Wednesday, August 24, 2011

HTC Sensation 4G Review

The world of smartphones is moving at a breakneck pace that has never been seen in technology. Within the span of about 18 months we have gone from witnessing the first phone break the 1GHz barrier to seeing the ascension of Dual-Core CPUs. At the forefront of this Dual-Core movement is HTC which set out the HTC Sensation 4G, their first ever Dual-core powered handset. We'll see how the increased horsepower has raised the bar on what a smartphone is capable of in our review of the HTC Sensation 4G.

Overall Construction
The Sensation 4G radiates the aura of being yet another incremental improvement on HTC's external hardware design. The avant-guard lines of the plastic antenna inserts and the aluminum shell that wraps around the entire phone give the Sensation a unique look and feel.

The phone, like most HTC phones, isn't razor thin but certainly makes up for it in a sleek ergonomic body that is exceedingly comfortable to use for a 4.3-inch device. At 11.3mm the phone is actually thinner than the Incredible S which itself felt pretty thin as well. Both phones achieve their perceived thinness with the way the edges are tapered (although done differently). In the case of the Sensation the tapering is also a big factor in the ergonomics of the device.

The other big factor in the overall ergonomics of the device is the weigh. With the Sensation weighing in at 148g, it's a tad heavy (in the range of the Panache) but given the size, form factor and materials used in the Sensation we are incredibly surprised to see it clock under the significantly smaller Panache. That being said at 148g the phone felt absolutely fantastic to hold in both portrait and landscape orientation.

The shell the wraps around the entire handset is made of a block of metal (which we assume is aluminium) and carved into it, as mentioned earlier, are two soft coated matte plastic inserts. These inserts are to maximize antenna performance for Bluetooth, WiFi and HSPA+ conectivity. They also add a nice bit of grip which is nice as an all metal case could feel unsafe in terms of grip.

The only part of the phone that isn't part of the metal shell is, obviously, the massive 4.3 inch qHD resolution display which we will get to in a second. The one thing that we must mention about the screen affecting overall build quality is in the ergonomics once again. The "hummer" phones, as coined by some CEO of a competing platform, have really been popular from the HD2 to the EVO 4G and Desire HD. But the sheer size of the screen made the device quite difficult for a good number of people.

The Sensation is different in that the screen's height to width ratio is a rare 16:9 (like flat panel HD Televisions) which makes it taller but slimmer than a Desire HD for example. It also sports a slightly concavely curved screen (slightly different from the Nexus S). We found that both factors greatly impacted ergonomics in everyday use as well as during calls and did so in a very positive manner.

HTC Sensation 4G

Being somewhat of a pioneer in the jumbo sized phones, HTC naturally had to follow up with yet another 4.3 inch screen for their latest flagship devices. The Sensation, one of the two HTC flagship devices launched this calendar year is of course equipped with such a screen but this time around, as mentioned earlier, has a 16:9 ratio (which is actually the native ratio for HD movies).

The Super LCD screen found on the Sensation is, of course, of the same lineage as the Incredible S which we reviewed weeks ago but unfortunately doesn't surpass it. However, one characteristic that makes this display better than the Incredible S' display is that it is the second device we get to review sporting a qHD resolution screen.

I cannot emphasize how much I appreciate the increased pixel density. Text, pictures, video and 3D gaming all look crisp and simply phenomenal on the 960x540 pixel (RGB stripe unlike the Atrix) screen. With the increased resolution on the 4.3 inch screen, the Android OS takes full advantage of the large amount of screen real estate and displays huge amount of content. For example more text and pictures can be displayed on a screen, from the browser, at one time and is readable when zoomed further out decreasing the scrolling needed from the user. This is also the case in menus and lists such as the Contact List or Android Market which can list more contact and apps than on a lower resolution screen.

Colors, contrast, black levels and brightness were all good on the display on the Sensation. Viewing angles did leave a bit to be desired, when thinking back to how good they were on the Incredible S. Sure, the Sensation's Super LCD might not be as "Super" as Super AMOLED or even Super AMOLED Plus or EVEN the Incredible S' Super LCD but the qHD crispness makes a compelling argument when debating between this handset and it's top competitor the Samsung Galaxy S II.

