HTC U11 hands-on: A _phone_ you can squeeze, but why?

HTC U11 release date: June 2017

HTC U11 price: £649

2017 has already been a fantastic year for phones, with the Samsung Galaxy S8, LG G6 and Moto G5 all impressing. But now it’s HTC’s turn, and it’s fair to say the Taiwanese company's taking things seriously.

The HTC U11 is the follow-up to the HTC 10, a _phone_ I liked but that struggled to really stand up to flashier competition, and that had the same design DNA first introduced with the frankly poor HTC U Ultra and U Play.

While flagships from Samsung and LG are looking to stand out by reducing the bezel width and thus offering more screen in a smaller body, as well as by using HDR-ready displays, HTC is going in a different direction. You could say a much more gimmicky direction.

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As the rumours had suggested, the key ‘innovation’ (that’s HTC’s word, not mine) here is ‘Edge Sense’, a new way of interacting with the phone by literally squeezing the sides. A light squeeze opens Google Assistant, and a harder squeeze takes you to the camera app. Once you’re in the camera, pressing down on the lower portion of the rim acts like pushing a shutter button.

It’s an interesting idea, but the sensation of pressing down – hard – on the sides of the phone is quite odd, and I constantly felt like I was going to drop it. Later in the year HTC says third-party apps will be able to take advantage of these squeezy features – I was shown a clever example of it working in Google Maps, where pressing harder zoomed in – but it’s a shame this isn’t coming at launch.

Another of the U11’s biggest features isn’t coming at launch either, and that’s Amazon’s Alexa. The virtual assistant has been a hit when baked into products such as the Echo, but this is the first time it’ll actually be a native part of a phone. (Sorry, Huawei, but your rubbish Alexa app doesn't count.)

Like the Echo, Alexa will burst into life when it hears a wake-word, and thanks to the four microphones dotted around the phone it should hear you from quite a distance. Alexa will work with its regular skill set, so you’ll be able to control your smart home, etc, but we’ll have to wait and see if any more phone-specific actions are added. HTC says that Alexa will come in July in the UK, USA and Germany.

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But while I'm sure a lot of HTC’s marketing for this phone will revolve around the Edge Sense actions and Alexa, there are actually other parts that interest me a lot more.

The front-firing BoomSound speakers are back, and HTC says they’re apparently better than ever. Sound is pumped from behind the screen. In my short demo, YouTube videos sounded noticeably better than through the Galaxy S8+ I was using as a comparison.

There’s no headphone jack on the HTC U11, and while I don’t agree with this on the whole, at least HTC is doing it for a reason. In the box you get a pair of HTC’s USonic in-ear buds that feature active noise-cancelling, and there's also a 3.5mm dongle (finally, HTC) which houses a built-in DAC that HTC claims should improve the sonics even when you’re using other brands' headphones. Audio has been one of HTC’s strengths for years, and that seems to be continuing here.

There are also some interesting aspects of the camera setup, an area where HTC has previously been a bit hit-and-miss. The 12-megapixel rear-facing camera has new wider f/1.7 aperture – the same as on the Galaxy S8 – for silky bokeh and improved low-light performance, while an HDR Boost feature reduces lag when shooting with high dynamic range.

HTC is also claiming the camera will focus in 0.3 seconds thanks to the updated phase-detection autofocus, but that's something that’s hard to test after barely an hour with the phone.

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Over-exposure of shots was a real issue on the the HTC 10, so hopefully that’s been fixed here.

On the front there’s a 16MP sensor with an f/2.0 lens and an ‘UltraPixel’ mode for improved low-light performance.

I was a big fan of the metal-clad design HTC utilised for the majority of the One series. It became almost iconic, and copied on many occasions. I’m less enamoured of this new all-glass look. From a distance it looks sleek, with the slightly curved 3D glass on both the front and the back, but up close it’s not the prettiest. The glass feels almost stuck on, and the polished back is perhaps the biggest fingerprint magnet on any phone I've ever used. Honestly, hold the phone for a few seconds and the back becomes jammed with smudges. HTC has even included a case in the box, and I'm pretty sure that’s because of the fingerprint problem.

I do like the colours, though – especially the ridiculous red hue that switches from bright crimson to a bronzey-sunset copper depending on the light. You can also pick from silver (which, I’m sorry, HTC, isn’t silver at all but blue), white, black or a brighter ‘Sapphire Blue’.

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On the inside you’ve got what I'm sure will be the usual 2017 set-up: 4GB of RAM, Snapdragon 835, 64GB of storage and a microSD card slot. Some territories will get a model with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, but not the UK.

It’ll be a fast phone, even more so because of HTC’s light skin that feels a lot like Android 7.0. Aside from the ropy AI features ripped from the U Ultra, the software is almost exactly the same as that of the HTC 10.

Even though the Snapdragon 835 supports it, there’s no Quick Charge 4.0 here. But QC 3.0 should be sufficient for juicing up that 3000mAh cell quickly.

Unlike the LG G6, Sony Xperia XZ Premium or Samsung Galaxy S8, the HTC U11 doesn’t have any HDR tech in its display. Instead it’s a 5.5-inch quad-HD IPS panel, and it looks pretty good. It can’t match AMOLED screens for contrast, and some text and icons look oversharpened, but it’s pixel-dense and bright. I’d have liked HTC to ditch the bezel and push the display right to the corners, but maybe that’ll come next year.

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First Impressions

The HTC U11 isn’t as immediately eye-catching as the LG G6 or Samsung Galaxy S8, but it seems to have lots going for it. It’s not the most exciting phone of 2017, but the addition of Alexa, improved BoomSound speakers, and bundled ANC headphones shows HTC is trying hard to keep on top of the things it does best.

I’m not convinced by the Edge Sense gestures yet – maybe they'll grow on me with extended use, though – and I would have liked to see a bigger display improvement, especially for the £649 price.