HTC Sensation XE £450
16th Mar 2012 | 15:43
HTC handset gets rebooted with Ice Cream Sandwich
Overview, design and feel
HTC has done just that providing the Sensation XE with Android 4.0.3 Ice Cream Sandwich, coupled with its own Sense 3.6 overlay update. A new Sensation XE should now run Ice Cream Sandwich out of the box.
If you own a HTC Sensation XE currently running Android Gingerbread, the Ice Cream Sandwich update will be available in the near future.
If you do need to update over the air we suggest hooking yourself up to Wi-Fi to ensure a speedy download. All you need to do is to go to Settings > About Phone > Software Update and follow the on-screen instructions. In total it took us less than 30 minutes to download and install Ice Cream Sandwich on our Sensation XE.
Now the Sensation XE sports Ice Cream Sandwich it jumps in between the quad-core One X and the mid-range One S in HTC's line up.
The Sensation XE is a good looking device with its black case and red and silver detailing. The premium feel is certainly present with the metal and rubber unibody case allowing the Sensation XE to sit comfortably in the hand and providing a sturdy build.
Due to the quality materials used by HTC on the Sensation XE's body, it weighs in at 151g – heavier than rivals such as the Galaxy S2 (116g) and iPhone 4S (139g), but it's not overbearing and reinforces the premium feel of the phone.
HTC has gone down the minimalist route with the Sensation XE with just two well placed and easy to hit physical buttons on the handset, a volume rocker on the left and a power/lock key on top, accompanied by a 3.5mm headphone jack.
There is a third button on the base of the HTC Sensation XE which allows you to slide off the solid unibody case – providing you access to the SIM and microSD slots as well as the 1730mAh battery.
You'll still find the punchy 1.5GHz dual-core processor under the hood, vivid 4.3-inch HD (540 x 960) display on the front and the Dr Dre-inspired Beats Audio technology to blast tunes down your ear canals.
Rather disappointingly for a high end phone the Sensation XE only provides 1GB of internal storage, but an 8GB microSD card is supplied in the box and it can support a card up to 32GB in size.
It will come as no surprise that the interface on the HTC Sensation XE is where the bulk of the changes have occurred post-Ice Cream Sandwich update.
Not only does the Sensation XE bring the latest version of Android to your fingertips, it also delivers HTC's new Sense 3.6 overlay. Now, you may well be asking where Sense 4.0 is, but this version is only available on 2012 handsets such as the HTC One range - as it's not compatible with older devices.
Ice Cream Sandwich brings in a raft on new features and improvements to the Android operating system, but don't panic if you're a loyal HTC user as the Sense 3.6 overly ties it all together nicely in a familiar skin.
What we notice straight away is the Sensation XE feels more fluid. It seems faster than pre-Ice Cream Sandwich - not to say it was slow while running Gingerbread - but it looks like the addition of Android 4.0.3 has managed to streamline the user experience.
Fire up the Sensation XE and you'll be greeted by that iconic HTC clock and weather combo on the first home screen. Phew, so far, so good. But wait; scan your eyes down and the HTC dock as been replaced by a more conventional app tray. No need to panic though, it's all very straight forward.
Yes, you've lost the Personalise option, but just hold down on a blank space on any of the seven home screens and the menu will appear allowing you to tinker to your hearts content.
The menu has been divided up into three tabs; Add to home, Display and Sound. This makes for a less cluttered view of options and shows HTC's commitment to stripping Sense down and making it simpler – without losing functionality.
Under the Add to home tab you can select widgets, apps and shortcuts to place on the home screens. There are a generous amount of Android and HTC widgets to choose from and we found the various toggles - for settings such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS - really useful, allowing us to turn functions on/off with one tap.
The Display tab allows you to tailor the handset to suit your needs, with options to change the scene, skin, wallpaper and lock screen style of the Sensation XE.
In the Sound tab are options to change ringtones, notifications sounds and set up alarms.
Slide down from the top of the screen to open the notification bar which provides you with message, email and social media summaries. Above the notifications is a list of recently opened apps and if you hit the Quick Settings tab at the bottom you can toggle key features such as mobile network and Bluetooth,
Although the Quick Settings tab is useful, we found it far quicker to add the corresponding toggle widgets to a home screen.
