HTC Sensation vs Samsung Galaxy S II

Introduction and Design

“Pick and choose, people, pick and choose!”, screamed the jester, while juggling with the HTC Sensation, and the Samsung Galaxy S II in front of the crowd about to buy the hottest smartphone of the season.

If there has ever been a tough call between two top-shelf Android handsets, this must be it. Even a glimpse through the spec sheet can’t tell you which one to snag - they are both powered by 1.2GHz dual-core chipsets, allowing them to record Full HD 1080p video at 30fps with their 8MP cameras, have 4.3” displays, and are both running the latest Android 2.3 Gingerbread with the respective homebrew interface overlays – Sense and TouchWiz.

And yet, when you dig deeper, the HTC Sensation and the Samsung Galaxy S II are rather different - the design philosophy is polarizing, screen technology and resolution don't match, the dual-core chipsets are not from the same mother, and the user interface concepts are opposites. Which one will be right for you? Read on, while we jump in to solve this dilemma...


Despite being thicker and heavier that the Samsung Galaxy S II, the HTC Sensation actually feels more ergonomic in the hand. The two handsets have almost the same width and length, but the Galaxy S II comes in a bit edgy, being the anorexic rectangular slab it is, while the added thickness and heft of the HTC Sensation make it feel more solid, and the curvy corners with tapered edges make it palm-friendly. This feeling is then reinforced by the choice of materials for the chassis - aluminum and soft-touch plastic are more pleasant to handle and show-off than black plastic.

However, these are deliberate design approaches - since the first Galaxy S, Samsung prefers to hit where it would count in marketing materials, and it made the Galaxy S II the thinnest and lightest handset with a 4.3” screen, hence the all-plastic design. HTC prefers more sophisticated design materials, and yet it currently strives to achieve a fairly uniform appearance across its Android portfolio, which makes the phones of this brand immediately recognizable, regardless of the market niche they are heading to, and yet a bit unsurprising because of the similar looks.

So which one should you pick based on design and looks alone is entirely subjective - personally we prefer phones with a big screen to be as thin and light as possible, but many others would go for the more sophisticated and distinctive design paradigm of HTC. If you are paying that much money for a phone, you might as well get some aluminum around it, right?

Moreover, it might be the different display technology that has allowed Samsung to make the Galaxy S II so thin - the Super AMOLED Plus screen needs less layers than the Super-LCD in the HTC Sensation. It has other virtues, too, like almost infinite contrast, wide viewing angles, and saturated, vivid colors. The display on the HTC Sensation is able to exhibit lively colors as well, but in a more limited gamut, and when you are halfway through tilting the phone to determine the viewing angles, the colors and brightness start to fade significantly.

The LCD screen on the HTC Sensation appears a tad brighter indoors, but outside under direct sunlight the very low reflectance of the Galaxy S II coating makes the image slightly easier to see. There is one area where the HTC Sensation is ahead, though, the 540x960 qHD resolution, compared to 480x800 pixels in the Galaxy S II's 4.3-incher. Since the Super AMOLED Plus technology gets rid of the PenTile RGBG matrix pixel arrangement, the individual pixels are not distinct as on the Galaxy S, for example, when you bring the phone close to your eyes.

Unlike the Motorola ATRIX 4G, however, with its PenTile qHD screen with RGBW pixel arrangment, the HTC Sensation uses a normal RGB matrix for its qHD resolution. Thus, given the same 4.3” screen sizes, we give the resolution round to HTC’s handset, which has higher pixel density than the Samsung Galaxy S II, making it a tad easier on the eyes when reading smaller text. So, if you do a lot of reading on your smartphone, and a lot of people do nowadays, the HTC Sensation might be a safer bet, but if you watch a lot of movies, the Super AMOLED Plus is better with its jolly colors, and the ability to set the color tone individually. The colors still appear slightly colder, though, like on the first Super AMOLED display.

Looking around the sides, we find the right-mounted power/lock key on the Galaxy S II more suitably placed than the one on the top in the HTC Sensation, which you struggle to reach on such a large handset. We often pressed the side key on the Galaxy S II accidentally, though, which locked the screen mid-flight, so it’s a trade-off.

The glass on top of the HTC Sensation’s display is slightly curved inwards at the edges, recessing the screen in a shallow pit, which is supposedly better to protect it when the phone is placed face-down. The bezel on the Samsung Galaxy S II also sticks out above the display a little, though, which means it never touches a flat surface in that position either. Still, HTC’s solution looks cooler, adding to the overall curvy shape impression of the phone. The capacitive buttons underneath the screen are a bit narrower on the HTC Sensation, and a tad harder to reach and operate with one hand than on the Galaxy S II.

