If 2010 was the year of the 1-GHz superphone, 2011 is the year of the dual-core phone. And Nvidia's Tegra 2 processors aren't the only game in town. The HTC Sensation 4G for T-Mobile is the first device in the U.S. to feature the 1.2-GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon CPU. This $199 Android 2.3 handselt also features a big and sharp 4.3-inch qHD screen, an 8-megapixel camera, and the latest iteration of HTC's Sense interface, not to mention 4G speeds. HTC has even decided to step into the digital entertainment business, offering both a music and video store. So does this device deserve the crown? Read on to find out.
The Sensation 4G is a wonderful example of refined engineering. Despite its large 4.3-inch display, this HTC handset feels smaller than similar-sized devices, thanks to its smoothly sculpted edges. While its footprint (5 x 2.6 inches) is nearly identical to other 4.3-inch phones, the Sensation is thinner (0.44 inches) and lighter (5.2 ounces) than the HTC Evo 4G (0.5 inches, 6 ounces), and the HTC Thunderbolt (0.6 inches, 6.2 ounces). In fact, the Sensation 4G practically matches the dimensions of the T-Mobile G2x (4.9 x 2.5 x 0.4 inches, 5 ounces) which has a smaller 4-inch screen.
Crafted from aluminum, the Sensation 4G sports an elegant black and dark-gray color scheme and has a pleasingly sturdy feel. The front of the device is almost all screen save for a thin silver earpiece grille above the display. Here too is a front-facing VGA camera. Below the display sit four backlit capacitive Android buttons for Home, Menu, Back, and Search.
On the back of the Sensation is an 8-megapixel camera with dual flash and speaker. A distinctive black metal stripe runs diagonally across the center of the phone's rear. Above and below are gray sections with soft-touch surfacing for a better grip.
The top edge features the power button that's a little hard to press one-handed, plus a standard headphone jack. A long, thin volume bar rests against the left edge along with a microUSB port. Unfortunately, there's no HDMI port to output video.
Both the included 8GB microSD Card and SIM card slot are under the Sensation 4G's battery cover. To get at the SIM, you'll have to remove the battery.
Display, Keyboard, Audio
One of the most prominent attributes of the Sensation 4G is its 4.3-inch super LCD screen. The bright and sharp qHD resolution (960 x 540) display makes pictures crisp and video come to life. The YouTube HD trailer for Xmen: First Class kept us enthralled, with clearly visible details in faces, warships, jets, and fiery explosions alike. When we played the same trailer on the T-Mobile G2x, footage just didn't look quite as vivid on that phone's smaller, lower-resolution display (4-inch, 800 x 400). That said, we did see a few stutters in 4G playback, which disappeared when we connected the Sensation to Wi-Fi.
By default, the Sensation 4G features the HTC virtual keyboard that's bundled as part of the company's Sense UI. Though this handset boasts the latest version of Sense (3.0), the layout is identical to previous Sense keyboards. That's a good thing, since we like its big keys, soft haptic feedback, and long-press options for often-used symbols. What's new, though, is the Trace text input method (below left). Very similar to Swype, it lets you enter words by drawing lines through letters. Trace, however, feels easier and faster since it can be used simultaneously with the standard keyboard, and it also taps into the same predictive text library.
Audio played through the Sensation 4G's speaker didn't get very loud. Volume on our test track, "Paris is Burning" by Ladyhawke, lacked much punch even with the audio maxed out. Even so, sound had a rich, rounded quality, especially when we were using the built-in SRS enhancement technology that widened the sound field. By comparison, the T-Mobile G2x's more robust dual stereo speaker setup delivered much louder audio, though the sound was tinnier.
Software, Interface, and Sense 3.0
Running the latest flavor of Android, version 2.3.3 (Gingerbread), the HTC Sensation 4G is also the first device in the U.S. to use HTC Sense 3.0. Many prefer the cleaner stock Android, but Sense 3.0 offers even more tricks, and the whole interface feels more snazzy in general. First, the lock screen lets you launch apps with ease by dragging one of four icons into a ring. The default choices are Camera, Mail, Messages, and Phone. You can swap these choices out for other apps within the settings menu.
