The HTC U11 has been on the market for a while now, and it’s fair to say that, compared to the competition, it hasn’t sold that well. Yet again, despite its best efforts, HTC faces a further slide into obscurity, a far cry from its heyday as the smartphone industry’s vibrant upstart – a crown now taken largely by OnePlus.
This is a real shame. If you read the review in full below you’ll see that I didn’t pull any punches when it came to testing and critiquing this phone; there were one or two things which really didn’t sit well with me; most notably the design aesthetic and the display quality, two areas HTC was once a champion of, in my view.
But, it’s still a shame that it didn’t do well in spite of these grievences, because to be fair to HTC, the HTC U11 was, in my opinion, the best phone the firm has delivered for years.
HTC also completely aced the camera this time round, something it hasn’t done for as long as I can remember. It was, in fact, the best camera I reviewed in 2017, slightly creeping ahead of the Galaxy S8/S8+, though not by much, and mainly in the low-light capabilites.
I’m not sure quite why this bothers me. I think it might have something to do with the creeping suspicion that HTC (and other smartphone firms, to be fair) is failing to shift phones not because there’s a great deal wrong with them, they are actually by and large decent phones which are getting better every generation. But it’s almost as if HTC could put out a perfect phone and wouldn’t get a look in at this point. Why? Well possibly because Samsung and Apple basically dominate the visual landscape of the smartphone market. They have a universal presence, which overshadows everything else regardless of quality.
Or at least, this is as far as the “traditional” approach to shifting phones is concerned. OnePlus is a great example of how you can actually be successful in the smartphone space in the shadow of the big boys by not playing their game directly. Instead, OnePlus relies on fostering a direct relationship with its fans on its forums and social media, and embraces viral marketing. I can’t help but wonder if the likes of HTC and Sony might be better served following this route to get phones like the HTC U11 off the shelves and into the hands of more users, because repeatedly doing what it’s always done – playing Apple and Samsung at their own game, but with a far smaller brand presence and marketing budget – just isn’t working out.
HTC has released a new model of the HTC U11 in Europe. A version of the HTC U11 with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of onboard storage has been available in the North American and Asian markets for some time, but has finally landed in Europe as well. Naturally, with that amount of memory, it’s not a cheap edition, it’s priced at €800 in mainland Europe and £700 in the UK! The red colour version is still the only one with dual-SIM, if you’re after that feature.
However, HTC has also launched the much-rumoured HTC U11 Plus, which is just what it sounds like; a bigger version of the HTC U11 with a larger 6in 18:9 edge-to-edge display. The handset is keeping in with the trend for extra-large screen and no keys on the front fascia, with the fingerprint scanner being moved to the back panel just like Samsung, LG, Huawei, and pretty much everyone else. The longer sides of the screen are essentially bezel-less, however, the HTC U11 Plus doesn’t push up so much at top and bottom in order to keep room for HTC’s front-facing BoomSound speakers, creating a Pixel 2 like chin and forehead space.
The internal specs remain more or less the same, including a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, you can either get 4GB of RAM with 64GB of onboard storage, or 6GB of RAM with 128GB, but this may be region dependent. Either option nets you microSD support as well. The battery is rated at 3,930mAh and supports Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0.
The camera is a 12MP UltraPixel 3 sensor with optical image stabilisation (OIS) an f/1.7 aperture, 1.4µm pixel size, UltraSpeed autofocus, and a dual-LED flash. Video capture is 1080p at 120fps, or 4K recording with Hi-Res audio. It’s essentially the same setup as the HTC U11. The phone comes in silver or black colour options, plus a new “translucent” black colour which shows some circutry underneath the bodywork.
As before, the HTC U11 is a metal, premium-grade flagship, though this time with a bit of extra glass thrown in for good measure.
Can it fare better than 2016’s all-metal HTC 10?
HTC U11 Review: Design
As time goes on I find it very difficult to critique the aesthetic design of most high-end smartphones, but particularly ones from HTC – HTC is arguably one of the earlier pioneers of luxurious metal smartphone design, but like Sony, it is also one of the Android OEMs that has remained mostly static.
In the case of the broad outlook of the smartphone industry though, it must be said that flagships are looking more and more alike than ever, and they all more or less fall into that iPhone/Galaxy S type design. Which is fair enough, clearly this is what consumers want and what they tend to buy. A kind of consumer tech “natural selection” has led us to this ubiquity of metal and glass slabs somewhere around the 5in size with rounded off corners, industrial style design, and neatly punched and machined grilles, ports, and buttons.
