Now we’re talking: HTC’s U11 reviewed

We knew the U Ultra wasn’t the flagship HTC was looking for, but it started something, and the U11 pushes it harder. Is this a return to the fore for HTC? (Spoiler alert: yes, yes it is)

It’s not even the middle of the year, and HTC is out with a second flagship, or what some might call a true flagship.

We’ll go out on a limb and say the U Ultra, as interesting a phone as it was, didn’t really feel like a new flagship phone, and despite HTC’s insistence right before release that it would be the real deal, we had an inkling that its representatives had something else on the way, that they had an ace up their collective sleeve the company wasn’t prepared to show earlier in the year.

There were the tell-tale signs, of course: the older processor, the lack of a numerical fixture in its name, and the fact that it just didn’t have that punch you expect a brand new phone to have.

It wasn’t that the HTC U Ultra was bad, but it wasn’t ever going to be enough to beat the Samsung Galaxy S8, which meant it had no chance in tackling the juggernaut of Apple and removing the iPhone whatever that comes out later this year. No one was going to ditch their current phone for one, either, because it was yesterday’s phone wrapped in tomorrow’s clothes.

But with the announcement of the U11, we saw something different, and with the review, now we’re talking.

Design

So let’s get stuck into design, and while it’s something we’ve seen before, it’s still something fresh and new: it’s U.

While we recover from accidentally falling into a rhyming philosophy we bet HTC will unwittingly use at one point — if it hasn’t already — HTC’s “U” design language is just that: fresh and new.

It’s also slick, glossy, and very very shiny, as HTC switches out the metal design seen on its flagship phones since the very beginning and replaces it with glass, specifically a glass design that makes the phone come off a little like liquid due to how slick glass as a material is.

HTC has also made the frame metal, and the whole thing is really reminiscent of the U Ultra, except for the camera hump which now blends into the back rather than extrudes.

In fact, the phone generally feels like the U Ultra in almost every way, complete with the same 7.9mm thickness and practically identical 169g weight (the U Ultra weighed one gram heavier at 170g).

Made from the same design language, it’s hard to really tell those two apart, except for the screen differences and the colour, because while the U Ultra was definitely called blue, the “Amazing Silver” variation Australia is getting alongside “Brilliant Black” is so much like blue, we’re amazed it’s actually called silver.

Not a single person that we asked thought this so-called silver phone was actually silver. It’s blue. A light blue, but it’s still blue. It’s definitely not silver.

Features

This definitely not silver phone does also come with a whole heap of new specs, and so while it might come across looking exactly like a U Ultra, it’s a whole new beast, and it’s the first phone to arrive in Australia to sport Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 processor.

That means you’ll see an eight-core processor inside the HTC U11 instead of the four-core 821 we’ve seen in phones for the past year, working alongside 4GB RAM and 64GB storage, the latter of which can be upgraded with a microSD slot.

Google’s latest operating system runs here, Android 7.1 “Nougat”, and it does so with HTC’s “Sense” on top, complete with a few changes and an extra assistant or two.

Cameras are also included here, and while they’re similar to what was found in the U Ultra, they’re still not the same.

Technically, the megapixel amounts are shared, but the cameras themselves are different, with the rear camera on the U11 sharing the same 12 megapixel size, but being a new and more capable sensor, scoring a staggering “90” on the DxO sensor test which works especially well when paired with the F1.7 glass on the back for low-light.

On the front, you’ll find a 16 megapixel selfie camera. HTC’s U11 also includes support for 4K Ultra HD video.

Connections are also very high-up, and while infrared isn’t included in HTC phones any more, just about every other connection is, with 802.11a/b/g/n/ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4 with A2DP and Low Energy (LE), Near-Field Communication (NFC), GPS, support for Apple AirPlay — something HTC is alone in implementing — and of course high-speed 4G LTE, which in this phone clocks in at a staggering 1Gbps maximum thanks to Qualcomm’s support for Category 16 LTE, making it the third smartphone to achieve those 1Gbps speeds joining Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and S8+ models.

All of this sits under a 5.5 inch display rocking a Quad HD resolution, all 2560×1440 pixels you’d expect that to have, which itself sports a pixel clarity of 534 pixels per inch (534ppi), and in another nice new feature for HTC, the phone is also IP67 certified, meaning it’s water-resistant, a feature HTC said the U Ultra didn’t need. Turns out it did, just in a different phone.

There is no 3.5mm headset jack, making that shared with the U Ultra, and you’ll find only the one USB Type C port at the bottom, something that works for data, for charging, and for sound with the included wired headphones and included 3.5mm to Type C converter.

