HTC U11 Review: Cranking it all the way up to 11
HTC's U11 is an exceptional phone, and a very serious challenger for best phone of 2017.
HTC was responsible for two of the best phones of 2016 by way of the exceptional Google Pixel and Google Pixel XL handsets. The problem for HTC was that they weren't in-house efforts, even if HTC was doing the actual lug work of producing the hardware. So expectations were high for its own in-house followup device, the HTC U Ultra. Despite having many of the same specifications as the Pixel XL, the U Ultra was ultimately a disappointing device compared to its immediate competition, and it's a comparison that's only widened with the release of many competitor handsets through the year.
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As such, when the HTC U11 was announced, I was cautious, but not terribly optimistic. HTC can produce great phones and has done so in the past, but it's had more misses that hits when compared against true flagships. Thankfully for HTC, the U11 marks the point where the Taiwanese manufacturer appears to have genuinely turned a corner, because it's a genuinely great handset in almost every respect.
HTC U11: Design
The one thing I loved about the HTC U Ultra was the liquid design idea. Ultimately there’s only so much you can do with a glass phone screen, and every manufacturer has pretty much settled on their design ideas, tweaking around the edges. The HTC U Ultra was a real looker, and the U11 continues that journey with a few new colours, including silver and bright red models. There's a definite show-off aspect to the rear part of the HTC U11's design for selected colours.
At 153.9 x 75.9 x 7.9mm with a carrying weight of 169g, the HTC U11 is reasonable to hold in the hand even if you're not a fan of larger phones. The one caveat here is that compared to many other flagships such as the Samsung Galaxy S8 or the LG G6, the HTC U11 still features noticeable bezels on the sides and especially at the top and bottom. This leads to a slightly wider and taller handset than its 5.5 inch display might suggest. By way of comparison, you can place a Galaxy S8 handset entirely on top of the HTC U11 and still see the sides.
Like the HTC U Ultra before it, the HTC U11 lacks a standard headphone port, with a single USB C type port at the base handling both power and audio duties. HTC provides a pair of USB C noise-cancelling headphones in the box with the HTC U11 as well as a USB C to 3.5mm adaptor, which is a nice touch. The HTC U11 is naturally enough Bluetooth compatible if you prefer wireless sound.
While it has made considerable fuss about the squeezable "Edge Sense" sides of the HTC U11, there's nothing inherent in the design of the phone that makes it obvious that the lower third of the phone can sense force against it. If you disabled Edge Sense and handed the HTC U11 to anyone else, they'd never notice it was there.
HTC U11: Camera
HTC's history in the smartphone camera game is just as ripe with hits as it is with misses. Last year's HTC10 promised a lot but ultimately didn't quite live up to those promises. The Google Pixel, produced by HTC was an absolute winner. The HTC U Ultra again went on the hype bandwagon, only to come crashing off when compared to other premium handsets.
That gives the HTC U11's 16MP f/2.0 front and rear 12MP f/1.7 cameras a lot to either live up to, or fail to achieve depending on how optimistic you are about HTC's general approach to camera technology.
HTC points to its DxOmark of 90 as proof of its camera chops, beating out the previous frontrunner for that score, which was the HTC-produced Google Pixel itself. The HTC U11's rear camera includes HTC's "Ultrapixel" technology, which incorporates larger pixel sensor sites for greater light input and (at least in theory) improved low light performance. It matches that up with optical image stabilisation and what HTC calls UltraSpeed Autofocus for a camera experience that easily sits amongst the very best we've ever tested.
The key aspect of the HTC U11's camera experience is that focus and exposure is set very quickly indeed, and in most situations extremely well. If you're a fan of more measured shooting, the inbuilt Pro mode for its camera app gives full access to camera functions, including the ability to capture directly in RAW mode.
Once you start pushing the HTC U11 in lower light situations it does start to struggle a little, but again that's a measure of the technology in play. There simply isn't (and won't be) a great low light performer for smartphone cameras until the technology radically changes, and if that's what you genuinely want then a DSLR is a better bet. For most folks, however, the HTC U11's camera will suit them very well indeed.
