The HTC Sensation XL is the manufacturer's second Android phone, after the Sensation XE, to come equipped with Beats Audio and a matching set of headphones. It's pitched firmly at the tune-obsessed crowd who want more from their mobile than merely acceptable sound quality.
There's a mammoth 4.7-inch screen too -- so could this be the Holy Grail of music phones? The Sensation XL is available now for free on contracts starting at £26 per month, or on pay as you go from £450.
Should I buy the HTC Sensation XL?
There's no doubt about it: out of the box, the HTC Sensation XL is one of the best music phones to ever squirt audio into our ears. Stuff it with your favourite albums -- MP3, WAV, WMA or even OGG files, it's not fussy. Then jam the garish, heavyweight earbud headphones into your ears and you're in for an auditory treat the likes of which your average smart phone can only dream of delivering.
Much of this is undoubtedly down to the fact that this is one of the first mobiles to feature Beats Audio, a sound profile straight from the lab of NWA founder and G-Funk pioneer Dr Dre. The rapper and producer has already launched a range of headphones with Monster and crowbarred his tech into HP laptops -- mobiles were the next logical destination for Beats.
Given the Sensation XL's price tag, however, we're not entirely convinced it's worth the outlay if you already own a decent smart phone.
Aside from its music chops, the Sensation XL's other big feature -- quite literally -- is its screen. Few mobiles can boast a display as large as this 4.7-inch monster, and fans of video, ebooks and mobile web browsing will appreciate the extra acreage. That said, the screen is outdone in terms of sharpness by a lot of other models out there. Its LCD technology doesn't please the eyeballs as much as the AMOLED-equipped likes of the Samsung Galaxy S2. Colour and contrast just aren't as rich.
Aside from that, the Sensation XL is a slightly-above-average Android Gingerbread phone. It's well built, speedy enough, there's just about enough storage space included, the 8-megapixel camera takes acceptable photos and HD video clips, and the HTC Sense interface is pleasant to use.
You've got access to a dizzying range of apps in the Android Market and the seven home screens can be tweaked and prodded until they feature your favoured blend and arrangement of apps, widgets, folders and shortcuts.
There's nothing here to really annoy you, but aside from the aforementioned Beats technology there's nothing here to really excite you either -- at least nothing that a bunch of other similarly priced Android phones can't provide.
The HTC Sensation XL has one of the largest screens on the market. It's a 4.7-inch Super LCD display with a resolution of 480x800 pixels, which gives a pixel density of around 199 pixels per inch (ppi). It's not the biggest screen we've seen on a phone recently -- the Samsung Galaxy Note's gigantic 285ppi 5.3-inch display dwarfs it. Neither is it the sharpest -- the iPhone 4 and 4S are 330ppi and the Samsung Galaxy Nexus is very nearly as good at 316ppi. But it's still an impressive sight.
Colours are extremely vibrant and the contrast is impressively deep for an LCD screen, so the overall effect is gloriously punchy. Is it a match for the AMOLED screen of the Samsung Galaxy Note? Nope -- the colours aren't as juicily saturated and the blacks aren't as bottomlessly inky -- but it's far from poor. It's not the pinnacle of mobile phone displays, but fire up a session of Angry Birds or watch a video and you're unlikely to be disappointed.
Web browsing is another beneficiary of the vast amount of screen real estate. While the Sensation XL doesn't match its higher resolution rivals in this respect, it's one of a handful of phones on which you can read full-size websites without straining your eyes. The mobile versions of sites are beautifully readable and clear, of course.
Aside from the huge screen, the Sensation XL's other headlining feature is the inclusion of Beats Audio technology, a special sound profile personally tweaked by hip-hop legend Dr Dre. HTC has made Beats technology a major focus of the phone's marketing strategy -- the logo is displayed prominently on the backplate. Essentially, the idea behind Beats Audio is that it dials up mobile phone audio quality from 'merely acceptable' to, well, 'gangsta'.
The Sensation XL also comes with a pair of earbud Beats headphones, which feel about a hundred times better made than the average set of bundled mobile phone buds -- in fact, they're very similar to the iBeats, Monster's iPhone earbuds, which retail for around £80. There's a definite premium pedigree to them.
So how does the Sensation XL shape up as a music phone? Well, audio quality is a few notches above the average mobile, with the main differences coming in the form of powerful, taut bass, clear vocals and a winning sense of dynamics in the music. Most mobiles sound flat and lifeless in comparison.
While the beefy bass does seem to suggest Beats favours hip hop, dance and other forms of electronic music over rock and acoustic, we have to say that everything we listened to, including quiet acoustic material, sounded pretty damn impressive.
Disable the Beats sound profile (you can do so by pulling down the notifications tab on the homescreen), and audio takes a turn for the worse, losing much of its depth and sounding fairly lifeless.
