HTC has had a huge year, releasing eight new smartphones in Australia and up to 30 devices globally. With a range as large as this, it's likely you'll find duplication of designs and ideas amongst its ranks. The Sensation XE is, as its name suggests, a version of the HTC Sensation launched in July, but with the promise of something extra.
HTC hasn't tweaked its Sensation design too much in creating the XE; while its colour palette is darker, and it bears red highlights signifying its Beats Audio compatibility, the XE is otherwise identical. The curved, segmented battery cover shares the former's design, although HTC uses soft-touch plastic on the XE, and it feels better in our hands than the fully metal back of the original.
The Super LCD display is pleasantly sharp, thanks to its qHD resolution (960x540 pixels), but the colours and contrast could be deeper and richer, especially next to a Samsung or Nokia AMOLED display. The screen is also noticeably less bright, so that while we typically recommend that people set their phones to about 20 per cent or 30 per cent brightness to preserve battery life, we found that we needed to set the XE to 50 per cent or 60 per cent as a minimum to maintain a clear picture onscreen.
HTC positions the headphone socket on the top of the handset, with its micro-USB port on the bottom left. It also includes a microSD card slot for storing media, and includes an 8GB card with the phone, complementing the handset's 1GB of internal memory. This will be sufficient for a user with a small to medium music and image library, but it will fall short for a true music lover or a film buff hoping to fill up their handset with videos to watch on the go.
Unlike our experience with most of HTC's range this year, the Sensation XE tends to get a little warm in the hand, at the base of the phone, after extended use. Lifting the battery cover reveals that this is the position of the phone's CPU, suggesting that the new dual 1.5GHz processor might not be getting the airflow it needs to stay cool.
User experience and performance
A lot has been said already about the Sensation XE being the world's fastest phone at this time, with its dual 1.5GHz processor, but it is very hard to see this performance in the end-user experience. Compared with the Sensation XL, which HTC has released simultaneously in Australia, the XE has a slightly older version of both Android and the HTC Sense UI, and although this doesn't seem to hold the handset back, it might also be the reason why we don't see it streaking ahead, either.
Examples of HTC's uniquely designed widgets.
(Credit: screenshots by CBSi)
All of this is to say that the Sensation XE works well; it's just hard to see how it's better. HTC Sense is as smooth and as slick as ever on this device, with practically the same build on this phone as we saw on the Sensation a few months ago, but with far fewer bugs and hiccups than we saw with the first Sensation. Where animations stuttered, and lists took a while to load back in July, the Sensation XE handles all of these elements flawlessly.
HTC Sense features a sexy 3D carousel-like appearance, and great-looking icons and widgets, all of which are more eye-catching than the screens you'll see from HTC's nearest competitors in this space. The UI offers the user seven customisable home screens, and over 80 unique, HTC-designed widgets to position on these screens. Using HTC's Personalisation menu makes adding and editing widgets, wallpapers, ringtones and themes extremely easy — helping to lower the Android learning curve somewhat.
Camera and video
The Sensation takes reasonably good photos; however, as with many phone cameras, the XE does struggle in low light. Photos we took on bright sunny days are stunning, with nice, warm-looking colours and sharp focus. Like night and day itself, our images were polar opposites after dark, with visible noise, soft focus and washed-out colours and contrast.
Photography on a sunny day produces outstanding results.
This shot, taken at night, shows the camera struggling under less-than-perfect lighting.
With a dual-core processor and a rich, visual user interface, you might not expect much from the battery in the Sensation XE. We've had no trouble, however, with the XE comfortably making it through a business day, and through two full days with light use of internet services.
What sets its battery life apart from other Android devices is the low power use in standby. In other Androids, and previous HTCs, we've seen considerable battery drain with the screen turned off, with up to 5 or 10 per cent of the remaining charge being used up over an hour when it was just sitting in our pockets. In the graph below, you can see a period of up to an hour and a half when almost no battery is used at all.
This graph gives an example of a typical day's battery drain during our tests.
Beats Audio, HTC Watch
As you'll also find on the Sensation XL, the Sensation XE comes with two unique HTC multimedia offerings. Firstly, as a result of HTC becoming a major shareholder of the Beats Audio hardware brand, the new Sensations both ship with brand-spanking new Beats Audio headphones. The XL comes with over-the-ear Beats Solo cans, while the XE has a pair of in-ear UrBeats phones in the box.
The Solo headphones are the more expensive of the two, but we actually found that we preferred the UrBeats for comfort. Both headphones deliver excellent sound when the Beats Audio software profile is engaged on the handset, which kicks in automatically when you launch the music player or video player via the Gallery. Strangely, Beats does not activate when other apps relying on audio launch, like third-party music apps, and the sound quality is noticeably poorer for this.
HTC Watch is HTC's video-on-demand movie-streaming service, offering a range of digital video to buy and download, and a far smaller selection for rental. On one hand, it's great to have a service like this on a smartphone, but the range and the navigation of the app is far from inspiring for a movie buff. Also, the fact that the Sensation XE requires you to buy an AU$50 Mobile HD Link (MHL) adapter cable (and a separate micro HDMI to HDMI cable) before you can connect the handset to your TV is also a spanner in the works. When you add the cost of the cables to the price of the movies, the thought of watching Weekend at Bernie's doesn't seem so appealing.
|Apple iPhone 4S||HTC Sensation XL||Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S||Samsung Galaxy S II|
|Apple iOS 5||Android 2.3.5 with HTC Sense||Android 2.3.5||Android 2.3 with TouchWiz|
|Apple A5 dual-core 1GHz||Qualcomm 1.5GHz||Qualcomm 1.4GHz||Samsung Exynos dual-core 1.2GHz|
|512MB RAM||768MB RAM||512MB RAM||1GB RAM|
|16GB/32GB/64GB storage||16GB storage||9GB storage (with card)||8GB/16GB storage|
Should you buy it?
The Sensation XE is another great example of HTC's ever-improving product design and features, even if this handset's design and features are very similar to the majority of other HTC handsets released in Australia this year. HTC's Sense helps out users new to Android with clear menus for personalising the phones and its range of excellent widgets. If you're looking for a good smartphone with great headphones, we recommend the XE.
Seasoned Android owners may be disappointed that the dual-core 1.5GHz processor fails to blow past the competition, although the power on hand should future proof the XE for a while, and keep it humming with the next generation of applications. The handset's comparatively low user-accessible memory, and the cost of sharing media with a TV, might also turn those looking for a rich multimedia-capable phone to handsets like the Motorola Razr or the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc — which has everything you need to use your phone like a portable media player out of the box.
Between the XE and the XL?
In many ways, this is a question of personal taste. Do you want a bigger screen? Do you prefer over-the-ear headphones or in-ear buds? It's hard to distinguish the better phone between the two, with features and performance being so similar, and with the phones mostly sharing the same weaknesses. For us, the big screen has won us over, so we'd choose the XL, but it's a very close call.