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Let's talk about that new HTC phone

HTC U11
HTC U11 (Image credit: Android Central / Alex Dobie)

The last HTC phone I reviewed for Android Central was the U12+, such a broken embarrassment of a handset that I fully expected it be... well, the last HTC phone I ever reviewed. Between hemorrhaging cash and talent, and being dwarfed by its competition, HTC seemed to be done as a major player in smartphones.

But this week, something funny happened. HTC decided to launch a new phone. Well, two phones, in fact but today I'm going to focus on the higher-specced of the pair, because that's the one attracting the attention of nostalgic Android fans.

Externally, the new HTC U20 5G is a pretty generic looking 2020 smartphone, with its hole-punch display and quad cameras. But what makes this phone more modern is its spec sheet: A Snapdragon 765G processor, 8GB of RAM, 256GB of storage, 5G connectivity and a capacious 5,000mAh battery. For a phone brand that was largely considered dead and buried, that's not a bad spec sheet for just shy of NT$19,000 in Taiwan, or around US$640.

The U20 5G is one of a handful of upcoming phones to use Qualcomm's Snapdragon 765 series processors. Others include the LG Velvet and, reportedly, the Google Pixel 5. The 765 and 765G (confusingly both of which are 5G chips; there's no 765 5G, just a 765 and a 765G) are all about getting 5G in more hands, benchmarking somewhere around the level of a two-year-old Snapdragon 845.

It's also fun to remember that the people creating the U20 5G would've been working out of the very same building as Google's Pixel 5 engineering team — the HTC HQ building in New Taipei City that it now shares with Google engineers. Not that you should necessarily read anything into that, the two teams are very much separate.

HTC's less than dignified exit from the high-end segment a couple of years ago involved a phone with glitchy virtual buttons and stale software, redeemed by one of the best cameras of its generation.

The HTC of today is very different from the company behind fan-favorite Android phones.

The U12+ wasn't a great phone all-round, but it did take phenomenal photos. However, the selling off of HTC's phone research and development division to Google three years ago will surely have affected the company's ability to produce a competitive camera. Camera technology is one of the most expensive, difficult and competitive areas of phone R&D, after all. What I'm getting at is that I'm not expecting much from the new phone's cameras, a major area where we're likely to see the direct results of HTC's smaller scale.

Instead, I'm expecting "decent." Decent, but not outstanding. And that applies to just about everything this phone does — at least judging by the details revealed this week.

HTC U12+

Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central)

There's also the question of software. Even back in 2017, HTC Sense looked absolutely prehistoric compared to the software design of its contemporaries. Little of the U20's software has been shown beside the lock screen, which looks exactly like it did three or four years ago. I would also put money on the same tired loadout of first-party apps being preloaded, including core apps untouched from the HTC One M9, and weather animations that date back to the HTC Sensation a decade ago. Once again, the effects of a smaller HTC with even less money to spend than in 2018.

So why is HTC even making phones in 2020? Well, first it's worth remembering the U20 5G is only launching in Taiwan for now. New company CEO Yves Maitre has at least hinted at a wider launch for future HTC phones, saying in a tweet this week that the company's re-entry into the smartphone business would be "starting" in its home market. That leaves room open for a wider launch should the company decide that's worthwhile.

I'm not entirely sure why it would be worthwhile, though. While Maitre joined the company from Orange, where he was a senior executive, HTC has few, if any carrier partners remaining in the West.

HTC's new CEO has hinted at a broader release for new phones... but why?

The arrival of a new HTC phone with better-than-middling specs and 5G connectivity has, in some circles sparked discussion of a triumphant comeback. But I'm old enough to remember when the HTC U11 was going to be that phone. Or the HTC 10. Or the A9. Or the M9. That ship has long since sailed.

HTC has plenty of brand kudos among smartphone nerds. There's a ton of nostalgia value for those of us who were around for the likes of the Sensation, One X and One M7. But the HTC of today is not the company that made those phones. It's smaller, has less money, and is missing most of the key talent behind those iconic devices.

Instead, what we see this week is HTC dipping its toe back in the smartphone waters using the resources it still has. Right now, with different leadership and humbler ambitions, "success" for an HTC phone means selling a handful of units to customers in its home market.

