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HTC U11 Life Camera Review: The numbers don't add up

The HTC U11 is the company’s best smartphone ever, not least because it packs one of the best smartphone cameras around, scoring a DxO Mark of 90. So, when the new mid-range U11 Life appeared on the scene with that same score, we had to test it out.

The U11 Life comes with the promise of distilling down the fundamental selling points of the flagship U11 into a more affordable package. That means, amongst other things, its IP-certified water and dust resistance, its squeezy Edge Sense technology and a class-leading camera.

The company claims to have tuned the U11 Life’s 16-megapixel main snapper with the same care and attention as it did with the flagship’s 12-megapixel sensor, most likely accounting for the phone’s excellent DxO score.

The Life’s primary back-illuminated sensor comes with an f/2.0 aperture and fast phase-detection autofocus, whilst the front 16-megapixel sensor matches the rear’s aperture, allows for a marginally wider field-of-view but lucks out on PDAF.

HTC U11 Life camera review: UI and features

With the U11 Life being amongst the first phones available in the UK sporting Google’s Android One-based user experience, we weren’t sure whether we were going to get Google’s or HTC’s camera experience when we opened up the app.

HTC U11 Life: Camera UI

Despite the near stock software the phone sports, HTC has seen fit to include its native camera app to let you get the most out of the U11 Life’s photographic capabilities.

The interface is one of the simplest out there; a shutter, gallery shortcut along with video and camera switchers on one side, and an HDR and flash toggle on the other. You can tap within the viewfinder to force focus, adjust exposure with the subsequent slider that appears on long-press to lock auto exposure and focus on a certain point, much like an iPhone.

HTC U11 Life camera interface screenshot 2 HTC U11 Life camera interface screenshot 3

To change modes you simply swipe in from the edge, letting you jump to other capture methods covering both cameras (like pro/manual mode with RAW support and video selfie mode) or deep dive into the settings, which consists of just four options; toggles for adjusting autoexposure, grid, geo-tags and the shutter noise - that’s everything the interface has to offer.

HTC U11 Life camera interface screenshot 4 HTC U11 Life camera interface screenshot 5

In some ways the simplicity is appreciated, letting you concentrate on taking a good shot out the gate, rather than having to fiddle with film stocks like on Huawei’s Leica-powered camera experiences or getting distracted by the Snapchat-style overlays found on Samsung’s latest top handsets, on the other hand it asks for a greater understanding of photographic principles from the user in order to get some of the more complex shots that might be desired.

HTC U11 Life camera review: Photo quality

With 16-megapixels all-round the U11 Life gives you plenty of resolution to play with. HTC’s HDR Boost technology gives you HDR capture by default and whilst you can turn it off, there’s little reason to as there’s no discernable difference in shutter lag; which leaves you waiting for approximately half a second, or only a sliver longer than the phone’s flagship older brother.

By comparison to the standard U11, HDR imagery isn’t anywhere near as effective, showing a notably narrower dynamic range, however, from general shots in both natural and artificial lighting you can still expect plenty of detail, with only the finest elements presenting visible grain and uncertainty when you crop in.

There’s a pleasing about of bokeh on offer from macro shots and colour almost always feels on the mark. It puts up an admirable fight when light isn’t as abundant either and despite the anticipated noise and grain, you’ll still get a clear enough image with colour and detail that makes for usable shots. It’s here that you’ll find the clearest distinction between it and a true flagship smartphone camera but the gap isn’t as vast as you might expect.

As for the front camera, colours are unquestionably more muted than on the phone’s main snapper, with unquestionably muted skin tones. You can still expect nice contrast and detail, however. The integrated virtual makeup toggle does a tasteful job of prettying up your mug and the front-facing screen-based flash makes low-light shooting possible too.

HTC U11 Life camera review: Video quality

If a mid-range 2017 phone is powerful enough to record 4K resolution video, that’s usually a good indication of its wider photographic capabilities. The Snapdragon 630 processor inside the U11 Life enables that very option so you can jump from Full HD to 4K with just a couple of taps.

Whilst there’s no frame-rate toggle you do have the option to enable high-resolution audio recording too, a feature we first encountered on the HTC 10 Evo. Like HDR still capture, the improvement is all but moot and it produces an .MKV file in the process, which isn’t an issue if you’re uploading directly from the phone but more of a problem if you plan on working with the files after the fact.

Technical outputs aside, the phone’s general video quality is pleasing. There’s clear digital image stabilisation (DIS) at play when recording Full HD video, which works well but such a boon isn’t available when recording in 4K, which is a shame as the footage looks that much crisper and more detailed.

High-resolution audio recording or not, the sound tied to videos shot on the U11 Life is also pleasingly clear and broad too.

HTC U11 Life camera review: Verdict

For a mid-range device, there’s no denying that HTC U11 Life’s camera experience is a marked improvement on its doppelgänger from the start of the year, the HTC U Play, but that all-important DxO Mark score doesn’t seem to correlate with the praise the flagship U11’s camera yielded.

Instead, you can expect a minimal but capable mid-range camera experience that takes on the likes of the Moto Z2 Play with aplomb, as with the phone as a whole though, we’d wait for it to drop in price before making it your new go-to camera.

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