HTC U11

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Android Advisor - - CONTENTS - Michael Si­mon

The an­nals of Android are lit­tered with one-and­done gim­micks that were orig­i­nally hailed as the next big thing. In­deed, from slide-out game pads to built-in pro­jec­tors, way too many Android phones have in­cluded fea­tures that never caught on. So, will the new Edge Sense fea­ture in the HTC U11 meet a sim­i­lar fate? Prob­a­bly. But the U11 is still a great phone that’s fun to use.

A more pock­etable ver­sion of the ill-con­ceived U Ul­tra, HTC’s new­est flag­ship isn’t just an­other high­lyspec­i­fied hand­set with good looks and a great cam­era. The new Edge Sense fea­ture lets you launch apps and ac­tions by squeez­ing the sides of the phone. It’s a gim­mick for sure, but one of the best gim­micks ever to grace an Android hand­set.

It’s great to see HTC think­ing out­side the box, and with the U11, HTC is mak­ing a state­ment: Any­one can make a pow­er­ful phone, but re­mem­ber when these hand­held com­put­ers used to be de­light­ful too?

De­sign

If you’ve ever seen a U Ul­tra in the flesh, the U11 will be instantly fa­mil­iar. From the front, it looks ex­actly the same as the U Ul­tra, with the off-cen­tre cam­era, pill-shaped home but­ton/fin­ger­print sen­sor, and ex­tralarge fore­head and chin. A tex­tured power but­ton is still un­for­tu­nately po­si­tioned be­low the vol­ume rocker.

Flip it over, and the U11 is even more rem­i­nis­cent of the U Ul­tra. The back plate uses the same ‘liq­uid’ sur­face, which looks just as stun­ning as it does on the U11’s big brother, de­spite the per­sis­tence of the mi­cro­phone hole, which mars the liq­uid ef­fect a bit. The Ul­tra’s Sap­phire Blue colour re­mains as well.

You’ll find some other small de­sign changes, like a round cam­era in­stead of a square one, a far-lesspro­tru­sive cam­era bump, and slightly less ta­pered edges. But HTC has fully em­braced its new de­sign lan­guage with the U11, putting all traces of the an­tenna lines and speaker grills of the HTC 10 and One M9 firmly in the past.

While the U11 and U Ul­tra may share many of the same vis­ual cues, the sim­i­lar­i­ties end when you pick it up. Gone is the U Ul­tra’s sec­ond screen. And where the Ul­tra was mon­strous and cum­ber­some, the 5.5in U11 is down­right svelte. Its smooth con­tours let it rest nat­u­rally in your hand with a glass back that some­how feels more lux­u­ri­ous than the glass on the Galaxy S8 or the LG G6.

One of the many com­plaints we have with the U Ul­tra is that its enor­mous size makes it far too prone to drop­ping when hold­ing it with one hand. The U11 fixes that with not just smaller di­men­sions, but also (re­port­edly) a change in ma­te­ri­als. We re­peat­edly rubbed my fin­gers across the back of each phone, and the U11 felt tack­ier and more re­sis­tant to glid­ing. The new liq­uid de­sign phone is still a fin­ger­print mag­net, but the U11 seems to pick up fewer smudges than the U Ul­tra.

Dis­play

Af­ter the LG G6, the Galaxy S8, and now the Es­sen­tial Phone, we have cer­tain ex­pec­ta­tions for screen-to-body ra­tio in new flag­ship hand­sets. HTC didn’t get that memo. The U11’s bezels are about as big as the eight-month-old Pixel’s, and its 71 per­cent screen-to-body ra­tio makes it look more like a bud­get phone and less like a pre­mium one.

But just be­cause its Su­per LCD5 Quad HD screen doesn’t stretch to the

edges doesn’t mean you’re get­ting an in­fe­rior prod­uct. At 534ppi, its dis­play has a higher pixel den­sity than the U Ul­tra’s 513ppi, and de­spite stick­ing with an LCD panel, the U11 is just as bright and vi­brant as its OLED peers. Else­where, you get a Snap­dragon 835 chip, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of storage, all of which add up to a phone that can stand shoul­der to the shoul­der with the G6s and S8s of the world.

Au­dio buffs will be bummed to learn that the U11 doesn’t re­turn the head­phone jack that was cut from the U Ul­tra. That said, HTC has in­cluded a 3.5mmto-USB-C adapter this time around. Also in the box is a pair of noise-can­celling USonic ear­buds that use the phone’s ear-scan­ning wiz­ardry to de­liver the best pos­si­ble au­dio pro­file for each user.

Per­for­mance

The U11 runs off Qual­comm’s Snap­dragon 835 chip, which wasn’t avail­able in time for the U Ul­tra launch. The dif­fer­ence be­tween the two pro­ces­sors isn’t all that great, but it’s nice to know the U11 has the lat­est-great­est chip inside.

