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HTC U Ultra Review: In Depth

3.5
An almost complete flagship phablet

The Good

  • Stunning display
  • Good performance
  • Attractive design
  • Strong audio capabilities
  • Decent cameras

The Bad

  • Second screen lacks purpose
  • No HTC Sense Companion at launch
  • Needs one-handed mode
  • Battery could be bigger
  • Fingerprint magnet

HTC U Ultra review: The phablet arena is pretty quiet right now, most notably occupied by the Huawei Mate 9 (in the UK at least) but HTC might have a new noteworthy entrant to consider if you’re after a supersized, super-powerful smartphone, and it's called the U Ultra.

HTC U Ultra review: Design

In a way, the U Ultra serves as the spiritual successor to 2013’s HTC One Max, the only other HTC phone to have ever dabbled with a screen larger than 5.5-inches.

HTC U Ultra review: front HTC U Ultra review: back

As such you get a relatively palm-filling footprint comprised of a pillowed glass front, a rounded metal frame and a gently curved glass back. Despite its size, however, it's comfortable to hold with one or both hand(s) and the capacitive backlit navigation keys are well within reach of your thumb, positioned either side of an inlaid solid state home button with one of HTC’s consistently responsive fingerprint sensors.

Like the HTC 10 Evo which launched before it, the Ultra loses the headphone jack and doubles down on audio over USB-C. As such it benefits from the same one-touch setup custom EQ creation when using the included USonic Hi-Res certified in-ear buds.

HTC U Ultra review: buttons HTC U Ultra review: thickness

The metal hardware controls are nicely textured and to give the Ultra a bit of flare HTC has employed a technique called Optical Spectrum Hybrid Deposition to the phone's glass back. Peek behind the marketing veil and it's simply the process that gives the phone its oil slick-like refractive finish, which runs through the glass, rather than being just a surface finish.

It's undeniably eye-catching and a notable departure from HTC’s typically metal bodied premium phones. As such, it’ll unquestionably turn heads but also expect to spend a lot of your time wiping off fingerprints if you don’t put the included case on it first.

HTC U Ultra review: Screens and media

There’s no easy way to make a phablet feel small in the hand, but HTC isn’t doing the U Ultra any favours. It packs larger bezels than pretty much any other high-end phone on the market, which make one-handed use (already a tricky experience) effectively impossible, not least because the company continues to resist implementing a one-handed mode, despite an obvious need for one. You can at least scale the keyboard for easier one-handed typing.

HTC U Ultra screen

Despite the ergonomic issues, the Super LCD 5 WQHD panel employed by the Ultra is nothing short of stunning at any angle; its size, vivacity, exceptional viewing angles and general high fidelity mark it as one of the best smartphone screens on the market for media lovers. HTC has also implemented what it calls motion launch gestures so you can quickly wake the phone or quick-launch select features by tapping or swiping on the screen when the phone is locked.

With the U Ultra, HTC is also trying its hand at the LG V10’s game, with a smaller secondary 2.05-inch display high up on the right side of the phone’s front, next to the front-facing camera. It serves multiple purposes, relaying pertinent notifications, reminders, offering media controls or app shortcuts. It can also be used independently of the main screen when the phone is locked and helps keep the main interface a little tidier, but whether it adds significant value to the user experience or the U Ultra’s overall proposition is questionable in everyday use.

Like HTC’s 10 flagship the U Ultra also enjoys dual loudspeaker output to boost its media chops even further, with respectably clear and loud sound output from both the earpiece and frame mounted speaker on the bottom.

HTC U Ultra review: OS

A big caveat that hangs over the HTC U Ultra at the time of review is that its software experience is incomplete. The Android 7.0-powered handset comes with the latest take on the company’s Sense overlay, tweaked to accommodate the secondary display, but also something called the HTC Sense Companion.

