HTC has done a great job of furthering Android’s influence on the smartphone market, and since the wildly successful HTC Desire has continued furnishing us with equally as impressive successions such as this year’s HTC Sensation. Hot on its heels is an upgrade, of types, in the Sensation XE, which makes no apologies for leading with a multimedia tilt in the form of Beats Audio, which along with some high-spec in-ear buds promises to deliver the “ultimate mobile audio experience”.
Key specs and form factor
The Sensation XE should be immediately recognisable due to its Beats-themed design, which consists of some rather striking red highlights on the speaker grill, red LEDs on the controls and a Beats logo on the back. Otherwise it’s very similar in build, operation and features to the Sensation, so it’s worth checking out our review of this for a summary of key features that are still present and correct.
With a solid uni-body aluminium design and the now familiar ‘wave’ pattern separating rubberised panels at the back. It also weighs in at 148g, has identical dimensions at 216x63x11mm and an identical 4.3in 960×540 resolution 256 pixels per inch Super LCD display.
The processor has undergone an upgrade however, with a 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon MSM8260 replacing the 1.2GHz version on the Sensation, but the 8-megapixel rear (0.3MP front) camera, with 1080p video capture, HDMI out and Android 2.3.4 ‘Gingerbread’ with version 3.0 of HTC’s excellent Sense user interface and 1GB of internal storage (with 8GB or 16GB microSD in the box) remains.
There’s a small improvement in battery life due to the 1730mAh core replacing the 1520mAh of the Sensation, but most of this seems to be sapped by the processor as the XE only offers around 50 minutes of extra talk time, so improvement through general operation should be fairly negligible.
Overall it’s a beautiful design, though one small issue we had is that the screen is tapered slightly around the edges, which may well aid in preventing damage when flipping it over (for example to silence a call or enable the loudspeaker through HTC Sense), but also left a noticeable ridge around the bezel, which we discovered can affect text entry when selecting characters at the edge of the display. This is a fairly minor problem however, and it didn’t take long to accommodate for the slight lack of sensitivity it seems to cause.
Beats audio and multimedia
The headline Beats audio obviously required a thorough test, and as mentioned HTC supplies branded, high-quality buds instead of the stock earphones that usually need to be replaced immediately if you’re expecting to truly enjoy your music.
These include a handy playback control to skip, browse and play pause on the lead and interestingly must be used in order to enable the custom ‘Beats Audio’ sound enhancer – regular earphones simply offer an HTC Enhancer and stripped down Beats Audio options.
This shouldn’t be a problem for most, however, since these buds really are impressive – on a par with many circa-£100 models we’ve used to test audio capability on other devices. Aptly, bass response is particularly noticeable and remains clean even in bass-heavy tunes, with high and mid tones not lost so as to affect the clarity of the track as a whole. This is a noticeable jump in the quality of audio on offer from a smartphone, and represents a similar, modern evolution to that of Nokia devices enhanced by XpressMusic back in 2006.
Elsewhere we loved the large, bright display that does an excellent job of recreating both standard and HD movies, video clips and photographs, and it proved extremely accurate and responsive when browsing the various homescreens and working with applications and games. The camera, with its dual-LED flash, also did an impressive job of picking up detail in low light conditions, though it really comes into its own in good natural light and 1080p HD video recording can look superb in the right conditions.
Pricing and competition
The Sensation XE is clearly a high-end smartphone, and it shouldn’t come as much surprise to see that it isn’t cheap – you won’t get much change from £500 to benefit from this excellent device SIM-free (though this issue could be negated for those who can find a good deal on a contract). One rather large caveat here is that with few users likely to notice much benefit from the improved processor at this stage, this leaves the XE with Beats audio as the main improvement over the original Sensation. With the Sensation, which was excellent in its own right, seeing significant discounts following the release of subsequent models, you’re paying a lot extra (around £100) for what is admittedly superb audio performance.
- Superb design, performance, and operation, with Beats audio adding genuine quality to audio playback.
- Aside from Beats audio for music aficionados, not a lot of significant improvements are apparent over the origin
We think the Sensation XE is, as a package, HTC's most impressive handset yet, but unless you're a serious music nut it's hard to justify the extra outlay over the similar specced, identically sized and now significantly cheaper Sensation. Admittedly the processor boost future-proofs the XE somewhat for those with high-performance gaming and similarly hungry operations in mind, but it's not a drastic enough improvement to warrant full marks.