Another complaint I suppose we could mention is outdoors performance which, in my opinion, no phone does well, so isn't really a significant complaint.

Responsiveness of the multitouch gestures and screen presses were simply fantastic and the most fluid we've seen on any HTC device to date.

We'd also like to point out the that the concave screen not only adds an ergonomic plus during calls but also lifts most the screen above a flat surface if laid face down like many other HTC phones. This potentially prevents scratches form occurring those odd times you might flip your phone over to silence a call. We still recommend a screen protector for those of you who worry about scratches.

As far as buttons are concerned the Sensation is just about as minimalist as an OEM can get. The four default Android buttons, volume rocker and power/lock button is all you will find on the Sensation.

On the top you'll find a power button that I wasn't big fan of (nitpicking) but certainly wasn't the worse. It had a good feel and protruded enough to be found easily without looking, but felt a bit wobbly. It could be isolated to my review unit but again not a deal breaker.

On the left side you will find the volume rocker which unlike the Incredible S we really appreciate. It had a good feel, was solid and had just the right size.

The Android buttons on the bottom are good, having enough spacing and being perfectly responsive. Basically status quo.

Battery Life
Being that the Sensation is a first generation Dual-Core device, one concern that many had brought up before the days of Tegra 2, Exynos and 3rd Generation Snapdragon is battery life.

Packing a 1520mAh, the Sensation's battery doesn't really stand out like on the Atrix for example with its behemoth 1930mAh. Fortunately, like the Atrix, fears of lackluster battery life are unfounded on the Sensation. HTC seems to have gained something of a bum reputation because of battery problems that plagued other high profile handsets like the Desire HD and Thunderbolt.

We're glad to report that a moderate day of usage is easily attainable but of course, as with all phones your mileage will vary on your use of the phone.

Internal Hardware
Sensation 4G's hardware is basically the pinnacle of Qualcomm technology available as of this moment.

- 1.2 GHz Qualcomm Third Generation Dual Core Snapdragon MSM8260 Processor
- 768MB of RAM
- 1.1GB of Internal storage expandable with microSD card by up to 32GB
- Adreno 220 Graphic processor
- 14.4Mbps HSPA+ capable chipset
- WiFi b/g/n
- 8MP auto-focus camera with Dual LED flash and 1080p HD video capabilities

While there was a steady trend of "Middle of the road hardware" in our last two reviews of HTC phones (Incredible S, Panache) as well as many other HTC phones (Desire Z, Desire HD, Desire S), we can safely say, the Sensation has, without a doubt, cutting edge hardware.

There is simply nothing middle of the road about this device. From overall performance in the OS, with all the Sense 3.0 graphical effects to browsing to gaming, the HTC Sensation did not miss a beat in ANY of these scenarios.

Dungeon Defenders, one of my favorite games on Android, is my defacto stress test for 3D Gaming performance ran as good if not better on the Sensation than even the Tegra 2 devices I've tested. This is a true testament to the Adreno 220 GPU found inside the Sensation which finally brings the Sensation up to par in terms of intense 3D rendering performance.

HSPA+ “4G” Capabilities
While the "4G" designation is being thrown around with little regards to what used to be the original 4G specifications, we have to admit that if the experience is faster for the end user it isn't as much of a stretch to call HSPA+ 4G.

The HTC Sensation 4G is one of Bell's (and Virgin's) "superphones" and one of the requirements to being a Bell "superphone" is having 4G speeds. The handset does in fact deliver fantastic HSPA+ speeds. In various locations around Montreal, the Sensation was able to pull a steady 4-5mbps and even peak at almost 8mbps. This is the closest we've seen an HSPA+ 14.4mbps device get to its theoretical max.

Again we must warn you that your mileage will vary depending on coverage in your area, but this should be a good indicator of the type of speeds you'll get in a large metropolitan area.

Speaker and microphone
The earpeice on the Sensation is an improvement over other HTC phones but still could benefit from being a bit louder. the External speaker is decent but nothing worth writing home about. There are two microphones, as with many phones today, for ambient noise cancellation and seemed to work very well in our tests.

Sound outputted by the 3.5mm headphone jack is pretty good, especially when SRS is enabled. While I am not an audiophile the sound from the SRS audio sounded quite good. We expect it to be even better with a good pair of headphones.

