A hotly anticipated smartphone with a 1.2GHz dual-core processor, a "Super" 4.3-inch screen, and a manufacturer-skinned version of Android 2.3 -- we must be talking about the Samsung Galaxy S II, right? Not on this occasion, squire. Today we're taking a gander at HTC's Sensation, a handset that's just begun shipping in Europe under a short-term Vodafone exclusive and which should be making its way to T-Mobile in the USA early next month. By beating its stablemate the EVO 3D and Moto's Droid X2 to the market, the Sensation becomes the world's first 4.3-inch smartphone with qHD resolution, while also serving as the debut phone for HTC's Watch movie streaming service and Sense 3.0 UI customizations. That leaves us with an abundance of newness to review, so what are we waiting for?

HTC Sensation unboxing and hands-on

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HTC

HTC Sensation

Pros

  • qHD resolution is a winner
  • Best ergonomics for a 4.3-inch phone yet
  • Buttery smooth 1080p video recording

Cons

  • Display isn't as Super as on Galaxy S II
  • Sense 3.0 changes are mostly cosmetic
  • Locked bootloader
Summary


Hardware



Before delving into the minutiae of the Sensation's construction, let's take a moment to address its most outstanding physical asset: it feels small. 4.3-inch smartphones, starting with HTC's own HD2, have always been impressive beasts, but beasts is what they were -- ungainly, crude, and occasionally harder to handle than an angry carp. Not so with the Sensation. This handset is only 6mm taller, a single millimeter wider, and -- at 11.3mm -- actually slightly thinner than the 4-inch HTC Incredible S. Putting aside the measuring tape and grappling with the pair confirms what those numbers suggest: the 4.3-inch Sensation is nigh indistinguishable from its more modest family mate.

That's been achieved with a shrinking of the top and bottom bezels framing the screen and few other changes. You'll still find an extra-large volume rocker on the Sensation's left side, as you would on the Incredible S, accompanied by a micro-USB input a little further down. The bottom of each phone is home to a microphone and a notch for opening up the back cover, the right sides are left barren, and the tops feature headphone jacks and power / lock buttons. Also functionally identical are the rear layouts, with an 8 megapixel autofocus camera sat next to a dual LED flash and a single loudspeaker grille. All these design similarities are hardly coincidental, HTC sees that arrangement and styling as a winning combination and we have to agree.

The Sensation is a simple and untainted joy in the hand. Its 148g (5.22 ounce) weight is perfectly balanced, the curvature that starts at the sides and rolls all the way through the back is spot on, and there are almost no issues of fit and finish. Almost. Our review handset had a small crevice in its lower left side that allowed the backlight intended for the capacitive Android keys to leak out. This is a problem that will only matter to you if you're actively looking for it, but it does detract from the phone's otherwise sterling build quality.

Praise is due for the aluminum frame that HTC has wrapped around the sides, back, and even a small portion of the Sensation's front. It's rigid, shaped from a single slab of metal, and makes this a sturdy and creak-free handset. A pair of soft-touch plastic inserts take up a third of the rear cover each, with the upper one protruding a little bit in front of the camera lens and LEDs, lending them an extra bit of protection. You should be mindful that that also creates a niche where dust and debris can snuggle up. Speaking of snuggling, the very design of the Sensation's wraparound enclosure makes it a bit of a pest to pry open. Nothing quite so maddening as what HTC served up with the Inspire 4G (then again, what is?), but this is definitely not the case for you if you're inclined to perform quick and dirty SIM swaps between your phones. A microSD card slot also lurks under the Sensation's skin, and it's filled by default with an 8GB unit, which augments the 1GB of onboard storage. It's accessible without removing the battery from its silo, though the SIM card slot is not.

We'd be remiss not to compare the Sensation against the most clear and present danger to its quest for smartphone supremacy: Samsung's Galaxy S II. The latter is clearly a stupendously thin device, whose admittedly plastic construction left us with few complaints. Still, when faced with the question of which phone we'd trust to last us the full 24 months of a typical contract, we have to hand it to the Sensation. It isn't flawless, but its aluminum shell is sturdier, and we found its curves more ergonomic and natural, which should help make accidental drops that extra bit less likely.

