(Pocket-lint) - One of 2017's best - and perhaps most underrated - phones is the HTC U11. With its top-spec innards and unique two-tone colour rear, it's one of the most striking phones on the market. And it has a baby brother: the HTC U11 Life, a mid-level equivalent version that comes in a smaller package.
A glance at the shiny blue rear of the Life we have in for review - known as Acrylic Liquid Surface in marketing speak - also reveals another first for HTC: this is an Android One phone, meaning it has pure Google Android software beneath that HTC-made exterior (think Google Nexus for the modern age; other manufacturers will also be making their own Android One phones).
In the midst of other mid-level phones, the HTC U11 Life manages to hold an air of premium about it. It's confident, it's good looking, it's got a kind of swagger about it. Which is well earned: given the lacklustre Moto X4, the HTC fills a gap its competitors have failed to totally own. It is, however, a little pricey, which opens the door for the likes of the OnePlus 5T to more than challenge its presence.
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Premium design: oh, shiny!
- Acrylic Liquid Surface finish
- IP67 water and dust resistance
- Front-facing fingerprint scanner/home button
- 149.1 x 72.9 x 8.1mm; 142g
The HTC U11 Life looks a lot like the HTC U11 thanks to its shiny rear, but as soon as you pick it up you'll feel the difference. Whereas the U11 is weighty, the U11 Life feels surprisingly light, because it's not made from glass.
We have the Sapphire Blue model for review, which is a whole lot more interesting than the Brilliant Black option. Although whichever you choose, the Life's rear is a total fingerprint bombsite - it looks great when clean, but smears a bunch through standard use. That's hardly rare in today's phones, but it's usually a bigger issue on glass backs (which the Life lacks).
If the U11 Life looks familiar for another reason, that's probably because it's closely related to the HTC U Play that launched in early 2017 - although there have been a number of upgrades to make this a more powerful and more appealing handset.
There's IP67 waterproofing which adds a premium feature you won't often find in the mid-range. Oh, and the Life also gets the "squeeze" functionality of the U11, letting you launch Google Assistant (and other apps as specified) with a squeeze - a feature we've previously described as a gimmick, and we're sticking to our guns on that.
Elsewhere in the mid-level market there's the Moto X4, as we've mentioned, which is a little pricier than the HTC and, therefore, finds itself in a tough spot as, to our eyes, it's not as good-looking a phone as the HTC. In the same breath, at £349 the U11 Life isn't as budget as some of its near competition. With the Honor 7X incoming (due 5 December 2017) at an expected cut of the price, it's a tough battle out there.
As we said in our initial preview of the HTC, there's actually a lot to love about the U11 Life's design. While it's not squeezing in a new-fangled 18:9 aspect ratio display, there's a great personality about this phone, while the vibrancy of that rear blue colour really speaks to us. It's not another boring black blob and earns its premium feel design badge.
No 18:9 screen, but no matter
- 5.2-inch Super LCD, 16:9 aspect ratio
- 1920 x 1080 pixels (423ppi)
That aforementioned Honor 7X may have a more up-to-date 18:9 aspect ratio display, but the U11 Life's tried-and-tested 16:9 ratio feels perfectly fine in the hand as the phone's 5.2-inch panel isn't excessively large.
There's ample space for a fingerprint scanner on the front (a la Home button), given the fairly large bezel proportions, which functions just fine. Such bezel also means the back and recent apps buttons are off the screen, as separate light-up capacitive touch buttons, keeping the screen free and clear of unwanted interruptions.
The Life's panel, which is Super LCD (the name that HTC gives to its panels) offers a Full HD resolution, which is perfectly sharp for a panel of this size. And when you think that flagship 18:9 ratio competitors like the Huawei Mate 10 Pro only offer more pixels on the vertical, we really can't discern a significant difference in perceivable quality.
In use the screen offers ample colour and pop, which is good to see in a mid-range device. Its main problem is the auto-brightness (Adaptive Brightness), which is very firm in its dimming of the screen - so it can often look too dark. As a result we've often switched this off, likely to the detriment of battery life.
Middling power functions just fine
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 630, 4GB RAM
- 32GB storage + microSD card slot
Sitting at the heart of the U11 Life is the Qualcomm Snapdragon 630 platform, paired with 4GB RAM, so this HTC can't compete with the more powerful likes of the OnePlus 5T or the Xiaomi Mi Mix 2.
Admittedly those two competitors are in slightly different price brackets, so it's not a fair like-for-like comparison. On a more comparable level are devices like the Samsung Galaxy A5 or the Moto G5 Plus, although as a newer phone, the HTC's hardware feels a little more sophisticated.
In use things work just fine. We've recently become addicted to South Park Phone Destroyer, having played it on various flagship devices in recent weeks. On the U11 Life it runs well, the main differences that can be felt from the mid-level platform are slightly slower and stuttering card decks loading during the build-your-team sections of the game. Still, that doesn't cut away from the actual gameplay experience.
It's the same when navigating around the operating system: stock Google software means things are elegant, they're just not the very fastest going. Opening folders and swiping between screens is no problem, but that browser app will need an extra second or two to jump into action compared to the best devices on the market. No biggie, really.
Storage-wise, there's 32GB on board (not the 64GB as originally suggested pre-launch), along with a microSD card slot in the SIM tray should you want to expand this yet further.
Software, feature quirks and so-so battery life
- Android One (means stock Android 8.0 Oreo)
- Edge Sense "squeeze" function
- No 3.5mm headphone jack
- USB-C port incompatible with third-party adapters
- 2600mAh battery with Quick Charge
The Android One programme was devised by Google to give manufacturers a badge of approval from Google and a route to launching pure Android handsets. It was originally devised as a method for launching phones into developing countries, but has expanded beyond. Which is all well and good but, really, we just see the name as a distraction: Android One tries to avoid all the deep-dive geek-out details about software that, well, many casual buyers aren't going to be fussed about, but its name seems like a superfluous distraction.