Both phones sport the newfangled MHL port, which combines charging, microUSB and HDMI-out capabilities in one place, but you need a separate cable, which both companies sell as an accessory, to mirror your phone’s screen on your HDTV. We like the MHL port placed at the bottom better on the Samsung Galaxy S II, instead of on the left like on the HTC Sensation - it’s a bit less meddling to operate the phone, while plugged-in, but more so when watching movies, so pick your poison.

To wrap up the design portion, we’d say once again that the phones go around housing their big 4.3” screens in a different way. The Galaxy S II is the slimmest and lightest phone with such a display out there, which, combined with the unpretentious black plastic shell, makes it easier to carry around. The HTC Sensation’s more sophisticated shape and solid build with soft-touch plastic and aluminum elements, on the other hand, is more ergonomic to operate, and a pleasure to handle. The choice here will be entirely determined by your personal preferences.

HTC Sensation 360-degrees View:

Samsung Galaxy S II 360-degrees View:

Interface and Functionality:

Both phones sport the newest versions of their Android interface skins - TouchWiz 4.0 and HTC Sense 3.0 – click on the links for our walkthroughs. While TouchWiz can still be called a skin or overlay on top of the default Android 2.3 Gingerbread user interface, Sense UI goes deeper and entirely changes the whole Android feel to a trademark HTC experience. You can’t have anything like it if you go to the competition, and that’s the whole idea behind branding, right?

On a more pragmatic level, let’s start from the lock screen. It’s dynamic on the Samsung Galaxy S II, since it displays notifications for certain events like missed calls or unread messages, and you can swipe to the respective app in charge directly from the lock screen itself, similar to what Apple will offer in its fall iOS 5 collection. Sense 3.0 on the HTC Sensation does that too, but it also allows you quick access to applications of your choosing straight from the lock screen, similar to Nokia Bubbles, for instance.

Both handsets sport certain gestures that are supposed to add to the experience. The Samsung Galaxy S II lets you place widgets with one hand, or tap its top to speak voice commands, while the HTC Sensation “senses” when it is in a purse, and rings louder, for example, with the ringer volume diminishing when you take it out. None of these are necessities, but they are cool and helpful at times.

Moving on to phone and contacts, both handsets support smart dialing for quickly displaying who you are trying to find by keying in just 2-3 letters of their name, but Sense on the HTC Sensation makes for a prettier picture, with its rich visuals, stemming from a generous use of transparent backgrounds and animations. Moreover, the abilities to visually change the appearance of Sense UI are breathtaking, with whole theme packages called Scenes directly accessible from the home screen. One thing we preferred on the Samsung Galaxy S II was the virtual keyboard. Its clear-cut keys are spaced out a bit more, and it is easier to hit the right letter quickly.

Some find this ability to customize Sense a bit over the top, and prefer the simpler overlays like TouchWiz, or stock Android. These manufacturers’ overlays bring a lot of additional functionality, though, like social networking integration in your contacts list, and, as long as it doesn’t slow things down, the beauty of Sense UI is welcome, compared to a few pretty widgets and simple wallpapers that the Samsung Galaxy S II sports. Just wait until the live wallpaper starts changing in sync with the weather outside, and you’ll know what we mean.

Sense 3.0 does slow things down at places, however, like in the main menu. It’s paginated, so scrolling feels like you are flipping through a slide show, stopping at page breaks. Even when you switch to list view of the apps, the movement is still choppy, compared to the furious uninterrupted inertia on the Samsung Galaxy S II. The main menu is about the only nuisance in terms of scrolling, however - in the homescreens, widgets and system apps Sense 3.0 is smooth as silk. We don’t know if it’s the chipset that plays a role here, or Sense UI just needs to be tweaked for faster, more fluid scrolling in the main menu. We had a similar issue with the HTC Desire HD, which has a weaker processor than the Sensation, so the culprit should be the Sense overlay.

Speaking of chipsets, we have dual-core ones in both handsets, clocked at 1.2GHz. Samsung’s homemade Exynos with its ARM Cortex-A9 cores, however, is more powerful than the third generation Qualcomm Snapdragon in the HTC Sensation with its customized, but still Cortex-A8 Scorpion cores. We also have 1GB RAM on the Galaxy S II, whereas the HTC Sensation comes with 768MB of RAM. The Galaxy S II beats in internal memory, too – 16GB of flash storage, versus an 8GB microSD card with the Sensation.