The headphones play a big part in this, however. Hook them up to a non-Beats Audio phone (we tried the iPhone 3GS), and sound is almost as impressive as on the Sensation XL. So rather than spending a lot of money on this mobile, music fans looking for an improvement in audio quality could simply invest in a good set of headphones for their existing phone. The inclusion of Beats Audio alone is not sufficient reason to buy the Sensation XL.
The Sensation XL runs on Google's Android 2.3 Gingerbread operating system, upon which HTC has laid its own HTC Sense 'skin'. Alongside Samsung's TouchWiz, HTC Sense is one of the better non-standard Android interfaces we've come across. Using the Sensation XL is a cinch.
The user interface is mainly touch-based: you unlock the phone by dragging a ring at the bottom of the homescreen into the screen's centre and flicking between the seven homescreens. Other multi-touch controls include pinch-to-zoom -- do so on a homescreen and it zooms back, allowing you to see all seven simultaneously -- and double-tap to zoom in/out of a column on a web page. Solid, standard stuff, in other words.
In addition, there are four touch-sensitive buttons at the bottom of the phone's front face, just underneath the screen. From left to right, these are home, options, back and search. We prefer having a physical, pressable hardware button for home (it's easier to find in the dark), but this arrangement isn't too tricky to get used to.
When you first switch on the phone, a step-by-step walkthrough lets you enter your Google profile. Assuming you have one, this makes setting up the Sensation XL a breeze, as your Gmail, contacts, Android Market purchases, favourite Google Maps locations, Google search history and so on can all be transferred across.
There are seven separate homescreens on this phone. A slider at the bottom indicates which you are on at any time. Dragging your finger left or right on the screen scrolls between the homescreens. But no matter which you're on, a bar at the bottom remains to give you shortcuts to the phone, apps and personalisation screens.
We often find the default layout of Android phones' homescreens to be a mess of annoying widgets and oddly placed apps. HTC has done a reasonable job of not leaving you with a mess to clear up.
The main, central home screen has a widget showing the time, date and weather in your current location at the top, and eight app shortcuts: Music, Android Market, Messages, Mail, Internet, Camera, Watch and Reader. A pretty good selection, we think, and there's space left for four more, or another widget.
Hitting the home button on the phone will bring you back to this central homescreen, and tapping it a second time will show you mini versions of all homescreens simultaneously -- tap one to jump directly to it.
Flick to the left and you've got an entire home screen dedicated to HTC's FriendStream widget, which delivers your social network updates -- Twitter, Facebook and Flickr -- in a single, unified stream. You can also update your own status direct from FriendStream, and hit the location icon to reveal -- and check into, should you wish -- nearby points of interest. It's a useful widget.
Flick once more to the left and it's another full-screen widget, this time for HTC's Watch app. This is essentially a video store from which you can purchase or rent movies. Most films cost £9.99 to buy and £3.49 to rent, but some are cheaper. Some movies can't be rented, only bought.
Watching films on a phone is a bit weird in our opinion, but the Sensation XL is one of the few mobiles that have a screen big enough to make it work.
One more to the left and you've got HTC's homegrown music widget, which shows album artwork and lets you play/pause and skip between tracks. It's rather basic, but tapping it opens the full-fat music player.
Moving to the right of the central home screen, the first screen you come to has a Google search widget at the top and HTC's People widget below. This lets you add your favourite contacts (or at least the ones you need to get in touch with most often), and a shortcut for each: either a call, text or email. So you can instantly text a mate without having to open up the contacts screen, select text message and so on.
The next homescreen to the right has a Google Navigation widget, which can be set to always show your current location if you wish. The final screen is empty and begging to be loaded with the apps and widgets of your choosing.
It's a smart home screen layout, all told, but of course you can tweak and customise it to your heart's desire. Hold a single finger down on a space and a menu pops up allowing you to select a widget, app, folder or shortcut to drop into the space. You can then drag and drop to rearrange, or drag to the bottom of the screen to remove.
This being an Android smart phone, every home screen has a notifications panel. Icons at the top-left tell you when you have notifications including available updates for apps -- dragging down on the bar shows you a pane with them all in. When listening to music, you can also enable and disable the Beats Audio sound profile from this pane.
As with most Android phones, the Sensation XL comes stuffed with apps, some of which you may want to dump straight away. Bloatware? Well, the phone still performs speedily enough, and they're nicely hidden out of sight in the apps menu screen, so there's no real sense that they're clogging up your phone and making everything look like a mess.
Nevertheless, we expect users with a high regard for tidiness -- or simply OCD-- will spend a good amount of time dumping the likes of the Mirror app, which uses the front-facing camera to, yes, let you look at yourself.
Signing up for an HTC Sense account allows you to access the HTC Hub app, which in turn offers a selection of themes, called 'Scenes' here, ringtones, notification sounds, alarm sounds, wallpapers and HTC apps. Irritatingly, the apps download page wouldn't update for us despite 10 or so attempts, so we can't talk about the full extent of HTC's homegrown apps.
