HTC U Ultra review | Digital Trends

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HTC is a company that’s in an almost constant state of transition. It was one of the first to release a smartphone machined from a single block of aluminum, and a firm at the forefront of audio engineering with its BoomSound sound system. But times change.

The U Ultra, the premium option in HTC’s new “U” lineup, eschews metal for glass. It packs a secondary screen that’s meant to put timely reminders front and center, and a Siri-like AI-powered assistant that tries to predict what you need before you need it. It’s minimalist, curved, and gorgeous from every angle.

The U Ultra is HTC’s latest attempt to claw its way back among the world’s top smartphone makers. In that respect, the U Ultra isn’t a bad first attempt. Unfortunately, it’s not a particularly good one, either.

It’s soooo shiny

The HTC U Ultra is the shiniest smartphone I’ve ever held.

That’s no exaggeration. The glass back cover, which is specially machined from what the company calls a “liquid surface” and contorted into a 3D contoured shape, shimmers in the light. It’s reflective enough to use as a mirror.

So naturally, it’s a fingerprint magnet. Glass being glass, oily stains show up as obviously on the U Ultra’s body as Cabernet on a white dress, and it’s dreadfully hard to clean. In our experience, the best a vigorous shirt-polishing and pants-rubbing can do is smear the fingerprints together, which typically ends up making matters worse.

The HTC U Ultra crushes day-to-day tasks with ease.

HTC opted to stick the phone’s fingerprint sensor on the front rather than the rear, between two touch-sensitive navigation buttons. The power button is on the right-hand edge. Indeed, short of the U Ultra’s bulging, cubic camera housing, a laser auto focus module and LED flash, and a tiny cutout for a noise-canceling microphone, there isn’t much to see.

When the phone’s switched off, it’s tough to tell where the bezel ends or the screen begins. That all changes when you switch it on — or, more appropriately, figure out how to switch it on. HTC made the odd decision of placing the U Ultra’s power button beneath its volume rocker, making tapping the wrong switch frustratingly easy. The power button’s ridged surface helps matters somewhat, but it’s hard to fight intuition.

Two screens aren’t always better than one

That’s all forgiven when the U Ultra springs to life. The towering 5.7-inch Quad HD Super LCD 5 screen shielded by Gorilla Glass 5, boasts the same resolution as Lenovo’s Moto Z Force and ZTE’s Axon 7. Text looks crisp, pictures look bright, and YouTube videos pop like a picture book.

HTC U Ultra

Kyle Wiggers/Digital Trends

That said, the U Ultra’s screen falls short in other areas. Even at full brightness, it’s dimmer than the iPhone 6S’s screen. Colors seem accurate enough to the naked eye, straight on, but not from any angle — tilt the HTC U Ultra a little to the side, and blues and reds appear washed out. Unsurprisingly, the U Ultra’s LCD tech doesn’t come close to the vibrancy of the AMOLED panels on Google’s Pixel or the ZTE Axon 7.

The screen is also weirdly unresponsive to the point where in-app menus and buttons don’t respond to repeated touches. The U Ultra’s setup menu gave us an inordinate amount of trouble — the button to add an email account to the the email client flat-out didn’t work.

A secondary screen sounds like a good idea in theory, but it’s a different story in practice.

The U Ultra, much like LG’s V10 and V20, features a smaller, monochrome (160 x 1,040 pixels) panel above the primary screen. Rather than perform stand-in duty for the big color touchscreen beneath it, though, the secondary screen handles notifications, incoming messages, and app alerts that’d otherwise take up prime real estate. Swiping along the side reveals programmable app shortcuts, music playback controls, a six-day local weather forecast, and a “quick reminder” feature.

It sounds like a good idea in theory, but it’s a different story in practice. Notifications more than a few words long, like text messages and Slack alerts, get cut off. You have to click an arrow button to see them on the primary screen. On secondary screen’s default setting, it doesn’t shut off – even when you’re using the color touchscreen.