Battery life

As is true of all battery-powered devices, your time away from the wall plug with the Sensation will be determined by what you use the handset for. We found recording 1080p video to be particularly taxing, closely followed by shooting still photographs. An hour's walk through London intermixing the two ate up a third of the Sensation's 1520mAh charge. Angry Birds gaming sessions, on the other hand, are handled with no greater difficulty than casual web browsing -- neither caused any significant dent in our battery reserves. What really stands out about the Sensation is its energy frugality when left to idle. We left our Gmail and Twitter updates to push themselves to the phone as and when they were available, but in spite of that activity the Sensation barely uses any juice at all when not in our hands and doing awesome, futuristic things. This is a major asset that turns it into more than just a plaything for power users. Folks that don't care to recharge their phone every single night can buy the Sensation safe in the knowledge that it'll last for a good couple of days of casual use, while those who want to squeeze all the power out of it can do their thing as well, accepting the relevant diminution in endurance.

We'll get to the Sensation's performance further on in the review, but suffice it to say that what you're getting here is an extremely versatile handset. Neither the 4.3-inch screen size nor the dual-core processor pose challenges to using the Sensation as your daily phone, but they do expand on what you can do with it when the fancy strikes you. The Galaxy S II is again the obvious competitor here, and it too acquitted itself well in our battery tests. Our testing, however, showed the Sensation to be more efficient when not actively in use -- which, even for intensive smartphone users, tends to be the majority of the time -- granting it a higher ceiling for battery life. The Super LCD on board also seems to be consuming energy with restraint, making that frankly average 1520mAh cell look very good indeed. If battery life is an important consideration in your spec-for-spec comparison with the Galaxy S II, score this as a win for the Sensation.

Display

In our review of the Galaxy S II, we opined that though its display was of superlative quality, its pixel density left a little something to be desired. The Sensation gives us that extra flourish with a 960 x 540 resolution (35 percent more pixels than on Samsung's 800 x 480 panel) on a Super LCD screen that fails to match the vivid output or viewing angles of its Super AMOLED Plus competitor, but at least maintains a similarly hyperbolic naming scheme. There are two significant advantages to moving up to qHD resolution. The first and most tangible is that you get more of everything: Gmail displays more missives, the browser fits more of your favorite blog's content at a time, the calendar includes more agenda items, and you get to see more of your contacts without having to scroll (11 on the Sensation versus 9 on the WVGA Incredible S screen). Additionally, though the user interface sticks to the standard 16 grid slots for your icons and widgets, having them all in higher resolution lends an extra layer of visual polish, if nothing else. The camera and gallery apps benefit from having more dots to display your compositions and resulting images.

Video is where the second big advantage of qHD emerges. 960 x 540 pixels provide a native 16:9 screen ratio and thereby sends those pesky black bars off into oblivion. You'll be able to watch both content you've downloaded and recorded yourself in full screen without resorting to any compromises such as zooming the picture in and cutting off the widest portions. And if you're really a lover of the widescreen experience, there's an option in the camera app to let you shoot 16:9 as well. That'll help keep your content optimized for a vast range of desktop monitors and the great majority of HDTVs. Small considerations, perhaps, but good to have nonetheless.

In terms of the Sensation's output quality, it merits noting that in spite of its 4.3-inch display bearing the same branding as the 4- and 3.7-inch ones on the Incredible S and Desire S, it is not up to the same standard. Viewing angles are the first giveaway, as they're nowhere near as expansive on the Sensation. At 45 degrees away from center, the Sensation's picture washes out, whereas the Incredible S maintains color fidelity until laid almost flat. Additionally, the smaller handset is brighter and better saturated than its newcomer buddy. None of this is to say that HTC has installed a poor LCD on the Sensation, we'd just refrain from calling it a Super one. As to our running tally against the Galaxy S II, the Sensation wins out on resolution, but loses by a big margin when it comes to quality and the sheer feeling of luxury that the GSII provides.


