Unless you've already clawed your way to the top of the pile, standing out in the high-end smartphone market of 2017 is tough. These devices are commodities now, and making a phone — especially a high-end, high-priced phone — that's really different and better is more difficult than ever.
For an underdog like HTC, it's especially challenging. Last year the HTC 10 was praised for being a great all-rounder, but it didn't offer much besides the core formula of metal body + latest specs. Once upon a time, HTC had a near monopoly on high performance and great build quality in the Android space. The 10 served as a reminder of the extent to which the competition had caught up to, and in many cases, surpassed HTC.
There wasn't a great deal about the way the HTC 10 looked or what it did that was truly unique anymore. It did the same smartphone things as every other Android device, and it did them well, and that was about it. The foundations were solid, but relatively bare.
Forget the U Ultra and U Play — the is where the 'HTC U' brand story should have begun.
In its 20th anniversary year, HTC's new flagship is the U11, the name being a collision of old and new branding. Technically, it's the third member of the HTC U family, after the U Ultra and U Play — but honestly, forget those phones. The U11 is where the "U" brand story should have begun.
It's a phone with beautiful glass construction bathed in vibrant, shimmering colors — a leap beyond the relatively dull metal unibody of the HTC 10. On the inside, it has all the top-end specs and features you'd expect from a 2017 flagship, along with important improvements in HTC's own camera and audio tech.
That's only part of it, though. What makes the U11 truly unique is Edge Sense, a feature built into the metal rim, which responds to a squeeze and which HTC is pushing hard with this phone's launch. And in a world where AI assistants increasingly compete for the same attention, HTC wants the U11 to serve as a hub, hosting Google Assistant, Amazon's Alexa, and more — in addition to its own Sense Companion app.
It's HTC's boldest flagship in years. Given that it's competing for shelf space and sales against the almighty Galaxy S8, it needed to be.
This past week we've spent a short time getting to know the HTC U11, and while it's made a good first impression, the jury's still out on a few of its core features.
As much as HTC is advancing its design language with color and curved glass this year, it's also eschewing one of the major trends of smartphones of 2017. The U11 is a traditionally shaped 16:9 slab with a definite forehead and chin to it. From the front, it's markedly less futuristic than Samsung and LG's latest efforts. And if you could only see the front face, it'd be easy to confuse it for an HTC 10 or Bolt or U Play.
The U11 is a traditional 16:9 slab with a chin and a forehead, but that has its advantages.
Such a form factor definitely has its advantages, though. I can reach to the notification shade with ease, every time on the U11. And the fingerprint scanner is right there on the front, where I can reliably touch it without fumbling around.
It's also nowhere near as bulbous as the needlessly oversized U Ultra. With a 5.5-inch screen and minimal side bezels, it's a comfortable in-hand fit. This is a display size once reserved for enormous "phablet" devices, but now it's more of a "Goldilocks" screen diagonal. To me, it feels just right.
The U11's Quad HD SuperLCD5 panel looks bright and vivid indoors and also has good viewing angles. I'm also not noticing the obnoxious over-sharpening I saw on the U Ultra's panel. But that's about all we can say for now — I haven't yet had the chance to use the U11 outdoors, so we'll have to wait to see how it measures up on daylight visibility.
The front of the phone is a dead ringer for other modern HTC models, with capacitive keys down below and a fingerprint scanner which, if the U Ultra is any indicator, should be both quick and reliable.
There are plenty of small advancements over those older "U" phones, though, which make the U11 feel like a more premium piece of kit. HTC's BoomSound Hi-Fi setup has been upgraded in the new phone. In a meeting ahead of the May 16 launch, HTC's head of global product marketing, Darren Sng, told me that the entire body of the phone now acts as a resonant chamber, to boost volume to the level of HTC's older, front-facing BoomSound speakers. (In my brief time with the phone, I can confirm that it is indeed loud!)
HTC's USonic earbuds return too, this time with active noise cancellation — in addition to personalized audio profiles, generated through software by mapping your inner ear with sound.
The molded plastic between the display and metal trim is no more; instead, the "3D" glass of the front panel tapers directly into the metal, just like the curvaceous back panel. The symmetry isn't quite as overt as the Galaxy S8's, but still, the U11 has a much more organic feel to it than previous models.
