HTC U11 Review: Shiny and futuristic – yet also stuck in the past

There are numerous superlatives that could be levelled at the new HTC U11. It’s super-speedy, it takes superb photos, it’s virtually ‘stock’ (Android), the display’s fabulous… and it’s a great mirror. Not electronically, through the selfie camera – the back of the U11 itself is effectively mirrored, reflecting colours and details from whatever’s in front of it. Which at least makes the unadorned phone stand out in a crowd, even if it’s the lady opposite you on the tube checking that her hair looks OK…

And I have to start here because it’s the aspect of the U11 design that screams “look at me!” Whether you want a phone that draws attention to itself is another matter entirely, especially if you’re out in public at lot. For example, you might admire a wonderful 24 carat gold ornament or brooch/necklace, but you really wouldn’t want (perhaps your partner!) to wear it out in the real world apart from special occasions.

HTC U11 Review

The finish is also oleophobic and slippery, though the rounded contours of the U11 at least ensure that it’s a good fit in the hand, so you may be able to get away with using this phone ‘naked’. Which is just as well, since (and I can’t emphasise this enough) there’s is precisely zero point in HTC putting in the effort to finish the U11 like this in super-glossy mirrored glass and then you, the buyer, covering it immediately in a thick, protective TPU case. HTC does include a clear plastic bumper in the box, which is a nice touch and gives a compromise between casing the U11 and letting its glass shine. Of course, the plastic will be scratched to kingdom come within a month and you’ll need another one, but it’s the thought that counts, HTC?

Audio

Also in the box and notable is a pair of headphones, something which flagship phones don’t usually have in 2017 – the idea is normally that you’d use your own quality headphones of choice. Except that you can’t here, since HTC does audio totally differently to just about everything in the phone world – there’s no 3.5mm headphone jack and you can’t even get traditional analog audio out through the USB Type C connector. Instead, audio is output in digital form (i.e. as data) and then a totally separate (DAC) chipset in the supplied HTC USonic headphones converts this digital information to analog waveforms for the speaker drivers in each earbud.

U11 bottom view

Which all works well enough in theory, though the issue is obvious – you’re limited to this one headset (or a rare third party compatible). The USonic earbud drivers are OK and the active noise cancellation works well, but they’re not exactly top end hi-fi, whatever HTC’s marketing might suggest in terms of ‘mapping your ear’. So for best results, you really have to plug in the decent headphones of your choice, using its 3.5mm jack – it’s a standard, don’t you know, HTC? – into the supplied Type C dongle, which also contains a DAC, but it’s not that high quality and anyway you’ve then got the extra bulk and what do you do if you need to charge the U11 at the same time… Gah!

Death by dongles

Pundits have been going over this sort of issue since the Apple iPhone 7 range appeared and, while some iPhone users have now adapted to a Lightning and Bluetooth world, there has been no such acceptance in the Android world, where things from different manufacturers are supposed to bolt together an awful lot more. Motorola tried it with the ‘Z’ and this didn’t set the world on fire, subsequent Motos have had the 3.5mm jack, and now we have HTC trying it and, I predict, it will again put more people off buying the phone than attract them to do so.

Working with the DACs in HTC's Type C accessories...
Working with the DACs in HTC’s Type C accessories, it’s a bit unnerving having to upgrade the firmware in a cable! But it shows the chipsets that are external to the phone.
Mapping one's ear with the supplied USonic headset - it's a bit of a gimmick, to be honest...
Mapping one’s ear with the supplied USonic headset – it’s a bit of a gimmick, to be honest, and the ‘hear the difference’ toggle can be achieved just as well with some EQ and a bit more volume. Or, better, use some really good headphones in the first place…

Since I’m exploring the hardware and pointing out all the things that I think are wrong with the HTC U11, let’s carry on with the speakers. I use the plural but it’s just as on the HTC 10 – a single loudspeaker down the bottom, into which is piped the right hand stereo channel and a traditional small earpiece up top, into which is piped the left hand stereo channel. The result, to the audiophile, is a poor stereo effect, an imbalanced mix, and confusion and frustration all round.

