If you're reading Android Police, the HTC U11 is probably not a phone you're going to buy. I say this not because the U11 is bad (it's not - it's good), but because it's statistically likely: last year's HTC flagship, the 10, makes up around 0.38% of Android Police's mobile device traffic year to date, sitting in position number 37 on our most-popular devices list, right below the T-Mobile Galaxy Note 5 (yes, really). While the 10 was a marked improvement over the rather not-so-great One M9, there's no denying that even among phone enthusiasts HTC has rapidly seen its market and mind share decline. Once the most dominant Android manufacturer, and the first hardware partner for the platform, HTC has fallen by the wayside in recent years, and nothing they do seems to right the ship.
The U11 will not be this company's savior. It is available on a single carrier in the US (arguably the worst one) and can also be purchased on HTC's website for $649. As such, HTC will not sell many of these phones in America, and I doubt they'll sell many globally, either. There's no money in the coffers for a massive ad campaign, no exceptional value being offered over competing handsets, and nothing really technically special about the U11. It is a high-end Android smartphone that does basically what most other high-end Android phones do. It does some things better, some worse, and some about the same.
This means the U11 is a good phone. A very good one, even. I'd say it can legitimately compete with the Galaxy S8, LG G6, and Google Pixel in a number of ways. Sure, it doesn't really look the part in 2017 compared to the S8 and G6 with their tiny bezels, but functionally the U11 feels like a high-end smartphone. The battery life is good, it has lots of storage, the camera takes great photos, and performance is satisfactory. There's not a bunch of bloatware, and HTC doesn't mess with Android in obnoxious ways.
The U11 also isn't perfect, and I do have some gripes to discuss. The capacitive keys feel so old-school now, the screen has awful light bleed, and the phone is an absolute fingerprint magnet.
So, it's too bad most people will never hear about the U11, because I think it's a fine smartphone. I also don't necessarily think HTC has helped it stand out in a meaningful [and positive] way from its competitors, but I'm not exactly sure what they could do to change that in a way that would actually drive sales.
|Battery life||Totally respectable in my experience with this phone, and generally above average. 3000mAh doesn't seem like much with a 5.5" screen, but Android Nougat and the Snapdragon 835 get the job done.|
|Boomsound||Finally sounds like Boomsound again. The speakers on the U11 are kind of incredible.|
|Light software||HTC doesn't add much in the way of bloat, and while its take on Android Nougat has some aesthetic tweaks, there are very few functional ones.|
|Decent headphones||The new noise-cancelling U Sonic earbuds HTC bundles in the box with the U11 aren't bad at all, but the noise cancellation on them was mediocre in my experience.|
|Camera||The U11's rear camera isn't the best I've used on a phone, but it still manages to capture some stunning photos, especially in low light.|
|Light bleed||This screen has embarrassing light bleed along the lower bezel. Come on, HTC.|
|No 3.5mm jack||Do I need to say anything else? HTC does include a 3.5mm adapter as well as its USB-C U Sonic earbuds in the box, at least.|
|Slick||This is one of the most slippery phones I have ever used. It slides off my desk on its own all the time. You need a case.|
|Design||The U11 looks like a smartphone from 2016, not 2017. The large bezels and capacitive navigation keys just feel like such a step backward from the LG G6 or Galaxy S8.|
|Edge Sense||A decent idea, in theory. In practice, I constantly accidentally activated it, and it was pretty unreliable. I ended up just turning it off.|
Design and materials
I've found that the appearance of the U11 tends to be divisive. I don't personally like it. While the bright blue finish on my review unit is nothing if not striking, it smudges easily and is incredibly slippery. I also just find it to be trying too hard, like HTC has gone this direction with its phone design for the sake of standing out, not necessarily because it looks better or is more durable. The result is another smartphone metal and glass sandwich, but one that honestly doesn't look or feel as refined as what Samsung achieved with the Galaxy S8, or even LG's G6. But you may not agree, and I can understand that.
