Samsung’s dominance over the Android market makes it difficult for other manufacturers to convince consumers that their devices are worthy of their hard-earned money. Wanting to change this situation, HTC has just introduced their new flagship smartphone, the HTC U11.
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HTC’s new premium offering is the follow-up to the HTC 10, which was released in April 2016 and featured the Snapdragon 820 chipset and a 5.2-inch screen with the resolution of 1440 x 2560 pixels. At the time of its release, the HTC 10 received excellent review scores, despite its subpar rear camera and uninspired design.
Unfortunately for HTC, the reviews did nothing for the company’s market share, which has been dwindling since around 2012 as Chinese smartphone manufacturers, such as Xiaomi, ZTE, and Huawei, continue their attack on the Western market.
To turn the tide, the HTC U11 needs to convince consumers that it’s more than just a sum of its parts. On top of that, the smartphone also needs to withstand a direct comparison with the Samsung Galaxy S8, currently the best Android smartphone on the market.
- Design: The sizable selection of unique colors makes it easier to overlook how antiquated the smartphone’s design really is compared to the Galaxy S8.
- Build: The HTC U 11 is the first squeezable smartphone on the market, and HTC seems to have big plans for the feature.
- Specs: The best smartphone chipset, plenty of RAM, and expandable storage space—what more could you want?
- Camera: With its DxOMark score of 90 points, the HTC U 11 seems to feature the best smartphone camera currently available.
- Software: A bloat-free software experience with some neat tweaks and add-ons thrown into the mix.
- Price: £649 ($649)
Design and Build
Aluminum is out; glass is in. Apple arguably started the aluminum unibody trend with the iPhone 5, and Samsung has recently definitely put it to rest with the release of the Galaxy S8. Not only are all-glass smartphones generally perceived to be more aesthetically pleasing than their aluminum siblings, but the properties of glass help manufacturers maintain signal strength and implement wireless charging, NFC, and other modern technologies that have become synonymous with flagship smartphones.
The HTC U 11 can then be seen as the final nail in this already airtight coffin. The smartphone features something the company calls Liquid Glass Surface. By layering highly refractive precious minerals across the phone’s back cover—using a process known as Optical Spectrum Hybrid Deposition—HTC came up with a palette of new colors transform depending on the angle light strikes the smartphone. The polished rear gives the HTC U 11 that premium look and feel most consumers expect from high-end smartphones, but it also attracts fingerprints like a magnet.
Another feature that consumers expect from high-end smartphones is waterproofing. The HTC U 11 is IP67-rated, making it able to withstand water immersion between 15 cm and 1 meter for up to 30 minutes. The Galaxy S8 is IP68-rated, so it should theoretically survive immersion in water with a depth of more than 1 meter.
When it comes to size, the HTC U 11 is slightly larger and heavier than the Galaxy S8 and slightly smaller and lighter than the Galaxy S8+. Unlike the latest pair of flagship smartphones from Samsung, the HTC U 11 has retained a 16:9 aspect ratio as well as a traditional home button, which doubles as a fingerprint sensor.
These design decisions make the smartphone feel more familiar, but also much less progressive than the Galaxy S8. When you place the two smartphones next to each other, Samsung’s massive, 5.8-inch (or 6.2-inch in the case of the Galaxy S8+) Infinity Display makes the HTC U 11, with its large bezels and a smaller screen, look like an ordinary mid-range smartphone.
Of course, the HTC U 11 isn’t an ordinary smartphone. Its 5.5-inch screen has a resolution of 2560 x 1440 pixels, with pixel density of 534ppi. HTC is relying on the Super LCD 5 display technology, which produces less glare and makes the user feel closer to the display itself by removing an air gap between the outer glass and the display element. While Super AMOLED displays, like those used by Samsung in Galaxy S8 and S8+, usually offer superior blacks and better vibrancy, Super LCD displays tend to have lower power consumption and sharper details.
Samsung has pleased its fans with the inclusion of the 3.5mm audio jack, whereas HTC has decided to embrace the future and got rid of it. To make the switch less aggravating, they’ve included the latest version of their USonic headphones, which now combine Active Noise Cancellation with the ability to tune audio to your unique hearing. Unlike other noise canceling headphones, the USonic are designed to take power from the USB-C connector on the HTC U 11. This means that you’ll never find out that your headphones are out of juice halfway on your daily commute to work or school. On the other hand, you may have to charge your smartphone more often as it now has to power an additional electronic device.
The HTC BoomSound Hi-Fi Edition speakers on the HTC U 11 were upgraded as well. There’s one tweeter right next to the front-facing camera and one woofer at the bottom of the smartphone. According to HTC’s press release, the tweeter now offers an acoustic chamber that allows the highs and mids to sound richer, while the woofer sports a new speaker and improved magnetic circuit design for louder, clearer and deeper bass tones. Our testing confirms that the HTC U 11 is, indeed, much louder and crisper than the Galaxy S8.
By far the most unique feature of the HTC U 11 is called Edge Sense. HTC has embedded pressure sensors along the sides of the smartphone, allowing users to squeeze the lower half of the body to engage with their phones in a never before seen way. For example, you squeeze the HTC U 11 hard to open the camera app and then squeeze it lightly to take a picture. You can already customize the squeeze gestures to a satisfactory degree, and HTC has even promised to release an app that would allow third-party apps to take advantage of the gestures.
