Review

HTC U11 Review: U can't go wrong with this one

The HTC U11 is the 2017 flagship device from the struggling Taiwanese phone-maker. Coming on the heels of the disappointing sales of its high-end model from last year, the U11 has had a lot to prove in order to keep HTC in the smartphone game.

From the get go, the company was up against some very heavy competition. Not only is Samsung firing on all cylinders, putting out a series of critically acclaimed devices, but 2017 is also the year that OnePlus seems to have finally broken through and brought its lower-cost, high-end solutions to the market at large. Of course, that’s all without even mentioning the long-rumored, upcoming 10th anniversary Edition iPhone, expected to bring a whole new design to Apple’s device portfolio, and a price tag to boot.

Despite all of this, HTC seems to have managed to somehow straighten itself out and put out what can only be described as an excellent smartphone.

The Short Take

The HTC U11 is one of the best smartphones on the market. From design, to specs, to performance, to battery life, this phone excels in almost every area. The beautiful, high-resolution, high-density, curved-glass screen is one of the best and truly worthy of the company that has previously seen a lot of acclaim for its displays.

The U11’s camera is probably the best smartphone camera I’ve ever used. The 12-megapixel world-facing shooter performs remarkably well in most situations, bringing clarity and detail to images, even when lighting conditions aren’t optimal or the subject is moving. Auto-focus is seriously fast, and the overall quality of the image is beyond impressive for a device that’s less than eight millimeters thick.

Performance is up to speed on every task, without any noticeable lag, stutter, delays or other problems. Powered by the Snapdragon 835 SoC, this phone blazed through all the tasks that I threw at it, and seemed remarkably speedier than even last year’s flagship models, which are no slouches either.

Finally, the phone easily got me through more than a day of use most of the time, and that’s even without using the built-in battery-saving features. The 3000mAh battery does the job very well, and Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0 tech helps you juice up in less time than usual.

That’s not to say that the U11 doesn’t have its negatives as well, though they’re mostly nitpicks. For one thing, I was not at all happy with the fingerprint scanner, which simply refused to recognize sections of my fingers, forcing me to always hold the phone in a slightly awkward way to unlock it. Secondly, though Quick Charge is there to help, it still sometimes took remarkably long for the phone to charge, at less than 1% per minute. Other times though, charging was much faster, leading to an inconsistent and occasionally frustrating experience.

And of course, this section couldn’t be over without mention of the squeezable edges, the U11’s big new feature that’s supposed to set it apart from the rest of the competition. I’m sad to say this is mostly a gimmick in my experience, though not exactly the type you’d expect. The implementation of the feature actually works remarkably well, without impacting design, performance, or the way the phone feels in hand. But the feature itself is mostly useless in my personal opinion, being limited to marginal use-cases, like taking an image under water – very cool, but not something you’ll be using that much.

Lastly, I’ll say the phone overall is one of the best I’ve ever used. Unfortunately, that doesn’t exactly justify its price in some parts of the globe. There are much more affordable devices on the market, with few compromises in tow, and this includes flagship phones from other major manufacturers. HTC’s asking price of around 700 euros in European markets is too high for the discerning consumer. Though if price is no object, or you get the phone for the slightly cheaper $650 US price, then the HTC U11 might just be the perfect smartphone for you.

Design

The HTC U11 moves away in some regards from the company’s “classic” approach to smartphones, which had been in place since the original One X. But that’s not a bad move by any measure, bringing a sense of newness to the phone, and modernizing some of its looks.

The centerpiece for the U11 has to be its 5.5-inch curved-glass display, which sits atop a brushed aluminium chassis and is literally rounded off by a polished, curved and highly reflective piece of glass on the back.

HTC took the step of doing away with the business-friendly, monotone, black-slab design, and went quite a ways in the other direction. Both the aluminium chassis and the back pane come in bright, reflective colors. The back especially can easily double as a mirror or a fingerprint database, and makes the phone certain to stand out from the pack. HTC doubled down on this when it put out color variants with names like Amazing Silver, Sapphire Blue, Brilliant Black, Ice White, and Solar Red.

Moving away from the front and back-panels, the phone itself features gentle curves on all sides, making it quite comfortable to hold in hand. Unfortunately, holding the device is not always easy. The marriage of polished curved glass and aluminium, together with the 7.9mm overall thickness, makes for quite a slippery device. The clear plastic case that HTC includes in the box does help a lot with this issue, but it also takes away some of the phone’s visual appeal.

There are only three physical buttons on the phone: power and the volume controls, found on one side and easily accessible with your thumb. But the HTC U11 also features another control scheme for certain functions, one that is hidden going by looks alone. If, while holding the phone normally, you squeeze the sides of the device right under the physical buttons, something will happen. That something may be the phone snapping a photo, booting up an app or launching voice commands – it’s user customizable. Dubbed Edge Sense, the feature implementation is invisible from the outside, and works remarkably well on the software side, though its uses aren’t that varied.

