Is a 4.7-inch screen just too big for a smartphone? HTC has bravely endeavoured to find out with the launch of the Sensation XL Android phone. Available exclusively through Vodafone in Australia, the Sensation XL is also one of the first HTC phones to benefit from the company's strategic partnership with the Beats By Dr. Dre audio company.
HTC Sensation XL: Design and display
The latest smartphones seem to be getting bigger, to the point where it might be difficult to distinguish them from a small tablet. Samsung's Galaxy Note has a whopping 5.3in screen that blurs the line between smartphone and tablet, while the recently announced Galaxy Nexus pushes the limits with a 4.65 in display. The HTC Sensation XL joins the bigger is better club with a 4.7in screen, the largest on any HTC smartphone to date.
Surprisingly, the HTC Sensation XL's 4.7in screen is not too big. That's because the screen stretches almost to the edges of the phone. The Sensation XL isn't much wider than phones like the Samsung Galaxy S II and the Motorola RAZR, both of which have smaller, 4.3in screens. It can feel uncomfortable to stretch your thumb to the top of sides of the screen if you are holding the Sensation XL with one hand, but the rounded edges makes it easy to grip.
The HTC Sensation XL's screen is large, but it has a lower resolution (800 x 480) compared to the company's original Sensation. This means text isn't as crisp as competing smartphones. However, those with poor eyesight will be pleased as it means text, icons and menu buttons appear significantly larger on the Sensation XL than they do on most other smartphones. The Sensation XL's display is a super LCD panel coated with Gorilla glass for scratch and crack resistance.
The HTC Sensation XL is only 9.9mm thick, so while it may be a large phone, it is certainly thin and light. The sleek, rounded edges and white finish make it one of the best looking HTC phones we've reviewed. It's also superbly constructed: the battery cover is made from aluminium and the external volume buttons and power key are well positioned and easy to press.
HTC Sensation XL: Beats Audio
The HTC Sensation XL is one of the first smartphones to feature Beats Audio qualities. It's a direct result of HTC's "strategic partnership" with the Beats By Dr. Dre audio company. When used with the included Beats headphones, HTC claims the Sensation XL uses a personalised sound profile that results in exceptional audio quality. The real value add here though isn't the Beats Audio profile: its the fact that the Sensation XL comes bundled with a limited edition version of the over-the-ear Beats Solo headphones. These premium headphones match the white colour of the Sensation XL handset and are valued at $299 if they were purchased separately.
Though the white and red Beats headphones may not be to all tastes, they are certainly a very nice inclusion. When combined with the Beats Audio sound profile, which does make a noticeable different on bass-heavy tracks, the Sensation XL is a great option for anyone who regularly listens to music on a mobile phone. Though not all music genres benefit from Beats Audio, we certainly noticed a big difference in music like rap, hip-hop and R&B.
There are three notable issues that detract from the Sensation XL's audio capabilities, however. The Beats Audio profile only works via the headphone jack and not the speakerphone, so the latter offers comparatively poor sound quality. Of more concern is that the Sensation XL only has 16GB of internal memory and no microSD card slot for extra storage. This means there is limited space to store your audio, a disappointing omission on a handset clearly designed for multimedia. Finally, the Beats Audio sound profile can't be edited or adjusted in the form of equaliser customisation. You can't adjust the bass or treble when listening with Beats enabled: the profile is bass-heavy and sometimes sounds like overkill on various genres of music, so it would have been nice to be able to tone it down.
HTC Sensation XL: Software and performance
The HTC Sensation XL runs the Android 2.3 'Gingerbread' operating system, but its HTC's Sense UI overlay that's the real star of the show. The latest version is Sense 3.5 and once again HTC has added some minor features, mostly centered around the look and feel.
You can remove home screens on the HTC Sensation XL if you don't use them (there are seven by default) and the lock screen comes with four customisable shortcuts, along with the ability to chose clock, stocks, weather, friend stream or a photo album to display in the centre of the screen. The Sensation XL also makes use of a 3D rotating effect when scrolling between home screens, and has an updated weather app with new animations and sounds: thankfully, the latter can be turned off. Existing Sense features like your eight most recently opened applications, quick settings toggles and a link to all phone settings all remain at the top of the notifications panel.
HTC has also added some enhancements to the camera app: you can now snap images with face recognition and burst mode. You can also use live effects to see the effect on the screen before the photo is taken. The camera itself has been upgraded compared to previous HTC models: it has a backside-illuminated sensor that promises better low light photos. We found the dual-LED flash washed out many of our photos, but colour reproduction is a highlight. The camera app starts almost instantly and is quick to snap successive photos. It also doubles as a 720p video recorder.
The HTC Sensation XL may only have a single-core, 1.5GHz processor but performance is excellent: the XL is a fast and slick phone and the software is responsive. As it's a Sense 3.5 Android phone, the HTC Sensation XL will also work with the company's new HTC Sync software. It's now compatible with Macs for the first time and will sync music playlists from iTunes, along with your contacts, calendar, photos, documents, videos and Web browser bookmarks.
HTC Sensation XL: Battery life and availability
The HTC Sensation XL's single-core processor seems to have done wonders for its battery life. Its one of the best performing Android phones in this area: the phone easily lasts a full day and will often stretch into a day and a half with light use. Considering the battery is powering a 4.7in screen, this is a very impressive result.
The HTC Sensation XL is available exclusively through Vodafone for $5 on Vodafone's $59 cap over 24 months (totalling $64 per month), or for $0 on Vodafone's $85 Infinite cap over 24 months.