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HTC Sensation XE vs Samsung Galaxy S2 review

Ever since we published our popular blow-by-blow account of the original HTC Sensation vs Samsung Galaxy S2 scrap, we’ve been itching to pit the HTC Sensation XE against the S2.

In the Sensation/S2 dust up, it was the Samsung phone that triumphed mainly due to its faster overall performance and smoothness of operations. Coming with a speedier 1.5GHz dual-core chip (up from the 1.2GHz CPU of the first Sensation) the XE certainly has got more firepower in this department.

On paper, the Sensation XE’s faster processor speed ought to give it an edge over the 1.2GHz chip of the Samsung’s 1.2GHz Exynos chip. Then again, the S2 is packing a hefty 1GB of RAM inside, whereas the XE has slightly less at 768MB. So performance-wise the bout this time round might be more evenly matched.

Following in the blueprint laid down by our previous head-to-heads, we’ll be comparing devices based on design and build quality, storage and connections, screens, the interface, browser, keyboard, cameras, music and overall performance.

Music is one area where we’re expecting the Sensation XE, with its bundled Beats Audio headphones and custom sound profiles to clear up in. However the small amount of internal memory compared to that of the Galaxy S2 may also be a factor if you’re after a phone to store thousands of audio files on. Those headphones, as we’ve noted in our review of the XE, have a great low end responce. So if you’re totally addicted to bass then it may be a toss up between quality and quantity.

Without further ado…

Design and build

There isn’t much we can really say here that we didn’t already cover previously. The HTC Sensation XE, despite a matt black respray and a few red accents here and there is otherwise the same phone physically as the original Sensation.

The 4.3-inch screen is covered by that pillow of glass and the outer shell of the phone is similarly a curved, sculpted thing; a single diagonal strip of metal cuts across the back with the camera unit and the bottom half of the phone covered in a tactile rubbery plastic. The back of the XE prominently features Beats Audio branding which may or may not be off-putting, depending on how you feel about such things.

One downside of the Sensation XE is that when you take the back cover off, the phone loses connectivity. This is because there are aerial connections actually built in to the cover itself. A side-effect of this design is that when you’re wanting to get at the SIM or micro SD slot you temporarily get a drop in signal (though Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth remain connected).

The Galaxy S2 has a more traditional design. It’s a super-slim oblong that’s thinner than the Sensation XE while being a bit taller and wider as well. The screen size is the same across the diagonal (4.3-inches) as the Sensation XE and it feels a little lighter in the hand than the HTC phone too.

Not that we’re surprised; this is exactly how we felt about the Sensation and the S2 the first time around.

The Sensation XE definitely wins points for design here in the style and looks stakes; how many other phones have a pillowed convex screen cover like that? The fact that the signal drops when you take the cover off is a little irritating. That said, how times do you actually take the cover of your phone off?

We’ve pointed out the apparent ‘flimsyness’ of the Galaxy S2 before, to which some of you have taken issue with in the comments. Perhaps flimsy isn’t the right word; in tests we’ve found it to be sturdier than the iPhone 4S and 4 and as resistant as the Sensation XE.

There’s no shaking a certain nagging feeling about the lightness of the S2 though. If you’re worried about it breaking, you could always invest in a hardcase. Though this would negate part of the design’s lovely thinness somewhat.

Storage and connections

Again, exactly the same story here. The Galaxy S2 comes with 16GB of internal storage (only 11.50GB of which is available) whereas the Sensation XE (4GB on paper, 1.05GB in reality) gives you a lot less.

You get the option of expanding the memory via the microSD slot of both the phones which is great. This still puts the Galaxy S2 ahead at a potential 43.50 (internal + a 32GB microSD card) versus 33.05GB of the XE.

Again though there’s the option to store apps to SD cards, a handful of kilobytes gets left over on the system memory. Factor this in with space needed for the web browsers’ caches and you can see why we’d reach for bigger internal memory each time. Constantly micromanaging SD card space isn’t our idea of fun.

Connection wise (again) the phones are more or less identical; 3.5mm audio jacks and micro USB ports both of which have MHL connectivity. So with the right adapters you can connect both of these phones to a TV or monitor with an HDMI connection.

There’s also the Connected Media (on the Sensation XE) and AllShare (on the Galaxy S2) apps that allow you to sling media to DNLA compliant devices, if you wish.


Screens

Same story here too as before. Both phones have 4.3-inch displays which have their respective strengths and weaknesses. The Sensation XE’s strength obviously lies in it’s huge pixel count; it’s got a super-high qHD resolution (960 x 540) which trounces the S2’s WVGA (800 x 480) res.