Moving onto the last few aspects of the phone’s design, you’ll find a slim fingerprint scanner where the normal home button would be, and two capacitive buttons on the screen. On top of the screen, there’s a myriad of sensors for auto-focusing, brightness, noise cancelation while in calls, and of course the selfie camera.

On the bottom of the device, there’s a BoomSound speaker, a USB type-C port, and the microphones needed for calling and recording. There’s no 3.5mm headphone jack, with HTC following other manufacturers in this regard. Luckily, the company does include a USB-to-headphone adapter in the box, so your old gear still works right out of the box, even though it does so less elegantly.

Meanwhile, the back is mostly a clean, reflective slate, with the camera ring being the only noticeable protrusion in the landscape. Though it does stick out from the device, it’s definitely not a hump, being more of a circled-outline or edge, marking where the camera lens is inside of the device.

Finally, one last aspect worth mentioning is that this entire design is sealed, offering protection from dust and water intrusion. The HTC U11 comes with an IP67 rating, meaning it can manage being submerged for up to 30 minutes, in one meter of fresh water. The phone handled this splendidly and, thanks to the Edge Sense feature, I could even take images underwater.

Overall, though I’m not the biggest fan of the flashy back, I really liked the design of this phone. The rounded edges made it fit particularly well in my small hands, the 169g of mass made the phone feel just right: solid and compact but never tiresome or bloated. The quality materials stood out, and everything felt premium.

I think HTC did itself a big favor with the design and build of this phone, and came out swinging right out of the gate.

Screen

The screen may be one of my favorite aspects of the phone, though its specs can seem disappointing to fans of super high-end devices. But let’s start with the basics.

The HTC U11 offers a 5.5-inch QHD Super LCD5 screen with a density of approximately 534 pixels per square inch. What that translates to in human speak, is a crisp, beautiful display, that looks great in every single scenario. It also means HTC isn’t exactly pushing the boundaries with these specs, since QHD was present on the HTC 10 and LCD has recently fallen out of favor for high-end devices. Still, I think there’s a good argument to be made here that the whole is greater than the sum of these parts.

Over the years I’ve tested larger screens with higher resolution, more brightness, darker blacks and special sunlight-modes that made visibility better. However, in my experience, the HTC U11 hits that sweet spot where all of its features come together harmoniously, without feeling gimmicky, without destroying battery life for the sake of extra pixels, and without distorting images for the sake of readability. It’s the perfect blend of resolution, density and performance to make this screen one of my all-time favorites.

The 5.5-inch size results in a good viewing experience as well as the ability to reach the top of the screen with your thumb. It also means you can take advantage of the resolution, by having smaller text and icons, but without straining your eyesight. Little aspects like these sound unimpressive on paper, but they can make a world of difference in terms of user satisfaction over time.

That being said, I do really wish HTC had opted for AMOLED. I don’t know whether they chose LCD for budgetary considerations, or availability or a combination of factors, but the addition of AMOLED would have made this screen almost perfect in my book. Alas, as things are, the HTC U11’s screen only gets a strong pass from me.

Performance

This handset has some serious chops when it comes to performance, starting with the new-gen Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 SoC, the octa-core CPU, and the 4 or 6GB of RAM embedded inside of its case.

To put it simply, the U11 blew past last year’s high-end models, and never slowed down for almost anything. I did get a few crashes in games occasionally, but never any lag, stuttering or slowdowns during my time using it. The phone doesn’t even get hot, it just gets warm, even with prolonged use.

And speaking of prolonged use, the device seemed to excel and its optimizations kicked in when doing similar work for a longer period of time. In other words, continually rendering graphics for a game, or a video, or processing some type of work, worked really well and conserved battery, as opposed to switching between tasks and throwing different jobs at the SoC on a frequent basis.

Though real-world performance was mostly flawless, I did notice some interesting results in artificial benchmarks. The HTC U11 sometimes came in at the top, while sometimes its results were below many other handsets on the market, including ones from previous years. For example, in the Work 2.0 benchmark suite from Futuremark, the U11 reigns supreme over all other smartphones. Meanwhile, in Antutu, my device came in below different OnePlus and Samsung Galaxy models. Funnily enough, occasionally the unit came in under itself, meaning the public HTC U11 scores were significantly higher than what I was getting in benchmarks at that moment.

There could be a number of different explanations for this, including the fact that I’m using a review unit with some extra analytics in the background, not found on consumer devices, and the fact that many manufacturers monkey with benchmark results by boosting SoCs.

It’s also worth mentioning, that I was testing a unit with 64GB of storage and 4GB of RAM, or rather 3.6GB that were usable. If you go for the larger, 128GB storage option you’ll also get 6GB of RAM, which can make a big difference when editing videos or doing other such demanding tasks.

