(Pocket-lint) - Having released the HTC U11 in the early stages of 2017, HTC announced an update in late 2017 in the guise of the HTC U11+. The biggest change is a shift in design to an 18:9 display, making for a less wide device that's easier to hold.
This design move mirrors that made by the likes of OnePlus and Huawei, generally walking the path laid out earlier in the year by LG and Samsung; indeed, it's in this mix that the HTC U11+ resides, alongside the Samsung Galaxy S8+ and the OnePlus 5T, but frustratingly it's six months plus later in launch schedule.
That puts this phone in an odd place: it's an adept 2017 flagship but as soon as it's available, more powerful 2018 flagships will be there to tempt you in another direction, making the HTC U11+ feel a little expensive as it is.
- HTC through the ages: A brief history of HTC's Android handsets
- Best smartphones: The top mobile phones available to buy today
A quality HTC design, now with translucent rear
- Liquid Surface rear finish
- 158.5 x 74.9 x 8.5mm; 188g
The HTC U11+ follows the company's devices revealed early in 2017 with the "liquid surface" finish. This cleverly formulated glass can lead to some striking colours - see the HTC U11 Solar Red, in particular - and generally speaking, resulting in some of the best looking phone rears of recent times.
The earlier HTC U11 makes the OnePlus 5T look a little understated by comparison, thanks to that spectacular surface finish. But in the U11+ model things are a little more subdued as the colours more "normal". That's presumably for wider appeal: while fancy colours have some short-term highs, it's colours like black and silver that people actually buy.
Where HTC has really hit the ball out of the park is with the translucent finish, subtly revealing the circular pattern of the NFC coil. There's a bit of a craze of stripping the finishes away from glass rears, but HTC has done some of the work for you - if you can get hold of this model, that is.
But this glass finish is inherently slippery. We can't count the number of times that this phone has wandered off the sofa by itself or has jumped out of the hand and nearly gone skittering across the floor, so that glory might be better living under a case, not only for protection, but for grip too. Should you happen to drop it in the bath that won't be too bad, as this phone is IP68 rated.
Elsewhere, from the textured power button, to the chamfer around the display, HTC's quality oozes through the physical design.
Where it doesn't quite compete with some rivals - the Samsung phones particularly - is around the new format display. Although the HTC's bezels aren't huge, there is still a distinct "forehead and chin". When you set it next to the Galaxy S8+ or iPhone X, it feels like HTC only went half way with a phone that's still a little larger in the hand than it perhaps should be. Plus the S8+ is cheaper, while the iPhone X is £300 more - so hardly in the same ballpark.
A new 18:9 display, with a flaw
- Super LCD display, 18:9 aspect ratio
- 6-inch, 2880 x 1440 pixels (537ppi)
- Gorilla Glass 5 protection
A lot of attention has recently been heaped on phone displays. Following Google's questionable decision to make the Pixel 2 XL "more natural" - much to the chagrin of smartphone fans - people are now paying closer attention to what a display does.
Firstly, the U11+'s shift to an 18:9 aspect ratio gives you more display. It measures 6-inches on the diagonal and, although the screen-to-body ratio isn't as high as something like the LG V30, you still get a lot of space to play, watch or work, without the body growing excessively large like 6-inch phones of the past.
HTC has stuck to LCD, avoiding some of the shortcomings of the OLED displays used elsewhere. There isn't a huge off-axis colour shift, just some dimming depending on reflections off the screen when the light hits it. We'd argue that this is a display that looks natural, or rather, it delivers visuals that appear within normal realms of reality - there isn't the same rich saturation as Samsung's OLED panels, but there's more balance than the Pixel 2 XL's original colour setup.
Fire up Netflix and you'll find that the presentation of streaming video looks great - certainly better than the LG V30 when watching the same dark scenes of Star Trek Discovery - and this is where this phone really makes sense. Not only do you get a big display for video content, but the speakers put in a good showing too, which is where it beats rival Samsung, making for a great phone for watching videos.
