As mobile phones begin to mature into more and more powerful devices, we find ourselves beginning to wonder what the differences are between all of them and which devices are more powerful than others. This has been discussed mostly while referring to dual core phones; these phones are all relatively new to the market and add a whole new level of performance to phones that has never been seen before. While having a Qualcomm, Texas Instruments or NVIDIA dual core is important, the OS and software support are even more important. As we’ve seen with some dual core devices in the past, having a dual core processor does not necessarily mean that the performance will be there. The best example of this is actually found in a tablet, in the form of the recently defunct HP Touchpad. The Touchpad was riddled with performance issues. However, the problems were not with the hardware, but rather with the software support. It is not entirely evident who should be blamed, but there is almost no doubt that the software is oftentimes more important than the hardware.
This brings us to our review, today we will be reviewing the HTC Sensation 4G for T-Mobile and evaluating its worthiness as a phone for someone expecting only the best.
Key Technologies – Hardware and Software
This brings us to the HTC Sensation. It is a member of the dual core smartphone category; it was even referred to as a ‘Superphone’ by Nvidia’s CEO Jen Hsun Huang at CES this year when describing their Tegra 2 processor based devices. The HTC Sensation is powered by the Qualcomm MSM 8260 SoC, which is a dual core processor powered by two 1.2GHz Scorpion 2nd generation Snapdragon cores. This is actually part of the Snapdragon S3 family of processors which include the APQ 8060, MSM 8260, and the MSM 8660; all of which are variants of the 8x60 series of processors in which the APQ processor is missing the modem to enable cellular connectivity. This processor is also manufactured using the TSMC 45nm manufacturing process which allows for higher clock speeds and lower power consumption. Essentially, this means that the HP Touchpad and HTC Sensation are technically running almost the exact same processor. The MSM 8260 also has the Adreno 220 GPU as part of the 8260 SoC, which enabled improved 3D graphics and gaming and puts it into the S3 class of processors. This should enable us to get a lot of really great gaming, video, and browsing. Considering how many resources Qualcomm sinks into software development efforts on behalf of their processors, we’d expect nothing short of a flawless experience using this processor.
After discussing the hardware performance at length we now jump into the software aspect of the phone. The HTC Sensation runs Android 2.3.4 also known as its codename ‘Gingerbread’. This means that the Sensation is running the latest version of the Google Android operating system, which enables the best performance for any Android based smartphone. On top of that, it also features the latest version of HTC’s famed SenseUI, which has been in use since the early Android days (Oct. 09) and late Windows Mobile days. Currently, the HTC Sensation is running Sense UI 3.0 which was released on HTC’s latest dual core phones; the HTC Sensation and the HTC Evo 3D. This UI is actually very different from its predecessors in one very significant (and in our opinion; revolutionary) way. It utilizes the lock screen in a way we haven’t seen before on an Android device. It enables the user to launch applications from the locked menu screen.
The ability to launch applications from the lock screen means that there is no more waiting for applications to load or to find applications you use the most after unlocking. You can simply unlock the phone directly to the application of choice and it will generally launch almost instantaneously. The Stock SenseUI 3.0 comes with four applications that you can customize to your needs. The four applications that HTC chose were Phone, Mail, Camera, and Messages. Quite frankly, these are probably the four most used applications on a smartphone, and for our purposes they fit our usage scenarios quite well. It also allows you to preview your notifications from those applications in the lock screen before even opening the application. We found this to be an extremely useful way of implementing the lock screen. This feature also creates the ability for widgets to be used inside of the lock screen which welcomes developers to develop for SenseUI.
The SenseUI 3.0 allows widgets to run inside of the lock screen while still making the lock screen useful for what it was originally intended, since you still cannot accidentally launch any application without dragging it into the circle. Sense UI 3.0 doesn’t just bring improvements to the lock screen; it also improves the well known Android drop down menu. It does this by adding recently launched applications in the order of which they had last been used and also allows you to quickly access them without even opening the main Android desktop.
