- Smart glossy design
- Smart camera tech
- Decent bundled earbuds
- Limited performance
- Overshadowed by rivals
- No Companion in sight
HTC U Play Review: HTC’s latest mid-range mobile hopes to take on the likes of the OnePlus 3T with its 5.2-inch Full HD screen, dual 16-megapixel cameras and solid features. Here’s our full HTC U Play review, to see if it’s worth stashing in your pants.
When HTC launched its mighty new U Ultra handset at the beginning of 2017, the manufacturer sneaked a surprise in with it. The HTC U Play is a more compact and budget-friendly version of the U Ultra phone, offering some pretty decent specs but for less cash.
So is the U Play well worth considering, or should you look elsewhere for your next smartphone? Here’s our in-depth review.
HTC U Play review: Design
We have to admit, HTC’s smartphone design has been a little stale in recent years. The HTC 10 looks and feels nice, sure, but that metallic frame isn’t a massive leap from the craftmanship of the HTC One M9, which in turn was strikingly similar to the One M8. And the Desire phones can all be easily mistaken for one another, with no stand-out design elements to speak of.
That said, the HTC U Play does feature some funky aesthetics. Metallic edging gives way to a glossy rear which comes in a variety of colours, with blue and pink models standing out against the standard black and white versions. It’s a clean finish, punctuated by the circular camera lens jutting from the middle.
Sadly that glass surfacing does pick up greasy fingerprints a little too easily. As with other glossy handsets like the Galaxy S7, just a little bit of light handling results in nasty smears all over the back. HTC has bundled a cover in the box, which helps to make the phone more rugged, but this picks up scratches in no time at all which also mars the overall look.
The U Play’s reasonably compact frame as well as the curved edges and corners make for a comfortable grip, as does the light build. You can happily use this phone one-handed if needed, although we couldn’t find any one-handed modes which help to shrink down the desktops or keyboard for anyone with tiny mitts.
Beneath the U Play’s screen you’ll find the indented home button (which doubles as a handy fingerprint sensor). To the left is the back button and to the right you’ll find a menu button for displaying all open apps. These are touch-sensitive and backlit, and you can choose to have them permanently illuminated, or make them only light up when poked.
HTC U Play review: Screen and media
For this price we’d expect a minimum of a Full HD display and the U Play certainly delivers. You get a 5.2-inch LCD screen packing a 1920x1080 resolution, which proves pretty good for enjoying high-def movies on the go.
Visuals are as crisp as you’d hope, with quite realistic image reproduction. We still prefer the OnePlus 3T’s brilliant 5.5-inch Super AMOLED screen, which pumps out more punchy colours and boasts slightly better contrast levels too. But the U Play’s panel is just as bright and you get the same blue light filter too, which makes for more comfortable viewing in the evenings. This mode can be scheduled to automatically turn on between set times, or manually activated in the settings.
As for audio, the U Play has a single speaker mounted on the bottom edge, which pumps out some loud but rather lifeless audio. However, HTC has also bundled some decent ‘USonic’ earphones which plug directly into the phone’s Type-C USB port. Like the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, there’s no 3.5mm jack in sight.
These ‘phones provide a snug fit and HTC has even included a personalisation tool, which can measure the structure of your ears and adjust sound levels to suit. We noticed a little bit of difference using this feature, with slightly more full-bodied audio hitting our drums. Of course, the overriding factor when it comes to audio quality is still going to be your music files (compression levels and the rest).
You can expand the 32GB of on-board storage up to 2TB thanks to the U Play’s microSD memory card support. That should give you plenty of room for even the most mighty of media collections.
HTC U Play review: OS and features
Android Marshmallow is the OS of choice, with no sign of an update to Nougat on the horizon. We’re hoping that this will be rectified sooner rather than later, to deliver some of Google’s latest features including split-screen multitasking and increased power efficiency.
In the meantime, HTC has added a fair few bonus features to vanilla Android and some of them are pretty decent.
For instance, flick right from your main desktop and you’ll encounter Blinkfeed, HTC’s social and news aggregation tool. To this you can add your calendar, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook feeds, plus any news from News Republic. It’s a handy all-encompassing view of what’s going on in the world, on a global as well as personal level. The ability to have news articles download for offline reading and video integration is a smart step.
HTC has also included plenty of gesture support in the U Play. This allows you to quickly access certain features and wake the phone with a tap, which some might find helpful. For those who don’t like it, you can simply turn these gestures off.
However, one of the U Play’s biggest features, and one which HTC bigged up massively upon the phone’s launch, is currently missing in action. The Sense Companion AI is supposed to be an exclusive assistant for HTC phones, debuting on the U Play and U Ultra mobiles. But so far it’s not actually available, so we’ll have to update this review when the Companion steps out of the shadows.
As for that fingerprint sensor, it’s as strong as any other around right now. Just tap your print to the surface of the home button and the phone wakes up pretty much instantly, rarely failing to recognise your digit.
HTC U Play review: Performance and battery life
A MediaTek Helio P10 processor backed by 3GB of RAM runs the show, which gives rather budget performance from the U Play. After all that’s the same chipset used in Sony’s Xperia XA and the Blu Vivo 6, which can be picked up for just over £200.
In everyday use, the U Play was reasonably smooth but we definitely found ourselves hanging around on occasion while an app loaded up. Thankfully the games we tried, including some fairly intensive titles from the likes of Gameloft, ran with a playable frame rate.
For any benchmark enthusiasts out there, the HTC U Play scored just 49897 in our AnTuTu tests. That’s only a mite more than the likes of the Moto G4 Plus and other sub-£200 smartphones. Not great considering the cost of this handset.
As for battery life, the 2500mAh cell consistently gave us just over a day of use between charges. That’s using the phone as a personal full-time handset, for messaging, web browsing, a couple of daily calls and the odd bit of YouTube streaming.
Of course you get the usual array of battery saver modes crammed into the U Play, to help in a pinch. Alongside the standard Power Saver Mode, which culls some power-sapping features when the battery level hits a preset point, you also get the Extreme Power Saving Mode which gives you only basic phone functionality. In other words, the phone, messages, mail, calendar and calculator apps.
HTC U Play review: Cameras
Although the U Play’s rear-mounted 16-megapixel camera isn’t as advanced as the U Ultra’s 16-meg snapper, it’s still a solid camera for everyday use. You get a few bonus features such as RAW image capture and HTC’s Zoe mode, as well as full manual controls if desired.
You can also shoot up to Full HD video with decent results, while the optical image stabilisation helps to cut down on judder.
Check out our in-depth HTC U Play camera review for our full analysis and photo and video samples.
HTC U Play review: Verdict
The HTC U Play is a mixed bag unfortunately, and very much lurks in the shadows of rivals such as the OnePlus 3T and Samsung’s Galaxy A5 2017. The design is lovely (if easily scuffed) and there’s plenty to like, from the solid 16-megapixel camera tech to the super-responsive fingerprint sensor. However, performance, battery life and other key features fail to impress, while one of the potentially killer features - that Sense Companion assistant - is MIA.
HTC U Play review: Video
We've recorded a full video review of the HTC U Play, if you can't be bothered to read all of that pesky text above. Check it out below.
- Android 6.0
- MediaTek P10
- 32GB + microSD
- Fingerprint sensor, Sense Companion (coming soon?)