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HTC Sensation XL review

The XL is the third phone of the year in HTC's Sensation range. Does it live up to the standards set by those devices or is yet more of the same? Read on to find out.

HTC knows how to make smartphones. The company proves this time and time again. But it may have made a fatal mistake with the Sensation XL. It comes without memory expansion capability.

That sounds like a really strange feature for an Android smartphone. Android is, after all, largely about apps and data. The former can be installed to SD card and the latter can be stored on SD card. Without support for memory expansion you are limited to a handset’s internal storage for both elements, and in the case of the Sensation XL that means 12.6GB as that is all the storage that’s accessible from the 16GB of internal memory.

The HTC Sensation XL incorporates Beats Audio and comes with a rather good quality set of headphones with inline controls to help make the most of the audio experience.

Add in the large screen – a 4.7 inch 480 x 800 pixel monster and the HTC Sensation XL can also function really well as a video viewing handset. Music and videos can take up a lot of storage space, especially the latter. We think you could fill the 12.6GB of storage rather quickly with media, and then spend a lot of time wishing for microSD card support.

The reason for this omission is pretty obvious. In manufacturing the Sensation XL, HTC appears to have used much of the design from the Windows Phone based HTC Titan, and Windows Phone doesn’t support external memory.

There are other HTC Titan legacies, and one of them is the screen resolution. 480 x 800 pixels might seem fine, but compare it to the HTC Sensation XE. That smartphone has a smaller screen at 4.3 inches, but a higher resolution at 540 x 960 pixels.

In terms of pixel density the XE’s resolution amounts to a pretty smooth 256 pixels per inch; the XL is just 199ppi. It is noticeably inferior, and the text appears jagged when zoomed out and is a lot harder on the eyes.

It also pales in comarison to the new Samsung Galaxy Nexus, which has a similar sized screen but significantly higher resolution.

Still, there is plenty to like. Even though it lacks in resolution the screen is really fantastic. Yes, it means the HTC Sensation XL is a large handset, and no, we couldn’t reach right across the screen for one-handed use, but when browsing the web, reading emails, tapping out on the keyboard, or just checking our diary, the 4.7 inches of screen space is stunning.

Moreover, the camera is rather special too. It shoots stills to 8 megapixels and the touch focusing means you can take shots precisely how you want them. It has a dual LED flash to assist with low light indoor photography, and we found this did help a bit, though still indoor and low light photos are not great.

Video recording runs to 720p, which is perfectly adequate for a smartphone though some people will bemoan the absence of full 1080p recording. There is a 1.3 megapixel front camera too.

The processor runs at 1.5GHz, and while it is single core it fairly zips along. We didn’t experience any delays with video rendering and even quite complex web sites downloaded quickly and with little fuss.

HTC Sense does its usual great job sitting on top of Android, and the seven home screens can be liberally peppered with Widgets. Sense is ideal for new users, as it polishes off some of the rougher edges of Gingerbread, although it is starting to show its age in some areas.

You might think such a large screened smartphone would suffer from poor battery life, but there is good news here. We managed to get a day from the HTC Sensation XL between charges, unless we were heavy users of streamed content or used GPS extensively. And a day’s battery life – more if you are frugal, is not to be sniffed at.

There is a lot to like about the HTC Sensation XL, but in the end, the compromises taken on storage and screen resolution are hard to overlook. HTC has made what could have been a great smartphone into merely a good one.

It has been a tougher than expected year for HTC, with its sales declining for the first time. It is a competitive market, for sure, but HTC has not helped itself with its 2011 product range. There have been too many products, with similar style, similar software and similar pricing and very little to distinguish one from the other.

In the past HTC had definitive handsets like the Desire or the Hero that were strong enough to hold their own in the marketplace. Over the last year it has taken to diluting its brands: three Sensations in one year is at least one Sensation too many.

Written by Sandra Vogel