HTC U Ultra review: Pretty but pricey

Alex Kidman 20 March 2017 NEWS

Quick Verdict
If you’re a die-hard HTC fan, and presuming that the rumours of a Snapdragon 835-based HTC 11 phone aren’t enough to keep you waiting, then the HTC U Ultra does represent HTC doing reasonably well in the smartphone space.


  • Good performance
  • Smart second screen
  • HTC Sense might make sense
  • Sense assistant appears smart
  • Good (but not great) camera

Could be better

  • Ordinary battery life
  • No headphone jack
  • Hit and miss capacitive buttons
  • Fingerprint magnet
  • High asking price

HTC’s U Ultra hits the sweet spot of design and performance, but it’s overpriced for its feature set compared to the rest of the Android market.

You don’t call a phone "Ultra" unless you’re really ready to bring it into the massively oversaturated phone market. At first glance, the HTC U Ultra seems to fit the bill, with a stunning design and essentially the same specifications that made the HTC-build Google Pixel and Pixel XL a hit. Deeper examination finds a phone that doesn’t quite live up to its name.


HTC U Ultra: Design

HTC has shifted away from the near-standard metal body that most premium phones love to ship with, instead opting for a plastic and glass mix on the HTC U Ultra. It’s certainly eye-catching and a real revelation after the Pixel and Pixel XL’s rather dull style. We reviewed the snazzy Sapphire Blue model, which is the real looker of the bunch, although the Brilliant Black and Ice White models also have their appeal. Measuring in at 162.4x79.8x8mm, the HTC U Ultra is certainly a handful, but that’s to be expected for a phone with a screen this large.

The glass back on the HTC U Ultra gives it a lovely pearlescent shine in the right light, although it’s not without a few challenges. It’s one of the most fingerprint-smudge-happy phones we’ve tested for a long while. Nothing makes a premium phone look shabby quite like some fingerprint grease. We quickly shifted to using the supplied clear plastic back protector on the phone, partly to save it from drops but mostly to save us from the constant reminder of our own grubby digits.

HTC has lifted the textured power button from the HTC 10, which sits just below the volume rocker on the right-hand side. There’s no headphone socket at the base. All you get is a single USB C socket that does triple duty as an audio, data and power source. The combined nano SIM and microSD card reader pops out from the top of the phone.

HTC U Ultra

HTC U Ultra from DWI (Digital World International)

DWI is stocking the HTC U Ultra. The U Ultra's unique second display allows for uninterrupted user interaction when receiving texts, emails and calls.

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The use of a mostly plastic assemblage on the HTC U Ultra gives it a curious lack of heft in the hand. It doesn’t feel quite as solid as the metal bodies of most premium phones and that makes it seem a little cheaper. Conversely, that plastic frame means it’s considerably lighter than many phones its size, weighing in at 170 grams. If you struggle to hold larger phones or you're worried about dropping them, this could be a plus.


HTC U Ultra: Why you might want one

  • Good performance. The HTC U Ultra is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 821 SoC. That’s the same internals as the HTC-built Pixel and Pixel XL, as well as LG’s upcoming LG G6. It’s not quite in the same power bracket as the Snapdragon 835, which will power the Samsung Galaxy S8 and Sony Xperia XZ Premium, as well as the rumoured HTC 11 phone, but it’s a very capable contender. Matched up with 4GB of RAM, the phone rarely missed a beat in ad hoc testing across a range of productivity and entertainment apps. The HTC U Ultra did score marginally lower than similar devices in our standard benchmark tests, but not to a level where it appeared problematic against similar hardware. The Snapdragon 821 is still outclassed at a benchmark level by devices using Apple’s A10 Fusion processor or Samsung’s Exynos processor, but it’s a good premium performer nonetheless.
    Handset Geekbench 4 CPU Single Core (higher is better) Geekbench 4 CPU Multi Core (higher is better)
    Huawei Mate 9 1925 6068
    Apple iPhone 7 Plus 3374 5649
    Apple iPhone 7 3452 5599
    Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge 1359 5333
    Samsung Galaxy S7 1378 4718
    Apple iPhone SE 2449 4171
    Google Pixel XL 1629 4051
    Motorola Moto Z 1477 3853
    HTC U Ultra 1648 3848
    Sony Xperia XZ 1636 3604

    In graphics performance, the HTC U Ultra is particularly impressive, edging out other competitor devices, excluding Apple’s current run of iPhones:

    Handset 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited Result
    Apple iPhone 7 Plus 37956
    Apple iPhone 7 37717
    HTC U Ultra 29968
    Apple iPhone SE 29276
    Samsung Galaxy S7 28903
    Google Pixel XL 28458
    Huawei Mate 9 28457
    Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge 28402
    Sony Xperia XZ 26279
    Motorola Moto Z 25629
  • Smart second screen. The HTC U Ultra borrows a trick from the LG V20 (and in some ways, Samsung’s S7 Edge and upcoming Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+) in that it features a second display screen. You’ll find it at the top of the primary 5.7-inch display, to the right of the front-facing camera lens. Like most secondary screens, it’s essentially a notifications portal that pops up to display emails and other incoming messages, as well as optional notes, music playback and quick contacts access. HTC hasn’t reinvented the secondary display, but its use in the HTC U Ultra is as good as we’ve seen it anywhere.
  • HTC Sense might make sense. There was a time when Android overlays provided by manufacturers were a thing of horror, taking over the whole experience and leaving you in a buggy mess. Thankfully, those days are long behind us, with HTC’s Sense overlay giving just a few tweaks here and there and not taking too much of a performance hit with it.
  • Sense assistant appears smart. The HTC U Ultra doesn’t come with Google Assistant. HTC has gone its own way with its own "Sense Assistant" feature. It's largely still the same core idea of matching up your tracked activities and interests in order to provide you with tips, analytics and suggestions based on your lifestyle. It’s one of those systems that should grow smarter the more you use it, but our early examination of the feature suggests that while it’s no smarter than other competing solutions, there’s certainly the prospect of it enhancing your phone usage. That’s as long as you’re happy with HTC having that kind of data in the first place.
  • Good (but not great) camera. HTC equips the HTC U Ultra with a rear f/1.8 12MP camera and front-mounted 16MP camera. The rear camera is an "ultrapixel" model with larger sensor sites that measure in at 1.55μm, while the front camera simply has an "ultrapixel mode" that emulates the same kind of functionality. Overall, the HTC U Ultra camera performs well, but we’d expect that of any premium phone. The biggest issue we had with it was that the focus, which HTC says should be assisted by Phase Detection Auto Focus (PDAF), just wasn’t that fast. Tapping to select focus works well, but if you’re shooting from the hip, compared to other premium phones it’s just not that quick.
    HTC U Ultra sample photos
    HTCUUltraShot1 HTCUUltraShot2
    HTCUUltraShot3 HTCUUltraShot4


