Thursday, 15 March 2012

HTC Sensation XE Review

HTC Sensation XE Review

Thanks to O2 UK and HTC UK for the sample

First Impressions: I see on the side of the box it’s just referred to as the HTC Sensation Beats. Actually when I received it that’s what I thought it was called, I didn’t realise it was an XE. Honestly I don’t understand the naming at all. It doesn’t make any sense to me, what exactly is XE supposed to indicate? Anyway this is clearly a device that is aimed at making use of the hundreds of millions HTC splashed out on Beats. The infamous Beats by Dr Dre. Fingers crossed then some efforts gone into the audio side of things and this may then stand out as a phone that appeals to those that care about audio quality. I’m not normally one for convergence devices but I know many out there, the vast majority in fact, is exactly what they want. Opening the box up and it’s a nice looking device that clearly has a black and red theme. It’s odd seeing red buttons. It is a weighty little thing too, much different to the super light but plastic Samsung I have normally. Not sure if I like that or not, it is more solid feeling but I’m not used to it. Screen is very nice, very smooth looking.

Moving on to the included earphones. These is little mistaking they are Beats branded and part of me has high hopes for them, I want them to be good but I’m fearful they will be farty bass cannons. Giving them a quick listen my heart sinks a little as they are very low end heavy. Still let’s not make any rash judgements.

Very quickly I did discover it can’t play ALAC files. Turns out it can play 320k AAC files so I do already have lots of files I can use. I had seen it written that the Beats Audio magic that goes on inside doesn’t work as a default but is dependent on the application in use. So this was something I wanted to test and right enough if I used the HTC installed music app (which is rather pretty) then a red notification icon appeared. Suddenly things sounded less fuzzy too. I don’t know exactly what having the Beats Audio enabled is doing, but it’s likely that it’s some DSP rather than anything hardware related. So what I ask is why don I get this option no matter what I’m doing? I don’t know about you but if I was going to use a phone to listen to music I’d be wanting to take advantage of the quite excellent Google Music service (ahem but of course id only use when in the US, naturally.) so when using Google music, no fancy Beats Audio. This is more that a touch disappointing HTC and I would like to see such a silly error to be corrected, sure many won’t notice but Google Music for me is THE compelling reason to use a data connected device for music. I do understand that such things may be achievable if you root the device and use custom ROMs, this I have not done.

I don’t really know what to make of things right now. While I understand that in the UK we don’t officially have Google Music so it’s not something that for most normal people needs to be taken into account. Most people I’m sure won’t have heard of it and will be just fine copying music across manually and playing back on the standard music app. It is actually a really nice music app too. The album art fills most of the screen, it looks great and the controls are pretty good. Even once the lock screen kicks in you can access music controls without having to unlock. It’s visually all clearly thought out and it works. The animation is smooth and slick and I do like it. However am having a hard time letting go of the Beats stuff not being available everywhere as it just seems a silly thing to do on HTC’s part.

So how does it sound? This really is a two part question, 3 actually. Firstly we have the included Beats headphones, then the Beats enabled audio output then lastly the standard audio output. Looking at the earphones themselves, the first thing that strikes me is your supposed to look at them. They are black and red, like the phone, and that red cable is obviously supposed to be a visual statement. Things like that always make me concerned that looks has been prioritised over audio. I recognise I may not a be the most typical consumer but if you make audio a selling point I think you have opened yourself up to be judged on it.

So to try and separate the Beats Earphones from the XE I grabbed the HTC Google Nexus One that was sitting beside me. I figure HTC can’t really complain if I use another HTC device. I also used them with my faithful 1G Shuffle and the Sensation XE itself.

Lows: Savagely abundant. So much so after about 10 minutes of use I found myself squinting and being compelled to send the volume ever lower. These are big old bass cannons and that’s not really my thing. While I’m sure it’s not an accident they are tuned so but there is also a reason Beats stuff is not very highly thought of in the audio world. More bass does not actually equal better. It’s vast here, maybe not the most bassy things I’ve ever heard but still they move enough air that I actually find it uncomfortable. There is just no way I could deal with these on a permanent basis. It is thick, heavy and rather impactful. On occasion it does surprise me a little and take on a more sprightly nature but it is still overwhelming in its abundance. The low end is a bit humpy too, while it does go pretty low it tails off and there is a middle and upper bass mountain.