Soft buttons are also included, so the phone isn’t solely based on Google’s on-screen soft buttons, with both a soft back and multitask button flanking a home button that lacks a real physical push button and is also the fingerprint sensor locking the device.

The HTC U11 smartphone features a 3000mAh battery that is not removable, and takes a nanoSIM on the same tray as a microSD card.

In-use

And with that the feature set is done, and that lets us get into using the U11, a phone that in almost every way comes off as the sibling of the U Ultra that intended to do better.

In this crazy soap opera of a mobile phone family, the U Ultra intended to show the world that it could be different, but it ended up being so ordinary and uninspiring, that the world didn’t really care.

However the HTC U11 is different: it’s a little easier to hold, a little tighter, and includes much the same user experience, with Sense delivering a change to aspects of Google’s OS, with about the only things left the way they are being the dropdown notification menu and the fact that you have widgetised homescreens.

HTC’s Sense does bring with it a second screen to your left most screen called “Blinkfeed”, and in theory, this is supposed to bring you news, social updates, and more, but yet for some reason also brings you advertising. Fortunately you can turn it off, though we struggle to work out why it has ads in the first place.

Themes can also be applied to make the U11’s look for Sense more appealing, essentially giving you a custom device, and outside of Blinkfeed, the phone does come across like an evolution of what HTC started all those years ago, refining it to the point where Sense has become one of the better overlays that still kind of looks like Android and isn’t just an iPhone clone.

One feature is very new in the U11, though, and it’s so unique, you’ll need to squeeze something to see if it’s real.

E’Squeeze me?

It’s the phone — you’ll need to squeeze the phone — because quite possibly the most gimmicky feature we’re likely to see in a phone for a long while, HTC’s U11 comes with a squeeze function.

Specifically, the mid-bottom sides include pressure sensitivity whereby when you press against them, the phone measures the pressure and turns that squeeze into a shortcut.

Think of it as an extra button made with a squeeze, because instead of the Bixby shortcut button being on the side of the Galaxy S8 and S8+, you have this that doesn’t poke out and lets you squeeze the edges.

And for the most part, it’s a cute concept, squeezing to activate one of several options: it can turn on the torch, activate an assistant, or do what it’s set to do from the beginning, open the camera and fire a picture.

This seems the best use of the squeeze function, but it’s one that doesn’t always work as quickly as you’d like, taking an extra half-second to fire up in some instances.

It’s great if you want to switch to the camera quickly, but it’s less great when you’re in the camera and the app is waiting an extra second or two to get the message from the squeezable sides, which can happen.

In fact, you may find you’re accidentally firing the camera by accidentally squeezing the sides when you reach to get the phone out of your pocket, as we did. Fortunately, Edge Sense is easily switched off in the dropdown Android menu, so you can switch the whole thing off — no squeezy camera shortcut or anything — with just a couple of swipes. Easy.

Performance

Also easy is performance, and thanks to the inclusion of the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, the HTC U11 is on easy street, with a phone that handles itself with no problems regardless of what you do.

We found only a skerrick of lag, and we suspect it might be from apps that hadn’t yet been made to work fully with the new processor, but everything else was fast, running apps from the get go with little to no lag, and generally just handling exactly the way you’d expect a new phone to perform.

Synthetic benchmarks was understandably strong, giving Samsung’s Exynos processor a bit of a fight in the overall drive the processor has, so good luck running these eight core down over the next year or so, because they should handle everything you throw at them.

Mobile speeds are also very strong, no real surprise there, and while we couldn’t quite achieve the 1Gbps speeds the chip offers support for, something only a few places in the world can get — Australia included — our speeds ranged from 30Mbps to 80Mbps, which was more than enough in testing, and is totally dependent on what the network was being hit with at the time.

Cameras

Talked about before the U11 was released and one of the crowning achievements in the press release, the phone camera in HTC’s latest makes some lofty promises about its capabilities, and its hardly surprising, too.

These days, cameras can make or break a smartphone, and it’s often the one area smartphone manufacturers spend a long time on, such as with Huawei and its Leica collaboration in the recent P10 and P10 Plus.

HTC has certainly made some great cameras before, and it is responsible for what was one of the best cameras on a phone last year, working with Google for the Pixel and Pixel XL, phones that still push the envelope for camera quality.

This year, though, there’s a new king, and it’s HTC’s U11, delivering not just the highest rated DxO sensor, but a camera that really performs.

Testing the 12 megapixel rear sensor in daylight, it handles the colours and produces sharp and crisp details without missing a beat, giving you images to be proud of for sure.

At night, though, the HTC U11 brings the quality up a notch, giving you darker darks that look less blotchy, and more colour and light than any smartphone sensor at night has been able to deliver in the past.

