Three UK HTC Sensation XL review

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Throughout 2011 we have tested out multiple smartphones for the UK carrier Three, today we are publishing our HTC Sensation XL review following using the handset as our primary smartphone for a month.

The HTC Sensation XL is one of HTC’s first-ever smartphones which comes bundled with Beats Audio music technology and it is also the company’s first offering which combines Google Android with a 4.7-inch display. Earlier in the year we tested out the HTC Sensation and we are eager to see how the Sensation XL’s single-core 1.5GHz processor compares to the original Sensation’s 1.2GHz dual-core processor, also we are quite intrigued to see just if such a large form-factor would be turn out to be a good thing.

After unboxing the HTC Sensation XL we were initially stunned by just how large it was, I have average sized hands and when holding the smartphone in my right hand I could not easily reach the top-left corner of the display with my thumb. What’s nice is that despite the huge display the design is pretty thin and actually feels pretty nice in your hand also the build quality feels extremely solid.

When you take the back cover off the HTC Sensation XL it is very similar to the original Sensation, the back cover features copper contacts which means that it acts as an antenna. We like the way that the back cover also covers the bottom, left and right sides of the smartphone. The SIM card tray is hidden beneath the 1600 mAh battery, however there is no memory card slot. We find this pretty shocking considering this is being bundled with Beats audio as there is only 12.64GB of the 16GB internal storage available to the user – that’s not a huge amount of music, especially once you download a few large apps, take some photos and shoot some videos.

As with most of HTC’s Android offerings the power button is located on the top-right edge and the headset jack is on the top-left edge. The volume rockers are found on the upper right-hand side, the microUSB port is positioned on the lower left-hand side and the standard Android buttons are situated below the huge display – these are backlit, which is something the LG Optimus 3D could have done with. There is not a lot we would change in terms of design, however if the back cover featured some additional grip it would be nice, also sometimes when using the XL whilst it’s charging the cable gets in the way, perhaps a different location for the microUSB port would be better.

When you first turn on the HTC Sensation XL it is hard to ignore just how great the 4.7-inch display looks, the colors are great and the brightness of the display is up there with the iPhone 4S and Galaxy S II. On such a large display it is sometimes frustrating to see that you are restricted to a 480 x 800 resolution, combining the 4.7-inch display with a 720p resolution would have amazing – perhaps they are saving this for the XL2. One thing which I loved about the display is just how clear it is in sunny outdoor conditions, you need the brightness cranked up (which affects battery life), but at least you have that option.

As you probably saw further up this page HTC is keen to remind you that Sensation XL features Beats Audio. When you buy this smartphone from Three UK it comes with a free pair of urBeats headphones, these are quite similar to iBeats which would cost you £79.99 / $99.95 if you purchased them separately. They come presented in premium-looking pouch (seen below) and inside there you will find a total of 5 pairs of different ear-buds to choose from, there is also a clip which allows you to attach the cable to your clothing and as you would expect there are controls on the cable and a mic.

When you plug the beats into the HTC Sensation XL and play a track you see notification show up, if you pull down the notifications bar you can then choose to enable / disable Beats audio – there is a noticeable difference in quality when Beats is enabled (note: Beats Audio also works with other sound equipment such as my V-Moda Crossfade LP headphones) but the sound has been optimized to suit Beats Audio headphone. I listen to a lot of Hip Hop and I love the bass that the urBeats output and the depth of sound, at full volume there is no distortion when Beats audio is enabled (as long as the file playing is at a high bit-rate), however it is pretty deafening at full volume – we found that 90% was plenty! It is also worth knowing that the phone’s built-in speaker sounds great to when watching videos and playing music. The long rubbery cable seems easier to untangle when compared to other headphone cables and the only thing I would change would be to add volume buttons to the in-line controls as it is sometimes inconvenient to access the XL’s volume rockers.

The 8 megapixel on the rear is mounted centrally and assisted by a dual LED flash, results on the whole were extremely good, but not perfect. Close-up macro shots come out great most of the time and so do standard portrait photos, my biggest gripe is with results in dark conditions, they often come out hazy and have an orange tint. Every now and then the camera fails to focus quickly and images come out a little blurry (especially if your taking a photo of something which is moving), but most of the time images look sharp with pretty accurate colors. One nice touch is when using the camera the UI adapts depending on whether you are using it in landscape or portrait mode, as you would expect the software controlling the camera is intuitive and allows you to choose customs scenes, effects and settings – there’s much more at hand than the iPhone 4S offers.

