HTC U11: Australian Review

A phone that you can squeeze. Does anyone need a phone that you can squeeze?

What Is It?

The sizeable $999 HTC U11 is a 5.5-inch Android phone with a front panel dominated by a 5.5-inch, 16:9 ratio 2560x1440pixel Super LCD display. Pick it up and compare it to many of its recent competitors -- from Samsung, from LG, from Huawei -- and you'll universally find the HTC U11 is larger in all aspects from the maximum thickness of its smoothly curving back to the relatively chunky width and height. There aren't huge bezels on that 5.5-inch screen, though, so you don't really feel like you're using a handset full of wasted space here.

It's worth pointing out early on, I think, that the HTC U11 does not have a headphone jack. Instead, you'll be using either the USB-C-powered active noise cancelling USonic in-earphones from HTC that come in the U11's box, finding yourself some other (rare) USB-C cans or using the bundled USB-C to 3.5mm adapter with its own DAC that also comes as an accessory. If you have wired headphones you love, that adapter will live on them from now on. I like Bluetooth, so I don't really care either way. Caveat emptor.

Running Android 7.0 Nougat like you'd expect from a top-of-the-line phone, the U11 has a smattering of HTC apps alongside the original (and often better) Google ones. You can even sign in to HTC's first-party apps on the U11 with your Steam account, if you're game enough. Its Sense interface is clean and straightforward and doesn't present any huge advantages or foibles over the majority of the competition out there. It also has the same Sense Companion machine learning of the previous HTC U Ultra and U Play midrange phones from earlier this year.

The HTC U11 has the right stuff when it comes to what's under the hood for a top-spec early 2017 smartphone. It's one of the first phones to hit Australia with Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835 quad-core processor, with all the trimmings that entails: super-fast 1Gbps mobile downloads (on the right network), as well as 64GB of onboard storage, 4GB of RAM and a microSD card slot for you to add more expandable storage and fill it up with movies and photos and music as suits your interests.

What's It Good At?

The design of the HTC U11 -- its aesthetic more than anything about its actual construction, really -- is superb. That pearlescent finish on the rear of the phone is beautiful, to the point that it's genuinely disappointing not to be able to see it front of the phone while you're actually using it. It's clean, too -- rejecting fingerprints pretty damn well during daily use -- and it's shiny enough that you can use it as a personal mirror in a pinch. It also helps that the U11 is very well put together, which has been a traditional strength for the phonemaker that helped kickstart Android into life way back when.

The single central rear camera of the HTC U11, too, is an impressive feature. It doesn't have any gimmicks, but it ticks the boxes well versus its flagship competition: a 12-megapixel sensor with a fast f/1.7 lens, software that gets out of the way for the most part, and photos that in anything but the darkest lighting conditions look impressively clear and detailed and full of accurate and rich colour. The front 16-megapixel f/2.0 camera is also surprisingly good; snapping a quick selfie is probably the best use that you can put that Edge Sense squeeze to. It's a good camera that you won't be disapppointed with the results from.

Edge Sense is a cool gimmick. If you can find a compelling reason. I wouldn't use it in anything other than the Advanced Squeeze mode (hold the sniggering), which gives you two separate functions based on whether you're going for a long or a short caress of the phone's sides. I inevitably use these hardware buttons to do something mediocre like activate a phone's flash to see in the dark, and at best it saves you a couple of seconds, but as a hardware feature goes it's hard not to like Edge Sense, even if it doesn't do anything world-changing.

That brand new Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 under the hood that powers the HTC U11 is an impressive performer, too. The phone starts quickly and operates quickly; there's no camera shutter lag, the fingerprint sensor is pretty speedy, and the U11 monsters through basic tasks like running a set of photo edits in Snapseed or racking up a couple of million chooks in Egg Inc.. One other hardware feature is worthy of praise; the U11's BoomSound stereo speakers are probably the loudest -- and some of the highest quality -- we've heard from a phone. That's equally useful for speakerphone calls and annoying your train carriage with blaring music.

What's It Not Good At?

This is a big phone. You'll have to be happy using and carrying around a big phone to tolerate it. We're at the beginning of an age of 18:9 ratio Android flagships, and it almost feels like HTC missed the boat on this particular trend. The end result is a big-screened top-end Android phone that feels chunky. It's not super skinny, it's not svelte. In my time with it so far, it's sometimes felt like a chore to carry in tight jeans. HTC hasn't done anything too exciting with the U11's design beyond that beautiful pearlescent finish.

Battery life on the HTC U11 is... not especially good. You can eke it out by lowering the screen brightness and enabling various power saving features, but competitors do it better and have a better hardware base to start from. Why, HTC, why, have you only managed to shoehorn an unimpressively small 3000mAh cell into the U11, when you have all that extra width and height versus your larger-screened competitors to work with? This is a disappointment in an otherwise quite impressive phone; you'll have to adjust your charging style to suit the phone rather than have it work for you.

I know I wrote about the advantages of HTC's squeeable Edge Sense in an earlier paragraph, and it's a feature that doesn't have any disadvantages per se -- but I just question the point of it a little, even after using it and expecting to find that don't-knock-it-'til-you've-tried-it utility that these oddball features sometimes have up their sleeves. I just don't find it all that more useful than an actual physical button shortcut to justify it being a feature that draws you to the HTC U11 over any other competitor. You'll have to like more than a squeeze to buy the U11.

And HTC's Sense Companion is another feature that doesn't add any real, noticeable utlity to the U11. It purports to optimise your phone by tailoring it to the way you use it -- this is when you leave for work, this is when you text Becky, this is what restaurants are nearby. Google's Assistant does it better and more consistently, and I don't see any need for doubling up especially when it means stepping outside of the massive information vacuum cleaner that is Google's overarching mobile and desktop and search ecosystem.

Should You Buy It?

The $999 HTC U11 is a big phone that makes big promises: excellent speed, an excellent camera, excellent sound quality within and without, and a user-initiated gimmick in that Edge Sense squeeze that makes it easier to use the phone on a day to day basis. It delivers on most of these, with that combo of good speakers and camera returning HTC to its One M7 and M8 glory days when it was the smartphone brand for music and movie fans.

The Edge Sense complication is fun but at the same time doesn't offer a huge advantage in utility over an actual button on the U11's side or top. You might love it, you might not find it useful at all, but at least you probably won't hate it. I ended up using it to launch Google Assistant and snap selfies -- two things you could do with a couple of taps otherwise -- and while it didn't change my life I liked having it available as a secondary input method for those rare occasions it was more convenient.

Not having a headphone jack is, frankly, a pain, especially if you're one of the many that's bought into the ecosystem of headphones and audio goodies that rely on it. If you're a Bluteooth junkie then no big deal, but this is a caveat that might turn away some buyers. You gain super-fast USB-C charging and some swanky noise-cancelling earphones in the box, but you'll have to carry around a battery-sapping 3.5mm adapter otherwise.

It's the size, though, that defines the HTC U11. It doesn't do anything groundbreaking in terms of slimming down its curves, and that means it's wider and fatter than other phones you might be comparing it to. It's cheaper at the same time, and that's worth celebrating, but you'll be carrying around a large phone when many others are getting smaller and smaller with each new model. You get a great camera, great speakers and a beautiful pearlescent finish, but there's just a lot of it to show off.

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