HTC Sensation XL
15th Nov 2011 | 17:30
HTC's created a big Sensation with this 4.7-inch beast
Overview, design and feel
When the HTC Sensation arrived, HTC made it clear that it considered it a high-end flagship product. It packed specs to make the Samsung Galaxy S2 look nervously over its shoulder at number one in our list of the best mobile phones, mixed with that ol' HTC software magic.
Only a few months later, we've got two new Sensation handsets. The HTC Sensation XE, which beefed up the processor even further and added Beats Audio. The HTC Sensation XL (try to keep up) instead offers a larger screen than the original Sensation, but with a 1.5GHz single-core processor, 16GB of built-in memory, and Beats Audio (like the XE).
Though the Sensation XL's screen has been increased to 4.7 inches from the Sensation's 4.3 inches, the resolution is actually lower.
Here, we've got a 480 x 800 display, compared to the 540 x 960 qHD screen in the Sensation and Sensation XE. However, that screen is still S-LCD, meaning that it's bright and vibrant, with excellent viewing angles.
The HTC Sensation XL's 16GB of onboard storage is slightly unusual for HTC, who's default is usually to stick in just enough for the operating system and to let you add whatever else you want with a microSD memory card. Except the HTC Sensation XL has no microSD card slot.
Hang on a minute. HTC... 480 x 800, 4.7-inch screen... 1.5GHz single-core CPU... 16GB storage... no microSD slot... Isn't this the HTC Titan?
Yes, it is. Well, it's white, and it comes with Android 2.3 and HTC Sense 3.5. But otherwise, yes. Even the dual-LED flash camera is the same, with an eight-megapixel sensor, back-side illumination and 720p video recording.
So where does the Sensation XL sit in the lineup? Above the original Sensation, with its newer Sense interface, larger screen, special audio and XL suffix? Well, we're not so sure, since the processor is less powerful overall and it's got a lower screen resolution.
And the thing is, the Sensation can be had on contract for free at around £20 per month. The HTC Sensation XE will only set you back a couple more quid. The XL, though, starts at around £31. Ouch.
Like the HTC Titan, it's a big phone, but it feels smaller than you might think in the hand. There's barely any gap between the screen and the side of the handset, so width has been kept to a minimum. Despite that, it's still fairly wide by necessity, so will inevitably not suit everyone.
The screen is a real high point of the HTC Sensation XL. It's bright, with vibrant colours – though they seem a bit overblown at full brightness, they're really appealing if you turn it down a little.
One of the best things about the iPhone 4 and 4S's Retina display is the way the pixels are right up against the glass, as if they've been 'printed' on. Other manufacturers are also doing this, and HTC's probably the best of them. The screen on the HTC Sensation XL barely looks sunk behind glass at all, popping right out at you whenever it's on.
Beneath the screen are the usual Android buttons – Home, Menu, Back and Search – as touch buttons.
Above the screen is the 1.3MP forward-facing camera.
On the right-hand side is the volume rocker, the micro USB port is on the left, while the Lock key and 3.5mm jack are on top.
The HTC Sensation XL unsurprisingly features the same unibody aluminium construction as the Titan, except with some white bits and a Beats logo near the bottom on the back. This nothing to complain about, though. The build quality is very good, and there's very little give in the handset as you hold it.
The Beats Audio headphones are solid metal, and also feel really high quality, with the exception of the in-line clicker. This is a special inclusion just for the phone version of the headset, and feels and looks plasticky and horrible, which is a real shame.
The XL's thickness of just 9.9mm helps it to feel surprisingly slight in the hand, despite being 132.5mm tall and 70.7mm wide. It is still a major handful, though. Even with big hands, you'll find it's a little awkward to balance when typing in portrait, purely because of its size.
At 162g, it's nowhere near as heavy as you might think a phone of this size would be. Overall, its perfectly comfortable to hold when reading something on it.
At the top of the XL's back is the camera lens, which juts out slightly, and the twin LEDs.
To get the back of the Sensation XL off, you need to press a little button at the bottom, and then – rather disconcertingly – need to effectively pull the screen out from inside the casing. It'll bring all the internals with it (don't worry), but it feels very different compared to just popping a flat rear case off, like most other phones.
Once it's out, you can get to the battery and SIM card slot. One thing to be wary of with the XL, though, is that the Wi-Fi antenna is behind the plastic at the bottom of the handset, where the Beats Audio logo is. If you hold the phone in your right hand, you can cause the Wi-Fi signal to drop significantly.