And, I don’t really have a problem with this.
But from a critique perspective, the sameness does tend to blur the lines after a while, so much so that it’s difficult to venture any kind of “useful” opinion.
I’m reminded of a professional wine expert friend of mine who, while we were holidaying in South Africa and tasting various locally produced wines, commented (as the rest of us tried desperately to identify the different notes and flavours) that a particular well-reputed Chardonnay “tastes like a Chardonnay,” much to our bemused befuddlement. Indeed, in the current market, many phones including the HTC U11, by the same token “look like high-end phones”.
In neither case is it a criticism, but nor is it praise; there’s nothing wrong with the HTC U11 design (or indeed any other similarly designed phone), in fact it’s very good, but it still just looks like a high-end phone with nothing particularly spectacular about it. It can’t really escape what it is. Just like that Chardonnay. Good. Very good. Great even…but not that different from the rest.
The last few successive generations of HTC flagship have not been very different from each other at all. They’ve still been pretty great when it came to aesthetic design and build, however, and the low number of units flying off the shelves could hardly be attributed to this facet of the phone.
I can totally understand why HTC went in a different direction this time around – as its sales of previous models weren’t doing well, it wanted to grab a bit of attention with something flashier.
Personally, for my blood (and I realise it is totally subjective), HTC went a bit too far on the flashy front – or should I say flashy rear. I just can’t get past that high-sheen gloss metallic finish, it’s far too shiny. In and of itself I just find it garish and that is enough for me not to have any desire to use a phone like this as my daily driver, or even out in public.
But on top of that it does have many practical ramifications as well. It’s more of a fingerprint magnet than even your average glass-backed phone, it is extra, extra slippery; it won’t sit happily on virtually any surface you leave it on and it is unsteady in the hand. And as well as being unsightly, the mirror-finish back also reflects your face and anything else around it, but not in a nice way – remember those freaky circus mirrors from the fairground that give you a giant Franken-forehead or a huge goofy chin? Yeah, it’s like that and it’s because of the phone’s curvature combined with the mirror finish.
I do not like it, sir, not one bit.
Which is a shame, as otherwise there is a lot to like about the exterior design and build. As I’ve come to expect from HTC, it is reassuringly solid and well put-together; the physical keys have excellent and satisfying clicky feedback (plus the power button is textured for easy location by feel), and best of all this is the first HTC flagship with proper IP67 waterproofing. It’s great, this is the first HTC that you can take near the water – but what a price to pay that we have to put up with super shiny circus mirror finishes.
It is, aside from the shine, nicely shaped with an elegant, smooth curvature and an attractive layering of the glass and metal. I WANT to like this phone’s overall design – and it’s so close…but the finish ruins it. If HTC later releases a matte finish color option I for one will be much happier.
HTC U11 Review: Battery
Battery life has been a serious sticking point of ours with past HTC flagships. I can’t remember the last time we tested an HTC lead model where we were impressed with how long it could run on a single charge.
So, naturally, there was a lot of apprehension when testing the HTC U11.
In our standard video test, running a two-hour film (in this case The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug) from 100% charge, with the film pre-loaded and screen brightness set to full, the HTC U11 drained down to 69% charge.
Now, that is not bad by any means, in fact it is quite respectable. But how good or bad this actually is for you does depend on your typical use of a smartphone – and I think it’s fine up until a certain level, at which point it kind of goes over a cliff.
For me, this is fairly decent power drain as I’m not a power user and don’t run my phones that hard outside of a testing scenario.
On a phone with this kind of battery consumption I can expect to get a good couple of days on a single charge, with my typical light-to-moderate use pattern, and I did encounter this in my non-video, day-to-day testing.
If you’re a very light user who only does a bit of occasional browsing, and the odd call or text, you’ll find this phone will last longer, maybe three days or even a bit more.
However, if you’re a bit of a smartphone fiend like Rich, you’ll blast through this thing’s power reservoir in a day easily.
I’d say this kind of battery life is fairly average for most high-end flagships, and for me this is fine, but for some it’s just not adequate. You need to factor in your own use patterns, are they light, moderate, or intensive? If you fall into the first two tiers you’ll probably be more than happy with the HTC U11. If you’re in the third, this is a no-go.
