Now that the HTC U11 has been formally introduced, we can confirm that HTC continues to compete at the very high-end spectrum of the Android smartphone market. After launching the HTC Ultra and HTC U Play, the company was bombarded with questions about what handset would take over the HTC M10. The HTC U11 carries that legacy, and the name leaves no doubt about the filiation of this new leading HTC handset.
The HTC U11 brings the design changes introduced with the HTC Ultra and HTC U Play) into the HTC Mx line of product. The HTC M line of products ends here, but the 11 numbering clearly shows that the HTC U11 takes over the HTC (M)10 in the product line up. As such, this is HTC’s top smartphone from a technology standpoint.
The U11 has a modern glass/metal design, and I love the HTC’s take on how the back cover looks. The photos cannot do it 100% justice, but the back cover works a bit like a mirror, where the light goes through the glass layer before hitting a metal layer that adds color before reflecting the light outwards. It is a variant of what’s already out there, but it looks different enough to be noticed. HTC calls its glass/metal design “Liquid Surface”.
I like the fact that the aspect ratio of this phone chassis is more conventional/natural than the slightly elongated HTC Ultra. Of course, the Ultra serves a different “large-display” category, so the goals and potential buyers are not the same.
The HTC U11 has a metal rim that goes all around the phone and is the backbone of the phone’s structural integrity. The phone is very rigid and won’t twist and bend when you apply a little force with your hand. Similarly to the LG G6, this design choice should make it a little more resilient than the Galaxy S8 to cracks when dropped on hard surfaces, because statistically, contact points are likely to be on one of the corners, or on the edges.
That said, there is still a significant amount of glass, so it is completely possible to get cracks, like with any other glass-design. I do not expect it to be as resilient to shocks as the LG G6 which has had some of its design done with shocks in mind. HTC M10 users may miss the all-metal design, which was very resistant to shocks, but it seems that the market has spoken and that glass is what people want.
The HTC U10 is IP67 rated, which means that it is dust tight (no dust can penetrate). It can also withstand up to a 1-meter immersion for a limited duration, typically 30mn. This is an important improvement over the HTC 10 which was not water-resistant. Knowing that 50% of phones that die accidentally do so in water, this could save your bacon next time to drop the phone in water.
The HTC U11 is the first phone that features a pressure sensor on either left/right sides of the chassis. The user can trigger programmable actions by two squeeze action: short squeeze, and long squeeze. The sensitivity and length between short and long can be tuned to your liking. It is not sensitive enough to trigger during normal use, so you need to squeeze with an intent. By default, you can launch the voice assistant (Google/Amazon), the Camera or the Flashlight with it.
No 3.5mm audio jack
HTC is the first major Android OEM to remove the 3.5mm audio connector, opting instead to use the USB-C analog and digital audio capabilities. I would not be surprised if there were some complaints about this, but we will see. There’s an adapter in the box.
There are advantages in using USB-C, one of which is the ability to draw some power from the phone to power things like active noise-cancelling. More on that in the audio section of this article.
The HTC U11 display is 5.5” (2560×1440 at 534 PPI), which is a little bit larger than the HTC 10 5.2” display. The difference is relatively noticeable when just looking at the phone from a few feet (same resolution).
This LCD panel is protected by Gorilla Glass 5. Gorilla Glass 5 isn’t “better” than version 4. Instead, each class of Gorilla Glass has a different tradeoff between hardness and flexibility. Higher hardness is for scratch resistance, while flexibility pushes back the point at which the glass cracks under stress/compression. They are conflicting goals, and Corning (the G. Glass maker) has many options for phone makers.
The screen quality is very decent, but we will see how it fares on a side by side comparison against the best LCD and AMOLED displays on the market. Also, keep in mind that every OEM has different tuning for gamma and color saturation, so even identical screens can end up showing different images.
- Learn more: LCD vs. OLED. Which is Best And Why?
- Learn more: What is PPI?
- Learn more: High PPI displays: do you really need them?
The camera hardware is an area where the HTC U11 seems to have improved significantly. It is now equipped with a 12 Megapixel sensor with Dual-Pixel Diode technology and has an f1.7 aperture lens. The pixel size is 1.4µm, which is a little smaller than the previous HTC 10 (1.55 µm?), but the larger aperture should compensate for that. I have not done the math to see if more of less total light reaching the sensing surface, but overall, that seems like a good trade-off.
The Dual-Diode Pixel sensor enables super-fast autofocus (AF), and this is one of the key metrics for a great mobile camera experience in our opinion. Although HTC is marketing the image sensor as an HTC Ultrapixel sensor, the specs would suggest that it is a Sony IMX260, IMX333 or IMX362 which is similar to the ones used in the Galaxy S7 and S8. That is just my guess as there are very few image sensors with Dual-Pixel Diode on the market. The HTC U11 has already received the highest score from DXO (90), a technical benchmark for cameras.