In addition to widgets, HTC has also added another tab to the drop down menu which allows you to manage your connectivity from the drop down and does away with the previously used connectivity widget. These quick connection options include Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi hotspot, Mobile Network, Bluetooth, GPS, All System Settings and it gives you a status of used and available memory. All of this in one easy and convenient drop down is a brilliant idea, and we’re very happy to see HTC understanding the needs of the consumer and streamlining SenseUI to improve the Android experience. The truth of the matter is that in the past, SenseUI was simply an attractively designed RAM hog but it has evolved into an extremely useful and capable user interface that adds value to Android and any device running SenseUI.
HTC Sensation 4G Specifications
4.3” capacitive touch screen operating at 540x960 resolution (qHD)
1.2 GHz Dual Core Qualcomm Snapdragon S3 MSM 8260 SoC with Adreno 220 GPU
1GB Internal storage with 768MB of RAM Plus memory card slot
8MP Camera with AF and dual LED flash
Front facing VGA fixed focus camera
1080P Video recording
3.5mm stereo audio jack
HSPA+ (4G) with upto 14.4Mbps/5.76Mbps download/upload speed
1520mAh Lithium-ion battery
Weight: 5.22oz (148g)
Supports Quad-Band GSM (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz) and HSPA/WCDMA (900/AWS/2100 MHz)
Build Quality and Design
The HTC Sensation is by far one of the best designed Android phones we’ve seen to date. It employs a very unique unibody aluminum casing that essentially splits the phone into two pieces. The battery and the aluminum Unibody backing also double as a battery door. This is in contrast to previous HTC designs which usually have either a large back piece of plastic, or a battery door that also provides access to the memory and SIM cards. With this design, though, HTC has fixed an irritatiting issue. Now, the memory card is not hidden behind the battery, but rather to the side of the battery. This means you can swap memory cards without having to take out the battery and power down the phone. This may not be a big deal for some, but for someone who switches between phones or memory cards often, it is an attractive feature. They also made part of the back of the aluminum back piece slightly rubberized so that it can be held easily. These are the corners where you’d find yourself most likely to grip the phone, whether you are a left- or right-handed. Furthermore, it provides the covering for both the speakerphone and earphone.
Pictured Above: HTC Sensation, Nokia N8, HTC G2
The phone itself is not too large, and it is very ergonomic and comfortable. The design itself is attractive and functional, but lacks a hardware camera button which would have been much better for taking photos and videos. We’ll get into this more as we delve deeper into the review. The phone itself looks like it is hybrid of HTC design and Samsung design. The quality of the phone is solid, and nothing feels flimsy or too plastic. The aluminum backing of the phone gives it a rigid but comfortable feel, and seem durable enough that the phone would not break if dropped. However, with such a rigid design there are also risks. If the back piece gets cracked or broken, it would likely be expensive to replace it as it houses the antennas for the phone. If the phone is held with the backing, it gets full HSPA+ (‘4G’) reception, but without it, it loses 3G and 4G reception and reverts to 2G. This is a point of contention consumers should be aware of when buying this phone. The back piece of the phone is EXTREMELY important and cannot simply be replaced by a 3rd party battery door.
HTC Sensation and HTC G2 battery cover comparison
Packaging and Accessories
The packaging is fairly minimalist, and it includes information about the contents of the box and what the main features of the phone are. The box contains the phone with the battery, charger, headset with audio controls and clip, USB charger (USB cable + wall plug), the Manual/Quickstart Guide and the Terms and Conditions booklet. T-Mobile also offers you the opportunity to easily recycle your old cell phone in order to be ‘green’ which is a great effort on their part, although they likely make money off of recycled phones and consumers are probably better off recycling it for money through a kiosk like EcoATM.
