HTC Sensation XL review: Music and the beast

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

Updated Sense 3.5 brings slight improvements

The HTC Sensation XL comes with Android 2.3.5 Gingerbread and a new version of the HTC Sense, v3.5. Gingerbread and the HTC custom skin on top should be familiar enough though some changes stuck out early on.

Here's a video demo of the latest Sense UI running on the Sensation XL - the phonebook is one of the things that changed, so that's one thing to look out for.

The HTC lockscreen has to be the most functional, most customizable lockscreen we've seen yet. By default, it has four shortcuts and a ring at the bottom. You drag the ring towards the center of the screen to unlock the phone.

Or, you can drag any of the shortcuts into the ring to unlock the phone and launch the corresponding app. You can assign any four apps to the lockscreen that you like.

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The lockscreen is brilliant

But that's not the end of it - the HTC Sensation XL comes with six different lockscreens preinstalled. You can access the others from the Personalize menu.

The default homescreen just shows the ring, four shortcuts, the time and the homescreen wallpaper. Then there's the Photo album lockscreen, which tosses photos from your gallery in cool 3D.

There's the Friend Stream widget which shows SNS updates from your friends and the Weather widget which shows off the Sense UI's cool weather animations. There's Stocks too - with quotes flying up or down, again, in eye-pleasing 3D. Finally, there's the Clock lockscreen which shows a bigger clock - you can pick any of the 11 clock widgets you have.

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Some of the preloaded lockscreens • Choosing the four lockscreen shortcuts

Unfortunately, you can't download new lockscreens from HTC Hub.

Going further than the lockscreen reveals the familiar Sense homescreen. There, we meet a scroll arc at the bottom that is just an indication of which homescreen pane you’re on – it can't be used for actual scrolling.

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Some of the homescreen sections

There’s Leap view instead - tap the home key (while on the center homescreen) or do a pinch gesture to zoom out to display the thumbnails of all seven homescreen panes at once. Upon a press and hold you can drag to reposition the homescreen panes as well.

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Leap View lets you quickly switch between homescreen panes • Deleting a pane

What's new here is that you can add and delete panels, not just reorder them. There's a 7 panel maximum, which is enough to fit a great deal of widgets.

HTC Sense comes with HTC proprietary Scenes – essentially six custom homescreen setups (Work, Travel, Social, etc). Each scene changes the wallpaper and the set of widgets. For instance, the Work scene has a Stocks widget, while the Social offers a Twitter widget. Those can be customized, of course.

You select a Scene within a fancy-looking 3D card interface. You can modify existing scenes and you can get more scenes off the HTC Hub.

Switching between scenes takes a couple of seconds but the customization goes deep – the business and personal modes that some competing phones offer seem quite limited compared to the HTC Scenes.

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Preset scenes • The scenes in action

The HTC Sense has another customization option called Skins. Every skin changes the look and feel of most of the onscreen buttons, application screens, option menus, and other items. They also come with unique wallpaper and use different colors for various UI elements. They can also replace the standard dock, lockscreen and widget frames with custom ones or change their shape.

The main menu has the typical grid layout, which is composed of vertical pages with shortcuts sorted alphabetically. You can choose between two different sorting options - alphabetically or most recent - but you can't rearrange them manually. There's a list layout, where two-finger alphabet scrolling is enabled.

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The grid layout • settings

The main menu has a tabbed layout similar to different Sense elements (such as the phonebook). There are three tabs available at the bottom – All apps, Frequent and Favorites. They are quite useful especially when you have lots of installed applications.

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The list layout

Tapping the Personalize button brings out a whole screen of items to choose from – for the display (scenes, wallpapers and skin), for the homescreen (widgets, shortcuts, folders, etc.) and even sounds (ringtones, alarms, notifications and Sound set).

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The Personalize menu

In the widget section, both types of widgets (custom HTC and stock Android) are placed on the same page. There are so many of them you may find the seven homescreen panes short. You can download new widgets off the Market or the HTC Hub.

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Plenty of HTC widgets

When you select a widget you are prompted to choose between several versions – most widgets have at least two styles. The different versions typically offer at least two sizes of the widget and different skins. For example, there are thirteen different clocks.

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Some different styles of the Twitter and Weather widgets

Some widget styles even offer different functionality. One version of the Twitter widget, for instance, shows updates for the people you follow and lets you tweet/update status. The other version displays @mentions.

Editing the homescreen is different from vanilla Android. You can tap and hold on a widget and you can drag across homescreen panes. While you're dragging a widget (or shortcut or whatever), two "buttons" appear at the bottom of the screen - Edit and Remove. You drop the widget on either button to perform the corresponding action.

Edit can be used to modify the settings of a widget - e.g. choose a different folder for the Photo Frame album or even choose a different version of the Clock widget. This saves you the trouble of first deleting a widget and then putting it on the screen again to choose a different version, setting and so on.

The second "button" is Remove, which deletes the widget as expected.

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Dragging a widget gives you options

The notification area features a list of recent apps (in addition to the notification list), just like a task switcher. A press and hold of the Home button works too. The notification area is tabbed too - the second tab has toggles for WLAN, Bluetooth, GPS, cellular data or the Wi-Fi hotspot. There is a shortcut to the full list of settings and the last line shows used/free memory.

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The new notification area doubles as a task switcher • the quick settings tab

Besides the standard task switcher, you get a task manager too. It's simple to use - each running app is listed with an indication of how much RAM it's using (no CPU usage reading though). You can terminate apps one by one and there's a Kill All button too.

Another useful app that HTC preloaded is the usage monitor - it tracks you data, call and message usage. There are apps in the Market that do the same, but this one is styled to match the rest of the interface. We wish it had a widget for at-a-glance usage info though.

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HTC's task manager

The fast boot feature is enabled on the HTC Sensation XL but it won’t work if you have removed the battery – in that case it will do a regular slow boot.

The cool things is apps preserve their state after the restart – so if you were browsing a web site before turning the phone off, the browser will restore your session.

Our guess is, HTC use some sort of Suspend or Hibernate routine as seen in regular computers to implement the fast boot.

Synthetic benchmarks

Hearing about a single-core CPU and Adreno 205 GPU made us worry a bit, but the Sense UI runs silky smooth without even a hint of lag. The 768MB of RAM proved enough too.

Still, we would be remiss if we didn’t subject the HTC Sensation XL to our usual set of benchmarks.

The first one is BenchmarkPi - a CPU-intensive single-core benchmark. Here, the XL scored very close to its single-core rivals.

Linpack is a multithreading-enabled benchmark - the Sensation XL was tested in single-thread mode, while others were tested in multi-threading mode. Surprisingly, the XL was faster than the dual-core XE (that one had software issues we think). Still, the Sensation XL was within reach of the 2x 1GHz Optimus 2X (running Gingerbread).

The Adreno 205 graphics however posted dismal performance in NenaMark 2 - while most games right aren't as heavy as the benchmark, newer high-end games will be unplayable on the Sensation XL.

The two in-browser benchmarks managed to surprise us - HTC must have worked really hard on the JavaScript engine as it beat all others hands down. The high clock speed also helped out quite a bit here (JavaScript is single threaded), but can't account for all the performance advantage.

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