HTC U Ul­tra

£649 inc VAT from fave.co/2s3s1gq

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Okay, we know – we are meant to re­view ev­ery smart­phone in iso­la­tion, with­out re­lent­lessly com­par­ing it to oth­ers in or­der to as­sess it. But by sum­mer 2017 we have al­ready had great things to say about the Sam­sung Galaxy S8, the Huawei P10 and the LG G6. The HTC U Ul­tra was an­nounced be­fore any of these phones, back in Jan­uary at a press con­fer­ence. HTC has adopted the ‘U’ brand­ing be­cause that’s who it says this phone is for – you. It be­lieves it has de­signed a highly per­sonal de­vice.

It’s def­i­nitely dif­fer­ent enough to stand out, and we truly wanted to love this phone. In ev­ery­day use it does make a half de­cent ar­gu­ment for it­self, but given its ob­vi­ous flaws, it’s im­pos­si­ble for me to say out­right that you should buy it. It sim­ply isn’t good enough.

De­sign

HTC con­sid­ers it­self ‘the master of metal’ but the de­sign mantra of the U se­ries phones is ‘Liq­uid Sur­face’, achieved with glass. Liq­uid sur­face doesn’t re­ally mean any­thing, but refers to the at­trac­tive depth ef­fect the glass takes on, as op­posed to Sam­sung’s method of plac­ing colour sheets un­der a piece of glass that gives a flat­ter, 2D ef­fect.

Be­fore you even turn it on, it’s a beau­ti­ful de­vice. With this break from metal phones, HTC has at least made the U Ul­tra to the high­est build qual­ity stan­dards. But it’s just too big. Ab­so­lutely huge, in fact. Now, we’re sure that many peo­ple out there still pre­fer the pres­ence of a bit of bezel. Bezel­free de­vices may be the lat­est trend, but they are de­bat­ably harder to hold (the Xiaomi Mi Mix in par­tic­u­lar is all screen and hard to grip with­out reg­is­ter­ing er­ro­neous touches on the dis­play).

The U Ul­tra has a big old bezel at the chin, and what ap­pears like a big­ger one at the fore­head. The chin houses a re­spon­sive fin­ger­print sen­sor and ca­pac­i­tive An­droid nav­i­ga­tion but­tons that look oddly too small for the de­sign.

It ap­pears HTC has copied this set up from the HTC 10, but be­cause the U Ul­tra is so much big­ger, there’s tons of un­used space and the de­sign

looks wrong, al­most like a man­u­fac­tur­ing er­ror, as there’s no good rea­son why there should be so much un­used space. This is not good on a high­end phone, and we fre­quently missed the back and re­cent apps but­tons be­cause they are tiny and don’t stay back­lit (though you can change this in set­tings to the detri­ment of bat­tery life).

Once you turn it on, you see that the large bezel at the top houses a se­condary dis­play that is op­er­ated sep­a­rately to the 5.7in main dis­play (with more bezel to spare, by the way).

The U Ul­tra’s size means that it is un­doubt­edly a two-handed de­vice. Even scrolling through Twit­ter with one hand on the train is per­ilous such is the un­wieldy na­ture of the phone.

Maybe it’s our nos­tal­gia for the brand, but de­spite these nig­gles it’s still nice to see HTC do

some­thing dif­fer­ent and the U Ul­tra is cer­tainly that. While HTC’s phones have typ­i­cally been vari­a­tions of grey with a sleek brushed fin­ish, the U Ul­tra is al­to­gether more strik­ing.

Whether it’s strik­ing in good way will de­pend on your per­sonal taste. There are four colours to choose from, the Sap­phire Blue and Bril­liant Black op­tions are best and the lat­ter has a slightly green tint. How­ever, the pearles­cent Ice White and Cos­metic Pink colours are more gar­ish but per­haps that’s what you’re af­ter.

Our white re­view sam­ple did grow on us though, with a slight pink glint in the right light.