Simple Box, Detailed Specs and Box Contents (Power, USB, Headset)
When it came to first use, setting everything up was fairly simple and straightforward. It was as simple as inserting the memory card and SIM card and powering the phone on. Then came the typical set up for Android, which involved attaching the phone to a Google account and the rest was fairly simple and straightforward. We were able to set up email accounts, Gmail accounts, Facebook accounts, Ttwitter accounts, etc. very quickly and easily. There were no bugs with the initial set up and the phone could easily be purchased and in full working order within hours. This is great because it doesn’t require days of configuration and the HTC Sense UI is a big help in that respect.
The user interface is one of the most important, if not the most important, part of a cell phone nowadays. As a result of this importance, HTC has been putting a lot of effort into improving the standard Android experience with the advent of their HTC Sense user interface. This interface has been slowly evolving since its inception on early Android phones.
As we detailed before, HTC Sense UI has improved significantly in the many areas, such as the Android pull down menu as well as the revamped lock screen. This does not take into account the minor improvements and updates to the previously existing components of Sense. The Sense UI is generally designed to take up all of the panes/desktops in Android OS. The UI is highly intuitive due to its circular and graphical design. Meaning that if you get to the last pane, it does not just stop like it would on stock Android but rather rolls over to the first pane on the other side and vice-versa. Also, the sliding animations have become more graphically intensive and aesthetically pleasing, while also improving the fluidity of the animation which was not as smooth in the past. There is no hesitation or graphical stuttering when switching from pane to pane and the response to touch when switching between panes is almost flawless.
Furthermore, the personalization features and options are nearly limitless and provide both quality and quantity when it comes to getting Sense UI to function and appear as desired. Because of HTC’s HTC Hub application, you can easily download more high quality non-stock Sense UI widgets, skins, and wallpapers.
Calling and Reception
When it came to calling and reception the HTC Sensation did not falter. It provided crystal clear audio quality as well as good signal strength in places where T-Mobile has that level of service. We noticed that we did not experience great signal strength in our area as we were not in a location that had that many towers. Overall, though the signal strength appeared to be strong and only slightly lagged behind our HTC G2, which actually had slightly better reception; -85dba rather than -91dba in the exact same area. This could be due in part to the fact that the phone has a different antenna design than the G2, but it does not in any way affect the performance of the phone.
Since this is a 4G phone, we found ourselves obligated to evaluate the HSPA+ ‘4G’ data reception and speeds. The reason we label it ‘4G’ is simply because it really isn’t a ‘4G’ technology but rather marketed as such. It is more akin to 3.9G or an approximate equivalent. It is not quite 4G, as it must be considered that it is simply an updated brother or sister of HSPA which is officially known as 3.5G. The HSPA+ coverage was approximately 90% of areas where we had coverage. Most of the areas where HSPA+ coverage was not available were generally inside of buildings or in poor coverage areas. Otherwise, HSPA+ coverage was good. In addition, we had some very high speed results that we managed to pull from Speedtest.net’s app for Android. The result that we found on most tests was approximately 6 or 7Mbp/s download and between 2 and 3Mbps/s upload. This is just one of the many tests we ran, although this one was actually done indoors with mediocre signal strength.
With these speeds were we operating on -91dba signal strength with an ASU of 10. We found that at times the upload speeds would occasionally drop down to around 400-500Kbps rather than the speedier 2-3Mbps that we generally experienced.
When it came to web browsing, the HTC Sensation 4G was extremely powerful. This is mostly due to Qualcomm working closely with HTC to make certain that phones running their latest processors are capable of great in-browser graphical performance and scrolling, among other features. The best illustration of this is visible in the Vellamo scores that we got. Just a note, Vellamo is a web benchmarking tool developed and used by Qualcomm, but it is generally accepted as a quality web benchmarking suite. The pinch and zoom on the Sensation was also some of the most responsive web browser pinch and zoom we’ve ever seen.
