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August 30, 2018

HTC U12 Life hands-on: Last chance at life

by John_A

The HTC U12 Life feels like it was created from scratch. In a vacuum. It’s a peculiar device that’s a little difficult to pin down. It doesn’t share all that much in common with its predecessor the U11 Life, and not so much with its namesake the U12 Plus either. It does away with HTC staples like Edge Sense and Sense Companion – coming with what HTC calls “Light Sense” instead – leaving it feeling a little hollow inside.

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Some people might think that the most important feature in a smartphone is its display size. Others believe it comes down to a phone’s processor performance, or the amount of RAM, or how much storage …Compared to the U11 Life, the HTC U12 Life ditches the IP rating, reintroduces the 3.5mm headphone jack, swaps out the display technology, decreases the selfie camera resolution and bumps the screen size significantly. It’s weird.

Let’s get into this HTC U12 Life hands-on, because there’s a fair bit that needs unpacking here.

HTC U12 Life Moonlight Blue and Twilight Purple colors in hand

The HTC U12 Life is what HTC calls rocket science. Coming up with a flagship phone that has the latest and greatest, at a high price? A piece of cake. Coming up with a mid-tier device that cuts just the right corners, while keeping enough people happy to appeal to the masses and show true value? That’s what HTC says is the hardest job of all.

The HTC U12 Life is a peculiar device that’s a little difficult to pin down.

So what corners have HTC cut, and have they got it right? Well, the big surprise is actually what they’ve added, rather than subtracted.

Display

The HTC U12 Life display measures 6.0 inches on the diagonal, compared to the 5.2-inch panel found on the U11 Life. The U12 Life features a low-temperature polycrystalline silicon (LTPS) panel, as opposed to the U11 Life’s IPS LCD. It’s all about reduced energy consumption. Thanks to the different aspect ratio (from 16:9 to 18:9), the resolution increases slightly to 2,160 x 1,080 pixels, but due to the larger screen, the pixel density drops marginally from 423 ppi to 402 ppi.

HTC U12 Life app drawer light Sense

There’s no notch here and HTC says it is committed to avoiding the notch in upcoming phones too. Bezels aren’t exactly huge but they’re not exactly small either, with the U12 Life screen occupying 83 percent of the device’s footprint. With less bezel in which to live, the fingerprint scanner has migrated to the back of the U12 Life.

HTC U12 Life home screen in hand

Design

The liquid surface design language of the U11 Life is still sort of in effect here, but there looks to be a pinch of Pixel thrown in for good measure. The top portion of the U12 Life is the same fingerprinty mess you’d expect from a shiny glass-backed phone, but, as with the U11 Life, HTC has opted for acrylic here over something more expensive like Gorilla Glass. There are tiny pieces of metal in the acrylic unibody to create another mouthful of design: “optical spectrum hybrid deposition”. That sounds great and all, but about all I can tell you is that it’s shiny and nice. A materials scientist I am not.

HTC U12 Life fingerprint scanner, smudges and dual camera

The bottom two-thirds of the phone have been etched with “3D Ultra Stripes” for better grip and fewer fingerprints. The design change works as advertised and makes a great zip-like scratching sound for the fidget-inclined among us. The HTC U12 Life will come in Moonlight Blue and Twilight Purple. Both options change color depending on their environment and what they’re reflecting, shifting from bright blue and silver to deep navy and purple.

The bottom two-thirds of the phone have been etched with ‘3D Ultra Stripes’ for better grip and fewer fingerprints.

HTC U12 Life Moonlight Blue and Twilight Purple colors

In case you were worried, there are no capacitive buttons here, probably due to the added cost rather than the added frustration. Whatever the cause, the U12 Life dodges that particular bullet.

Hardware

The reintroduction of the 3.5mm headphone jack represents another bullet dodged. HTC apparently now understands just how unpopular the decision to move to USB Type-C or wireless audio is for most people, and has wisely decided to bring it back. HTC confirmed that several other upcoming devices will follow suit, but no one was willing to guarantee it’ll be back to stay on all HTC phones.

The U12 Life adds a hybrid dual-SIM tray that you can add a microSD card to if you need additional storage, a nice upgrade from the U11 Life. You’ve also got stereo speakers and bundled headphones in the box, and of course, the usual Oreo audio codecs are supported. One point on the stereo speakers, which appear in the BoomSound Hi-Fi Edition layout of bottom-firing and earpiece: HTC doesn’t consider them to be worthy of the BoomSound label.

HTC U12 Life 3.5mm headphone jack

There’s no official IP rating here – again likely due to cost (IP certification is an expensive business) – but HTC said the U12 Life is “splash-resistant,” compared to IP67 on last year’s U11 Life.

Specs

The HTC U12 Life is powered by the 14nm Qualcomm Snapdragon 636 mobile platform, not the rumored 660. I asked if the 660 was tested internally and was told it was not; the 660 showing up in benchmarks was a reporting error. HTC evidently prefers the energy efficiency of the octa-core 1.8GHz Snapdragon 636 over the additional performance of the 660. The U12 Life version going global comes with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, up from the 3GB and 32GB in the U11 Life. A 128GB variant will appear in Taiwan only.

