HTC, famous for its premium built phones had made a drastic move this year with its U series. Ditching its metal build for glass is a huge gamble and the original U series didn’t really live up to expectations. That’s mainly due to its high pricing and underwhelming hardware for 2017.
Perhaps, the timing wasn’t right and HTC aims to make a comeback by releasing the U11 in conjunction with their 20th anniversary. According to HTC, the U11 is their real flagship successor of the HTC 10 while continuing its current glass approach of the U series. To stand out from the crowd, they have also introduced a new “squeezable” interaction feature.
There are a lot of smartphones with glass bodies and HTC tries to do things differently with its liquid surface design. The new amazing silver and solar red colours are beautiful to look at as it appears to change colours when you tilt the phone against the light. Like most glass smartphones, the U 11 is also notorious fingerprint magnet.
Compared to the HTC U Ultra, the U11 feels nicer to hold as it uses 3D glass for both front and back. As a result, it looks more symmetrical than its previous models. As other manufacturers are cramming larger screens on a smaller footprint, the U11 still feels quite wide for a 5.5″ smartphone.
One of the reasons for that is the display is a flat 5.5″ QuadHD SuperLCD screen and the bezels are thicker to compensate for the curvy glass edges. It’s definitely taller and wider than last year’s 5.5″ Galaxy S7 edge.
The star of the show is HTC’s squeezing gesture. Squeeze is apparently the most natural form of human interaction so putting it on a phone in theory should be great for single handed use. Utilising its Edge Sense feature, you can customise what you want your phone to do and you can set different actions for short and long squeeze.
For example, when the screen is off, you can squeeze to launch the camera and another squeeze in the camera app will trigger the shot. Swapping from the back to the front camera for selfies can be triggered with a long squeeze. In landscape mode, you can also hard press the top edge to take a shot as if there is a dedicated shutter button.
After using it for a short period of time, I think it is a feature which I don’t see myself using for a long time. The biggest problem is the lack of feedback and naturally you would expect some form of sensation as if you’re squishing an object. It does emit a short delayed vibration as an acknowledgement but that’s not enough to give you a true sensation of squeezing. Even the “fake” home button on the new iPhone and Galaxy S8 feels more realistic with a deep sensation of pressing an actual button.
The next issue is the position of the squeezable edge sense. Naturally, I would expect to squeeze the middle portion of the phone as that’s where my thumb and index finger is usually positioned. However, that wouldn’t work as the optimal spot is located at the lower 1/3 portion of the phone. To prevent accidental presses, you can set your preferred minimal force under settings. There’s also a built-in pocket mode to prevent accidental triggering when you’re wearing tight pants.
So to get it right, the pressure sensitivity should be enough to ignore pressure from your normal handheld grip while at the same time being able to recognise intentional squeezing. As you’re pressing a metal frame, you’ll find yourself exerting more effort than pressing a normal button. I also noticed that my hand tends to tremble as I performed a single handed long squeeze to switch the camera to selfie mode.
Personally, I think having an action key like the one on the honor 7 would have been better alternative. You can also customise it to perform your favourite action and nothing beats the feedback of an actual button. Until HTC improves the feedback and sensation of this feature, it remains a party trick that you probably stop using after a couple of days. To make matters worse, you’ll need a case with exposed sides in order for Edge Sense to work. That’s not good if you need a case with all round protection.
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As a phone, this is currently the best spec HTC device which makes up for its earlier shortcomings on the HTC U Ultra. It runs on a top of the line 10nm Snapdragon 835 processor with the option of either 4GB RAM + 64GB storage or 6GB RAM + 128GB storage. We’ve been informed that Malaysia will be getting the higher spec option but that also translates to a higher price tag. In Europe, the lower spec version is expected to be priced close to the current HTC U Ultra after its recent price revision.
For imaging, HTC is stepping things up with an improved 12MP f/1.7 camera with UltraPixel 3 technology. The focusing is faster and it snaps instantly even when HDR is enabled automatically. It’s also the highest-rated smartphone camera by DxOMark with 90 points, beating the Google Pixel 89 score which is also produced by HTC. The U11 also comes with 5-axis OIS and EIS for steadier shots and you get 360 audio recording from its 4 built-in mics. For the front, it also gets a 16MP f/2.0 selfie camera that has a wide-angle lens. From our short use, the camera is pretty good and we can’t wait to compare it with other flagship devices once we get our hands on a review unit.
For better protection against accidental spills and splashes, the HTC U11 finally comes with dust and water resistance rated at IP67. On board, it is still a 3,000mAh battery which is the same as the U Ultra but we reckon the battery life could be better since it has a smaller screen and a more efficient 10nm processor.
In the audio department, the Boom Sound Hi-Fi edition has been improved over the previous version. Despite still using the earpiece and down firing speakers for audio, the U11 speakers are noticeably louder and clearer than the U Ultra. HTC says they have maximised the space of the phone as a sound chamber and it was designed to channel audio towards the front. It tries to be as good as a pair of front-firing speakers but if you hear closely, the down firing unit is still louder than the other side.
For personal audio enjoyment, the U11 comes bundled with a newer USonic earphones which is enhanced with active noise cancellation. It looks like a typical bundled earphones but they are amazing in removing background noise. Setting up your own personal sound profile is quick and you can toggle noise cancellation instantly from the drop down notifications panel. The new USonic earphones are powered by USB Type-C which makes it comfortably light to wear for extended period of time. If you want to plug-in your own 3.5mm earphones, HTC is bundling a USB Type-C to 3.5mm adapter in the box which comes with built-in DAC.
Overall, the HTC U11 is finally a phone that you can call a flagship. It has top rated hardware, an impressive pair of noise cancelling earphones and probably one of the best cameras on a smartphone. These three should be enough to convince you to add the HTC U11 onto your wishlist. With 6GB RAM and 128GB storage for the Malaysian market, it’s definitely a step above its current key Android contenders such as the Galaxy S8 and the LG G6 that comes with 64GB of storage.
When you’re spending this much of money for a flagship, it has to feel special and unfortunately the U11 falls short of that. It’s as if HTC is just playing safe with this device. While it is commendable for HTC to try something new with its squeeze feature, it isn’t something that would make you go wow like a bezel-less screen or radical new design. If HTC decides to remove Edge Sense, it definitely won’t be something we’ll miss like HTC’s famed metal unibody construction and their original front-facing Boom Sound speakers.
Photos shot on Sony a6500