Mids: Quality wise it’s not terrible. At the same time I can’t say it is actually good either. They are recessed and overly thick. Female vocals come through better being much less interfered with by that low end. Ellie Goulding sounds pretty reasonable on them. Vocals here though really are just making up the background, even of very vocal orientated stuff like Vienna Teng. I can’t say I’m liking them too much.

Highs: Not terrible, dynamics tend to do highs decently. They do a little bit of shimmer but they are once more in the background. So I can say quite positively they aren’t likely to produce much ear fatigue. There isn’t really much of an edge or crispness to them but that’s a good thing. If you can’t get them right then cover up those sharp edges.

Build Quality: Meh, they are imbalanced. I’ve swapped them about and tried different devices so its definitely the earphones at fault. Would normal consumers notice? Maybe not but I do and its unfortunate. I could have that one in ten thousand that is off but I can only go by what I have. Visually they look perfectly fine though. The cable feels sturdy and the buds look fine too. They do feel like they could take some everyday wear.

Isolation: Actually rather good, better than I expected for a dynamic. Clearly they are sealed but I didn’t really get any corresponding air pressure issues. Easily enough isolation for normal activates and more than sufficient to make you road kill if you don’t quickly learn to look when crossing the road.

Comfort/Fit: Comfort was fine with the exclusion of all that air being moved in the low end. That was uncomfortable and unpleasant. Physically comfort was fine; I could even wear them up without problem. Fit was a touch fussy but never took more than a few seconds to have them sitting right.

Accessories: A bunch of tips and a little baggy. I’d have rather seen a hard case to ensure longevity but what are the odds most people will use it anyway?

Microphonics: Quite annoying if you wear them down. I don’t know about you but I always have a collar on and the mic attachment tends to catch and generate noise. Wearing these up and over your ears makes the problem vanish; it really makes such a difference.

Mic and Controls: Having made a call or two the mic seems to do just what it’s supposed to. I was told I could be heard just fine. Likewise I could hear them very clearly. The controls are likely most frequently going to be engaged in controlling the music. The use of touch screens on things means you can’t control without looking at a screen normally but the buttons let you skip back and forth. It is pretty handy and functionally it works just fine.

Value: I’ve seen it said these are “worth” £50 since I can’t see anywhere you can buy these without the phone. The closes these look like are the iBeats which are £80 on the Beats website. Frankly I’m going to assume these are not they as if they are anyone paying £80 for them needs to be sectioned. However, as free things that come with a phone then they have to be rather better, certainly more popular, than most of the junk that comes with phones. (cough, Apple, cough)

Conclusion: Sound wise I don’t think I can pretend I liked these. I really didn’t. Actually I really am quite keen to get them out of my ears. HTC may well be on to a branding winner with the Beats stuff but from an audiophile perspective these included buds are not great. I’m sure they will appeal to a certain demographic but it’s not likely they will find much if any love in places like Head-Fi. They are big bass cannons but then that seems to be what the Beats brand is all about. I’m not saying it is wrong to want such a thing but just so long as you don’t believe this is what high quality earphones sound like, it is not.

Moving on to the audio output of the phone itself I am unsurprisingly going to discard the included Beats things. I have read that using anything that isn’t the included Beats earphones disables the ability to enable the Beats Audio DSP thingy, this isn’t true. I have the Etymotic hf3 plugged in and the icon appears and I can disable or enable it as I like. I am still unsure what to make of that feature. All I can really gather is that it’s an EQ preset and nothing much more. With it on it boosts things here and there making for a more dramatic sound. Mostly boosting the volume and the low end. Somewhat of a W shape my ears suggest. I don’t particularly feel it adds anything wondrous so stuff it. I’m going back to Google Music which is how I’d use a phone for music if I was ever going to. Plus it means I can directly compare things.

N.B. While the Beats functionality worked with mic enabled earphones it did not with normal connecter earphones.