Oh, we almost forgot to mention the peculiar contouring that HTC has applied to the edges of the glass screen. They're ever so slightly higher than the rest of display, with a tiny little slope lending the whole screen a subtle concavity. As a result, most of the glass never makes contact with surfaces when the phone is laid face down, adding a smidgen extra protection against scuffs and the like. Not that you're terribly likely to mar this expansive screen, which has been given the Gorilla Glass treatment just like the rest of HTC's recent line. Needless to say, that's a marked improvement from last year's Nexus One, which HTC had the gall to claim wasn't supposed to go into pockets.

Reception, earpiece and loudspeaker

Calls on the Sensation were for the most part clear and competently handled. HTC has an extra microphone on the back of the handset, whose job we presume is to analyze external noise and nullify its effects. In voice calls, the other party heard us even on a busy street where we had our own struggles keeping up with what they were saying to us. The earpiece is neither excellent nor poor, it just does the job. Its position at the very top of the phone means that you'll generally place the sound source up above (rather than next to) your ear when taking a call, but then it's not like HTC had a lot of flexibility as to where to put it. Guess this is just the price we have to pay for the aggressively thin bezels on this handset.

Moseying through our usual testing area revealed no aberrant behavior from the Sensation's 2G and 3G radios and reception was on par with what we would generally expect. This phone can actually reach HSPA+ speeds of 14.4Mbps down and 5.76Mbps up (hence why it'll be known as the Sensation 4G in the US), but we didn't have the requisite network to test it out. The Sensation's antenna is built into the plastic parts of its rear cover, a recurring trend in HTC's recent handsets.

As to aural performance, the loudspeaker on the back does a decent job and output to headphones is particularly pleasing. The solo speaker doesn't lose much when the Sensation is put down on a flat surface and though a stray finger pressed against its opening will muffle a large proportion of the sound, those aforementioned microphone holes help to leak it out of the case. Overall, it's an aspect of the phone that we consider simply satisfactory, it's not going to be the thing that sways your decision in either direction. HTC's bundled earphones are attractively styled, but generally disappointing. They were a poor fit for us, offered next to no sound isolation (an asset when trying to listen to music on the move), and their in-line remote control is the very definition of cheap plastic. The latter's also susceptible to recognizing accidental bumps as input, adding to our impression that you should keep the headset in its wrapping, just in case you decide to resell the handset down the line -- yes, the maintenance of resale value is the best thing we can say about these earphones.

If you plug in your own set of ear blasters, on the other hand, you'll be treated to some very nice output indeed. SRS virtual surround sound enhancements baked into the phone make a tangible difference by widening the sound stage and creating a more intimate feel to whatever you're listening to. For a smartphone that aspires to woo customers with top tier multimedia performance, getting audio right is a big deal and the Sensation thankfully delivers. Top marks on that, HTC, but if you can't bundle good headphones of your own, just don't bother next time. We'll take stickers instead.

Camera

HTC Sensation camera samples

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The unnecessarily capitalized feature that HTC is introducing with the Sensation's camera software is a little something dubbed Instant Capture. It's not a setting that you can toggle; HTC rightly presumes that you'll always want to minimize lag between telling the phone to snap a photo and the actual capture, and it works almost quickly enough to justify its name. Low light conditions will slow you down some as the autofocus isn't as fast, plus the flash might need to pop on and do its job, but responsiveness on the whole is very impressive indeed. We thought the Galaxy S II was fast to shoot and reload, but the Sensation is at least as quick.

Also helpful is a little preview window in the bottom left corner (when the phone's held in landscape mode), which shows the last photograph taken. This isn't a novelty for Android, but it wasn't available on the recent Incredible S and Desire S and makes particularly good use of the increased visual detail afforded by the size and pixel density of the Sensation's display. You can obtain enough information about a captured image from it to disable full screen image review after snapping a shot, leaving the camera free and ready to record another masterpiece. A sweet shrinking animation transitions taken photos into the smaller window and gives a visual clue to newbies that they'll find their photographic archives by tapping on it.