The curved glass makes for a com­fort­able fit in the hand and although the ma­te­rial may be strong and harder to scratch, it has var­i­ous down­sides. The lack of fric­tion makes the de­vice slip­pery, it’s a fin­ger­print mag­net and, we sus­pect, prone to shat­ter­ing if you drop it.

A clear case is in­cluded in the box to help with some of these is­sues but of course makes the phone even big­ger and heav­ier.

Ev­ery­thing else is in check, with USB-C and a speaker on the bot­tom, SIM tray with two slots (though one gives the op­tion for mi­croSD up to 256GB) on the top, a tex­tured power but­ton and vol­ume rocker on the right edge and noth­ing on the left edge. The power but­ton is nicely tex­tured but af­ter this re­viewer dropped the phone once, it lost its tac­tile click and is now mushy.

Painfully, there is no head­phone jack on the U Ul­tra so HTC is fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of Ap­ple and Mo­torola on this front. It’s a straight up crime that a

USB-C to head­phone jack don­gle is not in­cluded in the box, and has meant we were im­me­di­ately put off list­ing to mu­sic or pod­casts on the phone.

You do get a pair of USonic head­phones that uti­lize the re­versible port though, but there aren’t the best. More on that fur­ther into this re­view.

The U Ul­tra re­tains HTC’s BoomSound stereo speak­ers but like the flag­ship 10, only one faces for­ward. There are four mi­cro­phones on the hand­set too for the cap­ture of bet­ter au­dio in videos.

Over­all the de­sign is bold, dif­fer­ent but frus­trat­ing af­ter ex­tended use. I use a lot of phones and the ini­tial good im­pres­sions of the U Ul­tra are sud­denly dulled when you hold a bet­ter de­signed phone (in one hand) and re­alise the U Ul­tra is a step back­wards from the mar­vel­lous HTC 10.

Dis­play

In 2017 as we see bezels shrink and screens get taller, the HTC U Ul­tra has gone full tra­di­tional ph­ablet – it’s a big old de­vice at 162.4x79.8x8mm, hous­ing a 5.7in Su­per LCD dis­play with a 2560x1440 res­o­lu­tion and 513ppi. The screen pro­duces colours ex­cel­lently, and we have no com­plaints when viewing video, web brows­ing or play­ing games.

Then there’s also a small, thin strip screen at the top of the de­vice like we saw on the LG V10 and V20. It’s two inches with a res­o­lu­tion of 1040x60.

We can’t say that this is a fea­ture we ever han­kered af­ter, and in fact now that we have it on the U Ul­tra, it’s kind of an­noy­ing. Not be­cause it makes an al­ready large phone even big­ger, but be­cause it also isn’t very use­ful. You can scroll through cus­tomis­able pan­els for weather (the best one), app short­cuts, re­minder, cal­en­dar, favourite con­tacts and mu­sic con­trols.

The weather auto up­dates with fore­casts, which is cool, and the re­minder panel is good for ‘get milk’ and other tem­po­rary mind jogs. But the app short­cuts are re­dun­dant when you can hit home and tap the app any­way, and the whole dis­play is only on when the main screen is.

With both screens off, raise to wake shows the time, date, no­ti­fi­ca­tion icons, bat­tery and weather on the se­condary dis­play. You can then scroll through all the nor­mal modes, with an ad­di­tional quick tog­gle menu for ac­cess to Wi-Fi, flash­light, Blue­tooth and more. Baf­flingly this handy op­tion is only avail­able when the phone is locked.

A se­condary screen is not high on the list of con­sumers’ must-have fea­tures on a phone, and the way it has been hur­riedly im­ple­mented on the U Ul­tra is dis­ap­point­ing. Okay, you can read the first line of a no­ti­fi­ca­tion when you’re in an­other app with­out ob­struct­ing what you’re see­ing, but it means an al­ready huge phone has to be big­ger, and doesn’t im­prove the user ex­pe­ri­ence. It com­pli­cates it.

