The HTC Sensation is currently the newest smartphone available on T-Mobile’s network. When compared to recent Android phones across all carriers, the HTC Sensation 4G has a superior screen resolution and a dual-core system on a chip (SoC) that provides enough muscles to power a smooth user experience, entertainment and video games. But how does T-Mobile’s best fare against what’s available from other carriers, and how does it feel to use the HTC Sensation 4G in the real world? In this review, I’ll tell you about the pro and the cons, without fanboism or politics. Ready?
We all use smartphones in different ways, so it’s important that I tell you what I do with my phone: I check my email quite often (with Microsoft Exchange), and I reply only moderately because virtual keyboards are not as productive as physical ones. I browse the web several times a day to check on news sites, but I rarely watch movies or play music. I don’t call much – maybe 10mn a day. On the “apps” side, I have a couple of social networks, but I rarely play games – even Angry Birds. This usage pattern will affect battery life and the perception of what features are useful.
4.3-inch (109 mm) wide screen
qHD 540 x 960 resolution
1.2-GHz Qualcomm® Snapdragon 2 dual-core processor
Internal phone storage: 1 GB + microSD slot
Android™ 2.3 with HTC Sense
T-Mobile 4G: HSPA+, up to 14.4Mbps (download), up to 5.76 Mbps (upload)
Wi-Fi®: IEEE 802.11 b/g/n
8-megapixel color back camera Autofocus and dual LED flash
1080p HD video capture and sharing
VGA fixed-focus color front camera
Height: 4.96×2.57×0.44 inches (126.1×65.4×11.3 mm)
Weight: 5.22 ounces (148 grams)
Rechargeable 1520 mAh lithium-ion battery
The HTC Sensation 4G design is a more modern version of what I call the “classic” HTC look. Unlike the Droid Incredible 2 (that I find very well-designed), the Sensation 4G doesn’t aim for an “edgy” look. Instead, it keeps a shape that would remind one of the Desire S, and other HTC phones before it. By the way, the HTC and T-Mobile logos are relatively discreet. Overall, It looks better than the HTC EVO Shift 4G and the HTC Thunderbolt in my opinion, but maybe it would have been nice if it were all black. Anyhow, you can decide for yourself.
On the functional side, the HTC Sensation 4G works well. It fits nicely in my hand (I hold it with my left hand), and the volume and power buttons land right on the thumb and index. Unlike many other phones, the Power button is very easy to find and to push. I believe that this is important because I use it a gazillion times a day, and so do you.
I also appreciate that the four Android buttons on the bottom are visible at all times (even when the phone display is off). On some handsets they become invisible, to make the phone “look better” and to save on backlight power consumption, but this is very annoying because not every Android phone have the same button layout. In fact, manufacturers have probably managed to try out all possible combinations!
Unfortunately, the USB charge/sync port is on the side. I usually prefer to have it at the top or bottom so that I can use the phone -while in charge- without having the cable get in the way.
The only “functional” design feature that got to me was the curvature of the backside. It’s great when holding the phone in the hand, but when I put the phone on a table, a tap on either side of the screen would tilt the phone. It’s not big deal, but I sometimes do that when I play games or want to type something while at my desk.
Out of the box, the display is simply beautiful. It didn’t hurt that HTC has preloaded the Sensation 4G with cool wallpapers and all. The 960×540 qHD resolution (like the Atrix) makes everything very legible and smooth. In terms of pure pixel density, the Retina display from the iPhone 4 is still the king of the hill, but honestly, it doesn’t matter at this level as most people can’t tell. At least, I don’t mind at all, and I’m someone who cares a lot about imaging and displays.