This is where things begin to look up for HTC. Ignoring the lack of integration at all of Google Music, such as on the lock screen as I get on the Nexus One. They sound pretty good. Clearly better than the Nexus One. Not too much of a contest there. Comparing to the Galaxy Nexus though and things change. The new Nexus which I’ve seen widely praised. I really want to say nice things about the XE but acoustically it’s just not all that. Please don’t mistake that as saying it’s not good, I think for a phone its pretty good sounding. I can only take it head to head with what I happen to have here and the Galaxy Nexus is simply better. I do wonder whether it’s due to too much playing about with EQ setting in the background to make the Beats Audio setting sound that much more dramatic. HTC I really had such high hopes but I can’t help feeling you have entered a race and decided to tie one hand behind your back. I know the Beats range isn’t exactly aimed at the audiophile market but I do hope that’s not what you have done. Given that the phones main competition though is really the Galaxy S 2 this isn’t so much of an issue. It’s famed for having one of the crappest audio outputs around. The S2 using some Yahama thing and I believe the XE uses a Texas Instruments TLV320AIC3254.

Taken on its own merits to audio quality is pretty reasonable. They may not sound ruler flat and they don’t have quite the openness and dynamics that I would like it’s still better than I would naturally expect from a phone. Giving a little bash with some other things, they get even more impressive. The notoriously source dependent UM3x sound really very good. They don’t have the treble they should but the lows and mids both sound immersive and alive. Not an easy feat to achieve with them, with their high impedance it makes me curios how the XE might do with something like the RE-262. Turns out they can drive them reasonably well too. The low end seems to drop off quite a bit but then they are 150 ohms. Mids sound beautiful and the highs are surprisingly acceptable. The 262 is clearly being held back by the XE in the top end, the detail and clarity isn’t what it should be but...... way better than you would think it should be. I could probably live with this. The mids are particularly nice and intimate, nice level of detail. It’s nice to see that you see real benefit to splashing out on some actual decent earphones for the phone.

I think it’s time to move on from the audio side of things. Also from here on all photos will be from the Sensation XE.

Screen: Looking at the specs it has a high res, qHD screen of 540 x 960 pixels. It the flesh it looks beautifully smooth. No way around that it’s a very nice LCD screen. If you have much experience with phone screens they come in two types, LCD and OLED. Each technology does things differently and arguably LCD screens look smoother, more natural colour wise but OLED screens look hyper vibrant. On OLED the colours pop out at you in a somewhat unnatural way but they do look fab. The massive down side to OLED is they rape the battery like nothing else especially if you are viewing a white page. The screen on the XE in comparison is much less hard on the battery. The only way to really know what you prefer is to go see the screen, the purest in me likes the accuracy found in LCD screens but I can’t deny I love the vibrancy in OLED ones. Nether is really “better” just different.

Battery Life: The battery inside is a relatively large one at 1730 mAh. Naturally HTC quote that it can last 3 years on standby like everyone else and I’m sure it’s true if you never picked it up. The reality is all smart phones suck horribly when it comes to battery life. HTC if you are reading this why can’t we have a phone that’s twice as thick but has a battery that’s massive? Anyway, I tend to hammer my phone for data and the XE held up very well. Clearly rather better than my Galaxy Nexus normally does. I wasn’t using the phone for music but it managed to last the day even with some pretty heavy use. It never even got to the stage the auto power saving features were forced to kick in. You can turn them off but normally if the battery hits 10% it will apply a bunch of power saving features. I like the idea of that but as the first thing I do with a new phone is order a spare battery I’m glad I can turn it off too. I really would like phones to have bigger batteries though.

UI: One of the great debates when it comes to Android is the UI. Some people would like just plain old vanilla Android but most companies don’t like the idea of that. They want to have a differentiator. In many cases these prove to be rather unpopular, have a Google for Motoblur and see if you can find anyone with anything nice to say about it. HTC was one of the first to overlay their own user interface, Sense, and so have had a long time to tweak it. For me this was the first time I’ve encountered it. I have always gone with Launcher Pro as my favoured Android launcher (what the overlaid UI’s are known as.) it’s what I did with my Galaxy Nexus, to hell with the stock android UI. Still since I would be reviewing the XE I felt I had to give Sense a go. I know from a normal person, in this case my sister, that she just a couple of weeks ago was after a new phone. She narrowed it to the XE and the Sensation XL on the basis of she tried Galaxy S2 and I quote “didn’t like how it worked.” Clearly for her Sense was a plus point and it made her go for an HTC. (She got the XE in the end.) She and I are rather different users though. While I can see some aspects to Sense that are nice not all was so. I really didn’t see why I need a personalise button on the dock? Just how often do you think I will be changing themes that I can’t hit the menu button? I also wasn’t keen on the app menu only scrolling whole pages at a time. That said on the whole I found Sense to be rather pleasant to use. Clearly a lot of work has gone into making it pretty and it is. The famously ripped off by everyone else, HTC clock and weather widget is beautifully integrated. You can set the lock screen to display the weather when you wake the device and the animation is lush. It is beautiful. That when it’s raining it will do a windscreen wiper animation and animated rain drops, freekin’ awesome and it never gets old seeing it.