Additionally, because of the HTC Sensation we found ourselves wishing that news sites and other websites didn’t deliver mobile web pages because they were too boring for the Sensation. We ended up trying at every opportunity to switch to the full site because the Sensation had no problem showing the site in its complete capacity and full quality. With this phone, there is little need for some of the extremely restrictive apps that many websites create. With this device and Flash 10.3, the incredible web-surfing experience in the browser really eliminates any need for dedicated applications. On top of all that, the ability to quickly switch between windows with almost zero graphical lag made concurrently browsing on multiple web pages highly efficient and easy to do. This is mostly due to the fact that the HTC Sensation is a dual core phone with a decent GPU, as well as ample memory to run many web pages and apps at the same time without slowing down.
When it comes to text input there are very few good options on an Android device that does not have a keyboard. The most common of these is Swype. Swype has been integrated into the majority of today’s Android smartphones as a solution to slow and inaccurate touch screen typing. The HTC Sensation 4G features Swype but realistically, it does not really need it as much as its smaller-screened counterparts. The 4.3” screen is actually impossible to Swype with in landscape mode and you’ll find yourself just typing on screen with almost 100% accuracy. However, in portrait mode you’ll find that Swype becomes much handier as you can literally type away with one hand very quickly and with decent accuracy. Although admittedly with Swype you will still find yourself occasionally becoming frustrated Swype’s choices for words. Nevertheless, the text input on this device is decent and eases the yearning for a physical QWERTY keyboard phone, compared to smaller screened phones.
Video and Video Chat
For this part of the review we decided to compare the video on this phone against the video of our Nikon D5100 16MP camera which also shoots video at 1080P. In order to compare, we put both the phone and our camera in nearly identical video situations both shooting at 1080P. We also shot the phone at the phone’s native resolution of 540x960 just to compare and contrast against the phone’s 1080P video recording capability.
Shot on the HTC Sensation at 1080P 4G in Sunny Conditions
Shot on the D5100 at 1080P in Sunny Conditions
Shot on the HTC Sensation at native (960x540) resolution in flat lighting
Shot on the D5100 at 1080P in flat lighting
Upon testing the phone’s video we realized that the camera does not default to the maximum 1920x1080 resolution but rather to 960x540. This is probably because once the resolution is brought up to 1920x1080, the camera jitter increases significantly. At full res, the video looks quite good when not blown up to 1920x1080 resolution. Once blown up to full res on a computer, the pixelation becomes evident. This is in contrast to our Nikon D5100 which does not suffer from camera jitter and has no pixelation whatsoever in identical lighting conditions. At 960x540, the camera quality is severely reduced, but there is less pixelation and almost no camera jitter. If you plan on videotaping something to upload it to Facebook, it is recommended to shoot at the phone’s native resolution. However, if you absolutely must have the highest video quality possible and have decent lighting and not a lot of movement, then the 1080P video setting works well.
Since this phone has a front facing camera we decided to test the front facing camera and video chat. The phone comes preloaded with QIK video, but it is a rarely used application. Thankfully, during the course of our review Skype, released a new version of their mobile app that supported the HTC Sensation 4G with front facing video. Since the Sensation 4G is running on T-Mobile’s high-speed HSPA+ network, it can usually handle video chatting without fail. If you like, you can video chat over the network or you can video chat over Wi-Fi. Admittedly, the video performance and quality are better over Wi-Fi, but we were able to successfully initiate and maintain a video call while driving on the freeway. Don’t worry; we were completely hands free during this test (California Law). Having a Skype application on this phone that enables two-way video chatting is a great feature, and the more Android phones that support this, the more useful Skype will become as people begin to use Skype more frequently. The original issue preventing two-way video chat was the lack of ability to process such video and do it without lag, but now the primary issue is the network and the lack of decent upload speed on many carriers. Without a good upload, video chat becomes unusable, which is why video chat is better supported over the network on Verizon’s LTE or T-Mobile’s HSPA+.
