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HTC U11 review: the squeezable phone with a stunning camera

The Guardian logo The Guardian 13/06/2017 Samuel Gibbs

htc u11 review © Provided by Guardian News htc u11 review Once the darling of the smartphone world, HTC has been struggling to gain traction in a market dominated by Samsung and Apple with its solid but bland devices. Now the U11 is here and it’s squeezable (no really), can the former smartphone leader turn it around?

The U11 is the new top of the line for HTC, replacing last year’s all-metal HTC 10 with the company’s new shiny metallic glass design.

Subtle the U11 is not. It’s back is a highly polished metal sitting behind a fingerprint-magnet slab of glass. It’s certainly eye-catching and will appeal to those looking for a little bit of bling.

htc u11 review © Provided by Guardian News htc u11 review The front of the device is rather bland, just a black slate of glass with a small indentation for a fingerprint scanner at the bottom. Compared to the svelte new bezel-free design of smartphones from the likes of Samsung, LG and Essential, the U11 looks decidedly old and chunky.

The screen is super crisp, with good colours, blacks and brightness, but it’s an LCD and not quite up to the rich, vibrancy and colour depth of the top of the range AMOLED screens seen in other high-end rivals such as the Galaxy S8.

HTC’s build quality is legendary and the U11 does not disappoint. It is rock solid with no give or flex in the body. It is covered in glass, though, which doesn’t bode quite as well for drops or falls. The phone is water resistant to IP67 standards, so it will survive a trip down the toilet but swimming or dips below a metre of water are out.

The rounded back of U11 makes the phone 9.1mm thick at its peak, which is relatively chunky for a smartphone in 2017 – most, including the Galaxy S8, are around 7-8mm thick. It feels nice in the hand but the large bezels on the sides and top and bottom make the U11 pretty bulky.

The sides don’t look unusual, but the bottom half of each hides a secret pressure sensitive strip that you can squeeze to do certain things. More on that particular whizz-bang feature, later.

htc u11 review © Provided by Guardian News htc u11 review The fingerprint sensor is a thin oval shape on the front which works well, reliably unlocking the device almost instantaneously. You might be disappointed there’s no headphone socket, but active noise cancelling headphones are included in the box, as is a USB-C to headphone socket adapter. It’ll be annoying if you don’t use the bundled headphones or wireless ones.

Specifications

- Screen: 5.5in quad HD LCD (590ppi)

- Processor: Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835

- RAM: 4GB of RAM

- Storage: 64GB + microSD card

- Operating system: Android 7.1.1 with HTC Sense

- Camera: 12MP rear camera with OIS, 16MP front-facing camera

- Connectivity: LTE, Wi-Fi, NFC, Bluetooth 4.2 and GPS

- Dimensions: 154 x 76 x 9.1mm

- Weight: 168g

Hardware

htc u11 review © Provided by Guardian News htc u11 review The U11 is one of the first smartphones available with Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 835 processor, which claims to be both faster and more efficient for longer battery life.

The Samsung Galaxy S8 also uses the 835 in the US, but not in Europe.

HTC’s recent smartphones have run very well optimised software and the U11 is no exception. It consistently flies along at a pace only Google’s Pixel devices have in recent memory. App launches, jumping between apps, camera launches, game loads, searches and phone unlocks using the fingerprint scanner are instant and do not get bogged down as you use the device.

Battery life was solid if not spectacular. The U11 lasted around 24 hours between charges without activating any power saving modes. That was while using it as my primary device, browsing and using apps for four hours with hundreds of push emails, 60 minutes of gaming, and listening to around five hours of music via Bluetooth headphones. Standby time was slightly disappointing, however, dropping just over 1% an hour while sitting dormant overnight with do not disturb activated.

The U11 is also fast to charge using Quick Charge 3.0 and a compatible charger, hitting 100% in just over an hour.

Software

htc u11 review © Provided by Guardian News htc u11 review HTC fits its smartphones with a customised version of Android called Sense. The U11 comes with the latest version based on Android 7.1.1. Overall, Sense is a light touch on Android, with only a few small refinements and tweaks.