The advantages of Exynos are clearly visible in synthetic benchmark tests where the Galaxy S II scores much higher, while the Sensation reaches NVIDIA Tegra 2-level performance, and barely. Of course, there aren’t many apps out there that can fully stress both Exynos and Snapdragon the 3rd, and in tasks that do unleash their potential, like browsing and 1080p video recording both handsets perform on par, so it’s unlikely that the typical user will notice or even care about the difference in horse power.

Internet, Connectivity and Software:

The synthetic BrowserMark test we ran clocked much higher scores for the Samsung Galaxy S II on multiple occasions. In everyday browsing, however, the HTC Sensation performs admirably, with page loading and response times as fast as we would expect from a dual-core handset. It even had the upper hand in text reflow, handily reformatting the written words to fit the screen in a reading-friendly size upon double-tap. Yes, browsing on Android handsets, especially dual-core ones, is magical, especially when you throw in the full Adobe Flash support, which allows you to watch videos outside of the most popular sites. And both the Samsung Galaxy S II and the HTC Sensation perform all aspects of it admirably.

One area directly connected with browsing, where the Samsung Galaxy S II has an advantage, is HSPA+ connectivity. Its radio supports 21Mbps download speeds, whereas the HTC Sensation goes to 14.4Mbps.

Thanks to Sense UI, however, the HTC Sensation has the upper hand in offline navigation. Through its partnership with TomTom for the software, and Route 66 for the maps, HTC includes the ability to download very detailed country maps on your handset directly from the Locations app, and use them to navigate your way through the city or highway maze, without incurring data charges. You have to pay a small amount if you want voice-guidance as well, but Locations in Sense UI is the closest you can come to free offline navigation on Android.

As we mentioned, both handsets sport the MHL port, which looks like a regular microUSB one, but besides a microUSB cable for charging and syncing, you can also plug in an MHL-to-HDMI adapter cable, which will allow you to mirror your phone’s display to an HDTV, and pump out Full HD 1080p video with surround sound at that. If you have an MHL-enabled TV you can also charge the phone during playback, but those are just coming this year, so it will take some time for wider adoption.

The so-called Wi-Fi “death grip” issue on the HTC Sensation is indeed present when you cup the top of the phone - signal bars drop down to the minimum sometimes, which would slow YouTube video loading to a crawl, for instance, so don’t cup the top when you are holding it in landscape mode. The Galaxy S II had no connectivity problems whatsoever, plus it sports some extras like Bluetooth 3.0HS and Wi-Fi Direct, which you can only use full speed with other Galaxy S IIs. Hopefully these will come to other handsets in the future, making them more useful. Even before we add the USB-on-the-go capability that allows you to connect memory sticks directly to your phone, Samsung's handset easily wins the connectivity round.

As far as preinstalled apps go, both phones have covered all the basics – there are file browsers, email clients, office document viewers and picture and video editors on both. Moreover, the much-hyped HTC Watch and Music multimedia stores have their equivalent in Samsung's Media and Music Hubs, with similar pricing. The design of the apps on the HTC Sensation is prettier and more refined, but the video editor is much more capable on the Galaxy S II, for example, so we can call it a draw.

Camera and Multimedia:

The Samsung Galaxy S II and the HTC Sensation both have feature-packed camera interfaces and very fast shot-to-shot times. The icons on the Galaxy S II are a tad larger and thus easier to press, but still the camera interface is kept minimalistic and pretty. The HTC Sensation, on the other hand, is more functional, offering a rich, visualized range of color effects to apply with the touch of a button, whereas the Galaxy S II strength is more scene modes, if anyone bothers with those before snapping a picture with their smaprtphones.

The camera lens on the Samsung Galaxy S II has a much wider field of view than the one on the HTC Sensation; it fits more scene in the frame, especially when the phones are held in portrait mode. Both handsets capture enough details, but the pictures from the HTC Sensation have more contrast applied to them, and thus look sharper and with punchier colors than the ones from the Samsung Galaxy S II, which, in their turn, are colder than the real deal.

If we get out of the bright sun, though, the software running the HTC Sensation’s camera starts to aggressively clear up the noise and oversharpen the photo, which takes its toll on some fine detail. Besides the more natural looks, the Samsung Galaxy S II also gets more pictures with wide dynamic range right. Moreover, it seems that the HTC Sensation’s software algorithms are always hard at work trying to sharpen this element or blur that background, with often mixed, unnatural results.

Both chipsets and 8MP camera sensors support 30fps Full HD 1080p video recording, so currently they are on top of the smartphone game in that respect. You can zoom in freely while recording Full HD 1080p video with the HTC Sensation, however, something that the Galaxy S II allows only in HD 720p mode. The Sensation also records stereo audio, which, while loud enough, is not very clean, most likely since the video gets recorded in the .3GP format, which is the worse choice, compared to the Galaxy S II .MP4 recording.

