HTC U11 Life

The quick take

The U11 Life is better-looking than most phones at $350, and has nice features like waterproofing, a good screen, and active noice-cancelling headphones in the box. The build quality drops off significantly from the "original" U11, as you'd expect being less than half the price. The daily performance leaves something to be desired, as other phones with the same specs have better speed and fluidity. This will be a great device for many, but it definitely isn't the U11 experience scaled down proportionately — it's far more of a give-and-take choice.

The Good

  • Beautiful design for this price level
  • Built well, even if out of cheaper materials
  • Good screen at 1080p resolution
  • USonic USB-C earbuds with noise cancellation
  • IP67 water-resistance

The Bad

  • Performance not befitting the specs
  • Camera slow and weak in low light
  • No headphone jack or USB-C adapter
  • Weak speaker

HTC U11 Life

Looks for less

HTC U11 Life Things you'll love

For HTC, the U11 was a relative hit. It's not challenging Samsung for sales figures, but I think it's doing better than expected. To hopefully parlay some of that good brand awareness in 2017, it's launching a $350 phone with the same name and type of design to hit an altogether new market. The U11 Life does a pretty great job of bringing the looks and quality of the U11 down to less than half the price.

HTC U11 Life specs

A slice of that U11 style for about half the price.

Setting the U11 Life next to a "proper" U11, it's tough to tell them apart. The flowing, colorful back, sleek lines and shiny sides meet up with an inky black front with relatively large bezels. It looks far more expensive than it is — and far better than your average "did anyone even think about this design?" look in this price bracket.

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But then you pick it up, and realize HTC has done a full recreation of the U11 in plastic. Not cheap plastic, or creaky plastic — well-executed molded plastic. The back is "acrylic," technically, as HTC will tell you, and that helps it mimic the glass back of the U11 while being substantially cheaper and easier to work with. The phone feels like plastic, it isn't fooling anyone, but for $350 it's tough to expect much else. Despite that it feels nice and sturdy, but we can certainly expect that soft plastic to scuff and ding over the course of a couple years in ways that metal and glass wouldn't.

Instead of higher-end materials, HTC spent the money on components and features. For this budget device, a Snadragon 630 processor, 3GB of RAM, 32GB of storage (with microSD) and a 1080p display definitely aren't a given. And the 5.2-inch SuperLCD panel is solid at that, even if it isn't as bright as the ones found on phones a couple hundred dollars more.

Then you get some extra hardware features also not often found on a cheap device. There's a good fingerprint sensor on the front, HTC's "Edge Sense" squeeze function, IP67 water-resistance, a pair of capable 16MP cameras, NFC, Bluetooth 5.0 and a pair of HTC's USonic active noise-cancelling earbuds in the box. All of these features, aside from the camera components, are shared with the full-priced U11 in an attempt to great some consistency in the lineup. This will make the sales pitch in T-Mobile stores a whole lot easier.

You can actually take some fine photos, with the typical low-light shortcomings.

The U11 Life's cameras are actually quite good, right on par with what you'd expect at this lower price. You get a 16MP BSI sensor with f/2.0 lens on both the front and back, with the rear camera getting a few extra features like auto focus, HDR, manual mode and 4K video. The rear camera produces surprisingly good photos in daylight, with a good amount of detail and colors that pop. Its HDR mode can get some light and color out of areas where most cheap phones struggle.

But the rear camera has all of its own struggles. Primarily in low light, where it really fights to get a clear shot. Not only is there a good bit of noise, that's still paired up with slower shutter speeds to give you some blur unless you're dead-steady with your hands. Typically you'll get something with the ISO cranked up in order to get a usable photo, but low light shots are obviously the clear shortcoming of the lower-end camera components.

HTC U11 Life

Performance struggles

HTC U11 Life Things you'll hate

The U11 Life, when it arrives in Europe, will be one of the new crop of slightly higher-end Android One phones. But here in the U.S., it's just a standard HTC phone with the same Sense software — whether you're buying from T-Mobile or unlocked. I make the distinction because these lower-end devices often benefit heavily from the light and performant Android One software experience, and this is the U11 Life's one major shortcoming.

