HTC U Ultra and U Play

The question is asked every single time HTC releases any phone, from its mid-range Desire line up to the One (and now just numbered) flagships. HTC's phones always pack stunning designs, clean and fast software, a few neat ideas ... and usually a couple of odd decisions that throw people off. On the whole they're still good phones, though, so why doesn't anyone ever seem to care? Through a combination of factors the smartphone market has started to leave HTC behind. It's a big company that doesn't make products that often go head-to-head with the likes of Samsung and Apple, but at the same time are too expensive to compete with the scrappier competition from OnePlus, Moto and Huawei in the mid-range market.

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HTC's grasp at a chunk of the 2017 smartphone market isn't a new phone in an existing line, but instead two phones in a brand new line with a fresh name. They are the HTC U Ultra and U Play, phones that are ostensibly all about "you" (get it now?), and independent from previous offerings. They're marked by a fresh design approach and the start of injecting artificial intelligence into HTC's software, and are designed to take on the flagship (U Ultra) and top-end of the mid-range (U Play) markets.

With a beautiful glass exterior, high-end specs and a couple of features aimed at grabbing interest, the U Ultra is getting out ahead of the other flagships expected to launch in a couple of months. The U Play, for its efforts, is targeting other more price-sensitive markets with a size and spec cut inside the same excellent chassis. Will the pair offer enough to make people start considering HTC again? We take a look at what they have to offer.

HTC U Play

Yes. So much yes.

HTC U Ultra + U Play Hardware

You could argue that HTC hasn't pushed the envelope in hardware as much as it has in the past, but you could hardly find a flaw in the execution of any design since it started making phones under its own brand. With the U Ultra and U Play, HTC has rolled out a fresh design that's very much worthy of a flagship device, and it's applied perfectly in both sizes of the phone.

More: Complete HTC U Ultra specs

The back of the U Ultra and U Play is graced with a complete glass back HTC calls "liquid surface" that curves dramatically around all sides in a single piece, including perfectly sculpted rounded corners. The glass is imbued with various elements and colors to create an effect that provides endless depth and irregular color changes depending on the light, which is visible in all four available colors: black, blue, white and pink. The only bits to break up the flowing surface are the camera assembly (square on the Ultra, round on the Play) and subtle HTC logo.

The glass back is glossy and consistently smooth across its entire surface, transitioning into a metal frame that offers a lightly textured color-matched surface. You won't find a headphone jack on that metal edge, though: HTC is all-in with USB-C audio, and is bundling the new adaptive headphones it first unveiled with the HTC Bolt at the end of 2016. From the front you'll find what looks very similar to an HTC 10 or One A9, with a fingerprint sensor that doubles as a home button surrounded by capacitive back and recents keys.

This hardware is gorgeous. Flashy, yet understated.

The U Ultra has a little extra up near the top of the screen, though: a secondary horizontal 2-inch display juts above the main 5.7-inch QHD panel for additional real estate. It sits off-center to the right, making room for the front-facing camera precisely like the LG V20, and provides many of the same functions. It'll show you upcoming appointments, favorite contacts, frequently used apps and more, and when the main screen is off can continue to show information like the time, date, weather and battery status.

The secondary display exclusive to the U Ultra, however — the U Play's 5.2-inch 1080p display stands alone and is one of the couple subtle external differences between the models. The U Play of course has a smaller 2500 mAh battery to match its size, but also has a less impressive 16MP camera. The U Ultra has a slightly updated version of the HTC 10's camera setup, which depending on improvements in software could be a strong contender this year.

The design of these phones is at once flashy and understated, which is very much a calling card of HTC. The glass back is as glitzy as you can get with its reflective properties and option of a bright blue color scheme, but at the same time the front is a complete blank slate and you won't find any big bevels or unnecessary patterns to distract you. Both phones feel amazing, and once you get beyond the potential for fingerprints and scratches you'll enjoy the aesthetic.