Here's some sample shots taken directly from the HTC U11:
HTC U11: Why you’d want one
Premium performance: The HTC U11 will be the first phone to hit Australian shores running on Qualcomm's heavily-hyped Snapdragon 835 SoC, because while that's at the heart of the international versions of the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+, here in Australia we score the Exynos 8995 based variants of those handsets. That means that HTC is the first to line up for a head to head comparison. At an anecdotal level, the HTC U11 running HTC's Sense UI on top of Android 7.1.1 runs very smoothly indeed, with no noticeable lag in applications even during heavy usage. At a benchmark level this holds true as well. Here's how the HTC U11 compares against other premium handsets using Geekbench 4's CPU test:
Handset Geekbench 4 CPU Single Core (higher is better) Geekbench 4 CPU Multi Core (higher is better) Samsung Galaxy S8+ 2020 6690 Samsung Galaxy S8 1989 6628 Huawei P10 Plus 1863 6544 HTC U11 1919 6362 Huawei Mate 9 1925 6068 Apple iPhone 7 Plus 3374 5649 Huawei P10 1922 5633 Apple iPhone 7 3452 5599 Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge 1359 5333 Samsung Galaxy S7 1378 4718 Oppo R9s Plus 1466 4415 LG G6 1810 4228 Apple iPhone SE 2449 4171 HTC U Ultra 1648 3848 Google Pixel XL 1629 4051
The Galaxy S8 and Huawei P10 plus slightly outpace the HTCU11 in that particular benchmark, but not to a level where you'd see a noticeable performance gap between them. Running the same apps side by side saw no appreciable performance difference at all.
It's much the same story in gaming terms. Here's how the HTC U11 compares against premium handsets using 3DMark's Ice Storm Unlimited test:
Handset 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited Result HTC U11 40239 Apple iPhone 7 Plus 37956 Apple iPhone 7 37717 HTC U Ultra 29968 Apple iPhone SE 29276 Samsung Galaxy S7 28903 Huawei P10 Plus 28491 Google Pixel XL 28458 Huawei Mate 9 28457 Samsung Galaxy S8 28409 Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge 28402 LG G6 28344 Samsung Galaxy S8+ 28120 HTC 10 27392 Huawei P10 25168
Again, benchmarks don't tell the full story, but in simple terms, if you want to push lots of pixels around for whatever reason, the HTC U11 is a premium contender.
Good battery life: HTC packs the HTC U11 with a 3000mAh battery, which is essentially mid-range for a phone this size in the premium space. Combined with the high power potential of the Snapdragon 835, the U11 could well have dropped down in battery life terms, but it didn't do that. On a day to day basis it's an easy all-day use phone for even serious users, although as with any phone, if you push it hard enough for long enough it will go flat.
Geekbench 3's battery test gives a comparative score that isn't an absolute when it comes to comparing handset performance, but does give a good idea of what to expect. Here's how the HTC U11 compared against a range of premium handsets for battery life:
Handset Geekbench 3 Battery Test Duration Geekbench 3 Battery Score Galaxy S8+ 14:55:30 8955 Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge 11:55:00 7150 Samsung Galaxy S8 11:47:50 7078 HTC U11 11:42:40 7026 Apple iPhone 7 Plus 11:11:20 6713 Huawei P10 Plus 10:39:50 6218 Samsung Galaxy S7 10:01:20 6013 Huawei P10 9:31:30 5523 Google Pixel XL 9:14:20 5543 LG G6 9:09:30 5495 Huawei Mate 9 9:00:30 5330 Apple iPhone 7 7:50:10 4701 HTC U Ultra 7:25:40 4456 HTC 10 6:54:30 4145 Apple iPhone SE 4:27:10 2671
The Galaxy S8+ still wears the crown for overall battery life, but the HTC U11 impresses given it's clearly eking out every last drop of power from that 3000mAh battery pack and besting some handsets with higher capacities along the way. HTC does provide a couple of emergency battery saving measures that limit performance if you do find yourself going flat during the day, as well as Qualcomm's Quick Charge 3.0 to keep your power topped up.