Image quality, the meat and potatoes of camera work, is usually high on the Sensation, though some software irregularities do undermine the evident strength of the hardware on board. What you see above is a 100 percent crop from this image, exhibiting a great deal of sharpness given the full 8 megapixel size at which the Sensation records its images, but also an unsightly blotch of blurriness right in the middle of the flower. The latter is caused by HTC's penchant for applying noise-reducing blur -- essentially melting neighboring areas of like color into one so as to reduce graininess.

Even with the company's auto-enhance option turned off (our whole sample gallery was shot this way), the software will automatically choose where to blur things out to deliver more visually appealing imagery at lower resolutions. That's the key, really. Looking at the pictures in our sample gallery, you'll be hard pressed to pick out any softness, because they've been shrunken down to a mere 800 x 600 pixels in size, a situation that's mirrored when viewing pictures on the phone, so you can definitely see HTC's motivation for optimizing its software to make things look good at lower resolutions. It's just that photography purists (and just people who expect 8 megapixels to mean 8 megapixels) will scoff at the idea that full-size quality should be sacrified for improvements at lower resolution.

Another issue caused by the software is that it'll occassionally get its color balance pretty badly wrong. Perusing our gallery, you'll find London buses looking slightly pink and black fencing shading toward a dark (deep?) purple. Thankfully, there's a decent selection of tweaks you can play around with, including exposure, contrast, saturation, sharpness, and a set of white balance presets.

The predictably limited dynamic range of the Sensation's camera does mean that in high contrast situations you'll end up with either blown-out skies or overcast landscapes, depending on what you choose to focus on and how the camera meters the available light, but that needn't be a tragedy -- it can lead to more artsy and interesting imagery. Overall, we reckon the Sensation is equipped with a mighty fine imager that might require you to be just a little more hands-on in controlling its settings in order to obtain the best results.

We must commend HTC for the intelligently designed dual LED flash. It's bright enough to illuminate group portrait shots and yet subtle enough not to whitewash a subject that's placed immediately in front of the camera lens. The front-facing VGA camera, on the other hand, didn't impress us much. It produced murky and grainy results and continues to be a tool primarily intended for video calls.




Video recording on the Sensation is simply effortless. Thirty frames of glorious 1080p can be filled each second and it seems to be done with utter ease. The camcorder's ability to keep up with motion on screen is markedly superior to what we're used to as well. There's a fluidity to the Sensation's output that's rare to find. Make no mistake about it, folks, this is where your dual-core processor will run circles, squares, and trapezoids around the competition. Though performance is sublime, we must note that actual visual quality of the Sensation's video leaves some room for improvement. HTC again seems to be fiddling with the recording -- by blurring some parts and sharpening others for a more uniform look -- which can sometimes deliver unnatural-looking results.

Sound is recorded in stereo, another feather in the Sensation's multimedia hat, though we found the phone unusually prone to picking up wind noise. In our estimation, this is owing to the position of the microphone used for voice calls, which unfortunately gets exposed directly to oncoming wind when the phone's held horizontally to shoot movies. Aside from that, quality of sound recording was pretty much middle of the road; it's certainly a far cry from the tinny stuff the HTC Flyer recently treated us to. If the two vids above aren't enough for you, you'll find a couple more samples here and here.

Software



Many of you might gaze upon the HTC Sensation and see your ideal hacking phone -- tons of hardware potential, great ergonomics, and an almost spotless bill of physical health. All you need now is a nice community-built ROM for it and you'll be flying... but oh wait, that's right, HTC developed a weird allergy to custom Android ROM installations this year and has been locking down the bootloaders on its 2011 phones to prevent such chicanery. Company CEO Peter Chou announced yesterday that this unpopular policy will be done away with in the future -- a welcome decision that may be enacted with retroactive effect and lead to the full unleashing of the Sensation -- but as it stands today, this lovely new handset's only option is HTC's Sense-tweaked Android 2.3.3 install. You can polish it up by overlaying custom app launchers or UI skins from the Android Market, but customization purists will have to look elsewhere.

