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HTC U11 Life Review: Familiar Face, New Talents

4

The Good

  • Premium features, mid-range price
  • Eye-catching design
  • Android One benefits

The Bad

  • Weak gaming performance
  • Average cameras
  • Small battery

HTC U11 Life review: If you’re at all familiar with the forgettable and underwhelming HTC U Play from the start of 2017 then you’ll instantly recognise the new U11 Life. It looks like the same phone and although there’s nothing inherently wrong with the design, it initially reminded us of the lacklustre experience HTC’s last mid-ranger brought to the table.

After putting it through its paces, however, we’ve come out the other side with decidedly more positive feelings about this latest offering.

Most HTC fans will undoubtedly have their eyes trained on the upcoming HTC U11+ flagship phablet which was announced alongside the U11 Life, but if your budget doesn’t allow or you’re after a smaller smartphone with the company’s signature style, this might be the device for you.

HTC pitches the Life as offering “the best innovations from HTC U11 without putting the squeeze on your wallet” and a glance over the phone’s spec sheet suggests that it’s right on the money. Now we find out if the claim rings true in reality.

HTC U11 Life Review: Design

As we already mentioned, the HTC U11 Life looks practically identical to HTC’s previous mid-ranger, the U Play, with the only obvious difference being the loudspeaker and USB-C port trading places along the phone’s bottom edge.

HTC U11 Life review: Front HTC U11 Life review: Back

The U Series DNA offers what is arguably HTC’s most iconic design language to date; with the same liquid surface-inspired back utilising the same eye-popping Optical Spectrum Hybrid Deposition process, which shifts and changes in the light. It’s unquestionably pretty to look at, so long as you pick up the phone in its punchy Sapphire Blue colourway, with the only other option being a rather uninteresting glossy Brilliant Black.

The Life is a surprisingly lightweight phone for its size when compared to other members of the U family too; predominantly as a result of the use of transparent polycarbonate in place of glass on the back and what appears to be a plastic frame with a metallic-effect treatment in place of actual metal.

So far both have collectively repelled scratches and fingerprints fairly well but history has taught us that opting for cheaper materials such as these usually means devices exhibit signs of use that little bit earlier into their lifespans.

HTC U11 Life review: Android One logo HTC U11 Life review: USB-C

The ergonomics of the Life, paired with its smaller frame when compared to the standard U11 mean comfortable one-handed use is possible, provided you put the phone’s squeezable Edge Sense technology to work by using it to summon the notifications drawer. You’ll also find as responsive a fingerprint sensor-cum-home button as ever and backlit capacitive keys either side for navigation.

Another big draw for fans of the standard U11 with a smaller budget is that the U11 Life also inherits the flagship phone’s IP67 dust and water resistance, meaning it’s a lot hardier than the majority of its rivals in the mid-range space.

What works?

An eye-catching design that’s comfortable to clutch and also benefits from the full-fat U11’s IP67-certification.

What doesn’t?

Cheaper materials may make the U11 Life more lightweight for its size but also leave us concerned about its ability to repel scrapes and scratches after long-term use.

HTC U11 Life Review: Screen and media

The Life’s viewing experience falls to a 5.2-inch 16:9 aspect ratio Full HD Super LCD, not unlike its predecessor. It’s a perfectly usable panel that’s bright, accurately-coloured and only suffers from minor distortion at more extreme viewing angles. The bezels along either side are a little thicker than we’d have liked, but there’s really little to complain about unless you’re a pixel junkie, in which case there aren’t many choices outside the realms of flagship-class phones to satiate your needs.

HTC U11 Life review: Screen

As for the audio experience, the single downward-facing loudspeaker is again wholly usable but pushes out unsurprisingly tinny sound that doesn’t hold a candle to the company’s BoomSound Hi-Fi Edition-certified handsets. Things are a little more exciting when it comes to in-ear audio, though.

There’s no headphone jack, which will push you to resort to an adapter for existing headphones or go the wireless route, however, there are a pair of HTC USonic USB-C headphones in-box that leverage the phone’s always-listening microphones and a one-button tuning setup to offer personalised Hi-Res audio output with active noise cancellation. It’s a big win for music lovers looking for a handset that’s worth their time in the mid-range space.

What works?

The screen is perfectly suited to everyday use and the Hi-Res audio capabilities mean music lovers have something in the mid-range segment to get excitied about, provided they are willing to use the right headphones.

What doesn’t?

The bezels around the display are a little thick, the loudspeaker isn’t designed for quality audio playback and the world still isn’t totally onboard with phones, like the U11 Life, that ditch the headphone jack.

HTC U11 Life Review: OS and features

Where the U11 Life deviates rather drastically from its more conventional flagship counterpart is in its choice of operating system. Aside from the US market, which can expect a Sense-laden user experience, HTC and Google have joined forces to render the Life as one of the few Android One-powered handsets out there, especially in the UK market, which until now has only seen a few budget offerings from tertiary brands through platforms like Amazon.