HTC U12 Life dual finish design back panel

The 636 brings with it the Adreno 509 GPU, X12 LTE modem for up to 600Mbps peak download and 150Mbps peak upload speeds (Cat. 11), and the Spectra 160 ISP. We were unable to get any camera samples during our HTC U12 Life hands-on time.

Powered by the 14nm Qualcomm Snapdragon 636 mobile platform, not the rumored 660.

Bluetooth 5, NFC, and a significantly larger 3,600 mAh battery with fast charging are also included. There’s no support for Qualcomm Quick Charge here, but HTC says the U12 Life battery will charge to 50 percent capacity in around 40 minutes.

Display 6.0-inch LCD
2,160 x 1,080 resolution
18:9 aspect ratio
SoC Qualcomm Snapdragon 636 Mobile
Platform, octa-core, 64-bit
GPU Adreno 509
RAM 4 or 6GB
Storage 64 or 128GB
MicroSD card slot
Cameras Rear cameras:
16MP + 5MP sensors, phase detection autofocus, dual-LED flash, f/2.0 aperture, HDR, 4K video recording

Front camera:
13MP sensor, f/2.0 aperture, LED flash, HDR, FHD 1080p video recording

Battery 3,600mAh
IP rating N/A
Sensors Ambient light sensor
Proximity sensor
Motion G-sensor
Compass sensor
Gyro sensor
Magnetic sensor
Fingerprint sensor
Sensor Hub for activity tracking
Network 2G/2.5G GSM/GPRS/EDGE
– 850/900/1800/1900MHz
3G UMTS
– 850/900/1900/2100MHz
– HSDPA 42, HSUPA 5.76
4G LTE
– Dual 4G LTE Nano SIM (availability varies by region)
– FDD: Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 17, 20, 28, 32, 66
– TDD: Bands 38, 40
– Supports Cat 11 downloads up to 600Mbps, upload up to 75Mbps
Connectivity USB Type-C
3.5mm headphone jack
Bluetooth 5
Wi-Fi: 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac (2.4 & 5GHz)
NFC
GPS/GLONASS
Software Android 8.1 Oreo
HTC Sense
Dimensions and weight 158.5 x 75.4 x 8.3mm
175g
Colors moonlight blue, twilight purple
(availability varies by region)

Camera

The U12 Life adds a second camera on the back and a front-facing LED flash on the front. The primary camera is a 16MP 1/2.8″ sensor with f/2.0 aperture and an effective 25.5mm focal length. The secondary camera is a 5MP 1/5″ sensor with f/2.2 aperture lens with an effective 23.5mm focal length. The U12 Life camera supports 4K video at 30fps and FullHD video at 60fps. The U12 Life relies on EIS and PDAF.

HTC U12 Life USB Type-C port

Up front, the U12 Life camera is a 13MP 1/3″ sensor with an f/2.0 aperture lens at 26.5mm effective focal length. It has a front-facing LED flash and support for HDR and the usual beauty modes. We’ll have to get back to you on image quality in the full HTC U12 Life review.

The software experience is blissfully clean, but the combination of HTC Sense minus so many Sense features feels a little odd.

Software

The U12 Life software is what HTC is calling Light Sense. It does away with a few bloatware apps like the annoying News Republic, but also ditches Sense Companion and Edge Sense (HTC’s “squeezable sides” feature). In response to questions on the former, HTC said it didn’t add enough value and “Google Assistant is everywhere.” HTC essentially admitted development of Sense Companion has been abandoned completely, but “might” be picked up again in future. The omission of Edge Sense is a shame for those of us that like the feature, but for most people, it likely won’t be missed.

HTC U12 Life hybrid dual SIM and microSD card tray

The device we used in our HTC U12 Life hands-on session is a global unit and HTC apparently doesn’t have an Android One version in the pipes. The company wouldn’t rule the possibility out entirely, but it seems unlikely. The software experience is blissfully clean, but the combination of HTC Sense minus so many Sense features feels a little odd. The HTC U12 Life runs on Android 8.1 Oreo.

HTC U12 Life front-facing speaker no notch top bezel

HTC U12 Life back dual camera fingerprint scanner dual tone design HTC U12 Life etched acrylic design logo and fingerprint scanner

Pricing and final thoughts

HTC has often been criticised for overpricing its handsets, and often for good reason. The HTC U12 Life price is 349 euros or 299 pounds, on a par with its predecessor in Europe. You’ll have to decide for yourself if this particular constellation of additions and subtractions from the base recipe is better or worse value than the original U11 Life.

The U12 Life feels a little confused in a field of laser-focused competition.

You can still get a 10 percent discount by signing up to HTC’s newsletter at htc.com but even in the low-300s the U12 Life has some very stiff competition in the likes of the Pocophone F1, the high-end variant of the Xiaomi Mi A2, the Zenfone 5Z, and several Honor devices. We’ll reserve judgment until the full HTC U12 Life review, but it has to be said that the U12 Life feels a little confused in a field of laser-focused competition. Perhaps HTC is right and this time it has perfected the mix – in which case the U11 Life must have been the confused device – but if HTC hasn’t gotten it right this time, we may not see another Life in the series next year.

The HTC U12 Life is due to hit shelves in late September or early October in European, Asian and Middle Eastern markets.

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