We didn't find that it cut us off in general use around the house or anything, but if you're connecting to weak signal, it's something to be aware of.
Unlike the HTC Sensation and Sensation XE, the HTC Sensation XL comes with the top-of-the-line HTC Sense 3.5 interface running on top Android 2.3. Its two Sensation brothers are stuck merely with Sense 3.0.
The changes are minimal in Sense 3.5, we must admit, but it's the little additions and tweaks that keep HTC ahead of the game as much as the big renovations.
You still get the seven Home screens, for example, and these can be customised with a plethora of widgets, apps, shortcuts and more, but you can now also choose to have fewer than seven by pinching out into Leap View and dragging a screen to the bottom. You can't have more than seven, still, but it's nice to be able to streamline.
HTC has been showing off a version of Sense 3.5 with the curved buttons as the bottom traded for two small, unobtrusive round buttons for opening your full apps list or bringing up the phone, but this hasn't made it into the Sensation XL – it's the old style here, which means it matches its Sensation brothers.
One minor but noticeable change on the HTC Sensation XL is that the default weather widget has been scaled back to something smaller than what HTC fans are used to. The old style is still there, though, hidden away in the Personalize menu.
Flicking between the Home screens is generally very smooth. We did find it a bit quirky with touch recognition here, though. We're confident it's not the touchscreen itself, because it's fine everywhere else, but seems to be the phone not quite keeping up with itself.
It's like it's so busy keeping the 3D transitions whizzy, it forgets to keep an eye on what your finger's doing. While scrolling from Home screen to Home screen, you can suddenly find that you've been kicked out to Leap View, or that it thinks you've flicked far further than you have, so it spins the Home screen wheel wildly while you watch helplessly.
Certainly, it doesn't happen 100 per cent of the time, but it's often enough to concern us – particularly since Sense is usually so good. Granted, if you tend to live in apps, you'll probably won't encounter it often at all, but those who live in their widgets will find that crops up surprisingly often.
The Lock screen features HTC's ring design for quick access to certain features. There are icons for Phone, Mail, Camera and Messages be default, and by dragging any of them down into the ring (which actually comes out to meet you halfway, which is a nice touch) you can unlock the phone straight to that app if you've got a notification for it that needs seeing to, or if you want to get snapping quickly. To just unlock the phone, you simply drag the ring up.
Notifications are still rather limited in the lock screen, appearing only in the status bar at the top for the most part, but at least you can change what the four apps at the bottom are, if you're a Twitter fiend, for instance, or if you use the Gmail app instead of HTC's Mail app.
Notifications in the main haven't really changed. Pull down from the top to get the notifications tray with lists of what's come in, with a multitasking bar at the top (you can also access an app switcher by holding the Home button).
There's a tab here to switch to a panel that offers access to some quick settings, same as before, and music playback buttons also appear here when they're in use.
Tap the Apps button on the bottom ribbon from any Home screen to get to your full apps list, which is scrolled through in pages. The HTC Sensation XL comes with loads preloaded, and the Market isn't far away for topping up with even more.
Contacts and calling
Contacts in the HTC Sensation XL are stored in the People app, and they're a lot like what you'd expect from a smartphone these days. You've got social network integration, including Facebook and Twitter, and you can bring in your contacts from Google or HTCSense.com, if you're an HTC regular.
The contacts list is a clear, if simple list of names, though it does bring through the latest update from a contact's social network if you've got them linked. It'll also pull through their profile photo and other relevant information.
Aside from the People app, you can also get to your contacts quickly using the Phone app and tapping on the tab at the bottom, or you can use the smart dialling feature – start typing a person's name on the dialpad and they'll appear on the screen.
In a contact, you can add all the usual information, including multiple phone numbers, email addresses and so on, as well as adding them a group or adding notes or a nickname. There's no birthday field, though you can pull birthdays in from Facebook.
When looking at a contact, you've got several views apart from their information. You can view your contact history with someone in the Thread tab, view their recent social network activity in Updates, or see their Facebook photos in Gallery.
We found the HTC Sensation XL picked up signal quite well when we used it, although call quality was a little hit and miss. In low-signal areas, we found that calls distorted quite a bit – more so than many other handsets we've used – but with a good clear signal, audio quality was fine.
In fact, to HTC's credit, the ear speaker can go really quite loud, so it does fairly well in traffic compared to some of the competition.