Camera and Photography
When it comes to camera and photography, our testing methodology is the same as with video. We took photographs with the phone and the exact same photo with our Nikon D5100 in order to compare the two. The photos were from the exact same perspective, same composition, and same lighting conditions in order to remain as fair as possible.
Shot with the HTC Sensation 4G at full res
Shot with Nikon D5100 at full res
Shot with HTC Sensation at full res
Shot with Nikon D5100 at full res
In terms of the HTC Sensation 4G, we found that the photos came out very well and were taken very quickly. This is thanks to Qualcomm and HTC working together to implement an instantaneous photo; once the subject is in focus, the phone immediately takes a picture. This is in contrast to other cameras on smartphones which have generally had lag that results in many lost photo opportunities.
Shot with the HTC Sensation 4G at full res
Shot with the Nikon D5100 at full res
Based on the photo comparisons above you can see that the HTC Sensation does indeed take high quality photos which require very little retouching. In some photos we found that the phone actually shot closer to the RAW files that our DSLR shot in terms of color richness than the JPEGs the DSLR took. We did this to allow a comparison since our D5100 can shoot in RAW+JPEG mode. Also, in some situations the camera did have a little bit of ghosting which could have been a result of both the lighting conditions and the sensor or some camera shake. This leads us to our biggest complaint about photography on this camera.
One of the main things we found lacking on the HTC Sensation 4G is an actual hardware button for the camera. Granted, the instantaneous photo snapping significantly reduces camera vibration/shake but it does not make taking photos comfortable or convenient. A simple hardware button would make this phone a much better camera without many improvements in terms of UI or software. We also noticed that this phone does not have in-camera HDR, which is disappointing when considering the level of quality that the sensor is capable of and the fact that the iPhone has had native HDR for quite some time. We also reviewed a lot of the flat to low lighting photographs and noticed that there was a lot of noise; specifically chroma noise. This was a little discouraging, so we assume that either this sensor is not really intended for 8MP or that there needs to be improvement in the camera software.
Picture taken with front-facing camera
There is also a VGA front facing camera which takes mediocre photographs but serves itself well for front facing video chat.
...Extra shots from the HTC Sensation...
For the benchmarks we ran a wide array of tests. We ran a series of tests for the device’s CPU, GPU, Memory and Web Browsing capabilities. We essentially wanted to cover every aspect of performance of the device including network speed and strength.
An3DBenchXL – 3D Graphics benchmark
An3DBenchXL Score had some issues with tearing in score page
In An3DBenchXL we benchmarked the phone with this 3D graphics benchmark and obtained a decent result. When you look at the comparison links you can see that the Sensation performed on par with many of the latest and greatest phones available on the market including the Samsung Galaxy S2 and even other HTC Sensations and HTC Desire HDs.
AnTuTu – CPU/Memory/Graphics/IO benchmark
In the AnTuTu benchmark we are basically benchmarking the whole system in terms of CPU, memory, graphics and I/O. Based on our score of 4324, we can see that the HTC Sensation is a very high scoring device and stays on par with expectations. The score is a composite of all of the sub-scores below it which all carry different weights. In addition, the speed of the SD card will actually affect this benchmark as the speed of the memory card weighs a little bit on the overall score, although it is a very small part in terms of percentage. Based on this score in AnTuTu it is evident that the HTC Sensation scores quite well in terms of performance and performs similarly to the Motorola Xoom tablet.
Quadrant - CPU/Memory/Graphics/IO benchmark
Quadrant is very similar to AnTuTu in terms of what it benchmarks, although there is no benchmark for the SD card. Quadrant has more of a GPU bias and will grant a higher score to a device with a better GPU over one with a better CPU. As such, Quadrant is more of a GPU weighted benchmark but should still give a good idea of overall system performance. Based on the score that we obtained while running Quadrant we can see that the device is far outside of the previous generation of devices' performance levels and is on par with other devices we've tested like the Droid 3 which scored slightly over 2000.
