This is our review of the first 4.3″ screened Android phone to come to T-Mobile USA. This is a very odd occurrence, being that T-Mobile was the very first carrier on the globe to support Google’s Android Operating System when it released the G1. T-Mobile was also the first carrier in the USA to launch a 4.3″ screened phone when it launched the HTC HD2 (Windows Mobile 6.5), which was then followed up with the HTC HD7 (Windows Phone 7). So this is a very highly anticipated Android launch that we have here. But instead of just playing catch up and releasing another of the average 4.3″ screens, this one is a Super LCD, qHD screen that really positions itself nicely among the competition for the title of the best Android smart phone of 2011. Read on to find out more.
HTC is one of those manufacturers that compete on the high end of the Android phone spectrum, and here, in the USA, there aren’t a lot of handsets that I would label as having a premium feel. A lot of handsets have a relatively cheap feel due to an over-use of of plastic with weight reduction in mind. HTC, however, has been known for making very quality feeling handsets and this might be their greatest masterpiece to date. The phone has a few physical features that really set it apart on quality. First is the metal / soft touch plastic uni-body design that encompasses the full phone, everything except the screen. When you’re separating the internals and screen from the rear battery cover it even takes the ear piece speaker grill, volume button and power button with it. This rear cover has the antennae built into it with four connectors that bridge over to the internals sides antenna connectors.
On the front of the phone is the 4.3″ Super LCD panel that really is a joy to look at. Viewing angles and brightness are great. I never had a problem with the brightness being too dim, even in direct sun light it didn’t fully wash out like a Super AMOLED panel. Text is crisp and clear on the qHD panel, and videos look awesome. There is a noticeable step up in clarity in comparison to a WVGA panel while viewing HD videos. The contoured edge of the screen also came in handy, and made it obvious every time you came close to the edge of the screen to make sure you stayed in contact with the touch panel.
This contoured glass also made the capacitive touch buttons a joy to work with (which you’ll rarely hear me say as I love physical buttons), as you could always tell if you were too close to the edge in an area that your finger wouldn’t get a response. The uni-body design, the quality Super LCD panel, and the small nuances added to the touch screen really completed out the physical package on the Sensation.
Software is another place the Sensation really shines. There are not a lot of obvious changes here that are an off-shoot off of the standard Sense UI build, however, one thing that does set it apart is that this is the first handset to sport the newest version of Sense UI version 3.0. As you use the phone you start to notice mostly graphical upgrades that add to the UI’s visual appeal. However there have been a few additions that are more functional than being simply eye candy. One is the user customisable quick launch icons on the lock screen. This really helps to speed up your initial interaction with your phone. Most of us can think right off the top of our heads what the four most used apps we deal with all day are, and now you can simply pick it up, turn on the screen and drag into the ring the icon for your most commonly used apps. It works great and I wish I could add that to other phones. Another functionality upgrade done to Sense 3.0 is the addition of page breaks to your vertically scrolling app drawer; so you don’t throw, lose your place and have to look around to get your bearings depending on how much gusto you threw the app list that time.
There’s also the addition of category tabs inside the App Drawer for your Frequently Used apps, and your Downloaded apps. It is very handy to have those tabs, despite rarely using them, being that I’m not used to having them. Something I forgot to mention in the video review was the addition of the “Quick Settings” tab in the drop down notification area, which enables you to toggle hardware settings from the drop down menu. Another thing to point out is the speed that the Processor and amount of RAM add to the OS overall. Navigating through Android’s normal menus, application drawers and running apps were a breeze and had only the occasional rare hiccup. The only experience I’ve had that was faster than the Sensation was on the Nexus S. But that is to be expected being the Nexus S was not running any manufacturer apps except stock Google apps in the background. To have a full featured and customized UI from HTC running this smooth was a joy. Also, do note that I’m not one for using stock skins on phones, so I’m not really praising HTC for their skin over stock Gingerbread. I usually customize my handsets with Go Launcher, but I love to see a handset that has all the additional features and functionality that stock Gingerbread doesn’t have pre-baked in.
Voice conversations on the Sensation 4G were excellent, with callers being barely able to tell I was on a cell phone. I had no issues at all with dropped calls. The ear piece was acceptably loud, with nothing to complain about. However, the loud speaker for the speaker phone wasn’t as loud as I’d had hoped for. Using the speaker phone in my conversations if it was positioned more than two feet away from my ear I always seemed to be straining to hear what was being said on the other end, unless I was in a pretty quiet environment. Speaker loudness also played a key in music playback being mediocre. In relation to other handsets I’ve tested I’d say the Sensation came in right in the middle of the pack, not too quiet or too loud. It was acceptable, but nothing to write home about.
