HTC U11 Review: Gorgeous and expensive mobile phone

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HTC U11 Review: Gorgeous and expensive mobile phone

To beat the best, you have to know their product, learn from it, and make something even grander.

That’s the formula HTC followed: Manufacturer the Pixel under Google’s guidance, study Android’s blueprints, and create a smartphone with all that in mind.

The process took a while to complete — over half a year after the Pixel launched — but the U11 with its shimmering back speaks for itself. I can tell you as early as now that it beats Google’s flagship at its own game.

Except, the wasn’t very clear at first. HTC’s marketing push for the U11 highlights the gimmicky Edge Sense feature, which allows you to squeeze the handset for a function of your choice. Heck, the primary slogan is “Squeeze for the Brilliant U.” It’s a shame, since this smartphone isn’t some one-trick pony.

I admit to constantly using Edge Sense for activating the LED flashlight; being able to grip the phone a little harder in total darkness is a lot more useful than you’d expect. But for me, that’s as far as its usefulness goes.

I’d rather say “Okay, Google” to activate Google Assistant from standby, double-press the power button to turn on the camera app at anytime, or simply swipe through my app drawer and settings to access everything else.

There were times when Edge Sense would simply get in the way. An accidental squeeze meant shining a bright flash on my light-sensitive eyes — or worse, at an unsuspecting friend or stranger in the elevator (the latter actually happened).

Sure, you could adjust the pressure sensitivity of the feature, but delving any further into the gimmick meant missing out on the U11’s true strengths, namely the camera, silky smooth performance, and surprisingly, the incredible battery life.

Let’s start with the camera. As mentioned in our launch article, the U11 currently has the highest-rated smartphone shooter in the world based on DxOMark’s well-respected test. A score of 90 puts it above the 89 points of the former champ, the — you guessed it — Google Pixel.

As a preacher of real-world experience over fancy digits on data sheets, I have to agree with the numbers for once and say that HTC’s pride and joy does indeed edge out the Google phone by a… pixel. That says a lot, because the Pixel handily won our smartphone camera comparison earlier this year, and competed quite well against the more advanced Samsung Galaxy S8.

On top of that, the U11 comes with this thing called 3D audio recording, which maximizes the four microphones installed on the phone to record sound from all directions during video shooting. It also amplifies audio from where you zoom in, but I honestly couldn’t tell the difference, even with the pleasantly loud stereo speakers (one on the bottom for bass and another in the earpiece for highs and mids).

While we’re on the topic of sounds, let’s get this out of the way: This phone does not have a 3.5mm audio port. It sucks, and is something I have to deal with whenever I want to hook it up to my car’s speakers or any of my old non-wireless headphones. Sure, there’s a USB-C to audio jack adapter in the box, but that doesn’t solve the issue of charging while being plugged in.

HTC feels like it did enough though for audiophiles. Another bundled accessory is a pair of USonic adaptive earphones that plug directly into the phone’s lonely USB-C port. The “adaptive” part means the earphones adjust their output to the shape of your ears for a more optimized listening experience. If that doesn’t sound (pun intended?) high-tech enough, know that they come with active noise cancellation, as well — perfect for shutting out noisy officemates or that loud, never-ending construction outside your window.

Talking about how great the audio-visual splendor of the U11 is, you almost forget that this phone is, again, marketed as that handset you squeeze. That’s the point I’m trying to drive at: You have to look beyond what the brochures say to see how great this phone truly is. And I haven’t even begun focusing on performance or battery life yet.

The U11 is one of the few smartphones blessed with Qualcomm’s super-fast, incredibly efficient Snapdragon 835 chipset. Although not the first to make use of it — hot picks like the Galaxy S8, OnePlus 5, and Sony Xperia XZ Premium were ahead of the curve — HTC somehow managed to, ehem, squeeze out more of the processor’s potential.

Having reviewed all the aforementioned phones, I can claim with certainty that the U11 is just as fast as any of them, despite HTC applying the heaviest Android skin of the bunch. Its Sense UI feels — how do I put this — outdated. Having a separate button for the app drawer, no continuous scrolling for the app library, and unintuitive main settings and quick settings layout feels like I’m back in 2016.

I’ve given so much praise to the OnePlus 5 (and Pixel last year) for its steroid-fueled fluidity, but this phone can definitely compete. Extra credit goes to the variant I was privileged enough to review; it has 6GB of memory and 128GB of storage, both of which are still generous by today’s standards.

So, wait. Wouldn’t all that power translate to terrible battery life? On the contrary, the U11 has beastly endurance considering how smallish the capacity is (only 3000mAh) and how densely packed the pixels on the display are (a resolution of 2560 x 1440 within a 5.5-inch LCD).

I seriously wasn’t expecting a single charge to last this long. With moderate usage, which entails holding back on checking Instagram and Facebook every hour, I can get through Saturday morning to Sunday night without turning to the charger.

On weekdays, when I must be on my phone every waking minute, I can still manage over five hours of screen-on time before the battery cries for juice at the end of the day. That’s mighty impressive! Other smartphones with the same internals average around four hours of screen-on time during the same span; in comparison, the battery life kings of Xiaomi, specifically the Mi Mix and Redmi Note 4X, get up to six hours.

It’s possible to extend its life even further by turning off constantly active features like Sense Edge and Google Assistant’s voice detection. As you’d expect, I wouldn’t mind deactivating the former for greater longevity, but the latter is another reminder why the U11 trumps the Pixel.

You see, the Pixel was such a hit last year for offering two things: the best-performing camera in the market and exclusive access to Google Assistant at the time. As you can already tell, the U11 has both and more. In addition, HTC solved another one of the Google phone’s problems: waterproofing.

Yes, the U11 isn’t just a pretty sight; it has IP67-rated water and dust resistance, which is a technical way of saying it can withstand accidental splashes and dunks in a toilet. However, this doesn’t mean you can get reckless with it — I haven’t done any drops tests, but one solid drop could spell doom for its glossy glass back.

It’s such a beauty… until you get scuffs and ugly smudges on the rear. Even though HTC offers a plastic case in the package, I just can’t bring myself to putting one on and ruining the aesthetics. Funnily enough, there’s also an included cleaning cloth if you’re willing to wipe it down before every meeting or date.

I just wish I had a chance to review the solar red variant. Having seen it up close during the Philippine launch, I’ve been wanting one, badly. Not that the “amazing silver” I have with me isn’t any good; I simply can’t accept it being color silver. It’s very much light blue at any angle. HTC argues that their sapphire blue model is the true blue, so we have that.

If I were to nitpick, the thin antenna lines around the frame ruin an otherwise seamless design. It’s necessary though for getting a strong cellular signal (because, boy, does the U11 pick up 4G+ wherever I go), and it’s less jarring than Google’s half-glass, half-weird implementation on the Pixel.

Now, this brings us to the question: Is HTC’s best-ever smartphone your GadgetMatch?

I’m inclined to say yes for a variety of reasons and consumer types. And yet, the U11 is ultimately sandwiched between other Snapdragon 835-powered devices.

With a starting price of US$311 from China, it’s significantly more expensive than the similarly equipped OnePlus 5 and Xiaomi Mi 6; and despite being cheaper than the Galaxy S8 and Xperia XZ Premium, the U11 doesn’t have the former’s gorgeous Infinity Display or the latter’s 4K screen resolution, as well as either’s audio port.

In that case, what does the U11 offer that the others don’t? A marginally better camera, greater attention to audio output and recording, noticeably longer battery life, and… wait for it… a squeezable body.

It’s only fitting we conclude this review with yet another mention of Sense Edge. In the end, it somehow makes sense to highlight this edge.