The gorgeous 'solar red' HTC U11 flickers between gold and blood red.
That's thanks in part to the phone's shimmering, colored glass back panel. It's not unlike what we've seen before in the U Play and U Ultra, but it feels like the tolerances have been tightened up a little, and so the U11 sports a more refined version of this "liquid surface design".
There are five color options — the blue, black, and ice white we've previously seen from the U Ultra — in addition to two jaw-droppingly beautiful new hues. "Amazing silver" shifts between a sky blue and silvery gray color as you tilt it through the light.
And "solar red," my personal favorite, flickers from a fiery blood red to a brilliant gold. (It's unfortunate that the red won't be available at launch but instead will come in a later production run — it really is a sight to behold.)
The U.S. will get silver, black, and blue U11s at launch.
Whereas the Galaxy S8 is most striking when viewed from the front, it's the rear of the U11 that makes it stand out from the crowd. There are many glass-backed smartphones, but none quite match up to the impact of a back panel like the silver or red U11, which literally change color depending on the angle at which they're held.
It remains to be seen whether this dazzling design will be enough to maintain interest in the U11 through what's sure to be a highly competitive year. But it's a strong start.
HTC also hits all the necessary spec points for a modern high-end handset: Snapdragon 835, and models with 4GB RAM + 64GB storage, or 6GB + 128GB, plus microSD. (In the U.S., it's 4 + 64.) That's paired with a 3,000mAh battery, Quick Charge 3.0, and IP67 water and dust resistance. Like the U Ultra, there's no headphone jack, but HTC will at least package a USB-C to 3.5mm dongle in the box this time. (The dongle itself contains a high-end DAC, I'm told.)
Squeeze is intimate. We don't need to teach someone how to do it.
These are all expected incremental upgrades, and there's nothing at all wrong with that.
But let's talk about something you won't find on most spec sheets: Edge Sense. This is the big marketing shtick for the phone — its ability to sense squeezes on its metal trim and do... stuff... accordingly.
"Squeeze is intimate. Squeeze is a form of touch, but it conveys this whole sense of warmness," Darren Sng told me, "We don't need to teach someone how to do it."
Squeeze is also simple, and so there's not a whole lot to explain about how Edge Sense actually works. You squeeze the sides of the phone, and it responds with a short buzz and then stuff happens. Many of HTC's own apps have Edge Sense options built in — in the camera app, for instance, it'll take a photo with a short squeeze (like a shutter button, kinda) or flip between the front and rear cameras with a longer squeeze. Or in the stock keyboard, squeeze to change to voice input.
Edge Sense will eventually learn to work with all your Android apps.
The rest of the time, you can set up default actions for a short or long squeeze. The early U11 units I played with were set up to launch the camera with a short squeeze or open Google Assistant with a longer squeeze.
In the weeks following launch, HTC will release an Edge Sense add-on app, which will allow U11 owners to extend their squeezy antics to any third-party apps by programming them to perform certain actions with a squeeze. (Long-squeezing in Instagram, for instance, might load the app's camera panel.) This sounds like a great option given that, let's be honest, third-party devs aren't going to be in a hurry to support a feature that's only available on one handset. However, HTC didn't show this add-on app to us as part of its presentation, so that's all we know for now.
As part of the phone's setup process, you'll calibrate your squeeze sensitivity, which should hopefully help you avoid false positives. In my brief time with the phone, I didn't find it registering any accidental squeezes, but the distinction between a long squeeze and a short squeeze did take a little getting used to.
Is this really any better than a button? Edge Sense does work anywhere on the edge, I guess. And squeeze input has the advantage of working reliably where touch might not, such as under heavy rain or when you're wearing gloves.
And hey, if it bothers you that much, you can disable it entirely.
Google Assistant and Alexa will coexist as equals on the U11.
It's easy to jump to conclusions on a new and very different feature like this. It's tempting to dismiss it as a gimmick. But the daily convenience angle is going to take time to judge. While I wasn't blown away by Edge Sense's utility, I'm not willing to dismiss it just yet. We'll have a more considered opinion in our full review in the near future.