Indoors, the image quality is great. The contrast and saturation aren’t as good as they are with AMOLED, but on the other hand, colors are much more accurate than AMOLED. Outdoors, things are a bit more challenging. The display used by HTC tends to reflect a lot of light. It’s not as reflective as the EVO 4G, but reading the display outdoors can be difficult on a sunny day, and it does not help that I live in California…
To make things a little better, I would advise using a bright wall paper (like the one above) or background color. This will help tremendously with direct sunlight usage. And unlike AMOLED, the TFT display does not consume more electricity when displaying a white image (versus a black one). That said, LG’s IPS does better, and its NOVA displays simply dwarfs every other LCD in direct sunlight.
Quick-access lock screen: the Sensation 4G is the first HTC phone that I have tried that comes with this new lock screen. You can either unlock the phone by moving the central ring at the bottom, or you can drag one of those app icons to the central ring to unlock and launch the app. This is just great, and quite frankly, this is something that Apple had to go after in their iOS 5. They will have a similar feature. Expect everyone to copy this. I use it all the time when I check emails, or when I want to snap a quick photo.
It gets better: HTC has several types of lock screens available. Each include different types of data that shows up in the background (weather, stocks, messages etc…), but you can even choose which apps will appear in one of the 4 shortcuts available.
Copy/Paste: although Android 2.3 has largely fixed the copy paste problem, it’s important to know that many 2.2 and prior phones still don’t have a proper copy/paste functionality. For a long time, HTC Sense has “fixed” this feature while waiting for Google to finally implement one that works. Android 2.3 was introduced with the Nexus S.
Virtual Keyboard: I’m a fan of keyboards that are plain and readable, however there are a large number of users who prefer the HTC keyboard because it displays alternate letters that can be activated by pressing and holding for a second or so.
Swype-like keyboard: if you haven’t heard of Swype, you’ve got to check it out. It’s a company that has invented what HTC calls “trace keyboard”. The idea is simple: instead of tapping one letter after another, you can swipe your finger from letter to letter. This is effective because your finger stays on the surface at all times. This effectively reduces typo rates (for me). This option is also included in the HTC Sensation 4G.
HTC Sense has a bunch of other features, but these do make a difference in my daily life. Check out the HTC Sense site to see them all.
Dialing: No problem there, a number can be entered with the numeric pad, a contact card, or better yet, a “direct dial” shortcut on the phone’s main screen. If you have less than 10 people that you call all the time, the direct dial shortcut will do wonders as you can’t get any faster than that. If not, searching someone with their name should be pretty quick too.
Call audio quality: the sound quality is good, and I haven’t had any issues with it. If I was to compare it to the Nexus S, which has the overall best sound quality of all, I would say that the Sensation 4G sound is a bit muffled, but the sound quality and volume has always been consistent during calls.
Wireless Reception: T-Mobile has the reputation of being a (relatively) small carrier, but in many instances, I found the coverage to be better than AT&T (we’re in San Francisco). I’ll never say that enough: it doesn’t matter what *my* network conditions are, as yours will be different. Try asking friends and family to see how their network is where you hang out.
In-Browser Flash Support: HTML pages display just fine. But Flash support is something that more and more users want, or expect. The good news is that in-browser Flash support is here. As a test, I went to a few Flash sites, one of which is wechoosethemoon.org. It works perfectly, and most of the plain-vanilla Flash sites (small business, restaurants…) should work just fine.
Flash games are a different story. Some will work fine, but remember that most have been designed for desktop computers, so they might simply require too much processing power -or memory- to run smoothly on a phone.
Photo and Video Capture (very good)
If you had to remember only one thing about the photo capabilities of this phone, it is this: as you tap on the screen to take a photo, it will capture it way faster than most Android phones. It’s *almost* instantaneous.
The continuous auto-focus and the overall speed isn’t as good as the iPhone 4 yet, but this is very, very close. I heard that Qualcomm has worked hard on making this possible on their new chip. When it comes to photography, most people think about the sensor and the megapixel numbers, but there is *a lot* of software involved in all this. Without it, the raw data coming from the sensor is pretty much “garbage”. This is where each handset maker has an opportunity to add a lot of value.