Such a result is probably because the device that Qualcomm used as a benchmark was running Android 2.3.3. and not 2.3.4. This means that this consumer device is scoring on par with expectations and outperforming many other competitors’ dual core devices by a significant margin. Some may believe that this test could be Qualcomm biased since Qualcomm developed the test and this phone has a Qualcomm SoC in it. This could be true to a certain degree, but many of the tests in the suite were not even developed by Qualcomm and many of them are agnostic to the manufacturer of the processor. It should also be noted that the fastest device in Vellamo’s benchmarks isn’t even a Qualcomm based device, further casting doubt on a pro-Qualcomm bias.
SpeedTest – Internet throughput, ping, signal strength
SpeedTest itself is not a benchmark but we did combine SpeedTest with a measurement of the given signal strength at that moment to attempt to benchmark the connectivity/speed of the device in terms of HSPA+.
Looking at our speeds and signal strength we see that even at marginal signal strength we were able to attain 7.3Mbps down and 3.3Mbps up. This is all accomplished with a ping of 83 which is still within the bounds of acceptability for gaming. We did not attempt to tether the device to our computer for gaming as this was never touted as a feature, but we may explore it in a future article.
LuaPi –Memory performance
LuaPi is a simple measurement of how quickly the device can compute Pi (amount of digits not known). It will compute Pi as many times as you ask it to and it will continue to create a running average of your speeds. Based on this, it appears to take just under 2.7 seconds to calculate Pi. We will continue to use this benchmark in the future to compare devices against each other when measuring memory performance. This will also be based upon how much memory bandwidth is available which will be dependent upon the frequency of the memory and the amount of available memory. We ran LuaPi 10 times in all of our tests and our HTC G2 got an average of 3.4 seconds which is a little slower than the Sensation, primarily because the Sensation has a 768MB of RAM versus the G2’s 512MB of RAM. This represents 50% more RAM in the Sensation over the G2. However, the Sensation is also running HTC Sense UI which does take up more system resources including RAM.
In terms of the battery life for the HTC Sensation, the battery life was less than stellar. This can be primarily chalked up to the fact that the phone has a fairly large 4.3” screen which eats away at the battery as well as a very fast HSPA+ internet connection that also drains the battery rapidly. The HTC Sensation packs a 1520mAh battery which is standard size for most Android smartphones. On average, we found that the HTC Sensation got an average of a little over 7 hours of battery life. This was accomplished through using the device as if it were a normal cell phone with the occasional text message, phone call, app check and web browser. This figure improved by about half an hour or so once T-Mobile rolled out their 2.3.4 update OTA.
In terms of value, the HTC Sensation doesn’t come with too many extra accessories beyond the charging cable and headset, which are expected. There aren’t too many added values from HTC outside of the HTC Hub which does provide for some free customizations. The HTC Sensation 4G’s value really rests upon its performance, quality, and design in respect to price. Currently, the HTC Sensation 4G sells for $199 with a 2 year contract or $559 without a contract, which is normal for a high-end Android device. The HTC Sensation is not necessarily an incredible deal given its pricing, but it is definitely priced according to performance and features and does not seem overpriced given the quality and performance.
From our experiences with the HTC Sensation 4G, we found that it is a very powerful and aesthetically pleasing device that combines function and fashion quite elegantly. The HTC Sensation 4G is definitely a head turning device that still is capable of breakneck speeds according to modern benchmarks. HTC has spent a lot of time prefecting the HTC Sensation 4G to make it feel like a quality built device with highly refined software to support it. The quick update to 2.3.4 for the Sensation 4G is an indication of how dedicated HTC is to making sure that their devices are running on the latest software and that any bugs or performance issues are adequately addressed. Because of the way that HTC has utilized both the latest improvements for hardware and software in the Android space we are happy to award the HTC Sensation 4G our Editor’s Choice Award for Enthustiast because this device delivers the kind of performance and reliability that an enthusiast would come to expect.