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HTC Sensation XE with Beats Audio review: HTC Sensation XE with Beats Audio

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The HTC Sensation XE is an improved version of the original Sensation, which came out earlier this year. It comes bundled with Beats audio headphones and features a faster 1.5GHz dual-core processor.

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8.8

HTC Sensation XE with Beats Audio

Pricing Not Available

The Good

iBeats headphones; Large 4.3-inch S-LCD screen; Powerful 1.5GHz dual-core CPU; HTC Sense user interface.

The Bad

Quite weighty; Android 2.3 will soon be surpassed.

The Bottom Line

It may be an update of the existing Sensation rather than a brand-new phone, but that doesn't alter the fact that the Sensation XE is one of the very best Android phones we've yet seen from HTC. Its Beats Audio tech, top-notch bundled earphones and powerful dual-core processor make it a worthy challenger to the Samsung Galaxy S2.

The Sensation XE is available on monthly contracts from around £35. Should you possess a bank balance as healthy as Dr Dre's, then a SIM-free XE will cost you around £450.

Should I buy the HTC Sensation XE?

If you're sick of smart phones masquerading as music players despite being bundled with hopeless headphones that you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy, then the HTC Sensation XE is sure to pique your interest.

The result of HTC's high-profile deal with headphone maker Beats audio -- run by hip-hop hospitaller Dr Dre, no less -- the Sensation XE comes packed with a pair of iBeats earphones that are worth more than many budget Android handsets.

HTC Sensation XE Beats earphones
Worth £80, the iBeats earphones set a high watermark in bundled accessories.

Music lovers will certainly appreciate the vast improvement in audio quality, but that's not the only feather in the Sensation XE's cap. HTC has wisely taken this opportunity to give the phone a welcome speed boost over the original model, pushing up that dual-core CPU from 1.2GHz to an impressive 1.5GHz. This places the device firmly at the vanguard of the smart phone power war, where it's likely to remain for a good few months.

Should this prospect have you salivating like a hungry dog, it's worth taking a moment to consider how much you value being on the cutting edge of both software and hardware.

As powerful as the Sensation XE may be, in a short while it will be surpassed in the operating system stakes by Samsung's Galaxy Nexus -- the first Android phone to come pre-installed with Ice Cream Sandwich, otherwise known as version 4.0 of Google's mobile OS. The Sensation XE is almost certain to get Android 4.0 at some point, but that is likely to be a good few months off yet.

If you can stomach being behind the times when it comes to software, then HTC's challenger is guaranteed to deliver a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

HTC Sensation XE thickness
Despite being quite a weighty handset, the Sensation XE is a surprisingly thin device.

Beats audio

The HTC Sensation XE with Beats audio is one of the first phones to come out of the manufacturer's new relationship with Beats by Dre, the headphone brand endorsed by rap producer Dr Dre. HTC is now the majority stakeholder in Beats-maker Monster, so we can expect to see many more phones appear with this branding in future.

That's unquestionably a good thing, because the earphones bundled with this device are easily the best we've seen with any mobile phone. The headphones are constructed from solid-feeling metal, and are backed up by some special software on the phone itself. This further enhances the standard of the audio, adding in plenty of lush, deep bass.

You can disable the bass boost if it's too epic for your timid ears, and it's worth noting that this tech even works on non-Beats headphones -- although the effect is drastically reduced if you use a cheap pair.

Aside from the bass boost, there's nothing else on the phone related to Beats audio, which strikes us as something of a missed opportunity. It would have been interesting to have a Beats application offering music samples to showcase just how great the headphones are, but this is a minor complaint.

HTC Sensation music player
A Beats app would have been a bonus but at least the standard music player is slick and intuitive.

iBeats headphones

Included in the box are a pair of iBeats in-ear headphones, which normally retail for around £80. This gives you some indication of their quality when compared to the usual rubbish that is shamefully included with most phones.

These buds make bass-heavy music sound fantastic, and you can listen to tracks at high volume without even the slightest hint of distortion. The only negative is that when you're listening to music that is lacking in bass -- such as acoustic guitar or classical music -- the sound is somewhat soupy.