The HTC Sensation 4G has very good photo and video capture abilities, especially outdoors. On a sunny day, the photos will look very good. However, when the lighting conditions get more difficult, things can blur fairly quickly. From my experience, even then, photos are nice as long as you use them for *web purposes* (shrunk to 800×600 or below). I typically upload photos on Facebook, so this is not a big deal to me. If you want to print them, make sure that the lighting is good.
I wish that HTC had been a bit more aggressive with low-light photography, because I take a lot of pictures indoors. For handsets, this is really the new holy grail. Many smartphone can capture good images of a bright outdoor scene. Sony Ericsson and Apple have understood this. I’m not sure that Samsung or HTC have, yet.
The video capture is pretty good too. In DVD-like quality (960×544) things are fluid and that is typically what I would use. It replays best on the Sensation 4G display, and it is light enough to copy/upload. If you want, it’s possible to capture in 1080p as well. There are more pixels, but I found that the image was not really sharper. Smartphones are typically not very good at recording close-up video (macro-mode), so I recommend filming somehting that is at least a couple of feet away. I personally think of the 1080p mode as a bullet-point on the specs sheet rather than a practical thing.
For more photo and video sample(s), head to our Flickr ubergizmo page.
There are many ways to use video chat on Android, but Tango has become a favorite, as it runs on Android and iOS.
Microsoft Exchange: A lot of professionals care about Microsoft Exchange, and I do too because we’re using Microsoft’s hosted email system at work. Android has long supported Exchange, but every handset manufacturer has come up with a variant of their own email app.
The HTC Sensation 4G offers good support for Exchange. The email app is very clean, and i really like the fact that we have a direct access to multiple items selection and flags right from the email list (note: flags don’t sync with Exchange). The white background makes the emails very readable (many phones have black email backgrounds) and the productivity is about as high as it will get on current Android phones. I think that only Windows Phone 7 has better exchange support. Also their typography rocks.
The one thing that I did notice is that although I’m getting email notifications, when I go to the email app, it can takes additional time (5-10 seconds) for the email app to actually download the most recent items and display them. This may be a good battery-saving tactic, but I would prefer to have the emails downloaded in the background so that I can reply right away.
GMail: Android being a Google product, it is almost a given that GMail would get a special treatment, and it does: it has its own email application that lets Google users “star” a message or labels use labels to categorize it. GMail also supports push-email, which means that messages arrive practically in real-time without requiring you to hit a “send/receive” button, which is called “pull-email”. Push is also more battery efficient than pull.
Other Email accounts: Most popular web email services are easy to setup, but if you host your email on your own domain, chances are that you have POP3 access. The Droid Incredible 2 can handle those as well obviously, but you would have to forget about push-email. Fortunately, hosted exchange or GMail pro can give you push-email with your own domain.
Google Docs: Back in the days, Google Docs was not editable on smartphones, but Google has fixed this a while back. If you wonder, Google Docs are accessible and editable on this unit. By the way, there is a free Google Docs app now. If you want something more “MS Office” friendly, try looking at DocumentsToGo.
As they get more powerful, smartphones are becoming entertainment devices. Of course, they won’t -yet- replace a Nintendo 3DS or a Sony PSP, but if you have 5 minutes to kill, there are some fun options now, and things are bound to get a whole lot better down the road. Today, you can watch DVD-quality videos, listen to music and find casual games.
Video Playback: like most modern smartphones, the Sensation 4G is very capable of playing videos from the local storage, or over the web. If you want maximum quality (DVD level), storing a file to your phone is always the best option. I have played DVD-quality .mp4 files without any problems, and the videos from my PSP collection also work (it’s not true for all Android phones). Over WIFI, YouTube quality is very good too, although not “excellent”. The extra resolution of the Sensation 4G qHD display does make things a little better.
Gaming: I tried Raging Thunder 2 Lite, and on the Sensation 4G, the game was very fluid. I wish that the developer had added an FPS counter, but I eyeball the framerate at 45 to 55 frames per second (FPS). This is not the fastest gaming phone out there, but its polygonal 3D performance is very decent. In any case, gaming is much more fluid than the recently reviewed Samsung Infuse 4G. The conclusion is that the HTC Sensation 4G can play.