We will wait for the retail units to examine how the camera performs in the real world. Since there’s a huge software component in mobile photography, the Camera implementation is key to the user experience. It is extremely important to understand that in mobile photography, software can be more important than hardware.
The HTC U11 ships with the latest version of Android 7.1 with HTC Sense, which is HTC’s layer on top of Android. In recent years, HTC has listened to consumers and has focused on the essential pieces that improved the experience instead of trying to be different for the sake of it. As a result, HTC Sense looks fairly similar to a Google Experience for most of the basic things.
This phone includes the Google Assistant, but also Amazon’s Alexa. To make this happen, HTC worked with Qualcomm to make the listener recognize two wake up keywords. Since Alexa is currently the most popular option, many users will welcome this move. At the same time, Google is catching up fast, and has a loyal following as well.
HTC has promoted high-quality audio for years, and it pushes the boundaries a little further by shipping the HTC U11 with USB-C active noise-cancelling earbuds called USonic. We did not have the opportunity to test them in flight yet, but the idea is sound, and we expect it to work quite well. It is based on the fact that earbuds/headphones can draw power from the USB-C port, and that is a basic requirement for active noise canceling.
Obviously, the noise-cancelling itself in such as small space is no easy task, but we know that it is possible since others have done it before. It is very nice that a phone company would ship this kind of tech out of the box, especially since the quality of in-box earbuds is not typically high.
The loudspeaker quality has even improved over the HTC 10 (which was quite good), and I am happy to report that the experience is nice, with a sound coming out loud with a great “body” (for a phone). It is always a challenge to produce high-quality audio with tiny speakers and very little space to “move air” around, but one of the things that gave speaker designers a little more space is the removal of the 3.5mm port.
HTC has integrated four microphones in this handset. This is to ensure that the phone always gets at least one microphone in an optimum position to record audio, regardless of how you are holding it, or whether it is on a table face down or back down. As you have guessed, this makes voice assistants that much more likely to work well.
The 3000 mAh battery capacity is very good for a phone this size. For example, it is similar to the Galaxy S8, but the LG G6 has a 3300 mAh battery, and the Huawei P10 has a 3200 mAh one.
In addition to the capacity, it is interesting to note that the Snapdragon 835 hardware is the most power-efficient option in the Snapdragon Platform at this level of performance. Because there are so many different subsystems that use power in different ways, it is difficult to predict what the real-world battery life is. However, having one of the main components such as the SoC be much more power-efficient can only help the system as a whole.
There isn’t an integrated wireless charging, but we will measure the fast-charging speed to see if the HTC U11 tops the ~50 mAh/mn that most of the best phones get. We expect it to join that club since it uses Quick Charge 3.
Since the HTC U11 is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, we already know that it is a powerful phone and a rightful contender at the high-end. You can look at our in-depth overview of the Snapdragon 835, our early 835 benchmarks, and of course read our complete review of the first 835 phone: the Galaxy S8.
We will run benchmarks with the retail version of the HTC U11 hardware+software soon, but based on our experience with the Galaxy S8, and the access we had to the Snapdragon 835 MDP developer hardware, we can shape expectations. We know that the differences between a shipping S8/S8+ and the development hardware are small.
Therefore, we expect the HTC U11 to be very much comparable to the Galaxy S8 regarding synthetic benchmark performance. These tests are usually designed to stress the hardware rather than the software, including any possible customization of the user interface layer. The HTC U11 should be one of the best-performing Android devices when it ships.
- Learn more: what is a SoC or System On a Chip?
- Opinion: Are benchmarks important? What do they mean?
- Learn more: Are more CPU cores always better?
- Optimize: How to Speed Up Android Phones
Modem performance: LTE CAT16
The modem performance may be less perceptible to the user but is worth mentioning. The HTC U10 has an LTE CAT16 modem (or Category 16), which is an improvement from the CAT9 model of the HTC 10. LTE CAT 16 has theoretical speeds of ~1000 Mbps (or 1 Gigabit) in download and 100 Mbps in upload speed. That is about a 2X boost in both download and upload potential when compared to CAT9 modems.
Modem performance is not only about download/ upload speed. In the real world, most data packets that are relatively small. Higher speed mean is that the data can be transferred faster, thus allowing the modem to go back to sleep sooner, and use less power that would otherwise be used in radio transmission. The Modem is one of the biggest consumers of battery power, so this is a big deal.
For the overall 4G LTE network, faster modems are great because they free up radio spectrum resources faster. This means that a single cell tower can handle more people, more data, more reliably.
The HTC U11 has a great potential that we are looking forward to unlocking and testing for a longer period in the field. From our short exposure to it, and from the technical data we have gathered, the timing of its launch places HTC firmly in the high-end race of Android phones – before a flurry of other Snapdragon 835 phones arrive on the market.
The general design is attractive, and the camera has the potential to compete at the highest level. As it stands, its raw technical abilities have already been rewarded by mobile camera experts, we’ll see if the total mobile camera experience is top-notch. Stay tuned for the update of this article as we dive even deeper in the HTC U11.