Per­for­mance

Aside from the screens, the phone runs on the Snap­dragon 821 pro­ces­sor also found in the OnePlus 3T and LG G6, paired with 4GB RAM. There’s def­i­nitely enough power un­der the hood for most peo­ple, and the 821 is a proven chip de­spite the 835 now de­but­ing on the Galaxy S8.

4GB RAM is still all you re­ally need on a phone too short of do­ing lit­er­ally ev­ery com­put­ing task on it at once, and the U Ul­tra stood up to solid per­for­mance

in mul­ti­task­ing. App load times are good, as is switch­ing be­tween apps.

Units ship with a gen­er­ous 64GB stor­age, but that is be­com­ing stan­dard for flag­ship An­droid de­vices to­day. A lim­ited edi­tion 128GB ver­sion with Sap­phire glass is avail­able in Tai­wan.

In terms of pure power, the U Ul­tra is a high-end de­vice, if not the most pow­er­ful. But with con­stant use it feels lim­ited and overblown at the same time, which makes for a frus­trat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. The hard­ware and soft­ware are in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked, but not in a good way. It is also a weighty de­vice at 170g, not helped by its stretched di­men­sions.

There’s also ev­ery­thing else you’d ex­pect; NFC, Blue­tooth 4.2, 11ac Wi-Fi and fast charg­ing with Quick Charge 3.0. But there’s no wire­less charg­ing de­spite the move to glass (metal phones pro­hibit it), and no wa­ter­proof­ing what­so­ever. These things won’t mat­ter to ev­ery­one, but many com­pet­ing An­droid phones now have both as stan­dard, and at £649 the U Ul­tra re­ally should have one or both.

There’s also no head­phone jack, and the sad fact of the mat­ter is HTC can’t get away with this. Ap­ple can. It’s not fair, but it’s true.

Even though we’d pre­fer a head­phone port on the iPhone 7, at least Ap­ple shipped an adapter with ev­ery phone. In the UK, you don’t get an adapter with the HTC U Ul­tra and the UK HTC site doesn’t stock it, so you have to use the bun­dled head­set.

That’s fine if you like black HTC in-ear head­phones, but we strug­gle with com­fort of in-ears. So with no other op­tion be­sides Blue­tooth head­phones, we

im­me­di­ately con­sid­ered the U Ul­tra a no-go for au­dio. This is bad for HTC – we won’t be the only one who will grimly per­se­vere with the in­cluded head­phones. They are too bass heavy and there’s not a whole lot else to say other than to re­peat my frus­tra­tion.

Cam­era

The cam­era is a 12Mp sen­sor with OIS while the front fac­ing cam­era is 16Mp. The lat­ter can use Ul­traSelfie with Ul­traPixel tech (lot of ul­tra go­ing on here), a mode that is four times more sen­si­tive to light than the nor­mal mode. Get ready to photo that face.

Pho­tos come up well but can look a tad washed out or too dark – the light­ing con­di­tions gen­er­ally have to be spot on or the sen­sor strug­gles.

The rear-fac­ing snap­per can also take in 2160p video at 30fps. The cam­era app is a lit­tle tricky to use and feels a bit toy like, but once you’ve found the set­tings menu then it can pro­duce very good, if not class lead­ing, im­ages. The cam­era bump is also huge on an al­ready thick phone. Surely HTC could have made it flush?

Bat­tery

And then there’s the bat­tery – it’s 3,000mAh, which sim­ply isn’t enough for a phone with two dis­plays. This phone is phys­i­cally mas­sive, and it’s sim­ply not a big enough cell to keep it go­ing. The U Ul­tra came off charge most morn­ings at 8am and was hit­ting

The HTC U Ul­tra is a mag­net for fin­ger­prints

It wasn’t this dark when we took this photo

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