The loudspeaker is fairly clear, but it didn't impress in the same way the ear speaker did when it comes to volume. It'll suffice in a quiet room, but it wasn't hard for it to be drowned out.
Compared to the elaborate messaging options we've seen on some smartphones, such as the BlackBerry Torch 9860, the HTC Sensation XL is relatively sedate.
Out of the box, what you're really looking at is text messaging, email and Facebook chat built in, though Friend Stream is on-hand to offer some basic social networking messaging options.
The Messages app is fairly typical for its type – the inbox presents you with a list of conversation, arranged by recipient, and you tap through to see your conversation thread. It's the usual stuff: your words in speech boxes on the right, theirs on the left.
You can tap on the picture at the top to open a list of other options for that contact, including calling them or sending an email.
It's easy to attach something to a message, including locations, appointment, audio pictures and video.
For email, you've got HTC's Mail app as well as Google's Gmail app. Gmail is the same as it usually is, offering very simple navigation through lists, but the text is nice and big on the HTC Sensation XL's large screen. You've got all your Gmail-centric options too, such as starring emails.
HTC's app offers a little more flexibility, making it easy to set up Exchange, Gmail, Yahoo! and Hotmail accounts, or to set one up yourself with your IMAP/POP setttings.
The Mail app is also simply designed, with your choice of account at the top, your inbox list in middle, and a choice of view options (Received, Thread, Favourites) at the bottom.
Open an images and all media is displayed, though the way it reflows the message to fit the screen might mean that some images are slightly cut off. There are clear buttons from there to reply, forward and so on.
The sheer size of the HTC Sensations XL means there's lots of space for the keyboard – in fact, HTC has added on a set of curser arrow keys to the keyboard used on the HTC Sensation XE.
While this is undoubtedly a handy addition if you're going to write something longer (especially since touch-based cursor control is pretty iffy), it does shunt the rest of the keyboard over slightly when typing in landscape orientation. We found that this meant we were hitting the full stop a lot instead of the space bar. It's something you can get used to, but was definitely annoying.
Typing in portrait we found great, although we found that typing on the far side of the keyboard was right at the limit of being comfortable for our large hands, so anyone with smaller fingers might not find it so good. The phone is a little difficult to balance comfortably in one hand, we have to say, but the keyboard is excellent.
That's thanks in no small part to the great autocorrection system. It's excellent at stepping in to fix common mistakes, and it's easy to follow along with what it's doing thanks to the bar that comes up above the keyboard.
The Facebook chat app is pretty basic, offering just a simple text platform with no other amenities. However, it ties into Facebook as seamlessly as you'd hope, quickly letting you know who's online.
For example, though it's fine with Twitter mentions and DMs (even if we're not keen with how sparse the interface is, hiding away all the useful options behind the Menu key), it lacks access to your Facebook messages. Though it does a reasonable job of aggregating your social network feeds, you're better of with the dedicated apps when it comes to messaging.
With a big, juicy screen and improved browser app, web browsing is one area we hoped the Sensation XL would really impress us – and for the most part, it really did.
The browser hasn't really changed in Sense 3.0, but it is fast to load pages. Like, really fast. For pages that don't include Flash, it's on average about as fast as an iPhone 4S.
Of course, many sites do have Flash content, which slows down the loading somewhat – but we've come to accept that as a cost of having Flash on devices, and it comes already loaded on the Sensation XL.
HTC's been very clever with its implementation in the browser. It seems to avoid Flash content wherever possible, only loading it when there's nothing else to fall back on. For example, the TechRadar home page always loaded without Flash ads, meaning that it appeared much faster than on other Android phones that do pick up the Flash ads.
Of course, go to something like a video on the BBC Sport website and the Flash video dutifully loads.
It's an extremely well-implemented way to keep the performance hits of Flash to the minimum possible – because it does still have them, without question.
Scrolling a page with a Flash element in is much jerkier and slower to react than without, but since the browser tries to avoid loading unnecessary Flash elements, this problem doesn't crop up anywhere near as often as other Android phones and tablets.
And the further good news is that scrolling and moving about websites is generally quite smooth. There's still (still!) some of the slight jerkiness that Android has always struggled with, but it's not something that hampers you generally.
Not that performance is perfect, though. We found times where the browser would just fall behind and get confused, particularly when pinching to zoom.
