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HTC’s big-screened Sensation XL reviewed

By Leigh D. Stark | 12:41 pm 15/12/2011

HTC’s Sensation XL is a super-sized smartphone that, with its huge 4.7 inch screen and bundled set of of Beats headphones, is one of today’s most impressive multimedia handsets.

Features

The second HTC phone to arrive wearing white livery – the other being the HTC ChaCha – it’s clear from the get-go that this handset is not targeting the productivity market, but the entertainment market – one more in tune with tunes, so to speak.

Physically larger than a regular phone, the Sensation XL features  a ginormous (in phone terms) 4.7 inch screen, the biggest display to feature on a phone to date.

Under that screen, HTC has packed in a 1.5GHz single-core processor and Adreno 205 graphics chip, making it more than capable of performing of most tasks you’re likely to throw at it: games, listening to music while browsing several webpage tabs, etc.

Continuing HTC’s tradition of equipping its phones with latest version of Android, the XL runs Google Android 2.3 “Gingerbread”.

Storage is limited to 16GB, with no microSD slot to increase the size of what’s on offer. Meanwhile, the memory is set to 768MB of RAM.

Much like the HTC Rhyme we checked out recently, the XL features HTC’s new Sense 3.5 overlay, offering animated weather, a tabbed menu layout for applications, improved web browser design, and support for the advanced camera functionality.

That camera offers 8 megapixels for still image capture, a dual-LED flash, and face detection. There hardly seems a reason to own a compact camera anymore. Video capture, however, is limited to 720p HD. A front-facing camera is also provided, offering a useful 1.3 megapixels for video calls and conferencing.

Connectivity-wise, it’s all pretty standard fare here: Bluetooth 3.0, WiFi 802.11 b/g/n, DLNA, GPS, and a microUSB port for transferring data and charging the handset.

Beats Solo headphones are included in the box.

While the XL’s size is certainly noteworthy, so is the inclusion of headphones with hi-fi cred. The Beats Solo packaged with the HTC Sensation are from the Beats by Dr Dre. range, a line-up of street-cred headphones co-developed by US cable brand Monster and uber-cool (apparently) DJ and producer, Dr Dre.

The Beats Solos come with a remote controller and in-line mic so you can switch tracks and speak on the phone mid-walk. The included Beats software is designed to improve audio quality from the phone.

Performance: the good

True to its moniker, the XL is one very large device, but also kinda ‘cosy’.  The soft edges and curved rear plate allow it to almost ‘nestle’ into the hand, and its plastic, aluminium, and glass construction is comfortable to grip. And while its 4.7 inch screen provides far more viewable area than Motorola’s 4.3 inch RAZR, the bodies of the two phones are roughly the same size (excluding thickness).

So while ‘big’ and ‘mobile’ seem unlikely companions, HTC makes them work in the XL.

Performance is strong too, with HTC opting for a reasonably fast 1.5GHz single-core processor. This is not as fast as some of the other multimedia handsets, such as the XL’s sibling, the HTC Sensation XE, which features a dual-core processor. Still, this is perfectly suited for most applications, such as web browsing, running apps, multitasking, and running HTC’s Sense overlay. Rarely did the phone skip a beat, exhibiting lag only seldomly.

Having a big 4.7 inch viewfinder on a camera is quite cool.

Camera operations are impressive too, with the XL integrating many features of current model compacts. Available via the Sense Android overlay, these include the ability to process images with vintage filters, crop, add frames and create panoramas. The sensor captures 8 megapixel still, but considering the premium nature of the Sensation XL, 720p video capture is disappointing.

Battery life is about standard, fetching between one and two days of operation, depending on how much net connectivity you force on the device.

Beats Audio

The Beats Solo headphones are a collapsible supra-aural design that sounded better than standard issue buds. The bass was turned up a touch – we saw that one coming – but we could also hear more detail in the music we pumped through.

Switching on the built-in Beats Audio software in the Sensation XL created an impression of reduced bass levels in music, with slightly more forward midrange and treble performance. The effect was subtle though, and throughout most of listening tests with the Beats Solos we couldn’t discern much difference at all between a track played on the music-centric Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S and the same track played back via the Beats-Audio enhanced XL.

You can choose to have Beats Audio active in the XL or switched off entirely, and the effects (or otherwise) of the software can be experienced with any pair of wired headphones connected to the handset.

Performance: The less good

With it’s “super-size me” display the Sensation XL promises the ideal big-screen mobile experience. Reality falls short of expectation, however, because the XL’s resolution remains at the 800 x 400 pixel standard common to sub-4 inch screens.

The large surface area of the XL’s 4.7 inch screen deserves more pixels – at least 960 x 540 or, ideally, the HD 1280 x 720 goodness about the debut on the 4.65 inch Samsung Galaxy Nexus. With extra resolution onboard, there’d be none of the pixelated images and blocky, jaggy text that marred our time with XL.

No microSD slot means no way to expand that memory when you fill it up.

We take issue with the keyboard too, which refused to offer word suggestions as we wrote unless we used HTC’s version of Swype, named “Trace”. While we like Swype’s finger-dragging writing system – simply trace your finger over the letters needed in a word, linking them all together in a single motion – HTC’s Trace doesn’t perform as well, often requiring two or three attempts to find the right word needed.

The absence of a MicroSD slot – a first for HTC Android phones – is an oversight too, especially given the XL’s media focus. With no expansion option, you’ll have to start ditching apps, music, photos, videos and other files once you hit the phone’s 16GB threshold.

Conclusion

Fast, functional, nicely optioned for music, and with a screen that allows websites, emails, playlists and photos to be  writ large, the Sensation XL makes a strong case for a big mobile phone. Squirt some more pixels into that display, HTC, and we’re on board.

Price (RRP)

$No outright price; available from Vodafone

Pros & Cons

Product Pros

Big screen; Quality headphones; Latest version of Android and HTC's Sense overlay; Feels excellent, even though it's the biggest phone we've ever seen;

Product Cons

Inadequate resolution for screen size; Word Suggestion feature works effectively only with HTC’s Trace technology, and Trace can be flakey;

Ratings

Overall

Features

Value for money

Performance

Design

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