The importance of CD8+ T cells in the control of viral infections is well established. However, what differentiates CD8+ T cell responses in individuals who control infection and those who do not is not well understood. ‘Functional sensitivity’ describes an important quality of the T cell response and is determined in part by the affinity of the T cell receptor for antigen. A more sensitive T cell response is generally believed to be more efficient and associated with better control of viral infection, yet may also drive viral mutation and immune escape. Various in vitro techniques have been used to measure T cell sensitivity; however, rapid ex vivo analysis of this has been made possible by the application of the ‘magic’ tetramer technology. Such tools have potentially important applications in the design and evaluation of vaccines.