As the first HTC Android One handset - and one of the first Android One handsets that will be available globally from a big brand - the HTC U11 Life moves away from other HTC devices, which, since the HTC Hero in 2010, have been carrying what's known as HTC Sense over the top of Android (in the US there is a T-Mobile version of this phone which does include Sense, just to confuse things).
Ultimately this means the U11 Life is uncluttered in its operation; there's no software guff to get in the way. Well, other than the Edge Sense - the squeeze-it control that, while it works fine, doesn't make a huge deal of sense given the breadth of buttons on the right edge of the phone and the potential for accidental use. If you do find it of use, however, then the inclusion of additional app functions (currently in beta) provides yet more customisation - you might use it to quickly open the camera rather than Google Assistant, for example.
Another HTC twist is on the audio front. There's no 3.5mm headphone socket, but you do get HTC's USonic headphones in the box. These are headphones that will tune the audio output to your ears and also offer active noise cancellation. We've been really impressed with these headphones since they first appeared on the 2016 HTC 10.
There's a problem though: with no USB-C-to-3.5mm converter in the box (not ours anyway - we're asking HTC for further comment), you'll be restricted to using those headphones and nothing else, as the U11 Life isn't compatible with third-party adapters - we've tried two different ones, unsuccessfully. So Bluetooth will likely become your new best friend if you want to use different headphones.
In terms of longevity per charge, too, the HTC U11 Life doesn't last for an age. But that's not a surprise given its limited battery capacity: at 2,600mAh it's not a patch on the 3,000-4,000mAh batteries you'll find in most flagships. We've been getting around 12 hours life per charge under fairly considerable use, so there's just about enough for a day under lighter use. It ought to be better, really, but thankfully the USB-C port means Qualcomm Quick Charge is available, meaning rapid recharging is just a plug socket away.
- Single 16MP rear camera, f/2.0 lens
- 16MP front-facing camera, f/2.0 lens
- Phase-detection autofocus (PDAF)
There are a pair of 16-megapixel cameras on the HTC - one on the front and one on the rear. The U11 Life bucks the dual rear camera trend by opting for a single sensor paired with f/2.0 optic, held within a neat circular design which protrudes from the body a little. Its position ensures that fingers are unlikely to to get in the way when shooting, which is great.
The app is roughly the same as you'll find in the bigger U11 model, with a focus on standard and Pro shooting modes - the latter including all the manual options you could need - along with video capture up to 4K resolution.
It's actually rather refreshing to have a camera ditch all the gimmicky software-based blurred background and depth profiles for so-called Portrait modes (as you'll find in most dual camera devices) to simplify quality shooting. As the U11 Life comes with phase-detection autofocus (PDAF) pixels on the sensor itself, it's snappy to focus. It even makes a little "beep beep" like a dedicated camera would, which is cute (but silenced on our device).
It's easy to tap-to-focus and then readjust the exposure by sliding the little sun symbol up or down the attached slider. There's also HDR (high dynamic range), which can be set to automatic, to control the balance between shadows and highlights to let subjects breathe a little more - great to counter hard backlighting, for example. Sometimes pinpoint or close-up focus can be a bit hit and miss for more complex images, though, which is one of a few shortcomings.
The overall quality is generally good, too - although more so on the phone's own screen than when looking on a monitor at 100 per cent scale. Shoot in good light and there's plenty of colour and detail, which dissipates somewhat as the light drops, resulting in slightly softer and more drab looking images. Still, we're rather impressed overall.
The front camera matches the rear in terms of quality, too, so if you're a selfie fiend then the U11 Life has plenty to shout about on both fronts.
Overall, the HTC U11 Life is a logical mid-level reflection of its already very capable flagship bigger brother. It's more attractive than some of its nearest competition, such as the Moto X4, while offering dust and water-resistance that few others deliver at this price point.
With that said, however, the U11 Life's, er, life isn't that strong. The battery ought to be more capacious, as it doesn't last long enough per charge and therefore struggles to get through a full day. The limitation with headphones choice is irksome too - as good as the bundled USonic headphones are. And there's no 18:9 aspect ratio screen to be found, which is an increasing norm in phones such as the (likely more affordable) Honor 7X.
That's about all that troubles the U11 Life: its competition. With the Moto G5 Plus offering much of the same at a lower price tag, or the OnePlus 5T offering a lot more power for an extra £100, it's tricky to see this HTC as earning the king's crown in its segment.
It might have design swagger, but that won't cut the mustard for everyone. But then that's part of Life's up and downs. And, on reflection, the HTC U11 Life is a well balanced mid-level phone that's certainly worth a look.
The alternatives to consider
Moto G5 Plus
If it's budget you're looking for without a huge compromise to power then this Motorola offers a well judged balance of price to performance. It might not be the most obvious comparison, but it shows that mid-level devices needn't cost £350.
Read the full review: Moto G5 Plus
A little higher up the ranks is OnePlus' latest handset. With more power and an 18:9 aspect ratio screen, it's like a flagship - minus the massive price tag. You'll need to find an extra £100 compared to the HTC though.
Read the full review: OnePlus 5T
Although there's no official price just yet ahead of its December 2017 launch in the UK, a little internet search will see you find the 7X for between £279-300. For that smaller-than-the-HTC sum you'll get similar power to the U11 Life, plus an 18:9 aspect ratio screen, for a more modern outlook. The fingerprint scanner is on the rear, too, allowing the Honor's screen to dominate the experience. Again, it makes the HTC look a little pricey.
Read the full review: Honor 7X