I need to get this out there before the new iPhones and, especially, the new Google Pixels shake my confidence: the HTC U11 is my phone of the year. The red U11, in particular. I‘ve been using that device for over a month now, and having relied on it to get through the rigors of the IFA tech exhibition in Berlin, I can confirm my initial feelings about it. The U11 is the phone with the most good things about it.
Here’s what the U11 gave me during my time in Germany, in ascending order of importance: casually glorious looks that attracted compliments from strangers, rock-solid battery life that got me through long days of intense work, and unsurpassed camera image quality. For an example of the latter, check out this shot of a Sony executive on stage, captured on the first try and cropped way down from the original landscape photo:
And below you can find the original, which isn’t perfect on white balance due to the background screen, but retains every little detail, right down to the metal buckles on the gent’s shoes and the embossed detailing on the Oreo cookie.
Maybe I prioritize phone photography more than most, but given that pictures are the one lasting and truly unique thing you have left after you’re done using a phone, I consider them a hugely important differentiator. The HTC U11 surpasses even the Google Pixel in this regard, not least because of its insanely good image stabilization that ensures I get a steady shot almost every time.
As a reviewer of smartphones, my SIM card never stays in one device very long. The last week has been especially tumultuous as I’ve switched between the U11, LG’s (pre-production) V30, the Google Pixel, and Samsung’s Galaxy Note 8. Typically, I tend to move forward through devices: The U11 took over from the Pixel, which took over from the iPhone 7, which supplanted the OnePlus 3, which was the device I moved to after the Note 7 fiasco. Only the Google Pixel and HTC U11 have tempted me to look back in time, and the latter phone is the one I look forward to using for the foreseeable future.
Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and Note 8 look terrific and probably have the best screens in the business, but they’re pricey, have the fingerprint sensor in a whacky place, and are a step behind the U11 on imaging. LG’s V30 puts out mind-blowing sound through its headphone jack, but unless it makes massive improvements in its final retail form, it too lags behind the U11. And the iPhone? It’s not even in my top three cameraphones.
The U11’s practical advantages are obvious: it offers clean, lightning-fast Android with no silly extras that can’t be disabled; it’s waterproof; it lasts a full day no matter what you throw at it; and it has typically well thought-out HTC ergonomics. Sure, I’d prefer that it had a headphone jack and shed those 2016 screen bezels, but there’s never been a phone without compromises and the U11 isn’t breaking that tradition.
But what really makes me feel attached to this phone is its distinct look and unique pedigree. The iridescent aesthetic that HTC perfected with the Solar Red U11 is an instant classic (in my eyes and those of my colleagues). You can get lost exploring the fluctuations between yellow, orange, and red as you turn the phone to reflect light differently — and even when you’re not paying attention to it, other people are, commenting on its striking and distinctive appearance.
You’ve probably heard about how the Note 8 was a redeeming device for Samsung after the Note 7’s battery issues of last year, but I see the U11 as an even bigger redemption story for HTC. This was the company that once defined the cutting edge of Android phones, then fell from grace due to some questionable design choices, and this year suddenly rediscovered its best. Alas, HTC’s sales continue to plummet, showing the inertia of a market that no longer trusts the Taiwanese brand, but that just makes me root for the U11 even more. This is my favorite phone of the year, because it looks unique, because it works like a dream, and because it comes from a company that has no room for complacency.
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