The HTC U11 is one good-looking mid-tiers smartphone

Highs

  • Slim and light
  • Elegant design, low risk of cracks
  • Excellent selfie camera

Lows

  • Unimpressive main camera performance
  • Smaller battery capacity

Rating and Price

  • Rating: 8/10

With a strong showing in the form of the HTC U11, HTC now wants to trickle down the same kind of technology and design into the ~$350 price range, where there is typically more sales Android phones volume. With a strong showing in the form of the HTC U11, HTC now wants to trickle down the same kind of technology and design into the ~$350 price range, where there is typically more sales Android phones volume. 
The U11 Life was released on 2017/11/02 and was initially aimed at the mid-range market. At publishing time, the HTC U11 Life was priced at USD 349. With “cost” as principal criteria, we got an array of cell phones which will serve as reference points to assess how the HTC U11 Life fits in the smartphone landscape: the Honor 9 (~365 USD), Motorola Moto Z Play (~350 USD) and the Motorola Moto X4 (~400 USD).

Note: we have the U.S version of this handset. The International version may have slightly different technical specifications, although we would expect HTC to preserve the same overall experience as much as possible.

Key Specifications

  • 5.2” IPS LCD Display (1920×1080)
  • 16 MP Camera, f/2.0 aperture, No OIS
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 630 platform, 3 RAM, 32GB of Storage
  • 2600 mAh battery capacity
  • Android 7.1.1 (until “late Nov 2017”), then Android 8.0

Industrial Design

The Industrial design of the HTC U11 life is very agreeable to the eye. This is a matter of personal preference of course, but I thought that HTC did a great job of translating the original look and feel of the HTC U11, which is has a glass texture in the back, into the HTC U11 life, which has a plastic back cover. From a a feet or two away, the visual difference is not massive, and it is when you hold the device that the plastic “feel” against your skin becomes obvious.

Comfort

This smartphone feels comfortable in hand because it has a width of 72.9 mm for a thickness of approximately (0.31 inches / 8.1 mm). For reference, this is based on a medium size hand (US M gloves), you can try extrapolating from here. The weight of 142 grams (5.01 oz) makes it a light smartphone in this category

Build Quality

Plastic is light and durable, but even with a premium paint or surface treatment it just does not “feel” as good as metal or glass. However, plastic is lighter than metal and will not break, or even crack.

Plastic may be easier to scratch, but the damage is not always obvious as it might be on a metallic surface such as aluminum. After considering how the smartphone was built, we estimate that the risk of cracking during a landing on a hard surface to be low. You can refer to our reference article about how phones could be built to avoid breakage upon drops. Naturally, the screen can still crack, but neither the edges or the back cover are at high risk of breakage after a drop.

Durability

The U11 Life smartphone has an IP-rating, which means that it is protected to some degree from dust and water. Here’s what the U11 life’s IP67 rating means: dust tight, no dust can penetrate. Up to 1-meter immersion for a limited duration will not harm the device. Tested for 30mn.

Since competitors often don’t have the IP67 rating, being able to survive a complete immersion in water is a significant design advantage over other phones in the same price range. We do know that many phones die from exposure to water, so this may save you from much trouble if that ever happens.

Ingenuity

This handset design packs decent performance in relation to its size, but nothing unusual for a mid-range phone. From another standpoint, how much battery capacity the customer gets is below-average for a device of this size, with the competition clocking at 3200 mAh (Honor 9) and 3510 mAh of capacity, versus the HTC U11 life’s 2600 mAh. The screen display-to-body ratio of 69.5% is also in-line with competitors, and most phones hover around a 69% to 70% ratio, which would be considered as “normal.” Keep in mind that an iPhone 8 has a 65.4% ratio, so being expensive is not always a factor here.

Display

The U11 Life display has an IPS LCD panel. IPS/PLS LCD technology made LCD displays reach the next level, first on mobile, then everywhere else. IPS/PLS can render more colors than basic LCD, with higher color saturation and wider view angles. The 1080p resolution of the U11 life is sufficient, although it is not the sharpest possible in a phone. It is common for this price, and competitors will typically not try to enter an arms race.

Learn more: LCD vs. OLED. Which is Best And Why?

Within the world of IPS LCD displays there are still some differences, but frequently IPS/PLS are beyond basic LCD displays. However, IPS/PLS LCD displays as a whole are not as technologically edgy as OLED panels which often have better contrast and saturation. While it is possible to build excellent LCD displays that perform at a comparable level to some OLED, these LCD displays should be seen as the exceptions, and they may not have any of the normal advantages associated with LCD (vs. OLED). You can read our complete LCD vs. OLED article to learn more.