This allows for sharper app icons, greater detail and perhaps most importantly, the ability to cram more text on web pages. The SLCD display is also brighter than the S2’s Super AMOLED Plus and white areas of the screen don’t suffer from the same blueish effect that the OLED-type screen does.

The Galaxy S2’s screen however wins hands down when it comes to contrast; the richer, true blacks (actually inactive pixels) can’t be beaten. Plus, the S2’s screen is flat and unlike the curved glass canopy of the Sensation XE doesn’t reflect quite as much light in the sun.

A little while ago, we compared the screens of both the (original) Sensation and Galaxy S2 against each other – the screens of the Sensation and the Sensation XE are exactly the same so the comparison ought to still stand up.

Interface

The HTC Sensation XE sports HTC Sense 3.0 on top of Android 2.3.4 Gingerbread while the Samsung Galaxy S2 rolls with TouchWiz 4.0 on top of Android 2.3.3 Gingerbread – a notch behind, but most importantly, both phones are running Gingerbread, and are pretty much as up to date as you’re going to get on an Android phone until the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and Ice Cream Sandwich arrives.

The rotating 3D widgets for the HTC apps (FriendStream, Watch and the rest) are noticeably smoother here on the XE than on the first Sensation. This is something we’re chalking up to the faster processor – indeed what’s immediately noticable about the XE as soon as you start playing with it is how darn fast it is. More on this in the Performance section below…

HTC Sense on the XE is easily the nicer-looking of the two, again mirroring our thoughts on the two phones exterior designs. It’s perhaps fitting then that TouchWiz 4.0 on the Galaxy S2, despite looking rather boring, looks neater, and more functional.

It lacks the shock and awe of HTC Sense sure, but it’s not ugly; by contrast its smarter, less showy. In some cases, we prefer this approach. In others, well, it’s hard to ignore the graphical wow factor of HTC Sense.

As we said with the exterior design, the choice here is ultimately a pretty personal one; beauty’s in the eye of the beholder and all that.

In terms of actual ease of use, both interfaces are on par with one another. If you’ve used an Android phone before, it won’t take you long at all to get acquainted with either phone.

Both systems have a handful of neat shortcuts and useful things bolted on, but we’d say that the XE provides more in terms of actual options for the average user.

For example on the Sensation XE, when you pull the notification bar down at the top you get a row of recently used apps scrolling across the top, plus a sub-menu that allows you to toggle Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth and the like as well as being able to see what processes are eating up the memory/RAM.

On the S2, when you pull down the notif bar you get a row of toggle options for Wi-Fi, Auto-rotate and others but nothing else.

HTC Sense 3.0 on the XE also features that great custom unlocker. This allows you to unlock your phone and jump straight to a favorite app or function of the phone, like the camera. The camera is probably the most practical use of this (so much so that Apple had to go and include something similar in iOS 5) but you can put pretty much anything you want on here, Angry Birds, Wi-Fi Analyzer, your LHC checker app, you name it.

Hardcore Android devotees used to nipping in and out of menus won’t be bothered by the S2’s comparative lack of shortcuts, but if you want something with an easy to use interface that you can make your own then the Sensation XE is the clear choice.

Performance

Now this is where things start to get interesting. The old Sensation was outstripped by the Galaxy S2 when it came to general performance.

When we say general performance we mean things like loading up the gallery app to launching the web browser to simple things like thumbing through homescreens. Where the Sensation occasionally struggled to juggle the 3D Sense widgets, the XE does it all with a flourish.

Waking up from standby, the XE is faster to unlock and get going (by a second) and it’s also faster to take pictures from the camera app and faster to switch between camera and camcorder modes as well. Playing high end games like Dungeon Defenders and Cordy also felt a hair smoother on the Sensation XE (although both games took less time to load on the S2).

Both phones are evenly matched on page load times – we cleared the caches of both browsers and over Wi-Fi and 3G, neither was sufficiently faster than the other. In some cases, the S2 would reach recombu.com, google.com or guardian.co.uk before the XE and vice versa.

Browsers

The Sensation XE’s browser has some cool features; we love that text automatically scales to fit as you zoom and we like the option to switch from mobile to desktop versions of websites – though we’ve noticed that this feature doesn’t work all the time (tsk tsk guardian.co.uk).

We don’t like that you’re limited to just four windows whereas the Galaxy S2’s browser gives you a roomier eight.

You’ve got the ability to enable/disable plug-ins on both browsers, so you don’t have to have Flash content taking up space if you don’t want it to; there’s an on-demand option on both browsers as well, so you’ve got the choice of downloading a video if you want to watch it and the option of ignoring an annoying banner advert.

