There was a time, not so long ago, when HTC was the gold standard for Android phones. At one point, around the release of the HTC One, it wasn’t outrageous to say its design chops were superior to Apple and the iPhone.
Things have not gone well since.
The company has kept churning out mostly decent phones, but has fallen further into obscurity as Samsung furthered its control at the top, competition from China grew, and the space below the highest-end phones became a morass of manufacturers.
The HTC U11, the company’s new $A999 flagship, probably won’t reverse those fortunes. But if you’re just not digging Samsung — or Apple for that matter — it’s well worth a look. Here’s why:
From a distance, the HTC U11 is gorgeous. It's coated in super smooth glass, and the back sports one of a few solid, tremendously deep colours. My blue review unit here is something I'd go out of my way to use -- it's clean, its shine immediately grabs the eye, and the way the light dances off the glass lets the phone almost change colours at different angles. When you rest it on a table, you want to put it face down.
The U11 isn't the first phone with this look -- I adored the similar finish of the Huawei Honour 8 last year -- but pretty is pretty.
When you flip the phone over and look at its face, though, the U11 comes off as more dated. At a time where more and more phones are shrinking the borders around their displays, HTC still has giant black bars above and below its screen. Since it wants that screen to be big, the phone is taller than it has to be.
To be clear, having a bezel isn't some grave sin. Just because the tech world is moving this way doesn't mean HTC has failed. If the top and bottom bezels were nearly as thin as the ones on the sides, there'd be no issue here. But because they're big enough to affect how you actually use the phone, they're a pain point.
Of course, The Great Bezel Debate wouldn't be as big a deal if phone makers would embrace small screens again, but it seems safe to say that's not happening anytime soon.
To HTC's credit, the way the U11's glass rolls into the aluminium sides is delightfully smooth, and the whole thing is neither thick nor heavy. The fingerprint scanner is fast, and everything is water-resistant. It all feels luxurious. But, practically speaking, the glass is too slick for its own good. Put it on something that isn't perfectly flat and it's bound to slide its way to the ground. It can be slippery to hold, too; this is very much not something to use with one hand. And because the back is all glass, it's a massive fingerprint magnet.
I wouldn't trust it to be sturdy, either.
You can tidy most of this up by using a case, but then you're neutering the big selling point of the design in the first place. As much as I love the look of the U11, I wouldn't be surprised if the annoyances that continuously arise with an all-glass design become overwhelming over time.
Once you turn on the U11, there's very little to complain about. That starts with the display: a 5.5-inch 'Super LCD' panel with a 2560x1440 resolution. Text and images are plenty crisp. While it doesn't quite 'pop' the way the Galaxy S8's OLED screen does, it still produces vivid, largely accurate colours. Its only real flaw is that it could stand to be brighter. It's a bit more difficult to read in the sun than it could be.
The pickiest phone fiends might also complain about LCD tech not having the level of contrast as the best OLED screens; black tones here aren't as deep or dark as they are elsewhere.
But smartphone screens are hard to get wrong at this point. Taken together, the U11 has the kind of display you'd expect from a $A999 phone.
Likewise, the U11 is as fast and powerful as you'd like. It's got all the right specs: the latest Snapdragon 835 processor, 4 GB of RAM, and a plentiful 64 GB of storage. Apps load fast, nothing's janky, and there isn't a game that doesn't run smoothly. It cruised through every benchmark test I threw at it. It can get a touch hot if you take a ton of photos over a prolonged period of time -- being made of glass doesn't help -- but it's never egregious.
All told, it's a powerhouse. It also has a microSD card slot, if the included storage isn't enough for you.
With smartphones becoming increasingly commodified, it's the little touches that stand out more and more. The U11's quiet ace in the hole is audio: Listening to music with this thing is a treat. The pair of speakers on the phone's front and bottom are clear and loud (for a phone). I could play a podcast at max volume and hear it across my apartment without trouble.
There's no Bluetooth 5, though. That's not a big deal, but unlike the Galaxy S8, you won't be able to stream wireless audio to two speakers or headphones at once.
Meanwhile, the 'USonic' earbuds that come with the U11 may be the best pair of pack-in headphones I've tried. They connect over USB-C, and they put that digital connection to good use -- there's a level of space, clarity, and bass response that just isn't there with pre-packaged earbuds. They also add a light noise-cancelling effect when the music's playing.
The hangup is that they only work with phones in HTC U's line. That is asinine.
