This review will be a little different than my previous outing with Samsung’s Galaxy SII, since rather than being a straight review of the HTC Sensation on its own merits, this review will largely concern itself with how it fares against its main competitor in the Android realm, seeking to answer the hot question of the minute – which is the better phone? Before reading on you’ll probably get the most from this comparison by at least scanning through my SGSII review – if you hit up the link to my content on the side bar you can find most of it (the first and second parts went up before I had a WordPress account, searching for “real user” should get you to them).
Initial impressions, Build materials/quality, Design:
I think it’s fair to say that my initial impressions out of the box for the Sensation were definitely more favourable than those I had with the SGSII (which you may recall were pretty favourable in themselves already!).
Obviously statements on the aesthetics of the device are quite a personal thing, so when I say that I really find the Sensation a very attractive device, that may be a sentiment you don’t happen to share. I think however that most would agree it’s more of a looker than the rather boring and inoffensively-styled SGSII. The slight curve upwards at the edge of the screen, the narrower curved body that comes with its more widescreen aspect ratio screen, the soft touch metal materials and the weight they contribute all adds up to one thing: a reassuring feeling of quality and durability that the SGSII can rightly be envious of. It sits really well in the hand, and despite the extra weight I suspect that its combination of ergonomics may well suit some people who found the SGSII too much of a handful.
Of course there are holes to pick at. One is that it doesn’t deliver the unibody design that was promised, instead going for a rather interesting ‘sleeve’-type design where the internals and screen slip into the casing. That in itself wouldn’t necessarily be a problem for me, what is a problem is the amount of dust that gets trapped between these elements, light leakage, and the possibility of creaking that comes with it (a small number of users have reported this, I haven’t personally been able to replicate it with my unit). Of these three problems the dust trapping is probably the larger consideration, since some users have reported dust trapped beneath the screen, even on their brand new Sensation’s. In low light situations I can see light leakage at the bottom margin of the screen, not really a big deal in of itself, but again I just wonder what that means in terms of dust collecting behind the screen over time.
The other relatively minor gripe I have here is the placement of the micro USB/MHL port on the left hand side of the device, which I think is another sacrifice to the ‘sleeve’ design. It’s a small quibble, but it made life difficult with my universal car mount, and it’s also quite annoying trying to use the device in portrait while it’s charging. I’m not sure if it’s a problem with some of my micro USB cables, or a ramification of the USB being placed on the curved side of the device, but I’ve noticed that some cables don’t click into place well (first night I had the Sensation it didn’t charge overnight because the cable got knocked slightly out of place).
Firing up the device for the first time certainly helps to maintain the positive impressions. After the usual initial setup you’ll be greeted by the latest iteration of HTC’s Sense user interface, their own custom Launcher that replaces stock Android. Many would actually prefer stock Android, and the possibility of rapid updates to the latest OS version that it affords, handsets that offer that are relatively few and far between. Basically all the rest have some manufacturer developed custom UI present, and, well, if you’re going to have one foisted on you then it might as well be Sense. While Sense certainly adds a lot of usability, in terms of first impressions it’s the eye candy that helps… and oh my, is there ever a lot of it! Whether it’s just simply activating and unlocking the screen, or checking out the multi-layered homescreen transitions, or ogling the weather demo, Sense just exudes a style and refinement that can’t be beat. All that ludicrous eye candy is taking a toll of course, and Sense is getting very close to crossing the line into bloat, but we’ll come to that later. For now suffice to say that you’ll be very impressed with how it all looks straight out of the box. In fact, writing that just now, and a request from a Twitter follower, has inspired me to upload a wee demo video of the Sensation UI, so you’ll all know exactly what I mean (it’ll be up on the blog soon!).
So the tale of the tape is like this: the Sensation sports a 4.3inch 960×540 “qHD” resolution screen with a 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio, while the SGSII in comparison runs a lower 800×480 “WVGA” resolution screen of 4.27inches, which actually looks slightly larger due to its squarer aspect ratio. Naturally there is more to it than that, with the SGSII showcasing the widely hyped Super AMOLED+ screen technology, compared to the Sensation’s Super LCD screen type. The SGSII also sports a very good oleophobic coating (translation: is quite fingerprint/grime resistant), while the Sensation appears to either lack it, or have a rather ineffective coating applied. A final word here – neither of the screens utilises a pentile matrix (in comparison to older generation AMOLED screens like the one seen in the original Galaxy S, or the other qHD-toting Android phone the Motorola Atrix). If you don’t know what a pentile matrix is, don’t worry about technical explanations too much – the upshot of it is that pixels are more visible, and this manifests particularly when viewing small text like when browsing, making the text less clear and more difficult to read (in other words its bad, and neither of these phones having it is good).
