HTC U11 review: Plenty to love, plenty to hate

HTC has been struggling to hit a home run for years now, slowly falling further and further behind the heavy hitters in the Android market. That’s not to say that HTC has made a series of bad phones, they’ve just been unable to deliver the full package while everyone else has been polishing their flagship devices.

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This year, we got the U11. It packs high-end hardware with HTC’s signature software, plus a very unique design that can be squeezed to trigger different shortcuts and actions. It’s definitely the most promising phone HTC has unveiled, but is it going to be enough to turn things around for the company? Let’s dig in.

Design

HTC has plenty of faults, but almost none of them fall on the design team. Sure, we’ve seen some uninspired devices, but for the most part all of their phones use premium materials in a slick package. The U11 is mostly the same.

The back of the U11 is covered in shiny glass, which looks fantastic, but it’s also a huge fingerprint magnet. It’s pretty slippery to hold, but fortunately HTC’s fancy manufacturing process that curves the sides of the device helps to minimize your chances of accidentally dropping it.

I’d hate to see how it looked after a short fall.

The right side of the phone houses the volume rocker and textured power button. You’ll find the USB-C charging port, speaker, and a microphone on the bottom.

The top’s single feature is the SIM tray.

At the bottom of the face of the phone you’ll find two capacitive buttons and a physical home button that doubles as a fingerprint scanner, and if there’s one gripe about the design of this phone, it’s definitely that home button. It’s too thin and looks like something you’d find on a cheap prepaid phone, and it’s not satisfying to use, either. It doesn’t physically click, and I would occasionally tap it only for the phone to not register a home press.

It’s one thing to include a physical button that’s primarily a fingerprint scanner, but you don’t have an option to use on-screen keys like with other phones.

The sides of the device mirror the color of the back of the phone, which looks great. The face is black on all four colors that are offered for continuity, but all four colors are very visually appealing.

It’s not particularly remarkable, but the U11 is still very solid. Slim bezels, attractive design, and easy to hold make for a great phone, but the material being such a big fingerprint magnet is a drawback. Going for physical buttons on a 5.5-inch device is also a questionable decision, but HTC gets a passing grade here.

Hardware

 HTC U11
AnnouncedMay 16, 2017
ReleaseJune 2017
Display5.5-inch (2560x1440) Super LCD 5
ProcessorQualcomm Snapdragon 835
RAM4GB
Storage64GB of internal storage w/ microSD card slot
Rear Camera12MP w/ phase detection autofocus, optical image stabilization, dual-LED flash
Front Camera16MP
Battery3000mAh (non-removable)
ChargingUSB Type-C with Qualcomm Quick Charge 4.0
SoundBottom-facing speakers
SoftwareAndroid 7.1 Nougat with HTC Sense
ConnectivityBluetooth 4.2, WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
SensorsAmbient, proximity, accelerometer, gyro, compass, fingerprint
Measurements153.9 x 75.9 x 7.9mm
Weight169g
ColorsBrilliant Black, Amazing Silver, Sapphire Blue

Performance

HTC went top shelf for the hardware in the U11, and the Snapdragon 835 paired with 4GB of RAM flies through pretty much everything you throw at it. Like other phones with the Snapdragon 835, you won’t see the U11 break a sweat playing games, browsing the internet, or watching videos, and the RAM is plenty to keep most things loaded into memory without background apps aggressive closing.

The U11 comes with a Quad HD 5.5-inch Super LCD 5 display and it’s easily one of the best displays HTC has ever stuck in a phone. It also showcases how LCD screens are getting closer to AMOLED displays that everyone loves in Samsung phones, especially if you’re the type to prefer more natural colors over the saturated colors that Samsung loves. It’s not perfect, and Samsung’s displays are still much better, but it’s not as pronounced of a difference that we saw just a few years back.

The speakers on the U11 are definitely above average in the flagship class, but it’s a huge disappointment that HTC is still ignoring the front-facing, loud speakers that were prevalent on their phones a few years ago. It instead uses a single speaker on the bottom of the phone and the earpiece above the screen and a lot of software equalizing to craft good-but-not-great sound. It gets a little fuzzy turned all the way up when listening to music, but media enthusiasts should still be happy here.

Battery

HTC has never been known for stellar battery life, but the U11 actually shines next to its contemporaries. The 3,000mAh battery paired with the 10nm Snapdragon 835 holds up remarkably well, easily getting through a full day of usage. It doesn’t quite match the endurance of some mid-range devices with a Snapdragon 600 series processor, but in the  flagship competition, HTC can easily argue they deserve the crown of best battery life.

In case your phone is drained at midday, HTC’s fast charging with the Snapdragon 835 can juice the phone all the way up in about an hour and a half.

Software

HTC is one of the few manufacturers that have decided that they’re perfectly okay with Google’s vision for Android, and they don’t spend a ton of time and money on trying to change it. The U11 comes with a mostly untouched version of Android 7.1.1 with just a few key enhancements and tweaks, plus a few added apps from HTC directly and, in this case, Sprint.

