HTC U12 Plus review: Feeling the pressure
The HTC U12+ might just be the least-hyped smartphone of the year. It arrives at the end of a long splurge of flagship announcements and without the fanfare, the glitz, or the glamour of many of its rivals.
But this is a smartphone not to be trifled with. Just like 2017’s HTC U11 and HTC U11+, the HTC U12 Plus is different an introduces a handful of interesting features that set it apart from its rivals.
So what happened to the HTC U12? No, you haven’t missed it. In fact, HTC is skipping its non-plus model entirely in 2018, instead focussing on releasing a single flagship. It says it doesn’t want people hanging on in the hope that a superior HTC phone is released later in the year.
Hence, the HTC U12+. And, no, there definitely isn’t going to be an HTC U12++ (or a U12.5 or a U12 Play or whatever). This is your HTC lot for 2018.
That dealt with, let’s move onto what makes this new smartphone tick and the good news is that there’s no significant area where HTC falls behind this year. Last year’s U11 was a great phone, but its 16:9 screen meant it quickly looked out of date.
The HTC U12+, on the other hand, is everything a modern smartphone should be. It has a tall-narrow 6in, 18:9 quad-HD (1,440 x 2,880) screen that fills most of the body of the phone with barely any bezels to the left and right of the screen. There’s no notch, which will please the haters out there, and the phone has two front-facing cameras as well.
These 8-megapixel f/2 aperture cameras are used, like the rear cameras on the OnePlus 6, to add blurred backgrounds to selfies more accurately than would otherwise be possible with a single camera. It’s an interesting feature and one that HTC’s other flagship rivals have yet to add to their handsets.
Flip the phone over and things become slightly less interesting. The arrangement of the rear camera flash and fingerprint reader is a little ugly and awkward in my view – they’re spread across the back of phone and look a little thrown on – and there’s nothing, features wise, out of the ordinary. The rear panel is glass, just like pretty much every major range-topping smartphone today.
HTC rescues things, however, by ensuring the phone comes in some unusual and rather funky colours. HTC’s “Ceramic Black” colour looks great, with a layered, silvery sheen. In an echo of last year’s stunning Solar Red, there’s now Flame Red, which veers attractively between purple and gold (but oddly rarely touches on red) depending on how it catches the light.
And there’s also a translucent version in blue with a part of the rear panel revealing the circuit boards, ribbon cables and surface-mount components that are usually hidden beneath the surface. This model and ceramic black will available at launch; alas, the flame red version will arrive later. It’s also worth noting that the HTC U12 Plus doesn’t pick up fingerprints as badly as the original U11 did last year, either, and, when it does it’s considerably easier to wipe clean.
Finally, there’s IP68 dust- and water-resistance, bringing it level with most of its modern rivals. HTC’s famous “BoomSound” speakers are improved, here, meaning you can use the phone as a mini radio at a pinch, and the firm has boosted 4G top speeds with support for up to 1.2Gbits/sec downloads – a notch faster than the OnePlus 6’ top speed of 1Gbits/sec. There’s still no 3.5mm headphone jack, though, which is a disappointment.
HTC U12+ review: Those buttons and Edge Sense 2
Perhaps the most controversial element of the HTC U12+’s design is its new pressure-sensitive volume and power buttons – an extension of the U11’s “squeezy” frame.
I can see why HTC might have thought this was a good idea. In theory, it means it’s easier for HTC to seal the phone against the elements and, since there are no moving parts to break or get gunked up, the phone should be more reliable, too. But I just can’t get over how weird the keys feel and how much pressure they require to activate.
Edge Sense (that’s what HTC calls its squeezy feature) has also been given a boost in this generation. Dubbed Edge Sense 2, it now supports an extra gesture: the double tap, which you can enact with a firm tap of the thumb on either edge.
This works. By default, it’s set to launch the phone’s one-handed mode but it can also be set to do other things, such as take a screenshot. However, the zone that’s enabled for double taps is a bit too low and requires too much thumb contortion for my liking.
It’s also now possible to “train” apps to work with the full range of Edge Sense squeeze shortcuts (long, short, double squeeze) so there’s no need to rely on developers to put in extra effort to build in support. Again, though, the process for setting this up is a little convoluted.
That’s all well and good, but I suspect that HTC’s efforts here have been in vain. When I used the U11 last year I hardly ever used the feature and on the HTC U12 Plus it’s the same story. The fact I’ve activated the feature more frequently by accident is telling.
What’s perhaps more useful is confusingly named “holding gesture” – simply put, if you’re holding the phone you can prevent the screen rotating or dimming; let go and hold the phone by the ends and the phone’s display rotates as normal.