Moving on to specifications, there’s no denying that the HTC U 11 can satisfy the needs of even the most demanding users. At its heart is the Snapdragon 835 chipset, which, according to Qualcomm, uses 25 percent less power than previous designs while delivering up to 25 percent faster graphics rendering and 60x more display colors.
The powerful chipset has 4 GB of memory at its disposal as well as 64 GB of internal storage space. Given that the Samsung Galaxy S8 also comes with the 835 chipset, 4 GB RAM, and 64 of internal storage, the two smartphones should be nearly identical in terms of their performance, both having ample power to run the most demanding Android apps and games without a hitch. The Galaxy S8 and the U 11 also use the same 3000mAh battery. The limited battery capacity clearly shows that smartphone manufacturers still feel the fallout from the Note 7 battery fiasco and lean on the side of caution. Depending on your usage habits, you should be able to get a full day of use from the U 11, but we strongly recommend you always have a charger or a power bank at hand. The good news is that the HTC supports Qualcomm’s dependable Quick Charge 3.0 technology, which is up to 40% faster than conventional charging.
Most seasoned Android users agree that smartphones from Samsung take the best pictures. The S8 has a fantastic 12MP rear sensor with a f/1.7 aperture and smart autofocus. DxOMark, a trusted industry standard for camera and lens image quality measurements and ratings, gave the Samsung 88 points, placing it just below the Google Pixel, with its 89 points. For comparison, the iPhone 7 has 86 points.
You can then imagine our surprise when we found out that the HTC U 11 got 90 points, propelling it to the very top of DxOMark’s smartphone chart. “The HTC U 11’s very low noise and excellent detail preservation also allow for sharing and printing larger-sized images than with most other phones,” states DxOMark in their review.
The 12MP rear sensor with a f/1.7 aperture consistently produces images with a pleasing look regardless of the shooting conditions. The included image stabilization proved to be very effective, and the dual-LED flash can evenly illuminate the entire scene. DxOMark also praised the smartphone’s autofocus system, saying that it’s one of the fastest and most accurate autofocus systems they’ve ever tested.
The rear camera can record 4K video at 30 frames per second or 1080p video at up to 120 frames per second. The video quality is superb, with fast exposure adaptation and reliable focus.
The 16MP front-facing camera is better than many mid-rage rear-facing cameras. The extra-large resolution helps it cope with low-light situations, and its large field-of-view makes it possible to fit more people in the frame.
Samsung has created its own user interface, TouchWiz, which runs on top of the Android operating system, providing users access to more features, widgets, and handy shortcuts. TouchWiz was launched in 2010, and, over the years, Samsung has refined it to such a degree that it’s hard to dislike it. It looks sleek, runs fast, and doesn’t get in the way.
Back when Android was an ugly duckling, HTC was famous for the Sense user interface and it’s large, gorgeous widgets. The latest version of Sense UI, Sense 8.0, shipped with the HTC 10 and the HTC U Ultra, and it continued HTC’s software strategy of app unbundling. Without extra apps being tied to the core of the UI, HTC can deploy updates more quickly and reduce app duplication, making the whole OS feel lighter and faster.
The version of Sense UI that comes with the HTC U 11 is nearly identical to Sense 8.0. If you’ve been using HTC smartphones for a while now, the operating system may look and feel a bit stale, but people with little to no experience with HTC smartphones will appreciate the responsiveness of the UI and the general lack of bloat.
Those who follow smartphone trends know that 2017 is all about AI-powered personal assistants. With the release of the Galaxy S8, Samsung has introduced their conversational assistant called Bixby. Bixby understands talk, text, and taps, helping users with shopping, event planning, navigation, translation, and more.
In their attempt to trump Samsung, HTC may have gotten a little overboard because the HTC U 11 comes with three AI-powered digital assistants: HTC Sense Companion, Google Assistant, and Amazon Alexa.
HTC Companion was introduced earlier this year, and many tech outlets compared it to Google Now. It’s good for place discovery, event planning, weather, and news, but not much else beyond that. Luckily, there’s also Android’s native Google Assistant, intelligent personal assistant developed by Google and announced at Google I/O in May 2016. Unlike Google Now, Google Assistant is capable of holding two-way conversations and answering a wide range of questions. You can tell it what to do, ask it what the capital of Peru is, or use it to translate a text for you.
Most smartphone manufacturers would probably call it a day since two AI assistants seem enough, but not HTC. The HTC U 11 also comes with Alexa from Amazon. Alexa is great for people who are invested in Amazon’s ecosystem as it allows users to place orders, play music, and control their smart home appliances.
While we appreciate that HTC wants to give its users as many options as possible, we’re not sure whether three AI assistants on a single phone won’t lead to confusion and frustration.
At £649 for the 64 GB version, the HTC U 11 is £40 cheaper than the Samsung Galaxy S8. While £40 would be a lot in the mid-range or the budget category, it doesn’t mean much when it comes to flagship smartphones. What matters the most to the vast majority of consumers who purchase £600+ smartphones are features, performance, build quality, and design.
Even though the HTC U 11 doesn’t stand out with a unique design or exceptional build quality, it’s features are extremely compelling. The smartphone performs great, takes gorgeous pictures, and introduces a brand-new input method that could make many common tasks easier to perform.
If you’ve been longing a smartphone that offers a familiar look and feel together with top-notch performance and modern features, there’s currently nothing that comes closer than the HTC U 11.
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