HTC was once one of the industry’s top Android manufacturers.
The company’s popularity began to go downhill in 2013, however, following the highly-praised HTC One M7. While the M8 featured more of the same greatness as its predecessor, the camera quality didn’t match up to its competitors.
The M9 was also a good attempt at regaining some momentum, but its design was dated and its low-light camera performance unimpressive. The HTC A9 was almost an exact replica of the iPhone in terms of looks but didn’t stand up (or even sit anywhere near) its Apple competitor.
Although the HTC 10 was a good attempt at reclaiming the Taiwanese company’s former glory, the device wasn’t as popular in the Canadian market as, for example, the Galaxy S7, partially due to the smartphone’s lack of availability.
Then there was the 2017 U Ultra, which many considered the successor to the HTC 10. That smartphone, however, didn’t match up to any of 2017’s standards for a flagship phone, including dual-camera packages and nearly bezel-less designs.
Now, however, we’ve finally received the competitive high-end HTC device that many gave up waiting for, the HTC U11.
More than meets the eye
However, the HTC U11 is a lot more than what meets the eye, even if what meets the eye is actually quite stunning.
Though I personally prefer the appearance of the HTC 10, the U11 is definitely a stylish device. I’ve been using the Solar Red HTC U11 and when you tilt the smartphone in the light it changes to a golden colour.
I found that the U11 is the most slippery device I have ever used and I’m sure I would have cracked it already if the device didn’t come with a clear TPU case. Furthermore, the smartphone is also a complete fingerprint magnet. No matter where you touch the U11, you cannot help but leave behind prominent fingerprints.
The front of the smartphone features a fingerprint sensor that doubles as a home button, as well as capacitive back and overview buttons. The fingerprint sensor on the device responds quickly and unlocks the smartphone in under a second.
The U11 also features a 12-megapixel camera with a front-facing speaker that is surprisingly loud. The right side of the smartphone includes a power button and a volume rocker.
The rear of the U11 includes a 16-megapixel camera and a dual LED flash that brightens up the area for low-light images, while the bottom of the smartphone has another very loud speaker, a USB-C and a mic. Unlike the Samsung Galaxy S8, the G6 and the Essential Phone, the U11’s main feature is not outwardly evident.
I’m sure many of you reading have heard about its pressure-sensitive frame, though you may be suspicious of its usefulness. The HTC U11’s ‘Edge Sense’ feature is actually very practical.
It can be used to launch Google Assistant, HTC Companion, HTC Alexa (yes, even in Canada) and open any app on the smartphone. It can also snap photos and switch from front facing to rear facing camera with a long squeeze.
True to life images
The U11 also includes a 12-megapixel rear facing camera that I managed to snap some great shots with. The pictures I took with the HTC U11 are clear and finely detailed. Even in low light situations, I found the smartphone’s quality barely faltered, and with the LED flash the camera package can easily illuminate night-time snaps, though this is always a less than ideal way to shoot good photography. The rear facing camera also includes optical image stabilization that will help with photos or videos taken by a shaky hand.
The smartphone also has a pro mode that can enhance your photos — if you know what you’re doing. You can change ISO, shutter speed and set white balance, among other things. It also offers sports, environment and night modes for those who can’t quite figure out the pro settings.
While the device offers a great rear camera experience, its front-facing camera is just as good. It too takes clear photos, even in a low-light, and while it doesn’t offer the same quality as the rear facing camera, or the same pro mode, it includes an HDR mode, as well as a makeup feature, to help take the perfect Instagram photo.
Like I mentioned earlier, the U11’s Edge Sense allows the user to snap photos with a quick squeeze of the phone’s frame. I found this useful for taking pictures and while it might seem like you’d ruin your photo by shaking the camera with the intensity of your squeeze, the camera provides a two-second timer to allow users to hold it steady.
Crystal clear display
Not only are the U11’s camera specs top-of-the-line, so is its display. The U11 features a 5.5-inch 1440 x 2560 pixel Super LCD5 screen that provides a clear, true-to-life look. I didn’t notice any problems with the display whatsoever, even while browsing high definition wallpapers. It was impossible to pick out individual pixels while looking at high definition wallpapers, nor did I detect any light bleed when looking at the screen.
Even under direct sunlight, the screen is still readable. Additionally, during low light situations, the U11 has a night mode that changes the tint of the screen to a warmer colour so that it is easier on the eyes.
The U11 can also change from vivid to standard RBG colour ranges. Though I personally prefer vivid, RGB colours are more accurate compared to vivid mode on an Android device.
I didn’t like the U11’s auto brightness setting, as I found it didn’t automatically change the brightness to react to the environment around me — at least not quick enough. On devices like the Nexus 6P, the Moto E4 and even the HTC 10, I found I was able to better depend on the auto brightness settings, but it wasn’t the same for the U11.
BoomSound is back
While the display is great, the sound was even better.
The U11’s speakers provided rich sound, without no hint of tinny qualities. HTC was once well known for its BoomSound speakers, which appeared as two front facing speakers on a device and even though the U11 doesn’t feature two front facing speakers, one front and one on the bottom provided a fully enjoyable experience.
On the loudest settings I could hear my music from the room beside mine, almost clearly. Though both speakers were loud, the bottom speaker, at times, caused me problems.
I found the way I held the device while watching Netflix I would occasionally block the sound and would have to hold the device another way. Otherwise, whether jamming by myself or watching my favourite anime, the sound was great.
