Android One has arrived in Europe, and HTC is one of the first manufacturers to ship an affordable, Google-branded phone. The Android One badge made its debut in India and parts of Asia, as Google emphasized quality software on super-cheap hardware. But with its latest round of "One" handsets, the prices are higher, the products more premium, and the hand on the software rudder a little firmer.
The Android One U11 Life — unlike the T-Mobile U.S. version we reviewed separately, running HTC Sense — runs Android 8.0 Oreo out of the box, and comes with the promise of timely updates to future versions. It takes the fundamentals of HTC's flagship phone and downscales it into a smaller size, while trimming the specs back to the essentials.
There's a Snapdragon 630 processor — Qualcomm's latest mid-ranger, and the successor to the very capable 625/626 — along with 3GB or 4GB of RAM, and 32 or 64GB of storage, plus microSD. I've been using the 3/32GB model for the past couple of weeks, however the UK will be getting the more capacious 4/64GB model when it goes on sale.
From the outside, the U11 Life is a reasonable approximation of the full-grown U11 — at least visually. The reflective, curved back panel is as eye-catching as ever, but in the hand, the "acrylic glass" feels somewhat cheaper than the real thing. Same deal with the plastic borders around the sides of the device.
Many phones around this price point incorporate metal or glass designs, but I'm still fine with the U11's not-quite-glass exterior. The feel isn't a million miles away from the standard U11, with the main difference being the weight.
The U11 Life also boasts water and dust resistance, like the U11, with an IP67 rating.
Around the front, a 5.2-inch 1080p LCD panel gives the U11 Life a display that's bright and punchy, but not too oversaturated. Viewing angles are impressive, and I encountered no issues using the display out in bright daylight.
A 5.2-inch screen is a step down from the much larger displays we're seeing at the high end, but these dimensions, particularly with a 16:9 aspect ratio and off-screen keys, remains something of a sweet spot for easy one-handed use.
The back of the U11 Life is acrylic glass, which is more of the former than the latter.
Like its namesake, the U11 Life sports ample quantities of bezel in all directions around its display, most noticeably around the chin, which accommodates the phone's speedy fingerprint scanner. It's not quite as instantaneous as what you'll find in a high-end phone, but the (very slight) delay in unlocking isn't really bothersome.
As an Android One device, the software of the U11 Life is mainly a Google-centric experience. It's pretty much stock Android 8.0 Oreo, with a couple of HTC touches where it makes sense. The most obvious of these is the camera app, which is literally just the U11's camera app with a different icon, along with includes HTC's excellent HDR Boost — an always-on post-processing feature similar to the Pixel's HDR+.
In daylight, or moderate indoor light, HDR Boost allows the U11 Life to produce some striking images with rich colors and impressive dynamic range, but in darker conditions, the phone soon runs into the physical limits of its hardware. The f/2.0 lens and 16-megapixel camera, without OIS, means that night photography quickly becomes grainy and/or blurry, unless you're able to stabilize the camera and shoot a longer exposure in Pro mode.
Ironically, the front-facing camera, also a 16-megapixel unit behind an f/2.0 lens, seemed to hold up a little better in darker conditions — possibly just because of the kinds of photos I was taking.
For video, 4K capture is supported — though, strangely, only through the rear camera — with image quality following a similar pattern to the still camera. In daylight to middling light, it's decent; in low light it quickly becomes a grainfest. (And given the size of 4K video files, you'll want to invest in a decent SD card if you plan on shooting lots of 4K video with the 32GB model.)
Android One is more Nexus than Pixel.
Other areas of the U11's software are clean, fast, and as Google-y as you'd expect. It's as minimalist as Google's Pixel UI — perhaps more so, as it lacks many of the Pixel's extra features. After initial setup, your app drawer shows 25 Google apps, and nothing else. It's a wonderfully uncluttered experience, particularly in comparison to the cruft that seems to find its way onto most mid-tier Android phones.
And when it comes to performance, the U11 Life provides a consistently responsive experience, even with just 3GB of RAM in our review unit, so the UK retail version with a roomier 4GB should be even better.
Edge Sense is the other major HTC addition. Just like the U11 and U11+, you can squeeze the bezels to activate an app of your choice (for example, Google Assistant or the camera). And there are a handful of in-app squeeze options too, such as squeezing to snooze an alarm or answering a call.
It's another one of these "moderately useful" features. Gimmicky? Sure. But also nice to have, though also not something I miss when I change to another phone.
Battery life from the built-in 2,600mAh has been dependable, but not exceptional. The relatively low capacity is offset by the fact that the Snapdragon 630 sips power, meaning I never struggled to reach the end of the day with moderate use. On heavier days, with extensive use of the camera and HDR Boost, it's possible you'll need an evening refill, and the U11 Life supports 5V/2A charging for relatively speedy recharges.
The HTC U11 Life isn't the most exciting Android phone out there right now, but it does represent a great case for Android One in the West, and how HTC can create great mid-tier devices that make sense around the £350 price point. There are clear advantages to spending more than this on a phone — mainly camera improvements, more premium materials and more dazzling displays. But the Android One-flavored U11 Life provides a fast, clean Android experience, layers on top some impressive camera tricks, and the occasionally convenient Edge Sense, and then just gets out of the way.
We'll have to wait and see how speedily Google and HTC manage to get this device updated with Android 8.1 and beyond — not to mention the more important question of security patches. But right now the U11 Life is definitely worth a look if you're upgrading from something like a Nexus 5X, HTC One M9 — or if you're just after a solid all-around phone without breaking the bank.
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