Most of these come in the form of optimisations, which make the U11 one of the snappiest smartphones around. The biggest addition is HTC’s new smart assistant called Sense Companion. Part of it is a duplication of Google Assistant, which is also available on the U11, with points of interest, restaurant and travel information when out and about.

The other part is the phone’s ability to learn from your habits and optimise its performance accordingly. It will remind you when it needs recharging and when junk and memory needs to be cleared out using Boost+, among other bits and pieces.

It takes a while to learn, and in the limited time I’ve had the U11, it failed to do anything particularly interesting. It, like many of the other manufacturer-developed smart assistants, seems to just do a poor job of duplicating Google Assistant and its feed. Given more time Sense Companion may prove more valuable as it learns.

It can be turned off or ignored, and some may find it more useful, particularly if you do not give Google access to your entire digital life.

Camera

htc u11 review © Provided by Guardian News htc u11 review The U11’s 12-megapixel camera is cracking. It is capable of taking some really stunning photos with rich detail, deep colour and has very good low-light performance, which means it’s very difficult to take a bad photo with the U11. It’s right up there with Google Pixel as the best camera phone on the market.

There are also plenty of manual controls within the pro shooting mode, which can get as complicated or as simple as you’d like with sliders and custom presets plus optional RAW output. HTC’s camera app is one of the best on the market, missing only a golden-ratio grid.

The 16-megapixel selfie camera is also very good, producing great shots even in difficult lighting conditions. There are three modes: selfie video, selfie panorama and selfie photo. All of them are pretty self explanatory and work well. You can smooth skin with a makeup mode, but I found the photos were already of softer focus than my personal preference, without any skin-smoothing modes active.

Squeeze-me

htc u11 review © Provided by Guardian News htc u11 review Most of the HTC U11 isn’t exactly unique. One thing that HTC has all to its own is Edge Sense - you simply squeeze the sides on the bottom half of the phone to activate features. The pressure sensitivity can be tuned to your liking in case you have a monster grip, and you can change what happens when you squeeze the phone.

By default a squeeze will launch the camera and, once up and running, trigger the shutter. Launching the camera with a squeeze is great, but squeezing to shoot ends up shaking the camera at the moment of capture.

If you go “advanced” you can set a short squeeze and a long squeeze to do different things. It sounds a little daft, but is a better way to launch the camera than a double tap of the power button, with far less accidental activation. Bravo for trying something new that isn’t just a gimmick.

Observations

htc u11 review © Provided by Guardian News htc u11 review

    - The U11’s speakers are more powerful and clearer than the majority of the competition

    - Both the front and the rear glass panels are fingerprint magnets

    - Bluetooth connectivity to wireless earbuds wasn’t the best, dropping out in places
      where a Galaxy S8 had no issues

Price

The HTC U11 costs £649 and is available in silver, black or blue, which makes it one of the cheaper top-end smartphones available, if not by much.

For comparison, the Samsung Galaxy S8 costs £689 with 64GB of storage, the Galaxy S8+ costs £779 with 64GB of storage, the Google Pixel XL costs £719 with 32GB of storage, Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus costs £719 with 32GB of storage, the LG G6 costs £649 with 32GB of storage, and the Huawei P10 Plus costs £649 with 128GB of storage.

Verdict

The HTC U11 is a great smartphone hidden in an old, bulky design. While rivals have moved on with tiny bezels and big screens squeezed into small phone bodies, HTC has stagnated.

It’s bright and bold on the back, but bland on the front. The large bezels make the phone pretty big for a device with a 5.5in screen and harder to use and fit in a pocket compared to rivals.

The high-shine and colour certainly stand out, which will appeal to some, and the U11 has a great camera and useful edge sense pressure-sensitive sides. It’s just a shame that the U11 feels like a smartphone designed for 2015 not 2017.

Pros: squeezable sides, brilliant camera, microSD card slot, water resistant, bold colours, good screen, 24-hour battery, noise-cancelling earphones in the box

Cons: bulky, large bezels, dated design, no headphone socket

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