The argument in 2016 is that smartphones were getting boring, and one of the companies that used this as the main purpose for its then flagship was HTC. We can’t really say that the HTC 10 addressed any of the boredom that HTC claimed, but one thing it did do is prove that HTC was back. The company we once admired for making great smartphones made a solid comeback with that device.
Now, 2017 is a very interesting year for flagships. We have companies experimenting with taller displays and new aspect ratios, and we’re one digital assistant short of forming a basketball team. All of this is cool. Yes, we need flagships to continue pushing the bar of innovation, but like with every new thing, it’s clear that some of these features are still solutions in search of a problem.
As a result, and given the price hike of some of these devices, some people actually don’t like anything about this new approach. Be it cool or not, some people just want a conventional flagship that’s powerful, capable, and beautiful enough. If you’re looking for a more conventional approach, there’s pretty much just one flagship this year that does address some of the problems already in need of a solution, but in ways that are actually not conventional. We’re talking about the HTC U11, and it’s time for our full review.
The HTC U11 is a very interesting approach to hardware design. Notice I didn’t begin this review giving you the typical sob story of how bad things are for HTC, or how the HTC U Ultra didn’t really do more than become a source for mockery.
Actually, the U11 is a very different animal. More the result of a company that has matured in many ways over the years. Just set this phone on its front over a table, and you’ll understand what I’m talking about. This phone is gorgeous, eye catching, and an immediate call for admiration. This 3D formed glass finish that HTC is dubbing liquid design is a very different approach to curving glass. Instead of making it about adding features, the whole purpose is to make this rather large phone feel pleasant in the hand, and that it definitely is.
The curves extend to the glass front, leading to this pebble-like shape that’s easily noticeable. I also love that HTC chose to stick to a black finish at the front, regardless of what color option you pick. I find black bezels to be more immersive for content consumption. The company decided to wait on the whole trend of 18.5:9 displays, and you know what, I’m not going to complain. As it stands pillar boxing is what I hate most about competing devices. There is still a good list of apps that’s not ready to support new aspect ratios, and whatever more pixels you would’ve gained are compensated by the dedicated capacitive buttons on the U11.
This is a Quad HD Super LCD 5 with punchy color and decent blacks. It does get very bright, up to the point of offering good visibility in direct sunlight, even if you’re wearing polarized sunglasses. The only problem is that oddly, if you launch the camera while wearing polarized lenses, you have to view the display from an angle for the UI to be visible. About my only complaint is the size of these bezels, leading to a 71% screen to body ratio, at a time when competitors that stick to 16:9 like the OnePlus 5 give you a solid 73%.
Precautions that I would recommend with this phone is not setting it on its front over a table as the curves seem notorious to minor scratches from dirt, and also be ready to clean this phone constantly, as the reflective coating in the back really loves fingerprints and smudges.
Tucked inside the shell we have almost everything a flagship needs. Snapdragon 835, 4 gigs of RAM, 64 gigs of expandable storage, and my review unit includes the bonus of dual-SIM capabilities if I ditch the microSD. We also get IP67 water and dust resistance, another crucial feature you should look up to in 2017.
HTC Sense makes a return to power all the hardware of the U11. This is a combination of HTC design, and a commitment with Google to avoid bloat. As a result, there’s just one Calendar, one Calculator, Google Photos supersedes the Gallery, and so on and so forth. The result is a phone that manages RAM far better than competitors, and all leading to zippy performance all around.
Graphics intensive games launch quickly and work like a charm. Even this proprietary launcher and services like BlinkFeed work without a stutter, something devices like the Galaxy S8 fumble with in the basics.
The HTC Sense Companion finally started working for me, but the implementation still feels hit or miss. One day it noticed I had an early appointment and suggested I set an alarm in the morning, something I honestly appreciated. The only problem is that every other time, all it does is tell me I use my phone too much… like really?
HTC’s Edge Sense is one of those new features that I’ve come to love and hate. I seriously love the simplicity of squeezing lightly to get the Google Feed, as OEMs continue to ignore it, or the long squeeze to launch the flashlight. I still consider this hidden button to be genius. The problem if you set the sensitivity to light, you’ll find the phone activating the feature when you don’t want it to, and going the opposite direction makes the gesture feel awkward on borders this thin. You can always just switch this off. It’s a nice little convenience, but I honestly don’t see the point in going through all this trouble instead of simply adding another button.
