HTC U11 detailed review
It’s easy to write off HTC in the current market. The company’s been through turmoil and it has had its fair share of hit and misses. A couple of years ago, HTC said it was done with the low-end segment, which later changed to a premium-only focus. HTC’s smartphone dream (pun intended) didn’t start with Android, but that dream lives on (HTC Dream, get it?). The HTC U11 is something new and it’s something different. It’s got the good elements of the HTC 10 (review), and is better in a lot of ways.
At Rs 51,990, the HTC U11 is placed squarely in the flagship class, but it’s also an outlier. The U11 is orthodox, and unorthodox at the same time. It’s unique with a distinct HTC flavour to it. For fans, it’s the perfect evolution of HTC, but as times change, it may be slightly behind the competition. Simply put, good may not be good enough for HTC. This review of the HTC U11 ascertains just this.
Build and Design
From the front, the HTC U11 looks almost entirely like the HTC 10, but it’s got a liquid glass surface on the back. It sort of changes colour depending on how light falls on it. The best way to put it is that the body shines. The silver colour looks blue-ish at times, but the lighting will give it a silvery shine. I haven’t seen the black variant just yet, but I assume it works the same way. There are other colours too, but HTC hasn’t announced them in India just yet.
You’ll find the volume rocker and power on/off buttons on the right, while there’s an oval fingerprint sensor on the front. The recents and back buttons are on either side of the sensor, but the touch area for these are sort of small. The buttons are backlit though, which makes them easier to interact with. The camera sensor lies on the upper half of the back, with a dual-LED flash next to it.
A metal frame runs along the side and antenna bands run near its edges. The bezels on the top and bottom of the display are rather large, with a substantially large front camera sensor on the top right. The earpiece lies at the centre of the top, while you’ll find the USB Type-C port and speaker cut-out at the bottom frame.
It’s a neat and HTC-esque finish. The company is one of the few that achieves an Apple-class finish, if I may call it that. There’s literally no loose screw or creak on the U11. The edges of the back and front are slightly curved for better ergonomics, while at 169 grams, it doesn’t feel very heavy either.
As nice and unique as HTC’s design language is, I can’t help but say that it feels old. If Sony’s mirror finish doesn’t stand against the Galaxy S8 (review), then neither does this. HTC’s design is great, it just feels blocky and old. I’m probably the only one saying that, but that’s just how it is. Big bezels and shiny glass doesn’t quite cut it anymore. The disadvantages (scratches and the possibility of breaking) simply outweigh the advantages.
HTC’s Super LCD5 displays have never made big news, but for those used to all types of smartphone displays, these are known to be quite balanced. The U11 has a 5.5 inch QHD display with Gorilla Glass 5 protection (which provides a fluid feeling when you touch it). I saw a slight drop in brightness from extreme angles, but it won’t get in the way of regular usage.
As mentioned above, colours are quite balanced, but there’s a toggle to switch saturation from warm to cool based on your preferences. The slider is placed in the middle by default and I wouldn’t recommend messing with it. The display shows a wide enough colour gamut. Colours aren’t punchy so to speak, but they’re neither too warm, nor too bright. Colour reproduction on the U11 isn’t as good as the Galaxy S8+ or the LG G6. It’s at par with the Xperia XZ Premium (review), which is good enough.
Here again, the HTC U11 lacks a 2017 flagship feature — there’s no HDR support. You could argue that HDR isn’t essential at this point, but that’s just what flagships are. They give you features you won’t need for the next year or so, and tout those features as the “future.” HTC doesn’t, and it may work against the Taiwanese company here.
Amongst the many advertised features of the HTC U11 is the new Edge Sense feature. The Taiwanese company has made the U11 “squeezable”, offering a new form of interaction with smartphones. You can customise the feature to launch any app, or perform other function, like turn on the torch, launch the camera and so on. There’s a distinction for squeeze-and-hold actions and a short squeeze.
You will be prompted to set up Edge Sense during the initial setup and you can also turn it on from the Settings menu. The feature isn’t really omnipresent, allowing only two functions at a time — one on short squeeze and the other a long squeeze. You can map the functions/apps of your choice to this and squeeze away to kingdom come.
When setting up the feature, you’ll be asked to set the intensity of the squeeze. The phone doesn’t actually squeeze, so you can set a visual (photo above) or vibration feedback for the same. There are ‘+’ and ‘-’ buttons to map the squeeze intensity to exactly what you want. Even so, I was unable to get a squeeze intensity that qualified as intuitive.
Edge Sense is intuitive in a way, since the HTC U11 is fast enough to launch the app of your choice as soon as a squeeze happens. However, I ended up pressing the power on/off buttons one too many times to make good use of the squeeze function. Moreover, one wonders why HTC won’t allow more squeeze levels for this, like squeeze twice, slide on the frame and so on. The HTC U11’s frame is pressure sensitive, so a bit more customisation would perhaps have made Edge Sense more useful. It’s unique in its own right, but unique doesn’t mean useful. A good feature is one that you didn’t know you needed, but Edge Sense isn’t that. Nubia’s bezel gestures are comparable and easier to use.
The Sense Companion is an artificial intelligence being developed by HTC. It was launched alongside the U Ultra, but just like Samsung’s Bixby, it offers nothing over the Google Assistant (which the U11 also has, and isn’t perfect to start with). Any AI assistant today is under development, even though they’re being shipped on devices. More the users use it, better they get.