More: HTC wants U! Everything you need to know about the HTC U Ultra and U Play

More often than not, the secondary screen is more distracting than helpful — especially when an alert is scrolling ticker-style from the screen’s right-hand corner to the left.

Average audio, despite BoomSound tech

True to HTC’s roots, the U Ultra packs a stereo sound system that the company claims delivers better sound than the competition. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly true.

HTC’s BoomSound technology, a label that used to refer to stereo speakers with astoundingly good bass, makes an appearance in name only, here. The U Ultra’s twin speakers, one near the bottom and one in the earpiece, don’t achieve anywhere near the Axon 7’s richness or depth. The maximum volume is louder than what the Pixel or iPhone 6S can achieve, but given the distortion and tinny sound the speakers tend to exhibit, you won’t want to throw out your Bluetooth speaker anytime soon.

HTC U Ultra

Kyle Wiggers/Digital Trends

The U Ultra’s microphones impressed us, though. A quad-mic array captures omnidirectional audio for better recordings.

One thing you won’t find on the U Ultra is a 3.5mm audio jack. It’s not an unprecedented move — Apple’s iPhone 7 is infamously jack-free, as is Lenovo’s Moto Z — and the continuation of a trend HTC started with last year’s Bolt. It’s nonetheless an annoyance for folks who’ve long carried a par of analog, jack-of-all-trades headphones that don’t natively support USB Type-C audio.

The camera’s results tended to be underwhelming.

HTC explains it away with the included USonic earphones, a rebranded version of the in-ear headphones included with the HTC Bolt and 10 Evo.

Here’s how they work: The earbuds, which look like ordinary, run-of-the-mill models you find packed with any smartphone, tap dual microphones — one that sits on the inside of your ear canal and one that’s exposed to the open air — to generate a detailed profile of your ear’s anatomy. HTC’s software applies the resulting audio profile to music, movies, YouTube videos, and more.

The U Ultra’s app guides you through the process. First, you plug the proprietary headphones into the phone’s USB Type-C connector. Then, you start a scan within the phone’s BoomSound settings menu. The speakers within the headphones emit a brief, two-second tone, and the mics record the response. Once the testing process finishes, you’re presented with a bar graph that shows the difference between “enhanced” audio levels — i.e., those tuned by the Bolt’s custom software — and unadjusted levels.

With the U Ultra’s custom profile enabled, audio is perceptibly clearer and louder, but we’re not convinced that it justifies the U Ultra’s lack of a headphone jack.

Sure, you get better-than-average audio out of the USB-dependent USonic earbuds, but a pair of $600 Sennheiser 3.5mm headphones would crush them in any music test. And having to lug an adapter around — one that, it’s worth noting, precludes charging — is a massive pain in the rear no matter the benefits.

Solid performance and battery life

Powering all those notifications, animations, and sound is Qualcomm’s powerful Snapdragon 821 chip. The U Ultra crushes day-to-day tasks with ease, generally speaking. It launches Chrome tabs in milliseconds flat, and crunches overflowing Gmail inboxes. Lengthy Word documents didn’t slow it down, nor did high-resolution Instagram and Google Photos albums.

HTC U Ultra

Kyle Wiggers/Digital Trends

A generous 4GB of RAM keeps apps humming in the background, and there isn’t perceptible lag in scrolling through notifications and alerts. Oddly, performance tends to dip unexpectedly. The U Ultra sometimes hesitates for a moment after waking from sleep, and swiping between home screens isn’t consistently smooth.

A non-removable, 3,000mAh battery supplies the U Ultra’s power. It supports Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0 technology, which can charge the U Ultra up to 80 percent in 35 minutes.

In our experience, the U Ultra lasts about a day and a half. With brightness set to automatic and Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cellular data enabled, we managed to get through an eight-hour workday’s worth of emails, social media updates, Slack messages, and app updates with about 40 percent power to spare.