The camera experience on the HTC U11 only gets better if you compare it to its predecessor. DxOMark claims this to be the best camera of 2017, and even if I won’t go as far as to call this my favorite, it does a great job.
I love the color saturation and detail provided during the day, and at night it shines as a solid performer. Even with the Ultra Pixels being reduced to 1.4 microns, the bump in aperture does compensate. Juan’s real camera review should shed some more light on our final verdict for how this camera competes.
I love features like the 3D audio recording for video, making the experience more immersive as the camera captures audio from the direction of the source.
My only complaints are the death of stabilization on the front facing shooter, and how it also stepped back the Ultra Pixel hardware approach brought by the U Ultra.
I’ve been using the HTC U11 for nearly two weeks between New York City and Honduras. There are things in which this phone is great, and others where it’s simply the expected performance of a flagship. For example, this phone has proven to be a champ in retaining to Wi-Fi and Cellular signal, even when compared to other 2017 flagships. Oddly I feel that call quality over the ear piece has gotten slightly tinier compared to the HTC 10, even if the speakers have gotten louder. As of the moment of this review this is the only 2017 flagship with dual-firing speakers, but more on that in Juan’s Real Audio Review.
My biggest problem with Audio is the death of the headphone jack. Yes HTC, all 2017 flagships have one, except the U11. This feels like the time when HTC kept insisting that 4 Ultra Pixels was all you needed in a smartphone camera. Minimalism in design makes sense, but not in features. Yes, I do get the point of HTC U Sonic, and yes, I love the acoustic noise cancellation that can only be provided by having these headphones draw power from the phone and use the four microphones. It’s not as great as on my PXC 550s, but far better than any headphones I’ve tested that came bundled in the box. The problem is the need to be carrying this specific dongle everywhere else, since like with all the current cases of phones requiring them, these are proprietary, meaning the dongle on a Moto Z won’t work on this phone. Why does this matter so much? Well if OEMs gave us two USB-C ports, that would be awesome, but try to charge this phone on a long flight while listening to music. Yeah, forget it.
And then you’ll stay that there is amazing fast charging on this phone, and that the battery is amazing. Sadly, charging your phone is something you’ll be doing quite often. I had very high hopes for the optimizations on Android 7.1.1, but as it stands, the 3000mAh power pack on the U11 is just average, barely scratching to the end of day of moderate use.
We received a lot of heat in our video review given the “awake” indication on our battery stats. As it stands, our experience has been the same with or without this “awake” indication being shown as you’ll see in the screen shots, and remember this review is focused on consumers, so hacking anything to fix that isn’t something we can discuss as part of this review.
Pricing and Availability
As of the time of this review, only Sprint had picked up the HTC U11. Every other carrier requires you to buy the unlocked variant, and yes, this even includes Verizon. At $649, this is definitely not an affordable device, but if you think of the fact that you’re getting a lot more bang for your buck than paying that same amount of money for a 32GB iPhone 7, and yes, the small iPhone 7, then you’ll understand why we don’t complain about the price tag at all.
To conclude, there’s a lot to like about the HTC U11. This is gorgeous hardware, matched by up to date specs, and with a set of unique features like U Sonic, and Edge Sense, that help this phone stand apart from the standard set of competitors out there.
I’d even say that my experience using the U11 has been delightful enough for me not to miss devices like the Galaxy S8 or the LG G6. The only reason why I’ve ended up drifting back to these other devices is because I wish HTC and other OEMs would stop copying Apple in the things they shouldn’t. Removing the 3.5mm headphone jack is not innovation, nor courage. If anything it’s lack of ingenuity in solving a problem. The day Bluetooth grows up to support better quality audio, and the day OEMs agree on a solution to avoid proprietary dongles, and also the day smartphones can last more than a day on a charge, then I’d say it’s time to move on. Sadly as it stands, proprietary solutions are always an exercise in frustration in the long run.
Even with its short comings, I have no problem in recommending the HTC U11. This is definitely a great phone in absolutely everything else. The question is if you’d be willing to give HTC another chance? Make sure you share your final thoughts in the comments down below.