Sense 3.0

With such an introduction, you might surmise that HTC's latest version of Sense, 3.0, hasn't treated us quite the way it should and you'd be right. It isn't that the user experience suffers from any glaring flaws or omissions -- it is generally smooth, responsive and pleasing to the eye -- but we're left disappointed by the indolent pace of innovation that HTC has exhibited with this supposedly major new release. Unfortunately, the Sense 3.0 tweaks have proven to be mostly superficial and there's little in the way of added functionality over and above what you can obtain on a Gingerbread-sporting Incredible S.

HTC Sensation software

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Let's start off with the bright spots. The overhauled lockscreen is by far and away the biggest and handiest improvement in the latest Sense. It now offers four customizable app shortcuts, which can be dragged into a so-called activation ring and thereby unlock the phone straight into the app. Above the shortcuts, you can have some spectacularly animated weather animations signifying the current weather, or stock updates, or a floating array of your pictures, which too can be dragged into that ring for a closer look. On the whole, it takes the previously dormant, borderline nuisance of a screen and it turns it into a much more dynamic and useful part of the user interface. We like the way that selecting an app shortcut creates an outline of it inside the activation ring, which in itself moves up from the bottom of the screen and closer to the app. These subtle visual clues, along with other hints and animations, help newcomers to smartphones find their way around with little difficulty.

There's no denying the fact that, superficially, Sense 3.0 is a clear step ahead of its predecessors. Navigation between homescreens is executed with a three-dimensional animation, implying a carousel arrangement, and there are tons of little visual tweaks suggesting depth in, around, and behind UI elements. Moving left of the left-most homescreen sends you to the right-most one, while skipping in a single direction too quickly pulls your view back, exposes the full carousel, and gives it a rapid spin in that direction. Unlocking the phone in the conventional way spins your first homescreen into view in a similar fashion. This is all well and good, and it certainly makes for a good exhibition of the underlying graphical prowess, but it's purely cosmetic. There's no utilitarian reason for why you'd want to send your homescreens into a washing machine cycle -- that actually takes control of the phone away from you, whereas we'd have thought the whole point of customizing Android was to improve and enhance it, not make it more unwieldy.

HTC's obsession with weather follows the same path. The Sensation comes with a set of splendid visuals for the common weather conditions, which are actually accompanied by fitting sound effects as well (yes, there are small audio recordings for sunny, windy, and rainy weather). Alas, those get annoying very quickly indeed and you'll soon find yourself trying to either turn them off or disposing with the offending widgets. HTC's weather widget will allow you to mute the sound, but the expansive animations aren't optional. For all its glitz and glamor, the weather app on the Sensation is actually rather dumb. It allows you to cycle through a number of cities while still on the homescreen, but it's pretty much a matter of luck whether tapping on your selected city will bring its weather up. Sometimes the app reloads itself and sends you to the correct metropolis, but on other occasions it just loads up the last city you were on. Ergo, tapping on Paris doesn't guarantee you won't get sent to Tokyo. Similarly, attempting to see weather for upcoming days by tapping on them on the home widget just brings you to conditions for the current day.

Overall, the new Sense UI is designed to make a great first impression, but scratch below the surface and you'll find little substance. We still aren't great fans of the onscreen keyboard, in spite of the extra room on this larger-display handset, and though HTC explicitly promised to improve its input prediction algorithms, we weren't struck by any great improvements there either. Precise text selection and cursor placements are also uniquely challenging on HTC devices, with the execution being arguably worse than on the default Android Gingerbread software. Finally, the move to a more graphically intensive UI does ocassionally take its toll on the phone's otherwise exemplary responsiveness, with detectable traces of lag cropping up here and there.

