Punchy new look
Most of the Sensation XE is black: hardly the most exciting colour scheme we've ever seen. But HTC has chosen a mix of materials with different textures that look great together and improve your grip on the phone at the same time. A few splashes of red around the edge of the handset underline the co-operation with Beats Audio and liven things up a little.
HTC Sensation on the left, HTC Sensation XE on the right
Everything else about it is pure HTC design, but the knowing wink to Beats Audio is nicely done and the phone is still nice to look at.
With a 4.3'' display, the XE isn't what we'd call a small smartphone. Instead, it joins the ranks of the bigger mobiles we've seen recently. Still, it's not too big to fit into your pocket, unless you're wearing some very skinny jeans. It's a pretty good weight for its size too.
The screen sits just inside the metallic exterior, and although it's not set back far enough for you to notice at first sight, that should help protect it from scratches over time. We really liked the higher resolution of 540 x 960 pixels, an improvement on the traditional 480 x 800 pixels, although we were disappointed to find an S-LCD display instead of S-AMOLED. The display has less contrast, but the colours are reproduced accurately, something you can't say about many of HTC's competitors. Things are much the same as with the HTC Sensation.
HTC's usual notification LED is there, and will flash into action as soon as anything changes online. There's still no micro-HDMI connection, so you'll need a special adaptor for the micro-USB port. A 16 GB microSD card is supplied by default. To get to it, you need to get the back cover off: it isn't easy, but at least you know the phone's insides are secure.
Sense is back and as smooth as ever
Compared to the original Sensation, the dual-core 1.5 GHz processor has only seen a minimal upgrade, while the GPU has only been slightly overclocked. As a result, the performance has hardly leapt forward, but the software still runs smoothly. Our tests show that it isn't as fast as either the LG Optimus 2X or the Galaxy S II, which we were expecting.
Sense behaves as impeccably as ever, even if there haven't been any significant changes. We're really looking forward to the arrival of the next version of Android to be able to see some new features.
There have been a few efforts, including the HTC Hub, which has grown somewhat and now includes a wider ranger of apps that the manufacturer—often rightly—thinks are worthy your attention.
Audio: an interesting move
Of course, according to HTC, the addition of Beats Audio technology will revolutionise the way you use the multimedia apps on your phone, especially when it comes to listening to music. We'll see about that!
This futuristic new technology actually boils down a software-based automatic equaliser. It totally replaces the usual settings (which we can get over) but doesn't change the way you hear music. Instead, it goes much further than that: the audio signal from the headphone jack are perfectly clean very average when Beats Audio is turned on but an absolute disaster if you turn it off.
Our biggest problem was with the supplied in-ear headphones. They're a pair of iBeats headphones that have been reworked to match the smartphone's design. The quality of the audio is quite simply a disaster, and as is typical with Beats, a huge storm of bass overpowers everything else. It really ruins the listening experience. If you're going to throw in a pair of headphones that cost almost a hundred pounds for free, you might as well make sure they're decent. The only mild consolation comes from the fact that other manufacturers don't do any better.
The Soundhound app comes pre-installed. It's better than Shazam at identifying music, even if you simple hum or whistle a melody, although it would work slightly better if it had a wider catalogue of titles to compare against. We're still glad to see it there though, especially with the extra features, like searching for lyrics, making playlists and so on. For the sake of completeness, we should also mention the fact that HTC also has a 'Torch' app that relies on the LED flash ...
SoundHound is a Swiss army knife for your music
Other multimedia features
The Sensation XE takes photos and shoots video with the same hardware as its predecessor, an 8 Megapixel camera that shoots 1080p video.
The photos are generally pretty good for a smartphone of this type, especially when you're outside. Indoors, the white balance can go off mark, especially with older light fittings. And although it sometimes looks like photos have a lot of detail in them, if you look more closely, it becomes clear that HTC should have refrained from adding so much post-treatment.
We have nothing to complain about with video playing and web browsing. The extra performance adds just the extra fluidity needed to make them acceptable. You can, of course, use the Sensation XE as a portable WiFi hotspot as long as you don't try to connect too many devices.
Battery life is less than impressive. There has been some improvement, of course, but the new features mean you want to use it more, too. As a result, it hardly manages to see the day out, and even then, there's work to be done.
All told, the Sensation XE has nothing to be ashamed of with the job it does carrying on where its predecessor left off. It might not be one of the biggest players in the smartphone game, but it gives you a reasonable screen and plenty of power without having to cart a huge phone round with you.