These days it’s becoming ever more difficult for smartphone manufacturers to build products that stand out – even Samsung is struggling – but HTC has managed to do just that with the HTC U11′s squeezable frame. This is a phone, claims the firm, that will change the way we use our smartphones; a development on the same level as the capacitive touchscreen.
Now that you can launch apps and perform actions within those apps by simply squeezing your phone, nothing will be the same again.
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HTC U11 review: Tl;dr
That’s pure hyperbole, as we’ll discover later on in this review, but don’t let that distract you from the rest of the phone because beneath it’s squeezable skin the HTC U11 is a handset of rare distinction. Its glassy, glossy two-tone finish means it looks like no other handset. It’s fast and has great speakers, the camera is as good as the Google Pixel and Samsung Galaxy S8’s and battery life is decent as well. In short, the HTC U11 earns a deserved place at the top of the smartphone tree.
HTC U11 review: Price and competition
It’s good to see that HTC has positioned the phone at the lower end of the flagship price spectrum, but I’d love to have seen the manufacturer go all out and undercut its rivals by a little more.
HTC U11 review: Design and key features
At this price HTC is going to have a hard time persuading punters to part with their cash, especially as the phone doesn’t have one of the new super-wide aspect displays that the Samsung Galaxy S8, S8+ and LG G6. Instead, you get a regular 5.5in screen and comparatively broad bezels at the top, bottom, left and right.
From the front the HTC U11 is a bit bland-looking, but there are a couple of benefits here. There’s room enough 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. I was 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 white cotton gloves first, it’s going to pick up your fingerprints like crazy.
Otherwise, as I say, there’s nothing remarkable about the appearance of the HTC U11. 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 the top edge, and the headphone jack… well, um, 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 survive a brief dunking in the sink or the toilet. I’m not so sure the glass back will survive the impact, though.
HTC U11 review: Edge sense
Aside from its arresting good looks the one thing the HTC U11 has that its rivals do not is squeezability, or as HTC is calling it: Edge Sense. The phone is equipped with pressure sensors embedded in the lower half of its frame and let you launch apps from the lockscreen with a short or long squeeze 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.
When you put it like that, it doesn’t sound quite so exciting, does it? In fact, it isn’t, and after playing around with the feature initially, I found I barely used it. It’s a nice attempt by HTC to shake things up but let’s face it: it isn’t exactly what you’d call revolutionary.
HTC U11 review: Display and audio
And with the competition going all long and tall and bezel-free, the HTC U11’s 5.5in 1,440 x 2,560 display is something of a let-down. 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, the contrast ratio is superb at 1,599:1 and the glass has a polarising layer so glare isn’t a huge problem, at least not to the naked eye.
You should be aware, though, that the polarising layer is orientated such that, if you view the screen in landscape while wearing polarising sunglasses, the screen goes completely black. With other phones – 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 without it blacking out.
And while the colours the HTC U11’s screen presents are vibrant enough, accuracy isn’t great. On the plus side, streamed movies and TV shows look fabulous thanks to the wide-gamut tuning; on the negative side a lot of website photos and graphics take on a slightly over-saturated look, especially in the reds, yellows and greens.
As for audio, there are at no such problems. As with previous “BoomSound”-branded phones, the HTC U11’s speaker goes loud and clear with very little distortion and while I’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-canceling HYC USonic earbuds in the box that are supposed to adapt to your ear canal to provide clearer, more balanced audio. And while these can’t match a proper set of over-the-ear noise cancelling headphones, sound quality is pretty good, if a little over-bassy.
HTC U11 review: Camera
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 it’s 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 a couple.
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 (OIS) on hand to help capture sharper images in low light. That’s pretty much on a level with the Samsung Galaxy S8’s camera, and more impressive than the Google Pixel’s raw specs.
It’s hardly surprising, then, to discover that this all adds up to highly impressive results. However, I’m not so sure I’d put it in front of the Pixel. In some respects, yes, the HTC U11’s camera is superior. In my side-by-side tests the HTC U11 often captured more detail in difficult areas such as foliage and brickwork; in many senses I prefered 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 able to better recapture subtle tones in clouds, was able to drag more detail out of shadowy areas and it resisted blowing out highlights more successfully than the HTC U11 as well. When it comes to video, too, the Pixel produced smoother, less juddery footage while walking and shooting than the HTC U11.
In low light it’s the HTC U11 that edges 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 – I’d edge towards the Pixel for its slightly superior video EIS, but otherwise the HTC U11 is right up there with the very best in the business.
HTC U11 review: Performance and battery life camera
And, yes, 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 seen in the Expert Reviews offices, 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 a Gigabit per second. There’s also a 128GB storage version with 6GB of RAM available.
In the benchmarks, as you can see from the graphs below, the HTC U11 holds its own against the Android competition, and although it’s slightly behind the Samsung Galaxy S8 in each of the tests, it is comfortably faster than the Google Pixel and Pixel XL.
When it comes to battery life, that’s reasonably good as well. In the first few days of use the phone has comfortably made it through a full day, right 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.
HTC U11 review: Verdict
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 helluva 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 and I’d prefer the polariser to be arranged diagonally; the camera’s HDR mode can’t quite match the Google Pixel’s and I don’t like the fact that there’s no 3.5mm headphone jack.
However, these are small things I’d be perfectly prepared to live with. The HTC U11 is right up there with the very best smartphones around; it’s a phone that should put HTC right back on the map.