An AI-like element of the U Ultra’s software that responds to your voice, it will be able to take or reject incoming calls, snooze or dismiss alarms, send messages and initiate hands-free navigation, however, not even HTC can give us an exact time frame on the feature’s arrival, the omission of which seems reckless considering it plays such a significant part in the phone’s marketing.

Beyond that, the latest version of Sense is a well-presented adaptation of Android Nougat with native split-screen multitasking well suited to phone’s large display. Sense also integrates a news and social aggregator in BlinkFeed, which some may find useful, along with a customisable look, through both classic and freestyle themes, which, among other things, allow random icon placement, for a more personalised UI.

For more on the HTC U Ultra's software and best hidden features, check out our HTC U Ultra tips and tricks guide

HTC U Ultra review: Performance

Early rumours hinted at Qualcomm’s unreleased Snapdragon 835 processor running the show, but come release the phone actually operates on the more established Snapdragon 821, accompanied by 4GB of RAM. Anyone who’s used a Google Pixel or the OnePlus 3T knows that such a chipset and all that memory is more than enough to ensure a consistently smooth top-of-the-line experience across the board, even if, in this instance, artificial benchmarks like AnTuTu rank it way below where you might expect.

HTC U Ultra review: USB-C

Thankfully there’s plenty of internal space courtesy of 64GB of internal storage and microSD expandability certified up to 2TB. There are even plans for a special edition U Ultra that doubles the internal storage to 128GB and swaps out the phone’s Gorilla Glass 5 frontage for sapphire glass.

Considering the phone’s large, pixel-dense display, we were surprised to find a 3000mAh battery inside this phablet. When a wealth of smaller phones have already broken the 3000mAh barrier, it seems like a relatively meagre capacity to be powering such a demanding hardware set, but in real world use a day and a half of longevity seems like a respectable effort. It falls down on the fast charging front, despite packing Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0 technology over USB-C, with a full charge taking just over an hour and 40 minutes.

HTC U Ultra review: Cameras

As you’ll learn if you take a look at our HTC U Ultra camera review, this phone boasts a cornucopia of powerful imaging hardware, with a hybrid autofocus arrangement, OIS, a sapphire lens and a wide f/1.8 aperture on its primary 12-megapixel camera.

As it shoots in HDR by default, shots turn out well in most conditions, save for being a touch underexposed and a little on the cool side. Beyond that, you can expect great audio recording when shooting up to 4K video from the phone’s four microphones and a robust front-facing camera experience with a unique UltraPixel mode which genuinely adds value to the phone’s imaging capabilities if you’re a selfie lover.

Read the full camera review for a deeper dive into the abilities of the cameras found on the U Ultra.

HTC U Ultra review: Verdict

At a glance, the tick list of the HTC U Ultra looks extremely promising. You can expect great performance with plenty of storage, it’s an audiovisual treat for both capturing and enjoying media, and has some standout design elements, but despite all of this, we’re left feeling like it’s missing that special something.

HTC U Ultra review: handheld

Its second screen doesn’t add any real value to the experience, it’s cumbersome without any one-handed or assistive tools, it’s unquestionably pricey at £640 SIM-free and right now it’s missing one of its key selling points* in the HTC Sense Companion. Thankfully its shortcomings can all be remedied by way of swift software updates if HTC chooses to care enough about this phone, and it should.

The U Ultra may not be the flagship phone fans of the brand are waiting for, but with minimal work this good phone could be made great, it’s just not there yet. Don’t leave us all waiting HTC.

Key Specs

  • 5.7-inches + 2.05-inches
  • WQHD (2560x1440) + 160x1040
  • 170 grams
  • Android 7.0 Nougat w/ HTC Sense
  • 12-megapixels
  • 16-megapixels
  • 2.15GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 821
  • 4GB RAM
  • 64GB, Expandable via microSD up to 2TB
  • Yes
  • HTC Sense Companion*, fingerprint sensor, 3D audio recording, Hi-Res audio support, HTC USonic headphones, case

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