But even with­out a mas­sive speed boost over the prior model, the U11 is still a beast of a per­former. Like the S8, the phone zips through tasks and switches apps ef­fort­lessly, but it feels like we’ve reached a level where all phones per­form ba­si­cally the same. The U11 is plenty fast, but like the Galaxy S8, nei­ther bench­marks nor real-world test­ing show it run­ning cir­cles around the G6 or even the Pixel.

One thing HTC hasn’t up­graded in the U11, how­ever, is the bat­tery. Like the U Ul­tra, it has a 3,000mAh bat­tery, but with the smaller screen, it’s much bet­ter pre­pared to keep the phone pow­ered through the bet­ter part of a busy day. It’s no Galaxy S8, mind you, but it beats the LG G6 in our pre­ferred bat­tery test. In our bench­marks it got about seven hours of use, and real-world test­ing bore that out. On long trips, you’ll want to keep a bat­tery pack nearby just to be safe, but the U11 should get you through to the end of most days. The U11 sup­ports the Quick Charge 3.0 stan­dard (which will fill a halfdrained phone in about a half-hour), but doesn’t have built-in sup­port for wire­less charg­ing.

Edge Sense

Since the U11 is some­thing of a mea culpa re­spond­ing to the U Ul­tra’s slip­pery, over­sized frame, it only

fig­ures that gri­pa­bil­ity, if you will, would fac­tor into the phone’s premier fea­ture.

HTC’s Edge Sense is ba­si­cally a short­cut trig­ger – you lit­er­ally squeeze the sides of the phone to launch various fea­tures, apps and ac­tions. You can set up two dif­fer­ent be­hav­iours to trig­ger: one with a short squeeze and one with a long squeeze. It sounds some­what silly, but try it for your­self, and you just may ap­pre­ci­ate it. We did.

The phone’s set-up process will take you through sev­eral Edge Sense ori­en­ta­tion screens, where you’ll cus­tom­ize the ex­pe­ri­ence with your favourite app, and prac­tice squeez­ing. The phone will mea­sure how hard

you can squeeze the sides while still main­tain­ing a com­fort­able grip. You get a sur­pris­ing level of per­son­al­iza­tion, and while it’s all a lit­tle weird at first, HTC clearly doesn’t want Edge Sense to be a gim­mick that you quickly for­get about.

Edge Sense runs on top of the en­tire in­ter­face, so it will work any­where you are, whether you’re in an app or on the lock screen. Since you can set it to launch any app and even some ac­tions (like tak­ing a screen­shot or tog­gling the flash­light), it can re­duce multi-step ac­tions to a sin­gle squeeze.

For ex­am­ple, if we’re writ­ing a text mes­sage and want to send our re­cip­i­ent a pic­ture of where we are, we only need to squeeze the sides of the phone to launch the cam­era. Or if we want to ask Google As­sis­tant a ques­tion while in my cal­en­dar, we can squeeze a lit­tle harder. There’s a vis­ual in­di­ca­tor on the sides of the screen to in­di­cate the force of your squeezes, as well as a small vi­bra­tion once the fea­ture has trig­gered the ac­tion.

Af­ter a while, Edge Sense be­came sec­ond na­ture. Sure, we needed to take a cou­ple trips to the setup screen to nail down our ‘squeeze force level’, but once we learned to use my palm rather than my thumb, it be­came much more com­fort­able. It’s fun to use, but it’s also the kind of fea­ture you need to re­mem­ber to use. As such, we don’t see it ex­pand­ing be­yond the U11.

Cam­eras

If you do re­mem­ber to use Edge Sense, it will no doubt be to launch the cam­era (it’s the de­fault, in fact),

and HTC has put a great cam­era in the U11. Users of the U Ul­tra will be fa­mil­iar with the specs – a 12Mp lens with an f/1.7 aper­ture, op­ti­cal im­age sta­bi­liza­tion and phase de­tec­tion aut­o­fo­cus.

Us­ing the same cam­era isn’t nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing. The U Ul­tra’s cam­era was one of the few fea­tures that re­ally shined, and the U11’s does as well. Its score in the vaunted DxOMark bench­mark is 90, the high­est ever handed out to a mo­bile phone (though, to be fair, the cam­era qual­ity dif­fer­ences be­tween U11, Pixel and the Galaxy S8 are small). We put the HTC through a bat­tery of tests against our favourite cur­rent

cam­era, the LG G6, which has al­ready bested the Pixel and the Galaxy S8 in our cam­era shoot-outs. You can find the full de­tails of our test­ing here, but the short story is that while the G6 still came out ahead, it was an ex­tremely close con­test.

Both cam­eras pro­duced true-to-life colour (see above), and while the U11 strug­gled a bit with white bal­ance in dark en­vi­ron­ments, it of­ten re­sulted in shots that were truer to life. The U11 also per­formed well when it came to clar­ity and ex­po­sure, and han­dled bright light and shad­ows bet­ter when shoot­ing in HDR mode. In fact, with the ex­cep­tion of slight pauses

when pro­cess­ing HDR and RAW images, the HTC was on par with, or bet­ter than, the G6.

