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HTC U11 Review: In Depth

5

The Good

  • Incredible performance
  • Strong features
  • World-class camera
  • Impressive audio

The Bad

  • No HDR

Our HTC U11 review closely examines every aspect of HTC’s feature-packed 2017 flagship phone, from the fresh UltraPixel 3 camera to the all-new glass design.

HTC quite impressed us with last year’s HTC 10 flagship mobile. This handset offered not much in the way of exclusive or innovative features, but instead concentrated on getting the basics right. Hence, the user experience was smooth and satisfying, with a great camera, gorgeous display and solid battery life to boot. In fact, we'd say it's still a great buy - go check out our long-term review to see why.

With 2017’s new flagship phone, HTC has gone for a very different approach. The HTC U11 shakes up and refreshes pretty much every aspect of previous mobiles, offering a complete redesign inside and out. From that sleek glass frame to the premium camera tech to the boundary-pushing software, the U11 is the flagship HTC really needed right now.

Of course, the U11 has plenty of strong competition already in 2017. Samsung’s Galaxy S8, the Sony Xperia XZ Premium and the LG G6 are all examples of flagship phones on the top of their game. So can this HTC handset cut it in comparison?

Here’s our full HTC U11 review after a full week of use. Note that while the software was final on our review handset, the Sense Companion takes at least two weeks of use to learn your habits and kick into life. We’ll therefore update this review with complete coverage of the Sense Companion soon.

HTC U11 Review: Design

We all got so used to full metal HTC flagships that the glass finish on the U11 really took us by surprise.

The fresh new ‘liquid glass surface’ of this handset is both reflective and refractive, giving a shiny and ever-changing appearance. The U11 appears to change shades as the light catches it - unless you opt for the black model, of course. You can grab it in a range of vibrant colours which really stand out, offering visual appeal comparable to the vivid green Huawei P10 and Really Blue Pixel phone.

Of course, that glossy surface does pick up smudges and greasy prints rather easily. Always an issue with glass-backed handsets, like the Galaxy S8 and Sony’s Xperia XZ Premium.

Alarm bells may be ringing at the mention of glass surfacing, especially if you suffer from a chronic case of butter-fingers. After all, the last thing you need is to splash out on a premium phone, only to send the thing clattering across the dance floor when you’re smashed at the club.

Thankfully the U11 seems to be pretty hardy. After a full week of testing, the shiny rear surface remains smooth. In fact, the only cosmetic damage is a tiny scratch on the screen, which is thankfully quite difficult to see. For added reassurance, the U11 is also full water resistant (IP67) so you can dunk it in fresh water with no ill effects.

That glass backing is broken up with some slender metal edging, which is pleasingly curved at the corners. The subtle curvature makes for a comfortable grip, despite the size of the phone. Of course, one-handed use is much easier with the Galaxy S8, despite Samsung’s smartphone rocking a bigger display. That’s because of the extremely narrow bezels on the S8, something the U11 can’t pull off.

HTC U11 Review: Screen and media

Media fans are on safe ground with the U11.

Like last year’s HTC 10, this flagship sports a Quad HD Super LCD screen which is both pleasingly sharp and wonderfully vibrant. Colours are vividly reproduced, to the same standard as most AMOLED panels. You also get solid contrast levels and a maximum brightness that’s strong enough to counter most irritating glare.

Of course, the HTC U11 doesn’t boast full HDR support, unlike the Samsung Galaxy S8, Sony Xperia XZ Premium or LG G6. That means this phone will technically be behind the times once Netflix and Amazon Prime Video pump out lots of HDR content for mobile devices. Still, the U11’s visuals are solid enough that this shouldn’t be a problem, and only sticking this handset next to one of its HDR-toting rivals should make the difference obvious.

Audio-wise, the HTC U11 is an outright winner. You once again have HTC’s stereo BoomSound speakers, which belt out some powerful and full-bodied sound - for a phone, at least. On top volume you’ll happily cut through street noise, even on a busy London road. As with all phone speakers, they work best for enjoying video on the go or some light music. The likes of heavy guitar riffs just come out as a garbled mess, as you may expect.

Earphones have to be plugged directly into the U11’s Type-C USB port as there’s no 3.5mm slot. Don’t stress if you want to keep your old pair, however, as HTC has kindly bundled a 3.5mm jack adapter with a built-in amp, to boost your tunes. How nice.

You even get a pair of HTC’s USonic earphones shoved in the box. These offer strong performance for a freebie, adapting to your personal ear shape and even featuring active noise cancellation (which draws a little power from the U11 when in use).

Got a big media collection to cart around with you? Good news there, too. The U11 boasts 64GB of storage space, which can be expanded up to a further 2TB using a microSD memory card. Handy if you take a lot of home movies or don’t have enough data to stream all of your music and movies.

