HTC U11 review: Sense and sensibility

HTC U11

The U Ultra was HTC’s first attempt to stand out from the crowd this year. The company may go to great lengths to say the U Ultra did just fine, but, bottom-line is half-baked software — and inadequate hardware — and prohibitive pricing saw the last of it. The U Ultra did not fly. It did not fly at all. But, if you know a thing or two about HTC, well, you’d know the company never stops trying. Every time you write it off, it bounces back; for better or for worse.

The U11 is HTC’s second attempt to stand out from the crowd this year. It may look a lot like the U Ultra — the two phones even share some key features — but the new phone from HTC is a whole new ball-game altogether. Not to forget, the U11 is also HTC’s top-tier phone for 2017. The U Ultra, it now seems like, was just the teaser trailer, for things to come. It’s like a second coming, the HTC U11, and with what’s in store inside (and out); the new phone from HTC might just be what the doctor ordered for this 20 year old ailing giant. It was about time.

Design and build quality

The U11 carries forward the U Ultra’s liquid surface design language, adding subtle refinements to it to improve ergonomics. In hindsight, the U11 looks just like the U Ultra, but minus the secondary ticker screen. While the U Ultra was a 5.9-inch (5.7 primary + 2.05 secondary) phone, the U11 maxes out at 5.5-inch. The U11 may have the same physical dimensions — weight and thickness — but somehow, it feels lighter and slimmer. It feels more user-friendly. The U Ultra was just too big, and just too bulky in comparison.

While its One-series — that HTC bid adieu with last year’s 10 — was probably designed for one (and all) the U-series from HTC is apparently designed for a more personalized experience. It is supposedly an expression of you, the person who will be using the smartphone, the flagship U11 in this case. In typical HTC U fashion, then, the U11 is (also) carved out of highly polished glass — Corning’s Gorilla Glass 5 — that reflects light differently when viewed from different angles. The outer frame is, meanwhile, carved out of solid metal. So are the power button and the volume rocker.

 The U11 is the first HTC phone in years to carry a sensible price tag. The phone, for 6GB RAM and 128GB storage, costs Rs 51,990. It really makes you wonder, what in the world was HTC thinking, pricing the U Ultra at Rs 59,990 

The U11, just like the U Ultra, is one trippy smartphone. The phone will be available in two colours: Amazing Silver and Brilliant Black. Although the company did show off the breathtakingly gorgeous Solar Red version of the U11 at its launch event in the national capital, it has now been announced that it won’t be coming to India anytime soon, much to my disappointment. The Solar Red, just to give you some backgrounder for my sheer fascination, can look anything ranging from a fiery red to a mouth-watering orange, depending on how you look at it. That’s not to say the Amazing Silver and Brilliant Black versions, can’t bend light at will. They can. While the Amazing Silver version — the version that HTC gave me for review — can magically change into a mesmerizing blue, the Brilliant Black version can look a certain distinct shade of green from some angles.

The fact of the matter is, whatever colour you chose, remember, you will be the center of attention when you’re out and about with the U11. The U11, just like the U Ultra, is after all so beautiful, it hurts. It’s not a phone that everybody can handle. It’s like taking sides. You’d either love it, or you’d absolutely hate it. There’s no middle ground.

The U11, just like the U Ultra, is a whole new level of shiny. Needless to say, it inherits most of its shortcomings — for that matter, shortcomings that are part and parcel of a majority of phones made out of glass — as well. For one, it’s super glossy and accumulates fingerprints and smudge by the millisecond. Secondly, it’s super slippery. Last but not the least; it doesn’t look like it could take a beating. The phone, thankfully, ships with a transparent back cover in the box as well as a wiping cloth for you to make it shine, for good. It doesn’t ship with a one-year insurance cover though like the U Ultra did, which, is a little disappointing.

HTC may not have given up on its sheer fascination for chunky bezels just yet — at a time when rivals Samsung and LG are out to pull them off completely — but at least, it has got most of the other things right this time. The U11 comes with well-built and well-positioned power and volume buttons that offer excellent feedback. The left side of the phone is clean, while the dual-SIM card/micro-SD hybrid slot rests at the top. The bottom end is meanwhile home to a USB Type-C port for charging and data syncing and one speaker out (the other speaker rests underneath the earpiece) encapsulated by a white border that would remind you of the Google Pixel, a phone that HTC made as well. The fingerprint scanner on the front works like a charm and HTC has also been able to reduce the camera bump significantly in the U11 as opposed to the U Ultra that had some minor discrepancies in this regard.

Also Read: HTC’s squeezable U11 launching in India today: Key specs, features and more

The USP of the U11 however — in addition to its exceptional build quality — is its outer frame, or rather, the lower ends of it. The outer frame, in the case of the U11, can respond to stimuli. The lower ends of the phone pack sensors that respond differently to different levels of pressure, giving the U11 its ‘squeezable’ moniker. By squeezing — or rather by applying pressure — the phone, users can carry out specific functions such as opening the camera (and clicking photos), activating a virtual assistant, taking a screen-shot and more. The feature, that HTC calls Edge Sense, works under water — the HTC U11 is also IP67-certified — as well and doesn’t require users to first power up the phone. It works directly from the lock screen and can be accessed even while wearing gloves.