Music: Music is one area where Android users have a lot of choices. There are a number of web services from which to buy, or rent, music files, and a host of free digital radio stations to tune into. If you want to purchase music, Amazon MP3 is a place that comes to mind. For music subscription/rental, Rhapsody is the first one that pops in my head.
The internal music player is very easy and efficient, but there are also many streaming players out there such as Amazon Cloud Player, or Google Music Beta. Overall, I would say that “music” is more or less a “solved problem”, but making it easier for novice users would be even better.
Speaker quality (average): The HTC Sensation 4G uses the same rear-speaker design that HTC has on the Droid Incredible 2 and other devices. Unfortunately, it’s not the most optimum design. The sound can be sufficiently loud, but it gets saturated quickly if you crank it near maximum levels. I’ve definitely heard better speaker sound coming out of a smartphone: the Motorola Atrix, for example, does have an excellent speaker sound quality.
The HTC Sensation 4G, just like other Android phones, can be mounted as a USB disk on your computer. That makes it extremely easy to copy files, and it is fair to assume that the large majority of computer users know to copy files from disk to disk. If you don’t have a lot of files to move around, this is actually much easier to deal with than Apple’s iTunes. Want to copy some photos? Connect the phone in “disk mode” and copy from/to. Really, it’s a no-brainer.
If you have tons of media files and music that constantly change, it’s a bit more complicated as this is a typical case where a data management application, like iTunes, is handy. The thing is: people who tend to have large collections of media files are probably savvy enough to figure things out.
These days, you also have the option to upload your content to an online storage and streaming service like Amazon Cloud Player. It works quite efficiently, but requires you to have an Internet connection. Winamp from AOL can also be used to manage large quantities of music files. In the end, you’ll have to poke around and see what works for you, but I think that the large majority of users will do just fine with copying their media files manually over USB.
Contacts, Emails: out of the box, Android is built for synchronizing everything over the Internet. However, some vendors add utilities to synchronize contacts and media files. Desktop email however is not an option (you might be able to find an app for that). Even Microsoft does not provide an email synchronization software with its Windows Phone 7, so in this smartphone world, you’re clearly better off with an online service.
For contacts, HTC provides a software that will sync contacts from Microsoft outlook to your Droid Incredible 2 phone. If you want to know all the little details, here’s the support page on HTC’s website:
Mobile hotspot: this is the easiest way to share your Internet connection. You simply need to go in the settings, enable the Mobile Hotspot feature, eventually setup a password, and that’s it – you can connect to it from your laptop. This is great if you need to go online in a pinch, but most people definitely can’t replace an Internet home connection with it – unless you have very basic Internet needs. The one downside of the Mobile Hotspot: it depletes the phone’s battery quickly (but you can USB charge the phone at the same time).
USB modem: I usually never use this, but one could argue that it is slightly more secure, and recently, I have found that in places where there are a large number of WIFI devices (think E3 press conference), the WiFi communications between the mobile hotspot and the computer can actually break down. To use the HTC Sensation as a USB modem, you will need to install drivers before using your phone as a modem. It’s a good fallback to have if you don’t have WIFI handy in your computer.
“4G” Network speed: although T-Mobile calls its HSPA+ net “4G”, it doesn’t exhibit the raw speed of the 4G LTE network currently deployed by Verizon and soon to be deployed by AT&T. However, it’s fair to say that 4G LTE devices do have huge battery life challenges that makes them unpractical for many people. If you want to know more, I wrote an article on that topic on MyLifescooop titled “4G Networks: Where Are We At?”
In our Droid Charge and HTC Thunderbolt reviews, we found that both 4G LTE smartphones did have a much (much!) shorter battery life than 3G, or HSPA+ competitor. In the end, T-Mobile might be losing the “pure network performance” battle, but it can deploy a network that is less expensive, slightly better than 3G and ship phones that have a better battery life. It’s not a bad deal for many end-users.
