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HTC U12 Plus Hands-on Review

HTC may have sold around 2,000 engineers from its research and development team to Google last year, but that’s not slowing the Taiwanese company down from releasing smartphones. Right on schedule, the HTC U12 Plus is here, releasing almost exactly a year after its predecessor, the HTC U11.

The U12 Plus is the only U12 you’ll find – there’s no “regular” model. The new phone has a bigger screen, but also a higher $800 price tag. It’s clear HTC wants to directly compete with the big boys like the Galaxy S9 Plus, the Google Pixel 2 XL, and the iPhone X. Can it hold its own against top-tier competitors?

No mechanical buttons

Take a breath of relief — there’s no notch on the HTC U12 Plus. The notch is a growing trend in Android phones, ever since Apple popularized it on the iPhone X (though yes, the Essential did it first). We’ve grown used to it, having seen it on multiple phones like the Huawei P20 Pro, the OnePlus 6, and the LG G7 ThinQ, but we’re happy to see a phone not jumping on the trend. While the bezels surrounding the display are much smaller than the ones on the HTC U11, they’re not as thin as other modern flagships. Still, the U12 Plus looks attractive. Uniquely, it has two front-facing cameras, but more on that later.

On the bottom of the phone is a USB Type-C charging port, next to a bottom-firing speaker. The speaker works with the top earpiece to provide stereo sound (what HTC calls BoomSound). We haven’t had a chance to try the speakers out yet.

In a twist, the phone’s buttons – even volume — aren’t mechanical at all, meaning they don’t move when you press them. Instead, they’re touch-sensitive like the home button on the iPhone 8 and iPhone 7. There zero mechanical buttons on the U12 Plus, and we’re not so sure if that’s a good thing.

Why did HTC eliminate physical buttons? A company spokesperson told us it improves water-proofing, but HTC also wants a phone with a clean look. We’ll have to do more testing on the U12 Plus to see if touch-sensitive buttons interrupt day-to-day use, and if they’re a good idea.

Translucent Blue caught our attention because — like the name suggests — you can slightly see internal components.

Flip the phone around, and you’ll think you bought an LG V30. Both have a dual-camera setup that are horizontally-aligned, a stark contrast to the vertical alignment on many other new phones. There’s a nice, large fingerprint sensor below the separate flash module, and it’s easy to access. There’s a little too much going on in the top half of the phone, and we’d like to see HTC integrate some of the additional sensors and the flash into the main camera module for a cleaner look. There’s also the HTC logo in the middle, and a microphone hole at the bottom.

HTC is still utilizing its Liquid Surface design, which it unveiled last year. That means variations of colors have been added to layers of the glass, allowing it to reflect and display subtle changes in color when held up to light. It still looks fantastic, and we love the new color options — Translucent Blue, Flame Red, and Ceramic Black.

Flame Red won’t be available until later this summer, but Translucent Blue caught our attention because — like the name suggests — you can slightly see internal components on the rear of the U12 Plus. HTC already experimented this design with the HTC U11 Plus last year, but that phone didn’t make its way to the U.S. We love the translucency, but we wouldn’t mind if HTC removed the vertical lines under the HTC logo. Flame Red would be our immediate second choice, because it’s so flashy that it stands out from the competition.

Oddly, HTC is using Gorilla Glass 3 — not Gorilla Glass 5 like all the other flagships — on the rear and front of the phone. HTC told Digital Trends that’s because Gorilla Glass 3 is “the optimal balance of scratch resistance, shatter-proofing, and bendability for the 3D glass edges on the U12 Plus.” No matter what type of glass it uses, you’ll still need a case to protect this phone, and the company provides one in the box. Thankfully, the phone is IP68 water-resistant, which means it can survive a dip in the pool.

Also, glass on the back doesn’t mean there’s support for wireless charging. HTC said it doesn’t think the technology is much more useful than wired charging.

Improved Edge Sense

The edges of the phone are rounded, making it comfortable to hold, but the 6-inch screen can be a little unwieldy. It can be tough to reach the top corners. Luckily, HTC has a handy solution, and it involves its Edge Sense technology that debuted on the U11 last year. In addition to a short squeeze and a long squeeze of the phone, you can now double tap either side of the U12 Plus to trigger one-handed mode, which makes the content on the screen smaller and easier to reach.

Flip the phone around, and you’ll think you bought an LG V30.

The squeeze actions are done on the lower half of the phone, and it works thanks to sensors on the edge of the phone that can detect pressure. You can customize the apps you want to open or the actions you want to trigger with all three gestures, or you can turn it completely off. For example, you can set a double tap to open the camera, a short squeeze to launch the camera, and a long squeeze to open your favorite messaging app. Google used this same technology in the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, though only for launching Google Assistant.

HTC also uses the Edge Sense sensors to recognize how you’re holding it. If you are holding the phone in portrait mode and lie down, the screen won’t rotate to portrait. If you hold it in landscape orientation, it will automatically rotate. This feature may be moot, though, considering the next version of Android has a nifty way of managing those sudden screen rotations.

htc u12 plus review display
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

We like Edge Sense, and the level of customizability to make those actions personalized, but we’ll need more testing to see if all these touch-based gestures — including the touch-sensitive buttons — genuinely improve usability.

