(Pocket-lint) - HTC's big play with the HTC U11 is being able to squeeze the phone as a new method of interaction. It's a natural motion and works well for one-handed use is the argument, giving the company's new flagship something different.
Apple doesn't have squeeze. Samsung? No squeeze control to be found. But, here's the thing: it doesn't matter. HTC doesn't need squeeze, which it calls Edge Sense, because it's a gimmick.
Having lived with the HTC U11 for a couple of weeks, the squeeze isn't the please - it's the feature to try and hook you in. So while Edge Sense may have grabbed your attention, join us as we explain why it's everything else about the HTC U11 that's really good and, ultimately, the reason this phone is worthy of your attention.
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HTC U11 review: Design
- 153.99 x 75.99 x 9.1mm; 168g
- Liquid surface glass finish in five colour options
HTC has undergone a major shift in smartphone design in 2017. Having owned the metal phone space with the unibody HTC One M7 in 2013, it's become a little passé. Everyone now offers metals phones, from the most expensive iPhone down to the budget offerings of the Moto G. At the top end it's expected, at the bottom it's aspirational as a badge of good value.
For HTC, 2016 saw the move to a chamfered body in the HTC 10. We loved the serious look of it, but in the dark gunmetal version there was nothing that really screamed out "look at me, look at me" which is what you need when you're competing with the likes of Samsung.
HTC's answer in the U11 is the liquid surface design which uses glass, but in a way that's unique on phones. It's the sort of finish you might find on a piece of art, with metal elements introduced to the glass in the manufacturing process to create hues that have a depth you don't get elsewhere. For HTC, flat colours are out, and a much more extrovert range of almost two-tone colours is in.
The result is on one hand beautiful, but on the other slightly hard work. With a super glossy finish, this is a phone that needs polishing to look its best. It will probably need a case to preserve its glory, too, so good job there's one of those in the box - but putting it on is a little like wrapping your car to protect the paintwork, while obscuring some of its natural glory.
From the front there's little to differentiate the U11 from the HTC 10. It's uniformly black, with only a few punctuations to the glass for the front fingerprint scanner and the ear speaker, but the new phone is now waterproofed (it has an IP67 rating). We've used it in the rain and got it soaked, and it's perfectly happy in those conditions.
The quality of the build also can't be faulted. This is a tightly designed phone with every curve and join accurately made and neatly finished. It might not have that new-age Samsung and LG tallness to its screen aspect ratio, but it's still a thin and light phone that we've found perfectly usable in one hand.
HTC has settled on 5.5-inches for its flagship, so in many ways it feels like the Google Pixel XL in use. It's a large chassis, especially compared to the latest devices from LG and Samsung, but at the same time there will be plenty who are happy that there's a conventional 16:9 screen ratio option out there.
For those wondering whether the squeezable sections look or feel any different, they don't. If you turn off Edge Sense, you'd know no difference.
HTC U11 review: All-powerful hardware
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 835, 4GB RAM, 64GB storage + microSD
- Single USB Type-C connection
- Front-mounted fingerprint scanner
HTC is one of the first companies to bring the Snapdragon 835 out in a major handset. Samsung offers it in some S8 devices (although many are Exynos-based, depending on region), so HTC pushes the fact that it has the top-drawer processor in all its regional models as a selling point. On the flip side, there are two different versions: one with the standard 4GB RAM, another limited version with 6GB RAM.
The positive point is that the HTC U11 is as slick and fast as any other flagship handset that you can buy. There's speed and immediacy in daily usage that makes it feel very capable and no lesser than the Galaxy S8 when it comes to regular daily tasks. Whether you're playing games, flipping through browser tabs or crushing through your emails, the U11 delivers a smooth experience.
Much of this comes down to offering the latest hardware, but is also due in part to HTC's software optimisation. It's been the aim of the company over the past few years to ensure that HTC Sense - the company's software suite, which sits over the top of the Android operating system - doesn't stand in the way what you want to do. And the result, generally speaking, has been speed.
This brings us back to our opening comments about Edge Sense. You can use squeeze control to launch a range of things, like open the camera, take a photo and so on, but the speed of the phone means you can hit an onscreen shortcut or double-press the power button and get the same result just as fast, without the need to squeeze.
