HTC U11+ hands-on preview: More screen, more battery
HTC has a new phone with a giant battery, an 18:9 screen and Android Oreo. But you won't be able to buy it in the U.S.
2017 has been the year of the 18:9 smartphone. Increasingly, Android phones with "traditional" widescreen displays have started to look seriously old-hat. One notable victim of 16:9 ennui this past year was the HTC U11 — a high-end device that did almost everything really well, but which, from the front, looked remarkably dated next to the latest creations from Samsung. The technology and feature set was all there, but the GS8-like excitement was lacking.
So in a somewhat surprising move, HTC kicks off November with a new flagship phone launch. It's the Taiwanese company's biggest smartphone screen to date, in that trendy 18:9 aspect ratio, paired with its biggest battery to date, encased in hardware that finally feels as polished and modern as the One M7 and M8 did back in the glory days.
And yet, being an HTC phone with no current U.S. launch plans and a scaled-back UK presence involving zero British carriers, it's unclear whether the U11+ will be able to move the needle much, if at all.
Physically, the HTC U11+ is a slimmer, elongated, slightly flattened U11. It's noticeably taller, a bit less curvy, and slightly easier to hold onto than its forerunner, despite the move to lankier 6-inch, 18:9 chassis.
Around the front, it's pretty much all screen — a SuperLCD 6 panel that looked phenomenal in the hour or so I got to play with the device. It's sufficiently bright, punchy and sharp, with a Quad HD+ resolution and colors that appear just as vibrant as the U11's. And with significantly trimmed bezels compared to that phone, the front face is more forward-looking.
It has the look of a standard 2017 flagship, which is good, if not particularly outstanding.
The new svelte bezels also necessitate the relocation of the fingerprint scanner around the back of the phone, where we've seen it used time and time again to great effect.
As for the side walls, newly chamfered borders make the U11+ far easier to hold onto than the older model. The feel is more HTC 10 than U11 — at least around the sides.
The back panel, however, is very much in line with HTC's current design language. The generally well-received "liquid surface" finish returns in a couple of colors. Firstly, there's an incredibly shiny, almost mirrored black finish. It's somewhere between the black U11 and Sony's ridiculously reflective XZ Premium.
The translucent U11+ is a truly unique and undeniably cool piece of hardware.
But the version that really caught our eye was the translucent model, which retains some of the subtle reflectiveness of other U-series phones, while also providing a window into the phone's internal hardware. The most noticeable feature is the NFC antenna, located right by the HTC logo, and which actually becomes an unconventional design feature. Look more closely, especially around the top of the device, and bits of PCB come into focus around the camera module and mainboard.
It's nerdy, sure, but it's one of those rare glimmers of brilliance that reminds us that HTC is still HTC. I had the same feeling about the fiery red U11 when I first saw that back in early May. And while this is far less ostentatious, it's unique, aesthetically pleasing, and just damn cool. The internals of the phone themselves become points of visual differentiation.
HTC is playing its cards close to its chest in terms of European launch plans for the translucent color variant. I'd imagine Taiwan (and possibly other parts of Asia) would get it at launch, but the safer black model is likely to be more readily available in the West.
The spec sheet is almost a mirror image of the U11's, with a few small but significant exceptions. The screen size and resolution, naturally, jump to 6 inches at 2880x1440. There's a way bigger battery, with a capacity of 3930mAh basically guaranteeing all-day use, and even a second day if you're careful. And the U11+ also boasts Android 8.0 Oreo out of the box, augmented by HTC's Sense software, which has grown one or two new tricks in this latest phone.
Storage and RAM comes in 4GB/64GB and 6GB/128GB configurations, and this time — finally — the UK will be getting the higher-specced model.
Key U11 features like Edge Sense — the feature where you can squeeze the phone's bezels to activate Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, take a photo or perform other actions — also returns, with a minor software overhaul we'll get to later. Same with BoomSound Hi-Fi — HTC's on-device audio solution — and HTC USonic, the USB-C-based wired audio package. I'll still bemoan the lack of a 3.5mm headphone jack, but at least with a larger battery onboard you're less likely to need to use wired audio and your charger at the same time.
The U11's excellent "UltraPixel 3" camera makes a return too — that's a good thing, as it's easily one of the best Android cameras on the market right now, coming close to the quality we've seen from the Google Pixel 2 XL. (Thanks in part to the always-on "HDR Boost," HTC's answer to Google's HDR+.). Meanwhile, the front camera has been downscaled to an 8-megapixel resolution, but with a larger physical sensor, which should improve low-light performance.
We'll dive deeper into the U11+'s camera in our full review, but first impressions are that little has changed.
The U11+ will be the first phone to run HTC Sense and Android 8.0 Oreo, and HTC's UI has undergone some small tweaks to bring it in line with the new version of the OS. Some of these are small cosmetic tweaks, like the move to "squircle" (squared circle) icons for many apps in the launcher, or the lighter notification shade and Settings app.
There are other, more functional, changes too, most notably the new rotary menu that pops up when you squeeze the phone at the home screen. Two wheels of app and setting shortcuts pop up, and these can be anchored to either side of the display for easier one-handability.
This whole setup is reminiscent of Samsung's Edge Panels, which is to say it seems like a feature that'll be occasionally useful, but far from a revolutionary addition.
In a meeting ahead of today's announcement, HTC noted that the software we were shown wasn't yet finalized, and we weren't able to show any of the phone's software besides the home screen and navigation wheel. In any case, if you're familiar with the U11's software, you'll pretty much know what to expect here. The core Sense apps are still overdue a visual overhaul, and it's somewhat jarring to see apps that have barely changed since 2014 alongside newer UI elements from Oreo.
The HTC U11+ feels like a substantial step up from the U11, but many of the changes are admittedly fairly superficial. From the front, it now looks like a phone that belongs on store shelves in 2017. Yet ironically, it's stuck with a geographically limited release and a lack of carrier support. So even in the select countries it's coming to, like the UK, you'll need to buy it from HTC directly. The phone gets a lot right, but HTC's business challenges are still sizeable obstacles for this handset.
So yeah — the HTC U11+ won't be coming to the United States anytime soon, but in Europe it'll sell for £699, which gets you the 6GB/128GB variant. That's good value for money in the context of some other flagship phones pushing near four figures. Sales begin November 20, and those HTC fans that remain are sure to find plenty to like about the the latest phone from this once-dominant brand. But it's not clear how this phone will be able to get HTC out of its current financial rut.
BY ALEX DOBIE