A few years ago, HTC was competing neck and neck with the best Android flagships in the market. Then something happened, I know not what, and HTC just disappeared from the scene. Since last year, however, the company seems to be turning things around.
The company’s latest flagship, the HTC U11, is now out and I’m happy to say, is competing with this year’s flagships, and that too, on a level playing field. I’ve spent a little over a week with this device and I think it’s very good.
What is a flagship?
It’s hard to define what makes a phone a flagship. Specifications are only a part of the story, and anyway, the best hardware simply needs to be present in any device that considers itself a flagship. Does design play an important role? It must, but then Apple gets away with the same design year after year. Features? Yes, these are important as well, but how many of you buy an iPhone only for its dual camera or an S8 for its iris scanner?
To me, a flagship needs to be the very best phone in its class, but also one that I can use and enjoy every day. This is one of the reasons I love my iPhone and the reason why I like the U11.
The Samsung Galaxy S8 is an undoubtedly gorgeous device, but I don’t think I can live with it every day. The curved screen and the odd aspect ratio looks lovely, but is ergonomically unsound. Apps and videos also don’t scale well on the display. To add to that, biometric access to that phone is just inconvenient. The other wannabe Android flagship, the LG G6, is simply not special and suffers from too many software issues. The cameras on the device are also not that great.
Build and design: 8.5/10
The U11 is a simple slab of Android goodness. It’s like the Pixel: Simple, elegant and exceptionally built. It doesn’t ooze style like the S8, but I don’t think it matters. The glass on the front curves smoothly into a metal frame, which in-turn curves smoothly into the glass back of the device. In black, the antenna lines are as good as invisible and you won’t find them unless you look for them.
On the front, you find a home button that doubles as a fingerprint scanner, the front camera and speaker and two hidden, touch-sensitive buttons that light up when you use them.
The rear houses a single camera and a dual-LED flash. The volume and power buttons are on the right of the device and the left is bare.
Sadly, HTC decided to leave out the headphone jack and go with a USB Type-C port instead. This is, of course, at the bottom. The SIM tray is at the top.
Mics are present at the top, bottom and rear of the device.
The device feels solid and sturdy, though I’m sure a drop to the floor won’t help the glass any. There’s no flex either.
Unlike the flat-backed phones we’ve seen so far, the rear of the U11 curves ever so slightly. That, coupled with the centrally aligned rear camera bump, means that you can grip it better when lifting the device off a table.
My only complaint with the design, other than the lack of a headphone jack, is the fact that the glass back is a true fingerprint magnet.
Packing in top-of-the-line hardware and a gorgeous screen, there’s very little to complain about in this department.
The phone is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 platform, which is supported by 6 GB of RAM. You also get 128 GB of onboard storage. There’s a cheaper variant of the device with 4 GB RAM and 64 GB storage as well, but it's only available internationally. The battery is a 3,000 mAh unit and it supports the Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 standard.
The display, which we’ll talk about in more detail later, is a 5.5-inch QHD (2560x1440) sLCD5 panel. All the glass on the phone is Gorilla Glass 5, so it should be sturdy.
The phone is available in a single-SIM or dual-SIM configuration and supports 256 GB microSD cards.
The front camera is a 16 MP f/2.0 unit and the rear camera is a 12 MP f/1.7 unit. The latter can record 4K video at 30 fps and 1080p video at up to 120 fps.
For connectivity, you get Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/n/ac dual-band support, Bluetooth 4.2 and a USB 3.1 Type-C 1.0 connector.
In lieu of the headphone jack, HTC bundles a USB-C to 3.5 mm adapter as well as a set of amazing, noise-cancelling, USB-C earbuds. If anything, the inclusion of the earbuds almost makes up for the lack of a headphone jack.
Dust and water resistance is a given in any phone calling itself a flagship (looking at you, OnePlus) and the U11 doesn’t disappoint. It's IP67 rating isn't the highest in the industry, but it's certainly good enough for daily use.
The scattered microphones help support what HTC is calling 3D sound. Basically, the mics can pick up audio from everywhere and help reduce ambience noise as well as focus on an audio source when recording video.
On the software front, you get Android 7.1.1 with some mild HTC skinning on top.
Lest we forget, the phone has something like pressure sensors on the sides of the device. These sensors detect when you squeeze the phone and the gesture can be used to trigger apps and actions.
