HTC U11 Life review: The low-cost Pixel 2 alternative
HTC's U11 Life provides solid value in the mid-range, especially if you hanker after a Google Pixel 2 but can't quite meet its asking price.
- Android One means upgrades should come fast
- Sense UI is more flexible than on the Pixel
- Water resistant
- Long-lasting battery
- No headphone jack
- Ordinary camera
- Plastic body feels cheap
- Weird USB C socket placement
HTC's biggest headline in 2017 was arguably when it announced that it was selling off a decent proportion of its IP as well as the employment contracts of many of its mobile development team directly to Google. That followed months of speculation that the Taiwanese smartphone maker was going to exit the smartphone business, although that didn't eventuate. 2017 saw the release of the HTC U11, a phone that more or less served as the prototype for the Google Pixel 2.
The HTC U11 Life is the somewhat cut-down version of the HTC U11, but it was released only after the Pixel 2 had been formally announced. While it's been available overseas for some time, it's only recently become available in Australia as a Vodafone exclusive.
As such, it's a cheaper HTC U11, but the inclusion of Android One means that it's also inherited just a little Pixel 2 DNA as well.
HTC U11 Life: Design
The HTC U11 stood out for its liquid design (first seen in the HTC U Ultra), and that's an idea that's been passed down, in a somewhat low-budget way, to the HTC U11 Life as well. Specifically, while it has the same soft curves and reflectivity of its bigger and bolder siblings, it does so within a frame that is obviously plastic rather than metallic.
My review sample was the "Brilliant Black" model that we'll see here in Australia, although HTC does produce the HTC U11 Life in a more fetching blue tone. It may just be my own personal preferences speaking, but I would have preferred the blue option because the black finish doesn't do much to stand out. Rather predictably, it's also a massive fingerprint magnet.
Measuring in at 149.1x72.9x8.1mm with a carrying weight of 142 grams and a 5.2-inch display, the HTC U11 is one of the easier phones to hold and keep a grip on, with that plastic body keeping the weight nice and low. Like the HTC U11, there's a gently grooved power button on the right hand side, just underneath the volume control. At the top, you'll find a combined microSD and nano SIM slot, although for the Australian model tested, it's not dual-SIM capable.
The HTC U11 Life also joins the family of devices to skip out on a headphone socket. A pair of USB-C headphones is supplied in the box with the HTC U11 Life, but there's no USB-C headphone jack adaptor provided. If you want to use your own wired headphones, you'll have to budget extra for one.
HTC certainly didn't use the added space it gains by carving out the headphone socket for much, it seems. As an example, there's the truly odd right hand side placement of the USB C charging port on the HTC U11 Life. It's not a critical issue, but if you're used to phones with centrally mounted charging ports, it takes some getting used to plugging it in on the right.
One advantage that you don't see in every mid-range handset is the inclusion of water resistance. The HTC U11 Life is rated at IP67 for water and dust ingress, which means that small scale immersion shouldn't be an issue for it, although longer dives or dropping it into anything that isn't clean water is unwise.Back to top
HTC U11 Life: Camera
Smartphone cameras are a key part of the experience and value of any given handset. For the HTC U11 Life, what you're looking at is a single rear 16 MP f/2.0 lens, twinned with a 16MP f/2.o lens around the front.
The HTC U11 Life's selfie snapper can manage reasonably sharp self-portraits, with the option of a beauty mode that can add some serious artificiality to your photos. Tastes vary, but I'm still waiting for a beauty mode that doesn't make me look like some kind of sentient potato. Maybe I'm just not beautiful enough for the HTC U11 Life.
The rear 16MP camera can give solid results in the right lighting conditions, but rather predictably for a mid-range snapper, if you push it hard in lower-light conditions, expect lesser results.
That's a little disappointing for a mid-range phone, simply because we're seeing so many features that used to be the province of premium cameras shift down to the mid-range. There's no secondary lens for extra wide, telephoto or portrait modes, and while the HTC U11 Life's minimalist software most closely resembles that of the Pixel 2, there's no sign of that phone's AI-assisted portrait mode either.
As such, the HTC U11 Life has a camera that's perfectly solid, but just not that exciting in the way that some mid-range phones have managed recently. Here are some sample snaps
|HTC U11 Life Sample Photos|
HTC U11 Life: Performance
Where the HTC U11 and the Pixel 2 run on Qualcomm's Snapdragon 845, the HTC U11 Life's price point means that compromises are in order. As such, it makes do with the still very capable Snapdragon 660 SoC instead. That's a chipset we've seen some solid performance out of in past tests, and the inclusion of Android 8.0 ("Oreo") should also give it an edge in real-world use.
In benchmark terms, the HTC U11 Life performs in line with other Snapdragon 660-based phones, but predictably below those of the more powerful Snapdragon 845. Here's how it compares to some mid-range phones as well as to the upper tier HTC U11 and Pixel 2 XL:
The HTC U11 Life's performance sits almost exactly where you'd expect a mid-range phone to sit in benchmark terms, although they're not the final word in performance.