The fingerprint scanner on the front beneath the U11's display is very fast and reliable in use; this is one area where HTC easy betters the Galaxy S8 experience and its poorly positioned rear fingerprint scanner. HTC's sensor also doubles as the home button, navigating fast so, again, who really needs squeeze when you can so easily return to the home screen and hit a shortcut?
There's 64GB of storage as standard with the option of a microSD card to expand this. As in last-gen devices, HTC embraces Android's adoptable storage feature so you can incorporate a memory card for seamless expansion - but you're not required to do so, you can just mount external memory (which will give you fewer options). The phone is also dual SIM, so you can use the microSD card slot for a second SIM card instead, if you prefer.
Finally, there's no 3.5mm headphone socket here, only the USB Type-C connection. This is used for all your charging, data and headphones. It's convenient in the sense that USB-C is getting wider adoption as a universal standard, but comes with limitations of what you can connect and when. We'll talk about this more in the section on audio below.
HTC U11 review: Battery life
- Quick Charge 3.0
- 3,000mAh battery
HTC has opted to allow Quick Charge 3.0 speeds rather than the latest 4.0. Does that make a difference in the real world? Not really. It means that this phone could charge a little faster, but HTC made a conscious decision to stick to QC3.0.
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The 3,000mAh battery sounds suspiciously on the light side. Ok, let's qualify that. We're starting to see a number of phones that offer 3,300 or 3,500mAh in order to, ahem, squeeze out a little more endurance.
HTC has been working hard on optimisation, so the U11 isn't a battery flop, but it doesn't feel like the strongest contender out there. Using the U11 in the same way we did the Galaxy S8+ (which has a 3,500mAh battery), we'd find the HTC to be heading south of 15 per cent battery in the early evening, which rarely happened on the Samsung phone. Bigger is better and that shows in the U11's more limited stamina.
There are things you can do to limit that drain, however. There's an effective power saving mode, although some might find it slows things down a little and the display brightness is then less than optimum. There is also Sense Companion that's forever telling you it's optimising things and making your device last longer. But is it? Like some of Huawei's battery management in EMUI, HTC Sense Companion wants to draw this up to be a conversation point, rather than just make the batter last longer. That's what the phone needs: background management, not constant reports on how it's improved.
The HTC U11 will get you through a day, but it doesn't sail through. Using it alongside our older Pixel XL, we'd say the Google is the slightly better performer, but Samsung has the edge with its big screen Galaxy S8+.
HTC U11 review: Display
- 5.5-inch, 2560 x 1440 pixels (590ppi)
- Super LCD 5 with Gorilla Glass 5
HTC has stuck to its conventional choice of Super LCD 5 for the U11's panel - the same type of display that was in the HTC 10 and the performance, therefore, is very much the same.
Some commentators had expected HTC to opt for AMOLED after equipping the Google Pixel with an AMOLED display in late 2016. So while AMOLED is winning fans for its vibrancy and punch, the HTC U11 looks slightly less exciting as a result of its panel choice.
There's nothing hugely wrong with this display. Our only real complaint is that the auto-brightness could be better, as it sometimes needs a manual tweak to get it where you want.
One irritation for those with polarised glasses is that you can't use this phone in landscape if you're wearing those type of sunglasses. It means that if you want to take a photo in landscape, the screen blacks out entirely. We don't always mention the display polariser on phones, but often this isn't a problem - you might get some dimming at a diagonal point, but on this HTC it's a complete blackout on a major axis.
We also have the same issue with this phone's "night mode" as we did with the HTC U Ultra. It tends to leave have red ghosting when moving through content. For example, when scrolling through Twitter, you get a red trace left by black bars and text. It's a minor thing, but we only seem to notice it on HTC's phones.
Overall this is a good display, but it won't make you go "wow" like you might with some rivals.
HTC U11 review: Camera performance
- 12-megapixel UltraPixel 3 rear camera, 1.4µm pixels, OIS, f/1.7
- 16-megapixel front camera, 1µm pixels, f/2.0
HTC is often judged by its cameras because it's been the area that people have often been turned off in the face of more consistent performance elsewhere. What HTC hasn't had on its side is a great run of consistency. From the HTC One M8 through to the HTC 10 there was a lot of change. Fortunately, things seem to have settled somewhat in the HTC U11.