Unlike the fancy, curved display on the Samsung Galaxy S8 or the LG G6, HTC has gone for a sensible 5.5-inch SuperLCD5 panel in a 16:9 aspect ratio. The QHD screen resolution of 2560x1440 also means that the display is extremely sharp.
The display is lovely and sensible and we found the colour accuracy to be quite precise. Unlike AMOLED, LCD panels don’t have incredible blacks. However, whites are better and these types of displays generally use an RGB pixel layout as opposed to a pentile one, making for a higher optical density than an AMOLED of similar resolution.
Compared to the OnePlus 5 and Samsung Galaxy S8, the HTC U11’s screen is not as bright, but it’s definitely more neutral when it comes to colour rendition. The iPhone 6S Plus that I’m using for reference has a brighter, more accurate screen. And that’s the only problem with the U11’s display. It’s simply not as bright as that of the competition.
As with most smartphone displays, the U11 does boost brightness when bright light is detected, so the screen is quite readable in daylight.
I love stock Android and I hate the bloatware and other such rubbish that manufacturers stuff into their devices. HTC has been quite sensible in that regard, and it’s nice to see near stock Android 7.1.1 rather than Android 7.0 or even Android 6.0 with a heavy skin.
While the software is mostly stock, there are a few new features that HTC has managed to squeeze in.
HTC Sense Companion, for example, is an AI assistant of sorts. Unlike Google Now and Siri, Sense is silent and attempts to predict the apps and services you’ll need based on your daily usage. For example, it might start reminding you to charge your phone a little before you must leave for work.
It’s also not intrusive, only popping up as a small bubble (think Facebook Messenger bubbles) when it thinks you need to know something. I didn’t find this particularly useful and disabled it because it asks for a LOT of permissions.
Swiping left on the Home Screen takes you to HTC Sense, which integrates with your social services to give you an updated feed. If not fully set up, swiping left simply shows you ads and themes. It can be quite useful since you don’t need to open specific apps or deal with a dozen different notifications all the time.
An app called Boost+ is also available. It gives you information on RAM and storage, cleans up junk files and apparently optimises the battery. I honestly don’t know if the optimisations were any good because the phone’s performance and battery life were always acceptable. It is useful for clearing up junk files, however, as it claimed to have freed up around 2 GB of junk files from the phone after a week of use.
With 128 GB of storage available, I didn’t really care about a lost 2 GB, but it can prove useful in a pinch.
The NewsRepublic app will be familiar to those who’ve used HTC phones over the years. It’s a news feed app that aggregates multiple feeds. Personally, I prefer Feedly and Flipboard, but if you like it, you’ll be happy. Being a factory installed app, NewsRepublic can’t be uninstalled.
The Google Now service can be accessed by long-pressing the home button.
Split screen is supported by long pressing an app from the multi-tasking menu and then dragging it up. You choose another, compatible app from the same multi-tasking menu to enable the feature.
Theming is another area that’s interesting. The entire UI of the phone can be extensively themed either via pre-set themes or manually.
To squeeze or not to squeeze
The squeezing feature of the phone is called Edge Sense. The phone can detect varying levels of pressure on the sides of the device and this is used to trigger actions. The pressure level can be varied within the Settings menu.
By default, squeezing the phone launches the camera app. This can be changed to launch an app of your choice, enable or disable the flashlight, take a screenshot, enable voice recording and more. You can also customise the action to respond separately to a short squeeze and to a ‘squeeze and hold’.
The feature is well thought out, to the extent that when you squeeze your phone to take a photo, there’s a delay in response so that your squeezing doesn’t shake the phone.
However, I didn’t find the feature very useful and found it a bit cumbersome. I only ever used it to launch the camera app and take and take photos, but the power button already does that job. This was also only useful when the device was already locked.
Using the gesture to open certain apps when the screen was locked is pointless because you still must unlock the phone. In my view, it really wouldn’t have mattered if the phone didn’t have the feature to begin with (and I’d certainly have preferred a better vibration motor, more on that later).
The performance was excellent. This side of Apple, the Snapdragon 835 is one of the fastest mobile platform around and HTC’s software is quite close to stock Android. Add these two factors together and you get a phone that’s blazing fast and very responsive. There was never any lag, apps opened quickly and the camera responded immediately. Games and apps were fine, the device didn’t heat up under prolonged use or gaming.
Unlike OnePlus, which apparently cut down on the animations of the OS to make the device seem faster, HTC’s OS feels fluid, smooth and responsive without the need for such gimmicks.