The Sensation XL sports a single-core 1.5GHz processor and 768MB of RAM, so it's not up there with the most powerful smart phones on the market. We put it through its paces with AnTuTu Benchmark, which tests memory, CPU speed and graphics. It achieved an overall score of 3,645, putting it slightly above the likes of the Google Nexus S and HTC's own Desire HD.
The ageing Samsung Galaxy S2 scored almost 6,000 in the same test and the Samsung Galaxy Note achieved 6,379 when we tested it last week. More damningly, the smaller HTC Sensation XE scored over 1,000 more in the same test, thanks to its dual-core processor. So, on paper, the Sensation XL doesn't look like anything to get excited about on the speed front.
When actually using the phone, however, we didn't feel like its speed was letting us down in any way. Apps open fairly swiftly and games run without a hitch. Obviously if you want your phone to be lightning-fast and to remain so for the next two years, the Sensation XL probably won't be for you.
A large screen can often mean bad things for a smart phone's battery life, but the Sensation XL doesn't appear to suffer from an abnormally short battery. HTC claims the battery offers up to 6 hours 50 minutes of talk time on 3G (11 hours 50 minutes on 2G), and a standby time of up to 460 hours.
We charged it to full one morning and used it for a day at what we'd describe as 'normal' levels -- a few calls, a fair bit of web surfing, a spot of sat-nav and some games. The next morning there was around 15 per cent of the battery life left. That's pretty decent in our book. If you're hitting the 3G hard or using GPS navigation frequently, of course you'll need to charge it up a lot more often.
Despite its large size, the HTC Sensation XL works very well when it comes to the simple task of making and taking phone calls. Unlike the Samsung Galaxy Note, it's not so big as to make you look faintly ludicrous when holding it up to your face. Call quality is clear and crisp.
You can open the dialler straight from the lock screen by dragging the phone icon into the centre of the lock ring. The dialler screen also features shortcut buttons to all contacts, favourite contacts and recent calls.
The Sensation XL features two cameras: a front-facing 1.3-megapixel camera for video calls and self-shooting, and a main rear camera with 8 megapixels, dual-LED flash, auto-focus and a BSI sensor for 'better low-light captures', HTC promises. The rear camera can also capture HD-quality video at up to 720p.
There's a healthy amount of options available for the main camera, many more than on the stock Samsung Android camera app, for instance. You can toggle the flash to on, off and auto, and there are nine scene modes to pick from, including full-auto if you want the camera to tweak the settings itself. Those who fancy a bit more dabbling can adjust the white balance, ISO, resolution, contrast, colour saturation, sharpness and exposure compensation in the settings menu.
You can also apply a series of Hipstamatic-style filter effects to shots before you hit the shutter button, and a series of other effects afterwards: new age fun with a vintage feel indeed. Hey, it saves you having to download an app that does all that, so we like it. The video camera also comes with a set of pre-shoot filters.
Photo and video quality is acceptable but not up there with the best mobile phone cameras we've seen. Images are a tad noisy in anything less than perfect light, and light sources cause a lot of flare in shots.
Design and build quality
As we've said above, the Sensation XL doesn't feel ridiculously huge, despite the giant screen. That's because the area of phone face framing the screen is fairly narrow, and it means you can comfortably fit the handset in your trouser pocket (unless, perhaps, you favour Frankie Cocozza-style jeggings). It's skinny too, at 9.9mm in depth.
Build quality is solid despite the easily-removed back plate. Prising this off lets you get at the battery and the SIM slot. There's no microSD card slot here incidentally, so you'll have to make do with the 16GB of built-in storage (which is more like 12GB once you've factored in the installed software). Given this phone's focus on music, a bit more storage space wouldn't have gone amiss.
There are two sockets on the phone: the 3.5mm headphone jack on the top edge, and a side-mounted mini USB for charging and data transfer. With most of the controls being touch-sensitive, you only get a single power button on the top edge and a volume rocker on the right side.
The HTC Sensation XL is an impressive phone for the music-obsessed, thanks to its beefy sound quality and a fantastic set of bundled Beats buds. It plays a good amount of audio file formats too, including uncompressed WAV. The only potential black mark against its music capabilities is the limited amount of storage space.
Aside from that, it has friendly user interface and all the general Android-related advantages in its corner. But its large and pretty screen isn't the sharpest available and it's definitely last year's phone when it comes to processing performance.
It's a decent package overall, but take away the music skills and there are many better Android alternatives out there -- not least the excellent HTC Sensation XE, which has a better (if smaller) screen, a faster processor and all the Beats gubbins. If you want the best possible screen on your Android phone, we suggest you hold your horses until the Samsung Galaxy Nexus arrives.