The rear camera offers a good resolution and is setup to better perform in low light conditions. There's optical image stabilisation and an aperture of f/1.7 to let in plenty of light. HTC is using the UltraPixel 3 name which you can mostly ignore; the 1.4µm pixel size is pretty average these days, smaller than the original UltraPixel sensor of the M7.
HTC's aim is an easy-to-use and natural camera - and that's what you get. Importantly, all the essentials fall into place. It's fast to focus and easy to change focal point if it's not focused where you want it. It captures great outdoor photos, with HDR (high dynamic range) swinging in to compensate when faced with a scene that's full of contrast with balanced and realistic results.
The HTC U11's camera can overexpose at times, but the ability to swipe up and down the display to manually tweak the exposure is really handy: you can correct a photo before you take it, rather than after, and often that gives you better results in low light (when the phone is trying to make things brighter than they should be).
Low light performance can get a little grainy and soft, which is par for the course and common to all phones, but we've been happy with the results. There's a Pro shooting mode offering raw file capture with control over focus, shutter speed (down to 32 seconds) as well as ISO sensitivity, if there's a more deliberate shot that you want to make.
The jump to 16-megapixels on the front camera feels like something of an oddity, as the argument for increasing the pixels while shrinking the size seems to run counter to the logic applied to the rear camera. It's also no longer stabilised like the HTC 10 was and there's also no autofocus here. The selfie camera results are ok though. They don't seem to suffer from this change in direction from the HTC 10 and the red tinge we often found on the older phone seems to have gone too, so there's little to complain about.
Switching to video mode and there are yet more shooting options. There's slow motion, which while not at the speeds you'll get on the Sony Xperia XZ Premium, does give you some high frame-rate action. The video capture is clean, but the impressive feature is 3D sound zooming. This is gathered from the four mics on the body, giving you a sense of zooming in on the sound that you're listening to when zooming the camera.
Overall, the HTC U11 camera does little wrong. It's simpler than it has been in the past and the performance, especially the bread and butter daylight with Auto HDR performance, is good enough to keep up with rivals.
One of the highlight features that HTC has been showing off for Edge Sense is launching the camera and taking photos. When we first saw the HTC U11, we thought this was really clever. But as time has passed, we rarely opt to do that. As we said before, a double-tap of the power button launches the camera just as fast and we've found that a squeeze on the phone to take the photo can introduce more shake than pressing the button on-screen anyway.
HTC U11 review: Software, Sense and assistants
- Android Nougat with HTC Sense
- Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa
- HTC Sense Companion
Say HTC and you can't help but think about HTC Sense, the software which very much started the friendly reskin movement for Android phones with more features and bespoke options. However, Sense as it has dominated on the HTC Hero for so long has recently become less relevant since Google has incorporated most of the experience into Android itself.
The Sense experience in the U11 is very much as it was in the HTC 10. That means it's a little dry, perhaps, with themes and BlinkFeed being about the only vestiges of HTC Sense that remain.
The launcher, folders and apps tray look like they did in 2014 and that's a bit of a shame; although you're offered a whole range of customisation, there's a lot here that's remained unchanged for some time. Not that that matters hugely - this is Android and you can change it all anyway - but HTC isn't selling itself through visual UX in the way it once did.
On a much more positive note, there's very little bloat. HTC's decision to use mostly stock Android apps is a good one. You still get some Facebook properties piled in - Instagram, Facebook and Messenger - but on the whole, it's a pretty clean experience. One exception is the TouchPal keyboard, which we find slow compared to the stock Android keyboard, so worth a change to Gboard for the better experience, especially if you use trace entry a lot.
Removing app bloat gives way to AI, the new frontier in all our connected devices. There's Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa included (although neither was present on our review device, just the regular old fashioned "Ok Google" voice search). You'll be able to pick and choose what you use, but at the time of writing, we can't comment on integration of either service.
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HTC continues to put its eggs into the HTC Sense Companion basket. This service was introduced on the HTC U Ultra and U Play, designed to adapt to how you use the phone, make suggestions and generally be your sort of phone-based chum. It will make suggestions about battery optimisation, about where you might want to eat your dinner, let you know how many steps you've taken that week and so on. It feels like a loose collection of things though, without much real direction. The notifications don't really enrich the experience of using the U11 and if you switch them off, you won't miss the information you're being given. Similar to Huawei's badgering in EMUI, it just feels a bit like fluff you don't need.