Ultimately, it’s important to bear in mind that there are better options out there with much longer life even with intensive use; amongst others the Samsung Galaxy S8 and Galxy S8+, the Apple iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, the Google Pixel and Pixel XL, and the Huawei Mate 9.
So, once again, good…but not great. In this respect it’s a lot like the previous handful of HTC flagships.
HTC U11 Review: Display
The HTC U11 sports a 5.5in Super LCD 5 touch display with a Quad-HD, 1440 x 2560 pixel resolution; giving a pixel density of 534ppi.
As with the design, I have mixed feelings about the display.
On the one hand, I like to give credit where it’s due; and this is on the whole a high quality display.
The resolution means that image clarity is wonderfully sharp with absolutely zero in the way of jagged lines or artifacting. I also think the colour is impressive, it’s nice and punchy, and although white purity is never perfect on any phone, it is VERY good here.
Brightness levels are also robust, and I must say that given my grievances with some past HTC flagships having poor visibility in bright sunlight, I am tremendously impressed with the HTC U11’s screen in this respect as it performs very well indeed; there are absolutely no issues web browsing outside on a sunny day.
However, it must be said that there are good reasons why plenty of smartphone OEMs are migrating over to OLED at the moment.
LCD was the mainstay of the smartphone space for a very long time, in spite of the fact that many OEMs were well aware of some of OLEDs superior qualities; lower power consumption, better contrast, deeper blacks, better readability and lower reflectivity in sunlight, and, except in the case of very high-end LCD wider viewing angles.
This is because at the time OLED hadn’t yet been perfected (sharpness and colour accuracy was a bit squiffy in the early days), it still had a few disadvantages which meant the trade off wasn’t worth it, and what’s more, it was expensive and difficult to manufacture. Most of these issues have now been resolved, hence why big firms are switching.
Having used both OLED and LCD displays over the years and having watched the technologies gradually change, I can say that these days I’m quite firmly in the OLED camp.
OLED is not perfect, no display type is, but when it’s well-implemented I simply find it more satisfying and rewarding to use than even the best LCDs.
Perhaps it’s the little things that really make a big difference, especially in the top tier where everything is so close and even the smallest infractions count when you’re talking about £500+ handsets.
I mean, I understand it is nitpicking of an otherwise enjoyable phone screen experience but having got used to the very deep and pure blacks of OLED I really notice the grey-ish brown washiness of the blacks in the HTC U11’s display.
It’s one of those things that once it has been seen, it cannot be un-seen.
It’s especially jarring given the tendency for smartphone makers to, as with the HTC U11, put a very pure black fascia surrounding the display panel – with this immediately adjacent to the display, you instantly see the screen’s blacks as being quite off by comparison.
I also can’t help but wonder if part of the HTC U11’s fairly average battery performance comes from the use of a QHD resolution LCD panel.
So where does this leave us? Well, it’s a tricky one. I don’t want to say the HTC U11 has a bad display because it doesn’t, it’s really rather good, it’s just not quite as good in some specific areas as some other offerings on the market. And at this point, I’m aware this is becoming a recurrent theme of the review.
Thus, once again, it’s a question of what’s important to you and whether you feel you’re getting value for money.
If having very pure black depth and high contrast on a phone display isn’t a big deal to you, then I think this is a great display you’ll be quite happy with, as in all other areas it’s very capable.
If on the other hand, you really value the qualities that OLED has brought to the table – and will grumble in your head every time you notice those soupy blacks – then this probably isn’t going to float your boat.
HTC U11 Review: Hardware, Specs & Features
I’ll post the HTC U11 spec sheet below for you to have a look at and get an overview of the hardware, connectivity and so forth sequestered inside it. Then I’ll give a commentary on some of the things which leap out. I won’t be covering the processor and performance in this section, however, as that will get its own section later.
