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October 7, 2011

HTC Sensation XL review

by John_A

The HTC Sensation XL pushes out 4.7-inches of glorious display to fill with your Android ambitions. It’s the latest flagship phone to launch from HTC, much rumoured and leaked, and now unleashed upon the world. It picks up much of what the HTC Titan set out on Windows Phone 7 and effectively gives you the Android equivalent, but with a few treats thrown in.

But does this phone bite off more than it can chew? Is it big and clever? We got the chance to spend some time with the phone prior to launch to bring you our first impressions.

Design and build

Let’s start with the design. HTC have stuck to their tried and tested approach of a machined aluminium back, with a bottom section finished in rubberised plastic to ensure plenty of reception. Like the HTC Sensation, the entire back comes away from the front, so effectively all the innards are attached to the back of that massive screen.

It feels solid in the hand. There are no plastic sections to creak as you manipulate it, there are no odd panels or coloured sections. It’s just big, clean and white. But it isn’t as attractive in design as the regular Sensation which by comparison looks more sophisticated with it’s speaker cutout and contoured screen edges.

The flat front of the screen gives you four touch controls across the bottom, home, menu, back and search. On the top you have the normal standby button and 3.5mm headphone jack, with volume controls on the side. A single Micro-USB is on the bottom edge – there is no HDMI out, as you might find on rival devices.

At 9.9mm thick, the HTC Sensation XL sits in the hand well, be there’s no avoiding the magnitude of the screen. It’s huge, but we didn’t find that to be a problem when it came to navigation. We could control the phone one handed, although those with smaller hands will probably encounter problems reaching the standby button.

It does dwarf other devices. The iPhone 4 looks positively dinky next to it and HTC’s existing big screened device the HTC Sensation is dwarfed too. The HTC Sensation XL just about pulls this off because it still remains usable, but at 162.5g, it’s a pretty hefty phone. The dimensions are 132.5 x 70.7 x 9.9mm for stats fans.

The hardware

The 4.7-inch touchscreen on the front is vibrant, but at 800 x 480 pixels, has a fairly low pixel density of 198ppi. Ok, it isn’t a low density per se, but we know that some are going to see this as a missed opportunity to pack in a higher resolution display – especially as the HTC Sensation has a 960 x 540 resolution. As a result, even though you can get plenty on the display, you’ll still need to zoom to resolve finer details, such as text on a web page.

Some might also question the Qualcomm MSM 8255 1.5GHz single core chipset (and 768MB RAM) rather than the more fashionable dual core processors you’ll find in other large display models, including the Sensation XE. Absolute numbers aren’t the whole story however and whether the power is sufficient will come down to performance and how the phone handles day-to-day tasks both at launch and into the future. This is something we’ll have to determine when we get the phone in for a full review.

From our quick play the phone seemed snappy enough. HTC Sense 3.5 was slick and fast, there was no sign of lag as we opened and closed apps and explored what was on offer. But this was a demo device and not loaded with our own content, so again, we’ll have to wait and see what the real world performance is like.

Another slight oddity of the HTC Sensation XL is the memory. There is no external memory option, so you can’t add a microSD card. Internally there is 16GB of storage, but only 12.64GB is available for the user. This might be limiting for some, especially if you want to carry a large movie selection to watch on that huge screen.

HTC Sense 3.5

One noticeable difference is that HTC Sense is slightly different on the HTC Sensation XL. Given the extra screen space available, HTC has shrunk down the hallmark clock widget, so you could add more to the front page. But we did feel as though things were a little too spaced out. Open up the menu and the icons are big, but not only that – the space between the icons looks too large. Effectively you get the same menu as you do on other HTC devices and we feel they could have tightened things up a bit to give you more apps per page.

This is the third HTC Sense 3.5 device to launch. HTC Sense 3.5 as seen on the HTC Explorer and HTC Rhyme is simplified slightly, with a cleaner front page. The HTC Sensation XL returns to the typical look and feel of HTC Sense we’ve seen in the past, so the dock sits at the bottom of the homepages.

Otherwise HTC Sense 3.5 acts as Sense always has done in the past, offering up bags of connectivity and integrated features. We noticed that Dropbox was preinstalled on this device, but HTC would neither confirm or deny whether there was any special deal – news of which we bought you before – but inclusion of the app make us think there probably is.

The HTC Sensation XL runs Android 2.3.5 at launch.

Beats by Dr Dre and the rest

HTC has been lavishing attention on its camera for a long time. The immediate thing you notice when you fire up the camera app is just how incredible everything looks on the screen. It’s a vast preview of the scene before you, with HTC equipping the Sensation XL with an 8-megapixel sensor and 28mm F/2.2 lens.

There are plenty of effects included, but not much new adding to the mix, and we’d like to see some effects that add a bit of retro magic, although these can easily be picked up on Android Market. Video capture only comes in at 720p, which is perfectly acceptable, but again, we suspect some will question why HTC didn’t make this a superphone and bundle Full HD capture in there as well.

One of the big unique features of the HTC Sensation XL is the tie in with Beats. This is the second Beats branded handset to launch after the Sensation XE. As with that phone, you’ll get a set of iBeats headphones (which HTC are calling upbeats) in the box. This is partnered with a software audio profile to optimise performance for these specific headphones.

There will also be a “special edition” HTC Sensation XL, which comes with a pair of Beats Solo headphones (pictured here without the red cable). Again, the phone will detect that you’ve connected the headphones and give you an audio profile specifically for the Solo headphones. These headphones will come in white, but HTC wasn’t able to tell us who would be stocking this special edition bundle.

We have only spent a hour or so with the phone so we can’t comment on battery life, but the spec sheet tells us it is a 1600mAh cell. This sounds rather low for a device this size, so we don’t have high hopes of making it through a full day on a single charge.

First Impressions

Overall the HTC Sensation XL is something of a surprise. We can see that Android fans will ask awkward questions of HTC: why isn’t there a dual core processor, why isn’t there more RAM, why isn’t the screen a higher resolution, why is there no microSD card slot? We suspect that much of this has come out of the spec requirement for the HTC Titan, the Windows Phone 7 device of the same size.

We also feel that the menu could have been tightened up a little bit to make better use of the screen space, but that’s something that software could easily fix.

Let’s not be too negative here. The HTC Sensation XL is spectacular at 4.7-inches. It will be a great browsing device and it’s packed full of the great HTC Sense features that we know and love, so it will offer a great user experience. But we suspect the Sensation XE will emerge as the more popular device: it still has the Beats integration, but more power and a higher resolution display.

Of course, we have to reserve final judgement until we’ve lived with the phone for some time, so stay tuned for our definitive HTC Sensation XL review.

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