HTC U11 Review: Features and OS

The HTC U11 rocks Android Nougat, with an update to Android O no doubt coming later in 2017. However, HTC has blessed Google’s mobile OS with a bunch of bonus features, in the form of its Sense overlay. And unlike many extra smartphone features, these are actually quite nifty.

For a start, you have the Edge Sense shortcut feature. This uses pressure sensors lining the left and right edges of the U11 to detect when you give the phone a squeeze. It’s basically a way of quick-loading your favourite apps and toggling features in the likes of the camera app. We’re already big fans, too. The feature works well and boots up your chosen app in no time at all, so we actually find ourselves using it every day.

Check out our Edge Sense explainer and test video below for all you need to know.

You also get HTC’s shiny new Sense Companion assistant built into the handset. Like Cortana and some other phone AI assistants, the Companion studies the way you use your phone and learns your habits (good or bad). The assistant can then offer advice when needed, or simply keep things running smoothly in the background.

The Sense Companion’s abilities include basic stuff, such as pointing out apps that are draining your power or hogging the processor unnecessarily. You can also get calendar-based suggestions, including updates on the weather conditions on any days off or trips you’re about to take. The Companion can also suggest local restaurants you might like based on previous experiences, track your health data and plenty more besides.

So far the Sense Companion hasn’t really kicked in for us; that’ll take a couple of weeks of full-time use, apparently. Hence we’ll update this review when we’ve spent a bit more time with the virtual assistant.

Of course the U11 also sports its own fingerprint sensor, now a common feature on mobiles. This is built into the narrow home button, positioned beneath the screen. Despite its slender size, the sensor is impressively accurate. Even with wet fingers, we rarely had trouble unlocking the device. You can expect a speedy reaction, too, with the handset’s desktops popping up in well under a second.

For more on the U11’s features, check out our tips and tricks guide

HTC U11 Review: Performance and battery life

When it comes to performance, the HTC U11 is one of the best around - matched only by a couple of other smartphones, such as the Sony Xperia XZ Premium.

That’s thanks to the extremely powerful Snapdragon 835 chipset, which offers a significant bump in power over older chips. You get improved VR support (which bodes well for when advanced mobile VR headsets emerge), boosted security features and plenty more built-in. Check out our complete guide to the Snapdragon 835 for all you need to know.

For any curious geeks out there, the HTC U11 scored a mighty 176k average score on the AnTuTu benchmarking tool. That’s one of the best results from any phone so far. No surprise that the everyday running is as smooth as oily butter, after a solid varnishing. The latest games such as Injustice 2 also play with a perfect frame rate throughout.

Battery life is also commendable, helped by the general efficiency of the 835. Even with heavy use, we usually made it through a full day with the U11 and past lunchtime the following day before a charge was needed. You do of course get the usual battery saver modes on board too, in case you need a bit of extra life before hitting the plug.

HTC U11 Review: Cameras

One of the most intriguing features of the U11 is that all-new UltraPixel 3 camera slapped on the rear. This 12-megapixel snapper boasts a f/1.7 aperture lens, which promises low light performance comparable to the Galaxy S8. In fact, the U11 actually outperformed Samsung’s flagship camera in some of our tests.

From the streamlined interface to the super-fast autofocus, the U11’s camera is a delight to use. Even more impressive are the results, both in photos and video samples.

Check out our in-depth HTC U11 camera review for our full thoughts on the experience and end results. Curious about whether the U11 is bettered by any of its smartphone snapper rivals? Have a gander at our U11 vs Xperia XZ Premium vs Galaxy S8 vs Pixel vs iPhone 7 Plus camera comparison.

HTC U11 Review: Verdict

The HTC U11 is exactly the kind of flagship phone that the company needed to launch in 2017. It’s once again a highly enjoyable all-round experience, but feels fresh enough to stand out against earlier handsets and rival premium mobiles.

Sure, some of the competition offers HDR-ready displays and super-slim bezel-free design work, which arguably trumps the funky Edge Sense and Companion features. However, the U11 is still a media beast, while that camera is one of the best around right now.

Check out our comparisons with the biggest phones around right now:

HTC U11 vs Galaxy S8 comparison

HTC U11 vs LG G6 comparison

HTC U11 vs Sony Xperia XZ Premium comparison

HTC U11 vs HTC 10 comparison

Key Specs

  • 5.5-inches
  • 2560x1440
  • 169g
  • Android 7.0
  • 12-megapixel f/1.7
  • 16-megapixel
  • Snapdragon 835
  • 4GB-6GB
  • 64GB + microSD
  • Yes
  • Fingerprint sensor, USonic, Edge Sensor, Edge Companion

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