Almost like the Cake song “Short Skirt / Long Jacket”, the U11’s camera is fast, thorough, and sharp as a tack, it’s a camera so good you’ll never go back.

A 100 percent crop, the camera shows it won’t let those darker spots down.

Except for one thing: sometimes the white balance can go very much out.

Bizarrely, the HTC U11 camera software offers the occasional but severely noticeable struggle with balancing the light appropriately, often making things more yellow and warm than they’d otherwise need to be, and returning a problem with the camera seen previously on the HTC One M9, which featured a similar quirk.

As we’ve said, it’s occasional and a not-all-the-time thing, because most of the time, balance wasn’t bad, but indoors where the colour was warm but there was a hint of white in the background, the U11 balance was off, so much that it made us not want to use it for fear or having to account for fixing the white balance manually, something the pro mode on the U11 will cater for, but not something you necessarily want to have to resort to using to fix what shouldn’t be difficult automatic metering.

Outside of this, the camera is solid, and possibly the best feature on the phone, even though it has quite a few of positives, too.

Battery

Over to the battery side, and we’ve already been let down by one battery in the U series, but fortunately we don’t have to in the U11, with this phone pushing well and truly past its sibling.

While the battery size inside is identical to that of the U Ultra, the U11 wipes the floor with its sibling, delivering a full 24 hours of life instead of just merely the work day.

That test was performed by making phone calls, texting, social networking, listening to music, taking photos, flexing the 4G connection, and keeping the phone occupied with two wireless connections, an always-connected smartwatch and listening to music wirelessly on the morning and evening commutes.

We’d call that a successful flagship battery very much in line with other flagships, and one that trounces its U Ultra family sibling.

Value

Its value is also better, too.

In fact, at $999, HTC’s U11 value is hard to miss, and it’s quite clear the attack vector HTC is going for with this phone, striking hard into territory currently dominated by Samsung with the Galaxy S8 and S8+ retailing for $1199 and $1349 respectively, delivering similar feature sets, resistance to the world, slick designs, and a better camera for what is arguably a better price, saving a minimum of $200 depending on the model in question.

It’s a seriously strong price tag, and one that marks a return of solid feature sets for HTC, a move that could return the brand to favour with customers, because the phone is very impressive, and that is exactly what it needs.

What needs work?

With solid camera that can handle night-time better than most of its peers, a day of battery life, and otherwise excellent performance across system and mobile strength, it might be hard to see what HTC has managed to get wrong in the package, and the simple reality is nothing is truly wrong.

Rather, there are tweaks that we’d want to see HTC clean up to truly make this the stand-out phone deserved of the HTC name.

So let’s start with the obvious ones: the lack of a 3.5mm headset jack.

We get that Apple has done it, and before the iPhone maker, Oppo. Lenovo joined in recently, and HTC earlier in the year, but we’re not huge fans of dropping it just yet, especially when we’re not seeing a huge change in phone thickness to account for it.

At least HTC has included the 3.5mm converter in the box, something the company neglected to do in the HTC U Ultra, so it’s a step up, plus you get a pair of relatively decent in-earphones that can use HTC’s special ear-profiling technology to deliver a custom sound profile, but we still wish the 3.5mm headphone jack was on-board.

But that’s minor. Our other quibbles are about inconveniences, because aspects of the U11 feel like HTC didn’t think about how they would impact people outside of the computer where the design was being made.

For instance, the design is sleek and cool, but good luck keeping it clean.

It is virtually impossible, and it’s bad enough that getting a silver phone constitutes getting a blue phone — seriously, ours was called “silver” and identified to everyone as blue — something that eventually doesn’t matter because the colour isn’t even right under any light especially when it’s actually just “fingerprints”.

We’re not even kidding. You could not keep this phone clean if you tried.

It’s a very good thing it comes with a small cleaning cloth, but HTC should also include a training video in how not to touch the phone while still using it, or come with the included case — there is one, by the way — pre-attached, because it is just so shiny and slippery, when you’re not struggling to hold the phone without dropping it, you’re wondering how many fingerprints your leaving on its precious surface, and also consequently how “blue” could ever possibly be “silver”.

Okay, so we got a little hung up on the colour problem HTC has, but there’s a valid logic to this: in Australia, the HTC U11 is only available in “Amazing Silver” and “Brilliant Black”, which is fine, except for that silver isn’t silver… it’s blue.

In a day and age where electronics companies are beginning to work with colour experts to achieve bold colours — such as how Huawei and Jabra have both worked with Pantone — and how Apple has practically nailed silver for years, how HTC could have possibly gotten silver so completely and utterly wrong is mind-numbing.

