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HTC U Ultra hands-on review

HTC U Ultra hands-on review: The long-standing rumours of HTC’s 2017 phablet fans were realised earlier today when the company revealed two new smartphones including the sizeable HTC U Ultra.

Looking to occupy the same space as the likes of Samsung’s ill-fated Galaxy Note 7, Huawei’s Mate 9 and some other super-sized smartphones in other markets, like Xiaomi’s Mi Mix, the U Ultra brings powerful hardware and a large screen to the table, and we were lucky enough to get an early look at a pre-release build of the device ahead of its announcement.

HTC U Ultra: Specs at a glance

Screen sizes 5.7-inches + 2.05-inches
Screen resolutions Quad HD (2560×1440) + 160×1040
Dimensions (mm) 162.41×79.79×3.6-7.99
Weight 170 grams
OS Android 7.0 Nougat w/ HTC Sense
Front camera 16-megapixels
Rear camera 12-megapixels
Processor 2.15GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 821
Memory 4GB RAM
Storage 64GB, Expandable via microSD up to 2TB
Battery 3000mAh
Extras HTC Sense Companion, fingerprint sensor, HTC BoomSound Hi-Fi Edition, 3D audio recording, Hi-Res audio support, HTC USonic headphones, case

HTC U Ultra: Hands-on review

Aside from its size, the phone is a notable departure from HTC’s recent gamut of handsets, all of which have sported either an all-plastic or all-metal build depending on their standing in the company’s current lineup.

HTC U Ultra and U Play handheld

Both the U Ultra and its launch sibling, the U Play, rock a new glass-based aesthetic, featuring a treatment called Optical Spectrum Hybrid Deposition. It’s essentially a fancy term for the way the glass looks, which depending on the colour you go for (Brilliant Black, Ice White, Sapphire Blue or Cosmetic Pink) gives it a multicoloured refractive quality that changes colour based on its angle relative to the available light. The treatment permeates the glass too, so even as it scratches and wears over time, the effect shouldn’t diminish, which is a thoughtful implementation of what could have simply been a cheaper surface treatment that would have quickly worn away.

Read next: HTC U Play hands-on review

In the hand, even the larger proportions of the U Ultra feel manageable thanks to its rounded form, although the attractive glass finish is an absolute fingerprint magnet, which is likely why HTC says it’ll be bundling a clear case in with every phone.

HTC U Ultra with case

As with the rest of the company’s high-end devices, the U Ultra features a front-facing fingerprint sensor beneath the display, backlit capacitive keys either side and a Type-C USB port underneath, which like the HTC 10 Evo is also where you’ll be sticking the bundled HTC USonic headphones (or any headphones for that matter) as there’s no 3.5mm audio jack to speak of. Going all-in on Type-C for audio does mean that the phone can also push Hi-Res certified sound through the included buds and to up the audio ante even further, the phone also boasts BoomSound Hi-Fi Edition technology to push respectable sound quality through its dual loudspeaker arrangement.

HTC U Ultra all colours

The phone’s 5.7-inch display is a stunning Quad HD Super LCD 5 arrangement with outstanding colours, contrast and viewing angles, based on our first impressions, but the standout feature is that there’s a secondary smaller display just above it. The 2.05-inch always-on colour screen mimics the functionality found on a number of LG’s 2016 handsets, including the V10, V20 and X Screen. It relays notifications, displays the time and offers up app shortcuts when the phone is in use.

HTC says that it’ll offer more focused notifications, choosing to ignore messages from apps you seldom use or contacts you barely interact with, should you allow it. This comes as part of a bigger focus on AI for the U Ultra, which debuts the company’s new HTC Sense Companion. At launch, it’ll operate across notifications, your calendar and contacts to better predict and provide information you might consider pertinent.

Like other digital assistants, one of the ways you can interact with it is by using the U Ultra’s bespoke always-on four microphone arrangement, which should allow for easy access to requests by voice including biometric authentication for unlocking the phone with speech alone. This arrangement also gives the U Ultra directional 3D audio recording when shooting video, upping its media chops even further.

As you can see, the specs render the U Ultra a powerful device, able to go toe-to-toe with the company’s current flagship, the HTC 10, and more recent offerings like the OnePlus 3. It most likely didn’t receive the rumoured Snapdragon 835 SoC as HTC says the U Ultra is designed to sit beneath the brand’s 2017 flagship-tier device, which we’re yet to meet.

HTC U Ultra Type-C USB

There’s a 3000mAh battery on offer too, which tied to AI-monitored power management, might serve up a solid two days of use per charge, twinned with Qualcomm’s own Quick Charge 3.0 technology thanks to that Snapdragon 821 chipset for rapid replenishment. In terms of space, the phone also features 64GB of internal storage, with expandability via microSD up to an impressive 2TB, but if even that doesn’t sound like enough, a limited edition U Ultra will also launch boasting 128GB of internal space and sapphire glass on the front in place of the standard model’s Gorilla Glass 5.

The last principle hardware element is the phone’s camera arrangement and it looks as though HTC’s hoping to impress. Riding off the back of the HTC’s 10 competent imaging chops the U Ultra sports a 12-megapixel principle snapper. The 1.55μm enlarged pixels justify HTC’s UltraPixel branding and there’s a ton of other tech under the hood to back the sensor up, including phase detection autofocus (PDAF) and laser-based focusing, optical image stabilisation (OIS), an f/1.8 aperture and a dual-tone LED flash.

HTC U Ultra camera

If that wasn’t enough it looks as though HTC might have learnt a thing or two from its hand in the development of Google’s Pixel and Pixel XL, with Auto HDR shooting as well as 4K and slow-motion video capture with that direction 3D audio recording on offer too.

Selfie fans will also appreciate the sizeable 16-megapixel sensor on the front of the phone, which can either capture at full resolution or be switched to UltraPixel mode wherein it’ll combine the data from four pixels into one, namely to reduce image blur and improve low-light performance.

HTC U Ultra handheld

Whilst HTC wanted to stress that this isn’t the company’s new flagship device, it certainly feels like it’s powerful enough to tango with the best smartphones on the market right now, at least based on our initial encounter with it. We’ll be able to see just how powerful it is once the phone hits the market around mid-to-late February and be back with a full review around then as well.

Read next: HTC U Ultra vs HTC U Play: What’s the difference?