- Dimensions: 153.9 x 75.9 x 7.9mm
- Weight: 169g
- Display: 5.5in SLCD5 1440 x 2560p QHD @534ppi
- Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 64-bit octa-core MSM8998 @2.45GHz
- GPU: Adreno 540
- RAM: 4GB/6GB [Market Dependent]
- Storage: 64GB/128GB [Market Dependent]
- MicroSD: Up To 256GB
- Software: Android 7.1 Nougat, HTC Sense UI, HTC Sense Companion, Google Assistant [Market Dependent], Amazon Alexa [Market Dependent]
- Battery: 3,000mAh, Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0
- Connectivity: NFC, A-GPS/GLONASS, Type-C USB, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac Dual-Band, Wi-Fi Direct, DLNA, Wi-Fi Hotspot, 4G LTE, Bluetooth 4.2
- Features: HTC Edge Sense, IP67 Water & Dust Resistance
- Primary Camera: 12MP, f/1.7 Aperture, OIS, Dual-LED Flash, 4K Video
- Secondary Camera: 16MP, Wide-Angle Lens, 1080p Video
HTC U11 Review: Hardware, Specs & Features – Storage
I can’t single HTC out for doing this trick, because it seems like every other OEM also does it these days, but it’s bloody annoying when any of them do it and I feel it necessary to call them all out as and when, in the vain hope that eventually they’ll all get the message.
As far as I can tell, the only version of the HTC U11 officially available in the UK is the 64GB storage model with 4GB of RAM, so we don’t get access to the 128GB/6GB RAM edition, unless you import it at your own expense and effort.
Now, for me, 64GB of storage is more than enough, but I realise that’s not the case for everybody – moreso now than ever that we find ourselves in the era of 4K multimedia and all that; file sizes are always getting bigger for everything from photos and videos, to apps and games.
I’m sure a time will come when 64GB is too little storage for me also, and I suspect it won’t be because my usage pattern has changed, it’ll be because content across the board is simply of a higher quality and therefore takes up more space.
So, in this respect it’s disappointing to be locked out of at least having the option to scale up to 128GB. Yes, both editions have microSD support for cards up to 256GB and this is fine if the majority of your storage gets taken up by multimedia, but if you install a lot of apps and games it can be a bit of an issue.
But I probably get more annoyed about how this locks us out of the 6GB RAM option as well. I used to run high-end gaming PCs so I know how RAM makes a difference when it comes to performance and leveraging the most out of CPUs and GPUs. Of course, the processor hardware needs to be built in such a way that it can make use of bigger quantities of RAM, otherwise there’s no point.
But we know for a fact that the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 can use 6GB quite happily, and it shows in benchmarking and real-world performance.
Is it a slow poke with 4GB RAM? No, not by any means, but 6GB would make things smoother and more importantly it will future proof the phone for higher-performance for longer, even as more demanding content arrives later.
Being shut out of this by virtue of geography is rather irritating to say the least. Again though, this is not uniquely HTC’s offence, but it is part of the same disappointing bandwagon in this regard and I feel that’s worth noting.
HTC U11 Review: Hardware, Specs & Features – Audio
As we’ve come to expect from HTC, the audio experience is top notch. Many rival OEMs have stepped up their game quite considerably, but I’m still yet to encounter a smartphone audio experience as good as HTC’s and this still applies to the HTC U11 as much as any predecessor.
The BoomSound stereo speakers are simply excellent, offering crystal clear sound quality and loud volumes without distortion; there still isn’t anything else out there in the smartphone market that can top this kind of audio.
On the in-ear audio side of things, this is a very different setup to what’s come before. Much more advanced, though there are some changes which aren’t going to please everyone.
Yes, you guessed it, it’s the big Kahuna; the 3.5mm audio jack is gone. It’s gone in favour of a set of proprietary HTC in-ear headphones which connect via the Type-C USB port.
I don’t consider this to be a massive negative though, because if you have your own 3.5mm headphones already then HTC has you covered; a 3.5mm-to-Type-C USB adaptor is provided in the box, so you can still use your fancy pants kit from Bang & Olufsen, Sennheiser, Bose, JBL, and the rest.
However, there are good reasons to consider using the bundled-in headphones because they can do something pretty special; customised audio via the HTC USonic technology.
We’ve seen this before on the HTC U Ultra, but obviously HTC has had time to tweak and optimise it a little more since then and it really does work like a charm. The headphones are really nicely designed, some of the most comfortable in-ear ones I’ve ever worn, and they feature very effective noise-cancellation. This is useful in and of itself, but it is implemented to combine with HTC USonic’s ability to scan your ear canal and adapt the audio profile to its unique shape for optimum sound quality.
Best of all, HTC has taken efforts to make sure this is a quick and easy setup for users of all stripes, you just go into the relevant Settings menu and press one button. That’s it. It takes about five seconds.
The process will play you a sample audio which you can toggle your custom profile from the scan on and off to hear the difference and it is quite prominent, it’s almost like the difference between hearing normally and underwater; such is the clarity gained.
