★★★★★ £650 • www.amazon.co.uk VERDICT
With its great looks and spanking new processor, the HTC U11 is a welcome return to form
THESE DAYS IT’S becoming ever more difficult for smartphone manufacturers to build products that stand out, but HTC has managed to do just that with the HTC U11’s squeezable frame. This, claims the firm, will change the way we use our smartphones; a development on the same level as the capacitive touchscreen.
This is hyperbole, as we’ll soon discover, but this is still a smartphone of rare distinction. Its glassy, glossy two-tone finish means it looks like no other handset, and its camera is on par with that of the Google Pixel XL (Shopper 347) and Samsung Galaxy S8( Shopper 353). It’s a little cheaper than the S8, too, costing £650.
Still, that’s a lot of cash, and so HTC is going to have a hard time persuading potential buyers to part with their money – especially as the phone doesn’t have one of the new super-wide aspect displays that the Samsung Galaxy S8, S8+ and LG G6 (Shopper 353) are equipped with. Instead, you get a regular 5.5in screen and comparatively broad bezels at the top, bottom, left and right.
SHINY HAPPY PEOPLE
From the front the HTC U11 is a bit basiclooking, but there are a couple of benefits here. There’s enough room below the screen for a front-mounted fingerprint reader, for instance, and also off-screen back and recent apps buttons.
The HTC U11 is available in the same range of fetching colours as the previously launched HTC U Ultra and Play, but none is as attractive as the new (misleadingly named) Amazing Silver and the yet-to-be-released Solar Red. We were sent an HTC U11 in the former to test, and it’s a beautiful sight. It has a light, anodised blue frame surrounding a mirror- finish rear panel topped with glass that veers between a subtle violet tone and steely blue.
If you like your smartphones ostentatious, the HTC U11 is the handset you’ve been looking for. Just bear in mind that if you touch it without donning gloves, it’s going to pick up your fingerprints like crazy.
The volume rocker and power button are both sensibly placed on the right-hand edge, the two BoomSound speakers are placed on the bottom edge and within the phone’s earpiece, the dual-purpose SIM/microSD card tray is found on the top edge, and the headphone jack… well, actually, there isn’t one. HTC is sticking to its guns here, supplying a pair of active noise-cancelling USonic USB Type-C headphones in the box.
It’s also worth noting that HTC has joined the dust- and water-resistant crowd with the U11; it’s rated to IP67, which means it should endure a brief dunking in the sink
If you like your smartphones ostentatious, the HTC U11 is the handset you’ve been looking for. Just bear in mind that if you touch it without gloves, it’s going to pick up fingerprints
or the bath. Don’t be sure so sure about the glass back surviving an impact with a hard surface, though.
Aside from its arresting good looks, the U11’s headline feature is its squeezability or, as HTC is calling it, Edge Sense. The phone is equipped with pressure sensors embedded in the lower half of its frame, allowing you to launch apps from the lockscreen with a short or long squeeze of your hand and perform actions within those apps, again with a short or long squeeze.
By default, a short squeeze launches the camera app, then you can follow up with another short squeeze to take a picture or a long squeeze to switch between rear- and selfie-camera modes. A long squeeze from the homescreen or lockscreen, meanwhile, fires up Google Assistant, although there are no associated actions within that app for you to play around with.
Ultimately, it’s a feature that sounds more exciting than it actually is, and after playing around with Edge Sense initially, we ended up barely using it day to day. It’s an admirable attempt by HTC to shake things up, but it’s far from a revolutionary feature.
BACK TO BASICS
What’s more, when the competition is going all long, tall and bezel-free, the HTC U11’s 5.5in, 2,560x1,440 display is something of a letdown. As with previous HTC handsets it’s
based on HTC’s own version of IPS, called Super LCD, and image quality is patchy.
It’s bright enough to be clearly readable in most conditions, reaching 520cd/m2 at maximum brightness, and the contrast ratio is superb at 1,599:1. The glass also has a polarising layer, so glare isn’t a huge problem, at least not to the naked eye.
However, the polarising layer is orientated so that, if you view the screen in landscape mode while wearing polarising sunglasses, the screen goes completely black. With other smartphones – the Google Pixel and Pixel XL, for instance – the polarising layer is orientated diagonally so you can view the screen in either portrait or landscape mode without it blacking out.
