Goes Pre­mium With U Ul­tra

SmartHouse - - CONTENTS - Writ­ten by Fer­gus Hal­l­i­day

The first thing that hits you about HTC’s new range is, with­out a doubt, the colour. Re­gard­less of whether you go with Indigo Blue, Black Oil, Cos­mic Pink Gold, and Ice­berg White, there’s some­thing re­ally strik­ing and re­fresh­ing about a pre­mium smart­phone that doesn’t boil down to the usual pal­ette of black, gold and grey.

Un­for­tu­nately, the im­prac­ti­cal re­al­i­ties of the U Ul­tra’s liq­uid sur­face body quickly rise to the fore. The de­vices metal shell rings with ev­ery no­ti­fi­ca­tion. So much so that it’s ac­tu­ally a dis­trac­tion, es­pe­cially when typ­ing. Some­times when I typed too fast, it felt like the de­vice was prac­ti­cally shak­ing it­self out of my grip. Whether or not this issue for you might vary. How­ever, it cer­tainly shaped my ex­pe­ri­ence with the head­set in a way that wasn’t al­ways for the bet­ter.

It’s telling that HTC have thrown in a phone clean­ing kit with the U Ul­tra. You’ll likely spend as much time clean­ing the back of the de­vice as you will the front. Out of the box, the re­verse side of the U Ul­tra is drip­ping with cool blue style. Un­for­tu­nately, it only takes min­utes for that style to be­come stained with de­fects.

The Ul­tra does come with a trans­par­ent plas­tic case that can be clipped onto the unit. How­ever, that just trades out the issue of smudges for scratches. Re­gard­less of which way you go, the de­sign of the U Ul­tra feels like it’s push­ing you down a road where, even if it’s just on aes­thetic level, the de­vice wears so much faster than it should. At first glance, the U looks great but over time it sim­ply can’t hold up.

One of the many rea­sons these short­com­ings are dis­ap­point­ing is that, on the tech­ni­cal level, the Ul­tra is a solid phone. It boasts a crisp and bright 5.7-inch QHD Su­per LCD dis­play, runs on An­droid Nougat and has a gutsy Snap­dragon 821 pro­ces­sor back­ing it up. Throw in 4GBs of RAM and a 3000mAh bat­tery (usu­ally last­ing a solid 14 to 18 hours, depend­ing on use) and you’ve got your­self a all-round solid pack­age.

Like LG’s V20, the U Ul­tra also fea­tures a se­condary dis­play above the main one. The idea here is that the se­condary dis­play can pro­vide quick and dis­creet ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion like weather, fre­quently used con­tacts or no­ti­fi­ca­tions. In prac­tice this proved to be a nice fea­ture. How­ever, if any­thing, HTC have kept it too con­strained of a fea­ture. I would have loved to be able to do more with the sec­ond screen but rarely ended up us­ing it for any­thing but check­ing the weather. As an ex­am­ple: the fre­quently-ac­cessed con­tacts bar is a great idea but lack­ing in­te­gra­tion with things like Facebook Mes­sen­ger, What­sApp or Skype, it ended up pretty un­der­uti­lized.

The other key el­e­ment here is the new HTC Sense Com­pan­ion. Ini­tially billed as an AI as­sis­tant that al­lows the U Ul­tra to learn from you as you use it, the re­al­ity of this ab­stract fea­ture is a bit more oblique. Dur­ing our weeks with the de­vice we rarely got any rec­om­men­da­tions form the Sense Com­pan­ion – save those times when the Sense Com­pan­ion emerged to let us know that what we were do­ing was tracked. Through­out my time us­ing the U Ul­tra, I got the sen­sa­tion that while HTC have built a phone that tracks ev­ery­thing I do, they haven’t built one that’s ca­pa­ble of chan­nelling that into im­prov­ing my ev­ery­day ex­pe­ri­ence us­ing it. Though it’s en­tirely pos­si­ble the de­vice might be us­ing that data in the back­ground for a num­ber, it never re­ally felt like it was – sev­er­ing any per­cep­tion that the fea­ture of­fers enough of an im­proved ex­pe­ri­enced to jus­tify the cost of the per­sonal pri­vacy it takes up.

Then there’s the cam­era. Cam­era-wise, the Ul­tra boasts a 16-megapixel sen­sor, laser auto-focus and 4K video record­ing. Like the HTC 10, it also sup­ports “Ul­tra-Pixel” images. We were ex­cited to see this fea­ture in ac­tion but a lit­tle un­der­whelmed with the re­sults.

The UI of the cam­era app is well de­signed and, again, like HTC’s pre­vi­ous ef­forts you can al­ways go full­man­ual if you want more con­trol. Es­sen­tially, this as­pect of the U is a beefier ver­sion of what the com­pany have done be­fore. It’s by no means the best mo­bile shooter on the mar­ket but you could cer­tainly do worse.

The last im­por­tant thing to touch on here is the head­phone jack, or lack thereof. Like Ap­ple be­fore them, HTC’s lat­est smart­phone cuts ties with the 3.5mm port and makes the jump to USB-C for both charg­ing and au­dio play­back. While there are def­i­nitely draw­backs – you can’t lis­ten and charge at the same time – but it does pave the way for the de­vice’s stream­lined ver­sion of the USonic fea­ture found in pre­vi­ous HTC de­vices. With the push of a but­ton, you can op­ti­mize the au­dio you’re lis­ten­ing to for both the shape of your ears and the nois­i­ness of the en­vi­ron­ment around you. Over­all, this fea­ture worked well and the fact that the de­vice would re­mind me when it was worth do­ing so make me use it that much more.


HTC’s ef­fort to find a new iden­tity for it­self through its new U range (con­sist­ing of the pre­mium U Ul­tra and slightly-cheaper U Play de­vices) ul­ti­mately proves to be a bit of a mixed bag. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to like here com­pared to most other An­droid ex­pe­ri­ences. How­ever, in terms of the range’s at­tempts at in­no­va­tion – both hard­ware and soft­ware – it doesn’t quite hit the mark. As a re­sult, the HTC U Ul­tra is a re­ally in­ter­est­ing de­vice that’s much eas­ier to rec­om­mend based on what it at­tempts to over what it ac­tu­ally does.

In the face of that dys­func­tion, many will likely find it hard to jus­tify the high price-point. Af­ter all, the HTC U Ul­tra has all the mak­ings of a good phone but falls short of be­ing a great one.


The HTC U Ul­tra is priced at $1199.

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