Some of the tweaks are honestly pretty nice. There’s a built-in equalizer with music and theater modes, HTC has a robust theme engine, and there’s some integration with the Vive and Steam. Some of it, however, is junk.

HTC Sense Companion, for example, is supposed to act like a virtual assistant to help you with your schedule and intelligently do things for you throughout the day. In my experience, it would tell me that it could help me with traffic suggestions, ask me to turn the feature on, then tell me I already had the feature on when I agreed. It hasn’t done anything useful since, but at least you can just use Google Assistant instead.

The bloat apps are frustrating too, with an Under Armour fitness tracking app, the News Republic app that blows your phone up with notifications every hour by default, and two help apps that are supposed to teach you how to use your phone. Google options would’ve been nice and more consistent.

But you’re in the software section of a U11 review, so you probably want to know about Edge Sense. That’s the selling point of the device, after all.

Meh.

You can squeeze the U11 to trigger certain actions, like opening the camera, and once you’re in the app you can squeeze it again to do things like snap a picture. You can customize it a bit, so if you’d rather have it launch Google Assistant or turn on your flashlight, you can. There’s an advanced mode where you can set up different shortcuts (short squeeze starts App A, squeeze and hold starts App B, etc.) and HTC is working on building more features into different apps, but overall the feature just feels tacked on.

HTC allows you to adjust how much pressure you need to trigger the Edge Sense shortcut, but no matter how that’s set, it constantly feels awkward to me. Squeezing a phone is not something anyone normally does, and the feedback doesn’t feel great when you do it. You’ll get a simple vibration when it’s activated, which might be cool if the U11 had a fancy taptic engine like the iPhone 7, but currently it doesn’t feel any different from getting g a text message. There’s no satisfying “click” that makes the feature fun to use.

It literally feels like HTC made a solid phone with the U11 then decided they needed a marketing gimmick, so we got Edge Sense. It’s not a cohesive feature that’s integrated fully throughout the system, it’s just a tacked on bit that’s fun to show off in commercials.

With that being said, it doesn’t detract from anything, either. The software is clean and fast, and you can turn pretty much everything off if you want mostly stock Android.

Camera

When it was first announced, the HTC U11 supposedly had one of if not the best smartphone cameras on the market, and they kept that promise with aplomb. You’re going to have a hard time finding a situation where the U11 doesn’t take a good picture.

Outdoor shots are crisp and sharp, capturing a ton of detail with the U11’s 12-megapixel “UltraPixel” camera. Yes, they’re still riding the UltraPixel train, but this time around it legitimately is a fantastic camera.

Indoor shots are also very impressive. Even without natural lighting the camera manages to capture a detailed shot, and in low lighting it reflects the dimmer, cooler tone of the area without sacrificing details or creating too much noise. The HDR Boost in the software helps to clean up many of these low light shots.

The interface on the camera is clean and free from much clutter (the only default option is turning HDR on and off) but HTC includes a professional mode where you can really dig in to capture exactly the kind of shot you want. Throw in the long battery life and this is legitimately a great option for a mobile photographer.

HTC also touts 360-degree sound as a big feature of the U11’s video capture, which allows the phone to record from four different microphones to create the closest thing to mobile surround sound that you’ll get. Overall, the camera is legitimately one of the most impressive on the market, and should definitely appeal to anyone who wants to test the waters of serious photography with a smartphone.

Closing

The HTC U11 is a good phone. It’s really close to being a great phone, and it’s even a market leader in categories like battery life and camera quality. For an enthusiast, this is a perfect phone; relatively untouched software, killer hardware, and no gimmicks to get in the way. For everyone that’s not an enthusiast, though, it’s not really clear why you should buy the U11.

Samsung and Apple have an ecosystem of devices and services, plus huge marketing teams. Google offers direct, totally untouched Android with quick updates, and LG has a suite of apps and connected devices to bring people in. HTC has half-baked attempts at most of things.

The design is nice, but it won’t turn heads like the Galaxy S8. Edge Sense is boring and borderline useless. If you’re investing in a ecosystem, well, HTC doesn’t really have one. They don’t sell any tablets, Chromebooks, or wearables.

In a vacuum, the HTC U11 is arguably the best flagship Android device of 2017, even with its few drawbacks. But next to every other high-end device that’s currently available, it lacks the personality and charm that drive device sales, and HTC just hasn’t figured that out yet.

Buy it now: HTC, Amazon, Sprint


About the Author: Jared Peters

Born in southern Alabama, Jared spends his working time selling phones and his spare time writing about them. The Android enthusiasm started with the original Motorola Droid, but the tech enthusiasm currently covers just about everything. He likes PC gaming, Lenovo's Moto Z line, and a good productivity app.


  • Fidel.

    Garbage review. It’s the best Android phone out there.

  • Charles Sanders

    What a lame review. You know when they complain about the home button they are struggling.
    This author is like every other critic who has enticed people into buying Samsung phones only to be stuck with the once great battery life no longer so great and a system that has unforgivable lag.

