HTC U11 Plus review: A thing of rare beauty
There were rumours bouncing around last at the back end of last year that the HTC U11 Plus was the phone originally intended to be the Google Pixel 2 XL. Code-named ‘muskie’ it was, according to some reports, eventually replaced in Google’s plans by an LG-manufactured phone in the summer of 2017.
The result… well, you know what the result was. It was the LG-made Google Pixel 2 XL, which was, to my mind, the most disappointing flagship smartphone of 2017 with a screen that was afflicted by all sorts of problems, most notably a nasty blue tint. So how about the HTC U11 Plus? It was eventually announced late last year, I now finally have my hands on a review sample and it couldn’t be more different from the Pixel 2 XL.
Most pertinently, none of the issues that affected the Pixel 2’s display are in evidence here. It uses a 6in Super LCD panel, which means it doesn’t benefit from the perfect black of the Google phone’s P-OLED screen, but there’s no colour shifting and colour accuracy is fine.
It isn’t the best smartphone screen I’ve seen – for instance, peak brightness is a tad down on the best and its colour reproduction isn’t quite as rich – but it’s not actively bad in any way. Plus, as with every other flagship smartphone that has launched recently, the screen on the HTC U11 Plus is one of those edge-to-edge affairs with an 18:9 aspect ratio and barely-there left and right bezels.
It’s all good, in other words.
HTC U11 Plus review: Design and key features
The other bonus is that, at £699, the HTC U11 Plus undercuts the regular price of the Pixel 2 XL by £100 (although there have been some tasty price reductions recently). And there’s nothing about it, functionally, that puts it at a disadvantage to Google’s big-screened flagship.In fact, when it comes to design I’d hazard that most would prefer the look and feel of the HTC U11 Plus. It’s a little on the large and heavy side but with a glass rear finished in moody dark grey and a more curvaceous profile, it’s far more glamorous than the Pixel 2 XL.
And it’s actually a bit more practical, too. It’s IP68 dust- and water-resistance rated where the Pixel 2 XL is IP67 rated. The HTC U11 Plus can also be expanded via microSD card where the Pixel 2 cannot. HTC hasn’t seen fit to reintroduce the 3.5mm headphone jack but there is a pair of active noise-cancelling ear-scanning headphones included in the box as well as a 3.5mm adapter, where the Pixel 2 XL only includes the latter.
Even the squeezy edges of the HTC U11 Plus (yep, it still has Edge Sense) are endowed with more potency than on the XL. On Google’s phone, all you can do with a squeeze is launch Google Assistant; here, you can customise it so it launches the camera with a short squeeze and Assistant with a long squeeze. You can also use it to capture images and switch between rear and front-facing cameras, or launch a new shortcut dial from the home screen.
I’m still of the opinion that Edge Sense is little more than a gimmick but it could come in useful in some circumstances: when it’s really cold, maybe, you can take pictures without fiddling around with tiny buttons or on-screen controls with your gloves on.
What you don’t get on the HTC U11 Plus is the pure Android that you get with the Pixel 2 XL. Instead, HTC Sense has its greasy fingerprints all over Android 8.0 Oreo and I’m not a huge fan. It crops app icons in a rather ugly, unnecessary fashion and the Blinkfeed news feed, which by default sits off to the left of the main homescreen, isn’t great either. It feels like an inferior substitute for Google Now and with News Republic supplying the newsfeed, you’re pretty restricted on your sources as well.
Still, at least Blinkfeed is relatively easy to remove and installing a stock Android launcher such as Nova for a cleaner look and feel is straightforward. If you’re going to buy this phone, I’d advise you do those two things straight away.
HTC U11 Plus review: Performance and battery life
Despite this, I’d say that the U11 Plus is so far a better buy than the Pixel 2 XL, certainly in terms of its design and features. However, there’s less to separate the two phones when it comes to performance. That’s because they’re identical internally and resolution of the display (1,440 x 2,880) is the same as well.
So what you get is a phone running the very latest Qualcomm hardware – the Snapdragon 835, with a minimum of 4GB of RAM (the 128GB storage version has 6GB) – and that means the HTC U11 Plus is a match for most smartphones launched in the last 12 months, at least as far as benchmarks are concerned.
It falls behind a couple of its rivals for native graphics performance. Because the OnePlus 5T and Huawei Mate 10 Pro both have lower resolution 1080p displays, they get much better “onscreen” results in GFXBench’s suite of GPU tests. Still, there’s very little on the Play Store that will faze the HTC U11 Plus.
Battery life is pretty decent as well and this is something we’ve seen pretty much across the board with recent Snapdragon 835-based phones. All phones with this chipset seem to do pretty well and, anecdotally, I’ve been experiencing around a day and a half between charges with the HTC U11 Plus.
That’s pretty good. Not as good as the Huawei Mate 10 Pro, but far better than pre-Snapdragon 835 flagship phones were typically able to manage prior to 2017.
However, HTC doesn’t appear to have optimised very well for video playback and the phone didn’t perform as well in our video rundown benchmark. In fact, it lasted a mere 11hrs 29mins, suggesting that if your daily commute consists of watching a lot of downloaded Netflix shows, this may not be the phone for you.
HTC U11 Plus review: Camera quality
The rear camera is excellent and although there’s no dual camera, on paper the specifications are a match for most current smartphones. The resolution is 12-megapixels, the aperture is f/1.7, with dual-pixel phase detect autofocus for ultra-fast focusing and it has optical image stabilisation to ensure sharp shots low light.
However, this is the one area where the Pixel 2 XL stretches out a lead, capturing photos with marginally better detail capture and richer colours. That’s not to say the HTC U11 Plus is poor or even average, though. More that the Pixel’s camera is the very best on the market and this is only slightly behind it.
Check out the comparison shots below. You’ll see that the HTC U11 Plus’ shots are ever-so-slightly less colourful than the Pixel’s and that there are a few more compression artefacts scattered around. The fact that you have to zoom in to more than 100% to see such differences tells it all. The differences are very, very small.
There’s a bit more of a gap when it comes to video, though, and that’s thanks to the fact that, although the HTC U11 Plus can record 4K video at 30fps you don’t get image stabilisation in that mode. It’s a shame because 4K footage shot on the HTC U11 Plus looks great – full of crisp details and vibrant colours – but if you don’t want shaky hands spoiling your clips you’d be advised to invest in a handheld gimbal.
And as for the front-facing camera, you get an 8-megapixel shooter, which is absolutely fine for selfies but oddly a downgrade in resolution on the HTC U11’s 16-megapixel effort. Given that this is a more expensive handset, that’s surprising.
HTC U11 Plus review: Verdict
It isn’t enough to dampen my enthusiasm for the HTC U11 Plus, though. This is a phone that takes the excellent HTC U11, but adds a bigger more modern-looking screen and retains many of its predecessor’s positive attributes. Battery life is good, the camera is great and performance is top notch.
The question you have to ask yourself, however, is can you get a better phone for the price? Unfortunately for HTC, the answer is yes. The Huawei Mate 10 Pro costs the same and is slimmer, even more attractive and has a better battery life, the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus is now £579 and, while the OnePlus 5T lacks the HTC’s dust- and water-resistant rating and its microSD storage expansion, it is the HTC’s equal in other areas – and it’s £250 cheaper.
In the end, as with most current flagship smartphones, you probably wouldn’t be disappointed with the HTC U11 Plus if you did buy one; it’s a superb smartphone. However, the simple fact is that you can do better for the money.