Hold down the home button under the screen and you will bring up the new Ice Cream Sandwich multi-tasking screen, which displays all currently opened apps in a nice thumbnail design.
It's easy to close any app on the list, just sweep horizontally across the thumbnail and it will be removed from the list and closed.
There's a new way to create folders on the Sensation XE thanks to its software update and if you're familiar with Apple's iOS you may get a feeling of déjà vu. Creating folders is now a doddle – just drag and drop one app onto another and pop, both are in a folder… now where have we heard that before?
If you're someone who loves a good bit of innovation, or just likes showing off to your mates the Sensation XE supports the Ice Cream Sandwich face unlock feature. It does what it says on the tin, uses your face to unlock the handset.
Although an impressive display of facial recognition it only works in good lighting conditions, it's slower than sliding in a pattern and we looked pretty odd as we longingly staring at our phone, waiting for it to let us in.
The Ice Cream Sandwich and Sense 3.6 update has made for an impressive upgrade on the HTC Sensation XE. We are surprised to find a speed improvement on an already quick device which has not received any new hardware.
The Sensation XE still has that HTC feel and usability about it and Sense 3.6 pulls Ice Cream Sandwich into a package which will please both first time and stalwart HTC users.
Contacts and calling
The HTC Sensation XE sports the clever Sense social media integration which pulls in all the relevant info from the likes of Facebook and Twitter and magically matches it with the correct people in your contact list.
The contacts app, or People app as it's known in the HTC world, has been merged with the Phone app and you can easily jump between the two using the tabs at the bottom of the screen.
The Sense UI provides an overlay to the generic Android address book and makes viewing and editing contacts a breeze – with the update to version 3.6 providing a cleaner and simpler expeience. Select a contact from the list and you can easily view their phone numbers, email addresses and social media accounts.
Set up your various email and social media accounts on the Sensation XE and you will be prompted to sync the contacts with the People app - allowing you to have one central place for everyone complete with mug shots.
There are four tabs at the bottom of the screen when viewing a contact and these allow you to keep track of your communication with each person. The Thread tab shows your call, message and email history with the contact, Updates shows you what's happening on the person's social media account and Gallery pulls images of the person from social media sites into one place.
The Sensation XE supports smart and voice dialling while also showing you the most recently dialled numbers when in keypad mode – useful if you need to quickly call someone back.
Thanks to the 4.3-inch screen it is easy to dial on the Sensation XE and once in a call we were able to easily pull up the keypad to keep our automated friends happy and stick the phone on loudspeaker when our brother started singing like a little girl.
Call quality was clear and the ear piece volume can be turned up to aid you in noisy environments. The Sensation XE held signal well during our tests and we didn't notice any unusual drop in coverage - through both city, town and country tests.
As we've come to expect from smartphones these days the HTC Sensation XE provides a plethora of messaging options and the Sense 3.6 overlay provides a fully integrated social media experience.
There is the standard messaging app which allows you to fulfil all your SMS and MMS requirements. You'll also find the stock Gmail and Mail apps found on most Android handsets.
The Gmail app sports the Ice Cream Sandwich look and HTC has decided not to tweak this offering. The Mail app on the other hand has had a splash of Sense 3.6 and allows you to easily add various email accounts and view them in one unified inbox.
You can easily switch between email accounts within the app, if you only want to view one account at a time.
HTC's Friend Stream app allows you to add various social media accounts and view updates in one unified splurge and has been given a little bit of an overhaul with Sense 3.6.
You can easily comment and like Facebook posts and post and reply to tweets all from within Friend Stream app. You still can't send direct Twitter messages from within Friend Stream however; you will have to open up a dedicated Twitter app for that.
The updated Friend Stream app that comes with Sense 3.6 sees it able to cope with viewing media such as pictures within the app, without having to go via the web browser – a welcome update as it saved us having to switch between apps.
Messaging is nothing without words and the keyboard on the Sensation XE is perfect for taping out your latest status update or an email to the boss.