Both browsers are otherwise evenly matched – the S2’s doesn’t have the nice auto-scrolling text but you can have more windows open at once.

Of course if stock browsers aren’t your thing, there’s always the option to download something else like Dophin HD which works beautifully on both phones.

Keyboard

The HTC Sense keyboard is a basic Qwerty with some clever predictions and the ability to switch between languages. Supported languages include English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Polish, with the German option switching the key layout to Qwertz.

The default keyboard on the Samsung phone offers nothing in the way of predictions and multi-language support and looks pretty basic in comparison. However Swype comes pre-installed on the S2, which as we all know, is pretty awesome, offering a next-gen typing experience.

That said, there’s nothing stopping you installing Swype on your Sensation either, if you’re that way included, so this is something of a moot point – you can download any one of these other keyboards from the Android Market if you think they’d suit you better.

Cameras

The main cameras of the two both weigh in at the 8-megapixel mark, but the Samsung Galaxy S2 actually takes bigger pictures – 3264 x 2448 compared to 3264 x 1840 on the Sensation XE.

Big deal you might think, but as you can see in the pics we’ve reduced below, when you reduce the pictures, it makes a difference in terms of area; you can capture more with the S2 at maximum resolution.

For space reasons we’ve scaled these close up and distance shots down to 630 x 473 and 630 x 355 on the S2 and XE respectively.

Quality-wise there’s not a huge difference at a glance. The darker areas on the XE’s pics are perhaps a little more defined, but not by a huge amount. When we were taking the pics, we found that the XE focused on the tree bark quickly with the S2 taking a second or so longer. By contrast, the S2 focused the distance shot more easily:

HTC Sensation XE close up shot:

Samsung Galaxy S2 close up shot:

HTC Sensation XE distance shot:

Samsung Galaxy S2 distance shot:

Where we’ve uploaded the pics to the web here, you also don’t get a sense for how either of the pics looks on the phone’s screens; in the shot below you can see that the S2’s Super AMOLED Plus provides deeper levels of contrast (as you’d expect) but consequently the bark has a greenish-blueish tinge that the Sensation XE’s SLCD doesn’t.

The front cameras of phones will mainly be used for video calls over Skype for Android and for self-portraits; consequently they aren’t as powerful as the main cameras.

The Sensation XE’s camera has a VGA sensor, whereas the Galaxy S2’s has a bigger 2-megapixel sensor. The S2’s front camera therefore takes more detailed shots and colours are more natural looking as well, though darker areas aren’t quite as dark when you upload them. Obviously the AMOLED screen compensates for this when you’re viewing pics on the S2 itself.

For what its worth the HTC Sensation XE features a greater range of fun effect filters than the S2, which just has four; normal, negative, greyscale and sepia. If being able to distort and mess around with pictures is more of your thing, you could always download a camera app from the Android Market, but the basic camera app of the XE gives you a bigger range of settings and effects out of the box.

When it came to taking video the Sensation XE fared better, mainly because the S2’s autofocus couldn’t seem to keep still when recording moving objects; the XE was more consistent in performance. Audio on the XE’s video is noticably harsher with the stereo recording on – not a problem we had with the other Sensation, so we wonder if it was a fault with this particular model. Both phones record at 1080p Full HD (1920 x 1080) and video quality played back on the phones and our monitor was comparable.

Music

For our music test we loaded the same MP3s (ripped at 320Kbps) onto each phone and streamed tracks from a Spotify playlist, based on songs featured in this Quietus article on dynamic range compression. We listened to the same songs through the XE’s Beats Audio headphones and some Skullcandy Smokin Buds.

Both phones have a sound enhancer/booster option for use when playing tunes through headphones. The Sensation XE naturally has a Beats Audio option and a generic ‘HTC enhancer’ profile for other ‘phones. The Samsung Galaxy S2 has a 5.1 surround option and an equalizer that lets you pick from a number of presets (rock, jazz etc) or make a custom one.

Unsurprisingly, the sound quality of music played through the Beats headphones on the XE is top notch, with the bass sounds in particular sounding great. Songs like These New Puritans’ ‘We Want War’, with it’s clattering drums and beats sounding suitably doomy.

With the Beats Audio enhancements disabled on the XE, you lose a lot of the impact and lift that you get – there’s a noticeable drop in the middle frequencies but things don’t sound really terrible.

On some songs you’ll want this though; Future of the Left’s ‘Chin Music’ and the Stooges ‘Search And Destroy’ both suffered from distortion with the enhanced profile turned on.

