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HTC Sensation XE Review: In Depth

The Good

  • Faster processor
  • Overall slicker experience than the original HTC Sensation
  • Huge 4.3-inch screen is great for web browsing
  • Powerful 8-megapixel camera

The Bad

  • Not running latest version of HTC Sense
  • Small amount of internal memory
  • Battery life isn’t great
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The HTC Sensation XE is essentially a sexed-up, turbo-charged version of the original HTC Sensation.

The XE features big Beats Audio branding, an improved sound profile for compatible headphones, a faster processor and a bigger battery as well which ought to allow for an improved, refined experience. In our eyes the HTC Sensation was pretty darn fine already, so how do the two compare?

Is it worth then upgrade if you’ve already got the Sensation? Available to order on contract now from Phones 4U (free from £31 a month) and around £450 on sites like Clove and Expansys, the HTC Sensation XE is priced towards the high end as you’d expect. But is it worth the extra cash or should you just go old school and plump for the HTC Sensation? Read on to find out.


HTC Sensation design and build

The HTC Sensation XE’s body is the same size and shape as the original Sensation. The only differences are that it’s been given a matt black respray and had some red accents added to the speaker grille, the ring around the camera unit and the four Android buttons at the bottom.

There’s also Beats Audio branding round on the back, giving the XE the look and feel of a tricked out sports car that’s had red alloys added.

The 4.3-inch screen has that same pillowed glass cover which is very easy on the eye and makes for a pleasant texting experience. The convex shape of the glass just means that it occasionally catches the light in ways you don’t always expect, which can lead to issues in direct sunlight, but something that you’ll easily get used to.

To get at the battery, SIM and microSD slots of the Sensation XE, you basically lift the back cover off like before; the ‘back’ cover of the phone actually comprises of parts of the front and the sides as well, with gold atennae connections inside the case as well.

A consequence of this quirk in design is that when you open the phone up to get at one of the cards or whatever, you lose signal. An upshot of this is that it makes it very easy to get at the camera lens cover and give it a clean if you need to.

Sadly, though the Sensation XE has been beefed up in some areas, HTC hasn’t turned its attention to the internal memory department. You get 4GB on paper, just 1.04GB in reality. Not a lot of room. It’s just as well that 32GB microSD cards are so cheap these days. Given that other aspects of the phone have been given a bump, we’d have really liked to have seen (at least) 8GB thrown in there.


HTC Sensation XE user interface

Running on Android 2.3.5 Gingerbread, this is pretty much as up to date as things are going to get until Ice Cream Sandwich rolls out.

We were pleased to see that a screenshot feature has been enabled on the Sensation XE, allowing you to take screengrabs by holding in the power button for a second and tapping the Home key. This wasn’t something you could so out of the box with the old HTC Sensation unless you’d got the update to 2.3.4 or used one of the third party workaround which we detailed here.

The XE features HTC Sense 3.0, same as the original Sensation, which gives you that uber-useful lock screen widget that allows you to unlock and jump straight to four apps or features, like the camera for example. The shortcuts are pre-set to the camera, phone dialler, text messages and email by default but you can customise these as you see fit. A really genius addition to the HTC Android experience.

Still, the HTC Rhyme features the newer Sense 3.5, which, although not offering much new function-wise we have to say is much nicer looking.

You get all of the usual HTC widgets and apps pre-installed here such as the FriendStream widget, which aggregates your Facebook and Twitter action into one big feed. Other widgets include a shortcut to HTC Watch, the on-demand movies service and a widget for the music player. Of course, you don’t have to use these if you’re more inclined to customise things to your satisfaction. It’s Android; you can chop and change whatever you want.


HTC Sensation XE browser

The browser of the Sensation XE is the same stock HTC browser we’ve known and loved before. We love this because of the ability to easily switch between mobile and desktop versions of web sites and disable images; ideal if you’ve got a low battery or 3G coverage is patchy. There’s also the option to enable/disable Flash plug-ins or set them to an ‘on demand’ option. All good stuff.

Annoyingly, there’s a limit to the number of windows you can have open at any one time – just four – which, depending on your web browsing habits, can feel restrictive.

The high resolution 4.3-inch screen feels perfectly suited for browsing the web. Links and text scale nicely with columns automatically resizing as you zoom. You get plenty of room for movement on the Sensation XE. We also liked that when you zoomed all the way out, you’re taken to an overview of all of the windows you’ve got open. This allows you to easily nip between windows rather than having to tap menu, selection an option and scroll through like normal.


HTC Sensation XE multimedia

Beats Audio technology is what HTC are raving about with the XE, so much so that’s they’ve plastered a great big logo on the back of the phone. As you might have already heard (and seen by way of our earlier hands-on pics), whenever you plug in the headphones, the XE activates a special Beats Audio sound profile, that’s designed to allow for top performance through the supplied headphones.

