The HTC Sensation XL is the latest addition to HTC’s Sensation line of Android phones. It’s the second fruit of HTC’s partnership with Beats Audio, in the UK at least. The emphasis here is most certainly on the tunes, man.
Beats Audio’s sound enhancer software comes pre-installed, allowing you to enable a sound profile that’s been tweaked specifically for the bundled urBeats in-ear headphones. These neat little custom cans come with a set of interchangeable rubber buds for ears of all sizes and a remote control unit. You get a decent 16GB of internal storage for your playlists too.
There’s a powerful 8-megapixel camera with an aperture of f/2.2 and a back-lit sensor for low-light pics. There’s a dual LED flash and it records HD video at up to 720p as well. The perfect gig goer’s phone for capturing concert footage? Perhaps.
Recently announced by HTC to get an update to Ice Cream Sandwich early next year, the Sensation XL is ready for the future of Android as well.
But what else does it have to offer though besides music credentials and how does it differ from the recently reviewed HTC Sensation XE? If music be the food of love, read on...
HTC Sensation XL Design and build
The HTC Sensation XL has a quality and premium look and feel. This is largely down to both the smooth metal jacket with matt plastic accents and the super-large 4.7-inch screen. At 9.9mm thin, it’s pretty easy going on the pockets. It’s no brick despite that big screen.
Keeping in line with the current HTC school of design, the outer jacket of the Sensation XL is actually one piece; you don’t just take the back off to get at the battery, you take the sides off as well, lifting the front/screen section of the phone out of its shell.
Such is the quality of the build and the niceness of the design you do worry about dropping it and it developing little nicks and scratches; thankfully a variety of skins, cases and covers for the XL have already started to hit the web.
On the front there’s four Android command keys (home, menu, back, search) and the 1.3-megapixel front camera lens up top, next to a light sensor. A slim, one piece volume rocker occupies the right hand side while there’s a mirco USB connection down and on the left.
Spec-obsessives can’t have failed to note that the vital stats of the Sensation XL are very similar to those of the Windows Phone-running HTC Titan.
The screen size and resolution are the same - 4.7-inches, 800 x 480/WVGA - the main camera is the same - 8-megapixels, dual LED, HD video at 720p, back-lit sensor - and ditto the internal memory - 16GB, 12.64 GB of which is available to you.
All good stuff, but we were a little baffled (frustrated even) by HTC not including a microSD slot here. So while yes, there’s a good amount of space, there’s no way to take this further.
12GB-odd ought to give most people enough room for their music and pictures. But for those who want to carry around large music collections with them soon might start feeling starved for space.
There’s plenty of cloud-based options available to you such as Dropbox (which handily comes pre-installed) and let’s not forget that Google Music (which comes built in to Ice Cream Sandwich) will allow you to sling 20,000 songs into the cloud. However this won’t necessarily help you if you’re underground or somewhere sans signal and you’ve no way of reaching all of your beloved Supertramp b-sides. Until Ice Cream Sandwich arrives of course, this is something of a moot point.
Finally, there's no HDMI-out, but if you want to stream media to your TV set, there's a separate converter available from HTC. For £100, this will allow you to sling content via DLNA (if your TV isn't already DLNA-certified) and the Connected Media app on the Sensation XL.
HTC Sensation XL user interface
The Sensation XL currently runs on Android 2.3.5 and comes with HTC Sense 3.5. This is a bit of a step up from how things currently are on the original Sensation and the Sensation XE in terms of aesthetics. The huge clock which used to take place front and centre has been trimmed down a bit and the launcher at the bottom has a transparent look and feel.
As with Sense on the HTC Rhyme, we appreciate the small changes. It makes for a less busy, less cluttered experience; mobile phone feng shui if you will.
Still, the main things about HTC Sense 3.X remain - the rotating widgets still impress and delight and the ultra-useful custom lock screen widget returns.
This allows you to unlock the Sensation XL from a dormant state and jump straight to the camera, the phone dialler, text messages or emails, instead of just unlocking and going to the main homescreen. You can customise these four shortcuts anytime if you need to create a jump to Angry Birds, the music player or practically anywhere/anything on the Sensation XL.
Other pre-installed apps and widgets include FriendStream (aggregates social network feeds) HTC Watch (movies-on demand) and a Favourite Contacts shortcut widget.
Finally, you've got the ability to take screengrabs out of the box by holding in the power button for a second and tapping the home key. This is a feature that'll be part and parcel of all Android phones eventually, but it's good to have it now all the same.
HTC Sensation XL browser
The browser of the Sensation XL is the same stock HTC one that’s on the Sensation and Sensation XE. Of course, this being an Android phone, you’re welcome to disregard it and use Dolphin HD or Opera Mini or any browser of your choice.
All the same the stock browser is pretty decent; you get a host of useful settings like the option to turn off plug-ins or enable an on-demand option - perfect for browsing Flash-heavy sites. You might want to be able to watch a cool Flash video on your phone but who really wants to use up data allowance (and drain battery) downloading an annoying banner advert on their phone? There’s image and pop-up disablers (for the same purpose) and text on web pages automatically resizes when you zoom.
Again, you’re limited to only having four windows open at any one time, something which could frustrate if you’re used to having more tabs open at once. Despite this, skipping between the windows is a cinch - pinching to zoom all the way out will automatically take you to a leap mode style view of all the tabs you’ve got open, allowing you to easily close, jump to and open new tabs without having to necessarily use the menu > windows > add window option.