Overall, once you've tweaked and changed things around, the HTC U11 runs fast and happy. Switch, change, customise and this is a phone that's as efficient as any other flagship out there. It might not have changed the icons to circles like the Google Pixel, it might not pack in as many native features as the Galaxy S8, but when you're gaming away, smashing through emails and polluting your social networks, none of that really matters.
HTC U11 review: Superb sound
- USonic headphones with active noise cancellation
- Custom tuned
- BoomSound Hi-Fi Edition
With the dual front-facing speakers of HTC's former phone now a distant memory, the U11 is the second flagship to offer BoomSound Hi-Fi Edition. This takes the two speakers - one on the base and one for the ear - and uses them to create sound that you'll struggle to find in another device.
This is where HTC very much remains the master. Using the U11 without speakers gives you great audio. Sure, it's no match for a Bluetooth speaker, as the bass is a little weak and at top volume it's a little shrill, but this is a phone that you can watch and share YouTube videos on without it sounding embarrassing. It easily beats other rivals.
The headphone experience is also boosted by the USonic headphones in the box. These offer a custom tuning option so they adapt the sound to best suit your ears. This clever technique was available on the HTC 10 too, but it's now been boosted with the addition of active noise-cancellation.
This is something of a strange implementation, however, because you have no control over it. Once you've tuned the headphones, it's an all-in-one offering and we'd really like the option to be able to turn it off. It's not as efficient as using a set of headphones like the excellent Sony MDR-1000X, but it's a little bonus and these HTC headphones sure do sound good.
The thing that might upset some, however, is that the U11 has ditched the 3.5mm headphone socket. That means you're using USB Type-C to connect - which has some disadvantages, such as the inability to charge your phone and listen to music. Oh, and the fact that those USonic headphones won't work with much else.
For those who do want to use existing 3.5mm headphones there's a dongle included in the box, but this does just add bulk when you slip it in your pocket. We'd urge you to try the USonic headphones though, as they are excellent quality - far better than most of the bundled headphones you'll get free with a phone.
Best HTC U11 deals
The HTC U11 brings with it some of the core components you want from a flagship: there's loads of power for a fast and fuss-free operation, a good display, great camera performance, and attention to detail in the audio offering which puts HTC above its flagship rivals.
All that comes wrapped in unique design, with the wonderful colours offered by those new glass backs. It's a design you really want to show off, because it draws plenty of admiration for good reason.
You'll notice we've not really mentioned HTC's unique addition, the ability to squeeze using Edge Sense. Sure, it's something that only HTC offers, but for us it doesn't add anything to the experience, and doesn't make this a better phone. Other down points
In summary, HTC really does very little wrong in the HTC U11. This is a 2017 flagship that's up there with the best, but we suspect that many will be distracted by Samsung's aggressive marketing and glamorous new looks over a "squeezable" phone. That's a real shame, because the HTC U11 would be a perfect phone for a great many people.
Alternatives to consider...
Samsung Galaxy S8+
The phone that everyone is talking about is the Samsung Galaxy S8. The S8+ is the more natural rival to the HTC U11 thanks to its size. Aside from great design, it's all about that new display with the 18.5:9 aspect and those curved edges. Power, performance and a great camera, the Samsung Galaxy S8 is one of the slickest phones around, but also the most expensive. The fingerprint scanner and sound quality don't match the HTC U11 though.
Read the full review: Samsung S8+ review
First out of the gate with this new 18:9 aspect ratio display with HDR was the LG G6. It's compact, it's affordable and it has a great wide-angle camera on the rear, which are the real selling points for the LG G6. It's not as nice to use as the HTC U11, however, and it's not as powerful, using older hardware.
Read the full article: LG G6 review
Google Pixel XL
The Pixel XL is the mac-daddy of Android phones. It's pure, enhanced Android with all of Google's latest tricks packed in to a fast, powerful device with a brilliant camera. It's running older hardware now and it's still pretty pricey considering that older arrangement, but it's first in line for updates.
Read the full article: Google Pixel XL review
iPhone 7 Plus
If you want it all but without the Android part, the 7 Plus is your current best bet, offering a consistently good experience. It's excellently built, has a great camera system, lasts more than a day per charge and offers the best apps available anywhere. The design does look dated, though.
Read the full article: Apple iPhone 7 Plus review