTC Sense’s gradual evolution is great to see. It’s yet another solid winner from HTC’s production line.

And thanks once again to Expansys for the phone. It’ll sell you an HTC Sensation XL for £439 if you like ‘em big and without contractual commitments.

4 ResponsesLeave one →

  1. Simon

     /  December 10, 2011

    I wish I could listen to Eurodroid FM :(

  2. Mr Anonymous

     /  December 10, 2011

    Three 9/10′s? Seriously? Wow! You sure this isn’t the Samsung GS2 you’re talking about? :D

  3. Gary C

     /  December 10, 2011

    It’s so hard to find any negative points in today’s high-end Android phones. They’re all so bloody well refined these days.

    I’ll give the Galaxy Nexus 3/10 to redress the balance a little…

  4. Abhishek P

     /  December 11, 2011

    Nice review…any heating issues …while playing movies or games…also awaiting your take on Xperia Arc S…should we expect it soon ?

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