Hectic days were a different story. A weekend afternoon of web browsing, video viewing, and picture taking drained the U Ultra’s reserves about 10 percent in half an hour. A subsequent hour browsing Facebook ate away an additional 7 percent.

That’s all to say that the U Ultra will easily last a day for most people, but like any smartphone, pushing it to its limits will result in dips.

Average cameras don’t cut it

HTC made a big deal about the U Ultra’s cameras. The company eschewed the trend of dual-sensor shooters, instead sticking with its in-house UltraPixel tech. With the exception of phase-detection autofocus, the U Ultra’s camera is unchanged from the HTC 10’s shooter.

The U Ultra’s 12-megapixel model has a f/1.8 aperture, a laser autofocus module, and an optical image stabilization (OIS) system that mitigates the effects of shaky hands and bumpy car rides. A dual-tone LED module, meanwhile, handles illumination.

We noticed a persistent film-like haziness in sunny outdoor shots.

The results tended to be underwhelming. We noticed a persistent film-like haziness in sunny outdoor shots. A bright blue sky in New York City lacked contrast and color. Interior shots in natural light tended to register warmer on the spectrum than snaps from the Google Pixel and iPhone 7, a problem most most obvious on skin. In a couple of shots from around the Digital Trends office, faces looked an unhealthy shade of orange.

That said, the camera was quick to lock focus, honing in on even dimly lit subjects without much fuss. Its low light performance was rather good. In a dimly lit storage closet packed to the brim with cardboard boxes, the U Ultra managed to resolve fine shadow details and edges with relative ease.

Videos captured with the rear-facing camera came out crisp, thanks to OIS. Even at the maximum resolution of 4K and 30 FPS, clips were smooth, stable, and free of the jitter sometimes exhibited by poorly calibrated sensors.

HTC U Ultra

Kyle Wiggers/Digital Trends

The front-facing camera is more of the same. The whopping 16-megapixel UltraPixel produces much more detailed selfies than the front-facing camera on the Pixel and LG’s G6, and with greater depth of color. There’s a panorama mode for selfies, and a special low-light feature combines four pixels by reducing the resolution to 4MP. It’s a worthwhile tradeoff, in our testing — an impromptu series of nighttime selfies came out crisp and clear.

The U Ultra’s camera app, dubbed HTC Camera, offers additional filters and settings. “Zoe” mode lets you capture photos in three combinations: A sequence of burst shots and three-second video clip, or a longer video and a series of burst shots in the first three seconds. There’s a panorama mode and hyperlapse mode, and a Pro mode that lets you customize parameters to an even greater degree. You can manually set white balance, ISO, contrast, and exposure, and you can capture in RAW, a file format that gives you greater control over a pic’s color and contrast.

Simple software

Over the past few years, HTC has moved away from bloatware. The latest version of its Sense software, an overlay atop Android 7.0 Nougat, doesn’t feel intrusive. We weren’t pleased with the U Ultra’s repeated prompts to get us to sign up for an HTC account, but short of a few proprietary apps and settings, the U Ultra’s brand of Android comes pretty close to the vanilla experience.

The Sense Companion is the most obvious of HTC’s tweaks. It’s HTC’s artificially intelligent assistant, and it ships alongside the Google Assistant. Unlike the Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri, the Sense Companion isn’t a voice assistant. Instead, it taps a variety of signals including your location, activity level, and calendar in order to anticipate your needs.

The latest version of its Sense software, an overlay atop Android 7.0 Nougat, doesn’t feel intrusive.

If your battery’s at 50 percent and you have a long-distance flight ahead of you, for example, then Sense Companion will remind you to charge your smartphone. If it’s lunchtime, it’ll plop a link to a highly rated nearby restaurant on your lockscreen. If the U Ultra’s running low on storage, it’ll recommend deleting old files.

We haven’t had much time to let the Sense Companion learn our routines — HTC delayed the app until the second week in March. But in our limited time with the digital assistant, we found its recommendations genuinely useful, and never obtrusive. On a snowy winter morning, it reminded me to wear a coat. On a weekend afternoon in New York City’s midtown, it recommended a list of notable attractions.

