HTC Sensation XL review: HTC Sensation XL

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CNET Editors' Rating

3.5 stars Very good

Average User Rating

4 stars 19 user reviews
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good Beats Audio sound profile and quality headphones; friendly HTC Sense user interface; large screen; solid build quality.

The Bad Screen isn't particularly hi-res; average processing speed; too many apps pre-installed; styling won't appeal to everyone.

The Bottom Line The HTC Sensation XL is a classy music phone but it struggles to stand out from the increasingly competitive Android pack, despite its huge screen. There's nothing horrible about it, but several areas have room for improvement.

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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.

HTC Sensation XL earphones
Nice earphones but are they worth the extra outlay for the HTC Sensation XL?

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.

HTC Sensation XL screen
The lovely widescreen is perfect for video.

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.

Screen

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.

HTC Sensation XL website viewing
The XL is great for viewing websites like this wonderful example.

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.

Sound quality

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'.

HTC Sensation XL Watch Beats Audio logo
Just in case you’d forgotten that there’s Beats Audio on board, there’s a handy reminder on the back in the form of the logo.

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.

HTC Sensation XL Beats Audio headphone case
The Beats headphones come with this handy carry case so they don't get lost, broken or tangled when you're on the move.

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.

User interface

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.

HTC Sensation XL home screen
The Sensation XL’s main home screen will be familiar to anyone who is au fait with HTC’s Android phones.

Home screens

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.

HTC Sensation XL Watch app
The Watch widget lets you download such cinematic masterworks as Little Fockers, Sniper: Reloaded and Hall Pass.

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.

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Where to Buy

HTC Sensation XL

Part Number: SENSATIONXL
Pricing is currently unavailable.
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