That said, the Sense Companion and Bixby take too long to launch. They’re essentially apps that are weaved into the UI, which means they aren’t as responsive as the Google Assistant on a Pixel, or even on the HTC U11.
While, the display may not be flagship class, the processor certainly is. The HTC U11 runs on Qualcomm’s latest and greatest Snapdragon 835 chipset. It has 6GB of RAM to boot, making it the cheapest phone with 6GB RAM after the OnePlus 5. That is, unless LG announces a cheaper price tag for the G6+.
As far as speed and user experience is concerned, this is certainly the second fastest out there today. The HTC U11 falls behind the OnePlus 5 in terms of raw speed, but it is certainly is at par with the Samsung Galaxy S8, and ahead of the LG G6. Sense UI is well optimised, but OxygenOS is just much lighter and smoother.
App launches on the HTC U11 are extremely fast, while load times are low as well. But the usual suspects, like Chrome, games like Injustice, and some others, take a split second longer than the OnePlus 5. In essence, games that allow 60fps will be rendered at such frame rates, while the best of games will run at the highest possible graphics scores with the HTC U11. Six Gigabytes of memory aids this user experience, keeping apps running as long as you need. Simply put, there’s little to question in the performance department. It’s amongst the fastest phones out there, just not the fastest.
With temperatures outside being above 40 degrees, the U11’s internal temperatures can touch 50 over extended periods of gaming or video recording, but that’s not abnormal. In an air conditioned room, at 24 degrees celsius, the U11’s temperatures remain within the 43 degree mark over half an hour of gaming or 15 minutes of video recording.
The HTC U11 is louder than the HTC 10, but it has the same tweeter and woofer combo as last year’s flagship. That said, there is significant improvement here. HTC uses the entire phone as an acoustic chamber, so you’ll feel the vibrations in your hands when playing. It doesn’t have a headphone jack, but the USonic headphones are splendid, and much better than any off the market headphones you can buy at an affordable price.
The HTC U11 doesn’t excel on audio recording as much as the LG V20 (review) did, but it’s certainly amongst the best phones for audiophiles. The U-Sonic headphones can be customised to your ears and the phone delivers rich audio through them. The headphones connect via USB Type-C. HTC also includes a convertor (with built-in DAC) for those who want to use 3.5mm headphones.
HTC made a big deal out of the fact that the U11 outranks the Google Pixel and Samsung Galaxy S8 on DXOMark. The phone is DXOMark’s highest rated camera ever and while that’s a great distinction to have, it can be sort of confusing from a user point of view.
Personally, I would rate the HTC U11 below the Pixel and Galaxy S8. It can outperform the two at times, but often fails as well. Generally speaking, the Pixel and Galaxy S8 are more dependable for day-to-day shooting.
On the flipside, the U11 takes incredible photos in both daylight and low light conditions. White balance, colours and details are spot on and noise levels are kept under check in low light. The phone is capable of some of the sharpest photos in low light and outperforms the Galaxy S8 at times, as evidence by the shot below. The Galaxy S8 produces warmer colours, but the HTC U11 is closer to the source.
HTC U11 (left) vs Samsung Galaxy S8 (Right)
On the other hand, the U11 tends to create flares off light sources when shooting at night. That can be a big issue when shooting in restaurants or clubs. Also, white balance is sometimes off, when shooting indoors. This is evidence in the shot below, where the card table mat is supposed to be a lighter shade of green. Lastly, the U11 has some trouble focusing on close-up photos or macros, similar to the Pixel. The subject is required to be a few centimetres more further as compared to a Galaxy S8.
Overall, the HTC U11 is a great phone for shooting. It focuses as fast as the best out there, processing time is low and it even has the Pixel’s always-on HDR capability. I’ve used the Galaxy S8 side-by-side, which is how I know it’s more dependable, but you’ll only recognise that if you can try these phones out the way I did. On its own, the HTC U11 is without a doubt one of the top camera phones to buy. And yes, it’s substantially better than the OnePlus 5.
The U11 compromises OIS (from the HTC 10) on the front camera for a larger 16MP sensor. And I don’t mind the compromise, since photos are sharper now and the beautification algorithms don’t seem as unnatural as before. If selfies matter, this is again amongst best out there. Incidentally, an Oppo F3 Plus, with its dual-front cameras will offer more value for money, thanks to a cheaper price tag.
Flagship devices aren’t known for the best battery life, and the HTC U11 is no different. That said, it meets industry standards, offering a work day’s worth of battery. It lasts just under 8 hours on the PC Mark Work 2.0 battery test, while it lasted about 12 hours on regular usage. On continuous video streaming at HD quality, the HTC U11 lasted for about 7 hours on a single charge, which is all quite average, but up to industry standards today. As far as flagships are concerned, only the LG G6 will do better.
The HTC U11 is a flagship class flagship, and that’s the best way to put it. Having said that, I would choose the Galaxy S8 or the LG G6 (review) over this in a heartbeat. They look better, sport newer technologies and feel more premium in my opinion. Edge Sense is unique, but I would pick the Edge display over it, even though Sense Companion is as hamstrung as Bixby. HTC fans will not complain with this phone, but as good as the HTC U11 is, it’s just not good enough anymore. I routinely picked the OnePlus 5 (review) and Galaxy S8 over this.