I've been using the HTC U Ultra for a little over a full week now. It's the latest "flagship" (I know, that word) from HTC, and the specifications generally would support such a classification. A Snapdragon 821 processor, 5.7" Quad HD LCD display, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, f/1.8 rear camera, UltraPixel front camera, and USB Type C with Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 round out the major talking points. The price tag, too, says "top of the line": you'll pay $749 for the privilege of owning a U Ultra here in the US, and that doesn't even mean four-carrier support - you're stuck on GSM networks only.
The compromises, unfortunately, only start there.
There's no waterproofing. The headphone jack is gone. The 3000mAh battery is quite simply too small for that 5.7" Quad HD LCD and the secondary ticker display. The capacitive navigation keys are among the worst I've used on any phone in recent memory - their placement is awkward and the home button is simultaneously too sensitive and not nearly sensitive enough. The phone is an absolute handful, too: it's very much taller and wider than the no-longer-extant Galaxy Note7, but not any thinner. The ticker display accounts for some of this, but definitely not all. And then there's the ticker display itself, which is little more than an ape of the one found on LG's V20, which just seems so unimaginative on HTC's part. HTC's vaunted "companion" AI won't even launch with the phone here in the US (it won't come until "late April").
I'll give you some expanded thoughts below, but HTC's newest phone has landed with an unceremonious, if visually appealing, thud for me, and that's disappointing.
|Design||Subjective, yes, but I love the high-gloss glass back on this phone. This blue color in particular is just stunning.|
|Big||If you like big phones, this is a big phone with a big screen (two screens, in fact).|
|Sense is fine||HTC takes an ever-lighter hand to Android with each passing year. Sense on Nougat is totally fine, and includes some useful software tweaks.|
|Speakers||The dual-speaker BoomSound array isn't particularly loud, but it does sound pretty good.|
|Poor battery life||It sucks. I'm getting 60-70% of the battery life I would with a Pixel XL with this phone. This is unacceptable, and it's definitely a result of the awful display (5.7"+ticker) to battery (3000mAh) ratio.|
|Scratches easily||I have never seen a phone's screen get scratched as easily as the Ultra's. Mine looks like I actively went out of my way to abuse it (I didn't).|
|Limited carrier support||This phone is GSM-only in the US, and the only way you can buy it is direct from HTC.|
|No ruggedization||Water and dustproofing are not present on the U Ultra.|
|No 3.5mm jack||I don't need to explain this.|
|Camera||It's decent, but suffers from the same problems HTC cameras of the past have - slow HDR, red tinting, and subpar low-light performance.|
|Cost||$750 for this phone is simply way too much. Granted, I'm not sure I could recommend it at even $600 with that battery life.|
Hardware: build and design
My favorite thing about the U Ultra is the way it looks and feels, especially in this deep blue finish. It's absolutely stunning when it catches the sunlight. HTC's colored glass has a deep, uniform color that you just don't get with the foil-under-glass technique Samsung uses and, as a result, no other phone really looks like this one.
The aesthetic positives don't end there - I love the way HTC has blended the matching blue aluminum midframe into the glass, it feels extremely well put-together and the design just has an overall look of cohesiveness. Well, at least on the back... mostly. The one place I'd take away points is the camera hump, which protrudes bizarrely far outside the glass backplate in what feels like a throwback to much older smartphones. It's even thicker than the camera hump on the old Galaxy S6, and that's quite a feat.
The power key is heavily textured a la the HTC 10, which I like a lot, and the volume rocker has a nice, clicky action to it. This phone absolutely feels, from a physical quality standpoint, deserving of its admittedly high price tag. At least until you flip it over.
Around front, I'm decidedly less in love. While I definitely like the black fascia with the blue body color, the odd proportions created by the secondary ticker display give the phone an asymmetrical look when it's powered on, much as you have on the LG V20. Additionally, HTC's capacitive keys are oddly small, and placed strangely far down the body of the phone. It makes them feel unnatural to reach and I often find myself completely missing them with my fingers. The home button is oddly small, too, and sometimes doesn't feel especially responsive, either (except when I accidentally activate the fingerprint scanner constantly when holding the phone idly in my hands). Illuminated, the backlight cutouts for the back and recents keys look comically tiny against the giant canvas of the display, and the fact that they're not centered along the height of the chin bezel is... grating.
There's also no water or dustproofing, which, well, OK, HTC.