On the back of the Sensation you find the 8MP camera flanked by two LED lights. With the increased horsepower and the high end sensor the Sensation is one of the first Android phones capable of 1080p video recording capabilities.

In our tests, the camera on the Sensation is very solid and probably the best we've seen from HTC. Still were very nice and video which was not very good on previous devices is MUCH improved on the Sensation.

There are a few things that are disappointing about the camera. For one like with the Panache we had a hard time focusing on macro shots that were taken in low light situations and the microphone for the video recording produced subpar audio recordings. That being said the Sensation is the gold standard (in Canada since the US has the myTouch Slide 4G which has an even better camera) for cameras found on HTC phones.

As usual the front facing camera will likely, for most, be relegated to profile picture and video chat duties which we are also glad to say is compatible with Skype as of the writing of this review.

Sample Pictures


Sense UI 3.0
Since the Sensation is an significant improvement over previous HTC devices being their first dual core device, it was only expected that the iconic HTC Sense UI be tweaked to take advantage of the increased horsepower. That being said, like Sense 2.0 to 2.1, there isn't much that is radically different from 2.1 to 3.0 but where there are significant changes the enhancements are quite welcome.

For one the lockscreen on Sense 3.0 is completely different from anything we've seen on any Android device. Gone is arc that needed to be pulled down to unlock the device, Sense 3.0 now uses a ring that is pulled up and doubles up as a quick app launcher by dragging four customizable shortcuts into the ring.

On the homescreen the different pages now loop so when you reach one end of the homescreen you can swipe directly to the other end. By swiping at different speeds 3D effects to the widgets and homescreens are triggered. Swipe slow enough and one will notice that the widgets are in fact somewhat 3D and if you swipe fast enough the homescreen becomes a carousel of pages both of which are visually appealing.

Other than those major graphical/functional changes most of the other changes are purely cosmetic, from the revamped Messaging app to the weather app/widget (which by the way if the most beautiful weather app I've ever seen).

Android has always been criticized by outsiders for its lack of visual appeal and it's obvious HTC has taken that challenge head on with Sense. Since looks are purely subjective it's arguable whether Sense 3.0 dresses Android up or pushes it into the mud.


Flash 10.3 HD Performance
HTC already had a good track record of 720p playback on their devices, so it's only normal that everything stay status quo with even more performance headroom of a Dual Core processor. The Sensation easily handled 720p HD Flash content.

MHL Capabilities
One thing that is noticeably absent from the Sensation but found on other high end Android devices is a micro-HDMI slot for mirroring to an HDTV. Fortunately the Sensation is equipped with MHL (Mobile High Definition) which allows HDMI out capabilities, although requires a specific adapter.

If a timeline of all of HTC's phones is examined, both hardware and software, the Sensation (as well as the EVO 3D) is a perfect example of a steadily improving hardware and software design. The Sensation is simply an outstanding device.

It might not have been the first (or even second) Dual Core device to hit Canadian shelves, but the extra time HTC took perfecting the Sensation when Tegra 2 was the talk of the tech bloggosphere seems to have paid off.

The Sensation is without a doubt one of the best overall devices available, period.

Final Verdict
Overall Appearance: 9.5/10
- Fantastic build quality, EXCELLENT ergonomics, unique avant guard motifs

Screen: 8.5/10
- Decent display, but sadly doesn't improve on the great Incredible S' screen.

Buttons: 8.5/10
- Minimalistic but very functional. Power button feels flimsy.

Internal Hardware: 9.5/10
- Cutting edge Qualcomm hardware. Overall performance is top notch. Basically the best you can get that isn't Exynos.

Speaker and Microphone: 8.5/10
- Improvement over recent HTC devices but still room to get better.

Camera: 9/10
- Gold standard for HTC phones in Canada

UI Changes: 8.5/10
- Sense UI 3.0 is visually appealing and is equipped with Android 2.3 out of the box.

Addition Enhancements: 9/10
- Flash 10.3 performance is fantastic, MHL connector is convenient, SRS enhancements is well welcomed

Included Apps/Bloatware: 7/10
- Bloatware kept at bearable level but would still like to see less.

Final Score: 8.7/10

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