What’s immediately noticeable about music played through the Beats headphones is the bass. It’s loud. We’ve not performed strictly science lab style audio tests and don’t have any SPL figures to hand. But we’ve listened to enough bass-heavy music on our XE to conclude that if you like your dubstep dubby and your doom metal doomy then you probably won’t be dissapointed with the low-end response here.

It’s not all bass-centric though; overall sound quality of the XE is generally high. Top end sounds are clear, crisp and there’s plenty of beef in the mid section as well. The prominence of the bass might not be to everybody’s tastes though; you could mitigate this somewhat with an music player app from the Android Market; PowerAMP comes with a built-in equalizer that gives you some degree of control over the noises coming of your XE.

As well as music, the Beats profile is activated when you’re watching videos as well. This works perfectly with movies on HTC Watch, with audio from the movies sounding particularly crisp and powerful. Again, the 4.3-inch screen comes into its own here, as it did on the original Sensation. The qHD resolution of the screen means that the movies look as good as they sound.

Music and video audio sound pretty decent through non-Beats headphones as well. Although when you pop any other kind of cans in, the XE switches to a generic third party profile. So while you won’t get a profile that’s been cultivated just for your Atomic Floyd, Sennheiser or Skullcandy ‘phones, music as least sounds pretty decent.

Luckily there’s a third audio profile built in to the XE as well, one that’s designed to work with the other headphones from the Beats range. So if you’ve already got the big over-ear Dr Dre headphones or the Lady Gaga Heart Beats phones they should get some semblance of support from the XE as well.

One worry about the Beats headphones is that you can’t buy a spare pair from HTC, Beats Audio or anyone. So if they break (as all headphones inevitably do) you’re kind of stuck until HTC customer services can sort you out with a replacement pair.

The camera of the Sensation XE is the same as the previous incarnation; 8-megapixels, dual LED flash, 1080p HD video recording. That instantaneous image capture is as impressive on the XE as it is on the Sensation allowing us to snap a perfect pic as soon as the autofocus has done its thing.

There’s no large aperture or backlit sensor like those of the HTC Titan or the Evo 3D, so pictures taken in the dark (without the flash) can be a little murky. The twin LED flash makes up for this a little, but it’s not as impressive as what we’ve seen elsewhere.

Pictures in all other lighting conditions however fare better, with close-ups looking particularly good – check the close up shots of the cat and the page above – you can make out the weave of the book’s paper. There was a fair amount of noise and artefacts on some of our shorts, particularly on large flat areas of the same colour (like a desktop or bedroom wall), something that, again, we experienced with the HTC Sensation.

1080p video again is as slick as you’d expect it to be; to our eyes its a little more stable smooth on the XE than on the first Sensation. Whether this is down to the 1.5GHz chip or some software tinkery from HTC we’re not sure.


HTC Sensation XE performance

In our HTC Sensation vs Samsung Galaxy S2 deathmatch, it was the Galaxy phone that came out on top (only just). This was due to a number of factors but was mainly due to general performance of the phone and the browser being faster and less laggy.

The Sensation XE has no such problems. It simply blazes through web pages and skipping through the homescreens – something which the Sensation didn’t always do with the utmost grace – on the XE is smoother than Barry White dipped in a vat of Ronseal.

Occasionally you’d get the sense that the Sensation was struggling to juggle all of those beautiful animated weather and social networking widgets as you thumbed through the homescreens, something which spoiled the beauty of the Sense UI somewhat. None of the little niggles that plagued the first Sensation are present here; we’ve no major gripes with the performance of the XE at all.

Battery life though is less than impressive; after a full charge we were down to 60 per cent before lunchtime and that was just with emails syncing in the background, no playing music or watching videos. Then again that’s what we’re used to these days, so we’re used to taking our chargers/USB cables with us wherever we go. You can of course disable auto-sync and enable a battery saving mode form the settings (or disable all wireless connections) if you need to.


Verdict

If you’re currently in the market for a new phone and you’re weighing up the Sensation and the Sensation XE then it’s no contest, we’d say to plump for the latter option. It’s altogether a much slicker proposition and the bundled Beats Audio in-ear headphones are great. It’s worth shelling out a little extra.

If you’ve already got a Sensation and you’re feeling a little envious that an improved version is already out then its some consolation that it’s not a markedly different experience – it is better, but only ever so slightly. Experienced Android fans wise to the ways of rooting will no doubt be able to customise and overclock a Sensation so that it can provide a similar experience. But for the less hack-savvy, we’d advise to go for the safer option.

We were disappointed to see that HTC hadn’t expanded the internal memory when attention has been given to the audio side of things. For a phone that’s being sold on it’s music playing credentials, you’d hope for a bit more in the way of built in storage.

Other that this we’ve got nothing else bad to say about the Sensation XE; a top-quality remake of a top-quality Android smartphone.

Specification

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