And again, it’s minor, but it’s a small inconvenience.

It’s a small inconvenience like how you have to format a microSD card in the U11 that worked completely fine in four other smartphones before it, none of them raising so much as an error message but the U11 saying it won’t touch it unless the card is formatted.

It’s yet another tiny frustration like how when you use that squeeze controller associated with Edge Sense, you’ll very likely turn the phone’s camera mode simply by getting the phone out from your pocket when you didn’t mean to.

Another niggle similar to how HTC’s own assistant doesn’t really do anything, but it’s there telling you to recharge your phone if need be, which you probably already knew. We’re not sure we needed another another assistant, especially since Google’s Assistant is also built in. You know, more of the same for no reason. That sort of thing.

Why are there ads in a social and news feed to start off? That’s weird, right?

And it’s a niggle in much the same way that there are ads populating HTC’s Blinkfeed on the left most screen even if you haven’t set up Blinkfeed to be filled with your likes and dislikes. Quite seriously, HTC: why are ads included in the left-most screen of the vanilla and uncustomised news screen?

Just like in the HTC U Ultra where you find ads in several apps, HTC has done little to remove the bloat, leaving you with TouchPal’s keyboard and subsequent adware, not to mention that of NewsRepublic. At least you don’t get ads in the top screen like you did in the U Ultra, but now you get them in the left-most screen on Blinkfeed. Fortunately, you can turn it off, but you’re buying a flagship phone, so we don’t feel the need to say this, but maybe we should: adware should come after you start installing things, not before.

These little inconvenient things sour us on the U11, because as great as the phone is — and it really is a return to strength for HTC, and a brilliant return at that — you can see the little inconvenient niggles just haven’t been thought of.

The microSD slot is handy, until you realise you need to format the card inside and it won’t take the card from a prior phone. *sigh*

Final thoughts (TLDR)

The thing is with the U11, HTC has really returned to what it knows best: producing a brilliant phone that can truly stand on its own feet and show the world that it’s not just trying to beat Samsung or trying to make an iPhone.

That’s what we loved about the One M7 and One M8, with phones that really took the phone into new directions, first with a great camera in a metal body and then the cementing of that.

Since then, the company has struggled to find its footing, but with the U11, HTC is well and truly back, and while the niggles and inconveniences are there, many of the issues are things that can be fixed up with firmware and software changes over time.

And while the squeezable Edge technology isn’t game changing, its cute and can be switched off if you don’t like it, something you can’t necessarily do on extra superfluous and possibly unnecessary buttons from other companies.

It’s clear that the U11 is a shining example of what a smartphone can be, and with one of the best cameras you’ll find on any smartphone, also shows what a smartphone can be. It may lack the ecosystem of some of its rivals, but HTC’s U11 is a solid phone we can all be proud of. Highly recommended.

Design
Features
Performance
Ease of use
Cameras
Battery
Value
Readers think...19 Votes3.7
Lovely screen
Performs very well
Some of the best camera performance in a phone ever
Despite it's slippery design, it does feel nice in the hand
Squeeze gimmick to take pictures is kind of cool (until you stop caring)
Water-resistant (yay, finally!)
3.5mm converter included in the box
No 3.5mm headset jack on the device itself
Ridiculously slippery
Fingerprint magnet
Squeeze controller can be a little slow to fire up, making it one of those things you're less likely to use
MicroSD cards need to be formatted before being used, making it harder to bring an old microSD card over
Why are there ads in Blinkfeed, HTC?
4.7
11 Comments
  1. curtis says

    I believe the SD card needs formatted because the phone uses it as if it’s internal storage, correct?

    1. Leigh :) Stark says

      It’s funny you say that. I thought so too, but even if you switch it to the removable storage option, it still forces you to format and won’t let you look at the microSD card that worked on other devices, including the Galaxy S8, Oppo A57, Huawei P10, and so on. Pretty much anything else.

  2. shinjitsu says

    Nothing on the Boomsound aspect of the phone or the noise cancelling headphones? Haven’t received my phone yet but the audio has always been a strong suit of HTC.

  3. Knowbody says

    I don’t care how good it is if it doesn’t have a headphone jack. I’m not buying one.
    Stupid decisions like that shouldn’t be rewarded.

    1. Xchris says

      The sound you get from the HTC is better than any other phone. Why then would you care if that sound came from a usb c connection or a traditional jack? If you were interested in sound then surely you would trade a minor issue of not being able to charge the phone at the same time or the minor inconvenience of having to use an adapter, for the improved sound quality. If you have high quality headphones then the U11 will drive them better with the cleaner and higher output coming from the included DAC in the adapter. So if you are interested in audio quality get the U11. If you’re not, then why would you even care if it had a headphone jack?