The best way to think of the U11’s speaker system is as a single mono component that’s decently loud. So think listening to audio books or podcasts, or taking a speakerphone call, these are all perfectly fine – but let’s have none of this ‘stereo BoomSound’ marketing talk, HTC. If you want true stereo with proper speakers then look instead at the ZTE Axon 7 or Google Nexus 6P or any one of a number of Sony Xperia flagships…

Design oddities

So, we’ve covered the back, the missing headphone jack, the stereo speakers which… aren’t, next on my list of whinges is the positioning of the capacitive controls and home button/sensor.

Now, there’s a 17mm bezel on the bottom of the HTC U11 – this isn’t an issue in itself, plenty of phones have large bezels (though the Galaxy S8 and LG G6 have started a trend towards slimmer edges) and the U11 is no worse than, say, the iPhone here. And the use of capacitive controls has the usual advantage that you never lose screen real estate to virtual, on-screen controls. So, while the bezel is large, it’s not totally pointless and certainly not unprecedented.

HTC U11 sensor view

However, the controls and the home sensor are all in the bottom half of the bezel, leaving a good 7mm of glass that does nothing and with nothing behind it in terms of display. Did HTC originally plan to put in a 18:9 5.8” display and then change their minds – perhaps the components weren’t ready in bulk? Perhaps the design was changed in the latter stages of production, but by then the controls and sensor’s position was fixed. With the resulting lack of symmetry and poor design that we see in the U11 today.

And it’s not only cosmetic – many is the time you’ll stab at the square of blackness to the left of the home sensor, intending to go ‘back’ and… nothing will happen. Because you pressed too high. Instead you have to remember to aim for the lower section. Ditto for the ‘Recent apps’ control.

Powerhouse components

The screen itself is excellent, as you might expect from HTC. They nailed great LCD panels a long time ago and this one is QHD, 5.5” and perfect in many ways. There’s a slight caveat, mind you, in that the linear anti-reflection screen polariser used makes the U11’s display impossible to read in landscape mode with sunglasses on – a niche use case probably only relevant to photography in sunny countries, but worth mentioning.

HTC U11 front view

Internally, the U11 has screaming specifications – the very latest Snapdragon 835 chipset, 4GB RAM and 64GB storage, organised with UFS 2.1, so future proof and very fast. There’s microSD expansion too, so the best of all worlds in terms of memory of all kinds. Anecdotally, the U11 isn’t quite as screamingly fast as the OnePlus 5, powered by the same chip, so HTC’s Sense UI is clearly putting its oar in to some degree, but the U11 is easily fast enough for the most hardened Android user.

Although obviously not visible, I was pleased to see that all the ports, microphones and buttons are sealed and that the HTC U11 is rated at IP67 for water and dust. It’s hard to class the U11 as ‘durable’ given the mass of curved, stressed glass on front and back – a single drop of the uncased phone onto tarmac will write off one or both of the surfaces – but at least you don’t have to worry about dropping the phone in the bath or using it in the pouring rain.

U11 Camera

Imaging

And so to the single biggest marketing point for the U11 – just as with the OnePlus 5, incidentally – its imaging, here implemented with a single camera, though a very good one. A 1/2.5” sensor with 1.4 micron pixels at 12MP (in 4:3), with f/1.7 aperture lens and OIS, backed up by multi-frame technology (HDR Boost, essentially the same idea as Google’s HDR+ system on the Nexus and Pixel devices), should all produce stunning images.

Happily, they’re generally excellent, with superb detail in all light levels and conditions – I’d put results right up with the Google Pixel range. In my tests the U11 is only bettered by the Windows-running Lumia 950 XL – and that has its own issues in terms of end of life status and ecosystem. Making the U11 probably the best performing, actively-sold camera phone on the planet right now. The iPhone 7 Plus has the edge when you do a lot of zooming, for obvious reasons, but overall the U11 does a fabulous job. Focussing is super-quick, thanks to a Samsung-style full sensor phase detection focus system.

See the samples below, along with crops and comments.

