HTC U Ultra – Can AI and a stunning design make a worthy flagship?

  • HTC U Ultra release date: Q1 2017
  • HTC U Ultra price: £TBC

HTC's recent flagships have struggled to stand out in a world dominated by iPhones and Samsung Galaxies, despite generally being pretty good. HTC hopes that’s about to change this year with its new U-series smartphones – and having had some hands-on time with them, I can confirm they're worth getting excited about.

After handling the HTC U Ultra for a few minutes, I instantly believed in the new design aesthetic. HTC has long championed metal phones with harsh lines and chamfered edges, but the Ultra U is about as far from that as possible.

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Instead of metal, HTC has used glass on the U Ultra's back. It’s not unibody – there’s a metal rim running around the sides – but it feels fantastic.

I was told the ‘Liquid Surface Design’ is inspired by the movements of water, and the use of 3D glass does give it a propensity to shift colours depending on the light. The white model, for instance, shimmers in the light and gives off a pink hue when under certain shades.

If you’ve ever seen a Jet Black iPhone 7, then the HTC U Ultra has a similar finish. It’s super-shiny, reflective and an absolute magnet for smudges and fingerprints. I was told the glass construction makes it much tougher than the metal iPhone, but I still wouldn’t want to drop it.

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The 5.7-inch dimensions make the U Ultra about the size of an iPhone 7 Plus. The glass gives it a smooth finish, and the rounded edges make it lovely to hold, despite its size. There’s also the new HTC Ultra Play for _phone_ buyers who want something smaller.

There are two screens on the front of the HTC U Ultra. You’ve got the main 5.7-inch, 2560 x 1440 LCD panel which is sharp and vibrant, plus a secondary 2-inch screen that sits just above it. The dual-screen setup is similar to the one seen on the LG V10 and V20.

The supplementary display will show notifications and shortcuts for things like apps and contacts. Short messages can also be shown and you can swipe through them as you would normally. HTC tells me the screen is always on by default, and should not affect the battery life too much.

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To be honest, I'm not completely won over by this second screen. It feels tacked on, and without strong purpose, but maybe my feelings will change when I get to use it more regularly.

The second screen leads into the other standout feature of the HTC U Ultra: the software is all built around ‘AI’. Artificial intelligence is a phrase bandied around a lot these days and it can be affixed to anything from a speaker to a toothbrush. Apple uses it for Siri, Google with its Assistant and, perhaps the strongest use so far, Amazon with Alexa. HTC isn’t using any of these, but instead is intertwining smart elements throughout the software.

The HTC U Ultra will supposedly only show you notifications that actually matter and learn your schedule to set relevant alarms when you’re travelling.

If it senses you’ve got a busy day and you’re likely to run out of battery before it’s up, it will shut off non-essential functions to make sure you make it through. There are a lot of little things going on here, and it has the potential to be the first actually useful _phone_ assistant if it all works correctly. If the right data isn’t there, though, then I imagine it being yet another gimmick that's forgotten very quickly.

The phone I was using during my demo was running older software – hence the HTC 10 style of homescreen – but it’ll look different when it ships later in the month. I was told the icons will be different, but HTC wouldn’t confirm what other changes it'll be making.

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The HTC U Ultra runs a Snapdragon 821 CPU paired with 4GB RAM, and a choice of 64GB or 128GB of internal storage. It felt fast, but then it really should. On the back there’s a 12-UltraPixel OIS sensor with an f/1.8 lens and 1.55-micron pixels. Around the front is a 16-megapixel selfie shooter, with an UltraPixel mode for lower light and auto-HDR. This is all sounds very much like the HTC 10, which was a good (but not great) phone camera.

As with the HTC 10 Evo, the headphone jack has been ditched and replaced by a single USB-C port. HTC includes a pair of Hi-Res Audio-certified earphones in the box, which should soften the blow somewhat.

Situated around the phone are four omnidirectional microphones that will always be listening for your voice – and only your voice at that. HTC is using voice biometrics that'll enable you to unlock the phone with nothing but a pre-selected word. This isn’t new – older Motorola phones could be taught a particular voice – but I would hazard a guess that the HTC will be a lot more accurate.

The only solid facts we have outside of this are that there will be a 256GB option in a very snazzy sapphire blue hue.

First Impressions

I was immediately taken with the design of HTC’s new phone, but I'll need to see a lot more of the AI-based software to know whether it’ll be a vital addition or something I'll quickly turn off.