On the 3D graphics front, the HTC U11 Life isn't a stellar performer, although we don't have a lot of data using 3DMark's Slingshot Extreme test to compare it against:
The HTC U11 Life inherits the Edge Sense squeezable-sides feature that HTC debuted in the HTC U11. This allows you to set two applications that you can launch with a short or long squeeze on the sides. The core idea is that you can access your most frequently used applications without having to actually touch the screen, making it easier to start up apps from the second you grab hold of it. Where the Pixel 2/Pixel 2 XL only uses its squeeze for activating Google Assistant, HTC leaves it considerably more open for the HTC U11 Life. More flexibility is always good, and while the squeeze function does appear gimmicky, it quickly becomes second nature and you wonder why more phones don't offer it.
So far, so good, but where the HTC U11 Life does have a non-gimmick edge is in the fact that it's the first phone to hit Australia using the Android One platform, and it's worth exploring what that means.
Android One phones have to comply with hardware guidelines issued by Google, with the core idea being that they're substantially easier to upgrade over time. As such, any Android One phone is guaranteed to get both security and operating system updates for a period of at least two years from launch. That should see the HTC U11 Life through both Android P and (presuming Google keeps to its annual upgrade cycle) Android Q, neatly avoiding the Android fragmentation issue along the way.
Android One has another advantage in that it's designed as an operating environment with minimal clutter. What that means for the HTC U11 Life is that there's precious little in the way of apps aside from Google's stock applications, so it's yours to customise as you see fit.
All of that adds up to a phone that isn't just the HTC U11 "lite", but also a "lite" version of the Pixel 2 itself, at a fraction of the asking price.
HTC won't have the Australian Android One space to itself for all that long, with HMD Global/Nokia committed to launching its 2018 flagships here by May 2018, all of which will be Android One devices. For now, if you were keen on the clean Android idea of the Pixel 2, but couldn't stump up that kind of cash, the HTC U11 Life is a solid option.
HTC U11 Life: Battery life
The Snapdragon 660 that powers the HTC U11 Life isn't the strongest performer in app terms, but it is one that is designed to more gently caress the power terminals of batteries, leading to longer battery life – at least in theory, anyway.
HTC provides a 2600mAh battery in the HTC U11 Life, which is a mid-range option rather than exceptional, but here the lower-power CPU really does save the day if battery endurance is your key metric:
The HTC U11 Life's battery life outdoes even the mighty Samsung Galaxy S9+ in a straight line test, although there are a few caveats there. Its Geekbench 4 battery score reveals it's doing so while doing less actual work, which again runs in line with the Snapdragon 660's more moderate specifications.
Geekbench 4's battery test is also quite linear, which isn't usually the way you'll use an actual phone day to day. In real-world tests, the HTC U11 could pretty easily manage a day's moderate usage without too many hassles. As noted above, the USB C port is in an odd spot for top-up charges, and sadly there's no sign of Qi- or PMA-compatible wireless charging.
HTC U11 Life: Verdict
The HTC U11 Life is intended to offer a mid-range alternative to the HTC U11 at a suitably mid-range price, and it ultimately succeeds pretty well at that task. If you hanker for a clean Android device with a guaranteed upgrade path, it's a solid contender, although the mid-range space is one that's fiercely contested at the moment.
HTC U11 Life: Alternatives
At the HTC U11 Life's $599 price point, you've got a wide choice of competing handsets from a variety of manufacturers. You could consider one of Samsung's A-series phones (or maybe even a bargain import Galaxy S7 or S8) or the Motorola G5S Plus or Moto X4.
If you fancy further camera features, consider Huawei's Nova 2i/Mate 10 Lite. You could also look at the Nokia 6, but that's a handset due for a refresh in May with the same Snapdragon 660 as the HTC U11 Life, so holding off a little while may be wise.
HTC U11 Life: What the other reviewers say
|Trusted Reviews||"The U11 Life is a decent mid-range handset let down by software issues."||3/5|
|CNET||"HTC's U11 Life is a decent midrange phone, but the Moto G5 Plus shoots better photos for a little less."||7.3/10|
|Wired||"For the price, you’re getting a decent phone, but there are a lot of tradeoffs."||6/10|
|TechRadar||"The HTC U11 Life is a smart trimming down of the HTC U11 that gets you most of the highlights at a lower price."||3.5/5|
|Android Authority||"The HTC U11 Life Android One is like a mid-range Pixel 2, made by the same company and with a very similar software experience, but coming in at half the price."||8.2/10|
|Pocket Lint||"The HTC U11 Life is a logical mid-level reflection of its already very capable flagship bigger brother."||4/5|
- Product Name
- HTC U11 Life
- 1080 x 1920 pixels
- Android 8.0/Android One
- Front camera
- 16MP f/2.0
- Rear camera
- 16MP f/2.0
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 660
HTC U11 Life: Pricing and availability
The HTC U11 Life is available for $599 outright or on a range of contract terms through Vodafone in Australia:Back to top
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