- Edge Sense is simple but smart: Edge Sense, which is HTC's name for the ability of the HTC U11 to be squeezed on the sides might seem somewhat gimmicky. However, by allowing you to moderate the level of squeeze force and keeping the level of actions fairly simple, it creates genuinely useful scenarios to actually utilise it. We've seen plenty of attempts to make the edges of phones mean something, whether it's the Edge Display on the Galaxy S7/S8 handsets, or the dual display on phones like the HTC U Ultra or LG V20, but with Edge Sense, HTC has hit the sweet spot of actually doing something with some utility. You can't do everything with it at launch, with an incoming SDK that claims it will incorporate the ability for developers to leverage squeezing for additional actions. Still, with only a short or long squeeze to pick from, nothing gets too complex. I'm a big fan of using a short squeeze to launch the camera and a long squeeze to activate the rear flashlight, but you can also match it up to Google Assistant or any other app you'd care to launch. It's simple, but sometimes simple can work very well indeed.
- Water resistance: The HTC U11 is IP67 rated for water resistance of up to 1 metre for up to 30 minutes. That's a fresh lab water test, so don't take it scuba diving, but for brief immersion it should be OK. Water resistance is fast becoming the norm for premium handsets, and its inclusion in the HTC U11 is further expanded thanks to Edge Sense, because it means you can use it to take underwater photos while the phone is submerged.
- Very nice price: Premium phones jumped over the $1,000 barrier a few years ago, and with the state of the Australian dollar and its previous launch pricing for the HTC U Ultra I fully expected HTC to retail the U11 for somewhere in the $1,100-$1,200 price range, in line with other premium competitors. Instead it's gone aggressive on its price point, offering it up for just $999 outright. Given what you're getting and the comparable prices of other premium flagships, that makes the HTC U11 very compelling.
HTC U11: Why you might not want one
- This year's internals, last year's design: The HTC U11 uses the same essential design language as the HTC U Ultra. If you opt for the silver finish it's a very showy design at the rear, with a lovely ripple effect when the light hits it just the right way. In Australia we'll only see the silver and black finishes made available, which is a huge pity, because the blue and red options are the far more eye catching. We tested with the far more conservative "brilliant" black version, and you'd be hard pressed to call it anything but dull, or at best a fingerprint smudge magnet. Combine that with a front design that features far more obvious bezels than its competition, and you're left with a more ordinary looking phone.
- Single-use USB headphones: The included "USonic" headphones with the HTC U11 are very fine indeed for listening purposes, but there's a catch. Despite using the standard USB C connector, they only appear to work on the HTC U11 itself. Plug them into any other USB-C based phone and you'll most likely hit either silence or your tunes being broadcast to anyone in hearing range. This will not make you popular on a crowded train, no matter what your musical tastes may happen to be.
- Squeeze isn't ideal as a camera shutter: If you opt to use Edge Sense to launch the camera, it then defaults to a short squeeze for taking shots, or a long hold to switch camera modes. The issue with squeezing the camera is that it introduces a degree of camera shudder, which is never ideal for properly framed or focused photos. There's a short delay in processing when you take shots this way where the camera is presumably adjusting focus to help deal with this, but that's not ideal. If it's your only option it's better than no camera at all, but I rather rapidly switched to using the volume controls as shutter buttons instead.
Who is it best suited for? What are my other options?
If you're in the market for a premium phone handset in 2017, the HTC U11 definitively deserves a place in your thought processes when choosing which handset to buy. It's a very powerful handset with an exceptional camera, great battery life and a very compelling price point.
If you're willing to spend a little more the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+ are also worthy of consideration, as is LG's G6 or Huawei's even less expensive Huawei P10 or slightly more expensive Huawei P10 Plus. If you wanted to stay in the HTC family, the introduction of the HTC U11 has seen the HTC U Ultra tumble in outright price terms recently as well.
Where can I get it?
The HTC U11 is available in Australia in Brilliant Black or Amazing Silver finishes from 5 June 2017 for an outright price of $999. It will be sold through JB Hi-Fi and Harvey Norman stores, as well as through HTC's own web store.
If you want the HTC U11 on contract, it is available through Optus and Telstra. Compare their plans below:
HTC U11 Specifications
153.9 x 75.9 x 7.9mm