We found it to be well laid out and mistakes were kept to a minimum, especially thanks to HTC's clever predictive text and spell checker functions. The Sensation XE has one of the best Android keyboards out there and the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S2 should hang their heads in shame.
We have already mentioned that we feel the HTC Sensation XE feels quicker under finger since its upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich and this is reflected when it comes to web browsing.
The stock Android internet browser gets a lick of Sense paint giving it a sleek and smart appearance and it speedily opens pages whether on Wi-Fi or 3G.
The TechRadar homepage was fully loaded in less than 15 seconds with full 3G signal – down from 18 seconds pre-Ice Cream Sandwich, showing the noticeable speed improvement with the new operating system.
Adobe Flash is supported on the Sensation XE, but you will need to download the free Adobe Flash Player from the Android Market (now called Google Play) first.
We would like to see HTC have this pre-installed on the phone, saving people time and eradicating the error message displayed online if you don't have the player.
The slick operating system, speedy dual-core processor and crisp qHD screen means web browsing is a pleasure and the Sensation XE will happily scoot you round even the most media heavy sites with ease, reflowing text as you pinch-to-zoom.
Hit the menu button below the screen and you will be able to access the bookmarks menu, flip between multiple windows and various other options including history and downloads.
Bookmarks are displayed as large thumbnails and a widget can be popped onto a home screen, allowing you to jump direct to your favourite sites with one touch.
Before the upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich and Sense 3.6, Google suggested search options were not available when you typed in the URL bar. The good news is this has been reinstated, so you can now streamline your searching experience.
The HTC Sensation XE comes packing a decent 8MP camera and the super bright dual LED flash on the back will help you out in low light situations.
The camera app is pretty much the same as it was before the Sensation XE got its Ice Cream Sandwich update, however HTC has tweaked a couple of small things.
The zoom bar has been moved to the left hand side of the screen and a new effects button has appeared in the top right corner. This has made way for a settings option in the main camera tray, along with flash, scenes and mode keys.
HTC has simplified the settings menu, making it easier to skip between the wide range of settings available within the app – everything from resolution, ISO balance and brightness to face detection, geo-tagging and auto-enhance is included.
Ice Cream Sandwich brings with it a faster shutter speed, so turn off the auto-focus on the Sensation XE and you can snap images faster than you're thumb can cope with. Even with auto-focus on, the shutter is still speedy and you can easily take snaps less than two seconds apart.
There's also a front facing VGA camera which is mainly there for video calls and face unlocking, but is handy if you need to take a quick mug shot.
Natural light:The happy-chappy crab above was sitting in natural light and the flash was off
Darkness:The picture of the football was taken in total darkness, using the dual LED flash
The Sentation XE was able to auto focus on the detail on the football, even though it had little time to do so between the flash coming on and the photo being taken.
HTC offer users a whole range of effects which can be selected before taking a photo, and some can even be applied once a photo has been taken.
Distortion effect:It looks like Mr Crab has just eaten something very sour
Dots effect:Using this effect we were able to get the funky mosaic style picture above
Sepia effect:All our favourite classic camera effects are present on the Sensation XE
Negative effect:Another one of the many effects, negative provides a futuristic result
Google has included a panorama mode as part of the Ice Cream Sandwich update and this easy to use feature guides you across the landscape and then seamlessly stitches together four images. As long as you take your time and follow the on screen guidance the Sensation XE is capable of producing an impressive picture, as you can see below.
Wide shot:A well stiched together panorama image
The zoom is digital, as found on most smartphones, so expect the normal pixelation of images the more you increase it. The first image below is a fully zoomed out photo and the second is a zoomed in snap of the main tree.
Nature-ist:A pleasant outdoor scene, fully zoomed out
Close up:Fully zoomed in on an interesting looking tree
The HTC Sensation XE can capture full HD 1080p video, which will be welcome news to any budding film maker.
You can access the video recording feature by either going through the camera app and selecting video mode, or by selecting the camcorder app from the app drawer.
Resolution is set to a default qHD (960 x 540) resolution, so you will need to go into the quality menu if you want to record in 720p or 1080p. Oh, and the HTC Sensation XE will also let you shoot in slow motion - pretty cool.