As with the previous Sense UI, seven customizable home screens are available on the Sensation 4G. Pinching the home screen or hitting Home from the main screen pulls up a helicopter view of all seven screens at once. An HTC signature, the main screen features a retro digital clock and weather app. Full-screen animations tied to current weather conditions roll across the screen, but is now accompanied with a new age-like sound.
Dragging a finger from top to bottom within any app or home screen pulls down the Android notification shade. HTC added a few new additions here, too, such as recently used apps and a Quick Settings tab. Quick Settings lets you toggle often used functions such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Hotspot, Mobile Network, and GPS.
HTC Sense has always had strong social media integration, and 3.0 is no exception. During setup, users are prompted to their Facebook, Gmail, and Twitter accounts. Users can now also create an HTC Sense.com account (service still in beta) to save all their account information on HTC servers. In the case of a lost phone, you can also track your handset with a Device Location feature via www.htcsense.com or opt to lock or erase the device.
HTC Watch and HTC Listen
Two other features make their debut on the Sensation 4G: HTC Watch and HTC Listen. Aptly named, these applications let you download media directly to the handset. At the time of this writing, it was clear that both services are still works in progress.
HTC Watch is a video storefront hawking movie and TV shows to rent or buy. While classics such as Blade Runner can be found, the "New Movies" area offered a paltry mix of old 90s-era titles such as Batman Returns and Contact. The TV show selection is worse, with episodes of V, Chuck, and Two and a Half Men being most of what's listed. Rentals cost $2.99 and purchases range from $8.99 or $10.99. However, as of this writing, we couldn't purchase or rent content yet. We were able to play trailers for some of the featured content, though, and we enjoyed smooth playback and bright colors when watching School of Rock.
The HTC Listen app provides a music store for direct downloads of albums and songs, but it too wasn't operational when we tried it. First, the software kept asking us to perform an update which never materialized. Once Listen did launch, only the featured artists and albums were accessible, and no pricing was listed. HTC confirmed that these features will be activated when the Sensation launches on June 15th.
Specs and Performance
The HTC Sensation 4G is the first phone to use Qualcomm's new 1.2GHz dual-core processor, and it's one of the faster smartphones we've tested. It turned in a swift Linpack score of 44.8, three times the typical Android phone. That's higher than even the dual-core Tegra 2-powered T-Mobile G2x (34.9) and also enough to beat out the Sony Xperia Play (1-GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon II, 37.9).
The Sensation 4G's lead over the T-Mobile G2x slipped though on the Benchmark CPU test, with it turning in 1,716. While this showing is more than 426 points above the Android average, the G2x managed a higher score of 2,422, as did the Xperia Play (2,249).
Graphics-wise, the Sensation 4G was soundly beaten by Tegra 2 devices. On An3DBench, the Sensation managed 7,072, well below the G2x's score of 11,074.
On CPUBenchmark, the G2x again came out ahead (531ms to 678.5ms), as well as on the GUIMark2 Flash gaming test (13.43 fps to 9.6 fps), and the Quadrant test (2,528.7 to 2,040). Finally, on the Sunspider 0.9.1 Java benchmark, the G2x finished in 4149.5ms while the Sensation 4G took a longer 6256.3ms.
With the two phones side by side, the G2x definitely felt faster, but that's not to say the Sensation 4G wasn't quick and responsive. In everyday use, most users probably won't perceive a difference, and neither could we when we played the graphically demanding NOVA 2 first-person shooter. (It's pre-installed on both devices.) In fact, the game was more engaging on the Sensation 4G's bigger, sharper qHD screen.
Like the T-Mobile G2x, the HTC Sensation 4G is billed as a 4G device but is limited to a theoretical throughput of 14.1Mbps for data downloads. At a coffee shop with a strong T-Mobile 4G signal, we saw average download speeds of 4.3 Mbps. Uploads came in at 1.8 Mbps in the same location. By contrast, the T-Mobile G2x pulled down a faster 7.6 Mbps but uploaded data at a speed more in line with the Sensation 4G (1.7 Mbps).