The U Ultra’s other “smart” feature is gesture recognition, which lets you interact with the phone using swipes and motions. While the screen is off, you can flip the U Ultra to mute it, or pick it up to lower the volume. When it’s in a pocket or bag, it’ll increase ring volume automatically.

HTC U Ultra

Kyle Wiggers/Digital Trends

Motion Launch gestures let you perform simple actions by waving U Ultra in the air. You can wake up the lock screen, launch BlinkFeed, the camera, or the home widget panel.

The U Ultra’s other software is standard. BlinkFeed is still a swipe away, Boost+ optimizes the U Ultra’s performance, HTC’s Themes app lets you make the phone your own, and there are a few other pre-installed apps that you can delete.

Luckily, they don’t eat up too much of the U Ultra’s 64GB of storage, and about 53GB is available for use. There’s also a MicroSD slot supports cards up to 2TB in capacity.

HTC is pretty good about software updates. A company rep told Digital Trends that the U Ultra will receive regular security updates in the coming months, and HTC’s typically sticks to its word. The company has been exceptionally transparent about the upgrade process and it’s committed to delivering major updates within a 90-day period.

Availability and pricing

The unlocked variant of the U Ultra, which is compatible with AT&T and T-Mobile in the U.S. ships from HTC.com, Amazon, and eBay for $750. It’s available in black, pink, white, and blue. It comes in 64GB and 128GB configurations.

There’s no other way to put it: The price tag is steep. The U Ultra is $100 more than the cheapest iPhone 7, Pixel, and LG G6. It costs significantly more than the $400 ZTE Axon 7 and the $440 OnePlus 3T, which offer similar specs and better cameras.

Warranty information

HTC offers one of the best warranties in town. When you buy the U Ultra, you get 12 months of the company’s “Uh-Oh” protection at no extra charge. The service includes a screen replacement if you shatter either of the phone’s displays, and a guarantee on water damage.

It’s really easy to get repairs or replacements, too. With Uh-Oh protection, you can call customers support or chat with a representative online, and once you’ve discussed the problem, you can get a replacement within one business day.

If you opt for an advanced exchange, HTC will put a $600 hold on your credit card until it receives the damaged unit. Alternatively, you can send in your damaged phone with a prepaid label and get a replacement device two days after HTC gets your broken one.

Our Take

The U Ultra was HTC’s chance to burst out of the gate with something spectacular, and to the company’s credit, it mounted a valiant effort. The U Ultra’s secondary screen frees up space for other tasks, the BoomSound audio profiles improve audio quality, and the front camera’s surprisingly adept at taking selfies. However, the U Ultra’s steep $750 asking price make its missteps hard to forgive.

Is there a better alternative?

Yes. The iPhone 7, LG G6, and Google Pixel, all of which start at $650, offer better screens and cameras. The $400 ZTE Axon 7 throws in louder speakers, and the $440 OnePlus 3T offers a better camera.

There are cheaper options to consider, too. We liked the Hauwei Honor 8’s aesthetics and dual camera features.

How long will it last?

The U Ultra ships running Android 7.0 Nougat, a version behind the recently released Android 7.1, but HTC assures us that an update is in the works. Furthermore, the company said that the U Ultra will receive regular security and maintenance updates going forward.

The U Ultra should last you about two years before an upgrade is warranted. It’s not waterproof, though.

Should you buy it?

No. At $750, the U Ultra is a difficult sell. The secondary display is a nuisance, and the BoomSound speakers are underwhelming. The camera falls short of what the competition can achieve, as does the screen. While HTC’s AI-powered Sense Companion is nice to have, it’s not exactly a selling point. The phone is simply overpriced.

You can get better looking phones with better cameras and features for the same price or less. There’s nothing horribly wrong with the U Ultra, but it’s not worth recommending in light of the competition.

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