Super LCD Display

The HTC U11 had a 5.5-inch screen, but the U12 Plus cranks that up to 6 inches. That doesn’t mean the new phone is much bigger, though, as the smaller bezels make the U12 just a tad taller than its predecessor.

The taller screen equates to an 18:9 ratio, a trend with new phones, as well as a 2,880 x 1,440 pixel resolution. That’s a pixel density of 537 pixels-per-inch, and HTC has opted for a Super LCD screen. The screen gets bright, but in our brief time with the phone, we noticed it was still a little tough to see the screen outdoors. The screen is colorful and sharp, though the blacks aren’t as inky as you’d find on an OLED screen.

Performance, software, and battery

The HTC U12 Plus is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 processor and comes with 6GB of RAM. You can choose between 64GB of internal storage or 128GB, but there’s also a MicroSD card slot to expand it more. We didn’t see any performance issues. Apps opened quickly, and transitions were fluid, though we’ll have to do more intensive testing. Based on the same processor in other phones, we don’t think anyone will have problems with the phone’s performance.

The software is close to stock Android, but there are some of HTC’s flourishes.

The U12 Plus runs Android 8.0 Oreo, and HTC confirmed it will get Android P when it’s released later this year. The software is close to stock Android, but there are some of HTC’s flourishes like Blinkfeed (a collection of personalized news and interests on the left of the main home screen). In the unit we tested, it looked like there’s quite a bit of bloatware pre-installed. We’ll double check with our final review unit when we receive it.

There’s a 3,500mAh battery in the U12 Plus, and it supports Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0 technology. It also supports Quick Charge 4.0, but you’ll need to find a compatible adapter to utilize the faster charging speed.

Four cameras

There are four cameras on the HTC U12 Plus — two on the rear, and two on the front. On the front, top left corner are two 8-megapixel cameras with f/2.0 apertures each, and a fixed focus. You can’t swap between the two cameras, but the extra lens helps take Portrait Mode selfies — which blurs the background to bring out the focus on a subject. It’s quick to react, and the portrait mode photos it takes are solid. We did notice some issues with blurred edges, particularly with hair, but that’s par for the course with most other phones.

HTC has added AR stickers in the camera app in case you want to don a pair of rabbit ears, and you can also use the front-facing cameras for Face Unlock, which does what it says on the in. It’s meant for convenience, not security, so you can’t use it to access secure apps, as is true on the iPhone X.

HTC is no stranger to dual cameras on the rear — having been among the first to debut the technology in 2014 — but the company went back to a single lens set up for a period of time, kicking up its feet as the rest of the smartphone market fully adopted a dual-lens system. Well, the dual-lens system is finally back, though it’s not too different from the competition. There’s a 12-megapixel standard lens with a f/1.75 aperture, as well as a 16-megapixel telephoto lens with a f/2.6 aperture. The latter lens offers 2 times optical zoom, which means you can zoom in a little more without sacrificing image quality. Both lens have optical image stabilization.

DxOMark gave the U12 Plus a 103 score, which puts it second to the Huawei P20 Pro.

The camera shutter is fast, and the few photos we took look well-detailed, with accurate colors. We’ll do more testing to see how it stacks up in this increasingly competitive field. There’s now a Portrait Mode on the rear as well. You can see the blur effect live in the viewfinder, and you can change the intensity or remove the blur after you capture the image. The camera app also has a Pro mode that lets you access RAW photo files.

HTC has improved on a feature previously called Acoustic Focus. It’s now called Sonic Zoom, and it lets you zoom into a subject during a video. The camera will try to boost the sound of the subject you’re zooming in on, while suppressing other sound. We haven’t given it a try yet, but HTC did say it has genuinely improved, and it’s not just a name change. Speaking of video, you can now shoot 4K video at 60 frames per second, or slow-motion video at 240 frames per second and 1080p.

The camera on the HTC U11 was a surprise hit, competing head to head with the likes of the Google Pixel 2 and the iPhone X, and we’re expecting it to deliver strong results again on the U12 Plus. DxOMark gave the U12 Plus a 103 score, which puts it second to the Huawei P20 Pro.

Price and availability

You can pre-order the Translucent Blue version of the HTC U12 Plus now in either 64GB, which costs $800, or 128GB, which will set you back $850. The Ceramic Black version is also available, but only in 64GB. The Flame Red color will be available later this year. The U12 Plus is also available for $34 per month for 24 months at 0 percent APR. HTC is selling the phone unlocked on its website and on Amazon, and the phone is certified to work on AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile.

The HTC U12 Plus is on track to be a good phone that improves upon its predecessor in almost every way. But while it is unique in a few ways, the U12 Plus doesn’t have a heart-throbbing feature that makes us excited to use it – like triple cameras, for example. At its price range, we’re really hoping the camera delivers, because that’s what separates good phones from the rest.

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