    It all comes down to a few mm on the front of the phone. Because the screen isn’t over 90 percent of the front its just not a good phone.
    Well I had my Samsung experiment with the s6 and s7. No more.
    Let us know when you hire a few critics with imagination.

  • renceokgobja

    “Edge Sense is boring and borderline useless.” You are wrong.

  • etg

    This is a daft and lazy review. Just because you’re not used to using something new or in a particular way, doesn’t make that feature useless or “meh”. By that logic, you probably still yearn for the days of rotary dialing to make calls, eh? A review should be about how the feature works and not about whether or not the reviewer is used to it!

    The home button/ fingerprint scanner is placed at the most convenient and logical place for use. How difficult is it to simply place a finger and have the phone instantly unlock? I’ll bet the reviewer doesn’t have any complaints about the placement of the home button on an iPhone. You really need to get over the iPhone & Samsung fixation.

    Bloatware on Samsung far surpasses anything on this by miles. Since you’re comparing it to other phones, how about a comparison of the sound on this vis-a-vis the competition? That criticism is conveniently done in isolation! How very unbiased!

    • Jared Peters

      Half of the Software section *does* go into how Edge Sense works. I love new features; I don’t love features that don’t feel like they add enough value to the device as a whole.

      I agree about the placement of the home button. Great location, I love it where it is. I don’t love that it feels cheap and inconsistent. Location is fine, quality is not.

      Yes, Samsung’s bloatware is worse. I didn’t really knock HTC for the bloatware because there were relatively few apps and the rest of the software is great.

      And yes, HTC’s speakers are better than the competition. They’re still not as good as HTC’s older BoomSound speakers.

      I honestly really liked the phone, I’m not sure if you finished the review. :)

      • Dan Kenney

        All due respect, the overall tone of the review doesn’t convey much that you are impressed with it. “Plenty to hate” is right there in the headline. Plenty? Really? It relays that you would pass on it because it attracts fingerprints, has an unimpressive physical home button, and a gimmicky/lazy feature set. There hardly is a positive comment made without the downside “but” or comparison to the Galaxy 8. The undeniable benefits of the camera and battery life are covered, but overall, this piece isn’t written as a reason to look at an HTC. The Edge Sense Tech is so useless that LG stole it for the new Pixel XL.

        Jared, I think reviewers are too keen on looking for justifications to support their own biases. People see through it. This is a great phone. Yeah, I liked the Boom speakers better, too. Like the rest of cell phone development history tells us, Samsung will probably jump on the Edge Tech bandwagon in the next year and spend big money developing its interaction with various apps, and then everyone will hail its genius. It’s frustrating to read this kind of review because HTC makes great stuff, and fewer people buy it because of headlines like this. Soon everyone will probably get their way and put HTC down for the count. Where will they steal all their ideas from then?

        • Jared Peters

          Most of the comparisons made in the article highlight the U11 as being better than the competition, though.
          “…in the flagship competition, HTC can easily argue they deserve the crown of best battery life.”
          “…the HTC U11 supposedly had one of if not the best smartphone cameras on the market, and they kept that promise with aplomb.”
          “…the HTC U11 is arguably the best flagship Android device of 2017.”

          But okie dokie.

          If anything, I’m biased towards HTC. They make better phones than their competition, but they get unfairly beaten by advertising departments. With that being said, they’re moving backwards with physical home buttons instead of software keys (which is ironic since they were among the first to shift to on-screen keys), they’re neglecting features like wireless charging that everyone else is adopting, and Edge Sense still won’t be some UX revolution; it’s a shortcut key, not a shift in the way you interact with the device.

          Just because I like HTC doesn’t mean they get a pass on the things they do wrong. No phone is perfect.

          • Dan Kenney

            Fair enough. I read your stuff enough to know you aren’t a hater or anything. My point is best served by your last paragraph: “…the HTC U11 is arguably the best flagship Android device of 2017.” ….is the compliment swallowed by the rest… in a vacuum, lacking personality and charm compared to the other flagships, etc…

            How does one quantify those things?? That’s a sexy looking beast that performs best-in-class where it’s absolutely necessary and isn’t clogged with all the shit. It’s a good choice for those don’t have the option of getting their hands on a new one every release day, no?

            I’m looking forward to in-screen fingerprint readers and the extinction of physical buttons, too. Can’t come fast enough for me.

            Thanks for taking the criticism like a professional. Many do not.

  • Ricardio

    Edge Sense is definitely a feature some people will love. If you take a lot of pictures or use Google Assistant (or Alexa coming soon) you won’t find a better way to launch the camera or other app. Once you get used to squeezing the phone it will be muscle memory and you won’t want to go back. People who write off Edge Sense as a gimmick just haven’t tried it enough.

  • Ehi

    “….they’ve just been unable to deliver the full package while everyone else has been polishing their flagship devices” excuse me, what about the M8? Looks, camera, features in general were awesome so what are you talking about?

    Then you said “HTC has plenty of faults…”
    Everything just looks like a hate article with you desperately trying not to make it sound like it is.