HTC U11 Life OS screenshots 1,2 and 3

Android One means a predominantly stock experience with the guarantee of software updates for at least two years and security updates for at least three, directly from Google. It also manifests as a slimmed-down user experience by comparison to HTC’s own Sense overlay that offers a cleaner, simpler and snappier user interface that Android newbies should find easier to get to grips with. Running version 8.0 Oreo also means this mid-ranger packs the latest and greatest native Android features and sports Google’s own Assistant.

HTC U11 Life OS screenshots 4,5 and 6

Despite running a near-stock Android experience, HTC has still left its mark on the software by making considered inclusions to get the most out of the hardware at play inside the Life. The USonic audio calibration tool can be found within the phone’s settings, as can a customisation menu for the phone’s Edge Sense feature, which unlike Google’s own Pixel 2 phones allows for customisable gesture control.

HTC U11 Life OS screenshots 7,8 and 9

You can set the amount of pressure needed to create a registered Edge Sense gesture and choose to have the feature perform an action, like taking a screenshot, summoning the notifications drawer or toggling the flashlight, as well as initiating a secondary function through an additional squeeze and hold action.

What works?

Being a member of the Android One programme should gives owners peace of mind for both future Android functionality and the latest security patches for the duration of the U11 Life’s natural lifespan. The simplicity of the OS without losing out on HTC-specific features is great too.

What doesn’t?

Very little. Some might find near-stock Android a little prohibitive versus HTC’s Sense overlay but beyond that there’s little to really pick holes with.

HTC U11 Life Review: Performance and battery

The Snapdragon 630 processor that HTC has opted for seems like a respectable choice for a premium mid-ranger such as the Life, which offers up to CAT11 4G speeds and in the UK comes paired to 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage. Despite reviewing the slightly more restricted model with half the amount of space and only 3GB of RAM (destined for other markets internationally), general operability is good.

You might be left waiting an extra second or so for apps to load versus a phone sporting Qualcomm’s flagship 835 SoC, however, the clean user experience no doubt helps in offering up a fast and responsive interface in day to day use.

HTC U11 Life review: Fingerprint

The most noticeable performance drop comes with gaming, where you can actually see the phone’s hardware working to try and provide a consistently smooth gameplay experience, especially when running more intense 3D titles. You may experience the occasional stutter or a reduced framerate but games do at least remain wholly playable.

As for battery life, the 2600mAh non-removable cell is smaller than we were expecting and as such is good for a day but not much more. There is, at least, both an easily accessible power-saving mode, which you can get at directly from the notifications shade and Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0 technology onboard to help speed up the recharge process to just over an hour, if powering the Life back up from flat.

What works?

A respectable amount of memory and storage, plus fast-charging are the big wins here.

What doesn’t?

It’s a little too easy to place the U11 Life’s hardware under pressure, particularly when gaming. Longer battery life would have been appreciated too.

HTC U11 Life Review: Cameras

The U11 Life promises big things with regards to its tuned 16-megapixel camera experience, which HTC claims has been paid the same amount of attention as the flagship U11's main snapper, resulting in an impressively respectable DxO Mark score of 90.

In practice, it's an unquestionable improvement over the main camera on the U Play but doesn't clearly justify that notable benchmark score, despite offering a simple, clean user interface and HDR capture by default. It shines in the video department with 4K recording and high-resolution audio capture but overall doesn't stand out against similar rivals like the Moto Z2 Play and Honor 9.

You can dive deeper in the U11 Life's imaging capabilities in our full HTC U11 Life Camera Review.

What works?

A clean, simple interface means the Life's camera experience is it easy to get to grips with. 4K video recording and high-resolution audio capture on a mid-ranger are nice inclusions too.

What doesn't?

HDR doesn't offer all that much of an improvement over non-HDR shots; grain appears all too often and there's no stabilisation when shooting 4K video.

HTC U11 Life Review: Verdict

The HTC U11 Life does a respectable job of emulating its flagship forerunner, making good on the promise of hitting the majority of the standard U11’s key selling points whilst also sporting some obvious cutbacks that don't undermine the overall experience on offer.

HTC U11 Life review: Handheld

At £349 SIM-free you might be hard-pressed to find many other worthwhile devices with elements like IP certification and Hi-Res audio support, not to mention this is undoubtedly one of the most powerful Android One devices to date, however, only entertain the 4GB RAM model from a performance standpoint and perhaps hold off until the price dips below £300 to really make it worth your while.

You can still grab the original HTC U11 smartphone from O2, from just £42 per month. Check out O2's HTC U11 page for more details and to bag yours.

Key Specs

  • 5.2-inches
  • Full HD (1920x1080)
  • 142 grams
  • Android One 8.0 Oreo
  • 16-megapixels
  • 16-megapixels
  • 2.2GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 630
  • 3GB/4GB RAM
  • 32GB/64GB. Expandable via microSD up to 2TB
  • Yes
  • IP67-certification (dust & water resistance), Edge Sense, Hi-Res Audio support, always-on microphones

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