The Sensation has shouldered its way to the front of HTC's Android smart-phone pack, sporting sky-high specs and a refreshed version of the company's much-loved Sense user interface. It looks very much like the rest of HTC's line-up, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
At the time of writing, the Sensation is available exclusively on Vodafone, but it will spread to other networks in a matter of weeks. It's available from free on a £35-per-month contract or around £500 SIM-free and unlocked.
Case and screen
From a distance, the Sensation looks very similar to the HTC Desire S, due to its rounded, aluminium case. Three shades of grey add some sparkle to what's essentially just another smart-phone square. The screen is also slightly sunk into the bezel, which protects the display and gives your fingers a tiny amount of feedback when you start to slide off the touchscreen. The concave screen is probably the coolest thing about the Sensation's appearance -- it currently makes the phone unique.
The Sensation's display is the same size as the HTC Desire HD's -- 4.3 inches. But, because of the phone's rounded corners and narrower bezel, the Sensation feels much smaller in the hand than the large-boned Desire HD.
The display has a 540x960-pixel resolution and a 16:9 wide-screen aspect ratio. That's plenty compared to most phones, which tend to have resolutions of around 480x800 pixels. But it's not quite on a par with the amazing sharpness of the iPhone 4's 640x960-pixel screen. Nevertheless, the screen is stunningly bright, and text on Web pages looks sharp even when you zoom in as far as you can go.
Powering the big screen is the Sensation's 1.2GHz, dual-core processor. This processor packs plenty of power for Android apps, and puts the Sensation in direct competition with the Samsung Galaxy S 2.
We were all ready to fire up the benchmarking software on the Sensation and watch as it broke all previous records. But, sadly, we struggled to download the appropriate apps from the Android Market. The problem was that apps prepared to download but never completed the deed. After trying to download them on 3G and various Wi-Fi connections, we had to reset the phone completely to get it to download the apps properly.
This issue may only affect our unlucky sample, and could easily be due to an Android bug that's not unique to the Sensation. But it's a big annoyance nonetheless.
Once we got our benchmark tests up and running, they were a joy to behold. Compare the values below with those of the single-core Samsung Galaxy S, Google Nexus One and HTC Desire HD, and the dual-core LG Optimus 2X. The Sensation uses a dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon CPU, while the Optimus 2X uses an Nvidia Tegra 2 processor.
The Sensation aced the Linpack test of floating-point computing power with an average score of 46. This trounced the other phones we've tested. In the Softweg benchmark test, the Sensation's CPU tied the fastest single-core phone, the Desire HD, with a score of 2,500. That puts it slightly behind the Optimus 2X, which scored 3,000.
The Sensation was in the same position in the Neocore 3D graphics test, earning a score of 60, compared to the Desire HD's 58.7 and the Optimus 2X's 78.5. It blew away the competition in the Softweg 2D graphics test, though, with a score of 61, to the Optimus 2X's 21.
It's good news that the Sensation aced its graphics benchmark tests, because its refreshed Sense user interface really puts the processor to the test. HTC is one of the few manufacturers that has managed to create a skin on top of Android that's worth having.
Not only is it beautiful to look at, with heaps of whizzy clocks and a gorgeous weather widget, but it also adds some handy features to Android. It brings together your Facebook and Twitter contacts with your Google address book, for example, creating a massive social-network love-fest. It also adds an automatic prompt if the Wi-Fi network you're connected to requires you to log in on a landing page.
Sense 3.0 features whizzy 3D animations everywhere. Swiping between home screens, for example, reveals depth and layers on each HTC-designed widget. Transitions like this tend to require a surprising amount of processing power, so Sense 3.0 may not come to HTC phones with slower CPUs, such as the Desire S.
In our test period, the Sensation proved fast and responsive. In fact, it occasionally felt too fast, with menus scrolling at such speed that we felt the user interface lacked the buttery feel of a smoother UI, like that of the iPhone.