Other reviews which I have read for this phone slated the video capture, yes there is no 1080p capture, so it is worse than the original Sensation and the iPhone 4S in that respect, but in my opinion the videos still looked great and we must mention just how good the Sensation XL is at filtering out noise whilst capturing crisp audio. We took the Sensation XL to a music event in London and couldn’t believe just how good the audio and video came out, this is despite lighting being poor and us being situated quite a far distance away. The best video I took captured my dog running rapidly around the living room, despite switching quickly between shady areas and direct sunlight the video came out great, the glossy look on her coat looked perfect and there was no blur even when the dog jumped right into (and almost hitting) the lens.

The smartphone’s single-core 1.5GHz processor and 768MB of RAM come together nicely to ensure that performance is good no-matter what you decide to use the Sensation XL for. Whilst commuting I often played music using the built-in music application whilst playing games such as Drag Racing and Solitaire, at times I would load up the Facebook, Twitter and Google+ apps or start browsing the web, despite doing this at once the Sensation XL coped very well and always felt snappy. Obviously the single core processor results in some limitations, however we didn’t spot anything too noticeable excluding the lack of 1080p video capture. Benchmarks show that in terms of grunt there are lots of better options currently available, but that has nothing to do with real-world performance, the fact is that it handled everything we threw at it with ease, that said the throughout next year when games and apps start becoming optimized for multi-core processors the Sensation XL will struggle.

In terms of battery life the HTC Sensation XL’s 1600 mAh battery can last a full day easily, Three UK’s superfast network HSPA+ network ensures that you should never have to turn WiFi on as even in poor signal areas we received speeds of 2Mbps down and 1.6Mbps, in better areas I received 4Mbps download speeds (my home broadband is only capable of 10Mbps speeds). By not having WiFi, Bluetooth or GPS switched on (unless required) you can squeeze lots of extra life out of your battery. We added the power control widget to our primary home screen to allow us to easily turn off unnecessary features, it also allows you to turn down screen brightness which has a massive impact on battery life. When using the Sensation XL for gaming and photo / video capture the battery does drain much more quickly, so it may not last you an entire day – installing the free Advanced Task Killer app is well-worth doing.

We briefly touched upon Three’s fast network in the last paragraph, we have to say that the HTC Sensation XL and the HSPA+ come together perfectly to deliver a rich socially connected smartphone experience which is also great for web browsing. The default browser is great (as we have seen with previous Android handsets), but just can’t wait to see what Android 4.0 brings to the table as in our opinion in terms of browsing speed the Sensation XL is faultless, sometimes scrolling and panning around a page could be a little smoother, but that’s nitpicking.


Sorry for the blurriness of this pic, my camera couldn’t capture a good still of the rotation effect.

At the time of submitting this review the sample HTC Sensation XL which we were testing out had all the system software updates installed, it was running Android 2.3.5 and HTC Sense 3.5. HTC’s Sense 3.5 UI and Android Gingerbread come together nicely to deliver a rich smartphone experience (as has been the case for a long time with Sense and Android), things we were particularly impressed by include 3D carousel effect which shows when your rapidly swipe between home screens (see below). Also when compared to previous versions of Sense we prefer 3.5′s lock screen, its new and improved widgets and the new photo gallery is great.

In terms of phone usage all calls sounded loud and clear whether you’re using the handset normally or the urBeats headphones as a hands free kit. We didn’t suffer a dropped call when in good service areas (calls only dropped when going through tunnels for us) and the person on the other end of the line said we sounded loud and clear, even when using the speakerphone. As a former BlackBerry user I must admit that I sometimes struggle with virtual QWERTY keyboards, however because of the large display the keyboard is very easy to use and when combined with Android’s great word prediction system it is no chore to send long text messages or emails.

    Summary

When we first picked up the HTC Sensation XL we thought the 4.7-inch display was just too big to be comfortable, friends will mock you saying “why did you bring your TV out with you” (well mine did any way), but the fact is they are also the same friends who will be wowed by the super-bright display and the fast access to sites such as YouTube etc. After a week or so of usage you adapt the way you use your XL and use it a bit more like a tablet than a smartphone, but that isn’t a bad thing if you are a technology enthusiast. Excluding when making phonecalls I mostly used the Sensation XL in landscape, especially when using the virtual keyboard. We really like the Sensation XL and think it is a great choice for anyone who wants a smartphone to deliver great social features, fast web browsing and super sound quality – we are sitting here thinking of some reasons not to buy it, all we can say is that the only disappointments for us were the lack of 1080p video capture, the lack of a memory card slot, the battery life (when under stress), the fact that it won’t cope with apps designed for dual-core processors and also you have to remember the form factor will be far too big for a lot of people’s hands.

You can head over to Three.co.uk to buy the HTC Sensation XL on a 24 month contract from £34 per month, however we recommend the £37 per month option which gives you All-you-can-eat data. The web browsing video below is worth checking out.

Did you buy the Sensation XL? If so, are you happy with your purchase?

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  • Anonymous

    Brilliant review!