Like the camera app, the video recorder is simply laid out and you will find all your tools in the same place on the screen.
In the settings menu you can tweak the finer details such as exposure, contrast, saturation and white balance. You can use the dual LED flash as a light and we were happy to find that it could be turned on and off while recording – a feature which many phones annoyingly lack.
We were also able to use the zoom function while capturing video and the Sensation XE will allow you to tap to focus on certain objects while videoing.
Take a look at our qHD video sample below, recorded on the HTC Sensation XE. The zoom is demoed in the first outdoor clip and the ability to turn the LED light on and off during filming is shown in the football clip half way through.
There's no two ways about, it the HTC Sensation XE grabs media with both hands and won't let go. The Beats Audio logo plastered on the back of the handset makes the clear statement that the Sensation XE is a device capable of doing much more than making the odd call and sending a few texts.
In the box you'll find a bundled set of Beats by Dr Dre earphones. Now these aren't the normal below-par offerings mobile manufactures chuck in the box as a cheap after thought, they're the real deal.
The headphones are well made and even come with a little pouch to keep them safe. The only downside is the disappointing in-line remote for call and music control, which feels cheap thanks to the use of plastic.
Stick the buds into the Sensation XE and you'll notice a little red Beats Audio logo show up in the notification bar. Drag the bar down and you have the option to enable and disable the technology – allowing you to hear the difference it makes to tracks while they are playing.
We spent some time listening to tracks with the Beats Audio technology turned on and off and we can report that it really does work. Songs sound clearer, with more definition across the spectrum of notes. The biggest enhancements come when listening to bass heavy tracks and We Speak No Americano literally thumped into our head.
A word of warning though, the Beats Audio technology only works when you have Beats branded headphones plugged in, so don't mess around with others.
The music player itself is pretty standard, with a bit of HTC Sense spice sprinkled over it, to keep it in line with the rest of the Sensation XE. You can easily create playlists, share songs and simply stream to other Wi-Fi or Bluetooth devices from within the app.
The 4.3-inch qHD screen means that video playback is of a high quality, with colours bright and movement smooth. Thanks to the curved rubberised back of the Sensation XE, the handset is comfortable to hold in the hand, even for extended viewing.
As seems to be common on a lot of Android phones there is no dedicated video app pre-installed on the HTC Sensation XE. All videos are stored in the gallery which is slightly frustrating, but a quick trip to Google Play (Android Market) and a free video app download, such as mvideoplayer or Google's own Play Movies app, rectifies this without too much fuss.
The photo gallery is well laid out and the large screen allows you to easily review your snaps. HTC has included editing options in the gallery, allowing you to add various effects to your pictures.
The Sensation XE comes pre-installed with HTC's connected media app, which allows you to easily stream music, video or images to another wireless device – be that a TV, laptop or tablet.
HTC Watch service is also included, which enables you to download movies to the Sensation XE to watch on your travels. It's not iTunes, but to be fair, it has only been going since the launch of the original Sensation last year, so will need time to grow. Having said that, there's already a fairly broad selection there.
Prices are on a par with other services (£9.99 for a download and £3.49 for a rental) and all in all, it's a good service.
If you prefer a more classical form of entertainment then the Sensation XE offers a Kobo powered ereader app. There are eight books pre-installed, ready for you to read including Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Dracula.
If you're not a fan of the Kobo ebook system then head over to Google Play and download Amazon's Kindle app or Google's own Play Books app.
There is also a FM radio which allows you to easily tune into your favourite station and set presets so you can quickly jump to that acid-jazz frequency you love.
Battery life and connectivity
Take the back cover off the HTC Sensation XE and you will find a 1730mAh battery inside.
While running Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) Sensation XE users complained that the battery life was still poor, even though it packed a bigger battery than the original Sensation.
There is some good news though, as the update to Android 4.0.3 Ice Cream Sandwich and Sense 3.6 looks to have optimised the Sensation XE, giving you more power from the same battery.
Now don't expect record breaking performance, but we were comfortably able to get a full day's use out of the Sensation XE, which included web browsing over Wi-Fi and 3G, calls, texts, games and some classic YouTube action.