USonic surround sound earbuds
I wasn’t expecting the HTC USonic headphones to be as great as the company promised. Though the U11 doesn’t have a headphone port the Taiwanese company provides owners of the smartphone with USonic headphones and an adapter for their headphones normal headphones
The USonic earphones were extremely difficult for me to put in my ear. Even after looking to see which earphone had the little R or L it continuously caused me issues. After finally figuring out how they fit in the ear the U11 will prompt you to create an Active Noise Cancellation profile, once finished it’s a completely new experience.
The USonic earbuds nearly get rid of all ambient noise, to the point where it might be a little dangerous when traveling around on the streets of Toronto.
Even at a low volume, external sound is reduced to a point at which it’s difficult to hear people talking in front of me, while at a higher volume, it’s nearly impossible to hear anything around whatsoever. The earphone also gives a surround sound experience and I whether it was music or videos, it felt like the sound was coming at me from all directions.
The experience completely changes when using Apple EarPods with the smartphone. The sound offers the same volume but it doesn’t include the nearly surround sound or noise cancelling experience.
HTC Sense experience
HTC’s U11 is a quick device, even if many apps are loaded or open. The U11’s Qualcomm’s 835 Snapdragon octa-core chipset with an Adreno 540 GPU, and 4GB of RAM never faltered and offered a very snappy experience.
Additionally, the U11 comes loaded with Android Nougat version 7.1.1 with the newest version of HTC Sense including some of its own apps, such as Messages, Viveport, Zoe Video Editor and TouchPal apps, but not so many that the device’s UI felt bloated. HTC also provides the option to add themes to the device.
Though I love my Nexus 6P and stock Android in general, I found that HTC Sense actually offered a friendlier experience in some aspects, since it offered easy ways to customize the appearance of the device without needing to download any other apps.
As for hardware, in comparison to the HTC 10, the U11 is a major upgrade in terms of speed and power.
The newer Snapdragon 835 processor is significantly quicker and more power efficient than the 820 chipset. The U11’s specs are also superior to the LG G6, which stocks a quad-core Snapdragon 821 processor and Adreno 530 GPU. Samsung’s Galaxy S8, however, offers similar specs.
No, I wasn’t calling you Alexa
The U11 also features HTC Alexa, making it the only smartphone available in Canada to include Amazon’s AI.
However, I found my experience with the assistant to be more annoying than useful. Alexa was rarely able to answer questions I asked and couldn’t display information like Google Assistant. I often found myself typing to Google Assistant instead of outright asking it questions aloud, which is something you can’t do with Alexa. Most importantly, Alexa can’t help with directions, the temperature is only in Fahrenheit. It also can’t open apps.
Alexa is a lot more responsive than Google Assistant, however — in fact, it may be a little too responsive. The AI activates even when in my pocket, and will often respond when a word sounds similar to Alexa.
HTC has opted to load the U11 not only with Alexa and Google Assistant, but also the HTC Companion, which provides the user with other mildly interesting information about things like travel times in an overly intrusive way, with a bubble often popping up like a Facebook Messenger chat bubble. I often found the information unnecessary, and there was some information — for example, its step-counting feature — that was just inaccurate.
However, HTC gives users the option to get rid of the bubble and turn off the Sense Companion, which is what I ended up doing.
Blinkfeed is another feature of the U11, which gives you information about things like sites you follow and Facebook posts. However, I found little reason to use Blinkfeed during my time with the U11, more often opting for Google Now. Thankfully, the Taiwanese company gives users the ability to turn this feature off as well.
30 hour battery
The U11’s non-removable 3,300mAh battery is quite impressive. I found that given my regular use case of at least two hours of music streaming, frequent texting, checking my Facebook for memes and watching YouTube videos in sporadic five minute periods (and perhaps at least a full 45 minutes to an hour of YouTube per day,) I could get 30 hours of battery time out of the smartphone.
It’s worth noting that I never change my brightness from the highest settings, but often have my device on ‘Do Not Disturb’ volume profile, meaning that the smartphone rarely ever vibrates. In my daily commute of an hour and of a half with me using my device mostly for music streaming, it would only decrease 11 percent.
During my time with the U11 I never found that I needed to charge it throughout the day, unless I forgot to charge it the night previous. With heavy usage days — when I played at least 30 minutes of games and watched several episodes of anime — I found I needed to charge the device by 9pm.
I believe the HTC U11 might be a contender for the best smartphone of 2017. It has great specs, one of the highest rated cameras and its never-before-seen squeeze function is actually pretty useful and has a lot of potential.
Don't get me wrong, the device does have its flaws: it's too slippery, it's a fingerprint magnet, HTC Sense Companion and HTC Alexa are more frustrating than helpful and the Usonic headphones are extremely difficult to put in -- but the device is still one of the best offerings HTC has had in a while.
Unfortunately, the U11 does come with one other crucial problem. The device is not sold by any of the Canadian carriers and is only available online through HTC's website for $899.99 in 'Midnight Black,' 'Solar Red,' 'Amazing Silver' and 'Brilliant Blue' and $924.38 for the 128GB variant in Amazing Silver. $900 outright plus tax, depending on your province, will undoubtedly be too expensive for most consumers.For what it's worth, however, my experience with the U11 was spectacular and it didn't leave me disappointed in any major aspect.
"I believe the HTC U11 might be a contender for the best smartphone of 2017"