Even so, the HTC U11 consistently came in among the best performers in most benchmarks, and much more importantly, that translated into excellent real world performance. Even better, it seems to mostly do so in a very economical manner, though I’ll talk about battery life much more, over the next sections.

All in all, the HTC U11 is a very solid contender in this category, going head to head with flagship phones from Samsung and other Android manufacturers. If performance is something you’re keen on, there’s no going wrong with this handset.

Camera

Check out the camera samples gallery at the bottom of the post!

The HTC U11 comes with a 12-megapixel, f/1.7 world-facing camera. From the start, the company has touted its photography chops and lauded the camera on its device as one that would set a new standard in mobile photography. Though I wouldn’t go as far with my praise of this shooter, I will say it is indeed one of the best mobile cameras I’ve ever used.

Unlike other major manufacturers who’ve switched to a dual-lens setup, HTC has stuck with the traditional single-lens module, though it has done so with very good results. There’s no UltraPixel marketing speak, no 25-megapixel gimmick, and very little fluff around the photography aspect in the U11. It’s all pure and simple excellent engineering, in a classic, time-tested design, refined for top-of-the-line results.

As with most modern high-end smartphones, the U11’s world-facing camera had no problems capturing vivid, detailed images in good lighting conditions. Images look crisp and have great color reproduction, though you may notice some large differences between viewing the images on the phone’s warmer, QHD display and your regular non-color-corrected desktop monitor.

However, where the U11 truly excels is in the details. Literally. The company’s hardware and software algorithms blend together very well to produce very high-quality details in most images. Texture comes through very clearly, and there’s a well-struck balance between sharpening and noise in most scenes so as to outshine other mobile phones in this department. The hardware also handles dynamic range very well, resulting in more details in high-contract scenes, where other phones might wash-out or under-expose subjects.

If you’re looking at quick, social media-type images, you’ll likely miss those details and most images will just look excellent. However, if you’re paying closer attention, for example if you want to print your images, these fine-grain aspects can become very important. In this regard, the HTC U11 is a winner, though most users might completely gloss over this in day to day use.

One photography aspect that HTC does spend some marketing dollars on, is the Autofocus feature, alongside the optical stabilization system, touting them as one of the fastest and most accurate focusing performances found on mobile devices. HTC compares this to the human eye and top DSLR cameras.

Unfortunately, this, in my opinion, fails to live up to the hype. While focusing was always fast and very accurate, image stabilization left quite a bit to be desired. The phone seemed to handle moving subjects very well in most scenarios, but it struggled significantly with my caffeine-high and shaky hands that resulted from it. Even static subjects such as statues, became somewhat of a blurry mess when exposure had to be bumped up in less than ideal lighting scenarios. I’m not sure why this is, because most other smartphones handle this well, and even the U11 sometimes took amazing pictures in bad conditions, but this was quite inconsistent.

One other differentiating aspect for the HTC U11 comes from a blending together of some of the phone’s different features: great camera, IP67 rating, and the Edge Sense squeezing interaction. With these powers combined, the HTC U11 can handle underwater photography, albeit in a somewhat limited fashion.

By using the Edge Sense feature you can eschew the use of the touchscreen, which is useless underwater anyway. Thus, you can boot up the camera app and snap pictures while the phone is completely submerged. The autofocus still works very well, and many images come out crisp and beautiful. You can, of course, also film underwater, with fairly good results most of the time.

However, there are some problems here. First up, you can’t change camera modes underwater, so you need to always pre-select the desired mode before getting the phone wet. Secondly, water touching the capacitive screen can sometimes lead to different apps booting up, or to others stopping, including the video you were just filming, which just got cut short.

And lastly, perhaps the biggest issue here, is that HTC doesn’t really advise you to do this. Yes, the phone has an IP67 rating, but that only means fresh water resistance, up to one meter and 30 minutes. This is more for rain protection rather than swimming. And while the phone will likely survive being dropped in the pool, it doesn’t always come out unscathed.

For example, after using it on and off just under the surface of the water, my review unit suddenly decided it had headphones plugged in. Most likely, some water had made contact with the USB port in a funky way, and no matter what I did, the phone wouldn’t return to normal until it had dried out the next day. As such, while this is a fun and special use case, you’ll want to keep the phone dry if you really care about using it for a long time.

Battery Life

During my time with it I’ve had some ups and down with the HTC U11’s battery, but overall I think the results strongly skew towards the strongly positive in this department. The device comes with 3,000mAh non-removable battery, and features Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0 technology.

That’s a really good start, but the phone also comes with not one, not two, but three separate battery saving pieces of software, all designed to get you as much juice over the day as possible. However, I first tried the vanilla phone experience, to see how much I could get out of the U11 without sacrificing any functionality.