If you want to use your own pair of headphones, though, you'll have to pop in a dongle. That's because HTC continues to omit the traditional headphone jack. The upside is that it does put a dongle in the box, and the DAC (digital-to-analogue audio converter) in it is very solid -- with a good pair of headphones, you'll get more detail here than you would plugging into most phones normally. As a result, the U11 is the first phone I've used that makes a legitimate case for the perks of USB-C audio. But all of that can be done without entirely removing the alternative. The dongle is still another thing to carry around.
Sadly, the U11 isn't as impressive when it comes to battery life. Inside its slim frame is a 3,000mAh battery. With that big, high-res display hogging up power, the U11 can just about last through a full day, but nothing more. If you push it a little, you'll probably have to charge by the late afternoon. It's not unmanageable to start, but batteries degrade over time, so don't be surprised if the situation gets worse a year in.
The good news is that the U11 supports Qualcomm's Quick Charge 3.0 standard, so it refills fairly quickly. There's no wireless charging, but that's really not a big loss at this point.
The U11 runs on Android 7.1.1, under a custom skin HTC calls 'Sense.' That skin used to be loaded with superfluous changes, but today it's far more restrained. It looks and feels similar to the clean, straightforward version of Android that Google produces itself. There are a few unnecessary apps pre-loaded by default -- a couple of which cannot be uninstalled -- but not so many as to be obnoxious. You'll likely want to ditch the default keyboard and the 'BlinkFeed' news aggregator that sits next to the home screen, but doing so is easy enough. It's all fine.
What is a problem, as it is with every Android manufacturer besides Google, is updates. HTC is better at getting new software features out the door than most, but you're still looking at a wait when Android O rolls out later this year. Same goes for Google's monthly security patches; my test unit was a month behind on those out of the box.
On the plus side, HTC is promising to support the U11 through the next two major Android releases, so you shouldn't get too shafted on the software side.
The headline addition here is something HTC calls 'Edge Sense.' This lets you literally squeeze the bottom sides of the phone to quickly launch any app, including Google Assistant (Google's Siri competitor). You can set it to control two actions at once -- a short press could launch, say, the camera, while a long press could turn on the flashlight.
This is gimmicky, yes, but it works. Simply squeezing the phone to take a photo is both faster and more natural-feeling than unlocking, swiping, and tapping your way to an app.
I could see many people simply ignoring it, and you can turn it off if needed, but it has no harm in being there. It's a nice touch.
The other big addition isn't ready yet: Alexa integration. Later this summer, the U11 is set to become the first smartphone that can call on Amazon's virtual assistant just by calling its name, much like you would with an Echo speaker. (Huawei's Mate 9 supports Alexa today, but only through a standalone app.) This will be completely ignorable if you'd like, but if you've got your data with Amazon already, it should be nifty.
If two wasn't enough, the U11 also comes with HTC's virtual assistant, called Sense Companion. It's not like Google or Alexa, though -- instead of asking it general questions, the idea is for it to read your data, then pop in onscreen with suggestions where appropriate. If you're out on the town, for instance, it might suggest a restaurant to visit.
It didn't do much in my week and a half of testing, though. It sometimes suggested I clear out some background processes using HTC's Boost+ app to save power, but beyond that, it's hard for me to say it's useful enough to justify letting HTC read everything I do on my phone.
The U11's camera is ready to go, though, and it's excellent. To get it out of the way: No, I don't think it's better than the Galaxy S8 or Google Pixel, the two leading cameras on the market. But it's closer than most. During the day, the 12-megapixel shooter here gets truly fantastic detail, with little noise. Colours hit that sweet spot where they're accurate, but boosted enough to not be dull. The whole thing is fast to focus, too.
The camera has its faults, though. While the U11 does well to not wash out shots most of the time, it can skew a bit too dark for my liking by default. It's generally slower to actually take a photo than the Galaxy S8 or Pixel, particularly in the dark. And in those darker settings, where so many of these things go wrong, it's not bad, but not immune from sloppiness either. Still, I can't see many people being disappointed with the whole package.
The 16-megapixel selfie camera, meanwhile, is solid. It's much more prone to noise than the main shooter, but it does the job in the right light.
The HTC U11 is a perfectly fine flagship -- it looks good, runs fast, takes great photos, and has several nice little touches. It's got a faster processor than the LG G6 and Google Pixel, and it costs less than the Galaxy S8. If you just want something different than an iPhone or Galaxy phone, its striking design and audio tricks put it near the top of that 'everything else' category, somewhere alongside the G6 and Huawei's Mate 9. But the ergonomics are a bit off, the lack of a headphone jack is still pointless, and the battery is underwhelming. Those aren't fatal flaws, but it makes the U11 more of a hard-hit double at a time where HTC could really use a home run. Buy the U11 if you love this look and are a borderline audiophile; otherwise, there's little that demands you grab it over the Galaxy S8.
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