Monday, November 14, 2011

2011 Smartphone Review: HTC Sensation XE

No breaking news here. More of a developing story. The HTC Sensation XE is a shiny new release that lets you catch up on the latest from HTC Android lineup. A luxury edition for audiophiles with some extra kick squeezed out of the CPU. Old song to a new tune, if you will. But we wouldn’t frown at the sound of it. After all, it's the sound that counts.

HTC Sensation XE HTC Sensation XE HTC Sensation XE
HTC Sensation XE official photos

Beats Audio is a big part of the deal in the new Sensation XE. HTC have teamed up with Beats by Dr. Dre to boost the phone's credentials to audio purists. There's special sound processing on the inside and a Monster iBeats headset in the box.

The other things they tinkered with are the processor and battery. The two cores are now ticking at 1.5 GHz and the battery's been beefed up to 1730 mAh. The rest is familiar but by no means boring. The HTC Sensation is a dual-core super droid with a massive 4.3 qHD touchscreen, 8MP stills and Full HD video.

Key features

  • Quad-band GSM and dual-band 3G support
  • 14.4 Mbps HSDPA and 5.76 Mbps HSUPA
  • 4.3" 16M-color capacitive LCD touchscreen of qHD resolution (540 x 960 pixels); Gorilla glass
  • Android OS v2.3 Gingerbread with HTC Sense 3.0
  • 1.5 GHz dual Scorpion CPUs, Adreno 220 GPU, Qualcomm Snapdragon MSM8260 chipset
  • 768 MB RAM and 1 GB of app storage
  • Beats audio enhancement and premium Monster ibeats headset
  • 8 MP autofocus camera with LED flash; face detection and geotagging
  • 1080p and 720p video recording @ 30fps
  • Wi-Fi b/g/n and DLNA
  • GPS with A-GPS
  • Stereo FM radio with RDS
  • microSD slot up to 32GB (16 GB card included)
  • Accelerometer, proximity and ambient light sensor
  • Front facing camera with video calls
  • Standard 3.5 mm audio jack
  • microUSB port (charging) and stereo Bluetooth v3.0
  • MHL TV-out (requires a MHL-to-HDMI adapter)
  • Smart dialing, voice dialing
  • DivX/XviD video support
  • HTC Locations app
  • integration
  • HTC Portable Hotspot
  • Ultra-fast boot times (if you don’t remove battery)
  • Office document editor

Main disadvantages

  • Death grip issues for both GSM and Wi-Fi radios
  • Less than impressed with the screen's outdoor performance
  • Unimpressive camera results
  • No dedicated camera key
  • microSD is under the battery cover (you'll lose all wireless signal when open the cover)

Sony Ericsson did it with the Xperia arc S and Samsung must've lost count of the Galaxy S sequels. Why have one flagship when you can have two seems to be the common thinking. The XE is not a replacement of the original Sensation. It's a special edition with very specific targeting. Brand spanking new - yes! Groundbreaking - no! Worth it? Well, we're about to see.

The build and finish are nearly identical to the original model, but for the BeatsAudio logo and red color accents. Those seem to make quite a lot of difference and to us the Sensation XE is the better looking phone. And HTC did well to make it easily recognizable.

HTC Sensation XE HTC Sensation XE HTC Sensation XE HTC Sensation XE 
The HTC Sensation XE at ours

So, how will the two flagships get along? This isn't going to be a rivalry we think. The Sensation XE has a very specific target and the original Sensation can only benefit from a price drop - albeit a minor one. There's a six month gap between the two. Too soon for releasing a massive upgrade but enough time for the initial excitement to wane.

It's a sensible move from HTC to try and rekindle the love. And they did well to give the new version a unique selling feature. But is it worth the extra asking price? Always a legitimate question, this one is even more pertinent given HTC's usually steep pricing. To be fair though, the Monster headset alone pretty much offsets the premium.

Well, anyone can do their own math. Now, let's do ours. The usual set of benchmarks, audio and screen tests, and image samples will help us know the Sensation XE better. As usual though, we start with the hardware.

Retail package - Monster Beats headset outshines everything

The HTC Sensation XE comes in a box that's a bit bigger than usual - the first sign you are actually getting a special edition bundle. There is the usual compact charger, a microUSB cable and some user guides. A 16GB microSD card is more than welcome - plenty of storage for a respectable music collection. And it’s a Class 4 card.

HTC Sensation XE HTC Sensation XE HTC Sensation XE HTC Sensation XE 
The HTC Sensation XE retail package

Then comes the real treat in the shape of an iBeats headset by Monster. The red cabling matches the color accents of the Sensation XE. The supplied set is slightly different to the regular retail version: it has a set of three chrome-plated music controls instead of a single button. The middle Play/Pause button doubles as a call key.

There is a fancy pouch too with some spare ear tips of varying size.  The HTC Sensation XE has the exact same measurements as the original Sensation. At 126.1 x 65.4 x 11.3 mm, it weighs just three grams more - tipping the scales at 151 g.

Design and construction

The HTC Sensation XE looks better than its predecessor. We like the color accents: the earpiece, the trim of the camera lens nest and the red-backlit capacitive controls. The finish of the rear is another point in favor. While the original Sensation did look patched up from different pieces, the XE has a single color soft rubbery finish and a piece of aluminum.

HTC Sensation XE HTC Sensation XE HTC Sensation XE HTC Sensation XE 
HTC Sensation XE next to HTC Sensation

It's by no means a compact handset but fortunately designed to provide a good grip. The rubbery finish and curved shape of the battery cover are of much help.