The headphones have an in-line remote which allows you to skip forwards and backwards through your tracklist, as well as pause and resume playback. Lamentably, there's no volume control on the remote, which is a disappointment. Apple iPhone headphones have included this feature for ages, so it's high time that Android phones followed suit.

Because the iBeats buds are the in-ear type, they create an airtight seal when inserted into your ear canal. This improves the sound quality and augments the bass. They achieve this using soft rubber buds, of which there are three different sizes included with the phone. These interchangeable buds allow you to get the perfect fit for your lugholes.

We also like the fact that a small carry-pouch has been included with the HTC Sensation XE in which you can store your precious iBeats headphones when they're not blasting your eardrums with bass-filled music.

HTX Sensation XE earphones pouch
Not only do you get some souped up earphones, you also have this protective pouch to store them in.

Processing power and internal storage

HTC has done much more than just give the Sensation a new pair of headphones -- the phone is sporting a blisteringly quick 1.5GHz dual-core processor too, which is a step up from the 1.2GHz dual-core CPU seen in the original model.

This approach is obviously popular at the moment; Sony Ericsson pulled the same trick with its recently-released Xperia Arc S -- although the 1.4GHz single-core chip-set used in that phone is noticeably weaker than HTC's offering.

The increased power has resulted in a stutter-free and seriously slick user interface. Even with multiple apps running simultaneously, the Sensation XE rarely becomes flustered with the workload. 3D games are handled with aplomb too.

HTC Sensation XE benchmark tests
A hike from a 1.2GHz processor to a 1.5GHz dual-core CPU means the Sensation XE is super-quick (AnTuTu benchmark test is on the left, Quadrant is on the right).

Like the previous model, the Sensation XE has 768MB of RAM to play with. It would have been nice to see that figure pushed up to 1GB, but it keeps things ticking over nicely regardless. The XE skimps on storage, however, with a measly 4GB -- only 1GB of which is available to the user.

An 8GB microSD card is included with the phone, and this should provide music lovers with enough space to carry around plenty of their favourite tracks. However, if you're looking to download HD movies via HTC Watch as well, it might be worth looking into a slightly larger capacity card. 16GB variants can be obtained reasonably cheaply these days, and doubling the amount of available storage space really does make a difference.

Android 2.3

Like the original HTC Sensation, this updated edition is running Android: 2.3 Gingerbread.

Although Android 4.0 is due for launch in the coming weeks -- alongside the new Android flagship device, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus -- the HTC Sensation XE is sporting the most up-to-date version of Google's popular OS at this moment in time. Given the stature of the phone, we imagine it will be upgraded to Android 4.0 in the not-too-distant future.

Because the Sensation XE is running Android 2.3.4, it benefits from the ability to make video calls using a combination of Google Talk and the phone's front-facing camera.

Sense 3.0

Sitting on top of Gingerbread is HTC's well-liked Sense UI. This introduces exclusive apps and widgets that you won't find on any other Android phone and feels as slick as ever.

Although we've already been teased with footage of Sense 3.5, the version installed on this handset is actually 3.0 -- the same iteration which graced the original Sensation.

HTC Sensation XE Sense 3.0
It's a shame that the Sensation XE isn't running Sense 3.5, but 3.0 still does a commendable job.

There's an awful lot to like about Sense. For starters, it's easily the most attractive of all the available manufacturer-produced skins, offering cool 3D animations and other visual embellishments.

Going beyond pure aesthetic charm, Sense also has some intuitive tricks up its sleeve. One of our favourites is the bank of quick setting options on the pull-down Android notification bar. You can also view your running or recent applications from here, as well as monitor your phone's RAM to ensure it's running as smoothly as possible.

HTC Sensation XE notifications
HTC has modified the standard Android notification bar with a bank of recent apps and a quick settings menu.

Elsewhere, there's the Friends Stream widget, which pulls your Twitter and Facebook updates into one easy-to-digest flow of data. We're also complete suckers for the Weather and Clock widgets, which boast amazing context-sensitive animation and sound effects.

