HTC U11 review: More than just gimmicks
Even die-hard fans have been ready to write off HTC for years now, and I can’t blame them. The company’s phones have fluctuated between greatness and mediocrity while its competitors have improved by leaps and bounds. So, what’s a company in a kind of existential peril supposed to do? Well, making a phone like the new U11, for starters. It’s shiny, laden with gimmicks, and — spoiler alert — the whole thing falls short of perfect for a few reasons. Even so, HTC has gotten enough right in this ostentatious package that you should definitely start (or re-start) paying attention.
Hardware and design
With the U Ultra, HTC overhauled the design of its high-end smartphones. Forget those sturdy metal unibodies: from now on, it’s all about lots of sparkly, pretty glass.
The back of the U11, in particular, is sure to grab attention — HTC calls the finish “3D liquid glass” and it was crafted to catch light in unexpected ways. The Solar Red model is only really “red” sometimes. Under the right light, the phone turns bright gold and it’s pretty trippy. Even better, all of the edges just sort of melt into each other — no rough seams in sight. This shock of color is enough to make the phone’s face, with its 5.5-inch Super LCD5 screen and big black bezels a little underwhelming.
Phones swathed in glass can be tricky, though. I couldn’t put the U11 down on the arm of my couch without it skittering to the floor. You can forget about taking calls with your phone wedged between your neck and shoulder, too, unless you’ve got sandpaper shoulder pads. Glass also cracks more easily than metal. While we were shooting our review video, the U11 tipped over from its standing position and smacked into our glass studio table. Countless phones have done this over the years and they were never worse for it — the U11 is the first that cracked.
There’s a fast, accurate fingerprint sensor below the screen, wedged between two capacitive navigation keys. The headphone jack is over, so you’ll use the USB C port on the bottom for charging and audio playback. In the SIM tray, you’ll find a spot for a MicroSD card to supplement the 64GB of onboard storage.
You can’t see them, but the U11 also has multiple pressure sensors baked into its sides. We’ll dig into Edge Sense a little later, but you can squeeze the phone to trigger predefined actions like launching the camera. Plus the whole thing is IP67 water resistant, which means it’ll handle dips in up to 1 meter of water for around 30 minutes.
Display and sound
The U11’s screen is good, but pretty standard. We’re working with a 5.5-inch Super LCD 5 at Quad HD. That works out to a density of about 534 pixels per inch. Colors aren’t quite as vivid as on an AMOLED display, but solid clarity and color reproduction put it in the same ballpark as its rivals. I only wish the screen was a little brighter. It’s a little dimmer than the Galaxy S8 and iPhone 7 Plus, making it tougher to read under harsh daylight.
The U11’s speakers, on the other hand, are very, very good. It’s been a long time since HTC’s BoomSound heyday, but the U11 is louder and clearer than any other smartphone I’ve tested recently. In fact, while I was testing the speakers at the office, I had to deal with more than the usual amount of stink-eye from non-Engadgeteers because of the volume. (To my knowledge, no HR claims have been filed.) You’ll need more oomph for, a party, but the U11’s built-in sound system is good enough for gathering people around a YouTube video.
Without a headphone jack, you’ll need to use Bluetooth cans or HTC’s pack-in USonic Type-C earbuds. They’re a little too heavy on the bass for me, but they’re comfortable and offer a more welcome surprise: active noise cancellation. Even better, they don’t need batteries since the earbuds draw power from the phone. While handy, these pack-ins are nowhere as good as isolating noise as, say, a pair of Bose QC35s. The U11 can also tailor the way the phone plays audio through those earbuds. Each audio profile is specifically tuned for your ears, and mine made my music sound noticeably crisper and brighter — good stuff.
When the company launched the 10, it also revealed an approach to Android that felt cleaner and fresher than before — Sense UI’s visual noise was dialed down and extraneous apps were killed in favor of Google’s own. These were steps in a positive direction and led to a mostly uncluttered version of Android 7.1 Nougat for the U11. In general, it runs very, very well, but it feels a little stale when compared to updated interfaces from rivals like Samsung.
Rather than revamp the interface, HTC focused its efforts elsewhere. The U11 comes with support for three — three! — virtual assistants right out of the box, which is a little insane. Most of you are probably familiar with Google Assistant, and it works the way it always does: either long-press the Home button or get its attention with “OK, Google,” then fire off a request.
HTC’s Sense Companion is much less vocal, offering up notifications and reminders based on what it knows about you and your environment instead. Is it going to rain? It will suggest you pack an umbrella. Once it gets late in the day, it’ll tell you how many steps you’ve taken and even remind you to charge your phone when it knows you have plans later. Essentially, HTC’s assistant tries to stay subtle while being proactive — it’s meant to slide into your life when you need it and disappear when you don’t. In general Sense Companion plays it safe by only occasionally surfacing notifications. I would’ve preferred it to be a little more in-my-face and but there isn’t a way to make the Companion offer handy tips more regularly.
Then there’s the newcomer, Alexa. Amazon’s voice interface is available on a few smartphones right now, but the U11 is the first to give it a proper home. You just say “Alexa” and she’ll spring to life. The U11 lacks the Echo’s far-field voice recognition, so it occasionally takes a couple tries to rouse it. Other than that, it’s the same solid performer you expect. Alexa has access to all the skills I’ve enabled on my home Echo, and the U11’s great speakers mean audiobooks and music from Amazon come through loud and clear. In fact, Alexa’s only true failing is that when she can’t tell what you’re saying, the app window and screen stay active until you dismiss the app or try again. If you’re not paying close attention, a failed Alexa conversation could leave the U11’s display lit up, burning precious battery.