HTC U12+ review: Performance, battery life and display quality
Still, everywhere else, the HTC U12 Plus is a perfectly competent flagship smartphone. Like the LG G7 ThinQ, Sony Xperia XZ2 and OnePlus 6, the HTC U12+ comes with Qualcomm’s top of the range mobile processor, the Snapdragon 845. This is an octa-core chip that runs at a clock speed of up to 2.6GHz and it’s backed up here by 6GB of RAM and either 64GB or 128GB of UFS 2.1 storage. If this isn’t enough, you can expand via microSD card and the phone also has dual-SIM capability.
Benchmark performance is as good as you’d expect of a product with the latest, greatest Qualcomm chip on board: the HTC U12+ fast.
Graphics performance lags behind the OnePlus 6 and XZ2 due to the U12 Plus’ screen resolution but you can knock that down to FHD+ if you want more frames per second. What’s more worrying is that phone simply doesn’t feel as responsive and quick as the OnePlus 6 does as you move around the UI.
As for battery life, the U12 Plus has a 3,500mAh battery, which is slightly bigger than either the OnePlus 6 (3,300mAh) or the Sony Xperia XZ2 (3,180mAh), and it’ll get you comfortably through a day but, alas, not significantly further.
In our video rundown battery test, with the screen brightness locked to 170cd/m2, you’re looking at an overall time of 11hrs 49mins and this is with the display in its more power-efficient FHD+ mode, by the way. That’s well behind the competition, which suggests HTC’s Super LCD tech isn’t as efficient as the AMOLED panels used in rivals such as the OnePlus 6 and Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus.
The display quality is good. HTC uses IPS Super LCD technology, it’s big, measuring 6in from corner to corner and there are plenty of pixels to play with at 2,880 x 1,440. Colour reproduction is excellent. In the phone’s sRGB mode it delivers 97.3% of that colour space and in DCI-P3 mode it covers 95.5%, so it’s an excellent phone for streaming movies on.
The HTC U12 Plus’ weakness is that the display doesn’t go particularly bright, reaching a maximum of 384cd/m2 without auto-brightness enabled. All round, it’s a decent display but far from the best in the business.
HTC U12+ review: Cameras
The camera is the area where most of the big phone manufacturers are attempting to outdo each other in 2018 and, while the HTC U12+ doesn’t do anything particularly different, it does at least look like it’s keeping up with the Joneses.
On the rear, you have a dual-camera setup, with the main “UltraPixel” camera offering up 12-megapixels of resolution, a wide aperture of f/1.75 and a pixel size of 1.4um, while the other delivers 16-megapixels, an aperture of f/2.6 and a pixel size of 1um.
Unlike the OnePlus 6, these enable the full gamut of dual-camera capabilities. So, while they can be used to add a blurred “bokeh” background to portrait images with the second camera adding depth data, you also get 2x optical zoom.
The portrait mode is nothing short of stunning. Give your subject the right amount of distance between him or her and your background and the U12 Plus’ cameras will produce an unerringly detailed shot with well-defined edges and a nicely blurred background.
It’s a pretty good stills camera, too, although it can’t quite match the OnePlus 6 – a phone that also happens to be £230 cheaper – in either good light or poor. The problem, as ever with HTC phones, is that the default JPEG compression is just too heavy-handed, resulting in the loss of subtle details and fine textures. This afflicts the dual camera on the front of the HTC 12 Plus even more. The portrait mode works nicely again but skin tones look soft and unnatural.
The HTC U12 Plus counters with its optical zoom – a feature the OnePlus 6 doesn’t have – and will shoot 4K at 60fps with OIS enabled with four microphones, which allows the phone to pick up audio with impressive clarity, but there’s such a difference in stills quality, particularly in low light, that I prefer to shoot with the OnePlus 6.
And that’s before I even get to the performance of the camera app, which again feels a touch sluggish. Hit the shutter button and there’s always a short delay before your image is captured, whether you’re shooting with HDR on or off.
Video capabilities look pretty darned impressive, though, with OIS available while shooting 4K video at 60fps, so footage looks smooth as silk. HTC is keen that you don’t forget about audio in all the fuss around image quality, either, including a quad-microphone array with the ability to focus in on a particular part of a scene as you zoom into it.
HTC U12+ review: Verdict
The HTC U12 Plus is a highly competent flagship phone. It has the specifications to rival the very best around and, in its Flare Red and translucent blue colours, a unique look, too. It’s a better phone than the Sony Xperia XZ2 and, at £699, it is cheaper than the Samsung Galaxy S9 and Huawei P20 Pro as well.
The problem for HTC is that it follows hot on the heels of the OnePlus 6, a smartphone that undercuts the HTC’s price by a not-inconsiderable £230 and offers a jaw-dropping combination of power and value as well as a superior quality camera.
Get used to reading those words, by the way. That’s something the HTC U12+ and, indeed, the smartphone industry as a whole, is going to struggle to come to terms with for the rest of the year.