As I used the HTC Sensation phone in the SF Bay Area, it felt like using a 3G phone. There was nothing really “out of this world” about T-Mobile’s “4G” network, but it did work well, and I did not encounter any coverage “black holes”.
WIFI Calling (excellent)
One upon a time, T-Mobile had a feature called UMA (Unlicensed Mobile Access). If you are not familiar with the idea, this means that the phone can use an Internet WiFi connection to communicate with T-Mobile’s voice network. Think of your WiFi router as your personal cell tower. When calling via WIFI, the voice data is transported over the Internet to the T-Mobile network, that then uses its normal cellular network to transport it to the final destination (the person that you are calling). Not only UMA gets you a very good reception, it may also let you call for a lower cost.
I have not looked at the WiFi calling plans at T-Mobile, but when I was a customer (a couple of years ago), I paid a $10 monthly extra to get unlimited calls over WIFI. The best thing for me was that it worked during my international travels too (yes!). Warning: T-Mobile might be able to detect a foreign IP and charge you for international calls, even over WIFI. You’ll have to check with them in order to avoid a “bill shock”.
International readers: this function is not available in non T-Mobile USA versions, I’m told.
System Performance (very good)
The HTC Sensation uses a Qualcomm’s MSM8X60 system on a chip (SoC). This is a 3rd generation SnapDragon chip, and it has two central processing cores (CPU), a graphics processor (GPU) and a host of other co-processors.
When talking about the performance of a consumer electronics device, I always try to separate the “measured” and “perceived” performance. Measured metrics are obtained by running synthetic (not always life-like) benchmarks to stress specific parts of the system.
On the other hand, “perceived” performance is the user observation and perception of performance. Although they should correlate, I would always place perceived performance as being the most important thing. After all, what is performance good for if you can’t tell?
Measured performance (average to good)
To measure performance, we run a number of tests that show how the HTC Sensation measures against other popular smartphones.
The HTC Sensation 4G gets a relatively average score here. I’m not sure why that is, actually. I was expecting the dual-core chip to shine, but that’s not the case. Instead, it scores closer to the Nexus S, which is powered by a single-core Samsung SoC. This is a bit strange, so I’ll run a CPU test later. Keep in mind that this test was running on Android 2.3, while the others ran on 2.2. That said, I don’t think that Google had experienced any performance regression with Gingerbread (Android 2.3).
GUIMark 2 Flash graph test: This test measures the Adobe Flash performance. Flash is a widely used multimedia platform and you can find it virtually everywhere as advertisement, video or other forms of interactive web page module.
To put things in context, there are plenty of phones that don’t support Flash at all, so the mere fact that it works is already a good thing. Now, the Droid Incredible 2 scores in the 12-15 frames per second (FPS) ballpark, which is respectable. However, other phones that have hardware acceleration for Flash are almost twice as fast.
At the Flash test, the HTC Sensation 4G gets a better-than-average score, but is still far behind phones powered by NVIDIA’s Tegra 2. Again, I’m surprised because the graphics processor on the Qualcomm MSM8X60 is very good. However, achieving full Flash acceleration also requires a ton of software work.
Interestingly enough, the NeoCore graphics benchmark yields a higher score than on the Tegra-2 powered Motorola Atrix. This confirms that the HTC Sensation can play. Note that NeoCore was originally developed by Qualcomm to show their graphics performance. Also, it doesn’t use the latest OpenGL 2.0 features – but most Android games don’t use them either. Also, only the Atrix is shown next to the HTC Sensation, because it is the only other qHD-resolution phone that we have reviewed. Resolution does influence the framerate.
Perceived Performance (very good)
The synthetic numbers are very interesting, but the real-world experience is actually better than those numbers would hint. First of all, the HTC Sensation 4G feels incredibly responsive. I would consider the Samsung Focus (WP7) to be the only phone with a clearly much faster user-interface. In the Android world, the HTC Sensation 4G is among the best.