HTC Sensation XL multimedia
Beats Audio functionality is front and centre here with the Sensation XL. Sound quality through the supplied headphones is commendably good, loud, (really loud) all the way up with no noticable clipping on most songs. We noticed distortion on some songs, but only on ultra-compressed MP3’s of songs that have been ‘mixed loud’ anyway - i.e. they’d sound distorted through any speakers.
The enhanced sound profile option can also be used with other headphones, though this is a generic third party profile and not the same hardware-specific Beats one.
It’s a shame that the option to toggle Beats Audio/HTC enhancer doesn’t pop up when you’re using a third party music player app or streaming audio from Spotify. Given the ability to cache Spotify lists for offline play, we’d have liked to have seen this, here and on the Sensation XE too.
Supported file formats include the usuals - MP3, WMA, M4A - along with MID, WAV and OGG. We’ve had some luck with phones supporting unlisted file formats before, but couldn’t get the Sensation XL to play FLAC files - Windows Media Audio Lossless files however, are supported. So lossless file fans have some consolation.
Creating playlists is easy on the go and thanks to the lock screen widget (pictured above) you can skip tracks on the Sensation XL without having to unlock the phone.
There’s no virtual EQ which is a shame for those of us who like to tinker, but with the sound quality generally being of a high standard, we didn’t feel the urge to tweak the levels all the time.
The main camera is impressive; the close-up shot mode can pick out some super-fine detail and distance shots focus nicely and quickly as well.
Somewhere in the middle however, things fell down; in a crowded bar for example, or any scene where there was a lot of background and foreground detail, we found that the focus would sometimes get all hyperactive, constantly trying to get a lock on something.
This would sometimes lead to blurred shots. There’s virtually no time lag at all when you tap the shutter control, so if you’ve got an itchy trigger finger (like us) you could end up accidentally taking a bad picture.
We’ve a feeling that this may have been a quirk of our particular review model; in all other instances the camera produced good shots with the back-lit sensor automatically adjusting to gloomy living rooms (see the cat pic above) and dingy public houses.
Video you’ve captured looks great at 720p on the 4.7-inch screen. No noise cancelling mics meant that we picked up a fair bit of wind on outdoors clips, which can sound a bit messy. Audio on video is otherwise as clear as you’d like.
When you’re watching clips you’ve filmed yourself with the headphones in, the Beats profile kicks in. Again, this doesn’t help distorted wind noises sound any nicer (in fact, it’s better with the sound enhancer off) but when you’re playing a movie on HTC Watch it’s a nice bonus.
HTC Watch movies look pretty good on the 4.7-inch screen - not as bad as you’d think given the 800 x 480 resolution (although there is noticeable letterboxing) but they're just not quite as sharp as they are on the qHD screens of the Sensation and Sensation XE.
HTC Sensation XL performance
The HTC Sensation XL comes with a 1.5GHz chip and 768 MB of RAM. Its capable enough to rip through everyday tasks with ease as well as play high-end games and video.
The camera, as we said, is super-fast, boasting virtually no shutter lag; as soon as you tap the on-screen control it snaps a pic. Jumping to the camera (or any of the assigned functions) from the lock screen is really fast as well. So you’ve got the option of a quick-draw camera if your friend is doing something silly and you want to quickly document the foolishness.
Browsing the web over Wi-Fi and decent 3G is dreamily quick and it’s not slow going on slower GPRS/EDGE connections either. It just blasts through those HTC Sense widgets, something the original Sensation visibly struggled to do at times.
Google Maps worked like a charm on the Sensation XL with the large screen obviously a boon here; finding out way around town was easy, the big screen affording us a clear look at our surroundings and how to get to our destination.
As with the HTC Titan we can’t help but feel that WVGA on a 4.7-inch screen feels a little odd sometimes. On the one hand, this means that pictures and video (most noticeably on HTC Watch) don’t look half as good as they do on the Sensation XE. But on the other hand, the lower resolution means that texting, for example, on the big screen (it’s just shy of 5-inches mind) is made easier thanks to the comparatively chunky virtual keys.
Voice calls, for all the Beats-augmented audio clarity were a little muffled in comparison. Not the worst call quality we’ve heard on a mobile, but a little muddy in places. With the volume all the way up we were still able to hold conversations over traffic noise, albeit with a little difficulty.
Perhaps this was a side effect of having our eardrums caressed by lovely Beats Audio music all day that the call quality sounded average by comparison.
Battery life, unsurprisingly isn’t brilliant, with us down to just over 40 per cent at 5:00 PM after starting the day on a fresh, full charge.
This was after a day spent with emails coming in thick and fast, HTC Watch, the GPS, music player and games all running at one time or another. HTC’s stated talk time of 11 hours is probably accurate if you keep an eye on your connections and sync times. As is often the case these days we’d recommend that you don’t leave the house without a USB cable or your charger.
The HTC Sensation XL is a solid and high quality phone with skull-splittingly loud audio playback through the supplied Beats Audio headgear.
You get a good camera that copes well in most conditions and the fast processor means that there’s virtually no shutter lag. Scrolling through web pages and maps is super-quick and games load quickly and play like a charm.
We only have one real moan with the XL and that’s the decision to not include a microSD card slot. Not giving us the option to expand the memory really baffles, especially seeing as the Sensation XL is being pitched as a music phone. Hopefully Google Music with its ability to sling songs into the cloud will go some way to remedying this, though we’ll have to wait until Ice Cream Sandwich lands in the new year. At least it’s in the pipeline.
As with the HTC Titan, the size of the Sensation XL, with its 4.7-inch screen might be an issue for some. If you’re of the smaller handed disposition you might find the Sensation XE at 4.3-inches a better fit.