Of course the fab thing about android is if you don’t love Sense then you can toss it aside and install whatever launcher you feel like as I would usually do. Habit meant had I bought the XE with my own pennies I’d have right off the bat, installed Launcher Pro and basically never given Sense a chance. I’m not saying you will love it, I don’t think I do entirely but it’s really not bad. I really thought I would hate it but it’s really quite pleasant, oh and my sister really liked it.

You also get other things like the HTC Hub and HTC Likes. Likes seems to be HTC’s own little app store thing. It isn’t really separate as it will just direct you to the normal app store but I guess is a nice way to find things. I can’t say I found any use for it but it does no harm. HTC Hub was a bit more interesting. If you are sticking with Sense as your launcher of choice then in it you will find a heap of additional skins, themes, wallpapers, ringtones, alarms etc etc. Since HTC clearly want you to personalise your phone this offers you a heap of additional ways to do it. It’s maybe not something I’d use myself but it’s a very nice feature and more so given they are all free.

The integration built into Sense with Twitter and Facebook support I’m undecided about. Clearly it works very well but I just don’t know if I like it. It does all work well together though so that aspect I can’t fault.

Camera: HTC seemed to be quite proud of the camera, they seemed very keen we all go take photos with it and even offered up Red Letter Day vouchers to take interesting pics. So would someone like to tell me if the camera functionality is so important why the hell there is no god damn camera button? HTC isn’t alone in this but for gods sake I want a camera button and I cannot be the only one. Grrrrrr!!! Use of the camera though is fine. I didn’t like the having to push the shutter “button” twice though to take the snap. No big deal but seemed an odd way to do it and I don’t really like it. Speed wise it’s okay but that pressing the button twice adds delay and I just don’t see any good reason to do so. Quality of the pic’s looks good to me. I’m really not a photo taking person so I’ll just add a couple pic’s and you can make your own judgement on them but to me they look pretty good.

Reception: It’s a hard thing to be exact about as the little bars on the screen don’t actually mean anything. The only judgement I can definitively make is that at one point on my regular bus journey the 3g signal dies. It did on my Nexus one, does on the Galaxy Nexus but it didn’t on the XE. Granted the signal fell to 0 bars but the connection didn’t fall and data stayed alive. Now that could be a factor of a million things and I couldn’t say why but repeatedly it held on at the same point while every time I tried the Galaxy Nexus it would drop back to 2g. The Sensation in my eyes was a clearly better phone at holding on to a signal. There aren’t many dead spots for coverage I know of though but it held on well there.

Specifications: I don’t plan on giving a detailed list, there are many places they can be found so I’m only going to go ever the bits that caught my attention. I thought this to be a weirdly spec’d phone as some components were clearly top end stuff but others bits seemed to be a little skimpy.

CPU: First thing is the CPU, on paper the 1.5 GHz dual core CPU should mean this thing will go like a rocket ship on crack. In the hand I can’t say I noticed. It never felt slow or anything and it was having to deal with all those pretty Sense animations but I never thought wow this is a fast phone. Running Sunspider the Galaxy Nexus hit 2166ms, Nexus One 3549ms and the XE got 3623ms. Don’t ask me why or how because I don’t know. Again I will say it never ever felt in anyway slow.

Data Connectivity: The XE only seems to support HSDPA+ upto 14.4 Mpbs which I know it’s not like you’re going to get near that anyway but as a raw number why no 21Mpbs like I see elsewhere? On Wi-Fi too there is no 5GHz support. That probably matters nothing to most people but this is a top end device so why not include it? In use however it feels pretty zippy and particularly the mobile data is basically the same speed I’ve had on everything. O2’s network is the limiting factor in this equation not the phones capabilities. Not that I’m bashing O2’s data network, I’ve put about 16GB over it this month (February) and it never seems to bat an eye at it. Pretty much no matter where I am or the time of day I get about 2.5 to 3 Mbps down and about 1.5 to 2 Mbps up.

