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HTC Sensation XE review

A refresh of the Sensation sees HTC make the most of its recent deal with Beats by Dr Dre

Another month, another new Android phone from HTC. And another variant of something we’ve seen before at that. The HTC Sensation XE is a slightly souped up version of the HTC Sensation (and there’s a Sensation XL now, too, which is the same but bigger).

The focus of the XE is audio. It’s the first device to have been developed to take advantage of HTC’s recent tie-up with Beats by Dr Dre, a premium headphone and speaker brand developed by the renowned hip hop artist.

The Sensation XE comes with its own set of custom built Beats headphones. When you plug them in the special Beats Audio sound profile is activated; plug in your equally expensive Shures or Sennheisers instead and you just get the regular HTC profile instead.

There’s a noticeable difference between the two, with the Beats version being clearly superior and having far greater dynamic range even to our untrained ears. But if you install a third party music player that enables you to manually adjust the equaliser settings you can create something far more akin to what Beats offers with your own headset instead. And of course, true audiophiles would argue that if you really card about the sound quality you wouldn’t be listening to MP3s in the first place.

As a result it feels more like a branding exercise than anything else. If you like your headphones and the Dre connection appeals to you then the XE immediately becomes an attractive phone. If you mostly listen to lo-fi and don’t really care what it sounds like then it will leave you rather nonplussed.

Beyond that the XE is largely the same phone as the original Sensation. The processor has been bumped up from an already class-leading 1.2GHz dual-core to an eye-watering 1.5GHz dual-core (and the battery has been received a 14% capacity increase to 1730mAh accordingly), not that it’s easy to tell the difference given that the original was hardly sluggish to begin with.

The device runs Android 2.3, with HTC Sense UI, version 3.0. This is by far the most ambitious and successful of all the device manufacturers’ custom skins, and effectively smooths out the rougher edges of Gingerbread. Its presence does impact on how quickly, and indeed whether, HTC can offer full OS updates to its handsets, though.

At the time of writing the company had not announced its plans for rolling out updates to Android 4.0, and what it would mean for Sense if they did.

Everything about the Sensation XE screams power and it performs well in virtually every area. The browsing experience is fantastic as is the general multimedia performance (and there are stores for buying or renting content, from both HTC and Google). The 8MP camera is another solid effort from HTC, after years of mediocre cameras.

While not quite up to the standard that we’ll see from the Sensation XL it is now at least useable for more than quick snapshots. Full HD video recording is also satisfactory in all but the toughest lighting conditions. Elsewhere you get 1GB of internal storage plus an 8GB microSD card, the display is bright and sharp, and the battery will just about get you through the day.

As refreshes go the Sensation XE is about as minor as they get. The audio improvements are not majorly significant and the effect of the processor boost is negligible. Yet the price difference between this and its predecessor can be as little as about £40 Sim-free, which ultimately makes the newer model the one to go for.

That extra speed may become useful over the course of a two year contract, and the inclusion of a decent set of headphones for not very much more money is welcome.