HTC, having offloaded a hefty portion of its talent to Google's Pixel programme, is back with a fresh offering for 2018, the HTC U12+. Where's the HTC U12 you might ask? There isn't one, it's coming straight out of its corner with a plus size model.
This isn't a case of cancelling one, HTC told us this was about clarity about what this phone is: it's the 2018 flagship and there won't be another later in the year like there was (confusingly) in 2017. It's also a deliberate move to underscore that this is a rival to the Galaxy S9+ - it's big, fully featured, loaded with cameras.
But not quite as expensive. So how does it all play out?
Liquid surface design again delights
- Ceramic Black, Flame Red, Translucent Blue
- Glass finish
- No notch
Say what you will about HTC, you can't accuse it of lacking in design. While Samsung was producing plastic phones, HTC was working with materials that defined the modern smartphone landscape. Look at the proliferation of metal that followed the HTC One M7 and look at 2018's sudden passion for exotic glass finishes.
HTC's Liquid Surface was on phones before Huawei, Honor or OnePlus came to the glass party. And in the HTC U12+, HTC is launching three colours straight off the bat - Ceramic Black, Flame Red and Translucent Blue.
For those who don't know the story of Liquid Surface, this is glass with deep colour that changes as you look at the phone, basically replicated (in some cases more dramatically so - see the Huawei P20 in Twilight) by lots of others. It's Gorilla Glass 5 for strength, with a central aluminium core.
Of the three colours, the Flame Red is the most risqué - and you can see more of that phone in our separate gallery - while the black will be the volume seller. However it's the translucency that has geek appeal, showing some of the innards for a more unique look, with a hint of G3 iMac about it.
There's an IP68 rating on the U12+ and the adoption of an 18:9 aspect (like the U11+) on the 6-inch display makes for a pretty big phone. There's no notch in the design, so HTC hasn't followed Apple's lead, but it has continued to reduce bezels to the sides of the display, with good effect. HTC told us they needed a new shaping process for the edges of the glass to evolve beyond the common 2.5D finish and trim out the amount of dead space needed at the sides.
It's a substantial design, perhaps not as eye-catching as some recent models, however it feels solid. But then you get to the squeeze.
OMG those side buttons are amazing
- Mechanical buttons out
- Edge Sense 2.0 brings lots of functions
HTC's unique selling point on the U series was Edge Sense, the ability to squeeze the phone and trigger a reaction. Google obviously loved it so it appeared in the Pixel 2 as well, but in the HTC U12+ it finally makes sense - as Edge Sense 2.0 sends it into hyperdrive.
Side buttons. Yes, believe it or not, but these side buttons are one of the most exciting things we've seen on a phone this year. Why? Because they're not actually buttons, they don't move. They are pressure-sensitive with haptic feedback instead.
In this very Apple-like move, HTC has removed moving parts, which means less to go wrong. Does that mean a software crash with disable the buttons? Potentially so, but real result is how they feel. You've probably got used to that mechanical depress, so when you use the buttons on the U12+ it feels like the future. Mark these words: this will be copied by others, we're saying that here and now.
Moving on from buttons, what HTC is really doing here is giving pressure sensitivity to a lot more of the edge to give you more functions. You can squeeze, long squeeze and double tap. These can be used to launch anything you like - camera, Google Assistant, PUBG Mobile, Wi-Fi hotspot - it's fully customisable.
There's also a more advanced option - which we've seen demoed but not tried ourselves yet - which will let you create custom squeeze actions within apps. So, for example, you'll be able to open an app and replace an in-app button press with a squeeze. The idea is that you can replace taps for common task with squeezes for better one-handed use. HTC is taking this approach rather than using an SDK that app developers would have to support, instead letting you have some say on what it does.
It's geeky, but it all adds up to a system that now works. On the HTC U11 generation of devices squeeze was a gimmick you didn't need. Now it has the potential to enhance the experience.
Snapdragon power globally and a great display
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 845, 6GB RAM, 64GB + microSD
- 3500mAh battery with Quick Charge 3.0
- USB Type-C, no 3.5mm
- Rear fingerprint scanner
- 6-inch, LCD, 18:9, 2880 x 1440 pixels
If you look at recent launches you'll see a range of hardware being offered. There's Hisilicon for Huawei and for those in the UK, your Samsung is running on Exynos. HTC is using Snapdragon 845 globally (like the OnePlus 6) so you're getting great hardware in this flagship device.
It's also backed by 6GB RAM and comes with 64GB of storage and support for microSD cards (which some of the cheaper rivals don't have).
There's USB Type-C on the bottom of the phone for charging and music - there's no 3.5mm headphone socket - and an internal battery of 3500mAh. That's about average for its size and we've not had the chance to test its endurance. We can't help think that for a phone this size a little more battery wouldn't hurt, but we'll look forward to getting a definitive answer on that as soon as we can.
When it comes to the display, there's no notch at the top, instead taking a more conventional 18:9 aspect. As we said, bezels to the side are small and there's no Samsung-like curves or anything else. For some that might be a welcome relief - it's just a high resolution LCD display. But let's not play that down.