MHL: I hear you ask yourself, what the F is MHL? Well boys and girls its freekin’ awesome is what it is. You know HDMI? The very handy AV connector for video and audio that we use for pretty much everything now? Well, it’s a bit big to go on a phone so they have MHL. It takes the normal micro usb socket and adds some stuff so you can get HDMI video and audio out. Granted you need to buy a little adapter and it needs to be powered by another micro usb cable from a hub or charger. So it’s not the most elegant solution in the world but it gives you a way to display your phones output on any HDMI TV. Want to show off your photos or homemade video to grandma then no problem. Oh and before you ask, yes Netflix too works but what looks good on your phone screen doesn’t look all that great on a 42 inch TV. I could see this feature being an absolute god send for parents though; just think how easy it would be to let them watch stuff on Netflix or iPlayer on a big screen rather than the 4.3 inch screen of the phone. Why is this feature not being pushed like mad?

Volume: Not looking at earphone volume but speaker volume. The ringer while reasonably loud I found lacked elsewhere. This was most notable when using Google Navigation. The directions were hardly audible. This is an issue not only found on the XE (Galaxy Nexus is the quietest phone in the universe, completely useless) but it’s an issue I see no good reason for. I found Netflix to be hard to hear too. What was odd was the iPlayer was very loud. I can only assume the BBC realise phones are quiet and have bumped the audio output gain.

Conclusion: Well this may be the second conclusion but this time it’s for the whole thing rather than just the audio aspect. I have purposely not included as I normally would a section on value because its really depends. If you look at this device you have to look at in the context of its surroundings and like it or not HTC, this is not a stand out device. It is however HTC’s answer to the Samsung Galaxy 2, I don’t have one of them but a friend does and the Galaxy nexus shares many of its traits. The big differentiators are audio and the screen. You will either prefer LCD or OLED and that’s just that, both screens look great but different. The Sensations XE’s screen looks so smooth but the Samsungs OLED looks stunningly colourful and vibrant, if a bit unnatural. The second big difference is sound. The Galaxy S 1 was much spoken about for having probably the best audio out of any Android phone. It contained a Wolfson DAC and people loved it. Then the S2 came out with some Yamaha chip and has been panned as one of the worst sounding phones out there. HTC therefore have a great opportunity to offer something and easily be the superior option and in marketing terms they have. The trouble is they have hit on that audio really will matter to some but they have invested too much in the marketing side and made some disappointing mistakes in the implementation. Yes the phone sounds pretty reasonable but I can’t help feeling it’s been artificially held back by all the marketing getting in the way. Please HTC how about making and Etymotic or a Shure version? Aim for making something of quality and accuracy rather than giving a fancy name to an EQ preset. You had so much potential but you are squandering it.

As a convergence device I could probably live reasonably happy with the sound quality. It is reasonable but this is no audiophile product. Its music credentials are style over substance and while good (and well ahead of the S2) it’s not an exceptional stand out device.

As a phone I can honestly say I rather liked it. I liked it more than I thought I would particularly Sense. It wasn’t perfect but having gone from the “flagship” Android device the XE felt really nice. Nice enough that my sister just bought one. It’s a good solid device both physically and in usage. The build was really noticeable next to a Samsung, I’m not saying either way is better but the Sensation felt like a brick but a sturdy solid one. The Samsung felt super light and rather flimsy. It’s like with the screen, one will suit you better and the only way you’ll know is to hold them in your hands.

I found the XE to be a really nice phone. It is a phone. It is not a DAP. It may be able to do that and have all the functionality of a DAP but inside it is a phone. If you want a phone that can play music then this will serve you well and do the job adequately but it will not compete with the better single purpose devices. Still this is one of the first devices to be marketed with the audio as a key feature so it may just be a taste of things to come. I think HTC seem to pretty much have the phone aspect nailed so finger crossed they have in the pipeline some phones with some real high quality audio output. It may be amongst the better phones for audio but it won’t be making me part with my single use DAP’s anytime soon.

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