HTC’s U11+ is one of the best phones of 2017, but even better

I was a little wary of HTC‘s second release before their flagship refresh. After the U Ultra did such an excellent job at tarnishing the excellent HTC 10, I was worried that this U11+ might “help” the — again, excellent — U11 in the same way. But when I saw the launch, I was glad that HTC seemed to have learned their lesson.

In another life, the U11+ could very well have been a Google Pixel smartphone. And I’m glad it didn’t, because if it did then we probably wouldn’t have seen it launch in Malaysia. What a shame that would have been because from where I’m sitting, the U11+ looks like a killer smartphone — even if it is a little late to the race.

Last year’s HTC U11 was a sleeper hit for me. I didn’t expect it to be good and it wasn’t, because it was actually pretty darn awesome. Excellent camera, excellent performance, excellent speakers, and excellent water resistance meant that it had a killer checklist even when you compare it to some of the best in the market. Then HTC looked at it and decided “hey, let’s make it even better”.

Well, as far as first impressions go: Mission. Friggin’. Accomplished.

As far as the core DNA of the phone, I didn’t really see that much that was different from the U11. It’s got the same kind of fantastic glass and metal build with a similar look and a broadly similar feel in the hand.

Sure, it is a little taller but that’s for good reason because the U11+ has a massive new screen. It’s a tall 18:9 panel with slim bezels, a big “welcome to 2017” moment, if you will. It is already 2018 but you get my point. The display itself is also very impressive. It’s a Quad HD+ Super LCD5 panel that pushes a near 3K resolution of 2880×1440 pixels across 6 inches. There’s no blue shift when you tilt the display (translation: great viewing angles) and everything’s nice and crisp. There’s even a DCI-P3 display colour profile if you prefer that over sRGB.

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This new screen is by far the biggest visual change on the smartphone and I welcome it with open arms. No longer does the handset’s front look super outdated with a huge chin and forehead but that also means they had to ditch the front-mounted fingerprint scanner. Instead, they had to move it to the back and when you flip the handset around — at least the one we’re getting in Malaysia — you’ll see the second big visual change: The back is translucent. It’s a small touch, but being able to see the insides of your smartphone does make the 8-year-old in me very happy.

However, perhaps my favourite upgrade HTC gave the U11+ has to be its battery. Now, it’s a massive 3,930 mAh cell, which I think makes it the biggest of any Snapdragon 835 smartphone. But the handset itself doesn’t feel super heavy because of the massive battery, nor does it feel abnormally thick, which is great.

The third notable upgrade HTC brought to the table with the U11+ was with the speakers. Remember the awesome BoomSound Hi-Fi edition speakers? Yeah, they’re now 30% louder. And they produce a richer sound. And has better dynamic range. And has less distortion.

While I didn’t manage to test it out during my brief hands-on, I already had no complaints with the U11’s speakers so the fact they spent any time at all making it better is a nice bonus.

Then, you’ve got the last major upgrade: Improved Edge Sense functionality. For the uninitiated, that’s HTC’s squeezing feature. This time, the company added something called the Edge Launcher which basically launches an entirely new window. Here, you get a calendar and an app wheel (think, Samsung’s Air Command) where users can map their favourite apps to for quick launches. It definitely seems like the logical way to take Edge Sense to the next level so I look forward to seeing how useful it is in the full review.

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Of course, it’s not all rainbows and rainbow coloured macarons for HTC’s new device. When you fix the bigger problems, the less big problems tend to stick out and one of them for me is the software. It’s a relatively stock version of Android 8.0 Oreo, and it looks great which is nice, but the unit I checked out had a bunch of bloatware pre-installed.

Yeah, it’s not a new problem to HTC, nor is it a problem unique to HTC, but when even a company like Samsung gives you the option to not install a bunch of pre-loaded apps on setup, you have to wonder why HTC isn’t doing the same.

There’s also this UI element that I’m a little irked by. With the U11+, HTC adopted the now mainstream “swipe up on home to bring up the App drawer” gesture on Android which I really like. But, instead of giving me an extra space to pin another icon where the app drawer button is, they decided to keep it there. I tried to remove it during my hands-on but I didn’t see an option to do so. Maybe it’s buried somewhere in the settings menu and I couldn’t find it, so I’ll withhold further criticism until I get the chance to do a full review.

I would like to stress that these issues are beginning to sound very nitpick-y and I will admit that the only reason I really notice it is because the U11+ was so impressive everywhere else.

Performance was fluid thanks to the Snapdragon 835 processor, 6GB of RAM and 128GB of UFS 2.1 storage. HTC tells me the 12MP UltraPixel 3 camera is pretty much identical to the U11 — which is great news — and this new U11+ is also IP68 water resistant. While it is unfortunate that the U11+ still doesn’t feature a 3.5mm headphone jack, you do still get the USB-C to 3.5mm adapter with built in DAC like you did on the U11.

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So, yes, I’m pretty impressed with the phone. My only concern is: Is it too late? To me, the U11+ is everything the U11 should have been but the U11 is a 2017 flagship and we’re already in 2018. And if you’re going to drop RM3,000+ on a flagship smartphone right now, why wouldn’t you wait 2 months for something like the Galaxy S9 with a brand new 2018 flagship processor instead?

Maybe the U11+ is for the die-hard HTC fan. But if you’re a die-hard HTC fan, you’d already be using the U11 and as good as the U11+ is, I don’t think it’s a big enough upgrade to be worth dropping another RM3,099 on.

That said, I will leave my final judgement until after I get a full review. In the meantime, what do you guys think of the U11+? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.