For the most part, this all results in a very good visual experience, but it does suffer when night mode swings in. This mode (added to most devices over the past two years), aims to reduce the blue light output of the display in the evening to reduce the impact on the user's eyes. Here, however, the result is that you then don't get clean scrolling. Flick through your Twitter stream and you'll get red ghosting. Basically, it's not that nice to use with the night mode turned on - so we have tended to avoid it.
We've also found the auto brightness isn't the most precise. Turn the brightness down and you may find in some conditions that the auto brightness will flicker as it quickly changes the brightness as you're looking at the phone. While visibility in sunlight isn't too much of a problem, the reaction to bright conditions isn't as strong as we'd like: it could be brighter at times.
Setting these downsides aside, this 2880 x 1440 display delivers plenty of detail. While it might not have the wow factor of Samsung's Infinity Display in some instances, the U11+ offers plenty of space and a natural look that's great for watching movies on the move.
Plenty of power for a phone that flies
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 835, 4GB RAM
- 64GB storage + microSD card slot
- USB Type-C, no 3.5mm headphone jack
- 3,930mAh battery capacity
- Rear fingerprint scanner
There are few surprises when it comes to the hardware that's powering the HTC U11+. Running on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 platform with 4GB RAM and 64GB of storage, there's microSD for expansion (or dual SIM if you prefer), so it's hard to complain about the performance of this phone.
As we've mentioned, the hardware is very much the same as it was the HTC U11 as well as a number of rivals. The awkward position that HTC now finds itself in is that as soon as it becomes available, it's likely to be classed as out of date.
The question is whether that matters. We've been perfectly happy with a large number of Snapdragon 835 devices over the past year and that doesn't change now: the HTC U11+ is as slick and fast as you'll want it to be, cutting through demanding games, multitasking with ease, and putting in flagship performance.
Returning to whether using "last year's hardware" matters, the tide of opinion is changing. Even Google's CEO Sundar Pichai, at the launch of the new Pixel phones, emphasised that artificial intelligence (AI) was a bigger thing than the physical hardware driving the phone. While the new Snapdragon 845 might be better optimised to handle AI tasks, for the life of this HTC phone we're not sure you'll notice any shortcoming with the hardware arrangement as it is - aside from spec sheet bragging rights.
That may well only matter to real smartphone fans who resent paying flagship prices for last year's hardware, but it's hard to ignore that the OnePlus 5T is over £200 cheaper for similar core hardware, while the older Samsung Galaxy S8+ is £50 cheaper too (albeit running on comparable Exynos hardware in the UK).
Soooo shiny pic.twitter.com/0ENPmiHWkq— Chris Hall (@christhall) January 29, 2018
Where the emphasis of internal hardware normally lies (we'll be returning to AI in a minute) is battery life. The HTC U11+ performs well with its 3,930mAh battery. That's not only a big capacity, but we've found this to be a phone that easily strolls through a day. One some days we've been returning it to a nightly charge with over 60 per cent battery remaining, which is a good showing in any language.
The USB Type-C on the bottom gives the phone juice very quickly, supporting Quick Charge 3.0, although you need to be aware that it's also the only place to connect your headphones. Yes, like the U11, there's no 3.5mm headphone socket.
The fingerprint scanner - now on the rear - is fast to unlock the phone and a lot more conveniently placed than the one Samsung has lumped into the camera array on its S8+. Failure of HTC's fingerprint scanner is rare and it doesn't take long to get muscle memory finding it every time. In that sense, it's as good as Huawei's implementation on its recent devices, like the Mate 10 Pro.
BoomSound still sounds good, but it's really about headphones
- BoomSound HiFi stereo speakers
- HTC USonic headphones
- Active noise cancellation
- aptX HD and LDAC 24-bit wireless audio
Audio has long been something that HTC has been fanatical about. Coming from a position where it offered massive front-firing stereo speakers in the marvellous HTC One M7, the BoomSound HiFi Edition story of the U11+ is very much about using the two speakers to create this stereo effect, while the body of the phone is used as a resonation chamber to amplify the sound. It sounds good, too, with HTC offering two different sound modes depending on what you're listening to.