The display itself seems like a pretty good LCD panel, though the color profile is unapologetically strange (in order to make colors "pop"), and no matter how much I play with the color temperature slider I just can't make it look "right" to my eyes. It seems somehow a bit... dingy. Viewing angles, though, are excellent, and brightness is very strong. I'm just not sold on the way HTC has calibrated the panel.
I'm also not sold on the Gorilla Glass 5 screen, which has picked up an immense number of scratches in week-long test of the phone. I don't know if it's the Gorilla Glass or some coating HTC has applied, but it is legitimately terrible. I cannot recall any phone I've tested getting scratched up this easily.
The secondary ticker display on my unit doesn't have any backlight bleed around the border of the primary screen, but I've seen multiple other people with retail devices show off some seriously bad bleed, especially around the front-facing camera. My unit actually has some light bleed around the bottom of the primary display, which just cheapens the look of the phone. If I'm paying $750 for this thing, I expect QC on these panels to be exceptionally strict. This isn't.
A 3000mAh battery mated to a 5.7" LCD and a secondary ticker display sounds like a recipe for a phone that can't make it through the day. And it is.
The U Ultra's battery life has been consistently subpar for me, if not outright poor, and it's easily the best reason to avoid this device. On days spent mostly on mobile data, I can eke out 3 hours of screen time if I'm conservative with the brightness. If I'm not, it's more like 2 or 2.5 hours. It does considerably better on Wi-Fi only (4 hours is achievable), but this is pathetic in 2017. The Google Pixel XL has a considerably smaller display but a battery that's nearly 20% larger than the U Ultra, and then there are the multitude of devices out there in the Ultra's size category that absolutely dwarf its 3000mAh capacity, like the 4000mAh unit in the Huawei Mate 9.
I can't for the life of me understand why HTC believed a battery this size was acceptable in such a large phone. The idea that Android's increased efficiency can compensate for what is a frankly insultingly poor product decision is, to put it plainly, bullshit. The HTC 10 had a 3000mAh battery with a 5.2" display. Why is that suddenly an OK capacity on a much larger phone? There isn't a good reason - there are only excuses. For this alone, the HTC U Ultra is all but dead on arrival as far as smartphone enthusiasts should be concerned. The company hasn't made the number-one smartphone complaint - battery life - a legitimate priority.
If HTC does have a "mainstream" flagship to release later this year, it damn well better come with a bigger battery.
Storage, wireless, and reception
I am pleased that HTC has made 64GB the standard storage level on the Ultra, which only makes sense given budget devices like the OnePlus 3 offer it at a much lower price point (I'm looking at you, Google). As such, most people will have no issues with space on this phone, and that's great. If you need more, of course, there's a microSD card slot.
Wireless performance on the phone has generally been OK. On the mobile data side, I'm seeing pretty comparable performance to the Pixel XL on AT&T here in the US, which is to say it's acceptable, but not exceptional. I've used phones that get considerably better reception in my apartment, and I've honestly felt like the Ultra has been a bit slower than normal on LTE at times for me. It's possible I'm imagining this (speed tests don't reveal anything of interest).
Bluetooth performance is, again, just OK. I get fewer cutouts in the car than with my Pixel XL, which is extremely sensitive to being in my pocket, for example, but signal does still sometimes cut out - something I never experience on Samsung phones. Wi-Fi connectivity has largely been fine for me, with no issues to report.
Audio and speakers
Audiophiles can sit down now, as the U Ultra does not include the discrete DAC/amplifier found in the HTC 10, instead using Qualcomm's off-the-shelf solution, Aqstic (which is fine!), included with the Snapdragon 821. It's perfectly acceptable, though probably lacks the level of output that you'd find in the HTC 10, and as such may not be as well suited to driving big headphones.
But there's no headphone jack. Because reasons. While I don't find this to be a deal-breaker on a phone, it's well understood that this is a polarizing product decision. You'll find a USB-C to 3.5mm adapter in the box, similar to the Moto Z, but what you won't find is an especially good reason for getting rid of the jack in the first place. Moto at least can pretend it's about thinness on the Z (even if it really isn't), but HTC has no real standing on this account - the Ultra is of very standard thickness for a smartphone. It is what it is, and I'll leave it to you to decide if it really matters.