It's 6-inches on the diagonal which is a good size and it sticks to offering Quad HD+ - 2880 x 1440 pixels - which is basically now a high-end badge of honour. You see, a lot of phones aren't stepping up in resolution - Sony, Huawei, OnePlus - sticking to full HD+ instead. Even Samsung is defaulting to a lower resolution, making you ask to return to Quad HD+ if you want it.
The HTC U12+ display looks great. It's nicely balanced in colour, using a good quality LCD display rather than OLED, with great viewing angles, from what we've seen. Resolution at this size can make a difference when you have content with lots of details - it will just look richer and deeper in images, more accurate and curves with better colour gradation, giving a a more premium look. For many cases, like social media or Gmail, it doesn't matter. But, relatively speaking, it is something you pay for and HTC's cheaper flagship rivals don't offer this level of display detail.
A return to dual cameras, front and back
- 12-megapixel, 1.4µm, f/1.75 UltraPixel 4 main camera
- 16-megapixel, f/2.6 50mm 2x zoom camera
- Twin 8-megapixel front camera
HTC pretty much invented the dual camera in 2014 with the HTC One M8. It was a breakthrough phone, able to do things with depth mapping in the camera that others were no where near. But if anything, it was too early to the game. We're a little surprised it's taken HTC so long to return to dual cameras, but the HTC U12+ isn't just an evolution of the M8, it's something new.
There are two cameras on the back: the main 12-megapixel lens has 1.4µm pixels and an f/1.75 aperture and HTC is calling it UltraPixel 4. It offers laser and PDAF (or dual pixel) technology for focusing. There was a good camera on the U11, so we have high hopes for the U12+ in terms of photo quality and low light performance. There's optical image stabilisation too.
There's been a boost the HTC's HDR system too, now taking and combining more shots. That's a common story we've heard from every phone manufacturer in 2018 and generally speaking, we've had a great crop of cameras. HDR, like the Pixel phones, is designed to just be left on all the time.
The second camera on the back is a 16-megapixel 50mm camera, so that's effectively 2x zoom. As it's from the lens it's lossless. But, what you need to know is that the second camera has an f/2.6 aperture, so it's not going to be great in low light. Exactly how this will be managed (Samsung's second lens turns off in low light and it uses digital zoom instead, for example) we're yet to see. Like other zoom cameras, it can be used for a hybrid 10x zoom while maintaining some quality.
So the newness to HTC is a zoom camera, adding skills that Apple iPhone users have been enjoying for a while.
At the same time, that second lens also offers depth information so that it can take those bokeh portrait photos. There's no talk of AI in the camera as we're seeing pushed by Huawei or Google, but from our initial tests of the camera, it seemed to be able to take a great portrait shot picking out the subject well. You can also adjust the strength of the effect, for more or less background blur.
Flip to the front and you have the same features. While some (like the Pixel or Nokia) will offer front portraits, HTC is doing it with two cameras. There are two 8-megapixel cameras, 1/12µm f/2.0 with a front flash from the screen, and those two lenses are really designed for great selfies.
We gave it a test and found it neatly picked out our profile. There's more testing to be done, but we like it. Those dual cameras are also deployed in the face unlocking feature, but there's a fingerprint scanner too.
On the video front there are four mics offering sound zooming and the zooming can be made to match the zooming of the camera. HTC is also offering an auto zoom-in and auto zoom-out feature for a smoother action in the camera and less judder - the sound can match this too.
When it comes to slow-motion, HTC is sticking to offering 240fps at full HD and isn't chasing the 960fps offered elsewhere. We can't say we're really worried about that having tested other super slow motion offerings.
Android Oreo with HTC Sense
HTC's software remains a familiar place after the HTC U11+ we recently reviewed and apart from the addition of a few extra Sense Edge options, there doesn’t seem to be much of a change.
HTC now lies pretty close to Android Oreo, having removed massive amounts of bulk over the past few years. HTC has also confirmed that the phone will be moved to Android P - and if we look at recent devices then HTC's performance has been pretty good in terms of update times.
Of course it comes with BoomSound HiFi Edition, using the whole body of the phone as a resonance chamber (another element that others have copied), for great speaker quality and volume.
As we said there's no 3.5mm, headphone socket, but HTC's USonic headphones remain some of our favourite bundled headphones (even in the age of AKG in the box and so on). What we really like about HTC is that you can tune these headphone to be personalised for you.
They also offer active noise cancellation which, while it won't compete with a dedicated pair of leading noise-cancelling over ears - will help combat some external noise. Overall, it's a strong audio offering.
HTC has struggled in recent years, there's no avoiding that. The company may now be a victim of its own success, but even so it continues to innovate. It innovates in design, with subtle touches like the delicacy of the glass colouration or changing of these side buttons, which it rarely gets credit for.
Is it time for Android users to take HTC seriously? The HTC U12+ has a silly name and it's not the most aggressive in its pursuit for an all-display front, resulting in a fairly sizeable body, but in many ways, it's totally competitive on the spec sheet, with quality hardware.
What's hard to avoid is the £699 asking price. While it's significantly cheaper than the Samsung Galaxy S9+ (at £869) and cheaper than the Huawei P20 Pro (£799), the likes of the Honor 10 at £399 and the OnePlus 6 at £469 pose serious questions.
Ultimately the HTC U12+ will hang on how well the new dual camera performs. We'll be giving it a thorough testing before its final release date, but this phone is off to an interesting start.