When you can pick up a pretty good smartphone for around $400, why would you cough up the extra 250 bucks for an HTC flagship? That question has been central to the Taiwanese manufacturer's decline over the past couple of years. The company would target the likes of Apple and Samsung, miss, and get trounced by OnePlus, Huawei, Honor and others on the way back down.
HTC's phones once led the pack in many important areas: Performance, build quality, software and audio. But lackluster products like the One M9 and One A9 have significantly eroded this lead. Things started to improve with last year's HTC 10, but not enough to move the needle.
HTC needed to establish a new design language for its phones, as the tried-and-true metal unibody became increasingly pedestrian. (No small task given the departure of successive VPs of design in recent years.) And that nagging question of what was special about an HTC handset needed a direct, unambiguous answer.
What's special about a HTC smartphone in 2017?
So now we have the HTC U11, which tells us pretty clearly what HTC is all about in 2017 — and presumably beyond. It's about color, with bright blues, shimmering silvers and fiery reds making up the U11's palette. It's about a brilliant camera, which works similarly to the Google Pixel's legendary HDR+ shooter. And it's about squeezing the phone to do... stuff — which is is kinda gimmicky, but useful in a handful of instances.
A subset of those features were present in the first two "U" devices — the U Play and U Ultra — but as I've said before, you can safely forget about those phones. Chances are you already have.
The chassis of the U11 straddles the past and the future of smartphone design. From the back, it's a glitzy masterpiece; from the front, it's another relatively boring Android phone. The front face is highly unremarkable, and I'm of the opinion that HTC desperately needs to update its front ID, which is almost identical to the HTC 10 and Bolt. Think: Big bezels, capacitive buttons, and a front-mounted fingerprint scanner.
The curved edges of the glass (but not the screen) add a little bit of flair, but not enough to make the phone feel as elegant and futuristic as its almost bezel-free rivals.
And the extra horizontal and vertical padding makes the U11 feel sizeable despite its average-sized 5.5-inch display. (Compared to, say the OnePlus 5, which feels much less bulbous.)
The centerpiece of the U11's design is the curved, mirrored, color-shifting glass back panel.
Around the back, a single curved pane of Gorilla Glass 3 is the centerpiece. Unlike the Galaxy S8, the U11's rear glass appears to have an oleophobic coating, but that doesn't stop it becoming a magnet for fingerprint smudges. Nevertheless, the liquid-like surface of the U11's back panel is a thing of beauty. In the "amazing silver" color I've been using, it shifts between an almost-purple hue, through sky blues and, at certain angles, the eponymous silver. Even more striking is the newly-released "solar red," which shifts between red and gold.
Sure: It's easy to gunk up with finger grease. And you're almost guaranteed to pick up a bunch of hairline scratches over the course of several months or years of use. (A couple of weeks in, I'm not seeing any yet, but it's only a matter of time.) And yes, the curved glass is fairly slippery in-hand, even more so than the Galaxy S8. But I still love it.
It's a radical departure from the sturdy metal unibody of the HTC 10, making the phone feel less hardy. But from the back, no other phone matches the look of the U11's curved, mirrored uniquely colored glass.
The U11's performance is almost unrivaled in an Android smartphone.
On the inside, the latest Snapdragon 835 processor, paired with 4GB of RAM, keeps Android 7.1.1 running smoothly. This phone is as fast as any handset I've used, with the possible exception of the OnePlus 5. That's less a criticism of HTC and more a point of praise for OnePlus, which has hit a homerun with its software and performance tuning this year. (And of course, having 8GB of RAM at your disposal also helps.)
In any case, the HTC U11 hits all the major spec points you'd expect from a 2017 flagship. You get the latest processor, plenty of RAM and storage, plus microSD expansion, fast and accurate biometric security, IP67 water resistance and a great-looking display. Nothing is left wanting.
HTC's SuperLCD 5 panel (read: IPS LCD) doesn't get quite as bright as Samsung's latest SuperAMOLED in direct sunlight, but it does go toe-to-toe with top LCDs like those found in the iPhone 7 Plus and LG G6. My only display-related gripe has to do with visibility while wearing polarized sunglasses. As highlighted by our old pal Phil Nickinson: In portrait mode it's fine, in landscape it's practically invisible. If you're taking photos outside while wearing sunglasses — as you may well be in the northern hemisphere at this time of year, it's a case of: Landscape mode, sunglasses, U11 — pick two.
The U11's other major compromise is obvious, and unfortunately not unexpected in the wake of the Bolt and U Ultra — there's no 3.5mm headphone jack. The decision is baffling — it's not like there isn't room for the port down there on the lower edge of the phone. Instead, it seems HTC wants to push U11 owners towards its own "USonic" USB-C earphones — now with active noise cancellation — which are bundled with the phone. The bundled cans sound great, if a little over-bassy, but they won't work with non-HTC phones, and they don't solve the problem of not being able to charge while you listen to music.