The Edge Sense on-board the U11 — besides being a gimmick that could have done with a simple button like the Bixby button on-board the Samsung Galaxy S8 — comes with limited functionality for now, like short squeeze and squeeze and hold to operate one app at a time. The company is however, looking to add more features to Edge Sense in the days to come. It is, in the days to come, also looking to open source its SDK so developers can build apps around the new platform. Question is how many developers would get on-board to make apps for one phone?

Display

The U11 comes with a 5.5-inch screen with a Quad-HD (1440×2560 pixels) resolution. The panel, a Super LCD 5, is the same that HTC used in the U Ultra and also in last year’s 10 and it’s still as gorgeous as ever. HTC says its LCD 5 panel is 30 per cent more colourful and 50 per cent more responsive to touch than its predecessor. The difference will be indiscernible to most users, but there is, a difference nonetheless.

HTC seems to have gotten things right as far as colours are concerned and I liked that it’s more neutral in comparison to say the Galaxy S8. Colours look every bit as rich and vibrant, if not as over-saturated and eye-popping. The phone has excellent viewing angles and outdoor legibility is also spot on — the panel on-board can be a little reflective on occasions — most of the time. There’s an option to manually correct colour temperature and a night-mode that turns them to the warmer end of the spectrum when enabled.

Performance and battery life

The U11 is powered by a 2.45GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor clubbed with 6GB RAM and 128GB of internal storage which is further expandable via a hybrid micro-SD card slot. This is as high end as high end can be at this point of time. And when clubbed with HTC’s slick, bloat-free Sense UI — atop Android 7.1.1 Nougat — the U11 literally is a power-house of a phone that feels faster and smoother than even the Samsung Galaxy S8.

A combination of high-end hardware and well-optimized software ensures the U11 runs smooth as butter, and has absolutely no trouble whatsoever in dealing with tasks, both basic and hard-grinding. Graphical games are handled well, with no lag at all, even at maxed out settings. There would be instances when the phone would get hot while say playing games, or video-recording, but it is also very quick to cool down which is nice.

It’s nice to see HTC continuing its war against bloat and not giving in to the temptation of unnecessary apps in the U11. The phone, like all recent HTC flagship phones, has almost zero duplicate apps and instead ships with only stock Android solutions. For instance, Google Photos is your basic gallery app on-board the U Ultra. By minimizing bloat and omitting duplicate apps, HTC has made an already smooth UI, smoother. And it’s every bit as customizable. Sense gives you many options to tinker around with the user interface. You get to change themes, icons, tones and more.

 

Just like Google’s Pixel phone, HTC’s U11 banks heavily on artificial intelligence and machine learning. The HTC U11 supports not one, but, as many as three virtual assistants: Google Assistant, HTC’s own Sense Companion and Amazon’s Alexa. Alexa is only available in the US, UK and Germany for now though.

As in the case of the U Ultra, the Sense Companion “can suggest that you dress warmer and leave a little earlier for work if snow is forecast; remind you to take a power bank on longer trips; and even recommend a restaurant when you’re away for the weekend and then book seats for you2. Best of all, it’s made to evolve and get to know you better over time,” according to HTC. The U11 comes pre-loaded with Sense Companion, unlike the U Ultra wherein the feature was pushed out later via a software update.

To make the phone more AI-friendly, HTC has also incorporated four always-on low-power microphones inside, so it can respond to every command. The U11, because of these microphones, is always on and always listening.

On to audio, the U11 is capable of churning out fabulous audio, over headphones. The phone comes with a sonar-based audio system, called U-Sonic — much like it was in the case of the U Ultra — over headphones, that is claimed to deliver true(r) sound that is also capable of adapting to the user. There is, however, a catch. The phone does not have a standard 3.5mm audio jack and instead has (only) a single USB Type-C out for charging, data syncing and high-res audio out. The technology, also, works only with compatible USB-C headphones. No strike that. The technology, also, works only with compatible USB-C headphones that HTC ships in the box.

On paper, U-Sonic creates a profile for you and then scans both your ears. There’s a difference in frequency between both the ears. The technology sends sonar waves into the listener’s eardrum and based on that it then normalizes the frequency.

So ideally you hear the music the way it’s supposed to sound. Moreover, a mic on-board the ear-buds constantly listens to the ambient noise available and then increases or decreases the output volume accordingly. U-Sonic seemed more like a gimmick in the U Ultra. With the U11, the technology seems to have (already) come of age. There is no other flagship smartphone in the market right now that gives you such outstanding audio out via headphones. For your reference, the AKG earphones that Samsung ships with the Galaxy S8, sound terrible in comparison. The U-Sonic headphones, that HTC ships in the box with the U11, also support active noise cancellation. If that wasn’t enough, the USB Type-C to 3.5 mm dongle, that HTC ships in the box with the U11 to connect your regular headphones, also comes with an in-built DAC.

