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May 16, 2017

HTC U11 Our First Take

by John_A

The HTC U11 is mesmerizing to look at, but lacks a true standout feature.

HTC, once a king in the smartphone market, kicked off 2017 with an all new design with the U series in hopes to rejuvenate interest in its smartphones. Gone are the all-metal design and chamfered edges; glass is the new sexy.

The U Ultra and the U Play didn’t take off earlier this year, though their mixed-to-poor reviews didn’t help. Thankfully, neither of those phones are the true flagships of the U series. That’s where the U11 comes in. It’s the successor to the well-reviewed HTC 10, and it has a lot riding on its shoulders.

We’ve spent some brief time with the new phone, which was just announced at an HTC event in Taipei, Taiwan. The U11 checks off all the boxes, but even with its gorgeous design, it doesn’t feel as exciting as some of its competitors.

Let’s take a look at how it stacks up against competition like the Samsung Galaxy S8 and LG’s G6.

Stunning glass design

We can’t complain too much about HTC’s new liquid glass design strategy. It’s unique, and makes the U11 stand out, partly because it’s so shiny. The U11 is the most beautiful smartphone we’ve seen.

The color shimmers under a coating of Gorilla Glass, and changes as you tilt it, thanks to the mirrored coating on the back — a process HTC calls “optical spectrum hybrid deposition.” Naturally, with such a smooth, shiny back, the phone does attract a lot of fingerprints — keep a microfiber cloth handy. This is the same problem other glass devices like the Galaxy S8 have.

It’s the most beautiful smartphone we’ve seen.

The HTC U11 feels incredibly smooth in the hand, like a pebble — similar to how we felt holding the Galaxy S8. All the edges on the rear have smooth curves, and the transition from glass to metal is seamless.

But what about the front of the phone? Sadly, HTC hasn’t followed Samsung and LG’s suit in minimizing edges. There is a lot of space (bezels) around the screen on the top and bottom of the display, similar to the Google Pixel. It looks dated, and we wish HTC had made the front look more interesting. The company told us it’s happy with the 5.5-inch frame and wanted to keep the 16:9 aspect ratio, as opposed to the 18:9 aspect ratio on the G6 and the S8.

So what use do those large front edges serve? Like an iPhone, the bottom of the phone has a fingerprint sensor that doubles as a home button. Unlike the iPhone, it’s flanked on both sides by capacitive (touch) Android navigation buttons. On the top, you’ll find a selfie camera.

The 5.5-inch LCD screen — protected by Gorilla Glass 5 — packs a resolution of 2,560 x 1,440 pixels, which is fantastic, and standard for a high-end phone. It’s bright and colorful, and we’ll have to do more testing to see how it measures up against the competition. Sadly, it doesn’t look like Google’s Daydream virtual reality platform will be supported, because the screen doesn’t utilize AMOLED technology. Very few phones do.

htc u  hands on review handsonJeffrey Van Camp/Digital Trends

htc u  hands on review handsonJeffrey Van Camp/Digital Trends

htc u  hands on review handsonJeffrey Van Camp/Digital Trends

htc u  hands on review handsonJeffrey Van Camp/Digital Trends

The volume rocker sits above the power button on the right, and a USB Type-C charging port is on the bottom edge of the U11. Next to it is a single speaker port — the other is at the top earpiece to provide hi-res stereo sound.

The U11 is available in blue, black, white, and silver, though the white color is not coming to the United States. Our favorite: blue. It really shows off what’s possible in smartphone design; we had a tough time not staring at it for awkwardly long periods of time. The HTC U11’s coloring and reflectiveness is mezmerizing.

High-end specs

The HTC U11 has all the processing power you expect to see in an expensive smartphone. It’s powered by Qualcomm’s fancy new Snapdragon 835 processor, like the Galaxy S8.

It has 4GB of RAM, which should be plenty for anything you need to do, and comes with 64GB of internal storage. There’s a 6GB RAM and 128GB storage variant, though it looks like it will only be available in select countries. The U11 also has a MicroSD card slot, in case you needed to upgrade your storage.

The HTC U11 has all the processing power you expect in a flagship smartphone.

Performance seemed great in our limited testing — we didn’t notice any lag, stuttering, or hiccups. We’ll do more in-depth testing when we receive a review unit.

There’s no Bluetooth 5, which is sad since it offers much improved range and faster data speeds. Currently, the only major flagship with Bluetooth 5 is the Galaxy S8. It does have Bluetooth 4.2, which was the previous standard.

The rear 12-megapixel camera supports Optical Image Stabilization, and it has 1.4 micrometer pixels, which allows for better low-light performance. The selfie camera is packed with 16-megapixels, though more megapixels doesn’t mean it’s better. We’ll report back after testing it.

The HTC U11 is IP67-rated, like the iPhone 7, meaning you can submerge it in 1 meter of water for 30 minutes.

The U11 has a 3,000mAh battery, which HTC said should last a day. We’re expecting it to last a little less than that, considering it’s powering a high-resolution display, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Clean user interface, neat features like Edge Sense

The U11 runs Google’s Android 7.1.1 operating system, with the company’s Sense user interface. It’s not too far from standard Android, with a few HTC-specific features like BlinkFeed — a feed built into the home screen that provides personalized news, and the Sense Companion that debuted on the U Ultra that gives recommendations on nearby restaurants, and does a few other small things.

Sense Companion is HTC’s artificial intelligence assistant, and it’s meant to offer pop-up notifications based on where you are and the time of day. Sadly, not much has improved since its debut. It’s still lacking integrations with a lot of third-party services.

But the star of the show is Edge Sense. Around the aluminum unibody construction on the frame, HTC has added mechanical sensors that can sense pressure. This lets you squeeze the phone to trigger specific actions. It’s more or less the same as Convenience Key on the BlackBerry KeyOne, except the goal here is to experiment with a buttonless design.

Nigel Newby-House, associate vice president of Portfolio Planning, told Digital Trends that Edge Sense brings us closer to buttonless phones. If people can get used to the simple short- and long-press features of the U11, the feature could then greatly expand to future devices.


Jeffrey Van Camp/Digital Trends

“The future could see this extended to other places on the phone,” he said.

Edge Sense is genuinely useful. There’s a wide variety of actions you can trigger, such as turning off Wi-Fi, launching an app, or turning on the camera. In specific apps like the camera, you can squeeze the phone to capture a photo, eliminating the need to press any buttons. In the HTC messaging app, you can squeeze the phone to trigger voice input, in case you don’t want to type.

It’s not a gimmicky feature, and Edge Sense is a good stepping stone for a future device devoid of buttons. We’ll have to see if we accidentally trigger actions by handling the phone, but we do know that you can choose the level of sensitivity.

The U11 also has four microphones, like the U Ultra. One is always-on, and it determines which microphones to turn on or off, depending on where you are situated. HTC said this is great for voice interactions, like with Google Assistant. Amazon’s Alexa is also available, though only in the U.S., U.K., and Germany.

Availability and pricing

HTC has yet to announce price and availability, but we expect the U11 to match the $650 price tag of most flagships.

The HTC U11 offers great performance, a potentially solid camera, and neat software features like Edge Sense. It’s also waterproof and looks great. It’s missing a truly exciting new feature, though. That may mean it’s a good upgrade if you need a device, but not worth the upgrade if your phone works fine. We’ll have to test it more to see how our final thoughts line up.

Highs

  • Gorgeous rear design
  • Powerful processor
  • Edge Sense seems useful
  • Waterproof
  • Alexa and Google Assistant support

Lows

  • Thick edges around the front screen
  • Fingerprint magnet
  • Brittle, glass design




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