Gaming performance is very decent. Although the Neocore benchmark showed that the HTC Sensation was faster than the Atrix, I had the feeling that in real-world game, the Atrix had an edge. Again, without FPS counter in the game, it’s very hard to tell. In any case, both phones are close enough from each other that I believe that the end-user would have a comparable experience.
Overvall, the perceived performance is very good.
Plan / Pricing
I usually don’t talk much about data plans, but in hard economic times, it is worth noting that T-Mobile has the lowest-priced plan with unlimited nation-wide calls, data, SMS+MMS. You should do your own homework and read the fine prints, but on the paper the T-Mobile plan can save you quite a bit of money over the 2-years plan.
You should also know that “unlimited data” means 2GB “high speed” data. Once you go above this quota, T-Mobile will slow down the speed at which you can access the internet. I’ve seen carriers do that in Europe do this, and it works fairly well. At least, you won’t have to worry billing.
Battery Life (excellent)
22hrs battery depletion test: I had unplugged the HTC Sensation 22 hours ago, carried it with me for a late brunch, shot and shared a couple of photos on Facebook, then check a few emails over the day, but the phone mostly sat down, checking for push-email (Exchange+Gmail) and Facebook notification. I did disconnect WIFI while I was out, and forgot to turn it on again later. HSPA+ was ON (T-mo’s “4G”), however. 22 hours later, I have 61% of battery life left. Very good, right?
Apps depletion test: The above test did not do anything stressful for the battery life, so I’ve run some typical applications for 30mn, and gathered some battery life data. Here are the raw numbers:
30mn of <activity> will cost you (50% display, no sound):
- Gaming: 13% of battery life (Raging Thunder 2 lite)
- 3G Web Browsing: 13% of battery life (random popular site browsing, automated)
- WIFI Youtube Video: 21% of battery life (mobile HQ)
The power consumption with those apps is higher than what I saw on the Droid Incredible 2. However, the gaming performance seemed to be better as well. In terms of relative battery life (in %), the HTC Sensation does use more power than Droid Incredible 2, which used only 10% for browsing and 10% for YouTube video playback.
Yet, this does not mean that the phone is using more juice at all times. Typically, smartphone chips have a very low stand-by power consumption, and the good news is that most of the time, your phone sits in your pocket or purse, doing nothing (or very very little).
With moderate usage (see “context” paragraph), I can get about 1.5 to 2 days of battery life (with Push email and Facebook updates in the background). I typically don’t worry about running out of battery in at the end of the day. Obviously, this can vary depending on your own usage, but this is one of the best battery life among the phones that I have tested in the real world.
Tip: if you want to extend the battery life, I found that disabling the “Account Sync” feature helps tremendously. I’ve seen this phone go beyond 48 hrs if I don’t synchronize my email/Facebook data. Also, I’ve compiled a list of things that you can do to extend your android battery life.
Conclusion (very good)
The T-Mobile HTC Sensation 4G is a very good phone, and it not only is the best smartphone that you can get with T-Mobile today, it is also one of the best Android smartphones available with any carrier. The typical problem with smaller carriers is often that they don’t have the cool phones as they can’t compete with the bigger players when it comes to playing for exclusive rights/development. However, T-Mobile has managed to snatch one of HTC’s best designs.
The HTC Sensation 4G comes with the latest incarnation of Android 2.x, and comes loaded with an updated HTC Sense that accelerates things that you use dozens of time a day like the lock-screen, email access etc… if your usage pattern is different, you can even customize it to feature your favorite apps.
Finally, the WIFI calling feature not only helps having a perfect reception at home or at work, it *could* also save you a load of money abroad. This is a feature that only T-Mobile, and frankly, the HTC Sensation 4G is the phone that makes me want to come back to T-mo.
Official HTC Sensation homepage