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. HTC tells us this is about clarity: The Plus is the 2018 flagship and there won't be another later in the year like there was (confusingly) in 2017.

As such, the big-scale HTC flagship asserts itself as a clear rival to the Samsung Galaxy S9+ – it's big, fully featured, and loaded with cameras – but without being quite as expensive. So, how does it all pan out?

Liquid Surface design delights... but it's a bit hench

  • Glass finish in multiple colours: Ceramic Black, Flame Red, Translucent Blue
  • IP68 rating water and dust sealed
  • 156.6 x 73.9 x 8.7-9.7mm; 188g

Say what you will about HTC, you can't accuse it of lacking in design exuberance. 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.

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HTC's Liquid Surface was on phones before Huawei, Honor or OnePlus came to the glass party. In the HTC U12+ there are three colour options straight off the bat: Ceramic Black, Flame Red and Translucent Blue. Of these, the black (as reviewed here) is a bit on the safe side, especially compared to phones like the Honor 10 or Huawei P20.

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 phone's innards for a more unique look, with a hint of G3 iMac about it. Certainly, if you're buying this phone, look for the colours to get something a little more interesting.

The U12+ has adopted an 18:9 aspect ratio on its 6-inch display, which makes it easier to handle this rather big phone, while bezel size to the sides has been shrunk compared to previous devices.

Despite these points, however, the U12+ design really leaves you with a feeling of hench; compared to its rivals it's undeniably large and weighty, lacking the curves and narrower bezels of the Samsung S9. Slap on the free case that's in the HTC's box and the bulk is only further exaggerated.

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There's also no notch to the design – the blacked-out 'dip' to the top of some phones – so HTC hasn't followed Apple's and other brands' lead here. This clearly points to the proliferation of notch design. But having used a number of notched phones in 2018, reverting to this more conventional design from HTC only adds to the bulky sense, especially up top. 

Edge Sense and rethinking those side buttons

  • Mechanical buttons are 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 to trigger an action. Google obviously loved it so it appeared in the Pixel 2 as well, but in the HTC U12+ Edge Sense 2.0 is an expanded offering with more functions, while also moving the buttons away from being mechanical and making them pressure-sensitive instead.

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In this very Apple-like move, HTC has removed moving parts, which means there's potentially less that can go wrong. But it also means that the action of the buttons is governed by software and that' has caused HTC some problems, with early users suggesting that the buttons didn't really work.

Initially we liked the feel and the haptic feedback. But what we've found over use is that some basic features don't work as well as they should. The reliable double-press to launch the camera only gives us a 50 per cent success rate. And the usual volume down and power button screenshot action isn't there, so you have to enable it from the navigation bar or use the power button and the on-screen home button (which has never worked for us). In short, added interaction has hampered some habitual behaviour.

Moving on from buttons to Edge Sense – where you can squeeze, long squeeze and double tap the sides of the phone – what HTC has done in the U12+ is given pressure sensitivity to far more of the phone's edge. The trio of action types can also be used to launch anything you like – camera, Google Assistant, PUBG Mobile, Wi-Fi hotspot – as it's a fully customisable setup.

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Useful as Edge Sense could be for some users, our biggest take-away is that it's not a function we've ever missed when we're using a different phone. And because we've found ourselves triggering actions accidentally (you'll see those squeeze indicators creeping in and then realise you've launched an app) we eventually switched the feature off. It's just not important enough a feature to be significant in daily use.

Snapdragon power globally and a great display

  • 6-inch LCD display, 18:9 aspect ratio, 2880 x 1440 resolution
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 845, 6GB RAM, 64GB + microSD
  • 3500mAh battery with Quick Charge 3.0
  • USB Type-C, no 3.5mm headphones
  • Rear fingerprint scanner

If you look at recent phone launches you'll see a range of hardware being offered. There's Kirin for Huawei, Exynos for Samsung (in the UK, anyway), while HTC is using Qualcomm's Snapdragon 845 globally for a true flagship setup. It's also backed by 6GB RAM and comes with 64GB of storage and support for microSD cards (which some of the cheaper rivals, like the OnePlus 6, don't have).

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The power in this HTC is evident, as it runs slick and fast, just as we've found in any number of Snapdragon 845 handsets we've seen this year. You'll be able to play intensive games on higher settings, like PUBG Mobile, and everything is simply blissful.

What doesn't rank so highly, however, is the resulting battery life. The 3500mAh cell under the U12+'s hood doesn't last as long as some rivals; that said, it will get you through the day in normal use. The phone's battery saving mode is pretty effective though, just watch out for the screen dimming that comes with it, as the phone isn't overly aggressive with screen brightness anyway.

There's a USB Type-C on the bottom for charging and music (there's no 3.5mm headphone socket), meaning you'll have to use HTC's bundled USonic headphones, or Bluetooth wireless instead. Those bundled headphones are great though, offering personalisation and active noise-cancellation.

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On the display front, the U12+ has a 6-inch LCD display, which delivers a Quad HD+ resolution (2880 x 1440 pixels). This kind of resolution is basically a high-end badge of honour. You see, a lot of phones aren't stepping up in resolution – Sony, Huawei, OnePlus are all sticking to full HD+ instead, while Samsung defaults to a lower resolution despite having as many pixels as the HTC – due to the battery drain associated with such a high resolution.

