HTC Sensation XL review: Music and the beast

GSMArena team, 22 November 2011.
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Tags: HTC, Android, Touch UI

Retail box

The Sensation XL comes in a big box, befitting a big phone. When you open it up, you see the phone in the middle with the earplugs of the iBeats headset on its sides. The headset is courtesy of Monster and is slightly different than the retail version: it has a set of three chrome-plated music controls instead of a single button. The middle Play/Pause button doubles as a call key.

The headset has the same eye-catching red cabling we saw on the Sensation XE headset, even though the XL doesn’t have the matching red accents (just the red Beats logo on the back). Still, it looks cool.

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The HTC Sensation XL retail package

There is a fancy pouch too with some spare ear tips of varying size.

By the way, HTC will be offering a limited edition version of the Sensation XL package, which replaces the iBeats headphones with an over-ear headset, the Solo. You can see those in our Sensation XL hands-on.

Of course, the Sensation XL box contains the usual boring stuff as well - a compact charger that uses the provided microUSB cable to charge the phone. There are manuals too.

360-degree spin

The HTC Sensation XL isn't as extra large as its name might suggest. Measuring 132.5 x 70.7 x 9.9 mm, it's not much bigger than handsets with 4.3" screens. And while the 162.5g of weight are on the heavy side, we've seen smaller phones that weigh as much. So, the phone is fairly compact for something bearing the XL tag.

Design and build quality

HTC have kept the design of the Sensation XL very clean. There are no different materials patched up together like on some other phones (*cough*Sensation*cough*). We especially like the big aluminum plate of the back that wraps around the sides too - it gives the phone a really premium feel.

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The HTC Sensation XL is attractive looking and well built

When you put it next to phones with 4.3" screens, the HTC Sensation XL is noticeably bigger, but not huge. It's still phone-sized compared to 5+ inch phoneblets.

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Size comparison with Galaxy S II and Galaxy Note

The S-LCD capacitive unit of the HTC Sensation XL has WVGA resolution and not qHD, which has been a common sight of late in HTC phones. It was obviously not an option for the Titan (WP7 supports only WVGA for now) but Android scales happily to higher resolutions (720p resolution would have been amazing on the XL's screen).

To put things into perspective, the HTC Sensation XE's 4.3" touchscreen has a pixel density of 256ppi, while the XL manages only 199ppi.

Yes, the screen size is quite a stretch for the resolution. This is most embarrassingly visible when reading text (e.g. in the web browser). Text is as good as impossible to read at max zoom-out - you need to zoom in, but that means you lose some of the real-estate advantage that the large screen gives you.

Resolution aside, the screen is one of the best we've seen by HTC - it has brilliant viewing angles (there's some minor contrast loss, but that's it) and colors are very vivid.

We measured the brightness and contrast of the Sensation XL's screen and (expectedly) it turned out very close to that of the Titan. The display is pretty bright though the black levels could be better. Contrast stays above 1000:1, which is pretty good, better than the Sensation XE.

Display test 50% brightness 100% brightness
Black, cd/m2 White, cd/m2 Contrast ratio Black, cd/m2 White, cd/m2 Contrast ratio
HTC Sensation XL 0.22 231 1045 0.52559 1085
HTC Titan 0.26 233 891 0.56567 1007
HTC Sensation 0.21 173 809 0.61 438 720
Motorola Atrix 4G 0.48 314 652 0.60 598 991
LG Optimus 2X 0.23 228 982 0.35 347 1001
Sony Ericsson XPERIA Arc 0.03 34 1078 0.33 394 1207
Samsung I9100 Galaxy S II 0 231 0 362
HTC Incredible S 0.18 162 908 0.31 275 880
Apple iPhone 4 0.14 189 1341 0.39 483 1242

The display coating is highly reflective though, which ruins sunlight legibility - the reflections of the sky often eclipse the screen contents.

Above the HTC Sensation XL's screen there's a secondary 1.3 MP video-call camera, a proximity sensor and an ambient light sensor. There's a charging/notification LED there too that remains invisible when it's off.

Four haptic-enabled capacitive touch controls are placed below the 4.7"display. The usual Android keys (Home, Menu, Back and Search) are well-spaced and easy to use.

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Above and under the display

The sides of the Sensation XL are light on ports and buttons - the left side houses an exposed microUSB port, which doubles as a charging port. The right side has only the big volume control, which isn't the most comfortable volume rocker we've used.

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The left side is home to the microUSB port • Only the volume rocker is on the right

The top of the HTC Sensation XL features the 3.5 mm audio jack, a secondary microphone for active noise cancellation and the power/lock button. The power/lock button is flush with the surface to prevent accidental presses but is relatively easy to use - but you have to use two hands, the phone is just too big to reach the button with one hand.

At the bottom of the XL is the primary microphone and the battery cover latch.

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The top of the HTC Sensation XL • The bottom

Over at the back, the 8MP camera lens sits between a dual LED flash combo and a loudspeaker grill. The camera protrudes so the phone rests on it when you place it down. You need to be careful what surfaces you put it on or the lens might get scratched.

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On the back of the HTC Sensation XL

Pressing the battery cover latch causes the screen and phone innards to pop out. Effectively, the battery cover wraps the phone's body in. This solution helps avoid wobbles and squeaks but doesn't quite qualify as a unibody. We have a full-sized battery cover and a phone that divides into two equally sized parts. For a real unibody, you need to check out the HTC Radar or the older HTC Legend.

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Removing the battery cover

Still, the back cover is made almost entirely of aluminum and quite a thick piece of it too - you can see "ribs" on the side of the cover to ensure there isn't even a millimeter of the back that gives way when you press it.

There's a patch of plastic at the bottom, which houses the wireless antennas. The antennas are well isolated and don't suffer from the death grip. The only downside of this solution is that all wireless signals are cut off when you take the back cover off.

Anyway, underneath you'll find a 1600 Li-Ion battery and the SIM card compartment. There's no microSD card slot here.

The battery could have been bigger, for reference the Sensation XE packs a 1730mAh battery (though it needs it to feed its dual-core CPU).

We performed a detailed battery test on the HTC Sensation XL and it lasted 40 hours when subjected to general usage. The battery lived long in 3G calls - 9 hours and 30 minutes, longer than the advertised 6 hours and 50 minutes. The Sensation XL lasts 5 hours and 20 minutes of web browsing over Wi-Fi and 6 hours and 10 minutes of video watching.

Those numbers compare favorably against the competition, except the video playing performance, which is 2-3 hours behind the leaders of the pack.

The HTC Sensation XL fits well in the hand in most pockets. Still, the sizable screen means you'll have trouble reaching the top items on the display, at least at first. You get used to it but still isn't the most comfortable thing in the world.

This aside, the build quality of the XL is great - the large slab of aluminum on the back gives the phone a premium feel and even the white plastic for the antennas is great. The phone is a bit on the heavy side, but it's not too much of a burden.

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The HTC Sensation XL held in hand

One processor core for an extra 0.4" of screen - is the tradeoff from the Sensation XE worth it? We already saw how the 4.7" screen performs, later we'll be running benchmarks to gauge the performance difference.

But first we'll do the overview of the latest Sense UI, which while familiar, packs a few changes since we last saw it.

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