In order for things to go any further, HTC needs to avoid the pattern of failures — in leadership, marketing and engineering -- that sent it from being one of the world's biggest smartphone brands to a fossil of its former self. Problem is, HTC couldn't fix itself when it had the money, brand value and engineering clout to make proper flagships. And now it's effectively having to start from scratch with very limited resources.

So is HTC back from the dead? Well, really it was more of a hibernation than a death. The HTC VR business is still ticking along, after all. These are the first high-profile HTC phones in years, and clearly there's some vague ambition to maybe sell something overseas again if they catch on.

But that doesn't mean it's a good idea, and the chances of HTC squeezing back into Western smartphone market in any real way remain vanishingly small.

These are the best Android phones you can buy

Alex Dobie
Alex Dobie

Alex is global Executive Editor for Android Central, and is usually found in the UK. He has been blogging since before it was called that, and currently most of his time is spent leading video for AC, which involves pointing a camera at phones and speaking words at a microphone. He would just love to hear your thoughts at alex@androidcentral.com, or on the social things at @alexdobie.

23 Comments
  • HTC, the hardly trying company is back with a vengeance? Where's the flagship you promised? Will this phone get a US release? Highly doubtful after the HTC10 debacle when carriers started to drop it only after a few weeks of it's release. But if a US carrier handled it I would probably buy it? I could never figure why the carriers dropped the 10, it was a very good phone and competed very well with the s7edge.!
  • Not a HTC fan, but you're dead wrong. Accusing them of being the "Hardly Trying Company" isn't fair. Let's see you try your hardest in a foot race against Usain bolt see how far you get.
  • Maybe you shouldn't be running against Usain Bolt in the first place.
  • If an LG flagship running Qualcomm's best chip cost $699 a year ago, why on earth are these phones running a midrange chip costing pretty much the same? The Galaxy A71 costs $599 and the Moto Edge is $670. These folks are nuts for not even trying to launch a $350 5G phone or even a $450 one.
  • Probably the economy of scale. Per unit, Samsung probably pays less to source parts and build an S20+, especially the Exynos model, than HTC do for one of these, and HTC can't exactly afford to absorb the additional cost.
  • 1st gen always costs more. Once these become more mainstream you will begin to see the sub $500 5G devices. 
  • Honestly, I'm not a fan of either of these two phones, and neither one is a flagship.
    And also honestly, the U12 Plus was a better phone than the Galaxy S9. In many ways.
    The S9 was slower, poorly optimized, had poor FP sensor placement, inferior speakers, lame audio.
    Yet the S9 was called "A fantastic phone for the masses", while the U12 Plus is "a broken embarrassment". It was almost mental, the way Mobile Nations responded to not liking the buttons in such a foam flecked rage that you had to wonder if they were ok. Especially Michael Fisher, whom lost a lot of credibility over his rabid rant about buttons and anything else he could find. It was kinda expected, seeing how he roasted HTC over bezels... but only HTC for some reason. Other phones, he was fine with, but only HTC did he put his foot so far up their behind that his kneecap got wet. I wouldn't be too concerned about the cameras department. HTC could throw the same camera on their next flagship, and it would still be better than the iPhone 11. Oh, Android Central didn't tell you about the camera update that brought better imaging, enhance video, automatic zoom controls, and improved video stabilization that Apple can't match? Figures. If Samsung did the same thing, there would have been eleven articles on it. Just to fill you in, I share content with videographers, producers, artists, and media directors, and my most common question is "Did you use a gimbal?". I just watched a YouTube production this morning which contained video from a pair of dedicated video cameras (Panasonic and Canon), an iPhone 11 Pro, and an HTC U12 Plus. The footage from the iPhone was embarrassing. Not only did the HTC keep up with the prosumer video cams, but the final production manager chose to tweak the Panasonic and Canon footage because he loved the color output of the HTC over the others. So yeah, these two midrangers they came out with are not my cup of tea, and I'm still holding out for the flagship.
    But at this point in the big picture of media exposure, the only thing HTC can do to be called amazing or great or fantastic, and avoid the torches and pitchforks, is to stick "Samsung" on their phones. That will fix everything, because even if it does have a crummy FP reader or fake zoom or green screens, it will still make the "Best" list because it says Samsung.