Design

Like the original Sensation, the XE is a reasonably attractive slab of technology, although it feels a little unassuming when compared to the drop-dead gorgeous engineering of the iPhone 4S.

The Beats branding certainly helps the XE to stand out from the crowd more than its predecessor, but we're still not totally convinced that this is a phone you'd sell your granny for on looks alone.

HTC Sensation XE buttons
Those familiar Android touch-sensitive buttons now have a tasty red glow to them.

The most obvious alterations from the original Sensation are the black and red colour scheme and the big, bold Beats logo on the rear of the device. The camera lens also has a rather fetching metallic red ring around it, too.

With its unibody casing and partially rubberised back panel, the Sensation XE feels solid and dependable. The way the back panel separates from the main body of the phone is also unique -- it actually encases almost all of the handset like a turtle's shell, protecting those delicate inner-workings.

HTC Sensation XE Beats earphones
The part-rubber, part-metal back of the original Sensation remains and is complemented by a fetching Beats logo.

Thanks to the slight change in tech being used, the Sensation XE's weight has increased slightly from the 148g of the original model to 151g. It's a barely noticeable difference, but a difference nonetheless.

Screen

The HTC Sensation XE's screen remains unchanged from the original version, which is both a good and a bad thing.

On the positive side, the 4.3-inch, 540x960-pixel display is fantastic for watching movies (via HTC's pre-installed Watch app). Surfing detailed websites is a joy, thanks to the 256 pixels crammed into every inch, which is higher than the 217ppi on the Galaxy S2. However, the Super LCD technology that powers it looks a little washed-out when compared to the painfully beautiful Super AMOLED Plus screen on the Samsung Galaxy S2.

HTC Sensation XE e-book reader
Like so many Android manufacturers, HTC has included its own ebook reader application.

The actual display itself has a concave design, which protects it from scratches when placed face-down on a flat surface. The tempered glass is resistant to marks and uses capacitive technology for ultra-accurate input.

If you're getting screen envy thanks to the forthcoming Galaxy Nexus -- which has a 4.6-inch panel -- then you may want to investigate the Sensation XE's bigger brother, the Sensation XL. It features an absolutely monstrous 4.7-inch screen.

Applications

True to form, HTC has slavered the Sensation XE's app drawer with plenty of unique applications and games. Some of these have been commonplace on almost every device to come out of the Taiwanese manufacturer in the past few years, while others are new additions.

HTC Sensation XE screen unlock
The Sensation XE's big, bright screen is great for browsing.
The big-hitters are HTC Watch and HTC Locations -- two major apps that were introduced with the launch of Sense 3.0. Watch allows you to download high-definition movies directly to your handset. It boasts a rapidly-expanding library of Hollywood greats including The Green Lantern, District 9, The Social Network, Clash of the Titans and many more.

You can purchase many of these films outright, and watch them as many times as you wish from the comfort of your 4.3-inch screen. Some films have rental options, which allow you to save a bit of cash but mean you can only watch them once.

HTC Locations is essentially a rival to Google's Navigation and Maps duo. You can use it to find local shops, restaurants or attractions, as well as note down unique places as Footprints. It also offers turn-by-turn satellite navigation, but there's a catch -- you have to purchase this feature.

HTC Sensation XE Loactions app
The HTC Locations app offers turn-by-turn satellite navigation but at a cost -- something which Google Navigation does for free.

 A full month of coverage costs £3.99, or you can grab unlimited use for £26.98. As great as the service is (it downloads map packs to your phone so you can get directions even when you're out in the middle of nowhere with no Internet coverage), it's hard to justify the additional outlay when Google Navigation already does the job.

Internet

With its massive 4.3-inch screen and dual-core processor, it should come as no great shock to learn that the Sensation XE makes for a perfect mobile web companion.

The high-resolution screen renders even the most detailed website without breaking a sweat. The nippy CPU ensures you can surf without having to endure slow-down or juddering.