But we're more attracted to the headphones experience rather than the speaker experience of this phone. The U11+ might not have a 3.5mm headphone socket, but it does come with HTC's excellent USonic headphones and a suite of functions to support them. The aim of these headphones is to detect the sonics of your ears, tune the audio so it's personal to you and also offer noise cancellation to minimise external interference.
These bundled headphones sound great (once you've got them properly sitting in your ears), with plenty of bass driving though them to give you a nice meaty sound. The USonic tuning helps optimise this balance, but one of the new additions is active noise-cancellation tech, which can be toggled on and off as you wish.
However, don't be fooled into thinking this is going to replace a set of good active noise-cancellation headphones. While there's a noticeable reduction in hiss when flying, for example, there's still plenty of background noise.
If you want silence, get yourself a pair of Sony MDR-1000X. These Sony headphones also take advantage of the wide support for Hi-Res formats that HTC offers. Both aptX HD and LDAC are supported, so if you want to boost the quality of your Bluetooth music, then there's every chance to do so.
A competitive camera experience
- Rear: 12MP, 1.4µm pixels, optical stabilisation, f/1.7 aperture
- Front: 8MP, f/2.0 aperture
HTC's camera is conventional in the sense that it has a single lens, eschewing the dual camera trend in recent phones. It's a 12-megapixel camera, with a nice wide aperture and large pixels to allow plenty of light capture for boosted low-light performance.
The camera is quick to launch, focus and capture and, on the whole, produces excellent photos. In good lighting conditions, there's nothing to complain about as you're served up nicely balanced pictures. The HDR (high dynamic range) experience perhaps isn't as sophisticated as you'll get from the best rivals, although those HDR pictures do also look natural, rather than ethereal, which was often the case a few generations ago.
Can it rival the Pixel 2 XL for camera performance? Ultimately, no, it can't. The Pixel manages to produce better results in more difficult situations, with images that are a little more engaging to the eye. That said, snap away in good conditions with the HTC and you'll be perfectly happy.
Sticking to a single camera means there are fewer gimmicks, so there's no faux bokeh or "portrait" mode. To be fair, focus on your subject and the background will often be naturally blurred anyway, thanks to the lens' wide aperture and natural shallow depth of field.
For those who do want to tinker a little more there is a useful Pro mode, which gives manual control over ISO sensitivity, shutter speed, white balance, focus and so on. There are even some presets - for sports or night shooting - which set some of these values for you. Longer exposures are supported up to 32 seconds, so if you can keep the phone steady, you may well get a better night shot.
Low-light performance is pretty good, yso ou'll more often than not get the shot, accepting that some of the detail is processed away to counter image noise - so things might look a little mushy.
The front camera is also great, offering selfie panorama for wider shots with you in the picture, as well as automatic capture features - like smile capture. There's also "makeup" for those who want to look a little more plastic.
Does Sense still make sense?
- HTC Sense with Android Oreo
- HTC Alexa and Google Assistant
HTC has long been offering its Sense software on its Android phones. It was originally one of the most comprehensive reworkings of Android you'd find. Back then, we felt that Google's Android software needed that boost - but now, in its Oreo guise, it really doesn't.
As HTC has adapted Sense, it's lost a huge amount of bloat, so now mostly comes down to the BlinkFeed launcher (along with the irritating News Republic app), Themes and the TouchPal keyboard.
We think that GBoard is a better keyboard experience than the bundled TouchPal offering. If you want fast text entry, we'd recommend switching those keyboards as a priority.
There are some other bundled apps, like UA Record and Viveport, both of which push services connected to HTC, but otherwise it's a fairly light skinning over Android, with things like notifications and settings all working exactly as you'd expect.
