HTC U Play hands-on A _phone_ with looks to drool over

HTC U Play release date: Q1 2017

HTC U Play price: £TBC

Out of the two phones just unveiled by HTC, the smaller U Play certainly isn’t as flashy as its dual-screen sibling, the U Ultra.

But it’s a gorgeous, easy-to-hold _phone_ that features most of the key perks that make its big brother oh so exciting.

HTC says the U series – which will sit alongside the HTC 10, until that gets its imminent update – is a new beginning for the brand.

The company has ditched the iconic metal body, harsh lines and heavy chamfers seen on past phones, and replaced them with a curved-glass chassis that looks and feels sublime. HTC is using a new design formula called Liquid Surface, and while it may sound like marketing speak, the name does fit the look well.

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The shimmery nature of the glass makes it look like water, and the colours look different under varying lights. Pictures just don’t do it justice.

There are certain similarities to the Jet Black iPhone 7 Plus, especially in the amount of fingerprints the phone picks up even after a few seconds of use. But HTC told me the U Play should be better at avoiding scratches and dents as it’s glass rather than heavily polished metal. I’ll have to wait and see just how true that claim is though.

The biggest differentiator between the the HTC U Ultra and the HTC U Play is that the former has a second screen, situated above the main 5.7-inch panel. It’s used for shortcuts to apps and notifications, but I can’t see it being a huge loss for many.

Instead, the HTC U Play has a 5.2-inch 1080p LCD screen that looks great and is the perfect size. Like every LCD panel HTC uses it is sharp and colourful, though it lacks those deep blacks you’d get with AMOLED.

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Having a smaller display also makes this is a much more manageable phone. It’s a similar size to the Samsung Galaxy S7, and I could comfortably navigate around with just one hand. The glass is surprisingly grippy, too.

HTC has made some changes in the camera department, but both phones are still well equipped. The U Play has a 16-megapixel main sensor that I would guess won’t perform quite as well as the more reliable 12-megapixel sensor in the U Ultra, but it still has phase-detection autofocus and optical image stabilisation, plus the ever-useful auto-HDR mode. It seems as though the same 16-megapixel sensor is being used on the front too, but without the image stabilisation.

The CPU is a MediaTek Helo P10, paired with either 3GB or 4GB RAM depending on your region. There'll be 32GB or 64GB options for internal storage, too.

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Something that's very interesting is the AI-based software layer that HTC claims will predict your actions and always keep the phone ready. Instead of relying on a voice assistant, like Siri or Alexa, HTC has built ‘smart’ features into a load of core apps.

For instance, it’s meant to be able to predict when you’re going to need more battery to get through the day and shut off nonessential apps to make that happen. You’ll also be able to directly talk to the phone, thanks to the four built-in microphones. Another nifty trick is a biometric voice unlock, which bypasses any security measures when it recognises your voice.

The device I was using wasn’t running the final software, and HTC said many of the design elements would be altered by the time of release.

These AI tricks are all well and good, but I’ll need time with the phone to know whether or not they’ll be actually useful. Lots of phones have tried, and failed, to do something similar in the past and there isn’t anything that stands out here to make me think HTC will be successful where others have failed.

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

First Impressions

While I can’t say how successful the AI-based software will be, first impressions suggest that HTC is at least on to another design winner. The glass body is gorgeous and perfectly sized, while the internals revealed so far should comfortably get the job done.