Usually, squeezing a smartphone means that an app has crashed on you one too many times. HTC has a different take. The U11 is their latest smartphone, and while the flagship specs (especially the camera) and the fancy design are nice, HTC’s one new thing is a feature called Edge Sense, which lets you do things like open the camera by squeezing the phone.
Announced at an event in Taipei hours ago, the HTC U11 is the true successor to the HTC 10 from last year — apologies to anyone who bought the HTC U Ultra, which now appears to be a very expensive bridge device between the previous generation and this one. The U11 runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chipset, which isn’t nothing — so far in the United States, only the Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus run on Qualcomm’s latest and greatest. That power is backed up by a 1440p Super LCD 5 display protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 5 (the latest generation), 4 GB of RAM, 64 GB of storage (with a microSD card slot supporting up to 2 TB cards), and a 3,000 mAh battery. While we would have liked to have seen a bigger battery, that’s a good looking spec sheet.
It helps that the phone looks good, too. It’s a 5.5″ device that uses the same design as the U Ultra — all glass with a polished, shiny finish. But, it’s not like the U Ultra in one key way — HTC made the U11 waterproof, getting a rating of IP67 (meaning it can survive an accidental spill into a toilet or a pool). One drag is that the top and bottom bezels are thick, making the phone look outdated when placed next to the Samsung Galaxy S8 or the LG G6.
HTC made it clear at their event that the U11 is all about the squeeze. HTC Edge Sense is a new feature that uses pressure sensors on the side of the phone to provide more controls. It’s possible to squeeze the sides of the phone to launch the camera, then give them a longer squeeze to snap a photo. Different actions can be programmed to short and long squeezes.
There are some problems with the concept. Edge Sense is basically a one-button launcher, akin to the convenience button on the BlackBerry KeyOne. The problem is that a simple button is virtually guaranteed to be more reliable than a squeeze on the sides, making HTC’s idea a more undesirable way to implement a feature that’s already on the market. It’s also ignoring a basic tech rule — the best things are the things that just work. Huawei’s Knuckle Sense hasn’t really caught on for this same reason — tracing shapes with your knuckles to launch actions can be convenient, but it can’t be trusted to work consistently enough to make it worth using. Edge Sense seems destined for the same fate.
But, let’s not miss what actually makes this a phone that demands consideration — the camera. The rear camera combines a 12 MP HTC UltraPixel 3 sensor (with 1.4-micron pixel size) and an f/1.7 lens, along with optical image stabilization, dual LED flash, and HTC’s UltraSpeed autofocus. That puts it in lockstep with the excellent camera on the Galaxy S8, but HTC is indicating that theirs is even better — DxOMark, the current arbiters of smartphone camera quality, have rated the U11 as the best smartphone camera in the land, edging the Google Pixel. The front camera has a 16 MP sensor with HDR, and can handle 1080p recording.
Now for more bad news. As with the U Ultra, there is no 3.5 mm headphone port on the U11. This is perplexing. For reasons outside the scope of this article, this is something Apple can get away with. HTC is not Apple. Neither is Motorola — after axing the 3.5 mm port on the Moto Z line last year, rumors have surfaced that the company is reversing course on this year’s models. It’s clearly still a feature users want, and there’s zero upside created for users by taking it away.
HTC is trying to make up for it with other audio features. The phone is shipping with HTC’s USonic headphones, which use the USB Type-C charging port. Using that port means that the headphones can draw power to enable active noise cancellation, but that will put quite a strain on the phone’s battery. More impressive should be the speakers on the phone — HTC’s updated BoomSound system features a dedicated tweeter for mids and highs and a woofer for lows. HTC usually does well with sound, and the U11 should be no exception.
Recording sound should be a strength, too. HTC has put four microphones on the U11, to both improve directionality and range. Good thing, because this phone will be home to three assistants! Google Assistant will be there by default, while Alexa will come a month after launch. Why the delay? Like Huawei did with the Mate 9, HTC will work with Amazon to create a custom Alexa app tailored to their UI. More importantly, it’ll also be possible to use Alexa when the phone is asleep. HTC is also bringing back their Sense Companion, which offers system-level tips like whether or not your phone is likely to need a charge before the day is done.
All told, the U11 seems like an uneven device that will potentially be defined by a gimmick. Hopefully not, because there’s a lot to like here — great design, high-end specs, water resistance, and the best smartphone camera in the game. But, those large bezels make the phone look kind of dated, and that’s going to matter a lot when wireless customers are in stores comparing devices.
HTC has had a pretty rough last few years, made worse by the fact that they had no carrier partners for the U Ultra. They’ve managed to get Sprint back as a launch partner for the U11, and they’re also selling the phone unlocked on Amazon. The U11 can be preordered now in blue, black, or silver for $650 — about $80 to $100 cheaper than the Galaxy S8 or the LG G6, giving HTC a puncher’s chance in 2017.