Games like Asphalt and Real Racing were buttery smooth, and the best part is that the device didn’t heat up even after extended gaming sessions.
The speakers on this phone are quite loud and you get two of them, so there’s nothing to complain of here as well.
The bundled headphones were amazing. They support active noise cancellation (ANC), which, I was disappointed to find, didn’t work very well in my case. I’m not sure why that is, but the noise cancellation was no different from using a well-fitting set of earbuds.
That’s not as important as the audio quality and I can tell you that this bundled set is brilliant. HTC uses some fancy software trick to allegedly map your ears and tune the audio output to perfectly suit your ears. I don’t know if it works or not because the sound signature was the same whether I used someone else’s sound profile or my own. Regardless, the audio output was convincingly good, easily rivalling the quality of the expensive, bundled AKG set that Samsung gives with the S8.
The set managed to reproduce bass notes without booming and the highs without getting shrill. The mids were also well rendered. Apple’s bundled EarPods are no match for this set.
Sadly, the USB-C interface severely limits the usability of the set. Given that they’re very good, at least you won’t feel the need to invest in a new set for your phone.
The one complaint I do have with the earbuds is that there are no volume controls on the unit. It’s frustrating to have to take out your phone on a crowded train to simply turn the volume up or down.
Call quality and signal strength were good overall. I had no complaints on that front.
The one niggle in an otherwise excellent phone is the vibration motor. After experiencing the incredibly precise haptic feedback mechanisms on the Samsung Galaxy S8 and the new iPhones, the HTC U11’s motor is terrible. It’s vague and floaty and makes an otherwise great device feel cheap. I think I’m not mistaken in saying that the Xiaomi Redmi Note 4’s vibration feedback is also better than HTC’s.
I tolerated the motor for a few days, but ultimately got so irritated that I disabled vibration feedback entirely.
DxOMark rated the HTC U11’s camera as the very best smartphone camera in the market today, and that’s certainly saying something. If the DxO rating is to be believed, this camera scores above that on the Samsung Galaxy S8, Google Pixel and iPhone 7 Plus.
My own testing methodology isn’t as rigorous as the one employed by DxO, but I can say for a certainty that the HTC U11’s camera is very fast and very good and at least on par with the Samsung Galaxy S8. The camera on the iPhone 7 Plus isn’t even in the running.
As you can see from the Flickr album embedded above (click on the image to head to the album), the images are of superb quality. The camera captures and keeps finer detail, especially texture. Colours are spot on. Even in difficult lighting conditions, the camera captures a commendable amount of detail.
The one issue it has is with macro shots, where it struggles to focus on finer objects like flower buds. This is an issue I’ve faced with other cameras in the past, but not on the S8.
The front camera is also very good and better than that on most of this year’s flagships, I feel.
Quite simply, HTC has done a superb job with the camera on the device.
Battery life was quite good, but not spectacular. Our standardised benchmark rated the device at a little under 10 hours, which is lower than we’ve seen in this category. Devices like the S8 and Pixel easily hit the 12-hour mark. That said, our benchmark is a bit heavy on the system and in real world usage, the phone will last you a day with capacity to spare.
The best I’ve seen is one day where I spent two hours watching videos, 30 minutes live streaming on Facebook, another few hours listening to music and reading a Kindle book and some more time playing games. Despite all of this, the phone finally died at around the 12-hour mark. My iPhone 6S Plus (with a 2,900 mAh battery) would have only survived six hours or so in a similar situation.
HTC’s bundled an app that apparently fine tunes performance and improves battery life, but I noticed no difference in battery life after the alleged optimisations.
Basically, the battery life isn’t best in class, but it will certainly last you a full working day.
Verdict and price in India
In a market flooded with phones, where flagships are few and far between and where gimmicks are perceived as the way forward, HTC has come up with a phone that is quiet, sensible, and gets the basics (except the vibration motor) right.
The phone doesn’t stand out like the S8 or an iPhone, it doesn’t even have the LG G6’s gimmicky dual-camera or the power of OnePlus 5’s hype machine, and that might be the only thing holding the U11 back. The problem with the U11 is its lack of presence. It won't stand out as easily in a crowd.
In my book, however, this doesn't matter. You’re getting a great camera, good battery life, a great build and powerful hardware. The price is also very reasonable and the bundled headphones are superlative.
This is a sensible smartphone in a sensible package. This is a flagship I can live with every day. If my foot wasn’t already planted firmly in Apple’s camp, I think I might even have considered getting myself one of these.