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HTC’s U11: For this phone, a squeeze will do it

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An innovative gesture, silk-smooth performance, stellar camera and an eye catching design. We have a flagship

Taiwanese tech company HTC, actually the first Android player, is trying to emerge from bad times and recapture some of its lost glory. And why not. But it’s a tough job, made tougher by a number of devices that didn’t particularly help. Now, close on the heels of its U Ultra, HTC has introduced its look-alike, the U11 and it’s got a lot going for it, including super fast performance, a unique eye catching design, and a camera better than the Pixel’s, according to DxOMark — photography experts.

The U11 comes in several colours but I got to use the blue, same as the earlier Ultra I reviewed. The body of this phone is made of this shiny ‘liquid glass surface’ that you can either love or hate. For some it may be too shiny and reflecting of fingerprints and scratches, but for others, the way it catches the light and shines is attractive and attention-getting. One way or the other, you will have to use a case to protect it and HTC has made sure you waste no time with that because they’ve supplied a soft cloth to wipe it with and a transparent plastic back cover.

In the design of the U11, HTC has altogether ignored the current love for thin or almost non-existent edges, so on the top and bottom you’ll find the bezels are as wide as you’ve been seeing them all these years. But the 5.5-inch LCD5 QHD screen sandwiched between those bezels is nice enough. It has a 1440 x 2560 resolution though it is not HDR ready. It’s not very vivid and striking, but neither is it wanting as such. It does use Gorilla Glass 5. I found the auto brightness rather aggressive, but there’s a lot of adjustment you can make to the display, including temperature.

On the ergonomics front, the U11 is slightly weighty, even though it doesn’t have a huge battery at 3,000mAh, and it’s a little broad. On top of that, the glass body, rounded at the sides makes it considerably slippery, even with that back cover on. Overall, you have to be more than a little careful with it.

Forget one-handed use, which will make the device more vulnerable. Combining a slippery body with large contours is always precarious.

HTC is sharply aware that something needs to be done to distinguish a flagship phone from the rest of the smartphones around so what it has done, apart from catching up on specs, is to make the camera top notch and put in an innovation that the company has made a big talking point…

On the U11, a new feature called the Edge Sense invites you to squeeze both sides of the device to launch an application. When you look into the settings, you’ll find an option to customise the Edge Sense by setting the extent of squeeze you’re willing to give it.

The big squeeze

Once this has been set, you can select what the squeeze should do. You can launch the camera or the Google Assistant, turn Wi-Fi on/off or use the flashlight or even choose an app you happen to use often. It’s nice that you’re not limited to just one or two applications such as gesture triggers on other phones. And a short squeeze or long squeeze can both be used to launch different things.

The action actually works quite well. On screen, a slight balloon portion slides out from the two edges and the selected app is launched. It even works from a sleeping screen.

Although the squeeze takes a little getting used to, you quickly start to find it useful. For instance, you can just squeeze to open up the phone app or go straight to your mail or Whatsapp — all quite fast. It may not be a game changing feature, but it’s interesting and innovative.

Without a hitch

The one thing you can’t fault the HTC U11 for is performance. The device works with perfect smoothness with nothing hindering the Snapdragon 835 and 6 GB RAM from getting on with their work. HTC’s own interface, the Sense UI may be a bit boring but it trumps others in performance. The device comes with Android 7.1.1 and you have all the space to fill it with apps at 128 GB storage space. On the performance front, this phone behaves like the flagship it is, so you can go ahead and game on or otherwise do processor intensive things like 4k recording without a hitch. There’s no appreciable warming up or lag when multitasking as the U11 handles all tasks with total ease.

On benchmark tests, the U11 is right up there with the best and it doesn’t have to cheat to be so. The 3,000mAh battery could have been bigger, but it delivers good performance through the day and can be quick-charged.

A much appreciated feature is the phone’s dust and water resistance.

Listen up

It’s HTC that first featured great sound on a mere smartphone and they have “Boom Sound” giving a deep and full sound on the U11 as well.

I’ve known louder HTC phones, but the U11 still does sound very good and you’ll find you don’t always need an external speaker unless you want to do some serious music listening.

That’s when you need to pull out the special earphones that will fit into the Type C port. The 3.5mm headphone jack has gone the iPhone 7 way and disappeared, much to the annoyance of many. But the earphones provided happen to deliver better results than usual. They adapt to your ears and deliver excellent sound with support for hi-res sound files. A music lover should give this one some serious thought.

Stellar camera

To everyone’s surprise, the U11’s camera was rated even better than Google’s Pixel by photography experts. In fact, it was rated by DxOMark as the best smartphone camera ever. That’s quite a commendation. First of all, the U11’s 12 MP main camera has a large f/1.7 aperture, which is itself enough to be a game changer. It also has Optical Image Stabilization, a dual LED flash, and “HDR Boost”. It’s meant to keep photography buffs happy with its Pro mode and RAW format support.

For everyone else, the U11 takes very pleasing photographs with balanced realistic colours. Low light performance is great, both indoors and out, and when encountering noise, which does happen sometimes, better control with the Pro mode can get rid of it.

The camera is fast focusing, gives detailed images and does some bit of depth of field effect on its own. It also is good for close up shots. The front camera is equally good. That’s a 16 MP with an f2.0 aperture. Video recording is also good.

After so many misses, HTC really does have a proper flagship on its hands this time.

The Galaxy S8 and iPhone may have designs that people will prefer and certainly better ergonomics, but on most other fronts, the U11 is right up there with them as a serious contender.