We would still strongly recommend a nightly charge for the HTC Sensation XE, but the software updates seem to have made a marked improvement and will reduce panic on a daily basis.
As you may expect from high-end smartphones these days the Sensation XE provides you with numerous connectivity options included Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS and USB. The only main omission here is NFC technology.
The microUSB slot is found towards the bottom on the left hand side of the handset and its placement means the Sensation XE is difficult to hold in the hand while charging or connected to a computer, as the wire sticks out and gets in the way.
You can also use the Sensation XE as a Wi-Fi hotspot if you need to share some web love with your laptop and it can be easily set up via the Settings menu - although this drains the battery like crazy.
The Sensation XE also provides DLNA with its Connected Media app allowing you to easily stream music, videos and pictures to compatible TVs, computers and game consoles, which competes strongly with Samsung's AllShare and Apple's AirPlay solutions.
If you fancy hooking up the old fashioned way via USB, the HTC Sensation XE allows you to simple drag and drop files on and off the phone – although you will need to be careful as its pitiful 1GB of internal memory will fill up fast.
Maps and apps
As will all Android phones the HTC Sensation XE comes with Google's excellent mapping facility.
There is nothing new to report functionality wise, but the app has been given an Ice Cream Sandwich re-style with simpler, clearer options and better integration with Google's Latitude service.
The real bonus is Google also provides a free turn-by-turn navigation app, so you will never lose your way again.
Thanks to the nippy dual-core processor maps loaded quickly and we were able to smoothly zoom in close, open up street view and plan epic road trips without a fuss.
The GPS located our position in just a few seconds and was then able to keep track of us, even when hurtling along in a train.
HTC bundles its Locations app with the Sensation XE which lets you download maps onto the phone or microSD storage, meaning you can access the maps when you don't have a data connection. This is really useful if you're a fan of rural walks or have a knack of getting lost deep in the valleys.
HTC has been kind enough to pre-install a few apps on the Sensation XE and we found the simple yet effective Flashlight app to be very useful. As you can probably guess when you open the app you can turn the rear LEDs on/off, which is great for finding the candles and matches during a power cut.
Another little app HTC has included is Mirror, which uses the front facing camera to provide a virtual reflection on the screen – great for touching up makeup or picking lunch out of your teeth.
You will also find the HTC Hub app which is basically a pared down version of Google Play (Android Market). This seems like unnecessary bloatware to us, as Google Play can offer you everything you need in terms of apps, games and widgets.
Other apps found on the Sensation XE include a Kobo powered ereader app which comes with eight free books, Polaris Office for when you need to do some basic word document or spreadsheet work and SoundHound (a Shazam rival) which will tell you want that funky tune playing on the Asda tannoy system is.
Hands on gallery
There is no question that the HTC Sensation XE is a great all round smartphone and the welcome addition of Ice Cream Sandwich and Sense 3.6 keeps it in the running against the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S2 and iPhone 4S.
There's a lot to like with the Sensation XE starting with the solid, premium handset that looks impressive with its red accents.
The Beats Audio technology really does work and makes tracks sounds great – although the improvement may not be noticed on more acoustic and less bass-heavy songs.
The Sensation is fully featured, capable of taking quality photos and video, offering ereading and radio apps and providing support for the easy streaming of media.
There isn't anything major to dislike with the Sensation XE. The placement of the microUSB port is unfortunate if you like to keep using you phone while it's charging and even though battery life has been improved it still requires a nightly charging ritual.
Some people may find the Sensation XE a little on the heavy side, especially if you are used to the likes of the wafer thin Galaxy S2 and the disappointing 1GB of internal memory is significantly less than the likes of the iPhone 4S and Motorola Razr.
The HTC Sensation XE is an excellent mobile and for any audiophile out there, this sound be taken into serious consideration.
The upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich and Sense 3.6 has breathed new life into the Sensation XE, allowing it to happily compete in the mobile market for the next year or two.
We have seen other Ice Cream Sandwich phones unveiled at MWC 2012 in Barcelona, but considering they will go in at the top of the price bracket, the Sensation XE is set up to be a bit of a steal.