BlinkFeed does raise a question mark these days. Originally designed as an amalgamation of your social feeds and news preferences, it offers you a sort of digest of your social media life, without you really seeing the full picture. We can't help feeling that many will just prefer to flick through Twitter or Instagram directly, rather than read some of it second hand. It's easy to disable, however, if you disable News Republic alerts.
And you'll more than likely want to, as these News Republic alerts seem to want to pop-up without asking all the time. Top tip: block them at a system level and you'll never see them again. It's perhaps no surprise but Google Now/Assistant manages to give a better experience of presenting news you might like and is easily accessed by tapping the G search bar.
One of the reasons we think Google does a better job comes down to AI. This added dimension is one of the things that's boosting Android, not just through Google Assistant (which is on the HTC U11+ too), but through things like that Google Now service and Google Photos.
But the HTC U11+ isn't just savvy with Google's AI offerings, it's also one of the few phones that offers native Amazon Alexa support. That was a somewhat unique position, until Amazon enabled Alexa voice control in the Android app, bringing most of these features to other Android users. HTC Alexa still allows the Alexa hotword, as well as supporting squeeze to activate (which the Amazon app doesn't), but otherwise the functionality is generally the same. And no, there's no support for Spotify playback on either.
Google Assistant is better for managing Android apps and dictating messaging, while also supporting many smart home functions if you set it up, so Alexa really is just there to provide an alternative that'll be familiar to many.
What we don't really find so useful is HTC Sense Companion. This is designed to be HTC's on-device companion. Yes, it's another AI element that will pop-up and ask you things so that it can give you suggestions, like where to eat or things to do, traffic and so on. This is, in many ways, a less adept duplication of Google Now and we've never really taken to Sense Companion: it's just noise that you don't really need.
It does, however, integrate with some of the device management suite in Boost+. This will help you optimise performance, clear out junk and manage your apps. It will also aim to optimise your battery performance by monitoring apps and what they are doing, offering to background some so that don't eat so much battery. Just keep an eye on some of the apps it might want to put to sleep - if that happens to be your Ring doorbell app, for example, you might find that you are no longer getting notifications.
The HTC U11+ is very much an interim step up over the HTC U11, changing that display aspect ratio for more contemporary appeal. We like the design - especially the transparent rear and visible coil within - which is something of a ballsy move from HTC.
First and foremost, this is an Android flagship experience, with the addition of Alexa for added appeal (although that's recently tempered by Amazon's own offering), and those customisable, squeezable sides.
Audio remains a highlight, adding to a strong media offering overall. Video looks great on the large display, assuming you never engage night mode. Camera performance remains unfussy and capable. All in all, there are plenty of standout reasons to choose the HTC U11+.
However, the biggest barrier is timing. There are rivals that are as powerful or offer as good an experience for less of your cash, while there's about to be an influx of increasingly powerful devices that phone fans will lust after.
The HTC U11+ is a great phone, it just should have launched early in 2017.
Alternatives to consider
One thing that OnePlus does well is react to market changes. The OnePlus 5T updated the OnePlus 5, shifting to a 18:9 display to hop on the latest smartphone trend. But the real appeal of OnePlus remains its good value for money: here you get flagship hardware at sub-£500 prices.
Read the full article: OnePlus 5T review
Samsung Galaxy S8+
The popular choice is the Samsung Galaxy S8+. Its got a big screen in a slim-but-powerful frame and at a price that's dropped as this phone has aged. Yes, it's about to be replaced by the S9, but this is a very capable handset with one of the best cameras around.
Read the full article: Samsung Galaxy S8+ review
Huawei Mate 10 Pro
For evidence that Huawei is raising its game, look no further than the Mate 10 Pro. This is a superb phone from the company, offering long battery life and lots of power. There's some Huawei tweaking to the software, but the design is sound. The dual camera also offers a monochrome shooting option. But with a rise in quality has come a rise in price too.
Read the full article: Huawei Mate 10 Pro review