HTC U11 review: Should you pay extra for the Plus?
Since I wrote this review back in June 2017, HTC has seen to give us a modest update on the U11: the U11 Plus. Rumoured to be the Google Pixel 2 XL before LG took the reins with limited success, the U11 Plus is a relatively minor improvement on the original U11, but an improvement it still is. An 18:9 aspect ratio is the main improvement, but it’s a bigger screen all round too, going from 5.5in to 6in with generally thinner bezels and a sharper look. It also can go slightly deeper underwater, going from IP 67 to IP68.
Of course, this comes at a price: the HTC U11 Plus is precisely £50 more expensive at RRP – a price worth paying if you favour a bigger device, but probably not just for the different aspect ratio. Given you can get the HTC U11 for quite a bit below RRP nowadays, you’re best shopping around for the best deal. If it’s a small difference, by all means, go for the Plus. If it’s not, you’re not missing out on much by sticking to the original model.
My original review continues below.
Against all taste and decency, I have a soft spot for American squeezy cheese. That may seem odd to start a smartphone review with this kind of pointless biographical detail, but it’s best to be clear from the offset that I have nothing against squeezy things in principle.
When HTC teased the U11, it went big on the fact that the phone would be a squeezy revolution. The truth is considerably more prosaic: the HTC U11 is a great phone, but that’s nothing to do with the fact you can squeeze it.
It’s also an expensive handset. When I reviewed the HTC 10 last year, I concluded that it was a great phone, but pricing it the same as the Samsung Galaxy S7 was commercial suicide. HTC hasn’t repeated the trick this year but it comes close: at £649, the HTC U11 is only £30 cheaper than the superior Samsung Galaxy S8. Great as it is, it’s hard to see the U11 getting the love it deserves with this strategy.
But it’s still great a great phone. Read on to find out why.
HTC U11 review: Squeeziness
Before I get on with the usual format, it only seems fair to give the U11 its own special section on squeeziness, given HTC made such a big song and dance about it. To be clear, this feels just like a normal phone; you’re not getting some kind of stress reliever/ketchup-bottle hybrid.
Edge Sense, as it was finally christened, works like this. You can squeeze both the edges of the bottom half of the phone where you’d usually be holding it and something will happen. You can change what this does, but by default, it’s configured to help you with camera operations. One squeeze launches the camera app, even when the phone is locked; the second then captures a photograph.That sounds useful, especially if I were reviewing this phone in winter when gloves are commonplace, but it’s actually not that handy. I take a lot of pictures of my cat (everyone needs a hobby) and, in theory, being able to do so one-handed while using the free fingers to coax him into pulling weird faces would be ideal. But it isn’t. First, squeezing the phone makes it very hard to keep the camera lens still. Second, the camera feels markedly less responsive when taking a “squeeze shot” than when capturing with the onscreen shutter button. And timing is everything in cat-based photography, as any self-respecting ailurophile will tell you.
You can change the squeeze’s function, too, although some of the options are more useful than others. Launching an app is a bit pointless, but the screenshot facility is nice for people who get fed up of the hand contortions required to take a screengrab in Android, and using it as a shortcut for the voice-recording app is handy for journalists. Activating the torch with a squeeze is useful in the dark conditions you’d likely need extra light in. It’s also possible to launch apps with a long squeeze if you want to set up two different shortcuts.
Even if you do customise the squeeze, though, it’s not really that useful and you quickly forget it’s there. Fortunately, that’s easy to do, as this feels just like any other phone; HTC clearly hasn’t gone out of its way to redesign around the feature. Just as well, as I can’t see anyone else copying it anytime soon.
Of course, if you really do like Edge Sense, and want to protect your new purchase, you’ll have to be sure that any case you get isn’t so rugged that it blocks the squeeziness. To that end, it’s best to consider one of the official HTC ones. They do a flip case or a clear plastic back plate to protect that vulnerable looking back. Though given you’ll likely find the whole feature underwhelming, it’s entirely possible any case will do.
HTC U11 review: Design
Right, now that’s out of the way, back to the original schedule.
As mentioned, HTC hasn’t had to make any concessions for its pointless squeeziness and, to the naked eye, it looks like a normal smartphone. A very stylish smartphone, but a smartphone nonetheless.
The most eye-catching thing about it is the backplate, which dazzles with a mirror-finish rear panel topped with glass. It seems to change tone depending on the angle you hold it at, and it really does shout out for attention. This isn’t a handset for someone looking to blend in.
Unfortunately, this shininess comes at a cost. I have never come across a phone this prone to fingerprints. Maybe it’s because the light colouring makes the fingerprints more obvious, but the upshot is that if you find polishing your phone a chore, this might not be the handset for you.
Otherwise, it’s pretty unremarkable. It’s a 5.5in phone, so it’s certainly on the chunkier size (it makes my S7 feel positively tiny by comparison), but there’s nothing out of the ordinary here. The fingerprint scanner is at the front of the phone below the screen, and both the power button and volume rocker are on the right-hand side. As with most modern smartphones that have the feature, the memory card slot is built into the same tray as the SIM card holder.
Further good news: HTC has finally joined Sony, Samsung and Apple on the water-resistant train. The U11 is IP67-rated, which means it will survive a short dunk in water and a phone call in the rain.
“Okay, but is the headphone jack at the top or the bottom?” you might ask. The answer is disappointing: neither. HTC has gone the way of Motorola and Apple and got rid of the 3.5mm headphone jack. The HTC U11 comes with a USB Type-C adapter with a headphone amp built in, so in theory not only will your old headphones work, but they should sound better than ever. HTC also throws in a set of USB Type-C noise-canceling earbuds in the box, and they do a far better job than most pack-ins.
These are both good concessions. But not as good keeping the 3.5mm headphone jack in the first place.
HTC U11 review: Screen
Let’s move onto the screen, which unlike the Samsung Galaxy S8 and the LG G6, has a traditional 16:9 aspect ratio.
On the surface of things, it should be a beauty. It’s 5.5in in size has a resolution of 1,440 x 2,560 and uses HTC’s own Super LCD screen technology. Unfortunately, it’s not as good as it sounds on paper. The main issue is colour accuracy: the reds, greens and yellows look oversaturated, which isn’t ideal.
Elsewhere, things are better. The contrast level is superb at 1,599:1, and the screen reaches a brightness of 520cd/m2. That, combined with a polarising layer, means that glare isn’t a problem in bright sunlight, although there’s a hidden issue that becomes apparent when you look at it in landscape mode while wearing polarising sunglasses.
This is because of the way the polarising layer is implemented: on other phones (the Google Pixel, for instance) it’s orientated diagonally, meaning you can see the screen in both landscape and portrait mode. Schoolboy error.
HTC U11 review: Performance
Fortunately, things pick up considerably when it comes to overall performance. With the Qualcomm octa-core Snapdragon 835 processor and 4GB RAM this was always going to be a snappy handset and, while the version in our hands was the version with 64GB of storage, another edition with 128GB of storage and 6GB RAM is available, too.
Not that the standard version is sluggish or anything. Here’s how it did in our Geekbench 4 benchmarks, which measure overall CPU performance:
As you can see, the HTC U11 is almost the best; just a gnat’s wing behind the Samsung Galaxy S8 for both single- and multi-core performance. It comfortably beats the Google Pixel, and the LG G6, which sells for the same price.