So what does all that mean? Which screen is better in actual use? Let’s break it down. The Super AMOLED+ display has better blacks and contrast, better viewing angles, is less affected by grimey finger marks, and is also less reflective. Due to this constellation of screen qualities I found its sunlight legibility improved compared to the Sensation, and hopefully the pictures illustrate that point reasonably well. This is a particularly important aspect when it comes to using the camera’s viewfinder outdoors, so I took some shots to illustrate that specific use-case scenario – the SGSII has a pretty clear advantage even before activation the Outdoors Visibility setting. Some will find its super-saturated screen colours a turn off, while some will prefer it this way. The Sensation on the other hand has a better aspect ratio, better resolution, better pixel density, and more natural colour reproduction (including a very natural white in comparison to the SGSII’s blue-hued whites). The people who may well find they really need the extra resolution are likely to be productivity types, who need to better read small on-screen text, or are using RDP/VNC type software a lot.
As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that you shouldn’t assume that all your must-have apps will scale correctly to qHD. So far I’ve only had my preferred RSS reader, the excellent NewsRoom, fail to format properly, so this is not a particularly large issue (and its really up to devs to write their software to be properly DPI agnostic – you hearing me NewsRoom coders?).
Both screens have their share of reported quality problems in relation to the screen. The SGSII has the uneven brightness/colouring defects seen particularly on dim screen settings (see the final part of my SGSII review for more details), and some units developed lines through the screen. Reports of dust under the screen and dead pixels seem quite prominent for users of the Sensation. Whichever phone you get I recommend checking for these things early in the warranty period – the Market has several apps to help see dead pixels (I used Dead Pixel Test).
Taking everything into account I think the SGSII has the better screen, but certainly those who don’t like SAMOLED+ contrast, or who really need the higher resolution, will not feel disappointed with the Sensation from the point of view of the screen.
Benchmarks/Speed in actual use:
So I ran the Sensation through all your usual benchmarks, mostly because I know lots of you want to know the results. To be perfectly honest I get more disenfranchised with these tests the more I use them. They have relatively little bearing on your actual use experience, and are difficult to interpret across devices of different screen resolutions (the Sensation has more work to do in graphics tests being qHD). Overall the benchmarks show the SGSII romping all over the Sensation, and for whatever ever its worth, here they are:
The real question is how do the devices fare in day to day use? Will you notice lag and slowdowns that are bothersome?
You may remember in my SGSII review just how impressed I was with the blazing speed in general use, I can tell you that another month of owning the device has done nothing to dampen that enthusiasm. I just can’t make it lag. The Sensation doesn’t fare quite so well – you will see the occasional micro-lag or hitch in a transition here and there – but it’s not of a level that I find particularly bothersome at all.
What I have found bothersome in day to day use with the Sensation is the free RAM situation. The SGSII has 1GB of RAM, 833MB of which is available after system resources are allocated. Usually about 430MB of that RAM is in use, still leaving somewhere in the order of 400MB free for additional tasks. In the SGSII I have yet to see Tasker deliver me a low RAM warning, no matter how hard I’ve pushed. In comparison the Sensation has 768MG of RAM, 558MB of which is free after system resources take their slice. It typically has around 430MB of RAM in use also, only in the Sensation that degree of background loading into the RAM leaves you only around 130MB free. I get a low memory warning from Tasker daily using my Sensation, and quite often I have to wait around for the Sense launcher to restart, because the system has killed it to free RAM for whatever I’m doing. Sometimes that may be because I’m listening to music, whilst browsing with several tabs open, perhaps one of them with a flash element running, and then I go to open at email that’s just come, but other times I’ve just been using one intensive app and that’s been sufficient on its own. That seems quite annoying for a 2011 flagship. If you’re watching HTC: your Sense-bearing phones need more RAM, and while I love the eye-candy, Sense itself could probably do with some trimming down too.
Anyway, that’s enough for now, I’ll be back soon with some thoughts on media playback, browsing, and gaming (will possibly cover the camera too, time permitting).
PS: …and don’t ask me about battery life yet, OK? It’s too early to tell, sometime next week I can give some more answers. I have made some comments in my Twitter feed, if you absolutely must have micro-feedback on the Sensation in the interim.