It’s also really easy to create and switch between multiple custom audio profiles, so if you share your handset with a partner or something, they’re not locked out of the custom audio experience.
All in all, I’m more impressed than ever with HTC’s audio tech, and considering what came before that is saying something. There really is nothing else quite like this on the smartphone market outside of HTC’s stable.
HTC U11 Review: Hardware, Specs & Features – Edge Sense
Edge Sense was teased quite a bit in HTC’s promotional campaign; the technology means that the lower portion of the handset is pressure sensitive, allowing you to control certain phone features with a squeeze of the phone in your hand.
The setup is easy enough, and by default it will set up to open the phone’s camera app even from a sleep state, while a second squeeze will capture the image; quite handy for capturing a snap at a moment’s notice. I found that you can set it up so the squeeze is quite hard, so there’s really little concern of it activating in your pocket or bag.
The functionality is quite expandable; toggling advanced mode allows you to have the phone respond to both a short squeeze and a squeeze-and-hold control to perform different functions.
I was fully expecting the squeeze to capture to add a bit of wobble and blur to the image, as you do need to give it a bit of welly, but I was pleasantly surprised so it seems the OIS is really doing its job here.
You can also assign these controls to do other things like launching Google Voice Assistant, launching a specified app, taking screenshots, toggling the phone’s flashlight, recording voice, launching HTC Sense Companion, and toggling Wi-Fi Hotspot on or off. The camera and Google Voice Assistant also have several layers of extra control for short or longer squeezes once the app is opened.
I guess this is a neat trick, and perhaps more useful for some people than others, or in certain circumstances. I do think things like the camera for taking quick photos, the flashlight, and perhaps the Wi-Fi HotSpot could all be quite useful. Likewise if you make a lot of voice memos the voice recording could be a boon.
But with all of that said I can’t say I felt the feature really improved my phone experience massively, and I wouldn’t really miss it if it weren’t there. Definitely kind of cool though, so kudos to HTC for trying something new and quirky.
HTC U11 Review: Camera
This is a hot topic. Cameras seem to be a very competetive battleground for lead flagships at the moment, and HTC has made a lot of noise about the capabilities of the hardware aboard the HTC U11.
To recap, here is the spec for the HTC U11 camera:
- f/1.7 Aperture
- Phase Detection “UltraSpeed” Autofocus
- Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS) and Electronic Image Stabilisation (EIS)
- Dual-LED Dual-Tone Flash
- Touch Focus
- Face Detection
- HDR/Auto HDR Boost
- Panoramic Capture
- 4K Video Capture @30fps/1080p Video Capture@30fps or 120fps/HDR/Stereo Sound Recording With “Temporal Noise Reduction”
On paper HTC is certainly hitting a lot of the right notes. The firm points out that it has achieved the highest rating in smartphone camera history by independent imaging body DxOMark.
It also notes the camera is equipped with a “multi-axis optical and electronic stabilisation system”, “super-fast autofocus in all lighting conditions”, “more dynamic exposure range with HDR Boost”, and improvements to white balance and noise reduction.
Having tested the phone I can say that none of this appears to be mere bluster.
As Samsung’s recent camera offerings have proven with their dual-pixel phase-detection autofocus, autofocus speed is an incredibly important variable when it comes to fully leveraging a lot of the other camera specs – stuff like wide aperture sizes, large sensor sizes, and large pixel sizes – to get the best images.
These things make it easier for the camera to take in tons of light and detail, which will make better pictures, provided the shutter isn’t open too long; which means the camera has to be able to focus, open the shutter and then close it again really, really quickly. Usually it’s the focus speed that is the stumbling block.
HTC appears to have been taking notes, because addressing that is very much a key part of the HTC U11’s setup.
“HTC U11 incorporates the same full sensor auto-focus technology that’s found in top DSLR cameras. Typically, only a few sensors are used for focusing, but with our new UltraSpeed Autofocus, all of the pixels are used for phased detection autofocus.”
And it really is fast, lightning snappy, in fact, which together with the intuitive UI makes capturing great shots really quick and easy.
Here’s a couple of examples of the same shot with different focal points:
And here’s the HTC U11 compared to a subsequent shot of the same flower under the same conditions by the Samsung Galaxy S8+:
As you can see, in terms of clarity, contrast and most other key variables, they are on pretty much the same level. The images are packed with detail and are rich and vibrant. A noticable difference occurs with the colour, however, with the HTC U11 being a little softer, less saturated, and more natural looking, while the Galaxy S8 goes for Samsung’s typical punchy saturation and slightly more dramatic contrast.