HTC U Ultra: Why you might not want one

  • Ordinary battery life. The HTC U Ultra packs in a 3000mAh battery into its frame. For a phone of this size, that’s a little on the skimpy side, especially given the power needs of running that gorgeous display. In anecdotal testing we could mostly get a full day’s use out of the HTC U Ultra, but not by much. With many phones in the larger "phablet" space offering near two-day battery life that feels like a letdown. Sadly, our benchmark testing laid this quite bare, showing the HTC U Ultra to be an under-performer in a sustained battery test:
    Handset Geekbench 3 Battery Test Duration Geekbench 3 Battery Score
    Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge 11:55:00 7150
    Apple iPhone 7 Plus 11:11:20 6713
    Samsung Galaxy S7 10:01:20 6013
    Google Pixel XL 9:14:20 5543
    Huawei Mate 9 9:00:30 5330
    Sony Xperia XZ 8:24:20 5042
    Apple iPhone 7 7:50:10 4701
    HTC U Ultra 7:25:40 4456
    Motorola Moto Z 6:38:10 3981
    Apple iPhone SE 4:27:10 2671
  • No headphone jack. Apple went there first with the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, but HTC is the first premium Android manufacturer to decide to eschew the 3.5mm headphone socket. In Apple’s case it argued that allowing it to drop the port gave more space for other features including battery capacity, but the HTC U Ultra’s battery life and capacity is already pretty mediocre. As such, removing the headphone jack, even with the inclusion of USB C headphones, is more annoying than innovative.
  • Hit and miss capacitive buttons. The HTC U Ultra’s fingerprint sensor, which also acts as its home button is a little thin, but we had few problems getting it to register our touches. The same can’t be said for the capacitive back and app list buttons. All too often we’d try to hit them only to find they didn’t register, and we’d have to try again. Maybe it’s the positioning size against the U Ultra’s frame, or maybe it’s finding the sweet spot to get them to register every time. Either way, it’s annoying.
  • Fingerprint magnet. The liquid surface of the HTC U Ultra is a stunning and eye-catching piece of work. It’s also one of the most fingerprint smudge prone phones we’ve used for a long while. No doubt we noticed this more due to its heavily reflectivity, but it’s annoying to have to continually polish your phone simply to keep it from looking greasy.
  • High asking price. HTC positions the HTC U Ultra as a premium phone, so naturally it has attached a premium price to it. In Australia, the outright price of the HTC U Ultra is $1,199. For what you’re getting, given that the HTC U Ultra has mediocre battery life, no specific water resistance and the older Snapdragon 821 that it doesn’t exactly push to the limit, it’s a hard sell.


Who is it best suited for? What are my other options?

If you’re a die-hard HTC fan, and presuming that the rumours of a Snapdragon 835-based HTC 11 phone aren’t enough to keep you waiting, then the HTC U Ultra does represent HTC doing reasonably well in the smartphone space. We still love the visual appeal of the U Ultra as much as we did when we first laid eyes on it, and it’s easily the best feature of the phone.

The problem for HTC is that it has a lot of premium competition either already in the market or about to enter it that may be a better bet than the HTC U Ultra at this price point. If you want something straight away, Huawei’s exceptional Mate 9 is cheaper, faster and has a quicker camera. If you want something more flexible with the same processing power you could opt for the Pixel or Pixel XL now, or LG’s LG G6. The Samsung Galaxy S8 is just around the corner, as is Sony’s Xperia XZ Premium.

That’s the real issue with the HTC U Ultra, because while it’s a good phone, it doesn’t really do enough to stand out at a price point where it’s fair to expect a great phone.

What that means in terms of buying one is that you’d be well advised to search around for deals, or wait a month or two. Most Android phone prices erode over time, and if the HTC U Ultra were just slightly cheaper, it would be a much more appealing option. At its launch price point, it just doesn’t do enough to justify itself.


Where can I get it?

The HTC U Ultra sells outright for $1,199 in Sapphire Blue, Brilliant Black, Ice White and Cosmetic Pink colours.

If you want to pick up the HTC U Ultra on contract, it’s exclusive to Vodafone at the following price points:

HTC U Ultra Specifications

HTC U Ultra
Screen size 5.7in
Storage 64/128GB
Weight 170g
Processor Snapdragon 821
Rear camera 12MP f/1.8 Ultrapixel 2
Front camera 16MP with 4MP Ultrapixel mode
Battery 3000mAh
Resolution 2560x1440
Display density 515ppi
RRP $1,199

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