HTC U11 (red) and U11 Life (blue)

We all expect a $350 phone to have slower performance than the $700+ flagships they look up to — but the U11 Life comes up even short of those lowered expectations. I say that because despite its Snapdragon 630 processor and 3GB of RAM, the phone just doesn't come close to the performance of the Moto X4 (which I just reviewed) with the same exact specs pushing the same screen size and resolution. Apps are notably slower to load, you get an additional hesitation now and a gain, and sometimes scrolling lags. The camera in particular is slow to open and function.

As I found in my review of the HTC U11, Sense itself is a fine take on Android — and I still feel that way about the interface design on the U11 Life. The only real issue here is the inconsistent and slow performance that just doesn't line up with the specs.

I wonder if performance has been ratcheted down for battery life reasons, because the U11 Life has done surprisingly well in this respect even though it has just a 2600mAh battery. I was able to push through a full day as I normally do on any other phone and come out with at least 15% at bedtime, which I definitely wouldn't have expected after the Moto X4 did roughly the same with a 15% larger battery. And one other interesting thing to note on the subject: HTC doesn't include Quick Charge on the U11 Life, just standard 5V/2A charging.

It's disappointing to see weaker performance than phones with the exact same specs.

The one big caveat to all of this is the current state of the software. The U11 Life is shipping with Android 7.1.1, but HTC is committing to sending out the Android 8.0 update within 30 days of the launch. Considering the tight release time frame, it makes us wonder if there will be much more optimization for speed and fluidity in that upcoming release. We'd never say to buy a phone based on what performance could be with a future update, but we sure hope Oreo improves the U11 Life's performance up to the levels where we know these specs can offer.

And then there's the other wrinkle that the global version of the U11 Life is actually shipping with Android One software. This version will have a cleaner (and presumably consistently faster) take on Android 8.0 not far removed from the Google Pixel 2, with few customizations from HTC. But that model isn't coming to North America, and this model also isn't going global — so you can't cross-shop between the two, you get what you get.

The rest of the handful of issues with the U11 Life are audio-related. It has a single speaker, and it's pretty weak at that — a far cry from the U11's rich and loud dual speakers. It also skips out on the headphone jack, which I think is even more of a bad decision on an inexpensive phone where people are even less likely to pony up for expensive Bluetooth headphones. HTC doesn't include a USB-C to 3.5 mm headphone adapter, either — but for what it's worth my Essential Phone and Google Pixel 2 adapters worked, and HTC sells 'em for $11.99. But the one bit of respite is HTC including its USonic active noise-cancelling headphones in the box, which are a step up from the headphones with most phones at this price (if you get them at all).

HTC U11 Life

Little slice of flagship

HTC U11 Life Should you buy it?

HTC executed pretty well on its goal of brining the U11 design down to a much lower price point, and also kept many of the hardware features that you don't typically see down here. It's an attractive phone with a nice spec sheet, good screen and an average pair of cameras to round it out.

You get a feel of flagship features, but have to take a couple compromises at this price point.

But it's really easy to question the lackluster and inconsistent performance on a phone that certainly has the spec sheet to do much better, and you wonder if it will continue to be this bad after the Android 8.0 update arrives. If there's one thing we've seen in the past couple of years, it's that cheap phones don't have to be slow or stuttery — they can be fast and smooth.

Buying from T-Mobile at what I assume will be a discounted sub-$349 price, the U11 Life stands strong against the rest of the cheap competition that's filled with compromises and so often misses on many of the core specs and features the U11 Life still has. It's an easy buy for someone who doesn't want to spend a lot but still wants a little slice of the flagship experience and is willing to give up on overall performance to get it.

But even at this lower price, and especially at the unlocked price of $349, you wonder why someone would pick up the U11 Life rather than something like a Moto G5 Plus and get better performance. Or hey, even step up just an extra $50 to get the fantastic Moto X4 that is on a higher level in terms of hardware materials, performance and cameras.

3 out of 5

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