Having said that, let's also give an approving nod to HTC's integration of a Quick Settings menu in the drop-down Android menu (it sits alongside the usual Notifications area) and the nice app switcher that appears when you hold down the Home button. Moreover, the company does a good job of juggling resource use by background tasks, a valuable trait. The reason we're not more enthused about these items is that they're also present and accounted for in the company's other Gingerbread handsets, making the Sensation just another in a succession of phones rather than the singular and outstanding device that its former codename of Pyramid suggested.

Performance

We've danced around and hinted at the Sensation's performance long enough, now how about we address it head on? As already pointed out in the camera section, this handset's biggest struggle is in finding things that can challenge it. Dragging the camera icon into the unlocking ring on the lockscreen and taking your first snapshot is a spectacularly quick affair, certainly faster than on the 1.5GHz Flyer, HTC's only other Sense 3.0 device so far. Google Maps and the web browser are almost dripping with lubricant, they're so slick. Flash videos embedded online load up as quickly on the Sensation as we've seen on any other smartphone. The limits to this handset's abilities are found when trying to play back 1080p Flash video -- it turns into a slideshow -- but 720p is no problem at all.

HTC Watch, the company's newly launched online movie store / rental kiosk, is available on the Sensation, having made its debut on the Flyer. It works on a progressive download basis that's practically indiscernible from streaming, you just end up with the trailer, TV episode, or movie fully downloaded on your phone after you've watched it. There's a small buffering delay before you can start playback, but again, that's part for the streaming course. Although we aren't sure of the actual resolution at which movies are played on the Sensation, they look (and yes, we've been saving this adjective for just the right moment) sensational. That 16:9 screen ratio and the processing power within the phone pair up to deliver a supreme movie-watching experience. If you weren't convinced smartphones were big or good enough to make films enjoyable, you owe it to yourself to check out what HTC has to offer here.

App launching in general is nearly instantaneous. HTC claims opening apps is now twice as fast as on its previous handsets, but we ran a little side-by-side test with the Sensation and Incredible S and would argue that "twice" is an overly ambitious thing to say. The fact is that a number of recent Android phones, including those from HTC's own stable, have reached a very high level of responsiveness, so differentiating from them is hard. The Sensation definitely comes out ahead of all bar the Galaxy S II, just don't expect it to be a mindblowing improvement on the currently high standard.

Naturally, you'll be wanting some benchmarks to go with your serving of hands-on impressions. We ran the Sensation through the usual gauntlet, however our usual warning about screen resolution affecting scores must be reiterated here. Quadrant's 3D graphics tests are done at native resolution, which as we mentioned above is a 35 percent more intensive workload for the qHD Sensation than it is for, say, the WVGA Galaxy S II. Don't be shocked, therefore, to hear that the Sensation's scores coalesced around 2,000. Linpack typically gave us around 46MFLOPS, matching the Galaxy S II. Other graphical tests were hamstrung by a 60fps cap, giving us average scores of 58fps in Neocore and 42fps in Nenamark. Needless to say, the full power of that Adreno 220 GPU will need some nice and intensive new games to push it to its limits. It'll still be a good long while, however, before there's anything on Android capable of choking up the hardware inside the Sensation.

Wrap-up


The HTC Sensation is an extremely accomplished device, but there's no getting around the feeling that it underwhelms. While it is indeed a dual-core speed demon like the Samsung Galaxy S II, HTC's latest doesn't exhibit quite the same level of UI responsiveness and is furthermore saddled with a signed bootloader that prevents users from improving things themselves. Our biggest issue is with Sense, whose fancy new graphics and improved lockscreen utility can't hide the fact that the core UX hasn't materially changed from the days of the Hero.

In terms of design language, HTC is a monoglot and proud of it. The Sensation doesn't break with the company's established styling, yet its subtle physical refinements add up to make it a veritable pleasure to hold and to operate. Combining these excellent ergonomics with the phone's superior battery efficiency and generous qHD display resolution makes the Sensation a formidable foe for Samsung's celebrated new flagship. Given the choice between the two, we'd opt for the Galaxy S II for its brilliant display and snappier performance, but that's just a matter of preference. Ultimately, you'll have to decide what it is you value most in your Android superphone and pick the one that fits those needs best.

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