While this works excellently most of time (though it's a shame you can't zoom and scroll at the same time, as you can on Apple's devices), sometimes it responded too slow to be of any use, and once or twice it got completely confused and zoomed out when it should have zoomed in – taking us all the way out to the Windows view.
But this definitely wasn't the norm, and most of the time, it was plain sailing, even with the graphical bells and whistles of the thumbnails in the Bookmarks view, or the big 3D display for switching between different browser windows.
One thing we miss is that there aren't any search suggestions that come up in HTC's browser when you type in the top bar. It looks through your history, as you'd expect, but it's nice not having to type in longer search terms when they're common things you know Google is quite capable of predicting.
The specs of the camera on the HTC Sensation XL are something HTC is crowing about, and with good reason. While Apple boasts about the eight-megapixel, backside illuminated camera in the iPhone 4S, HTC has quietly matched it when it comes to ticking off feature boxes.
In fact, the Sensation XL even noses ahead of Apple's handset for stills, thanks to its dual-LED flash and 1.3-megapixel front camera. But this is just text – how does it actually perform?
The first thing to note is that HTC has been tweaking the speed of its camera. It's quick to open, certainly, but the part that's been focused on is the time to take photos. There's almost no discernible shutter lag, so hitting the button on-screen and taking the snap is instant.
You can also apply live effects, adjusting the degree to which they're applied on the fly – great for taking that unusual, artsy snap.
There are plenty of scene modes too, including a Panorama mode, a Backlight HDR mode, Landscape and more.
And there are all sorts of other settings, including Face Detection mode, white balance presets, ISO settings, geotagging, a digital zoom and more besides.
Because the backside illumination is present, the Sensation XL opts not to use its flash in low-light situations surprisingly often. You may find yourself wanting to force it on – something we don't usually advise.
LOW LIGHT:The first of these images is with the flash, the second is without. As you can see, using the flash creates less even lighting in the photo that not using it, but the subject is crisper, with clearer, more accurate colours and much less digital noise.
DETAIL:Where the focus of the photo is (around the shadow of the tree trunk), all the leaves are picked out well. Things get quite soft in the background, but there's plenty of detail overall.
LANDSCAPE MODE:In Landscape mode, much of the detail you might hope for in the photo is lost, and it also comes out quite dark. It looks like the camera is struggling to correctly expose the sky and ground – something that cropped up a lot for us.
MOTION:The quick shutter speed means that you can get nice, crisp shots of moving subjects, even when the light isn't great. You can see every splash and ripple from this duck's entry into the water.
EXPOSURE:The main issue we had with the Sensation XL's camera was that it struggled with contrast. Here, we've exposed for the duck, but it's badly blown out any sunny parts of the frame. All other attempts made the subject too dark. We couldn't find a middle ground (the fact that it's one reticle to target both focus and exposure doesn't help).
CLOSE UP:These fungi have lots of detail in them, as does the grass, but the whole image is a little flat – the lack of depth of field lets it down, really. But it's still a great shot for a phone.
HDR:The HDR mode in the Sensation XL really does make a difference. In the top photo above, it's on, while it's off in the bottom one. You can how much it brings out the hidden details in the tree trunks, especially.
PANORAMA MODE:We found the Panorama mode to be a bit hit and miss. It only enables you to stitch three photos, which is a shame, and it was really, really picky about creating the lower of the above samples. It took us nearly a dozen tries to get it right – it just kept saying we were moving the camera wrong. The other worked perfectly first time, though. The results are pretty good, we have to say. There's some merging of cars in front of the buildings, but not much.
Without a dual-core processor to put some oomph behind it, the HTC Sensation XL is limited to 720p video recording rather than 1080p, but it does have one handy trick up its sleeve. You can record slow-motion video (at half speed) at a resolution of 800 x 480, which is a cool thing to have around.
The only problem is that the video quality on the Sensation XL is pretty much garbage, even at 720p. In the videos below you'll see that there is a huge amount of digital artefacting, to the point that you can see big squares in the videos where the detail has been lost.
Even in the slow-motion footage of the birds taking off, all they really are is white shapes – there's no detail or texture to them. The motion is smooth, sure, but then it damn well should be at half speed! At least video seems to handle contrast slightly better than the stills camera.
The culprit for the issues is an alarmingly low bitrate for the videos. The 720p video is recorded at just 5Mbps. We'd expect 8Mbps as a minimum for decent 720p video quality. There simply isn't enough data being recorded here for the video to be any good. We don't know why HTC has limited it so much – possibly to avoid filling the 9GB of storage too quickly – but it's really disappointing.