  • A turd_will always be a turd_. Doesn't matter whose name you put on it. The only htc branded phone I cared for is the M8 Windows phone. Even though windows phone is dead, I still like it. U12+/- can't touch an iPhone, Samsung, LG, Sony when it comes to anything.
    Flagships from htc? Those ships done sailed and sunk. Try again.
  • Totally agree with Altema22's comments above. I own a U12+. Nothing wrong with the phone apart from the lack of updates from HTC. As for broken embarrassment, maybe we should tag the AndroidCentral's reviewer and a certain Apple fantwat's **** comment with that instead of the U12+, yes?
  • Sorry to hear you own one. You will be in our prayers.
  • There's no way that HTC phones have better cameras than then the iPhone 11, you need to take a step back from your HTC love in. Your photographer friend is in a minority, most people would pick the iPhone 11 Pro over the HTC U12+ camera. HTC are no longer relevant. The last HTC phone I was interested in was the HTC One M7 and you even tried to say that the M7 has better performance than the iPhone 5s which is from that same period which is no, just no dude. No way.
  • the free wifi is strong in CHAZ
  • I've never owned the M7, nor made any comments about it's performance. And you seem to think I live in a fairyland with only HTC's. I own more iPhones than anything else. Have rack of them sitting in front of me. Used to test them as part of my job. Used to be a beta tester as a matter of fact, and I performed Apple OS launches in Washington DC.
    And, you contradicted yourself concerning photos. You said yourself that the Pixel camera was better than the iPhone. The U12 Plus matched the Pixel. Android Central agreed. DxoMark agreed. I've linked you to test photos that had identical shots taken minutes apart by the iPhone 11 and the U12 Plus, and you called me a liar, because that was the only position you and Appleincider could possibly take without committing the blasphemy of admitting Apple is not God. If that isn't extreme fanboyism, I don't know what is.
  • Sorry to interrupt, but we are all beta testers. Android and iOS. You don't have to have a degree or PhD.
    Hell, Beno could be a beta tester too.
    U12 camera is the same as the pixel? Maybe the original pixel.
    But you preached the u12+ was better than everything including the pixel, but now you say they're the same. Oh ok.
    So when you start moaning about htc being better, I'm gonna step in and remind you, that they are the same. Lol
  • I never said Apple was god, but to say that the HTC U12+ has a better camera than the iPhone 11 is silly, the U12+ camera is good and maybe better than the iPhone XS but not the iPhone 11.
  • There was a time when HTC did better cameras than most Android OEMs including the iPhone but with the iPhone 11 Apple has caught up and on some cases overtaken even Google now, I will check the video comparisons but I still think the iPhone camera is better than a lot of Android phones.
  • I think it would be in HTC's best interest to release their devices with Android One. Then they do not have to worry about the resources to design and maintain their OS and can focus on other areas. 
  • Three outstanding HTC devices were the following: HTC Droid Incredible (a VZW exclusive). That device brought me to Android from Blackberry. Next was the HTC M8 with the dual front-facing speakers, gorgeous metal design and HTC Sense (which was actually nice to use) and finally, the HTC 10 which wasn't given a fair shake by any carrier. You had to BEG your local Verizon corporate store to see one. You had to beg them to turn it on. Rows and rows of Samsung and Apple but nothing for the 10. I hope HTC can gain a foothold again in the US market. We need more innovators and not more of the same crap.
  • Let me get this straight. You haven't even held this phone in your hand. You haven't tried it out or tested it it. You're just rendering an opinion about the company and its phones and its future. How is this journalism? How is this even worth the time I wasted reading it? Facts? Any facts? Just what HTC says is in the phone? Spare me, please. In the never-ending press to put out new material, could we just skip the bullsh*t?
  • Itself a shame what happened to HTC. The G1 by HTC started the Android craze. Also the had OIS on the front camera which not phones have today. I'll wait til next year or year after to see what they do. The HTC M7 & The 10 was great phones. Hopefully they get back to it.
  • HTC always had the best hardware and experience. It's a shame you hacks that call yourselves reporters threw them under the bus for years because they weren't cutting you checks like Samsung. Every HTC outperformed their Samsung and apple counterparts. Just look at the innovation space.. nothing since they stopped releasing flagships.
  • There was time where I was interested in HTC phones but HTC haven't made anything remotely interesting since the HTC One M8. That's how far HTC had fallen and their last phone, the U12+ which some people laughably claim it takes better photos than the iPhone 11, I'd sure like to have what they're smoking 😉.
  • Ohhhh shitza! The htc fanbois are hot tonight!!