Moving to the front of the phone, things don't get much better for me. HTC's capacitive navigation keys are awkwardly positioned and I genuinely detest the way the haptic motor is tuned - the vibration feels hollow and harsh, and this has been the case with HTC phones for years now. Maybe it's their "trademark" buzz, but it needs to go, it makes interacting with the phone feel like going back to 2011.
This should not be a thing in 2017.
The U11 has bezels only slightly smaller than those on the Google Pixel XL, and the phone is generally of a very similar size. The U11 is a bit thinner (7.9mm versus the Pixel's 8.5mm), but HTC's phone has a battery with 450mAh less capacity than the Google phone, which just seems kind of... wrong. Granted, the U11 is IP67 certified, while the Pixel lacks waterproofing.
With a standard 16:9 display and all that bezel, the U11 looks like something out of last year's smartphone lineup. The capacitive navigation keys just make it feel even more dated to me, like a choice you'd expect of a budget manufacturer out of China - not something you'd pay $650 for. It's sad, but I have little doubt that HTC has been left behind on the industrial design front by the Samsungs, Huaweis, and LGs of the world. HTC isn't helping write the smartphone design narrative anymore, it's just reading along, and at a pace that puts it behind its more powerful competitors. Sony comes to mind in a similar way for me - no matter what they do, their phones just look hopelessly dated to me now.
The QHD LCD on the U11 is tuned out of the box to be rather heavily saturated in order to mimic Samsung's AMOLEDs, though the developer options do contain an sRGB mode toggle (it didn't work for me, annoyingly) that should get things displaying more realistically. The screen gets quite bright, and viewing angles outside of direct sunlight are pretty good. Unfortunately, HTC still uses the rather annoying polarization that can make seeing the screen while wearing sunglasses near impossible at even slightly off-angles.
The one real issue I take with the display is the comical amount of light bleed on the bottom of my review unit. I can clearly see where the individual backlights shine onto the LCD panel, and it's the sort of QC issue that you'd find on a much cheaper phone. If I found my phone like this out of the box when I bought it, I'd immediately return it. This just isn't acceptable in 2017, not on a $700 phone.
It's hard to see in a photo, but the unevenness at the edge of the bottom of the screen is light bleed.
Otherwise, it's a fine screen. Is Samsung's latest and greatest Super AMOLED better? Absolutely, and in basically every way. But HTC is working with the parts it can procure, and the AMOLED crunch is all too real.
In my testing, the U11 has offered surprisingly good longevity given its rather average 3000mAh battery. Perhaps it's not that surprising, considering the Snapdragon 835 Galaxy S8 also does well with a similar amount of screen area and a battery of roughly the same capacity. Still, I was pleased to see that the U11 pretty reliably could get me through a day of moderately heavy usage, reliably exceeding the battery life of my Pixel XL by a substantial margin. Well over four hours of screen time was easily doable on the U11 for me, and idle battery drain was surprisingly minimal.
Given all that bezel, sure, it would have been nice if HTC could have crammed a larger battery in here to give the U11 a leg up on its competitors, but I have a feeling that between waterproofing and and the fancy glass back plate, that would have entailed building quite a chunky phone. I'm not saying that's the worst compromise to make, but I don't feel HTC skimped on the battery with the U11, in stark contrast to how I felt about the U Ultra.
Storage, wireless, and reception
The U11 comes with 64GB of storage, so for most, it'll have plenty of room right out of the box. If not, you can expand that with a microSD card (HTC supports adoptable storage, too).
Wireless performance has been fine for me, I haven't had any issues and Sprint is actually reasonably good where I live, offering 100Mbps-plus downlink speeds. I've had no issues with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, and performance for both seems plenty strong based on the time I've spent using the phone.
Call quality was something I really didn't get to spend too much time trying (I'm not a Sprint subscriber, and my test unit is on Sprint), but given how loud this phone's speakers can get and its fancy four-microphone setup, I bet the U11 is one of the better phones for calls out there right now.