This is really a matter of personal preference, although I’d argue it’s easier to get the “Samsung look” on an HTC-captured image with post-capture editing quite quickly and effortlessly, rather than trying to tone down an image captured on the Galaxy S8+. Simply whack up the contrast and saturation and you’re good to go.
Now, I’ve previously made it no secret that I’m a massive fan of Samsung’s imaging setup. I consider the camera aboard the Galaxy S8 series (and, in the context of their then-contemporaries, the previous Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S6 series’) to be one of the very best on the market. It’s not just a question of image capture quality either, although it helps that it is so very high, but it’s that combined with the ease of use.
There are many smartphone cameras available which can deliver as good or sometimes slightly better results, but in order to get them to deliver you have to really learn a few tricks and get to grips with fiddly elements of the controls.
You have to know a thing or two about photography, essentially.
One of the things I loved about Samsung’s setup is that this simply wasn’t the case – point, shoot, done; excellent quality photos and video with no fuss whatsoever. Anyone can do it.
And it’s not necessarily the very best quality, but it’s so damn good that anyone but the most finicky of photography aficionados cannot complain.
It’s amazing the quality you get for the little effort put in, certainly.
So, for me, almost no other OEMs had been able to match this magic combination, aside from perhaps LG on the G5 and G6 flagships.
I can safely say that HTC has now met this standard with the HTC U11.
It’s incredibly easy and fast to just point and shoot and get fantastic results. It is on a par with the Galaxy S8 both in terms of image quality and ease of use.
In some regards it appears to be slightly superior, for example, I noticed in low-light capture the HTC U11’s LED flash on the automatic setting didn’t kick in until the environmental lighting was much lower than on the Galaxy S8+. Both required flash in pitch darkness, but if you even introduce a bit of light the HTC U11 can perform well while the Galaxy S8+ still needs its flash.
Once again, I felt image quality in low-light, both with and without the flash, was comparable across both handsets. Here’s the HTC U11 in complete darkness with the flash, immediately followed by the Galaxy S8+ in the same conditions.
You can see once again the Galaxy S8+ naturally has a little more vibrancy from the way Samsung tunes its capture, but otherwise they’re both clear and of high quality.
Please pardon the repetition, but here is the same scene where enough natural light has been introduced for both the Galaxy S8+ and HTC U11 to no longer need their flash. Note that this was still a low-light situation, just not complete darkness.
Also note that the HTC U11 was able to operate in a slightly darker scene than this without the flash and deliver similar results, while the Galaxy S8 still needed the flash. Once again, HTC first…
Overall I am bowled over by the HTC U11’s camera, and it’s really nice to see a rival give Samsung a run for its money. I wouldn’t say the HTC U11’s camera is better than the Galaxy S8 but it is about the same, in my view, in terms of quality and usability.
Top marks HTC.
HTC U11 Review: Processor, Software & Performance
These days I never know what angle to take when it comes to performance analysis. On the one hand, benchmarks are an actual quantifiable metric, but on the other, they’re often quite abstract relative to real world performance. Looking at a benchmark figure doesn’t directly translate to what it’s like playing a high-end game, for example. Then you’ve got other oddball factors as well, like how a benchmark results table will often show you all the phones the one you just tested is better than, but oddly won’t show anything that ranks above it.
Then you have “real world” testing. Which is great to some extent, but there are other variables to factor in here too. Primarily, and I can’t stress this enough when it comes to smartphone performance: not all apps and games are created equal.
Games are probably the most intensive things you can run on a smartphone – the high-fidelity graphics variety at least – but how well a game runs is, more often than not, as much an issue of how well the game is optimised and coded (in and of itself, and also for that specific hardware) as it is the raw processing grunt of the CPU and GPU. I’ve seen some very impressive graphics on some titles but their poor coding has crippled even the most powerful handsets that breeze through virtually everything else. You can’t tarnish the phone with this when it’s genuinely shoddy software that would be bothersome even for a console.
With all that said, what I can tell you is that I found the HTC U11’s performance very impressive. It runs a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835, the current flagship chip from that firm, and it ran about as well as I’ve seen when encountering it elsewhere, easily handling a ton of multitasking and some intensive games such as Mortal Kombat X. It is a powerhouse of an SoC, to be sure, there are good reasons that Qualcomm’s tech is so well regarded and why most major manufacturers are putting this chip in their leading handsets.
