HTC has made the unusual move of announcing a new family of devices, carrying the name U. The logic is simple enough to follow, they are designed to be all about you and advance the connection between you and your device, for a more symbiotic relationship.
It's marketing, sure, dressing up the latest developments in HTC's smartphones, but forging into a new, large device space at the same time. The HTC U isn't HTC's 2017 flagship - that's still to come - but this is a premium and powerful device none the less.
Launched alongside a smaller mid-range sibling the HTC U Play, the HTC U Ultra is a refreshing start to 2017.
HTC U Ultra preview: Design
- Glass front and back with wonderful colour finishes
- No 3.5mm headphone socket
- 162.41 x 79.79 x 7.99mm, 170g
The HTC U Ultra is probably the biggest departure for HTC design we've seen in recent years. Stepping away from metal, it attacks the sub-flagship space with something a little more unique. Although we've seen glass bodies before - from the iPhone no less - this U family from HTC is rather more ambitious.
HTC is calling the effect "liquid surface". Rather than the hard metal precision of the HTC One family, the U Ultra looks as though it has a liquid finish. The back appears to flow into the edges, for a smooth rounded result.
Visually, the U Ultra has a beautiful finish. With four colours on offer - white, black, blue and pink - there's depth to the colour effect, very much like finish of a premium sports car. The surface seems to shimmer, reflecting the light and changing the colour hints you get as you look at it.
We like that a lot, but there's no avoiding the fact that it will attract fingerprints like nothing you've ever seen before. That said, it won't just look grubby like some devices do, it will wipe clean in a flash and look brilliant when you set it down on the table.
There's a chance, however, that some will think it looks like glossy plastic. The Honor 8 recreated a similar effect in plastic and although the HTC U Ultra looks better and higher quality, we're not sure how it will wear. HTC says that glass was chosen for its resistance and durability - and there's a clear plastic cover in the box to keep things looking ship shape.
While the front and back are glass, there's a familiar metal core anodised in matching colours forming the centre of this glass sandwich, in which sit the buttons, card trays and USB Type-C connection. There is no 3.5mm headphone socket, which seems to be the trend.
The HTC U Ultra measures 162.41 x 79.79 x 7.99mm, so it's pretty slim, the soft curves meaning that this 5.7-inch device feels a good size in the hand.
HTC U Ultra preview: Two displays are better than one
- Super LCD 5, 5.7-inch, 2560 x 1440 pixels, 515ppi
- Secondary 2.05-inch 160 x 1040 pixel display
HTC has taken a leaf right out of LG's playbook, offering a dual display setup like the LG V20. The main display is a huge 5.7-inches, with a crisp Quad HD resolution. This might not be HTC's 2017 flagship, but the company is going about making is a pretty stacked smartphone.
First impressions of the display are good. It appears to be bright and vibrant and is topped with Gorilla Glass 5 to keep it protected, with a premium sapphire glass special edition in the works too - which also benefits from 128GB storage.
We found the colours and vibrancy to be good, but we've not nearly spent enough time with this handset to fully assess its performance in this early preview. It's an Super LCD 5 panel - the same type as the HTC 10 - and we like that, although we'd say the Samsung Galaxy Note 7's AMOLED display was still our favourite.
The second display is interesting however. Unique to the HTC U Ultra - it's not on the U Play - this display can serve up important information in a way that doesn't interfere with whatever you might be doing. Don't want those notifications appearing over the top of the game you're playing? That's what this display is designed for.
There's a range of features it offers, such as weather, app shortcuts, contact shortcuts, reminders and calendar notifications, with the ability to swipe between them. It's only a 2.05-inch long strip, so in some cases, it misses out on the ability to do anything useful other than let you see this information. Our first impression is that because it's not going to be big enough to give you Android Nougat's excellent quick reply function, it sort of misses the point.
Exactly how it will behave in day-to-day use we can't say, but there's a feeling it might be a little like Samsung's Edge Display. With the HTC U Ultra sitting in the same sort of spec space as the Galaxy Note 7, this second display fulfils that role too.
HTC U Ultra: Pixel-bothering power
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 821, 4GB RAM, 64GB storage + microSD
- USB Type-C, 3000mAh battery
The U Ultra might not be HTC's flagship, but it comes with one of Qualcomm's latest chipsets, the Snapdragon 821, and 4GB of RAM. We've seen this loadout on the Google Pixel and we have to say it flies: we'd expect the U Ultra to do the same, with plenty of power for gaming, entertainment and other tasks.
With HTC positioning this as sub-flagship, that's a big hint that HTC's 2017 flagship will get itself the Snapdragon 835 - but that's a different story.
There's 64GB of storage as standard, with microSD supported, including Android's adoptable storage function to seamlessly integrate that storage. We mentioned a sapphire glass special edition U Ultra too: this will get 128GB of storage, aping the sort of special edition handsets we've seen Huawei making.