Brightness

The display brightness is 320 NITs (307 NITs measured). In general, more intense light is preferred to read the screen content on a sunny day (or bright environment). Higher brightness is responsible for better image quality in widespread situations. I found the display quality to be quite good and looking at colorful pictures is agreeable. Movies will look nice, and nothing from the display quality is distracting. No complaints here.

Camera

The HTC U11 life camera takes good photos in daylight. I found them to be well-metered and the color balance is life-like. In low-light situations, things get more complicated, and while that is true for all phones, especially at mid-range prices. Still, I found that the HTC U11 life did not perform best within its category.

OpinonWhat’s a Great Mobile Camera Experience?

I did a test with an extreme low-light situation (10 Lux at the subject) to reveal the relative strengths and weaknesses of a few phones I had on hand. We have a few phones that are in the same price range, and the G5 Plus is even significantly cheaper at ~$230 (unlocked). Unfortunately, the HTC U11 life’s main camera did not perform so well.

As you can see in the low-light line up, the two Motorola phones do quite well. The Honor 5 is a bit better with noise reduction but could use more sharpness, and the HTC U11 life does not fare so well relatively to the rest. This is a bit of an extreme case, but so are plenty of parties, diners, and bars you might go to. Also, I cropped the image to show you a close up, but in the real world, and over social media, the difference is not as dramatic.

On the lower right, there’s a picture of the LG V30, just to show you what a high-end phone can do in such situations. Obviously, there is a very big difference, and that is essentially what several hundred dollars more will buy you…

Excellent Selfies

In a weird twist, the selfie camera of the HTC U11 life blows away the competition in low-light (and in bright light too). The HTC U11 front camera is good at capturing the details and colors. In fact, it is even better than the LG V30’s selfie camera (which I grant, isn’t very good).

"HTC U11 LIFE SELFIES BLOW AWAY THE COMPETITION"

Of course, on top of this high image quality, you can add “beautifying” effects and any other things that people do with Selfies. HTC has done very well with the front camera.Technical details

Camera technical analysis

Mobile cameras have become amazingly good over time. However, it is true that there is a huge difference between them based on cost, but also depending on technology and expertise of the handset maker.It is critical to realize that mobile imaging has two foundations of considerable importance: Software and Hardware. The software is usually very secretive, and it is extremely hard to have reliable insight to determine its quality via an unbiased process. Also, photography is not just science, it is also art.

The camera equipment is the other factor which is more measurable. Camera hardware is potentially a substantial limiting factor to mobile camera performance. Even if you use the best algorithms on it, the quality of the input signal data still plays a major role in the final photo outcome.

In the U11 Life, the camera aperture of f/2.0 is common in this category, and the sensor size of ~16.5 mm2 would be considered to be a normal size (for a smartphone) at this price level. For comparison, some high-end handsets can have double the sensing surface, but these phones cost several hundred dollars more.

The 16 Megapixel count should not be used as a general proxy of photo quality. In dim lighting situations, the high Megapixel count (>12) does not matter much. Keep in mind that the physical size of each sensor pixel is important. With higher megapixel counts, sensing pixels (sensels) may have to be smaller. Each sensel obtains less light information and in dark conditions, it is better for the overall image quality to gather more light with fewer (but bigger) sensels than the opposite. It is a balance that needs to be achieved.

Today, 12 Megapixel seem to be the best sensor trade-off between sharpness, low-light and auto-focus performance.On a sunny day or in very bright light situations, Megapixel could be a good proxy for photographic detail and sharpness.

For example, on a sunny day, a landscape photo with a higher megapixel count could lead to finer details. Between 12 MP, 16 MP and 21 MP differences in small details can be quite noticeable, if printed or viewed on a large and/or high-PPI display.

The U11 Life’s camera does NOT have Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) on the primary camera module. The lack of OIS support will decrease the chances to take great photos, especially in low-light situations. That said, the competition does not have OIS either.

Learn more: What is Image Stabilization?

OIS helps to achieve better image clarity and higher low-light performance by offsetting tiny hand-shaking motion. OIS makes it possible to leave the shutter open longer to gather more light (longer exposure). Optical and digital stabilization are entirely different, with digital stabilization suitable to help video recording smoothness

The autofocus of the U11 Life camera is based on Phase Detection technology. Phase-detection AF that was originally built into specific AF sensor chips in the DSLR days. Then it got integrated into the camera primary sensor.

It works by adding specialized AF pixels sensors that would tell if specific points in the image were in-focus. This method is very advanced, and the AF capabilities work well in most cases. AF performance is more or less proportional to the number of hardware AF sensels. Typically this number can go from dozens to hundreds of Phase-Detection AF points.

Phase detection AF is an excellent system, which is only inferior to Dual-Pixel AF. Some competitors rely on the inferior contrast-based AF, maybe assisted with a laser range finder.