Media is firmly on HTC's mind when it comes to the Sensation XL. In fact, with the bigger screen and Beats Audio, we'd say it's pretty much the XL's purpose in life.
The most important element is definitely the Beats Audio integration, with the special earphones included in the box.
We should point out that these aren't the ones you'll see on HTC's Sensation XL product page – those are the Beats Solo HDs that come in a limited edition package. Most people will wind up with the deal we had, with the YourBeats in-ear headphones – the same as the Sensation XE, but in silver, red and white.
So does the combination of Beats Audio software and headphones make all the fanfare worthwhile? Short answer: Yes.
Pretty much every song we tried on it had more kick and detail than we're used to from our humble MP3 and AAC files on a mobile phone. Obviously, the fact that the Beats Audio headphones are a big step up over the crap you get from most manufacturers (yes, Apple, we're looking at you) helps, but you can actually turn the Beats processing off, and music instantly becomes flatter (and quieter, oddly).
You really notice little details in the music that you just don't get from a standard phone player, and this is a great way for the Sensation XL (and XE) to stand out of the smartphone crowd.
There are two stumbling blocks, though. With 16GB of built-in memory and no microSD slot, it suddenly becomes limited for avid music lovers. In fact, once you take out the space the operating system uses, and the space set aside for app, you're left with less than 9GB that could be used for music.
For many people, this will be enough, it's true. But a lot of people carry far, far more music than that around with them on an iPod nano. The iPhone 4S even goes up to 64GB now. At least with a microSD slot, you can get 32GB to play with. But 16GB (or rather, 8.89GB) just isn't enough.
The other disappointment is the lack of lossless audio codec support. We'e seen FLAC on phones before, and when you're pushing the audio quality of a phone as a main feature, not having lossless support seems like big omission to us. Of course, you wouldn't be able to fit much on that 16GB of storage…
With that good and bad out of the way, the Sensation XL was fine with all the supported file types we threw at it, pulling them into the Music app without any problems.
The Music app itself is perfectly passable, with some nice touches, but a slightly confusing overall layout. The fact that playing controls are always available at the bottom is something we really like. You can access some controls at any time by pulling down the notifications tray, but it's nice to always have the music controls at hand when you're in the app.
The hierarchy when browsing is slightly odd, though. By default, it shows a list of all artists, with arrows next to them. Tapping one opens a little list that gives you the options of seeing all that artist's songs, or opening up another little list of all the albums. Tapping on an album takes you to an entirely separate menu with the album's song list on.
You can change how this works by tapping the Categories option on the first screen, and choosing instead to view by album, song, genre and so on. Each of these works slightly differently to the others for navigation. Between this and the fact that it's hard to tell if you should be using the Back button to go back a stage or use the Library icon in the app, we found ourselves begging for the simplicity of Apple's tabbed system on the iPhone.
There are lots of excellent features in the Music app, though. Our favourite is the ability to queue songs to play in an order without having to faff around with playlists or anything. Why this isn't standard on every music player on every type of device known to man, we don't know. But we're glad it's here.
You've also got the ability to search the web or YouTube for a song, you can set a song as your ringtone straight from the app, and you can even share a music over Bluetooth, email, Dropbox or message.
Videos and photos are still lumped together in the Gallery app, with the exception of HTC Watch, which is its own whole separate shebang.
There's nothing really new or unusual in HTC's Gallery, save for the inclusion of DivX and Xvid support. 1080p is out of the question here, with the Sensation XL neither recording nor playing it back. 720p MP4 video was perfectly smooth for us, and an SD Xvid video played acceptably, though it noticeably drop frames here and there.
The photos part of the gallery could often be a little sluggish though. When scrolling through a large album of photos, it often lagged slightly behind what we were trying to do, and when opening and pinching to zoom in on a photo, it could be really surprisingly uncooperative compared to how smooth the rest of the phone is.
That said, applying effects to the photos was more or less instant, and the range of ways to share your photos is positively staggering.
HTC Watch is the new on-demand video portal from HTC, with films and TV shows available to buy or rent. The prices are comparable to iTunes, and there's a good range of new and older content. We found the quality to be high, but if you're wanting to watch something on a journey, remember to download it beforehand.
