T-Mobile’s best phone right now? The HTC Sensation 4G

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T-Mobile’s newest high-end smartphone, the HTC Sensation 4G, launches on June 15 in the carrier’s retail stores for $199 with contract. The Sensation 4G is T-Mobile’s first phone to use both a dual-core Snapdragon chip from Qualcomm and a 960 x 540 high-resolution screen. I’ve been using the Google Android 2.3.3 handset for nearly two weeks as my primary phone to see how this hardware combination pairs with HTC’s newest user interface software, called Sense 3.0.

Hardware

For those familiar with HTC handsets, the Sensation 4G isn’t much of a departure, but that’s not a bad thing. The new handset reminds me of a slightly larger, improved version of the Nexus One, which is what I use personally. The overall dimensions may appear large, but the phone’s rounded design keeps it feeling thin.

The main reason for the size is the generous 4.3-inch Super LCD display, which is bright and vivid with its qHD resolution. The screen has good viewing angles from all directions and is usable in direct sunlight. The screen, which curves up slightly at the edges, isn’t as nice as phones that use Samsung’s Super AMOLED displays, but those are still a challenge to use outdoors and use a slightly lower resolution.

Below the display are four capacitive touch buttons, which work well; above the screen is a VGA camera that is good enough for video chatting. Without Android 2.4, however, the Sensation 4G can’t use Google Talk for video and is limited to third-party solutions, such as Qik. Inside the main speaker is an LED notification light. The rear camera is 8 megapixels, has two LED flashes and can capture video up to 108 0p. Aside from the volume buttons and micro USB port on the left and the power button and 3.5 millimeter headphone jack on the top, little else distracts from the overall look and feel of the phone. Our first-look video offers a full, detailed tour of the hardware, including the unique back cover.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mv_5_2BfzQw]

You can see it in the video, but the unibody cover is worth mentioning, because it’s more like a case than a cover: The entire innards of the Sensation slide out from the case, offering access to the 1520 mAh user-replaceable battery, SIM card slot and microSD slot. The back cover is aluminum in the center but grippy plastic above and below, which helps to keep the phone from slipping. With the Sensation’s user-accessible memory limited to 1 GB, most consumers will make use of the memory expansion slot, which comes with an 8 GB card and supports up to 32 GB of memory. The memory card can be removed or replaced while the phone is running.

Unlike the T-Mobile G2x, made by LG and powered by a 1 GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 dual-core processor, HTC chose a chip from its longtime partner, Qualcomm. A 1.2 GHz dual-core Snapdragon chip is the heart of the Sensation 4G, while the expected array of wireless and sensor technologies rounds out the picture: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, a 14.4 Mbps radio for T-Mobile’s network, GPS, ambient light sensor and accelerometer. Most of the specifications of the phone are high-end, but the mobile broadband radio is slightly lacking, since T-Mobile’s network is capable of 21 Mbps downloads in many areas and 42 Mbps in nearly four dozen markets currently.

Software

Since the device runs all of the standard Google Android apps, I’ll instead focus mainly on HTC’s software. The Sensation 4G is the first phone to use the new HTC Sense 3.0 software, a custom user interface and set of widgets that take the place of Google’s own Android interface. There’s no easy method to disable Sense and use plain Android, but overall, Sense offers a more pleasing and intuitive experience, not to mention an improved keyboard that speeds input through tracing words.

The most noticeable change from prior versions of Sense is the new Active Lockscreen, which shows information at a glance and provides four user-customizable shortcuts on the Sensation’s lock screen. To unlock the device, you simply drag a ring icon up from the bottom of the screen. Dragging one of the four shortcuts into the ring unlocks the phone and opens the specific application. Dragging the camera icon to the ring, for example, immediately brings you to the camera app. The feature is clever and useful.

Sense brings seven home screens, each of which can be set up with widgets, shortcuts, folders and more. Swiping left or right moves through the home screens in a 3-D-like carousel, which is a nice visual but adds little value. Also pleasing to look at is the HTC Weather widget, which I used as my lock screen background: The entire display emulates the local weather, complete with sounds and visuals of the sun, moving clouds, lightning and rain. A “personalize” function allows customization of user skins, scenes, wallpapers, notification sounds and more.

HTC has also tweaked Android’s notification shade, and it’s better than what Google offers. Pulling down the shade shows the most recently used apps as well as all outstanding notifications from applications. But the shade has a second tab specific to the phone’s most basic settings. Tap it and you can easily access settings for Wi-Fi, the mobile hotspot function, Bluetooth or GPS. This tab also shows the current memory in use, which doubles as a limited task manager application.

Other HTC apps include Watch and Listen, which are the beginnings of HTC’s media offerings. Watch offers movie and television content for rentals or purchase. Although the video library is relatively sparse when compared to Apple’s iTunes store, the prices are comparable. Video previews are available for some but not all titles, and they look crisp and clear on the Sensation 4G. Listen, powered by MusicStation, appears to be more of a work in progress: Few new albums are available.

 

Performance

Although the Sensation uses a faster 1.2 GHz dual-core processor, I found the performance to generally be on par with the 1 GHz Tegra-powered G2x. That’s not a bad thing, but folks expecting a noticeable performance difference between the two aren’t likely to see one. Overall, the phone is fairly snappy and responsive: Menus don’t open instantly, but there’s very little lag. I suspect the reason for the lag is twofold. The Sense user interface over Android adds a little bit of overhead, and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon MSM8260 uses a modified Cortex-A8 core instead of the newer Cortex-A9. Still, the phone will be fast enough for most.

My tests of the phone’s mobile broadband in an area with full 21 Mbps support averaged a 3.5 Mbps download, 1.7 Mbps upload and 70 millisecond ping time, with faster occasional peaks, showing the limitation of the radio. While these aren’t slow speeds and performance will vary by location and coverage area, I expected faster speeds from a phone with a 4G label. Wi-Fi worked well on my two home networks as well as on public hotspots, as did the mobile hotspot functionality I used with a Wi-Fi tablet.

Even with the dual-core processor and large display to light up, the Sensation 4G makes it through a full day on a single charge. But you’ll need to charge it nightly, especially with heavy use during the day. As far as the cameras go, HTC isn’t known for top-notch images, but I noticed a big improvement with the Sensation 4G, both for stills and videos. Certain Nokia cameras and the iPhone 4 offer higher quality, but the Sensation has the best camera I’ve used yet on an HTC device. Videos can be trimmed while stills enjoy basic edit functions; both stills or movies can be shared via email or various third-party services.

Phone calls were clear, and signal strength was good for all of my voice activities, with no call drops. The speakerphone is quite loud, and there are several microphones located on the back and bottom of the Sensation, making for clear hands-free calls.

Conclusion

With just a few small shortcomings, I think the Sensation 4G is one of the best, if not the best, handset available for T-Mobile today, with a few caveats. You’ll have to want a larger display, not mind HTC’s Sense interface and accept that there are phones with faster radios available. For $199 with a contract, the Sensation 4G is well worth the money, due to its ease of use, high-resolution display and improved camera. I’m considering the purchase of one myself, although I may hold off to see if and when Samsung’s Galaxy S 2 arrives for T-Mobile, which should rival the Sensation 4G.

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