In my regular day to day use I always managed to get through 8-12 hours of work without worrying that the phone would die out on me. I rely on 4G connectivity and some audio streaming throughout my day, and I keep a fairly brightly lit screen. For completeness’ sake, I need to also mention Bluetooth-connected headphones, and the occasional Fitbit wearable. I also kept on all three virtual assistants the phone comes with: Alexa, the HTC Sense Companion and the standard Google Assistant. I also skipped my regular background app manual optimizations.

In other words, I kept the phone pretty much the way it comes out of the box, with over 100 of my apps installed, and in those circumstances, I believe it behaved admirably.

You do start to see rapid discharge rates when you game or use up too much mobile data, as well as when switching between tasks quickly. As I mentioned above, the CPU and GPU inside the device are better optimized for continuous performance, rather than starts and stops.

However, if you’re worried about getting through the day, there’s a lot of software directly on the phone to help with that.

First off, the HTC U11 comes with Android 7.1.1 so you’re already benefiting from the improved Doze feature found in this version of the OS, which restricts background processes when the phone is not in use.

Secondly, one of HTC’s own Companion’s features called Boost, came up after the first couple of days of use, letting me know it could use machine-learning to boost my battery life. It essentially does this by disabling rarely used apps in the background, and by changing your screen’s resolution inside of certain apps. I never really noticed this second aspect – either a testament to how well it works or a clear sign of its failure – but the background optimizations made quite a difference. Over the next few days, battery use while the device was in sleep mode came down to a very impressive 0.5% discharge rate per hour. In other words, forgetting to charge up your phone at night, would only cost you about 5% battery life.

Finally, if none of these features are enough to get you through the day, HTC has a last line of defense in the form of “Extreme power saver”. As you might have already guessed, this is a mode that essentially turns your device into a feature phone, only giving you access to the Phone, Messages, Calendar and Calculator apps, as well as a sort of very basic web-view of your e-mails. There are no camera functions, no notifications, no background tasks, and no internet browser. Screen resolution seems to also be lower, and brightness is set to its minimum.

All of these features combined, make for some very robust battery life in most scenarios, but the phone did disappoint in the charging department.

I’ll be quick to admit I’m highly biased in this area, and I’ve been fully spoiled since I’ve started using OnePlus devices with Dash charging. The fact of the matter is that Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0 is still significantly slower than Dash, leaving me with lengthy charge times for HTC U11’s sizable battery. What’s worse is that these were occasionally very inconsistent.

Without any apparent difference in background tasks and use, charging times varied wildly for the first few times I used the U11. They ranged between 20 minutes up to one and a half hours for the battery to go from 0 to 80%. In more recent use this seems to have stabilized to around 45 minutes to get you around the 80% mark. That’s not bad, considering the battery's capacity, but it’s still almost twice as long as it takes for last year’s OnePlus 3T, which has an even bigger battery.

As such, I can no longer forget to charge my phone during the night and just top it off in 10 minutes before leaving the house in the morning. I have to plan around its charging time, instead of having it work around my schedule. It’s a nitpick sure, especially if you’re coming from another Quick Charge device, but it can make a big difference in quality of life over time.

Overall, I’d rate the HTC U11’s battery as very good in terms of use, but mediocre when it comes to charging. Once it’s up to 100% it will last you a significant amount of time, but you’ll need to work around the phone’s charging times if you don’t want it to run out of the juice in the middle of the day.

Conclusion

Almost 4000 words in and I’ve barely mentioned one important aspect related to the U11: its price. That’s because I wanted to let the phone’s design and performance speak for themselves, and I believe they have done so quite clearly. But before I go on, I need to emphasize what this phone isn’t.

The HTC U11 is not a record-breaker, neither in terms of speed, nor battery life, nor camera pixels, nor affordability. It’s not pushing the envelope, neither with its choice of design, nor its features. It’s not undercutting the market, and it’s not setting HTC apart as a risk-taker.

What is it then? It’s an all-around great phone. Taking a page from Apple, HTC took existing technologies, refined them, and created an excellent end-product for users. The QHD screen is not new, nor is the camera, nor is the battery, but they blend together remarkably well, and create a really good smartphone contender, without any weaknesses and with some very specific strengths.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen quite a spread when it comes to the HTC U11’s retail value, ranging from $600 in the US to €750 in parts of Europe. That’s a significant difference and it makes recommending this device difficult. If you can get it around the $600 mark, then do so. It’s one of the best phones on the market, and many of its competitors have priced themselves even higher.

However, as that price starts to climb its value proposition declines, not because the U11 isn’t an excellent phone, but because the market has been flooded with more affordable, good devices lately. If you’re looking for a really good Android phone, but care more about price than specific photography features or slightly better sound quality, then you’re probably better off looking at other devices.

 

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