There's a good ol' fashioned FM radio, too. In fact, with the Beats headphones plugged in as an antenna, it's one of the best radios we've tested so far for picking up signal. We got strong sound (albeit with the inevitable background noise) in places that other phones couldn't get anything but static. You don't get the Beats sound processing, though, which is to be expected.
Apps and maps
Though the HTC Sensation XL does come with the Android Market on there, HTC seems to be doing its best to make sure you never use it. There are 59 app loaded onto the device out of the box. 59! Social networking, media playback, organisation, location, office, weather… the list goes on.
The usual smartphone suspects of the Calculator and Calendar are here, of course. The Calendar app will bring through your Google calendars, as you'd expect, and even your Facebook calendar. There's a month view, a day view and an agenda view, but no week view, slightly oddly. However, it's easy to read and to add new events to any of your Google calendars.
The Notes app is one of the best new additions to HTC Sense. It's an adaptation of the app that launched with the HTC Flyer tablet, though it's not as integrated into the operating system as it was there.
It's basically an incredibly well-formed attempt at a catch-all notes-taking app. Want to record audio notes? That's fine. Want to type some notes? That's OK, too. Maybe you want to sketch something quickly – you can! And you can mix it all into one note, with association of when written notes are made to a corresponding part of an audio recording, so you can skip to the right part of the audio.
It's even context-sensitive; if your calendar says you're in a meeting, when you create a new note it'll ask if it should be attached to that meeting. It also syncs with Evernote with all of the cloud note service's features, including searchable text.
It's a superb app, though we're not sure this media-focused phone is the best debut for it on smaller devices. We hope to see it appear on more of HTC's range soon.
There are Facebook and Twitter apps, of course, but they're a disjointed experience on the device. There are the standalone official apps, which are very good. There is also the FriendStream app, which isn't. Or, wait, is HTC Peep? Sense doesn't seem sure when it comes to notifications.
There are some nice touches to how FriendStream works as a Twitter app, such as being able to quickly see who's retweeted something, but it's really weak overall. The official apps are much better, even if they are separate.
They run quickly, and there's plenty of space and nice big text on the 4.7-inch screen. There's also the Fb Chat app for, well, Facebook Chat. It's also quick to load up and find your friends.
Dropbox has been integrated into HTC Sense now, and HTC users get 5GB of storage instead of the usual 2GB for free users. It's pretty simple: sign in and you're taken straight to your Dropbox folder. You can open anything that can be opened, and lots of apps can upload straight to it.
You can upload manually from the app, though if you want to upload a file type that isn't a photo, video or audio file, you'll get an error initially – HTC hasn't installed a file manager, so there's no way to go browing out of the box.
The usual raft of Google tools are here, including YouTube, a Google Search app, Google's News & Weather app and more. HTC has added the HTC Hub, which lets you access the Phone Finder feature of HTCSense.com, and offers a quick way to find more wallpapers, ringtones, Scenes, apps and more. HTC Likes is another addition, offering some curation of the Android Market.
Polaris Office is included for any word processing/spreadsheeting needs you may have. It's an app that works great on tablets, such as the Asus Eee Pad Slider, for creating content, but not quite as well on a phone. It makes for a great reader app, though.
SoundHound is on board for identifying songs, and HTC's Reader ereader app. It's quite a good app, with a store powered by Kobo, but we don't think it'll tempt anyone away from Kindle.
The only really notably missing app from the Sensation XL is a music-purchasing app, such as 7Digital or Amazon's MP3 store. We thought one would be included, but it's not hard to remedy this in the Android Market.
Google's Maps app is included with the HTC Sensation XL, as you'd expect, but there's also HTC's own Locations app. Both offer turn-by-turn directions, but the difference is that Locations downloads maps to your device the first time you use it, and you have to pay for the sat-nav service after 30 days.
Locations is designed more to be sat-nav than the directions function of Google Maps – it's got a separate interface for when driving, with big icons for each buttons that are easier to press. It's also got a clear points-of-interest list, making it easier to find things nearby that on Google's offering.
Maps has its own fancy features, though. This latest version has the fancy 3D buildings, and can even show you what junctions look like in navigation mode using Street View.
We found both apps fairly responsive to touch controls, though adding the 3D buildings in Maps did slow it down slightly.
Both got our location quickly and accurately, though, and had no trouble following us.
Battery life and connectivity
We've seen a lot of big-screened devices that have struggled slightly when it comes to battery life, but the HTC Sensation XL actually does OK in this department. Not brilliantly, we'll admit, but it definitely doesn't disgrace itself.