I mentioned one AI already — Google Assistant — but HTC is getting ready to make the U11 a hub for personal assistants. Amazon's Alexa will be coming to the U11 in July via a Play Store update in U.S. English, UK English, and German, and there'll be an option to enable Alexa via a squeeze in Edge Sense. Both will be "first class citizens" on the U11, Darren Sng says.
HTC's also working with Baidu in China to bring the firm's DuerOS assistant platform to the U11.
And that's in addition to HTC's own Sense Companion, which received a lukewarm reception when it debuted on the U Ultra.
We had a misfire when we started with Sense Companion.
"We had a misfire when we started [with Sense Companion]," Sng told me, "We didn't realize the scope of how people wanted the AI companion to be much more active. We adopted a reactive approach."
So in an update to the U11 shortly after launch, Sense Companion will start taking the initiative a little more. Smart alarms will allow Sense Companion to suggest tweaks to your alarm schedule for public holidays, or scheduled meetings. For instance, you might want to switch off your normal workday alarm on a vacation day, or set it a little earlier if you've got a meeting first thing.
But HTC's own AI will remain focused on on-device intelligence like this. And right now it's still a touch-based interface, with no voice component.
The rest of the U11 software experience is basically unchanged from our last experience of HTC Sense on the U Ultra, the biggest difference being that it's now based upon the newer Android 7.1.1. The same old HTC apps — still a little tired looking — sit atop a relatively barebones Android UI. In fact, most of the changes from the HTC 10 stem from the upgrade to Nougat, as opposed to any HTC software changes.
That's all well and good if you like the stock Android aesthetic, but it's left looking a little bland next to Samsung's space-age UI.
UltraPixel 3 brings some Pixel-like image processing tricks to the mix.
On the imaging side, the incremental upgrades continue, with HTC's UltraPixel brand reaching its third generation. It's still a 12-megapixel sensor with OIS (optical image stabilization), and EIS (electronic image stabilization) for video. The pixel size takes a knock down to 1.4 microns, while the lens itself has a brighter f/1.7 aperture. On paper, then, it matches up to the Samsung Galaxy S8's main camera.
That's backed up by "HDR Boost" on the software side — an always-on HDR mode that sounds a lot like Google's HDR+. The idea is that the U11 is always ready to take HDR photos with zero lag and that this superior processing produces brighter pics with less noise. I didn't have nearly enough time to come to any real conclusions on the camera, but in moderate indoor lighting it produced clear pics. And the focus on software processing and HDR lines up with where we're seeing some of the greatest advances in smartphone camera tech.
HTC is also keen to highlight its "Ultraspeed AF," — which stands for autofous, and nothing else — and which is able to focus in as little as 0.3 seconds even without a laser autofocus unit.
So in short, this could be another HTC camera worth getting excited about. (Expect another big DXOMark record announcement at the Taiwanese launch event.)
Around the front, the 16MP f/2.0 selfie camera from the U Ultra returns, complete with UltraPixel low-light mode to produce lower-resolution, but clearer night shots. And that's likely to be augmented by the Snapdragon 835's superior ISP (image signal processor), too.
HTC needs eye-catching, unique stuff to drum up some excitement around its brand and its phone biz, both of which have been flagging for the past few release cycles. Last year it didn't really have any single standout feature to own with the HTC 10.
HTC needs new and exciting things to make buyers care about its phones again. And in the U11 it has two eye-catching innovations.
This year it has something shiny — that dazzling liquid metal back — and something squeezy — Edge Sense. That's an improvement, for sure. It gives HTC's marketers something to work with, and it gives potential customers a reason to pause before automatically buying a Samsung Galaxy S8. Even if Edge Sense really is 90% gimmick — as, let's be honest, is Samsung's Edge Screen — maybe it's just the hook needed to turn buyers' attention towards a well-built, good-looking smartphone with excellent performance.
But is it enough to compete against a dominant Samsung, a rising Huawei (in Europe, at least) and the influence of disruptive players like OnePlus? That's a question for another day.
The HTC U11 begins shipping first in select countries from the week after announcement, with general availability coming in June. The unlocked HTC U11 will sell for $649 in the U.S., and it'll also be available on Sprint, the exclusive carrier launch partner. In the UK, it's £649 SIM-free from Amazon, Very.co.uk, Argos, and will also be available at Carphone Warehouse, EE and O2.
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