Out in Queens, NY, a weaker 4G coverage area, we saw slower average speeds. The Sensation 4G delivered 1.3 Mbps downloads and uploads while the G2x mustered 1.5 Mbps down and 1.2 Mbps up.
The HTC Sensation 4G loaded web pages pretty quickly, taking about 4.5 to 5 seconds for mobile pages (NYTimes.com and ESPN.com). The G2x took slightly longer here, 5.6 seconds (NYTimes.com) and 8 seconds (ESPN.com). Both phones were slower to fire up the full desktop version of Laptopmag.com, with the Sensation 4G doing so in approximately 8.5 seconds and the G2x taking a longer 11.5 seconds.
The Sensation can act as a mobile hotspot for up to five devices using the dedicated app. This feature costs $15 per month on top of your data plan.
Along with the usual group of Android applications such as Gmail and Google Maps, HTC includes Mail that supports both POP and IMAP accounts, plus support Microsoft exchange servers. HTC Hub (below right) lets users download customization tools such as widgets, sounds, scenes, and skins.
Other useful HTC apps include Friendstream (below left) to keep tabs on what your contacts are up to on Facebook and Twitter, a music app that handles song playback, and FM Radio.
Useful third-party offerings include a 30-day trial of Lookout Premium mobile security (below right), Qik video chat to make video calls, and Polaris Office to open and read office documents. Connected Media allows for wirelessly sharing photos, video, and music with DLNA compliant gear over a network.
Google's free navigation is on board, too, as is the TeleNav GPS Navigator (below left), which has a free basic version and costs $2.99 for the premium service. A T-Mobile TV app provides both live TV streams and on-demand video programing from major networks such as Fox, MTV, and NBC for $12.99 per month.
Camera and Camcorder
Equipped with an 8-megapixel camera with a dual-flash system, the Sensation delivered sharp and well-saturated photos of Bryant Park on a summer day. Green tree leaves, blue skies, and purple violets were full of life. The camera performed well under low-light conditions too, with the two flash strobes evenly exposing subjects. The Sensation 4G's camera settings are comprehensive, with controls and features spanning ISO, autofocus, face detection, and image stabilization.
The HTC Sensation 4G can capture video in full 1080p HD at 30 fps. Movies we shot at this resolution looked crisp with vivid colors, but we did see some clipping and lurches. Video taken at a lower qHD wasn't as pristine but played back more smoothly. The phone features a front-facing VGA video camera as well; on Qik video calls over Wi-Fi, image quality was acceptable but on the grainy side with washed-out colors.
Sadly, this Gingerbread phone doesn't support Google Talk video chat, because it runs 2.3.3 software and not 2.3.4. Why, we don't know.
We found the HTC Sensation 4G call quality to be good, whether on T-Mobile's network or via the phone's Wi-Fi calling feature. Callers said we sounded clear and loud. Voices on our end were clean as well, but audio wasn't the loudest we've heard. While on a call, flipping the phone over with the screen facing down engages the speakerphone, which doesn't have a lot of volume either. Callers reported we sounded clear, but we couldn't stray too far from the device before our voice became too hard to hear. Picking up the handset again reactivates the earpiece.
For a high-octane dual-core superphone, the HTC Sensation offers plenty of endurance. On the Laptop Battery Test (web surfing via 4G), this device ran for an impressive 7 hours and 12 minutes before expiring. That's 1 hour and 15 minutes longer than the current average, and much better than the T-Mobile G2x (4:38).
Of all the monster 4.3-inch phones, the HTC Sensation 4G is the best designed and the most attractive. In other words, it's great because it's not a monster at all. This smartphone also has plenty of power, thanks to its dual-core Snapdragon CPU. While it's not as fast as the T-Mobile G2x and doesn't offer the same pure Android experience, the Sensation has a more intuitive interface in Sense and more battery life than the G2x (as well as most 4G phones). Add to that a sharp and bright display and a great camera, and the Sensation 4G is one of the best Android devices available.