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.
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.
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.