HTC has been a prominent purveyor of Android smartphones from the outset, but there's now more competition than ever in the high-end sector — notably from Samsung with its Galaxy S II, LG with its Optimus 2X, and the recently released Motorola Atrix.
The Sensation is HTC's flagship device for 2011, and as such it sports the all-important dual-core processor that means it can compete with other high end smartphones. The dual core processor is only part of the story, though. Does the HTC Sensation have enough all-round features to stand out?
Our review sample came from Vodafone, where it's free on a £35 month contract; SIM-free the HTC Sensation costs a shade under £500 (e.g. £498 inc. VAT or £415 ex. VAT from Clove Technology).
The HTC Sensation offers solid build quality and an attractive physical design. The backplate is part metal, part plastic, and unusually it curves around the edges of the casing, with the main section slotting into an overhanging lip on the top edge. One consequence is that you can't remove the backplate while the left-side-mounted Micro-USB connection is in use.
The HTC Sensation has an attractive design incorporating an unusual backplate arrangement
The Sensation measures a sizeable 65.4mm wide by 126.1mm deep by 11.3mm thick and weighs 148g. You'll need big hands to reach right across the screen one-handed. It feels thin, although it's actually bulkier and heavier than both the Samsung Galaxy S II (66.1 x 125.3 x 8.49mm x 116g) and the LG Optimus 2X (64.2 x 122.4 x 9.9mm and 135g).
The HTC Sensation's 4.3in. screen is a Super LCD with a slightly unusual resolution: 800 by 480 pixels is the current norm for high-end smartphones, but the Sensation offers a more generous 960 by 540. This isn't quite up to the iPhone 4's 960 by 640 pixels (in a 3.5in. sceren), but it's the highest we've seen from an Android smartphone to date.
The result is a clear and sharp display, but one that doesn't seem as vibrant as it could be. It suffers outdoors in bright sunlight too — a criticism common to a number of HTC smartphones.
Beneath the screen is the familiar bank of four touch buttons for Home, Back, Menu and Search functions. There are very few side buttons. We've already noted the Micro-USB port on the left, which we generally prefer to see on the bottom edge of the chassis. The top edge has a 3.5mm headset jack and the on/off switch. The left edge also has a volume rocker, while the right edge is clear.
Above the screen is a VGA-resolution camera for video calls, while at the back there's an 8-megapixel main camera with dual LED flash, capable of capturing 1080p HD video. HTC claims 'instant capture' functionality for the main camera — a photo is taken as soon as you hit the on-screen shutter button, with no lag.
HTC constantly adds to the Android camera basics, and familiar effects like vignette and depth-of-field have been augmented with new ones such as 'dots', which has a similar effect to pixellating an image, and 'posterise', which is very effective.
Touch-focus is a welcome feature that we don't see often enough in smartphones: you can tap the screen to set the precise area that's focused on, rather than it automatically being the centre of the image. During testing the camera produced some high-quality photos and video.
The HTC Sensation ships with a AC adapter, a PC connector cable, headphones with round in-ear buds, a slim printed quick-start guide and an 8GB microSD card.
With a 1.2GHz dual-core Qualcomm processor and 768MB of RAM, the HTC Sensation is a responsive handset. You only get 1GB of internal storage, but there's a microSD card slot under the backplate and our Vodafone review sample came with an 8GB card.
Wireless connectivity is exemplary: HSPA mobile broadband (14.4Mbps down and 5.76Mbps up); Wi-Fi (802.11b/g/n); Bluetooth (3.0); and GPS. There's also the usual array of sensors — a digital compass, an accelerometer, a proximity sensor and a gyro sensor — to cater for a range of screen rotation activities and location-based services. Flash is fully supported, and we had no problems streaming video from the web or using DLNA to deliver media to an external screen.
The Sensation runs Android 2.3 with HTC's Sense user interface overlay. Now at version 3.0, Sense adds what seems like a vast array of tweaks and new features.
Version 3.0 of HTC Sense adds a variety of lockscreens and other user interface features to the basic Android 2.3 experience
Small changes include the way the seven home screens transition as if they were on a carousel as you sweep the screen, and the way the notifications bar has shortcuts to recently-used apps. The enhanced weather widget also has some new features, including sound effects (which you can disable if necessary).
More significant changes include a new lockscreen onto which you can place four shortcuts. Drag any one of these into a semicircle at the bottom of the screen and the handset opens into the chosen app. So if you constantly check email, you can put that onto the lockscreen, or if you're a keen camera user, put that here. If you want to go from the lockscreen to the main home screen, a sweep upwards from the bottom of the lockscreen takes you there.
This is a clever idea, but we wish HTC had allowed for more than four shortcuts. This gripe is slightly mitigated by the fact that you can choose from a range of lockscreen themes, including weather and FriendStream (social media updates).
HTC has added some applications to the Android basics too. Some we've seen before, others are new. There's a new Dock Mode which is designed to be viewed when docked to your computer; this shows the date, time and weather, and links you to your calendar, photos and connected media.
There's also a Mirror app that uses the front camera as a mirror, an app that lets you set the handset up as a Wi-Fi hotspot, and — usefully for professionals — Polaris Office. The latter lets you create Word and Excel documents as well as edit existing documents. The on-screen keyboard is large enough to use comfortably for this and other text-related activities, and the contoured screen is superbly responsive.
HTC also includes its Reader app, which comes populated with a few free e-books. A neat visual touch is that the page-turning animation varies depending on where you sweep the screen. You need a Kobo account to purchase books, although it also works with Adobe. There's nothing to stop you adding Amazon's Kindle app too, of course.
Brand-new for the Sensation is HTC Watch, which you can use to rent movies. The library is small and out-of-date at the moment, rental prices are around £2.49 per film and they can only be streamed to the Sensation. This is an interesting move, but HTC will need a partner with a good catalogue and a better pricing structure to make it a success (early reports suggested rental prices of £3.49, so perhaps HTC has already reacted a little to cost criticism).
Performance & battery life
This handset's 4.3in. screen and 1.2GHz dual-core processor require a competent battery to deliver anything like a sensible working life. HTC has equipped the Sensation with a 1,520mAh battery, which is just about enough to keep the device going for a full day of pretty heavy usage. As ever, though, what you get in the real world will depend on your usage pattern: the GPS is a big battery drain, for example, as is using the device as a Wi-Fi hotspot; the camera seems to be quite power-hungry too.
Third-party apps may struggle with the unusual screen resolution initially, but they ought to catch up over time. In our experience non-optimised apps will run OK, but with some banding around the edges.
The HTC Sensation has a fast dual-core processor and a high-resolution 4.3in. screen. The physical design is good, and we're pleased to see Polaris Office in the software bundle. HTC Sense continues to evolve, and you can use the handset for purchasing e-books and now movies.
The Samsung Galaxy S II remains our favourite high-end smartphone, but the HTC Sensation comes a very close second.