      1. Knowbody says

        First of all, no, the sound is not better than any other phone. There are phones with better sound quality, and they have 3.5mm jacks.
        Secondly, I’m not going to carry around an adapter just because HTC decided to follow a fu­cking moronic, and user-hostile trend.
        They also don’t deserve to be rewarded with money for such a stupid decision.

        My next phone WILL have a 3.5mm headphone jack, and it will probably have better sound quality than this.

        If HTC want my money, then they need to include a 3.5mm headphone jack.
        If they refuse to listen, they can sit there and wonder why people aren’t buying their phones any more and go out of business.

        They should have stuck to what was good about the HTC 10 and actually improved upon it.

        1. Xchris says

          Which phone has better sound?

          1. Leigh :) Stark says

            You know what, technically the sound is on par with every other flagship we’ve tested, which is one of the reasons we didn’t really comment on it. The reality is that it includes a Type C to 3.5mm converter if you have to use it, but the “great sound” that makes the U11 special is only there if you use the earphones it comes with, and that’s only if you use the profile adjustment technology, which just basically matches harmonics to what you can hear.

            What we will say is that the speakers are nothing like the old BoomSound concept, and we found on the speaker phone, for instance, there was less volume output than say on Samsung’s S8.

            Most of the reviews we do are with Bluetooth headphones, and the U11 performed like everything else with that. At least Sony includes extra settings for Bluetooth and Samsung includes extra sound variables, but the U11 sounded good like everything else, but it wasn’t an outstanding improvement, if any at all.

          2. Knowbody says

            Bluetooth headphones will pretty much always sound the same on any phone, because they have their own DAC’s. They *must* have their own DAC’s.

            Now, here are the components needed to make a set of wired headphones:
            * Housing
            * Drivers
            * A cable

            And here are the components needed to make a set of bluetooth headphones:
            * Housing
            * Drivers
            * Bluetooth receiver
            * Decoder
            * DAC
            * Battery

            You can clearly see that wireless headphones require components that wired headphones simply don’t need, and that means they will *always* necessarily cost more for a given level of sound quality.

            They also introduce more potential points of weakness or failure. For instance, to keep costs down, headphone manufacturers are very likely to use cheap, low quality DAC’s or all-in-one components.

            Plus, there are potential issues with bluetooth connections, such as the use of lossy intermediary codecs, interference or other connection issues, or even the potential to be a security risk to your phone.

            And on top of that, batteries have their own set of issues. They need to be charged all the time – and if you keep them plugged in to charge while you’re wearing them, you’re basically removing the one advantage they’re supposed to have.
            They also lose their ability to hold a charge over time, and need to be replaced after some time. And if the batteries are proprietary, good luck with that.
            And if they’re lithium ion batteries, they have the potential to catch fire. And I think it’s only a matter of time before some poor person has their ears burned because their wireless headphone batteries caught fire.

            There’s all sorts of problems you introduce with wireless headphones, and you don’t even solve any real problems in the process.

            The biggest drawback of wired headphones? Sometimes the cable breaks. But there’s an easy solution to that: you just design the headphones to have a replaceable cable. Done.

          3. Knowbody says

            LG V20 has a better DAC built-in.
            The only reason I didn’t get a V20 is because the only variant with an unlockable bootloader (US996) is missing important bands used where I live (specifically, band 28 is used a lot).

            There’s a list of things I look for in a phone that I will not compromise on:
            * An unlockable bootloader
            * A 3.5mm jack, and a decent DAC
            * A MicroSD card reader
            * A CPU with good, modern cores – eg Snapdragon 820/821/835, Kirin 960, the newer Exynos CPU’s, or anything with A73 cores.
            * Support for at least most of the bands used where I live

            These are not at all difficult to include in a phone. Which is why it’s so annoying when they’re not present.

            The HTC 10 had those things. So why is HTC going backwards?

        2. Leigh :) Stark says

          Well HTC includes a converter, which is better than how things were on the U Ultra, but the sound quality here is no better than anything else, and really no worse. The “amazing sound” people might be talking about is likely specific to the bundled in-ears, and we didn’t think they were that good, to be honest. We certainly have better in-earphones laying around. If anything, it’s bassy but a little shallow, and they’re certainly no better than some of the Bluetooth earphones we were reviewing with at the time, like the Bose SoundSport Wireless, which saw a review go online the same week.

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Design
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Performance
Ease of use
Cameras
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Value
Final Score