Moreover, the Sensation sports live tap-to-focus while filming, similar to the iPhone 4, which is quite a handy feature, and works when capturing 1080p videos, too. It sports autofocus only before you’ve started filming, so the tap-to-focus feat while shooting a video actually becomes very useful.

Videos captured with the Samsung Galaxy S II run slightly smoother. However, the ability to use tap-to-focus and digital zoom while shooting in Full HD 1080p with the HTC Sensation might offset the Galaxy S II's advantages for certain users.

Finally, the HTC Sensation's video seems sharper than what the Galaxy S II offers, which is fine in our books, although some may find it a bit too much..

HTC Sensation Sample Video:

Samsung Galaxy S II Sample Video:

HTC Sensation Indoor Sample Video:

Samsung Galaxy S II Indoor Sample Video:

When it comes to playing video, the Samsung Galaxy S II is the clear leader, with hardwired   support for most major codecs up to Full HD 1080p definition, and due to the sheer vivid brilliance of the Super AMOLED Plus display for watching movies. The Sensation plays 1080p MPEG-4 files with no issues, but for high-definition DivX/Xvid files, or the popular .MKV format you will have to hit Android Market. Full HD 1080P Divx/Xvid files are not even been indexed as playable in the All Videos section of the Gallery, and HD 720p ones are hit-or-miss.

The default HTC video player has some SRS surround sound perks in loudspeaker mode, which deepen the base a bit, but in terms of functionality it can’t match the excellent player on the Galaxy S II, which has been born with video playback in mind, and won’t make you look for alternatives in Android Market, except if you want to loop something.

When music playback is concerned, the Samsung Galaxy S II also has the upper hand, with its native support for the lossless FLAC format, and less wimpy speaker. The surround sound mode on the HTC Sensation can be used in speaker mode as well, unlike the Samsung Galaxy S II, which only allows its mock 5.1 channel surround when the supplied handset is plugged in. The Galaxy S II, however, lets you apply equalizer presets while listening through the speaker, whereas on the HTC Sensation they only work in headset mode. 

Performance and Conclusion:

Both handsets sport very good call quality, despite that nothing extraordinary strong or clean is coming from their earpieces. Still, the quality is above average on both, and the receiving end could hear us loud and clear, especially from the Galaxy S II, which has a dedicated noise-canceling microphone.

The 1650mAh battery on the Samsung Galaxy S II is rated for 8 hours and 40 minutes of talk time in 3G mode, whereas the HTC Sensation’s 1520mAh power pack is rated for two hours less than that. We got 62 hours of light usage with the stock Galaxy S II (no KE7 update), before it turned off, but the HTC Sensation clocked about two days with light usage, with 1080p video recording taking a particularly heavy toll on the battery. And that with the Exynos chipset with Mali-400 GPU clocking a larger score in synthetic benchmarks than the Snapdragon with Adreno 220 GPU by almost a third.

The Samsung Galaxy S II has another advantage over the HTC Sensation – Samsung is officially blessing the development of custom ROMs like CyanogenMod for it, whereas the HTC Sensation comes with a locked bootloader, at least for now. It is also the handset with less storage – an 8GB microSD card comes with the phone, whereas the Galaxy S II comes with 16GB of internal memory.

So, which one is right for you? If you do a lot of reading and browsing on your smartphone, you will certainly appreciate the bigger resolution on the HTC Sensation, despite that browsing on the Galaxy S II is smooth as silk. If you are somewhat of a performance buff, or use the smartphone mainly for watching videos, then the Samsung Galaxy S II will grace your day with many hours of high-definition movie playback, in any format, and with subtitles, if you need to understand what Dr Gregory House is talking about. Oh, and that Super AMOLED Plus display has simply gorgeous colors when displaying video, and is power-sipping then, too.

Thus, if you are a function-before-form type of person, you’d appreciate the simple and easy-going, yet extremely powerful and future-proof Galaxy S II. If you are into classier design looks plus a richer software feel with the Sense UI and its goodies like offline navigation through Locations, but willing to sacrifice some battery life and internal storage for them, you are likely to walk out of the store with an HTC Sensation in your hands.

In short, if the Samsung Galaxy S II is the light and fast coupe, driven by the concepts for simplicity and raw power under the hood, the HTC Sensation is the more refined and distinctive luxury ride, which is less capable in certain core aspects, but carries with it additional perks that make for a more sophisticated experience. Frankly, in the land of the little green robots, you can’t go wrong with any of these two.

HTC Sensation vs Samsung Galaxy S II Video Comparison:

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