19-09-2011 11:59 PM
Vodafone were good enough to lend me the Galaxy S2 and Sensation back to back to allow me to compare them directly, both phones on paper look very similar with 4.3in screens, latest dual core hardware, 8MP cameras and Gingerbread but in use there's quite a few differences.
Both phones are dominated by their large 4.3in screens and both have a hardware power button, volume controls, 3.5mm headphone port, hdmi port and below the screen a settings button, home button and back button. Both phones also lack a hardware shutter button for the camera which is an irritating omission, the Galaxy S2 also lacks a dedicated search button and has no notification light (the Sensation has both). These sound like minor grumbles but a lot of Android applications use search making it useful having a dedicated button (the S2 can bring up search by holding the settings button but this doesn't work in all applications) and it's easy to catch the back button as it's at the side - having a search button there means when you catch this button it brings up a search bar which is easily cancelled rather than cancelling the application. No notification light means you have to keep flicking the display on to see if there's any new notifications although the Sensation has the notification light buried below the speaker grill which reduces its usefulness.
Samsung have aimed at making the S2 as thin and light as possible and largely succeeded, despite the large 4.3in screen the S2 is incredibly thin and light, several times I thought it must have fallen out of my pocket as I couldn't feel the weight of it. The downside to this approach is the S2 feels cheap due to the lack of weight and plastic finish although I think the build quality is solid, there's no creaks or flexing and the display is protected by toughened gorilla glass.
HTC have taken a different approach with the Sensation going for a more solid, industrial feel. The rear of the phone has a smooth metal finish through the middle with a rubber finish either side although the phone is neither bulky or heavy. The Sensation's screen is slightly concave which means it has a slight lip round the edges, if the phone is placed flat face down the screen doesn't actually touch the surface which is a smart touch to protect the screen.
The Operating System
The S2 and Sensation both run the latest phone version of Android which is 2.3 or 'Gingerbread' but while they both support the samae applications, the interfaces are different as Samsung are using their custom skin 'Touchwiz' 4.0 while the Sensation is equipped with version 4 of HTC Sense.
On startup the S2 asks for a Google username and password which means if you're prepared to take advantage of Google's services it makes setup surprisingly easy as it sets up mail, contacts, calendar and will even automatically download and install applications if you already have an Android handset. The main skin mimics the Iphone's operating system with bright colourful icons anchoring phone, contacts, messages and applications along the bottom available on each of the home screens. The rest of the skin is reasonably stock with a few small additions such as being able to check new messages or contacts straight from the home screen and some clever additions to the contacts screen. There are a range of Samsung applications installed but replaced most of them with applications of my choice which I preferred.
HTC's Sense skin is a more extensive reworking of the Android interface which will be immediately familiar to those with previous HTC handsets but takes a little getting used to users of stock Android. On startup the Sensation asks for Facebook and Twitter login details as well as Google login details then attempts more extensive syncing - rather than just download contacts, the Sensation automatically links the contacts across the various social networking services. When you open a contact on the Sensation you can tab through from the main details to text conversations, Facebook posts, e-mails and Twitter posts as well as a handy widget on one of the home screens that shows posts from Facebook and Twitter. Sense is really one of the biggest advantages the Sensation has with so many great little touches everywhere, when you scroll the homescreens they loop round (rather than having to stop and start going back the way), when you bring down the notifications bar you also get icons for the five most recently used applications, applications can be sorted into most frequently used and those that have been downloaded (very useful if you've a long messy list of applications), there's a superb selection of widgets (an area where I find stock Android is fairly weak) and handy little applications preinstalled, a clever lock screen (allowing you to open four applications of your choice without unlocking the phone first), the ringer automatically quietens when you pick up the phone, you can reject calls by turning the phone upside when it's ringing or switch to speakerphone by doing the same during a call.
In short although I struggled a little with Sense initially being used to the more stock Android installs on the Galaxy Tab and S2 I was then impressed with how well set up the Sensation was out of the box and didn't need many of the applications I use on the Tab.
The Galaxy S2 features a 'Super AMOLED Plus' screen which in practice means it offers stunning colour and vibrance which is difficult to describe but it never failed to impress anyone who saw it and made it hard to resist watching through trailers and videos to appreciate the screen. The high brightness made it surprisingly usable outdoors in bright sunshine which is an area I find a lot of phones aren't great for. The downside to the screen is the lower 480x800 resolution which is particularly noticeable when reading webpage columns in a portrait orientation as it's pixelated unless you magnify the view.
The Sensation's screen looks quite dull after using the S2 but its higher qHD (540x960) resolution quickly shows its benefits as reading webpages in portrait mode is easier without needing to magnify the screen and the increased screen space was useful in various applications as more could be squeezed on screen at once.
