HTC U11 review: a colour changing phone you'll want to squeeze

HTC has gone back to its innovative roots with the HTC U11, and we love it

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For

  • Slim, colourful design
  • Squeezable edges
  • Great camera

Against

  • Not a standout display
  • Camera slow
  • Looks fragile

Picking up from where the rather brilliant HTC 10 left off, the U11 is HTC's latest attempt to steal a little market share from Samsung, LG and Huawei et. al. 

HTC thinks it can win customers over with Hi-Res Audio, multiple virtual assistants, colour changing glass, and a completely new way of interacting with your device - squeezable edges. Yes, you read that correctly.

While it lacks 2017's hottest tech trends, such a super thin bezel or a bokeh-licious dual camera, we still think the HTC U11 deserves to do well.

Ignoring the more interesting part of the U11 for a moment, we'll start by looking at the slightly more basic aspects of the phone.

We've always been impressed with the design and build quality of HTC's flagship devices. Immediately, the most noticeable difference this year is that the U11 has adopted a completely new design language. While the company originally pioneered the aluminium unibody design, it's now been dropped for a fluid glass and aluminium construction.

Although we weren't so sure about the U Ultra's 'liquid surface' design, we actually really like it on the U11. The device is thin, sleek, and feels unbelievably well made, with tight tolerances and an ergonomic curve around the glass and the metal.

Our only issue with the design is that while HTC's previous, all aluminium, phones could take the odd drop onto concrete, the U11 feels a little fragile in comparison. This is true of all glass backed phones, including the S8 and G6.

The HTC U11 features a 5.5-inch screen. Unfortunately, HTC hasn't joined the 2017 trend of reducing the bezel size, so the phone measures 153.9 x 75.9 x 7.9mm. That's larger than the S8, but with a smaller screen.

The bezel-less designs really set Samsung and LG apart from this year's current crop of smartphones. This year we can excuse HTC and others for not including it in their flagship devices, next year we won't be so lenient. 

The display itself looks great. You've got a Quad HD (2560 x 1440) resolution and Super LCD 5 display tech. It's very bright and, sharp, colourful. 

The phone comes in a verity of colourways, including Black, White, Blue, Amazing Silver, and Solar Red. These final two are the most interesting, as they're capable of completely changing colour. 

Below is a gallery of the same phone viewed from different angles:

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Our personal favourite is the Amazing Silver, or Black. Probably black. It's worth noting that all of these have shiny, reflective finishes, so fingerprints show up clearly. That doesn't bother us, but it may annoy some.

Oh, it's water resistant as well (a first for an HTC flagship), with an ingress protection of IP67.

It's a similar story when it comes to the camera. HTC hasn't gone for a flashy dual lens setup like some of its rivals, instead, it's chosen a more traditional setup. That's not necessarily a bad thing however, as the 12MP sensor branded 'HTC UltraPixel 3' camera HTC has included is a belter.

With large 1.4μm pixels, a wide f/1.7 aperture, and optical image stabilisation, the U11 can deliver bright, colourful, and sharp images reliably in both bright and low lightning conditions. This is, in part, thanks to the new automatic 'HDR Boost' mode, which is very similar to the Pixel's HDR mode.

HTC has made improvements to make the camera quicker with a new feature called 'UltraSpeed Autofocus'. It is very quick, although, if we're being ultra critical, there's a little more shutter lag when compared to its rivals. It's mostly unnoticeable, however.

Overall, the HTC U11's camera is one of the best we've ever tested, right up there with the Google Pixel and Samsung Galaxy S8.

It's a similar story with the 16MP front facing camera as well, another excellent performer.

Powering everything is Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835 chip, 4GB RAM, and 64GB storage (expandable). Throughout our review it's been super speedy, indistinguishable from all the other flagships released this year. 

You can breeze through Sense UI with no hint of slow down. We really rate Sense, it's an attractive skin with a few user focused enhancements, such as the ability to organise the app drawer. Again, easily one of our favourites.

The U11 packs a 3000mAh battery, which initially had us worried as that's one of the smallest battery capacities we've seen on a flagship phone. Our testing quickly put those worries to bed, with the phone pretty much always seeing us through the day. 

It's not a stand out performer in this area, but it's not the worst offender either. It's fine, basically.

Now onto the interesting bits. There are two really exciting features packaged into the HTC U11, first is the squeezable edge, second is that fact it supports more than one AI virtual assistant.

First, lets talk about what HTC are calling 'Edge Sense'. This is a new way to interact with the device, and it works by simply squeezing the edge of the phone. It acts as virtual button and will perform tasks such as opening the camera, taking a picture, opening Google Assistant, and starting message dictation.

The pressure sensitivity can be adjusted depending on your grip, and it works with other sensors to ensure your skinny jeans don't squeeze it by mistake. A imminent software update will also allow you to program whatever task you want.

We've read other reviews calling this a gimmick, but we think it's a really useful addition. For example, we programmed it to open Snapchat, so we could quickly open that app and start live streaming. It's a really natural way to interact with the device.

It'll take a while to get used to. It reminds us of Apple's Force Touch - as there's no onscreen prompts, you're not really sure what a squeeze will do. It's also slightly limited right now, but we feel it has plenty of potential.

The second interesting feature is that HTC U11 will be the first ever device to feature more than one AI assistant. Later in the summer, Amazon's Alexa will join both the Google Assistant and HTC's Companion.

This is good news, because while Assistant is great for services like Mapping and Search, Alexa is better for buying things and Home Automation.

U11 will have four always listening mics, so just like Google Home and Amazon Alexa, it'll pick up the trigger words without you needing to touch the device.

Our review device hasn't received the update with Alexa yet, so it'll be interesting to see how multiple assistants can live on one device. We'll update the review once we've tested it.

Finally, HTC has reworked BoomSound. It's now much louder, and sounds great from our testing (although, it's a easy to cover the speaker with your palm).

Unfortunately, for die-hard music fans, HTC has decided to drop the headphone jack. Instead you'll get a pair of noise cancelling USB-C earbuds, and a USB-C to 3.5mm adapter with built in DAC in the box. We think that makes up for the lack of a traditional port, although, it's still sure to annoy some.

The bundled USB-C Active Noise Cancelling buds sound surprisingly good, with a pleasing amount of bass and decent, if not amazing noise cancellation. They're HTC's 'Usonic' earbuds, which send out sonic waves to test your hearing, and adjust the audio profile accordingly. It's an impressive trick.

Verdict

The HTC U11 is a glorious return to innovation for the Taiwanese company. The headline features, such as Edge Sense and multiple AI assistants are smart inclusions. It’s fast, has a great screen, amazing camera and looks great as well. 

It would have been nice to see a bezel-less display, but we can only hope HTC is working on this for the next version.

It can stand toe-to-toe with the Samsung Galaxy S8, Google Pixel, and LG G6 and we don't think you'd regret buying this excellent device over the others.

More images:

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