That said, the HTC U12+ display looks great. It's nicely balanced in colour, offers great viewing angles and that added resolution can make a difference when you have content with lots of detail.

A return to dual cameras, front and back

  • 12-megapixel, 1.4µm pixels, f/1.75 UltraPixel 4 main camera
  • 16-megapixel, f/2.6 50mm 2x zoom camera
  • Twin 8-megapixel f/2.0 front camera

HTC pretty much invented the dual camera back 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 nowhere near. 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.

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There are two cameras on the back: the main 12-megapixel lens has large pixels, an f/1.75 aperture lens, and HTC is calling it UltraPixel 4. It offers laser and phase-detection (or dual pixel technology) for autofocus.

The second camera on the back is a 16-megapixel camera, with a focal length that's effectively a 2x zoom. This second lens isn't used for zoom in low-light conditions, instead the U12+ gives you digital zoom from the main camera instead in such situations (just as Samsung does on the S9).

Zoom is a useful feature, getting you closer to the action, and it happens on this HTC with a simple tap. However, there's a noticeable colour variation between the two cameras, with a yellow cast to those zoomed photos that doesn't look great.

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That second lens also offers depth information so that it can take those blurred background (bokeh) portrait photos. There's a bokeh option permanently in the camera viewfinder which, when tapped, switches to the zoom lens for that photo – so you might need to step back to get your subject in, and you might get some of that colour difference.

Bokeh effects can be edited post-shooting and the depth mapping and separation is pretty good – there's the occasional mishap with some edges or background confusion, but it's among the better faux-bokeh shooters.

The U12+ has a fully featured camera app, with lots of functions, including a Pro mode. This will churn out raw files too, which may be useful, as you can see the processing that HTC is doing, especially in low light conditions. The image below shows a Pro mode JPEG (left) alongside the corresponding raw file (right) and you can see how much noise HTC is smoothing out.

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Ultimately, the HTC U12+ is a pretty good performer for everyday photos. Take it on holiday and you'll get great beach snaps from it, good colours (if you avoid the zoom) and great video. But it's not a low-light competitor to the best flagships out there. Indeed, with the main camera being generally good, we sort of wish the distraction of the second camera wasn't there. 

Android Oreo with HTC Sense

  • HTC Sense Companion
  • Amazon Alexa support
  • Google Assistant

HTC's software remains a familiar place after the HTC U11+. Apart from the addition of a few extra Sense Edge options, it's much the same, meaning a pretty close setup to Google's Android Oreo operating system (Android P is confirmed for the future). That makes for a cleaner solution, removing the HTC associated mass of bulk from the past few years.

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There is still some bloat bubbling up on this HTC though. Although HTC is no longer duplicating all apps and services like it once did, it does come with a few additions, like Facebook and Instagram pre-installed. There's also some HTC Vive apps installed, HTC Zoe and UA Record.

Then there's the pre-installation of TouchPal keyboard, which, no matter how hard we try to get on with it, just isn't as slick and easy-to-use as Android's stock Gboard (which is an easy substitution to make). HTC also uses its own Messages app, but again, with Google's app getting wider functions (like desktop access), there's little compelling reason to use this.

In terms of AI services, there's Google Assistant, which will offer to take care of everything Google related and is very much the same as other services elsewhere. HTC is also one of the few systems allowing always-listening Amazon Alexa, giving another dimension if you're an Alexa fan.

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The phone comes with BoomSound HiFi Edition, using the whole body of the phone as a resonance chamber (another element that others have since copied), for great speaker quality and volume. 

Verdict

The HTC U12+ offers a premium design, but it feels chunkier than it needs to be, with no great benefit. It doesn't offer a larger display or more capacious battery than its competitors, while there's no 3.5mm headphone jack support as you might find in a chunkier device. Ultimately, the U12+ is just a big phone.

Of the current smartphone crop it's fairly easy to pick a Samsung Galaxy S9 or Huawei P20 Pro over this HTC. Even the LG G7 feels like it's a stronger offering, while the OnePlus 6 offers edgy excitement and a community feel that HTC seems to have lost.

The HTC U12+ isn't inherently a bad phone – indeed, there's a lot that's good about it – but it simply doesn't stand-out against the competition, instead falling into the list of recent flagships that fail to really shake things up.

Price when reviewed:
$799

Alternatives to consider

OnePlus 6

HTC once had a community feel to it, it felt edgy and exciting. That position is very much filled by OnePlus these days. It's cheaper than HTC, it offers a great design, a wonderful software experience, good battery life, and a camera that works well.

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Samsung Galaxy S9+

The flagship of flagships, the Samsung Galaxy S9+ offers a luscious design and display, a camera that performs well in wide-ranging conditions as well as a software load-out that does just about everything with aplomb. It's expensive, but it's certainly one of the best phones you can buy.

Huawei P20 Pro

Multiple cameras done right. Huawei's P20 Pro has shaken up the smartphone world, offering a triple camera that isn't just fluff – it's actually exciting. At the same time it's stolen HTC's design crown with that Twilight finish making for one of the best looking phones around. Perhaps the only shame is that it's fairly expensive... for a Huawei phone.