Widgets and apps
We also struggled with one of HTC's widgets. The weather on our clock widget seemed to hate updating, often throwing up a 'no weather available' error until we poked it into refreshing. One the plus side, once it's up and running, the weather app is the most spectacular of its kind.
We wish we could say the same about the apps that Vodafone has added to its version of the phone. The 360 Shop and the Music Shop look dodgy right from the first glance -- their icons are clearly meant to look similar, but they're different sizes. They don't work if you're connected to Wi-Fi either. Even when we connected via 3G, both failed to open, with different cryptic error messages appearing. Our advice is to chuck their shortcuts in the virtual bin and pretend you never saw them.
It's easy to get such detritus off the HTC's seven home screens. Indeed, this is the most customisable phone we've ever used.
Like most Android phones, you can fill up the home screens with shortcuts and widgets. HTC includes a selection of beautiful widgets, and you can also choose from the default Android widgets or get more from the Android Market. It's worth noting, however, that widgets designed for smaller screens can look tiny on the Sensation's huge display.
You can also swap between 'scenes'. This exchanges all your home screens for another set, bearing a different batch of shortcuts, widgets and wallpapers. Pre-loaded options that focus on work, play, media and travel can all be tweaked to suit you.
If you crave further opportunities for self expression, there's also a new customisable lock screen. By default, the lock screen includes four shortcuts that you can drag to simultaneously unlock the phone and open an app, such as the camera.
We liked this feature on the INQ Cloud Touch, but the Sensation goes one better by letting you customise which four apps are presented. In fact, you can personalise the lock screen even more by replacing the shortcuts with an animated stream of Facebook and Twitter updates, a slideshow of photos, the latest share prices, or a number of other options.Watch phone
Underneath Sense sits Android 2.3 Gingerbread, the latest version of Google's operating system for smart phones. It's packed with features, including Google Maps and good email support. Unsurprisingly, Google's apps are some of the best, but there's also the option to install zillions more from the Android Market.
HTC includes a selection of its own apps on the Sensation, from the sublime to the ridiculous. We've never met anyone who uses HTC's Footprints travel app, but people have been known to fall in love with its weather service.
Watch video store
The phone also features HTC's new video store, Watch, a competitor to Apple's iTunes. It doesn't include music, but it does offer movies and TV shows. The latest film releases cost £9.99, while rentals will set you back £3.49. Older movies are cheaper. TV shows run at around £1.49 an episode.
Watch isn't cheap, then, but we can vouch for the fact that videos look fantastic on the Sensation's big screen, even over 3G.
You can share your videos with up to five other HTC devices, including the company's Flyer tablet. Films can download in the background while you watch them, which promises to be handy when you're on a slow connection. We found, however, that, even over a fast HSPA connection, trailers took a while to get started, and we had some trouble with buffering. Downloaded trailers worked fine, but Watch seemed to struggle with streaming.
If you prefer to film your own masterpiece, the Sensation offers 1080p video recording and an 8-megapixel camera. There's also a VGA camera on the front for video calling and taking self-portraits.
HTC says it's tried to speed up the camera so it's faster at capturing shots, and we definitely noticed the difference. Our shots were also clear and sharp, with good colour balance.
Weighing in at 148g, the Sensation is very heavy compared to its competitors, especially the surprisingly light Samsung Galaxy S 2. That's probably due to its metal case, but we hoped that it might indicate the presence of a big battery, too.
Alas, in our tests, the battery proved merely OK, lasting two days without charging under light use, with several widgets constantly updating and with GPS and Wi-Fi turned on. Using battery-sucking features like sat-nav could easily drain the Sensation dry in less than a day.
The Sensation also tends to get hot while it's being charged, although we didn't notice any problems as a result of this.
The HTC Sensation swaggers with smart-phone confidence. Its beefy metal case, huge screen, powerful dual-core processor and glossy user interface make it feel like the alpha phone in the mobile pack. Despite a few software slip-ups here and there, this phone justifies its name.
For a lighter phone that makes less invasive tweaks to Android, check out the Samsung Galaxy S 2.
Edited by Charles Kloet