On other headphones, music on the XE sounds good too. It’s good that you’ve got the option to enabled an enhanced sound if you’re using something else, so it’s not just limited to those Beats cans. You get the impression that you might be losing out on something though; our Smokin Buds didn’t quite give us the same bass kick as we got with the Beats phones but that was to be expected.

It’s a little annoying that (through the default music player at least) you don’t get an equalizer, which would be nice if you wanted to drag the low end out yourself.

You can always install a music player from the Android Market (like PowerAMP or MixZing) which has a virtual EQ and use this. But then you don’t get to toggle the the Beats/Enhancer option that appears in the notification bar when you’re playing music through the standard app.

The Samsung Galaxy S2’s music player does feature and equalizer and that 5.1 surround option as well.

With the 5.1 stereo option on, high-end noises through both headphones often sounded distorted towards the higher end, with the guitars and cymbals of this Dillinger Escape Plan track often indistinguishable. Turned off, music was much more aurally appealing and more balanced.

It’s not as easy on the ears as the Beats Audio/HTC Enhancer profile on either of the headphones we used. That said, we appreciated being able to tweak sound levels as and when we wanted to. This helped us in some cases where we wanted to turn some songs up loud but wanted to turn the top end down if we wanted to avoid perforating our ear drums.

For playing music through headphones though, we’d say that the Sensation XE’s the winner. In our external speaker test it was however the Galaxy S2 that provided the louder sounds. Both phones have a single speaker, with the S2’s speaker significantly noisier.

The XE’s speaker isn’t wimpy by any means, if anything it’s more measured. With the S2’s speaker cranked up to full, we noticed distortion on some tracks (Iggy & The Stooges yet again the main culprits) but not that many. By contrast we didn’t notice any huge distortion with the XE’s speaker, but maybe you’d struggle to play a track to your bandmates in a practice room or at a party/in the pub.

Finally we took into consideration the other trimmings offered by the respective music players.

You’ve got the ability to set songs as your ringtone and create playlists from both phones, plus the option to search for album/artist info.

The Sensation XE features an album art finder (powered by Gracenote) as well. That allows you to search for any missing album art that you don’t have or didn’t get moved across when you transferred music files. Finally, there’s a ‘Search for YouTube videos’ option as well which performs a search based on the artist and the song you’re currently listening to. Not revolutionary, but a nice addition.

The S2 has a tagging feature that pulls up artist info and data (personnel, reviews, artist discographies etc) but this is all pretty limited stuff – you could get more info simply by Googling the band (you know Google? It’s on your Android phone). It’s in no way as useful as the missing art finder of the XE.

Verdict

This was a real tough call. But unlike the fight in Rocky II, which was won by knockout, this is a verdict decided on points.

The Sensation XE clears up in the main area where it’s predecessor, the HTC Sensation fell down and that’s in speed. It’s a much slicker and faster phone with none of the lagginess that we experienced before. Music playback through the Beats Audio headphones (and others) is also suitably impressive.

Consequently, it leaves the Samsung Galaxy S2 looking a little drab and tired. Where HTC Sense 3.0 dragged its heels before it positively soars on the XE. TouchWiz 4.0 on the Samsung Galaxy S2 is functional, but is nowhere near as easy on the eye.

The one area where the HTC Sensation XE can’t hold a candle to the Galaxy S2 is in terms of storage. It’s 11.50GB of space that’s immediately available dwarfs the 1.05GB of the XE – it’s over ten times the amount.

Given how inexpensive microSD cards are these days, you can easily upgrade the XE by picking up a cheap 32GB card. So as long as you don’t mind shelling out a bit for this, the memory issue might not be a problem.

That 1.05GB of internal memory isn’t a huge amount though and will fill up with any app and game data that you can’t export to the SD card over time. We’d suggest you to keep an eye on your storage and move things around where necessary.

So, what’s our verdict?

If you’re a fan of Beats Audio’s headgear, you want a phone with a top quality music playback and you care about aesthetics, then the HTC Sensation XE is your phone. If you’re less bothered about music and want a phone mainly for taking pictures or for apps and games then we feel that you wouldn’t go wrong with either.

But, if you twisted our arm, we’d say that Samsung Galaxy S2 is better suited (larger pictures, more RAM, more storage) – but only slightly.

For this reason we’re awarding the HTC Sensation XE the title belt here, but we’re stressing that it’s a fight that was narrowly won.

Both phones are great, winners in their own right. They’ll easily see you through until the next wave of high end Android phones arrives – Samsung Galaxy S3 and HTC Sensational ZX, or whatever they may be called.

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