Once again, a few puzzling decisions throughout.

The story inside these phones isn't all that interesting, at least when it comes to the U Ultra. The true flagship has a Snapdragon 821 processor, 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage with an SD card slot. The camera is a slight bump from the HTC 10 — a similar 12MP 1.55-micron sensor with f/1.8 aperture, OIS, and now PDAF to partner with its laser AF. The only head-scratcher here is a relatively small 3000 mAh battery.

The U Play, for all its glory and identical hardware design, is a decidedly downmarket offering internally. It drops to a 1080p display (admittedly not bad at 5.2-inches), a MediaTek Helio P10 processor, 3 or 4GB of RAM and 32 or 64GB of storage, depending on market. Its 16MP f/2.0 camera is nothing fancy, lacking any UltraPixel branding. With specs like that it makes even more sense that the U Ultra is the primary device in the lineup, while the U Play will only see a limited release in specific areas.

HTC U Ultra

A sprinkling of AI

HTC U Ultra + U Play Software

HTC's software story in January 2017 remains mostly unchanged from what we see on an HTC 10 with Nougat today — basically a full Android 7.0 experience, plus a fresh launcher, a set of HTC's own apps and slight visual changes in the settings and notification shade. Further to that point, HTC is set to continue its strategy of regularly updating its apps through Google Play to improve the Sense experience for all compatible devices, rather than tying things down to big software updates.

There is one odd wrinkle, though: thanks to support issues with its MediaTek processor, the U Play is actually shipping with Android Marshmallow, with a Nougat update slated to arrive shortly. Worth noting.

The one change on offer for the U series, which ties into its name, is the inclusion of an artificial intelligence layer that permeates throughout the system and is designed to personalize your experience. HTC claims it has a "different philosophy" on AI, which in this case means it isn't going for a full virtual assistant but instead little bits of extra intelligence in a variety of apps.

HTC U Ultra software

With this layer of AI in the software, the U Ultra and U Play will aim to give you recommendations based on your phone usage, highlight which contacts are most important to you and make tweaks to improve the software experience. For example notifications can be prioritized based on your favorite contacts, apps will be managed based on what you use most, and the phone can tweak battery management if it knows you won't make it through the day at your current usage.

The real issue with these types of features is that you're effectively taking HTC's word when it comes to how effective they can be. By its own admission HTC says you won't see immediate impact from the artificial intelligence, as it takes time to learn your habits and figure out how to help you best. I have to give HTC credit for knowing what it can and can't accomplish with AI, though — the offerings here definitely aren't big enough to sell a phone on their own, but then again they're what can be reasonably done and I'd rather have these executed well than get a bunch of "intelligence" forced on me that doesn't work.

HTC knows it can't build a complete digital voice assistant platform (at least right now), and so it's keeping Google's own voice recognition, search and personalization present here as well. On the U Ultra, four high-end far-field mics aim to hear you clearly from up to six feet away, and they're always listening for your commands. That's laying the groundwork for something bigger in the future, but right now the ambitions are kept in check.

HTC U Ultra and U Play

Continuing to explore

HTC U Ultra + U Play More to come

This is just the tip of the iceberg on these new phones from HTC, particularly when it comes to the U Ultra as that phone clearly has its sights set on competing with the highest-end phones available today. HTC's new design on both phones is particularly stunning, and I immediately enjoyed it. What's inside the U Ultra should make sure it can compete with the top phones out there. The only issue, as ever, are the few puzzling choices HTC made in what would otherwise be a top-end phone: a smaller-than-most battery, lack of a headphone jack and missing waterproofing of any sort.

I immediately appreciate HTC's choice to make the U Ultra available on Day 1 unlocked sold directly from its own website, but at the same time the pricing may be an issue for some who recently balked at the price of the Pixel XL. Spending extra time with the U Ultra to explore its hardware merits — and more importantly its AI-infused software — on a daily basis will be important to see where it stands as the first high-end phone of 2017.