And while onscreen colours are vibrant enough, the accuracy isn’t great. Streamed movies and TV shows still look fabulous thanks to the wide-gamut tuning, but a lot of website photos and graphics take on a slightly oversaturated look, especially in the reds, yellows and greens.
DON’T KNOW JACK
As for audio, there are no such problems. As with previous BoomSound-branded phones, the HTC U11’s speaker goes loud and clear with very little distortion. While we’d hesitate to play music on it, it’s certainly possible to enjoy a podcast, YouTube clip or talk radio show without feeling like you have to hook the phone up to a speaker or plug in your headphones.
The phone also comes with a set of active noise-cancelling HYC USonic earbuds in the box; these are supposed to adapt to your ear canal to provide clearer, more balanced audio. While these can’t match a proper set of over-the-ear noise-cancelling headphones, sound quality is pretty good, if a little too bassy.
Another feather in the HTC U11’s cap is its 12-megapixel rear camera, which the imaging experts at DxOMark have rated as the best camera they’ve ever seen on a smartphone, its score of 90 edging it slightly in front of the Google Pixel by a single mark and the Samsung Galaxy S8 by two points.
Its specifications are certainly impressive. It has a bright f/1.7 aperture, uses dual-pixel autofocus (UltraSpeed autofocus in HTC parlance), has 1.4um pixels and there’s optical image stabilisation on hand to help capture sharper images in low light.
It’s hardly surprising, then, to discover that this all adds up to some excellent results. However, we’re not sure it’s entirely better than the Pixel and Pixel XL. In some respects, the HTC U11’s camera is superior; in our side-by-side tests the HTC U11 often captured more detail in difficult areas such as foliage and brickwork, and we preferred its colour balance as well; its photographs look more natural, while the Pixel would produce ever so slightly over-warm images.
However, the Google Pixel’s HDR mode was better able to recapture subtle tones in clouds and drag more detail out of shadowy areas, and it resisted blowing out highlights more successfully than the HTC U11, too. The Pixel also produced smoother, less juddery video footage while walking and shooting than the HTC U11.
In low light it’s the HTC U11 that edges back ahead, retaining more colour and producing less noisy images, although in selecting slower shutter speeds than the Pixel the HTC U11 does run the risk of blurring out subjects prone to movement rather more.
In most circumstances, though, the differences are so small that you need to zoom right in to see them. We’d edge towards the Pixel for its slightly superior video image stabilisation, but otherwise the HTC U11 is up there with the very best in the business.
Thanks to its octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, the HTC U11 is among the fastest phones around as well. This is the first Snapdragon 835-touting smartphone we’ve reviewed at Shopper, and it’s accompanied here by 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, Qualcomm’s Adreno 540 graphics and the Qualcomm X16 modem, which is capable of delivering 4G download speeds of up to 1Gbit/s. There’s also a 128GB version with 6GB of RAM available.
In our benchmarks, the U11 held its own against the Android competition, coming in slightly behind the Samsung Galaxy S8 but comfortably ahead of the Google Pixel and Pixel XL. Specifically, HTC’s offering scored 6,481 in Geekbench 4’s multicore test and 1,911 in the single-core test, as well as 59fps in the offscreen GFXBench Manhattan graphics test.
Battery life is reasonably good, both in our controlled test and in general usage. We found it could easily last through a full day, all the way from 6.30am to 11.30pm, without needing to be topped up. Although the 3,000mAh battery isn’t the largest we’ve seen, the Snapdragon 835’s 10nm manufacturing process and more efficient modem is clearly having a positive impact on overall efficiency. Our continuous video test proved as much: the U11 ran for 13h 18m before going dry.
THE LATEST SQUEEZE
The HTC U11 is an excellent smartphone. It has a superb camera, its battery life is decent, it looks wonderful and performance is superb. Throw in active noise-cancelling headphones, storage expansion and, despite the lack of a long, tall screen, you have one highly desirable smartphone.
Yes, there’s a handful of small things the HTC U11 doesn’t do as well as its rivals. The screen isn’t quite as nice as the Samsung Galaxy S8’s; the polariser should have been arranged diagonally; the camera’s HDR mode can’t quite match the Google Pixel’s; and despite the bundled headphones, we still wish there was a 3.5mm headphone jack. Edge Sense also feels like a novelty more than anything.
However, these are small things that can be easily lived with, and if you do, you’re left with a lovely handset – one that has a very good chance of putting HTC back on the map.