Audio and speakers
The HTC U11 features HTC's latest iteration of its trademark Boomsound speakers, and they're back and better than ever here. In a side-by-side demo with the HTC 10, the U11's new two-speaker array is far more powerful and sounds a lot better generally. These may well be the best speakers on any currently-available smartphone.
Headphone audio is also excellent, and the output is surprisingly high for an Android phone. Even compared to the Snapdragon 835 Galaxy S8, the HTC U11 appears to manage even better maximum volume, though it's possible this is a result of tuning of some sort. Either way, I was impressed by audio from all the U11's various holes, though I am very much anti-dongle. While HTC does include a 3.5mm adapter in the U11's retail packaging, the fact is that you're probably going to forget to take this thing with you sometimes. I have a feeling that the headphone jack is going the way of the dodo generally on smartphones, but I'm not going to pretend this doesn't still annoy me.
The other audio-related feature of note are the headphones HTC includes in the box with the U11. This new version of HTC's U Sonic earbuds incorporates active noise cancellation, along with the same automatic personal profile generation the previous U Sonic buds offered. They sound pretty good, for sure, though the bass is a little extreme for my liking. The noise cancelation works, and even if it's not incredible (it certainly wouldn't replace dedicated ANC headphones), it's a cool thing to have in a pair of free, in-the-box headphones.
The U11's rear camera produces some impressive photos at times, definitely well up to the level of the Galaxy S8 and Google Pixel in certain conditions. Where I do take some issue with HTC's imaging is in HDR performance. Not only is the quality of HDR images very hit or miss, the amount of shutter lag in the viewfinder when taking an HDR photo gets annoying pretty fast. Still, this is a fairly minor complaint in the grand scheme, and I was largely happy with the images the U11 produced.
Like HTC phones in the past, the phone does struggle a bit in extremely high-contrast conditions, something Samsung and Google have managed to account for much more reliably in their latest smartphones. Low-light performance seems solid, though, and I was generally impressed by the images the U11 spat out. I also definitely prefer this camera to the one on the LG G6, if that's at all helpful - the photos are far more balanced and details much better preserved. HTC's processing isn't hyper-aggressive, though I'm not sure I'd say photos come out looking quite as natural as they do on the Pixel.
Still, I think you'll be very happy with the U11's camera should you pick one up. There's also a 16MP front-facing camera that will allow you far more cropping flexibility for your selfies than most other high-end phones at the moment.
The HTC U11 performs well, but like the Galaxy S8, I just don't think it's anything special from that standpoint. The phone can be forced into tripping up and stuttering, and can feel slightly janky at times. It's not often, and I don't want to say the phone performs badly - it generally performs quite well. It just doesn't have that smooth Pixel feel to it, something no phone manufacturer but Google has managed to achieve with Android so far. Nor does the U11 feel as manically snappy as phones like the OnePlus 3T or the Moto Z. It's fast, yes, but the speed is unremarkably in the context of the larger high-end Android phone universe.
Perhaps this explains the phone's above-average battery life. I wouldn't say there's anything about the U11's performance I found disappointing, but I was reminded in large part of my experience with the Galaxy S8 and S8+ when using this phone, not the Pixel. So, if you were wondering if HTC stole any Android optimization special sauce from the Pixel, the answer seems pretty clearly to be "No."
Here are some of my notes from the test period.
- Because I'm so used to virtual navigation keys, I found the U11's keyboard always felt like it sat too low on the screen. You'd eventually get used to it, but it drove me a little nuts.
- The U11's fingerprint scanner is pretty quick, and generally seems pretty reliable to read.
- Light bleed. So much light bleed.
- It is a total fingerprint magnet, I really cannot for the life of me see myself every buying a phone that gets so fingerprint-y so fast.
- I find this phone weirdly uncomfortable to hold. The edges bow out in a curve, and it sort of digs into your hand a bit. Holding my Pixel XL feels a lot more natural because my fingers have some flat edges to grip. The U11 feels strangely bulky by comparison, despite being almost identical in size.
- It slides around on my desk all the time. So slippery.
- Edge Sense is a feature that demos well but that I found myself completely unlikely to use at all in real life. It's just too cumbersome to become second nature, and I was constantly accidentally activating it.