Although we don't have any gripes with the build quality, we wouldn't call it unibody. It's certainly made to look like one - the battery cover doesn’t just attach at the top or bottom, it rather warps the phone's body in.

The Sensation XE comes with a familiar 4.3” Gorilla glass protected S-LCD screen. It's the same unit we met in the first Sensation. Not the best display we've seen, with middling outdoor performance and disappointing viewing angles. Blacks are not as deep as AMOLED screens go, but brightness and color rendering are good.

HTC Sensation XE HTC Sensation XE 
The HTC Sensation XE's S-LCD screen • The Sensation XE between the Galaxy S II and HTC Sensation

Our traditional display brightness and contrast test confirm our observations. Deep blacks are not the Sensation XE's strength and while the brightness levels are OK, the contrast ratios aren’t that impressive.

Display test 50% brightness 100% brightness
Black, cd/m2 White, cd/m2 Contrast ratio Black, cd/m2 White, cd/m2 Contrast ratio
HTC Sensation XE 0.23 172 761 0.64 484 752
HTC Sensation 0.21 173 809 0.61 438 720
Motorola Atrix 4G 0.48 314 652 0.60 598 991
LG Optimus 2X 0.23 228 982 0.35 347 1001
Sony Ericsson XPERIA Arc 0.03 34 1078 0.33 394 1207
Samsung I9100 Galaxy S II 0 231 0 362
HTC Incredible S 0.18 162 908 0.31 275 880
Apple iPhone 4 0.14 189 1341 0.39 483 1242

You can learn more about the test here.

Above the screen, we have the proximity and ambient light sensors to the left of the earpiece and the VGA video call camera on the right. There's a tiny status LED under the earpiece grill.

HTC Sensation XE 
There’s a video-call camera right next to the earpiece this time

Underneath the screen, we find four capacitive keys, also painted in red. The haptic enabled controls are well spaced and very responsive. The keys (Home, Menu, back and search) have extra functionality upon a long-press (task switcher, virtual keyboard, voice search).

HTC Sensation XE HTC Sensation XE 
Capacitive controls below the display

The left side of the Sensation XE features the microUSB port and the volume rocker. The volume rocker is quite thin but comfortable enough to use. The microUSB port is also used for charging.

It's not strictly speaking a microUSB port - though it looks and works like one. It enables MHL connectivity. Plug in a MHL dongle however and the MHL port transforms into HDMI out.

On the right, there's nothing - you weren’t hoping for a shutter key, were you? We've been there with the original Sensation.

HTC Sensation XE HTC Sensation XE HTC Sensation XE 
The volume rocker and the microUSB port on the left side • The completely bare right side

At the top we find the 3.5mm audio jack and the Power/Lock key, which is easy enough to press when needed but secure against accidental taps.

As usual, at the bottom of the phone, you will see the mouthpiece. There's also a small latch that lets you pop the phone out of its back cover. That's right, the phone comes out of the back cover, not the other way around.

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3.5mm audio jack and a power/screen lock key on top • The microphone pinhole on bottom

The back of the Sensation XE features the 8MP camera (with a red metallic trim) and the dual-LED flash right next to it. The area around the camera protrudes slightly and the camera lens is set quite deep, giving it very good protection against scratches and fingerprints.

The protruding frame around the lens also helps to keep the loudspeaker from getting muffled when you place the phone on a level surface. It's not entirely successful but the sound is still pretty clear. We should note though that the Beats Audio enhancement only works with the headset, not the loudspeaker.

HTC Sensation XE HTC Sensation XE HTC Sensation XE 
The camera lens is flanked by the LED flash and the loudspeaker grill

The back plate has gotten rid of the different patches. The two pieces or rubbery plastic either side of the aluminum strip have the same color and texture.

One thing hasn't changed unfortunately. The back cover houses the antennas of the HTC Sensation XE - remove the cover and the phone loses all wireless signal. The handset suffers the so-called "death grip" too.

Actually, you don’t even need a grip to weaken the reception. Just place the phone flat on the palm of your hand and the phone loses a few notches of Wi-Fi signal. In fact, touching the area around the camera and loudspeaker can reduce the Wi-Fi signal to zero.

The cellular antenna also has death grip issues - they're not as bad but your hands around the bottom of the device will cause the signal to weaken. It's nothing to worry about if the signal is strong enough, but in areas of poor reception it can make the difference between having and dropping the call.

Beneath the back cover is the microSD card slot (easily how-swappable once you open the phone) and the SIM card compartment, which is blocked by the battery. The phone comes with a complimentary Class 4 16 GB card.

The Sensation XE the battery beefed up to 1730 mAh. The Li-Ion unit is quoted at a little over 12 days of standby and over 9 hours of talk time in 2G (about 7 in 3G). In reality the phone lasted a good three days constantly connected to a Wi-Fi network, but without a SIM-card inside most of the time. We shot the typical mixture of videos and stills, ran the usual benchmarks, did quite a bit of browsing and music playback.

HTC Sensation XE 
Once the back cover comes off, we can access the microSD and SIM card slots and the battery

The XE is nearly identical to the original model - from the slightly concave shape of the Gorilla-coated qHD touchscreen to the not-quite-a-unibody design. It's a well-built phone and the styling was duly refreshed with nice accents. With a 4.3" screen, this is a big phone, but one designed to offer comfortable handling. The HTC Sensation XE comes with a good set of accessories too. The Monster iBeats headset is a major point in favor.

HTC Sensation XE HTC Sensation XE 
The HTC Sensation XE felt nice to handle

This post is sponsored by:
Dr Mobiles Limited
1 Huron Street, Takapuna
Auckland 0622
Tel: (09) 551-5344

Uploaded via iPhone 4

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