You do get a bundled pair of "USonic" HTC headphones that "adapt" to ambient noise using some kind of algorithm on the phone, but the headphones really aren't any good. They're incredibly bassy to the point of annoyance and the "enhancement" seems little more than an aggressive S-curve equalizer with some loudness compensation depending on the noise level around you. It doesn't actively adapt, either - you'll need to use the [persistent] notification that appears whenever the headphones are plugged in to activate it. I realize regular consumers tend to use the earbuds bundled with their smartphone, but I have zero interest in paying a cent more for my phone because of a bundled audio accessory. It makes no sense.
The BoomSound speakers are similar to the ones on the HTC 10, with the earpiece speaker operating as a tweeter, essentially, to the bottom-firing unit providing the mids and what passes for bass on a smartphone. They're definitely not bad, and I'm glad to see HTC has stuck with this less compromised solution, but the maximum output level isn't exactly impressive (much as I found on the 10), and as such I think most people will be utterly underwhelmed with them. The name of the game on smartphone speakers is volume, and the U Ultra falls flat here, even if the quality of the sound it does produce is a cut above your typical phone. Hearing it, though, tends to be the issue.
The U Ultra's 12MP rear-facing camera can produce very good photos under good conditions - which is true of essentially any high-end smartphone today. While I find myself a bit frustrated at the viewfinder delay that accompanies any HDR capture (Samsung solved this 3 years ago - what gives, HTC?), the results are generally good and you'll find little to complain about during daylight hours. The one gripe I have here is that the Ultra tends to lean on the side of overexposure, but this can generally be alleviated by tapping on a focal point to set the exposure as you would any phone.
In less forgiving conditions, the stumbles begin. HTC's camera tuning still makes things indoors look pink or red at times (yes, really, this is still a thing), low-light capture is quite susceptible to motion blur even with the U Ultra's optical image stabilization, and color and white balance just don't come out right a lot of the time. Reds, in particular, seem to thoroughly confuse the Ultra's camera, and it tends to give them far more saturation and vibrance than reality would permit.
I can assure you this wagon contains no pink, nor is it quite so red - but the Ultra's camera sure thought otherwise.
The speed of the camera to launch can also be a bit disappointing in light of the progress OEMs like Samsung and Google have made in this area. The Ultra's camera feels a bit laggardly at times, and you may miss that quick shot occasionally as a result. On a $400 smartphone, this would not be anything to complain about. On a $750 one? Yeah, sorry: I'm going to be picky.
It's a good camera, but good doesn't say much in 2017 when phones like the Galaxy S7 and Google Pixel have made "excellent" the benchmark at this price point.
The U Ultra is not a slow phone. It's usually quick. But using something like the OnePlus 3T or the Google Pixel reveals that HTC simply hasn't kept up on the optimization front in the way some of its rivals have. I found myself experiencing multitasking button hangs and occasional delays that reminded me far more of Android a couple years ago versus the experience I've become accustomed to on the Pixel.
So, once again, while the U Ultra does not compare particularly badly to phones in this segment of the market, it compares favorably to very few (e.g., Samsung). There's nothing about the U Ultra that I found especially frustrating from a performance standpoint in regular use, but I also didn't think it was remarkable in any way. It was generally fine, except when it wasn't, and it's those little things that are beginning to separate good phones from truly great ones.
HTC's latest version of Sense based on Android 7.0 will appeal to fans of a less aesthetically messed-with interface, and HTC has moved even closer to a "stock"-like look and feel than ever before. The settings menu follows the design conventions of the restyled Nougat one (with the top-level tool tips and slide-out menu), but as per HTC custom, is themed. Standard quick settings tiles are also used, and HTC hasn't messed with notifications. Throw on a custom launcher and you'll barely notice HTC's customizations - it feels like we're watching the slow-motion death of Sense (which is fine by me). HTC still has its theme store if you're into that sort of thing, but the themes really don't change all that much.
The software is easily the best part of the U Ultra, as I was rarely reminded I was not using a stock Android Nougat phone. The lack of Android 7.1's long-press launcher shortcuts is a bit of a bummer (I hope the Ultra gets 7.1 soon, but HTC has no timeline), but between Google Assistant and Nougat's various other changes, the Ultra's software feels perfectly modern. I haven't noticed any changes I'd call aggravating or even annoying, which is a testament to HTC's light touch here.
HTC has added a few useful changes, too, like double-tapping the display to wake, color temperature adjustment, a blue light filter (with scheduling), an always-on toggle for the capacitive key backlighting, double-press power to quick launch the camera, and praise be unto HTC: granular settings for the notification LED. In 2017! Some of us still like this level of control over that little blinking light, and I'm among them.