- The capacitive keys are easily my least favorite part of this phone. I still don't understand why HTC went back to them. The placement is weird and they just make the phone look and feel dated.
- Sense is basically nothing more than a theme now - this is mostly stock Android in a Sense-colored dress, with a few little HTC features piled in.
- I forgot the USB-C to 3.5mm adapter at home several times, so I just started carrying the USB-C U Sonic earbuds with me.
- The U Sonic earbuds are fine. They're tuned way too busy for my taste, but the noise cancellation works OK and they do get pretty dang loud.
- Android 7.1 means support for launcher shortcuts. Yay!
- I think HTC's Uh-Oh Protection program is dead. The U11 comes with no extended warranty or accidental damage coverage, and it doesn't look like HTC offers it as an option when you buy the phone or anything.
- The U11 works on all four major US networks, including Verizon as an LTE-only device (it doesn't support VZW CDMA).
If you don't mind a largely stock-feeling Nougat with a coat of Sense-colored paint thrown on, the U11's software will work for you. HTC's modifications these days are limited to a handful of apps and general system theming - not much else gets touched. There's HTC's camera app, Boost+ (which really is bloatware, I have to say - and can be uninstalled), the clock, flashlight app, Sense Companion (basically useless, in my view), themes, a voice recorder, and the Zoe video editor. Really, HTC doesn't load up a bunch of stuff on its phones, and the Sprint carrier version has minimal bloatware that can't be removed. HTC's even switched over to using Android Messages as its SMS client - they really are making Google their preferred app provider.
You still get some extra features in the settings app like double-tap to wake and Edge Sense (which we'll get to in a moment), but otherwise, the U11's software is a pretty cut and dry affair. Sure, it doesn't look like perfectly stock Android, but functionally, once you throw on a launcher, it basically feels like it. If HTC would include an option to enable software navigation keys on the U11 a la OnePlus, I'd probably feel even more at home using it. As is, I definitely prefer the overall experience to, say, TouchWiz, though Samsung arguably makes it worth your while with value-adds like Samsung Pay and some relatively powerful software features. What you prefer is going to be a personal call.
Shipping with Android 7.1 is also nice, as neither the Galaxy S8 nor the LG G6 did. This gives the U11 a slight edge, at least until those devices are updated to Android 7.1. Now, how quick HTC will be to get the U11 on Android 8.0 is the bigger question. Generally, HTC's been decent about keeping its flagship phone for the year up to date on unlocked channels, but given they're still losing money every quarter, I have to wonder if something's got to give in HTC's software support division at some point. We'll have to wait and see to know, but I'm not so comfortable as to say that Android 8.0 arriving quickly for the U11 is a given. I do think 8.o for the U11 is pretty much a sure thing, it's just a question timing.
Let's talk briefly about Edge Sense. Using pressure sensors embedded in the lower half of the U11's frame, Edge Sense can detect when you physically squeeze your phone. It's an absolutely neat concept that legitimately impressed me when I had my first hands-on with the U11. I thought the potential for this to really be something that changed the way you interacted with your smartphone was there, even if Edge Sense is fairly basic in its current implementation.
Sadly, I found it much less compelling to actually use. No matter how I adjusted the pressure sensitivity, I was constantly either accidentally activating the feature or found myself having to squeeze so hard to make it work that it was just frustrating. No happy middle ground could be found. Not to mention, squeezing your phone in the way Edge Sense requires demands a rather specific grip to accomplish consistently, and I just couldn't be bothered with it anymore after a week.
You can turn on the flashlight with Edge Sense, launch the camera (or any app) and take a photo from sleep, or activate the Google Assistant. It's all a neat idea, I just did not find it to be a natural or easy way to interact with my phone. That said, the one situation where I would be an advocate for edge sense is when wearing gloves, as it doesn't require any capacitance to function, just pressure. So if you're wandering home one cold night and need to turn on the the flashlight, no need to take off your gloves. Or if you're on a ski lift and want to snap a selfie (...assuming the front facing camera is the last one you had open), you squeeze to launch the camera, then squeeze to take a photo. These are real things that could happen in real life, they just don't strike me as reasons for Edge Sense to need to exist.
