HTC U11 phone: Full, in-depth review
HTC’s ‘NEW new’ flagship is almost the Android smartphone
It was only relatively recently that we saw HTC launch its flagship HTC U Ultra and (lesser) HTC U Play flagship phones. Both were incredibly pretty but the Ultra was oversized, overpriced and under-featured while the U Play was an expensive (albeit attractive) mid-range phone. Now here’s the U11 which immediately addresses some of the issues seen on its siblings. It still looks fantastic but is it enough to become the all-round smartphone champion? Let’s find out…
5.5in, 1440 x 2560 LCD screen, 64GB/4GB or 128/6GB RAM, 2.45GHz Octa-core Qualcom Snapdragon 835 CPU, Adreno 540 GPU, 12MP rear and 16MP front cameras, microSD (dual SIM slot on some models), USB-C, no headphone jack, IP67 waterproof, Android 7.1, 3000mAh battery, 154 x 76 x 8mm, 169g. Full specs here.
Handling and Design
The U11 finally looks great AND feels great. The Gorilla Glass 5 finish is tough, looks as amazing as ever and now comes with Silver/Blue and Red/Gold finishes. According to the blurb, the manufacturing process utilizes “Optical Spectrum Hybrid Deposition” which “layers highly-refractive precious minerals across the phone’s back.” We like it cos it’s shiny. It’s available in several colours too – principally white, black, blue, silver and red. The “Solar Red” is the most striking of the bunch but the Silver version with its Blue undertones is also something special.
HTC includes a clear, plastic case to boost protection on the corners and back without masking the good looks. It doesn’t add to the bulk in any meaningful way and is a decent inclusion.
The 5.5-inch screen has an Ultra HD resolution and gets very bright and very colourful despite using LCD technology. The fingerprint reader below the screen unlocks everything instantly and it doubles up as the main Android touch button to save space. Whereas the U Ultra had a large, dead space in this area – which made the small, touch-sensitive controls hard to find – that’s not an issue on the U11. The power button is textured which makes it easy to locate and identify.
Inside is the latest Snapdragon 835 processor and Adreno 540 GPU meaning this is one of the fastest phones on the market. Despite some software embellishments from HTC’s Sense software, the whole user experience feels very much like native Android 7.1.
All in all it feels great and just flies along with no niggles or lag whatsoever. It’s a joy to use for day-to-day tasks.
Squeezy does it
The big-name feature is Edge Sense which lets you squeeze the phone to activate features. Setup is simple with you choosing two settings to function as two shortcuts – a long, hard squeeze and a short, sharp squeeze. We were told that this would be ideal for taking photos (especially selfies) as holding a phone to do this has traditionally been very hard. We don’t agree at all. In fact squeezing the phone (there’s no physical give, just some haptic feedback when you activate it) is actually quite hard and doing so introduces vibration into your photos. But you can also allow squeezing to capture screenshots, launch the Sense Companion (and other apps), start voice recording, turn on a torch or a WiFi hotspot. If you use features like this regularly it could be handy. In reality, we had to remind ourselves to use it for a two-week testing period but it’s nice to have and doesn’t get in the way. It’s not transformative, though.
We’re very wary of non-Google virtual assistants. While HTC’s Companion won’t go fully live for a while, we have our doubts it will be of much use – especially in regions where the partnering services aren’t great. For instance, in Australia, HTC partners with Yelp which is not popular. With the earlier HTC phones the companion would sometimes tell us that we were near to a particular restaurant that we might like to try for lunch. However, this restaurant was some obscure outlet on the other side of the city with about 1000 other restaurants closer to us than it. Hopeless.
Meanwhile, Google was offering up internal maps of shopping centres that we were in and telling us the air quality of Asian cities that we were visiting. On our way to work it was telling us if there were any delays nearby.
Sense Companion also provides weather information (one of the oldest and most over-served areas of Android) a Fitness Buddy app (the built-in pedometer feature is handy) an ETA app for meetings (Google already does all this) amongst other redundant features. It’s not as bad (and intrusive) as Samsung’s Bixby, but it feels like another half-baked Google clone. At least all of Google’s advanced features, including Google Assistant are available here so you can turn it off.
One useful tool, however, was HTC’s Boost+ software which managed memory and optimized power usage for apps. Most top smartphones have similar features nowadays but this was still useful and stops rarely-used apps guzzling power in the background. It also has an App Lock feature to stop people looking at your private messages. This is generally useful but we noticed a bug with SnapChat in that, when you were notified of a new message, the app would open, the message would appear for a moment and then the app would lock. On unlocking the app the message would already have disappeared. You could work around this issue by launching into the app without going directly to the new message, but it highlights a problem with the system.
BoomSound and USonic Audio
HTC’s BoomSound is back which means we were hoping for the loud speakers of HTC phones past. There are certainly some interesting audio features but if you’re hoping for a mini Ghetto Blaster you’ll likely be disappointed. The main speaker at the base (just the one of them) is high quality and gets loud while retaining clarity for music and movies. The main phone speaker (which you listen to calls with) also chips in like a Tweeter in a speaker stack – rounding off the sound. However, in reality it makes very little difference.
When video or music is playing, a BoomSound notification will appear offering to optimize everything for Music or Movies, it only takes one touch and can make some difference. Nonetheless, audio quality is still amongst the very best we’ve heard from any phone on the market – that’s not saying much, but there are some shockers out there and this will represent a significant upgrade if you've been lunped with one of them.
(Very) annoyingly, there’s still no headphone jack. However, HTC does include an adaptor which has an on-board Digital Analog Converter (DAC) chip which appeared to add a bit more punch to audio, especially in terms of bass. When you plug it in, a notification informs you that the electronics naturally consume power and that you should unplug it when not in use.
However, HTC also bundles an upgraded version of its already-impressive earbuds. These work with HTC’s USonic technology and microphones within the earbuds themselves to provide Active Noise Cancelling. This is turned on automatically but turning it off muddies the sound considerably. Ultimately, while we’ve griped about no headphone jacks for all phones that don’t have them, we’re left impressed with what HTC has replaced them with in this instance.
Speaker phone and conference calls generally sounded loud and distinct but with one major caveat. The phone is IP67 rated and subsequently waterproof. We made use of this feature many times (Saunas and showers mainly) and on each occasion the microphone trapped water. This meant that nobody could hear us properly whenever we made a call until the phone had completely dried out – which could take hours. This could prove very annoying and it’s something that the rival, Samsung Galaxy S8 doesn’t seem to suffer from.
Next: Camera, Battery Life, Other Features and Conclusion
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