HTC hasn’t added any new shoot­ing modes or fil­ters to its cam­era app. We we’re still able to take crisp, bal­anced shots with lit­tle to no ef­fort, but the U11 ex­pe­ri­ence pales in com­par­i­son to the G6’s ro­bust Match Shot mode or the se­lec­tive fo­cus fea­ture of the S8.

On the front of the phone, you get the same gi­gan­tic 16Mp cam­era as on the U Ul­tra. Your selfies will sing as a re­sult, but the front shooter still lacks whimsy. For in­stance, Sam­sung added a ton of Snapchat-style fil­ters and stick­ers to its cam­era app, and it would have been a good ad­di­tion here too. Still, it’s nice that HTC has fi­nally re­al­ized that the front cam­era is just as im­por­tant as the rear one (if not more so), and now we’d like to see HTC em­brace the selfie’s wack­ier side.

Soft­ware

The U11 runs Android 7.1, which brings a few im­prove­ments over the U Ul­tra’s 7.0 Sense in­ter­face. Most no­table is the abil­ity to bring up app short­cuts and a new 5x6 grid size for the app drawer. But mostly it’s the same ex­pe­ri­ence as in the U Ul­tra, which is hardly a bad thing.

HTC treads pretty lightly on top of stock Nougat, adding a few use­ful fea­tures and set­tings, but mostly keep­ing things as Google in­tended. We missed Pixel fea­tures like swip­ing up to ac­cess the app drawer and the classy weather wid­get, but from Sense’s set­tings sug­ges­tions to the Flip to mute tog­gle, we

gen­er­ally en­joyed HTC’s spin on Nougat. Where HTC re­ally dis­tin­guishes it­self is with its dig­i­tal as­sis­tant. Make that dig­i­tal as­sis­tants, plu­ral, as there are no fewer than three of them in the U11. While Google As­sis­tant is still present in the home but­ton, HTC in­cludes its own AI aide called Sense Com­pan­ion. It works more con­sis­tently on the U11 than it did when we tested the U Ul­tra, of­fer­ing reg­u­lar restau­rant and bat­tery-sav­ing tips via a lit­tle bub­ble that pops up on the side of the screen and in the no­ti­fi­ca­tion shade. It’s not so ob­tru­sive that I wanted to quickly turn it off, but we’re not sure we need an­other AI bot to do our think­ing for us.

HTC has also built Alexa into the U11, mak­ing this the first phone to bring true hands-free sup­port for Ama­zon’s dig­i­tal As­sis­tant. Un­like the im­ple­men­ta­tion on the Huawei Mate 9, which re­quires a sep­a­rate app to be launched first, HTC says the U11 will ac­tu­ally re­spond to “Alexa” just like your Echo does.

The fea­ture wasn’t live on my re­view unit so we couldn’t test its skills, but it’s def­i­nitely an in­trigu­ing rea­son to con­sider the U11.

Verdict

If you’re in the mar­ket for a phone that costs £600, there’s no short­age of op­tions. Even if you ex­clude the aging Pixel, there’s the LG G6, Sam­sung Galaxy S8, and the up­com­ing Es­sen­tial phone. And the OnePlus 5, which is also ru­moured to sport an 835 chip, is just around the cor­ner.

But the U11 has some­thing that none of those other phones have. Edge Sense may be a gim­mick, but it’s a fun one, and you’d don’t have to sac­ri­fice much of any­thing to get it. Take it away, and the U11 still has the best pro­ces­sor, a top-notch cam­era, and a nice de­sign, even if it doesn’t quite have the edge-to-edge ap­peal of the Galaxy S8.

The U11 harkens back to a sim­pler time when a phone’s body was cel­e­brated and not just some­thing that got in the way. If phones with vis­i­ble bezels and frames that stand out are truly a dy­ing breed, then HTC has given them a proper and fit­ting send-off with the U11. The U Ul­tra felt like a bogged-down, staid phone, but the U11 is light, in­vig­o­rat­ing, and just plain fun to use.

Spec­i­fi­ca­tions

• 5.5in (2560x1440, 534ppi) LCD 5 dis­play

• Android Nougat 7.1

• Qual­comm Snap­dragon 835

• 4GB RAM

• 64GB storage with mi­croSD up to 256GB

• 12Mp main cam­era, f/1.7 with OIS

• 16Mp front facing cam­era, f/2.0

• Edge Sense

• 802.11ac dual-band Wi-Fi

• Blue­tooth 4.2

• 4G LTE Cat16

• Nano-SIM

• GPS

• NFC

• USB-C 3.1

• 3,000mAh non-re­mov­able bat­tery

• Quick Charge 3.0

• 154x76x7.9mm

• 169g

Cap The U11 more than held its own against the LG G6, our pick for the best cam­era phone

It’s hard to find much to com­plain about when com­par­ing the U11 (left) to the Pixel (cen­tre) and the Galaxy S8 (right). And in this par­tic­u­lar com­par­i­son, the U11 cap­tured colours that were more true to the ac­tual ob­ject’s appearance

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