The 1600mAh battery is perfect capable of surviving a couple of days of very light use, though hammering the social network updates will mean it drops a lot quicker. It's not hard to chew through a good 50% of the battery in a few hours if you start up on the Flash videos and constant browsing of photos on Facebook, but but we think most users will find that it lasts the day, but needs charging most nights – same as pretty much every smartphone we see these days.
Though we've already bemoaned the lack of microSD card slot, it's not difficult to get media and other files onto the Sensation XL. When plugging it into your PC over the micro USB port, you just need to choose for it to appear as mass storage, and you can drag and drop stuff on quickly.
You can also use the HTC Sync software to sync contacts and calendars with Outlook on a PC, and it can also be used to import photos and video, sync bookmarks and even install apps.
Bluetooth 3.0 is included in the Sensation XL, complete with A2DP for audio connectivity. There 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi in there too. The 3.5mm headphone jack is just as you'd expect to be: normal.
The locations services use the built-in GPS antenna, while 3G connectivity is handled by the quad-band HSPA antenna.
HTCSense.com is HTC's website that connects to the HTC Hub app on your phone. When you've registered, you can use it to track your phone, and to set up call forwarding, make the phone ring so you can find it, and even lock and erase your device.
It all worked as intended with the Sensation XL for us; the locations narrowed down quickly, and any other commands happened pretty much immediately.
You can also back up your contacts and find friends with HTC Sense, but this can't be accessed from the web view – it's just the Dashboard and your account details.
When first got our hands on the HTC Sensation XL, we weren't really sure what to make of it. After giving it a good going over… we aren't sure what to make of it. At least, not in the way it fits into the Sensation product line. You have the original HTC Sensation, which then got a spec bump with the HTC Sensation XE. It's a clear step up.
With the Sensation XL, though, you get a downgrade in horsepower and screen resolution, but an upgrade in software (from Sense 3.0 to 3.5) and a bigger screen size (up to 4.7 inches). You swap a microSD card slot for 16GB of internal memory.
When it comes down to it, this is a tweaked HTC Titan, and it shows. We're honestly not sure why HTC made this part of the Sensation product range rather than giving it a separate name.
But we can't let that colour our judgement too much, because while the XL may not excel in they way the other Sensation handsets do, it's clearly a very good phone in its own right.
The screen is vibrant, bright and clear. It's even nice and crisp, despite being pretty big with a lower resolution than its Sensation siblings, and video looks great on it.
HTC Sense 3.5 is a nice little upgrade (though nothing to get too excited about) to an already excellent Android overlay. The Dropbox deal is great, and the Notes app is an understated marvel.
Despite being a 'mere' single-core processor, this is generally a phone that responds quickly and smoothly. The speed tweaks to the camera are also very welcome.
In fact, the stills camera is rather good overall. The backside illumination pays off well, and we got lots of nice, crisp images from it. We did some head-to-head tests, and the iPhone 4S beats it for detail with the flash off, but it's still hugely impressive, and better than just about every other phone.
And the Beat audio integration is a great addition, and one that makes the phone stand out. Music sounds really, really good, and that's what counts here.
As we said above, the phone is fast and responsive for the most part, but it does stumble here and there, and often enough for us to bring it up again here. We're not talking about catastrophic crashes or anything, but it's frustrating when all you want to do is flick to the next Home screen and the carousel goes whizzing away.
And as we mentioned in our review, there can be a disconnect between HTC's apps and what else is there. You've got two email apps, and Friend Stream and Twitter/Facebook often clash and confuse, and there are plenty of other duplicate options. It's not what we'd call crystal clear from a user's point of view.
It's a real shame to have 16GB of built-in storage as the only option – why not an SD card slot as well? Similarly, it's a shame there's no FLAC lossless support for music files, since this is such a music-focused phone.
The video recording was absolutely terrible, which is even more of a shame when you look at the quality of the stills camera. It's also an eyebrow-raiser that this doesn't do 1080p when the Sensation and Sensation XE both do, even though this is MORE expensive.
Speaking of which, the price is the biggest stumbling block for Sensation XL as it stands. As a mid-range, big-screen handset, HTC would be onto a genuine winner here. But the price puts it in the firing line of the Sensation XE, the Samsung Galaxy S2 and the iPhone 4S. And, frankly, it comes out at the bottom of that list.