It's a cool idea, I just wish I'd ended up actually wanting to use it. I do hope phone manufacturers continue to explore alternative interaction methods like this in phones, because they do seem like potentially great ways to make our phones more flexible and functional, I just think Edge Sense is a little rough around the, well, edges. It's close, but not close enough to be something special.
On paper, the HTC U11 is a fairly good smartphone value proposition when compared to competitors like the Google Pixel XL, LG G6, and Galaxy S8. At $649 unlocked, it manages to avoid the price-creep Samsung's phones underwent this year (the Galaxy S8 retails for $750 in the US). You get a Snapdragon 835, a reasonably good QHD LCD (assuming you get one without light bleed), Android 7.1, a very good camera, and solid battery life.
However, in the real world, HTC's up against more competition on price. The Galaxy S8 can easily be had for under $650 right now (even US unlocked models with warranties), and the LG G6 is regularly available for a full $100 less than the U11. The U11 stacks up substantially better against the base Google Pixel XL (currently available for $695 with a $75 credit from Google), with its older chipset and 32GB of storage. But even that's not an easy call to make on money alone - the Pixel XL has a more desirable AMOLED display, better performance, better software support, and a camera that I still prefer. Given the 128GB version is the only one I'd recommend, though, the numbers get harder to ignore - $145 more for a Pixel XL than the U11 is not an easily defensible decision.
So, while initially the U11 can look like a better-than-average value than other flagships on the market, I'd say the reality is it's pretty average. $649 is certainly not a bad price for this phone, but given HTC was willing to give buyers $50 off the U11 just for pre-ordering, I think it's a fair bet the U11 is going to see discounts pretty regularly. I'd definitely recommend holding out for a deal if you're interested in buying one - they're bound to pop up.
The HTC U11 gets the basics right. Good camera, good battery life, good performance - these are the pillars of a solid high-end smartphone experience. It also has a pretty amazing set of speakers on it, and a pair of earbuds in the box that you might actually want to use.
One thing that is hard to ignore is, for all of its core competencies, the U11 comes into the world at a time when smartphone design is clearly evolving. Players in the premium segment are increasingly turning to more compact designs and premium materials to stand out. In that sense, the U11's big bezels, capacitive keys, and 16:9 display simply make it look a bit dated compared to the LG G6 or, especially, the Galaxy S8. This may not bother you, and I'm not saying it objectively should bother you - but it's something that I just can't stop noticing.
Then consider the lack of a headphone jack, the clear quality control issues with display fitment, the fingerprint-y glass, and those capacitive keys. So, the U11 is definitely not a phone without its drawbacks, minor as some of them may be. HTC's poor US sales and limited distribution are a bit of a concern for our readers here in America, too. How well HTC will support the U11 remains to be seen, though HTC has historically offered long support windows for its true "flagship" handsets, even if the speed with which updates arrive has varied substantially over the years.
Still, despite some small issues, I believe the U11 is the best smartphone HTC has made in a long time. I really liked the HTC 10 last year, but it was a bit pricey for what it was. And while I don't think $649 is the "sweet spot" for this phone, at $599 or less, I don't think you'd regret picking up a U11 (though you might regret dropping it - buy a case). Sure, it doesn't have the striking low-bezel looks and ergonomics of the G6 or the Galaxy S8, and it doesn't have the buttery-smooth software or update security of the Pixel XL. But the U11 could absolutely have the right blend of stuff to make it a legitimate alternative to any of them for the right buyer. While I can't say I would consider purchasing a U11 myself, my gripes with it are largely subjective. If the U11 does intrigue you, I'd say it's worth pulling the trigger.
I'm also naming the U11 one of our "Most Wanted" editor's choice award recipients. HTC did right by those holding out for the company's "real" flagship this year by and large, and the company still has what it takes to build a good smartphone.