Don’t forget that you can squeeze this phone to make it do things. For all the hype, Edge Sense is very simple. The best way to think of it is as an invisible convenience key with two settings: a squeeze performs one action, and a squeeze-and-hold performs another.
Getting Edge Sense up is simple: just clench your way through a demo. You’ll have to enable the advanced mode to get access to the squeeze-and-hold gesture, though, for reasons beyond comprehension. By default, the squeeze action is set to launch the camera, with a second squeeze snapping a photo once everything is in position. Thankfully, none of those actions are set in stone. Rather than launching the camera, you can set a squeeze to launch an app, take a screenshot, toggle the flashlight and even fire up the mobile hotspot.
Frankly, I kind of hated it at first because I couldn’t consistently get my squeeze pressure right. Things changed once I dialed down the amount of pressure needed — lighter grips meant less time wondering why things weren’t working properly. (This also means Edge Sense is easier to trigger by accident, but I don’t mind.) Now I instinctively squeeze the U11 every time I need to grab a quick photo and get a little frustrated when other phones don’t work the same way. Granted, Edge Sense doesn’t do anything that a dedicated button couldn’t, and it’s easily disabled for anyone who doesn’t want it. It’s handy, but it’s no game-changer.
When I reviewed the U Ultra earlier this year, I was let down by its camera. Not because it was bad, mind you, but HTC’s cameras still hadn’t caught up to the competition. Well, this year is different: the U11’s 12-megapixel camera is a highly capable all-around shooter, with image quality in the same league as Samsung’s. My test shots consistently came through with lots of detail and accurate colors, save for a few cases where outdoor shots where the green looked a touch bluer than expected.
Other than the occasional color temperature issues, the U11 has been an excellent everyday shooter. It’s fast to focus thanks to an SLR-style dual-pixel system, and the near-instantaneous HDR Auto turned multiple shots into a single vibrant photo with ease. This kind of algorithmic enhancement helped Google’s Pixel capture excellent photos, and it’s doing great work here too. There’s a hint of shutter lag after you snap a photo though, so keep that in mind when you’re trying to capture subjects in motion.
The U11’s camera is also surprisingly good in low light thanks to its wide aperture (f/1.7) and improved 5-axis optical image stabilization. Before taking the camera through its paces, I was a little concerned because the pixels on the 12-megapixel sensor are smaller than in HTC’s other UltraPixel cameras. I shouldn’t have been: dark photos came through crisper than expected, though you’ll still find your share of grain. That said, I still think the S8s have a slight edge over the U11.
Videos shot with the U11’s main camera were similarly impressive, especially at 4K. There’s hardly any distortion and the level of clarity puts the U11 right up there with the best of them. Given the phone’s attention to sound quality, the inclusion of a 3D audio recording mode makes sense. It’s meant to make videos sounds more immersive, and it does to an extent — just make sure you’re wearing headphones or all nuance is lost.
Meanwhile, the front-facing camera actually shoots at a higher 16MP resolution, and with a wide-angle lens, it’s capable of some seriously nice selfies. The relatively wide f/2.0 aperture also means the sensor gets to suck up more light — I only needed the screen flash in near-pitch black situations.
Performance and battery
The U11 uses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 chipsets paired with 4GB of RAM and the Adreno 540 GPU. You know, just like basically everyone else. Still, there’s no denying that the 835 delivers some serious horsepower The U11 feels fast whether you’re jumping between multiple apps or plowing through beautiful games like Afterpulse and Telltale’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Hardly anything I threw at the U11 over the course of a week gave it pause. There’s a rare stutter, but the U11 is one of the most consistently snappy smartphones I’ve tested this year.
Battery life, however, was just average. Like the U Ultra before it, the U11 packs a 3,000mAh battery. But, this time it’s paired with a more powerful processor and a smaller screen. This balancing act of components worked out better than expected. In our video rundown test, the U11 looped an HD clip for just north of 13 hours before it finally needed a recharge. That’s much better than the U Ultra’s 11-odd hours, and in line with the Galaxy S8. The S8 Plus and the OnePlus 5 are still the phones to beat, though: they both lasted for a little over 15 hours before giving up the ghost.
When it comes actual use, expect to get just over a day on a single charge, and closer to a day and a half if you actually put your phone down once in a while. Again, this is average for this year’s flagships. People’s charging habits seem to be changing though, so the inclusion of Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 3 tech is handy (if not quite as fast as the newer QuickCharge 4 stuff). Using the included power adapter and cable, the U11 went from bone-dry to 90 percent full in a little over an hour.
The U11 is a very strong option for smartphone shoppers, but don’t forget about all the other great devices released this year. Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus are arguably at the top of the pack — they both have gorgeous “Infinity” displays, not to mention excellent cameras and similarly impressive performance. The S8 Plus is the better choice thanks to its significantly bigger battery, and its larger size is mitigated by Samsung’s brilliant, bezel-less design. That said, you’ll have to deal with a highly customized software experience.
If you’re looking for pure horsepower on a budget, the OnePlus 5 is also worth looking at. It uses the same Snapdragon 835 chipset as other 2017 flagships, but pairs it with 6GB of RAM for truly stunning performance. Despite being slightly smaller and lighter than the U11, the OnePlus also contains a bigger, 3,300mAh battery which lasted noticeably longer in our rundown tests. Then again, the U11 has a much better camera and offers more in terms of software creature comforts than the mostly-stock OnePlus 5.
HTC didn’t get everything right with the U11, but it nailed a whole lot more than I ever expected it to. That’s a big deal. After the mess that was the U Ultra, I was honestly unsure whether the company would ever drag itself out of its doldrums. The U11 is proof that, yes, there is still hope for this company. While gimmicks like Edge Sense and the stylishly fragile glass back make the U11 seem too eager to be different, underneath all that is a very good, very fast phone that’s worthy of your attention.