The U11, in addition, also supports BoomSound Hi-Fi sound technology. The setup that includes a separate tweeter and sub-woofer each with their own dedicated amplifier, is the best thing to have happened to a smartphone in a long, long time.

Phone calls made with the phone are of excellent quality and we did not encounter any odd call drop issues with our review unit.

The U11 is further backed by a 3,000mAh battery. Battery life is good, if not best in-class. For your reference, battery life of the HTC U11 is somewhere in the middle of the Galaxy S8 (max) and the LG G6 (min). While extreme usage got us close to 13 hours, moderate to light usage got us close to one full day, without breaking a sweat. Most users, with more generalised usage will be able to squeeze one full day of usage out of the phone. Also, Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0 means the phone charges like a bullet.

Camera

The U11 ships with a 12-megapixel rear camera with what HTC calls UltraPixel 3 technology and UltraSpeed Autofocus. It uses a very bright lens at f/1.7 aperture, and the sensor is also a little bigger than the usual, 1/2.55-inch that apparently boosts low-light performance. HTC’s UltraPixel sensor is notorious for allowing more light into the lens, technically resulting in brighter photos. The rear camera is further assisted with phase detection autofocus, OIS and dual-LED (dual tone) flash.

 The U11 looks great, has a great screen, metes out great performance, comes with great camera credentials and a camera that performs quite well while at it, and outstanding audio credentials that put Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus’ stereo setup to shame 

While last year’s 10, and this year’s U Ultra, were a mixed bag as far as cameras were concerned, the U11 — without beating around the bush — is without a doubt a top contender for the best flagship camera phone of the year. It’s as good as the Samsung Galaxy S8, if not better, in more or less every situation. In fact, those who prefer true-to-life — and not over-saturated eye-popping — photos would greatly appreciate the HTC U11’s rear camera. Both the Galaxy S8 and the LG G6, although fantastic camera phones, on 9 out of 10 times tend to produce over-saturated and over-sharpened photos that may look artificial in the grand scheme of things. The HTC U11, on the other hand, tends to produce more neutral and soothing photos.

Photos clicked with the U11 in good light have excellent detail, good dynamic range and no metering issues. HDR works really well, and the camera is lightening quick to focus on to a subject. The phone also uses HDR boost — ala the Google Pixel — to bring out the best results in photos by springing into action the minute you fire up the camera app and have HDR enabled.

The camera app is pretty well-equipped — replete with 4K (with Hi-Res Audio), RAW support and full-on Pro modes — and boasts of one of the best navigation schemes I’ve seen in a flagship smartphone. Also, it’s up and running in a jiffy. In fact, the whole thing (including autofocus and shutter speed) works like a speeding bullet. Additionally, the U11 also ships with what HTC calls Acoustic Focus that allows users to “zoom in on the video to target your subject and amplify their specific sounds.” The technology makes good use of the phone’s four always-on low-power microphones to bump up the audio of farther subjects when you zoom into them, but, it’s certainly not perfect.

The U11 also comes with a 16-megapixel front-camera that takes well-detailed selfies in ideal lighting but low/tricky light situation photos can be a hit or a miss.

Should you buy it?

HTC makes some amazing phones. There’s no denying that. HTC’s premium One and mid-level Desire phones have always managed to stand out from the crowd on the back of their pleasing looks and polished user interface. But then, rivals — Samsung, Apple and even LG — started to catch up. They started to catch up really fast. HTC, it seemed, was frozen in time. The 10 was a little too late to the party. The U Ultra, well, it was meh!

The U11 is no plain-Jane however. Even though it doesn’t have an edge-to-edge screen like the Samsung Galaxy S8, or a dual-camera system like the LG G6, HTC’s new U11, has enough gimmicks and fire-power under the hood to stand toe-to-toe with them. And give them quite a run for their money while at it.

It looks great, has a great screen, metes out great performance, comes with great camera credentials and a camera that performs quite well while at it, and outstanding audio credentials that put Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus’ stereo setup to shame. It is water-resistant and crams in three virtual assistants. As for Edge Sense, well, let’s just say it wouldn’t hurt anybody. But, more importantly, the U11 is the first HTC phone in years to carry a sensible price tag. The phone, for 6GB RAM and 128GB storage, costs Rs 51,990. It really makes you wonder, what in the world was HTC thinking, pricing the U Ultra at Rs 59,990.

Long story short: if you’ve ever been searching for the complete package, vis-a-vis HTC, the U11 is that smartphone.

HTC U11 Review8/10

  • GOOD STUFF
  • Looks gorgeous
  • Outstanding camera credentials
  • Outstanding audio credentials
  • Outstanding performance
  • BAD STUFF
  • Glass body feels fragile
  • Reflective display
  • Edge Sense is unnecessary gimmick
  • Battery life could be better

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