The secondary display is probably the largest software "feature" behind the still-rolling-out Sense Companion, so let's talk about that a bit. If you're thinking "this is just like the LG V20," well, yes. It's exactly like it. HTC tries to differentiate by saying the ticker display will work in concert with the Companion AI, but that's really just a polite way of saying the app's notifications will show up there sometimes. It really isn't improving the experience in a big way. Your standard notifications will show up in the ticker display, too, which can help "glanceability" a bit, but I don't really find in practice that I'm getting much utility there.
HTC's larger point with the ticker is providing you quick access to things like favorite contacts, power controls, apps, your calendar, and reminders. In that sense, it's largely like LG's ticker. But HTC's implementation is a bit... weird. For example, on the V20, the ticker display is truly always-on in the always-on mode, and remembers which panel you had active. HTC's turns off after a few seconds when the main display isn't on, and you have to pick up the phone or double-tap the ticket area to wake it up. It also doesn't remember which panel you last had selected, which is annoying.
Confusingly, the most useful panel - the quick toggles for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, flashlight, etc. - is only available when the phone's main display is powered off. When you turn the screen on, that's not one of the available panels. It's easily the best use case for the ticker display aside from notification text. I get the reasoning (you have the notification bar toggles available to you), I guess, but it eliminates half the usefulness of the feature to me.
This phone would really be better without the ticker display, is how I end up feeling: I had a hard time justifying it on the V10 and V20, and I have a hard time justifying it here. It's not useless, it's just not that useful, and you create fiscal ($), functional (battery), and aesthetic compromises (light bleed) as a result. HTC could charge a bit less money, make the phone a bit more compact, improve the battery life, and avoid an obvious weak link in the manufacturing process by cutting it out. The intentions here are good, but I don't think HTC has made the case in a way that is compelling.
Sense Companion really doesn't do anything yet (at least in America).
As for Sense Companion? It was just enabled on my device a couple days ago. It seems like a combination of Google Now cards and some basic device advice (like letting you know you should enable battery saver), but I haven't really had it provide me any suggestions yet. I'll update this review as Companion actually starts to work on the phone. I don't see it as a game-changer, though it's nice to see HTC trying something a bit different.
The HTC U Ultra is not a bad phone. It's kind of a good one, in some ways. But here's the thing: even on the best day, the U Ultra is just what I'd call decent. At the $750 level, that's absolutely not living up to the competition. For $20 more, you can buy a Pixel XL (albeit with less storage and a smaller display) that is better in almost every way, and definitely better in the ways that are actually important to most smartphone enthusiasts (battery, carrier support, camera, performance, OS updates).
It's unclear to me why the U Ultra exists. That's really the problem I come back to with this phone. While I realize HTC would contend it does not build devices that are strictly responsive to its rivals' products, they really needed to put an ear to the ground for the Ultra to be competitive in this increasingly cutthroat space. But the exact opposite feels true: like this is a smartphone developed in a relative vacuum, unconcerned with what the competition is doing. While that can be an effective way to make your product stand out, it can also make you look tone-deaf.
Under no circumstance could I ever see myself recommending this phone to anyone at a cost of $750, because there's always going to be a better option both up and down the price scale. Even at $650, or $600, the battery life just makes this phone difficult to seriously consider. Batteries don't get better with age, which is a serious concern when you're dropping seven-hundred and fifty bucks on a phone you'd presumably keep for a couple of years.
HTC hasn't really done itself any favors in trying to balance out this Achilles' heel, either. The lack of a headphone jack is the most obvious miss, but the easily-scratched display, just-OK camera, and unremarkable performance take what could be a very-good-but-flawed phone and make it just a flawed phone. I will say that, in contrast to how I initially felt at CES, I don't think the chipset complaint is a fair jab - my Pixel XL runs remarkably well on a Snapdragon 821, as does the OnePlus 3T. You don't "need" a Snapdragon 835 to build a great phone right now. Living and dying by a Qualcomm part number is silly. And if that were this phone's only real "problem," I could get past it. But it isn't.
In summation, the U Ultra is pretty, expensive, and flawed. It's a shame, because I think HTC's design team is still doing good work here - the Ultra is undeniably striking, and I've received many questions about the phone during my test period. Unfortunately, that interest tends to fade quickly when I start describing the battery life.
Back to the drawing board, HTC.