With the pedigree of the processor and the inclusion of Android 2.3, it's also a given that the Sensation XE comes with Adobe Flash support. This means you can access interactive content on the web that would otherwise be off-limits, and you can install apps such as the excellent Kongregate Arcade, which offers free-to-play Flash games.

Camera and video recording

The 8-megapixel snapper that graced the original HTC Sensation is unchanged here, offering auto-focus, dual-LED flash and 1,080p video recording. There's a front-facing camera for video calls too, but its resolution is a fairly pathetic 640x480 pixels, so don't expect too much from it.

HTC's camera software comes with a few tricks of its own, including geo-tagging, face recognition and auto-enhancement. The standard of the images is excellent, and there's hardly any delay inbetween taking a series of snaps.

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The 8-megapixel camera is the same as the original HTC Sensation but the image quality is excellent (click image to enlarge).
The auto-focus sensor is capable of capturing close-up images. Overall the colour balance, exposure and detail are all top-notch.

 

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Auto focus can handle close-up images with good detail (click image to enlarge).

Video recording is similarly impressive. The resultant movies -- which run at a silky-smooth 30 frames per second -- look absolutely fantastic on the phone's 4.3-inch display. Using the phone's DLNA capability, you can stream your home movies to your HD TV set too.


Connectivity

It goes without saying that the Sensation XE is positively bristling with wireless connectivity options -- this is an Android device, after all.

In addition to compatibility with 2G and 3G networks, the phone offers Wi-Fi support for the b, g and n wireless standards. You also get 3.0 Bluetooth connectivity.

We were pleasantly surprised at how deeply DLNA media sharing has been baked into the Sense 3.0 OS. The phone's music player has the ability to stream the music on your phone to a compatible device, such as a stereo, TV or PlayStation 3 console.

There's also a separate application which allows you to manage your media sharing, flinging photos, movies and audio to any willing DLNA products in the local vincinity.

Battery life

Just as the HTC Sensation XE's processor has been boosted up to 1.5GHz, the phone's power cell has been given a similar increase -- presumably to cope with the additional demands being placed upon it by the beefier CPU.

The original Sensation had a 1,520mAh battery beating inside it, but this updated model benefits from the increased stamina that a 1,730 mAh cell brings.

We didn't notice a massive hike in staying power -- heavy use will still drain the juice faster than a parched marathon runner with a cold bottle of Evian -- but at least HTC didn't try and fob us off with the same capacity cell as the prior model.

HTC Sensation XE front
The XE brims with connectivity options.

Conclusion

We were already quite fond of the HTC Sensation. It's still one of the finest Android handsets out there, offering a large screen, fantastic user interface and a solid build quality. However, we're immensely pleased that HTC decided to give the phone a lick of paint as the Sensation XE is unquestionably a better handset all-round.

The Beats connection has ensured that, for what feels like the first time ever, an Android phone comes with a pair of headphones that you're not likely to dump straight into the bin in favour of your own pair.

The bundled iBeats buds will have music lovers grinning from ear to ear, although it should be noted that they've been designed to showcase bass-heavy tracks. Lovers of classical or acoustic music may be less enamoured with the bombastic qualities of these Dr Dre-sanctioned headphones.

HTC may have been forgiven if it had simply dropped the iBeats headphones into the box and pushed the Sensation XE out of the door. But thankfully the company has bolstered the Sensation's power by including a faster 1.5GHz dual-core processor. This makes the handset one of the most powerful smart phones on the market right now -- and the smooth animation and near-faultless performance are testament to that.

Given that it out-paces the popular Samsung Galaxy S2 in terms of pure CPU speed, the Sensation XE is the obvious choice for those Android users who relish being at the front of the smart phone pack. The enhanced processor even puts it ahead of the eagerly-awaited Galaxy Nexus -- although that particular phone will be running Android 4.0 long before HTC's handset.

Simply put, the Sensation XE is one of HTC's finest achievements to date, and arguably the biggest challenger to the upcoming Galaxy Nexus.

 

HTC Sensation XE hands-on
Click to watch a video of our first impressions of the HTC Sensation XE with Beats Audio.