HTC Sensation 4G Review: Prettier than Pictures

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Whenever I saw product shots of HTC’s Sensation 4G smartphone, which launches today on T-Mobile, I just didn’t get it. How could a phone this promising, with its dual-core processor and qHD display, look so weird?

That attitude changed as soon as I opened the box. The phone whose striped back panel looks looked like a lame attempt at distinction in pictures is actually rather elegant up close. The HTC Sensation 4G is a beautiful piece of hardware, and among a sea of mundane Android handsets, that makes all the difference.

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Despite its massive 4.3-inch, 540-by-960 resolution display, the Sensation carries itself with dignity. It’s clearly taller than the two other phones in my home at the moment—an HTC Droid Incredible and an iPhone 3GS—but it minimizes the damage with narrow bezels on top and bottom. The Sensation is about as thick as these other phones, but at first glance it actually seems thinner, thanks to a smooth taper on the back side—the perfect antidote to boxy designs like the iPhone 4.

Indeed, the Sensation feels great in the hands, due in part to the rubberized top and bottom patches on the back side. The use of two shades of grey for these materials, plus a third metallic stripe down the middle, still strikes me as somewhat tacky, but if you’re like me, and loathe cases, you’ll love the way the Sensation handles. Keep in mind, however, that one-handed operation can get tricky simply because of the phone’s length, especially in small hands.

The Sensation is supposed to be a blazing fast phone because of its 1.2 GHz dual-core Snapdragon processor from Qualcomm, 768 MB of RAM and HSPA+ data speeds. I didn’t notice any performance issues. In fact, this is the first phone I’ve tried that can smoothly run the Flash game One Button Bob, which is all the proof I need that the Sensation packs processing muscle.

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With that in mind, it’s a shame that HTC’s Sense interface operates like something out of a previous hardware generation. Moving between apps and menus is snappy enough, and I like the 3D carousel transitions between home screens, but if you’re hoping for the buttery smooth frame rates of an iPhone, Windows Phone or even Samsung’s Galaxy S phones, you’ll be disappointed. Fortunately, individual apps often have more glide, and the touch screen responds to the gentlest of nudges, so ultimately the operating system feels light on its feet.

As usual, HTC has plunked its Sense user interface on top of the stock Android 2.3 experience, and that’s mostly a good thing. I like how Sense comes pre-loaded with useful widgets for e-mail and Twitter, so you needn’t venture into the Android Market to find them yourself. The web browser is among the smoothest I’ve seen on an Android handset, and in a nod to iOS, it lets you return to the top of a page by tapping the top of the screen.

The latest version of Sense gets some other useful changes, including a redesigned lock screen with widgets and quick links to favorite applications. To unlock the phone, you drag a ring from the bottom of the screen upwards, but to open one of these apps, you drag the icon into the ring. Clever. The Sensation also lets the user swap between multiple home screen layouts, with preset options like Work, Play and Social.

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But the best tweak HTC has introduced with the Sensation is to the camera. The 8-megapixel sensor snaps nice pictures, but more importantly, there’s hardly any lag between tapping the shutter button and getting the photo. I went to a Los Angeles Dodgers game on Monday night, and had no problem catching the action mid-pitch. I’d show you, but that’d probably violate Major League Baseball licensing rules, so here’s a pretty picture of the Los Angeles skyline instead, taken from the Dodger Stadium parking lot:

Of course, you’ll find some bloatware on the Sensation, most prominently HTC’s Watch app for videos and T-Mobile’s TV app for free and premium streaming television, which requires you to sign up for a premium trial to access to the free stuff. And as with most bloatware, I didn’t care to spend much time with either app. If users can find some utility in this stuff, more power to them.

The only thing that really bothers me about the Sensation, and that cannot be tested in a review, is the paltry amount of storage you get with the phone. Internally, there’s only 1 GB of storage, and T-Mobile’s throwing in a mere 8 GB microSD card. For such a powerful smartphone, I’d at least like the option to pre-load a 16 GB or 32 GB card. Storage is not something I want to worry about later.

But in nearly every other area, the HTC Sensation 4G excels as a thin, touch-screen slab with solid hardware and no gimmicks. There’s always a better Android smartphone right around the corner, but for T-Mobile subscribers, I don’t hesitate to recommend this one right now.

Second Opinions: | Laptop | Phone Scoop | CNET | Phone Arena

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