There is no dual-camera setup to assist with Portrait Mode (out of focus areas blurred, aka “Bokeh”). The absence of this feature is not yet a significant issue for mid-range phones because even the high-end cameras aren’t executing this flawlessly. However, if you really like Portrait Mode, some competitors such as the Honor 9 do offer the feature.

Learn more: Dual Cameras vs. Single Camera

Software

As Android grew to be a mature platform, HTC has scaled down its custom user interface and has gotten closer to a pure Google Experience over time. The U.S version doesn’t ship with Android 8.0 Oreo, although an upcoming firmware update should fix that this month.

There are a couple of things that you should not miss in the HTC U11 life. First, it has the Squeeze functionality introduced with the HTC U11. It works by having pressure sensors on either side of the phone. As you squeeze it with your hand, it activates a function like the digital Assistant or something else (flashlight, camera). It’s like having another button.

Secondly, the HTC U11 life ships with Alexa and Google Assistant, so you can pick whichever you prefer. The only caveat, for now, is that only Google Assistant can be voice-activated with the “OK Google” command. This is because the always-on voice listener has a limited amount of memory and computing power to detect the activation word, so only one is available. A choice had to be made…

Battery Life

The battery capacity of U11 Life is 2600 mAh, which is decent in general, and below-average in its own category.Battery life is one of the most essential features of a smartphone. A key metric is, of course, the battery capacity — especially within the same ecosystem (Android, iOS or other). As it stands, you can find better battery capacity in other phones similarly priced.

Battery life can be affected by a bunch of factors, but the main ones are the central processor, display and wireless radios (broadband, WiFi, the cell towers location and more). It is impossible to precisely estimate through synthetic tests how much energy drain YOUR unique usage pattern will induce. However, two things are undeniably always good:

  • A higher battery capacity
  • Rapid charging

It is generally impossible to predict real-life battery life by running synthetic tests. Things such as display brightness, (LTE/WiFi) radio usage and distance to access points will change too much. Also, how many apps on-board and their activity is unpredictable.

Battery capacity is the most crucial battery-life indicator for YOUR usage.This product does NOT have a swappable battery, which is the norm for a smartphone nowadays. Closed batteries cannot be taken out or easily repaired, but they do allow for smaller designs and slightly larger battery capacity inside the same product size.

This handset has a relatively common screen resolution. Although this may be less competitive from an image quality perspective, having fewer pixels to compute is a good thing for battery life.

Performance

Before you look at the charts, it is important to realize that most benchmarks are only loose indicators, usually for system or graphics performance. It is possible to see sharp performance gaps between different classes of devices (entry-level, mid-range vs. high-end), but it is much harder to do so within handsets of the same class. Benchmarks alone should NOT lead to a smartphone purchase decision.

OpinionAre benchmarks important? What do they mean?
Learn more: Are more CPU cores always better?
Optimize: How to Speed Up Android Phones

Gaming performance benchmarks (GFXBench) apply only to complex applications using 3D graphics. Casual apps like puzzles and 2D games do not require this kind of power and can run pretty much on any modern smartphone. Synthetic CPU performance (Geekbench) shows a rosy picture of peak general computing performance, but in the real world, it is very difficult to reach and sustain peak levels.

The HTC U11 life performance is very much in-line with what we would expect from a mid-range phone. In terms of computing power, it is more than enough for Social media, light multimedia, and general productivity activities. However, it is not a phone that is capable of playing modern 3D games at high frame-rates. 2D games and puzzles should be fine. That said, for a similar price, the Honor 9 brings much more computing power.

Conclusion

The HTC U11 life is a good-looking Android phone that is very light, compact and has the squeeze action, just like the new Google Pixel 2 high-end phone. These are all excellent reasons to consider or buy one — and don’t forget the excellent selfie photo quality.

However, it is not perfect. If you are looking for more battery or a better rear camera for the price, there are probably good options at this level. Battery capacity is a ferocious factor in lower budget phones because it is the #1 feature for many people.

Also, if you want a more advanced camera experience, handsets such as the Honor 9 would provide a better experience and photo quality, for a comparable price. The design is very different, and it is not clear when that phone would get the Android One update. HTC has promised to deliver it to the HTC U11 life “this month” (November 2017) .

Overall product rating: 8/10

Filed in Cellphones >Reviews. Read more about Editorspick, HTC, smartphone reviews.

HTC U11 Life
Display
5.2"
1920x1080 IPS LCD
Price (approximative)
~$349 - Amazon
Camera
16 MP
F2.0 Aperture Size
Weight
142 g
Battery
2600 mAh
Launched in
2017/11/02
System
3GB RAM
Snapdragon 630 + MicroSD
Storage (GB)
32
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