Things have been rough for HTC on the smartphone front. Four years ago, we all lusted after the excellent HTC One (aka. M7), which pioneered the seamless aluminum unibody commonplace today and brought OIS and quality audio to Android. The One M8 introduced dual-cameras but lost some of its predecessor’s shine. By the time the One M9 launched, HTC needed a hit, and while the handset wasn’t completely terrible, it was a bust.
Last year’s HTC 10 was a strong return to form, but wasn’t able to capture enough market share. HTC followed this with two misses, the under-specced 10 Evo (aka. Bolt) and overpriced U Ultra. And now we have the U11 — the company’s new flagship — which combines much of what we loved about about the HTC 10 and puts the U Ultra’s sexy design into a smaller package.
HTC really can’t afford to mess this one up, so let’s find out how the U11 stacks up in today’s overachieving smartphone landscape. Does it play in the same league as the Samsung Galaxy S8, LG G6, and Google Pixel? What makes it stand out? Is it worth your hard-earned dollars? Read on to find out.
Shiny is the best way to describe the HTC U11. Like the Galaxy S8, the U11’s machined aluminum chassis is sandwiched between two sheets of 3D glass that wrap around the edges, making this handset incredibly comfortable to hold but also quite slippery. The front of every U11 is black, but the sides and back are color matched.
Our review unit is Sapphire Blue, the kind of liquid blue that immediately triggers an “OMG, want!” response from anyone who sees it in person. The other hues are Amazing Silver and Brilliant Black in the US, plus Ice White and Solar Red in other markets. It’s a truly gorgeous phone, when it’s not covered in fingerprints. HTC includes a clear case with the U11 if you’re worried about dropping it or tired of wiping it clean, but it hides the stunning design.
Unlike the Galaxy S8, the U11’s display doesn’t have curved edges or rounded corners. It’s a 5.5-inch Super LCD 5 screen with a standard 16:9 aspect ratio. There’s a notification LED, earpiece, proximity sensor, microphone, and 16MP selfie camera above the Quad HD panel. Below you’ll find an oval fingerprint sensor / home button flanked by capacitive “back” and “recent apps” keys. As such, the U11 is almost forgettable when viewed from the front.
That colorful glass back is what really gives the U11 its unique character. Besides the subtle HTC logo, the round camera pod and dual-LED flash appear to float on the liquid surface (the 12-megapixel main shooter protrudes only slightly). There’s also a hole for another microphone in the rear (that’s #2, if you’re keeping track).
In a surprisingly backwards move, there’s no 3.5mm headphone jack on the U11. We’ll discuss this omission in more detail in the audio section below, but we’re dumbfounded as to why HTC would do this considering its precarious market position. BoomSound speakers are back and better than ever — using the earpiece and a ported driver next to the USB Type-C port and third microphone on the bottom.
A combination nano SIM and microSD tray is located along the top, together with yet another microphone (yup, that’s #4). On the right side you’ll find the volume rocker and a ridged power / lock key, both made of the same anodized aluminum as the handset’s frame. There’s nothing but subtle antenna bands on the left edge. What’s interesting, though, is that HTC’s embedded pressure sensors on both side of the phone this year. More on this later.
Build quality is up to HTC’s usual high standards and the U11 is water and dust resistant (IP 67). Inside, you’ll find a sealed 3000mAh Li-ion battery, which together with Qualcomm’s awesome Snapdragon 835 SoC make the handset both power efficient and extremely quick. At 153.9 x 75.9 x 7.9mm (6.06 x 2.99 x 0.31 inches) and 169g (5.96oz), the U11 is about the same size and weight as the Pixel XL. It feels slimmer, though.
The U11 features a 5.5-inch Quad HD Super LCD 5 screen (2560 x 1440 pixels) with a standard 16:9 aspect ratio. While not state-of-the art, this IPS panel looks fantastic in most conditions, with vibrant but accurate colors, great contrast, and decent viewing angles. If anything, it could be brighter in direct sunlight, but that’s a minor niggle. Ultimately, though, once you get used to the ultra-wide displays on the Galaxy S8 and LG G6, it’s hard to go back.