The 10nm tech also runs cooler than its predecessors; the current crop of hero phones running this and similar chips don’t seem to suffer from the old problem of hot back panels even when you run them hard; and the HTC U11 is no exception.
In the past I’ve written about the HTC Sense UI as being a shining example to other Android OEMs in how it honours the Google Android Material Design aesthetic with streamlined, minimalist features. Many rivals have closed the gap now, but even so, the latest version of HTC Sense is still a marvel. It runs wonderfully smooth and retains that really fresh, clean look with a carefully constructed set of icons, a bespoke font, and thoughtfully laid-out menu and interface elements.
I honestly can’t find much to grumble about here. It’s just a great interface and a hands-off approach to Android, which is always good to see, but one which is masterfully executed in HTC’s now very well-honed style. This company knows what it’s doing when it comes to UIs on Android.
I will say that I’m getting used to seeing AI Assistants being pushed quite heavily these days, but I’m also now familiar with finding interacting with them to be a sub-par experience, or at least, not as impressive as the manufacturer would have you believe. I tried to get along with Sense Companion but it wasn’t particularly accessible or even that useful in my view. Perhaps I’m not the target demographic though as I work from home and don’t really do that much in a typical week, I doubt I’d have much use for a real life personal assistant either.
Not that this really detracts from the rest of the software experience, as you can take it or leave it, plus there’s always Google Assistant anyway.
Update: From July 24, Amazon Alexa is now officially available for the HTC U11. Users will need to hop onto Google Play and download the HTC Alexa application; once done, Alexa will be embedded into your phone just like Google Assistant and HTC Sense Companion. It’ll then respond to your voice commands, if you set it up to be your main AI assistant.
Apparently it’ll be available for German HTC U11 users very soon, with Amazon having released the German-speaking Amazon Echo speaker.
Alexa users on the HTC U11 can also set the assistant up to be activated by the handset’s unique Edge Sense pressure input; a squeeze of the handset’s lower portion bringing the AI to life.
Update: HTC has now issued a software update which is currently rolling out over-the-air. The update includes support for Bluetooth 5.0 and video recording at 60fps in 1080p. Although additional Edge Sense squeeze controls were rumored, they have not made it into this update, so will perhaps appear in a future patch. It does, however, include the Android Security update.
HTC has released an update for the HTC U11 bringing it up to software version 1.27.400.9. The update is a 665MB download and adds 1080p video recording at 60fps, as well as the August Android Security Patch and various fixes and tweaks for better stability.
More importantly, HTC has now confirmed that the HTC U11 (as well as the HTC U Ultra and HTC 10) will be updated to the recently announced Android Oreo.
“We’re excited to bring Android Oreo to HTC U11, HTC U Ultra, and HTC 10 owners worldwide! Details & additional devices to be announced soon,” the firm wrote in an official Tweet.
HTC U11 Review: Verdict
This is a really tricky one. I actually really like the HTC U11, it has grown on me tremendously. I love the camera, which is one of the best on the current market in my view. I also like the software, the performance, and the audio is second-to-none. It’s waterproof too, which is a big plus in my book.
But as I mentioned, I personally cannot get past the exterior design, which for my tastes is far too garish. But then, I’ll readily admit, perhaps I’m not the target audience; I’ve heard reports already that the handset is selling quite well, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was with a younger demographic who like the shiny style. Some people like flashy. I don’t, but that’s just me. For me that is enough to make me not want to buy the phone even without factoring in the other two problems I have with it. You may feel differently.
Likewise I am really disappointed in the display. I think HTC could do a lot better here, but again, I’m sure there will be consumers who are not as finnicky being perfectly happy with what’s on offer.
And on the same note, the battery life. As I mentioned, for me this is actually good enough, so it may well be fine for a decent chunk of users out there. But if you’re anything anywhere near a power user or want really long battery life with moderate use and above, stay away from this one.
Can I recommend the HTC U11? Yes, actually, there is a LOT to like here, but only if you take into account the above caveats and conclude that the detracting factors aren’t an issue for you.
Can you live with a shiny bling-tastic phone? Are you ok with recharging your phone daily? Are you happy with a display that is decent but not exceptional? Are you ok with these compromises while still paying flagship prices? If you’re answering yes, then you may well be pleased with the HTC U11.