Sample photo from the HTC U11, see below for crops and comments!
1:1 crop from the photo above.
1:1 crop from the photo above. No problems here in good light, though I do think there’s room for improvement in HTC’s image processing across the board.
Sample photo from the HTC U11, see below for crops and comments!
1:1 crop from the photo above.
Nice pixel-level details here in good indoor light.
Sample photo from the HTC U11, see below for crops and comments!
1:1 crop from the photo above.
1:1 crop from the photo above. Capturing hair is often a good test of a camera phone’s capabilities. No issues here, with perfect detail from individual hairs…
Sample photo from the HTC U11, see below for crops and comments!
1:1 crop from the photo above.
1:1 crop from the photo above. The U11 focussed here on the ‘wrong’ flower, but I’ll let if off because detail and colour was terrific at the back of the bunch, shown here.
Sample photo from the HTC U11, see below for crops and comments!
1:1 crop from the photo above.
1:1 crop from the photo above. Although the noise levels are high on this low light and 2x zoomed photo, the U11 still pulls out astonishing interpolated detail….
Sample photo from the HTC U11, see below for crops and comments!
1:1 crop from the photo above.
1:1 crop from the photo above. The image was taken 2x zoomed, but the U11’s zoom routines are as good as the competition and this cropped image still looks ‘clean’.
Sample photo from the HTC U11, see below for crops and comments!
1:1 crop from the photo above.
1:1 crop from the photo above. In very low light, details on the distant altar are still resolvable. Noisy, but acceptable.

Video capture is at up to 4K and quite superb, with the OIS working a treat to keep the frame stable without any software tricks needed – audio is captured in stereo from four microphones and with a ‘3D’ trick whereby the front ones are accentuated when you zoom in, so that audio from the thing you’re zooming in on is amplified. It’s a simple idea and well done.

Chipsets are now so fast that, as here, individual frames of video get noise reduction applied in real time, HTC calls this ‘Temporal Noise Reduction’ and it works very well.

The main camera UI, showing available resolutions...
The main camera UI, showing available resolutions…
In PRO mode, everything's up for grabs, including saving to RAW format. Very comprehensive!
In PRO mode, everything’s up for grabs, including saving to RAW format. Very comprehensive!

I don’t usually test front-facing selfie cameras (people see enough of my ugly face already!), but the unit here looks excellent at 16MP and f/2.0.  Overall, a fabulous imaging experience and results from HTC.

Edge Sense

So we’re done with hardware, right? Not quite. The U11 also boasts what it calls ‘Edge Sense’, with pressure sensors under the left and right edges of the phone, quite low down. The idea is that you ‘squeeze’ the phone in order to trigger an action or an application (with ‘advanced’ ‘long squeezes’ if you want to get really fancy) and, predictably, it’s something of a gimmick in day to day life.

Which is not to say that it’s not worth having – as a reviewer, it came in very handy to trigger a screenshot. And perhaps launching the camera or torch function might be the right action for an every day user? So – nice to have, but think of it as an added extra rather than a feature which will take the world by storm.

Setting up Edge Sense and (right) the default Home layout and theme...
Setting up Edge Sense and (right) the default Home layout and theme…

Sense UI and software

Sense UI isn’t much changed from previous HTC flagships, though it’s at least based on Android 7.1.1 here and with the June security updates from Google, so it’s bang up to date in that regard. It’s a light skin and there’s not much bloat compared to the likes of Samsung’s latest offerings.

Setting up and Sense Companion
Although there’s not that much bloat on the HTC U11 by default, shame on the company for trying to push this cr*pware as part of the initial set-up process. There’s no need for this on an expensive flagship. (right) Sense Companion sticking its oar in – occasionally useful, often not, but it doesn’t bother you too often, happily.

So here you just get the traditional BlinkFeed panes combining news with social content – this worked very well and there was always something interesting when I swiped left to take a look. Plus Sense Companion, an assistant that suggests ‘helpful’ tips every so often, perhaps a restaurant that you might like to try nearby or a reminder to charge your phone soon, etc. Not exactly rocket science, though I’d have rather HTC include the official Google Assistant instead. As it is, you just get the Google ‘Screen search’, plus a Google search widget (with voice) on the main homescreen.