The two phones feature top end hardware with the S2 boasting 1.2Ghz dual Cortex A9 processors and 1GB of ram while the Sensation offers the new Snapdragon S2 dual 1.2Ghz platform. I never thought the older single core Cortex A8 devices I had ever felt slow but after using the Sensation and S2 and their blistering dual core processors the Galaxy Tab in particularly seemed very sluggish at times. Both phones seemed to breeze through everything quickly and easily rendering webpages although both struggled with some embedded flash applications. At times the Sensation didn't seems quite as responsive as the S2 but I think this may be due to the additional graphic elements its Sense interface uses, when flicking between homescreens there's a 3D effect as if you're rotating a column and when switching to the multiple homescreen view the screens spins apart and spin back together when you select one.
I've seen the S2 criticised for not coming with a micro-SD card but it's because if features a decent chunk of 16GB memory builtin with the micro-SD card offering additional expansion while the Sensation only offers 1GB onboard storage and therefore needs its supplied 8GB memory card to offer decent storage out of the box.
As with all current smartphones, both these phones offer onboard GPS which worked fine even in areas with poorer reception. Lock times were usually fairly slow initially although once achieved both phones seemed to be able to hold on to it, the Sensation did seem to manage a much faster lock occasionally although it's difficult to compare as there's many conditions which can affect the lock on time.
This is a difficult one to quantify as it's going to vary tremendously depending on where the phone is being used, the area in which I live has good HSDPA coverage within the city but quickly drops off to GPRS into the countryside. The S2 seemed to do reasonably well as it mostly matched the Nokia N900's performance (which I'd say is average rather than exceptional) and did a good job hanging onto data connections and calls.
The Sensation however didn't seem to cope as well, it was fine in good coverage but seemed to struggle when on the edge of reception as it would keep switching between the different signal technologies and drop calls and data connections when doing so. Reading around online others have noted signal issues and point to the back cover as the culprit as this is used by the phone as an antennae although some others dispute this. I did notice that at times when the data speed seemed to have dropped that changing the way I held the phone did seem to improve reception but having only had the phone for a short time it was difficult to test conclusively. Iin practice during my time with the phone it tended to be an annoyance at times rather than a serious issue.
As powerful smartphones it's no surprise that neither of these phones offer great batterylife although in my use the Galaxy S2 had the edge, with heavy use it was struggling to make it through the day but even when playing with it quite a bit it never died during the day. The Sensation on its out of the box configuration was usually down to low power by the evening and needing recharged even without heavy use, there are some power saver modes the phone has builtin and turning off wifi and other features meant it could usually manage a few hours longer. The Sensation has a slightly smaller battery than the S2 and it's possible some of the extra sync features of the Sensation burn up more power.
As both phones feature removable batteries and standard micro-USB ports it makes them easier to keep going when on the move.
Although both 8MP the S2's camera appeared to have the upperhand and came as a real surprise, I use a lot of dedicated camera equipment including pro-spec DSLRs but the S2's camera still produced colourful detailed shots. I found myself using it far more regularly than any phone camera I've previously used and the video was similarly pretty good.
The Sensation's camera is also good and capable of producing detailed photos in good light but it seems to struggle in mixed lighting and its processing didn't seem quite as advanced as the S2. Its video like the S2 is decent offering smooth, detailed video.
Both phones clumsily mean you have to use the touchscreen to trigger the shutter as they both lack a dedicated shutter button which I can't really see any reason for although Android gives plenty of sharing services making it easy to share and upload photos to any of the social network sites, e-mail and to photo hosting sites. Being able to go straight to the camera from the lock screen on the Sensation is very handy while on the S2 it's a slower sequence to bring on the screen, unlock it then open the camera which felt too long at times when trying to grab a quick shot.
Neither phone offers a hardware keyboard obviously and rely on touch keyboards, both shipping with their own versions as well as Swype on the S2 (possibly on the Sensation, I didn't check). The HTC keyboard has some useful touches although on both phones I opted for the default Gingerbread keyboard which can be downloaded from the Android market, it offers a good balance for autocorrection without going too far. Being used to the hardware keyboard on the N900 I find touchscreen keyboards hard going and the S2/Sensation have been no different, I initially found them ok but over the course of the week found the keyboards increasingly frustrating. I realise though I'm a dying breed as most seem fine with touchscreen keyboards so won't be bothered by this aspect on the S2/Sensation.
Any comparisons I've read of the two phones never conclude one is better than the other and I've found the same, there's features I preferred on each device - the S2's bright screen, slender build and camera while on the Sensation I liked the qHD screen, search button, notification light and some of the clever tricks Sense offers. As I'm at the end of my contract I did come very close to finding out how much an S2 upgrade would set me back but decided against it due to the lack of keyboard.