I have to admit, HTC has an unusual way of reaching out to the market. Early this year, they announced the HTC U Ultra and U Play. It appears that these products were just bench-warmers to the real deal.
As the photo indicates, the U11 is really the HTC smartphone I am waiting for. Early this year, HTC Singapore engaged me with intent to collaborate with my site and to provide a review unit of HTC U Ultra for detailed review plus other social engagement. That never happened, but neither did I pursue. Turns out, the smartphone lacks stellar qualities and most media reviews were lacklustre.
For U11, I had the fortune of receiving the test unit through NXT Magazine, where it will publish a review in the upcoming issue. Since the magazine has limited space for my blabbering, I am happy to write more about this smartphone on my blog here.
What makes U11 better than the U Ultra and U Play?
HTC U11 uses the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, and it appears some of the benchmark apps like Antutu puts it at one of the top-fastest smartphones.
HTC U11 earns the honour of the highest-rated DxOMark smartphone camera. That ought to say something about the quality. Based on my hands-on testing, it certainty appears to have delivered great images, although not necessarily exceedingly different from the other flagship phones, because of the close competition.
I feel that the images appear natural, well-exposed, less aggressive in contrast.
For low light, the noise grain looks natural without unsightly compression artifacts.
However, the camera app does not perform as fast as the peers, with occasional freezes, for reasons unknown. The camera UI is also not as intuitive, more steps needed to change shooting modes and adjustments. Which means, there are chances you might not catch the moment as intended. For instance, I had to tap the still photo or video icon and then hit the shutter to start recording. For LG G6, I just tap the camera or video icon to start immediately.
I do appreciate the Pro mode where I can tap the shoot settings (like white balance, EV, ISO, shutter, focus) to reveal the slider for adjustment. I can also save the settings as custom mode.
HTC Edge Sense
Interesting feature, first of its kind, the U11 allows you to trigger action by squeezing the sides of the phone. You can configure different actions by short squeeze or long squeeze. Since this is a review unit, I never got used to activating the Edge Sense as often, as I am still used to accessing via the home screen icons. I do find that occasionally I triggered the squeeze when handling the phone, but that could be avoided by adjusting the sensitivity of the squeeze force.
Unlike the earlier U-series smartphones, the U11 is rated IP67, like most other flagship smartphones. I cannot emphasise enough that any IP-rating does not mean the phone can be used in water environment aggressively. However, the advantage is that the phone could be lightly washed if it gets soiled, for instance, at the beach or after a sweaty run. No worries when caught in the rain or using at a pool party.
Here are other features that are available with all the U-series phones.
HTC Sense UI and Sense Companion
The updated Sense UI offers the familiar theme customisation where I can personalise the colour scheme, fonts, background images of various pre-installed apps like phone and messaging, and even allows freeform placement of app icons instead of a grid format.
There are unusually lack of multimedia apps: no photo gallery, no music app, only Google Photo and Play Music. There are however, bloatwares like Under Armour Record app, News Republic, Viveport. Other than News Republic, which is required to run HTC BlinkFeed, the rest may be uninstalled.
And because the HTC Sense UI is closer to stock Android, it also supports contextual menu when long-tap on the app icons.
The new Sense Companion is HTC’s own version of personal assistant in a smartphone, much like Google Now or Samsung Bixby. This AI companion learns about your smartphone behaviour over time and offer recommendations, like managing battery, improving performance, tracks health by steps, recommending food during mealtimes, weather forecast.
One feature that I hope U11 supports is double-tap to turn off the display. The motion launch gestures only support double-tap to wake up screen. Double-tap to sleep only work at the lock screen.
HTC U11 comes bundled with a pair of USonic earphones with USB Type-C plug. The earphones feature a capability to map the inner ear with sonar and create a personalised audio profile as well as to enable active noise cancelling. The audio profile does not work for me: it widens the sound staging that reminds me of the surround effect. The midrange sounds narrow, while the bass becomes broader which loses the tightness, and high treble loses the transparency. The ANC is very subtle in removing humming frequencies that I do not even notice until I do a comparison. It does not remove ambient noise as effectively as any commercial ANC earphones. Also, I cannot opt for original profile with ANC, but I would recommend forgoing ANC for non-processed audio. It its original audio, the earphones have a warm-sounding character with strong bass. Treble is slightly brighter than with audio profile but still lacks the transparency associated with high-res audio.
Fortunately, the loudspeaker does not disappoint. Though the main speaker does not face the front, stereo sound is achieved by combining the main speaker at the bottom of the phone with the ear speaker at the top of the phone. There are 2 modes that you can toggle: music mode and theatre mode.
I did a speaker comparison with 3 other smartphones, and found that the HTC U11 sounds the most pleasing under music mode, with full midrange and clear highs without too brittle. U11 sounds musically pleasing at loud volumes, not harsh. For theatre mode, the sound is wider, more compressed, biased towards treble.
The U11 was barely able to sustain my active use for the entire day. I had to ease my usage in order to last till I go to bed. But that was too painful, especially when the phone is really nice to use. The 3000 mAh battery capacity can be charged from 20% to 100% by little over an hour with QuickCharge 3.0.
There are power optimisation options to select which apps to stop in the background. Overall impression: battery is not great, but neither does it drain excessively. I suppose if the battery capacity is higher, it could beat the competition. Comparatively, I thought the Sony Xperia XZ Premium is better in managing battery life.
For HTC, the U11 is definitely a star. I appreciate the innovation HTC offers in U11. The camera is easily one of the better ones in the market, capturing images that appear very natural-looking without the smartphone compression or over-processed looks. The design and material is curvy and sleek, a blend of Samsung Galaxy S8 design and LG G6 practicality. The UI is not as lightning fast as Huawei P10 Plus or OnePlus 5, but it is fast enough for a flagship.
Would I recommend it? It is one of the better-running smartphones with attractive back design that I find no major fault. If you love to personalise your phone, you will love the themes. My favourites are the Transformers and Wonder Woman.
At S$998, HTC manages to keep the price below the psychological price point of below $1000, making it a much more value buy compared to Galaxy S8 or Sony Xperia XZ Premium. If you have read my other comparison review on smartphones based on the camera quality, then I would say the HTC U11 is a good alternative to Galaxy S8.