review You’ve probably heard of Beats By Dr Dre by now. What you may not have heard is that HTC recently invested several suitcases worth of cash into the company, to the tune of a reported $300 million, for the rights to use its audio technology in HTC smartphones. The HTC Sensation XL and XE are the first fruits of that labour, and they’re both available today exclusive to Vodafone.
The first one we’re reviewing is the HTC Sensation XL, a music-oriented smartphone with a jumbo-sized 4.7” display, 16GB of internal storage, and bundled Beats Solo headphones. It’s a strong mix of features that results in one of the most appealing smartphones that HTC has released to date, but is it impressive enough to take on the iPhone 4S and other top-shelf smartphones? Read on to find out.
“A 4.7” screen? Surely that’s too big for a smartphone?” That was our first thought when we heard about the Sensation XL, but turns out it’s not as wide as we thought it would be. It’s actually quite nice in the hand thanks to the smoothly rounded edges, giving it the illusion of being a lot narrower than 70.7mm. Of course, it doesn’t have the perfectly-proportioned hand-to-screen-size ratio that the iPhone supposedly has, but it’s not that much wider than phones with a 4.3” display. Off-hand, we couldn’t tell the difference between the width of the Motorola RAZR and Sensation XL, although the former is slightly narrower at 68.9mm.
The Sensation XL is the best-looking HTC phone we’ve seen, and we’d argue that it’s up there as one of the most attractive Android phones as well. The pure white front is reminiscent of the iPhone 4/4S and iPad 2, with silver accents that wrap around to the back to take up the majority of the rear casing. The extra space afforded by the larger display has enabled HTC’s engineers to spread the internal components thinner, and the Sensation XL is actually the company’s thinnest smartphone yet at just a hair under 1cm. It’s also surprisingly light at 162g – the 4.3” HTC Evo 3D is heavier at 170g.
The rest of the phone’s design is pretty standard. On the front, there are four capacitive buttons below the screen, an indicator light above the screen that flashes green when you have a new notification, and a front-facing 1.3-megapixel camera. The top houses a 3.5mm headphone jack and the sleep/power button, and the volume buttons (housed underneath a thin silver slab) are on the right. The microUSB port is on the left, and the rear houses the dual LED flash, eight-megapixel camera and speaker. Behind the rear casing, you’ll find the 1600mAh battery and SIM card slot, but sadly no microSD card slot.
The earphones that come bundled with smartphones have gotten a lot better in the last few years, but the Sensation XL bumps it up several notches with the inclusion of Beats Solo over-the-ear headphones. These are a special edition that have been tuned to specifically match the Beat Audio sound profile on the Sensation XL, but if you were to buy the regular Beats Solo headphones, you’d be looking at an RRP of $300. They’re smaller than a regular set of headphones, so even if you’re not usually the headphone-wearing type, you may not mind wearing these out in public. Of course, it helps that they’re seriously stylish, with a white paintjob to match the Sensation XL, red-on-silver Beats logo on each ear, and a distinctive red cable.
While these come free in the box, HTC has had to cut some corners in other areas to compensate. The XL is less powerful than the original HTC Sensation, opting for a single-core 1.5GHz processor (with the same 768MB of RAM) and a lower-res 800 x 480 screen. This is the same display resolution that HTC uses on its mid-range 3.7” smartphones – a pixel density that looks normal on the smaller screens but results in extra-large text, buttons and other GUI elements on the Sensation XL. The up-side is that if your eyes aren’t what they used to be, this is something you’ll actually appreciate, and it makes the on-screen keyboard easier to type on.
The Sensation XL runs the latest version of Android (2.3.5) as well as the latest HTC Sense 3.5 graphics, and HTC has announced that it will be providing an upgrade to Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) next year. It also supports Vodafone’s new 850MHz 3G network, along with the standard 900/2100 UMTS bands. Among other things, the HTC Sense adds a few tweaks to the Android interface that makes the phone better to use as a music player. There’s a custom Music app that lets you browse through tracks from the Now Playing screen by swiping the album art, download cover art directly from Gracenote, set tracks as ringtones and share them, and there are music widgets in the notification window, homescreen and lockscreen. The Sensation XL also comes HTC Sync desktop software (PC and Mac) that lets you sync music and playlists from iTunes.
HTC has also made some strides in the camera department. The Sensation XL is the first HTC phone (that we know of) to offer a backside-illuminated sensor, similar to the one found on the iPhone 4/4S. The camera app is fast to startup and snap a photo, and there are dozens of settings to tweak, along with a variety of scene modes and fun special effects that you can apply before or after the shot is taken. We were able to get some nice shots from the camera, including some interesting depth of field (albeit with extremely unattractive bokeh), but the auto white balance isn’t particularly good at judging the lighting (you’ll have to set the white balance yourself for best results), and we noticed a distinct red bias in all our shots.
The big question is, does the combination of the Beats Solo headphones and the Beats Audio sound profile on the HTC Sensation XL really make a difference? We listened to the same songs on the Sensation XL and an iPhone 4S through the Beats Solo headphones, and while there wasn’t much of a difference for many tracks, the Beats Audio sound technology (a mixture of hardware and software enhancements) springs to life whenever you chuck a little bass at it. Electronic music and R&B/Hip-hop tracks is where you’ll hear the difference most – on the Sensation XL, the bass was a couple of notches boomier compared to the iPhone 4S, with a not unpleasant throbbing in each headphone cup whenever the bass gets especially deep.
It’s worth pointing out, though, that the Beats Audio enhancements apply to sound out of the headphone jack only. Output from the external speaker, which is located on the rear next to the camera, is very ordinary. At maximum volume, it’s actually not that loud, and it’s almost completely lacking in bass. Similarly, the speakerphone and earpiece could do with a couple of extra levels in the volume output, although what does come out is clear.
If you’re wondering whether Vodafone’s 850MHz network is any better than its 2100MHz network for 3G data, our tests (which are by no means comprehensive and only slightly scientific) showed that there was a little improvement, but it still trailed behind the Optus and Telstra networks by a wide margin.
Battery life was a pleasant surprise. The 1600mAh battery isn’t especially large, but with medium usage (consisting of five text messages, five photos, 1.5 hours of web browsing over Wi-Fi, 1.5 hours of browsing over 3G, five phone calls of five minutes each, 30 minutes of playing music, and intermittent email checking throughout the day), we were able to stretch the HTC Sensation XL’s run-time to an amazing 34 hours and 22 minutes. This is an extraordinary result that outpaces every other smartphone we’ve reviewed recently by a good 10 hours.
To say we liked this phone would be an understatement. The HTC Sensation XL gets so many things right – the gorgeous hardware design, awesome Beats Audio technology (and bundled Beats Solo headphones) and excellent battery life – that it makes its shortcomings (namely the low-res screen, lack of microSD expansion and weak external speaker) easier to forgive.
Still, the limitation to 16GB of internal storage is a big strike against it that may be a deal-breaker for many music lovers. We’d love to see a version of this phone with either more internal storage or microSD expansion (and ideally both), and at the rate that HTC is churning out smartphones, we wouldn’t be surprised if just such a device was announced within the next couple of months.
The HTC Sensation XL is available exclusively from Vodafone for $5 per month for the handset on the $59 Cap over 24 months.
Jenneth Orantia turned her back on a lucrative career in law to pursue her unhealthy obsession with consumer technology. She’s known for having at least half a dozen of the latest gadgets on her person at a time, and once won a bottle of Dom Perignon for typing 78WPM on a Pocket PC with a stylus.
Image credit: HTC