Of course battery life will play a huge part in the success of this device and battery optimisation is something that HTC has paid some additional attention to, to try and eek as much out life from the 3000mAh battery. That's not a huge cell on this size of device: the Pixel XL is 3450mAh, the Mate 9 is 4000mAh, so battery life could be this phone's weakness.
HTC U Ultra preview: HTC Sense Companion
- Smart assistant features for device control
- Android Nougat with HTC Sense
- Google Assistant included
Looking to expand on the sort of functions that were handled by the Boost+ app previously, HTC has a new app, called Sense Companion. This is where the U Ultra wants to be all about you, by learning things about you and managing the phone to reflect your lifestyle and usage.
At a basic level, it will do things like manage your storage, memory and apps, but take things a little further in how it interacts with you. For example the phone will learn how you use the power and your usage patterns and then make suggestions to make sure you don't get caught short. Although we've not had the chance to see this in action, HTC told us that it was design to ensure, for example, that you have enough power for your journey home - perhaps reminding you to charge the phone in the middle of the day so that you're ready for that.
Rather than just giving you the weather, Sense Companion is designed to alert you to the changing weather. If it's been sunny for a week, but a storm is coming, it will tell you that. Other smart examples include asking if you want your regular alarm to go off on public holidays or suggesting the type of restaurants you typically eat in, rather than just offering you everything locally.
The aim, according to HTC, is to create a device that's more about you. Where we've seen lots of personalisation in the UI from HTC in the past, this is really about giving you a smarter phone companion.
Otherwise, the software loadout appears to be a fairly typical Nougat with HTC Sense version, so not much different to the HTC 10 or other recent devices. The device that we've spent time with isn't on the final software build, however, so we've not had the chance to test all these functions. Neither did it have an operating version of Google Assistant, something that HTC said would be available on the HTC U Ultra when it launches.
HTC U Ultra preview: Cameras
- 12-megapixel rear camera, 1.55µm pixels, f/1.8, OIS, PDAF + laser
- 16-megapixel front camera, with UltraPixel mode
HTC was so happy with the performance of the HTC 10's camera, that it's used the same sensor in the U Ultra. That's no bad thing, as the HTC 10 had the best camera that we've seen on an HTC device for a while.
It offers large pixels designed for better low-light shooting, it has a wide aperture, optical image stabilisation, as well as phase detection autofocus and laser focusing. The downside of many of HTC's cameras hasn't necessarily been the hardware specs, it's what happens to the photos once you press the button.
We've not seen any photos, although the camera seemed fast and responsive in our initial play with it - something to be examined in more detail closer to launch.
The front camera is quite a big departure, with a 16-megapixel selfie camera. This is a huge resolution, so it should be able to capture a lot of detail, but offers a special UltraPixel mode for low light capture. This mode is said to combine pixels, using a collection of four pixels in the space of one, aiming to make better use of low light situations. How it works, remains to be seen.
HTC U Ultra preview: Audio prowess, with a catch
- No 3.5mm headphone socket
- USB Type-C USonic headphones included
- Hi-Res certified
- BoomSound Hi-Fi edition
As per the Moto Z and the iPhone 7, HTC has removed the 3.5mm headphone socket from the U Ultra. We suspect that sets a precedent for the rest of time on this level of device. It's not a huge deal, unless you really want to keep using your existing expensive headphones, but HTC is bundling its USonic headphones in the box.
These are the same headphones that came with the HTC 10 Evo/Bolt and they're better than average in-ear headphones that come with phones. They also have a trick in that they'll scan and adapt the sound profile to suit your ear, and then update that profile if you're in a different environment.
For example, when you get on a plane, you can tap the icon and update the sound profile to cancel out the background noise. It's clever and works well.
BoomSound speakers now appear to be gone, but we've had good experiences with BoomSound Hi-Fi edition on the past few HTC phones and there's no reason to think that this might be any different.
The HTC U Ultra sets out to present something different. From a design point of view, it does. The finish is different to this level of phone from HTC in the past, losing the hard metals for a softer, luscious, glass finish. The colours are eye-catching too, although we suspect some might take it for plastic, and not give it its due.
We'd expect this hardware load-out to sing too, delivering a performance that's very much like the HTC 10. It's a continuation in many senses, but that may also be a problem. For all the refinement to audio, the stripping down of bloatware to get you closer to Android some might ask why you'd choose this phone over the Pixel XL - which comes with the huge advantage of being first in line for software updates.
That fate mostly rests in the handset of HTC's new Sense Companion and it's difficult to judge this aspect of the phone without living with it for some time.
The HTC U Ultra is due to land in Europe in mid-February. Pricing is to be confirmed, but we'd expect it to be in a premium price bracket.
We like the U Ultra. It's a refreshing device for those who might have become bored with HTC's metal devices, but it needs to come in cheaper than the Pixel XL.