There's no justification for leaving out the 3.5mm headphone jack.
Fortunately HTC does bundle a USB-C to 3.5mm dongle in the box, complete with built-in DAC (and firmware, which updates via the phone). Like the iPhone's dongle, it's easy to misplace. Unlike the iPhone's adapter, though, getting hold of a new one isn't as simple as a trip down to your local Apple store when you inevitably do lose it.
At least audio from the built-in "BoomSound Hi-Fi" speakers is impressive. I feel like it doesn't quite reach the dizzy heights of the old One M9's front-facing BoomSound setup in terms of bass — but it's as good as any contemporary phone when it comes to distortion-free volume.
There's not a whole lot to say about HTC's Sense software on the U11. If you're familiar with the latest Sense on the HTC 10 or U Ultra, this is basically the same experience. That's good because it's fast, clean and uncomplicated... And perhaps not so good because there's been so little meaningful change in Sense for so long now.
HTC Sense is fast, but in dire need of a fresh coat of paint.
A good point of contrast is OnePlus's OxygenOS. Oxygen also builds on bone stock Android, but in a way that feels like it belongs in 2017, not 2015. There are influences from the Google Pixel, and Google's Material Design as a whole — but it all feels like it belongs together, and more importantly, its design is evolving alongside Android itself. As fast and clean as Sense is, it's in dire need of a fresh coat of paint. Some areas of the UI haven't changed much since 2014's One M8, and that's a big part of what makes the U11's UI feel so dated next to its contemporaries.
It's hard to find fault with Sense's performance, and the appeal of the minimalist aesthetic that runs through all the preloaded HTC apps. There are relatively few preloaded apps I'd count as superfluous — compared to the vast mire of bloat you'll find on most Samsung phones. Among them are HTC Boost+, which does things I don't understand and can't explain while insisting to me with fancy graphics that it's improving performance.
Another is HTC Sense Companion, an on-device AI feature which tries too hard to be useful and doesn't succeed often enough to justify its existence. Sometimes it'd remind me to recharge mid-day, or prepare for adverse weather tomorrow — moderately useful. Other times it'd interrupt me to tell me about about tourist spots 200 miles away from my current location.
Sense Companion will be growing new features in the coming months, so here's hoping it'll become a little more useful throughout the U11's life.
Another unique feature is Edge Sense, the thing where you squeeze the U11's bezel to trigger certain actions. There are countless actions that can be triggered by squeezing the phone — either with a long squeeze or short squeeze — but the most useful one I've found is launching the camera. I've been surprised by how reliably this works, even when the screen is off, and the visual feedback when squeezing the phone has helped me avoid accidental squeezes.
Sure, you can also just double-tap the home key to hop straight into the camera at any time, but the extra second or so Edge Sense saves by not requiring me to fumble around and find the home button makes it worthwhile.
As for other shortcuts, like squeezing to take a photo, or the many upcoming features coming to Edge Sense, like squeezing to zoom in on a map. Well, I'm less enthusiastic about those. But whatever: If Edge Sense isn't your thing, it is at least easy to ignore.
Imagine the Pixel's camera, but better.
Speaking of that camera, I've been genuinely impressed by the quality and consistency of pics from HTC's latest UltraPixel 3 shooter. It's a 12-megapixel shooter with 1.4-micron pixels behind an f/1.7 lens, putting it on par with the Galaxy S8. And it uses HTC's HDR Boost software — HTC's version of Google's HDR+, basically — to produce photos that match or beat the Galaxy S8. In particular, the U11 routinely did a better job in bright or extremely high-contrast situations, and produces images which, while slightly darker than the S8 in low light, retained more color detail.
The Galaxy S8 was recently voted the best smartphone camera in our blind camera comparison, so that's high praise indeed. And should you want to get more involved, there's a full Pro photo mode to get stuck into, including RAW capture capabilities.
The U11's 3,000mAh battery, paired with its high-end internals and relatively large display, may seem like a recipe for mediocre battery life. However, I've been very pleasantly surprised by the phone's ability to withstand even a fairly heavy day's use. This isn't a two-day phone, but the U11 routinely got me past the 12-hour mark, and often beyond it, with screen-on time across Wi-Fi and LTE usage approaching five hours.
So why should you buy an HTC flagship in 2017? For me, the answer lies in the HTC U11's top-tier performance, gorgeous design and almost unrivalled camera experience. And as high-end smartphones become increasingly homogenous, the camera might be what swings it for the U11. It's crazy to think that two years ago we were dealing with a genuinely awful camera in the One M9 — the progress HTC has made in this area in a relatively short space of time is worthy of high praise.
Is it the very best phone you can buy? That depends on your budget, and what your priorities are in a smartphone. The U11's relatively dull software design and bulky chassis (for the screen size) stand out as reasons to consider the Samsung Galaxy S8 instead — but then, the GS8 is a more expensive phone.
And at the £650 price point, there's nothing as good as HTC's latest creation.
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