This is always one area I’m excited for. I won’t lie to you, I’m a hardware guy, whether it be fancy screens, fast processors or fast network connections. I was slightly disappointed to find out that the Sensation was only equipped with one of the T-Mobile HSDPA 14.4Mbps radios. After the International Telecommunications Union decided that anything that was HSDPA+ 21Mbps or faster qualified for the “4G” moniker but the HSDPA 14.4Mbps hardware didn’t qualify as 4G. I figured we’d be seeing all of the newest T-Mobile 4G offerings running on their 21Mbps network to match the global standard. Sadly I was wrong, and they are still releasing 4G phones on the slower HSDPA “3.5G” network labeled as 4G phones. Honestly, this is semantics being that T-Mobiles 14.4Mbps network is often faster than Sprints “qualified” 4G WiMAX network.
Still, data speeds on the Sensation were acceptable for T-Mobile speeds, and on SpeedTest.net application runs, it scored between a 5.0Mbps to a 7.0Mbps 95% of the time. The fastest I’d seen on the Sensation was a 10.5Mbps download speed. This is very good in relation to Sprint’s 4G WiMAX network. But in comparison to Verizon’s LTE network the 14.4 mbps HSDPA network is lagging a little behind vs Verizons speeds. Remember something I have pointed out in the past that is a bonus with T-Mobiles “4G speeds” is that the technology inside their phones runs at 4G speeds all the time, without much of a hit against the battery life of the phone. Sprints WiMAX radio needs to be toggled on to gain competing speeds, but this kills the battery at an accelerated rate. Also, Verizon’s LTE radio is an “always on” radio, and many Verizon HTC Thunderbolt 4G owners have complained about short battery life due to the lack of being able to switch off the LTE radio. In my opinion, T-Mobiles 4G data speeds are my preferred option due to the 4G speeds being accompanied by standard battery life.
I did notice a couple times while doing my network testing the handset would drop down to 2G(56kbps speeds) and pop back up to 4G in areas that there definitely was a 4G connection. However that only happened a few times so it was more of an anomaly than a norm. I have read complaints of the issue being widespread and occurring more often for some handsets, but I was lucky to not have those issues in my review unit.
The battery life was acceptable on the Sensation. Doing battery graph tests on the handset while constantly running a video, the battery was showing a 3% drop per 10 minutes of video playback, which meant an up-time right under 6 hours. However the standby time was enough to get me through a full day with light usage. By the end of the day I had about 20% left, but that was a day that I barely used the handset at all. So I could see the requirement of hitting a charger at least once over the day with moderate usage. As you can also see from my Battery Graph benchmarking that it charges at 5% per 10 mins. Which is significantly faster than the Nexus S or of Samsung phones in general. One of the odd things about Samsung is how slow their phones charge. Charging speed never really seemed to be an issue or at least went unthought of, until I owned a Sprint Palm Pre it would charge from dead to full battery in a little over an hour. But do note that the battery size was approx 1100mAh on the Pre. That handset really spoiled me, and I’ve been longing for an Android phone to get the same kinda of charging speed. Either way, a little over 3 hours is more than enough speed to give you a slight boost in the middle of the day.
This is another area where the Sensation really showed its high end quality. The camera on the Sensation was amazing, I had read in HTC press materials that the shutter time on the Sensation was very fast and could take still shots on a moving object. I was not able to replicate this in real world usage, it was faster than most phones, but there was still some blurring in the pictures. It also has been touted as having a quick transition time between taking shots, which it does very nicely. This really shines in taking pictures of people, if the person is moving slightly you probably can snap a follow up shot that will come out acceptable. However once an object was sitting still the pictures were amazing looking. It really was probably the best camera I’ve ever seen on a phone. 1080p video recording looked equally as amazing. Doing a Qik video chat over the phones 4G worked great, so much so that I would have to say that overall its chat experience was the most pleasant I’ve had so far using the Qik video chat client. I’m very tempted to trade in my beloved myTouch 4G for the Sensation just for the camera alone.
As you may have noticed from my other reviews, I don’t like to candy coat things. I tell reviews like they are, and don’t show any favoritism. Personally, I like to point out all the cons I can find in a handset. Ultimately, this is what these reviews are for – to let you, the reader, know what the bugs or cons of the hardware are because you wont know this stuff until after you’ve owned it. But honestly, the Sensation caught me by surprise. Even myTouch 4G, which I love so much that I cant part with, I have a lot of gripes that bug me even though I have deep techno-love for the device itself. But, I had a very hard time finding any problems with the Sensation. As you can see, I’m sort of grabbing at the air just trying to find its cons. It’s funny to come across a phone that sets for me a new benchmark in all categories including physical build quality, screen presentation, OS smoothness with features, camera quality, and the list could go on and on. Honestly, this is the best handset I’ve handled to date. If you’re looking for a monster of a phone that has great specs, and a great overall user experience, this is the one for you. I cant use any more words to describe it, it is simply the best phone I’ve used to date. Thanks for reading.
I’m going to migrate us to a base 10 score scale with this phone. Against the current crop of Android phones, I would give it a 10 / 10.
Check out this and other great T-Mobile phones at LetsTalk.com.