BlinkFeed in action, a mix of social, news and advert content!
BlinkFeed in action, a mix of social, news and advert content!

Also by default you get HTC’s licensed ‘TouchPal’ keyboard, which is competent but doesn’t have ‘Swype’/gesture typing. Still, it’s easy enough to add in GBoard or another Google first party gesture-based alternative.

Choosing a theme for the built-in TouchPal keyboard, and (right) browsing VR content in Viveport...
Choosing a theme for the built-in TouchPal keyboard, and (right) browsing VR content in Viveport…

In terms of bundled software, it’s limited to the News Republic news-aggregator, the usual Facebook properties, the Under Armour wearables and fitness companion app, plus the Viveport VR companion, effectively a mini app store for VR apps and material. However, it’s worth noting that the U11 doesn’t meet Google’s DayDream VR standard because the LCD screen technology can’t cope with the refresh speeds needed. So you get VR, but not the core Google VR, as it were…

HTC traditional entries are here too – Boost+ is your archetypal RAM and file system cleaner, plus tweaks to the power usage of each application – most people just don’t need to go this deep into how their phone works, I suggest. Plus Zoe Video Editor stitches together bits of your selected photos and video clips (though it doesn’t work with 4K content) into themed highlights.

Boost+ in action
Boost+ in action, clearing RAM and storage…

In short, there’s nothing too horrendous here, nothing that needs disabling out of the box, other than BlinkFeed, should you prefer a cleaner set of panoramic homescreens.

Biometrics, battery

Unlocking the HTC U11 is fast with the front mounted sensor and it does seem as though the tide is turning away from back-mounted sensors that you can’t access when the phone’s flat on a desk. Certainly being able to touch the sensor (with any finger) to see the full time, date, weather and notifications is a nice facility.

There’s no always-on view of any kind, which is another disappointment after first Nokia and then LG showed that always-on ‘Glance’ screens could be done with LCD technology (by having the backlight in a low power mode). This could, in theory, be added in an update, but I’m not confident.

Battery life is acceptable, though not exceptional, with a 3000mAh sealed battery. A little on the small side for such a large phone, it has to be said, though HTC does get some credit for including Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 circuitry and a suitable charger in the box, so it’s easy to get topped up in record time – think 40% in half an hour, which is fine for seeing you through an evening out on the town.

There’s no Qi or PowerMat wireless charging, mind you, which seems a missed opportunity, given that there’s a glass back (rather than metal) and given that Samsung has included this futuristic tech on its recent Galaxy flagships.

HTC U11 mirror view

Verdict

The contrast between power and styling has never been so dramatic as on the HTC U11. Admittedly the latter is subjective and some people I’ve shown the phone too have fallen in love with its looks instantly. For me, the ultra-bling mirror-finish is tasteless, the sort of chromed fingerprint magnet mirroring used on cheap plastic gadgets to make them look more expensive. Yes, I know – and you know – that this is Gorilla Glass and that HTC has  ‘layered highly refractive precious minerals’ but the effect certainly won’t please everyone. In addition to the ‘Sapphire Blue’ here, you can also get the U11 in red, silver and white, plus ‘Brilliant Black’ and I do wonder whether the latter might not have put me off the styling so much!

Comments on styling are compounded by the over-large (by 2017 standards) bezels and the oddly asymmetrical sensor and control positioning, plus the controversial (and unnecessary) removal of a standard 3.5mm headphone jack. It all adds up to a flagship smartphone that pushes all of my buttons. In the wrong direction.

However, please look past my personal gripes and criticisms. Beyond the bling is a hugely powerful phone, right up there for general UI speed and imaging prowess with the very best of the Android world right now. You do pay extra for the HTC name. Ditto the (unfortunately needed) bundled USB Type C DAC gadgets, the waterproofing, the QC3.0 charger and even a clear protective case, all explaining the current high price, though I note that in many markets HTC offers various discounts, so do watch out for these if ‘shiny, shiny’ is your bag.

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Related Topics: Featured, HTC 11, HTC U11, Reviews