HTC U11 Life hands-on: Don’t dismiss this phone too quickly

HTC might have flown under the radar compared to its competitors this year, but we at Android Authority have given their latest flagship, the U11, some high marks for its performance and camera capabilities. When we caught wind of a new device from HTC, the hope for an enhanced version of the U11 was indeed fulfilled in the U11 Plus.

HTC was not content with the Plus version however, and the Taiwanese manufacturer also launched the third – and most accessible – member of the U11 family, the HTC U11 Life.

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This affordable new edition might not seem as exciting at first, but it’s definitely worth some attention. Let’s take a closer look at the HTC U11 Life in this hands-on impressions post.

Quick disclosure, I have had the U11 Life for a little bit now, and I was initially prepared to bring you a more casual take on a device that tries to emulate the experience of the flagship original. However, it slowly became obvious that I should give the phone a deeper dive – and that’s because the U11 Life seems to be a success.

Two versions of the HTC U11 Life are going to be available in different parts of the world. The version that I got to handle is the original, HTC edition, that has HTC Sense and all of the additions that the company would normally put in their smartphones.

On the other hand, Kris Carlon got a little bit of time with a version of the HTC U11 Life that is part of the Android One family. That edition, of course, does not use all of the different software additions from HTC and instead has a very lean version of stock Android. That will be the version of the phone available to a global audience, while the non-Android One edition will be available in the US with T-Mobile as a carrier partner.

Two versions: US – HTC/Sense — Global – Android One

Some parts of the U11 Life are obvious downgrades from the original – the shrunken-down size of the phone is mostly due to the smaller screen, a 5.2-inch Full HD resolution screen, sitting across an acrylic body (instead of glass) that really shines and really takes to fingerprints. I actually quite like the blue color of this phone, even if it’s really reflective and gets really smudgy. The size is really nice, though, as one-handed usage is pretty easy on this overall compact device.

Read: Full HTC U11 specifications

It’s nice to have this many options for the squeeze function

And that also helps with Edge Sense, which returns from the original U11 and can be user-programmed for a number of different functions. For example, you can set a short squeeze to launch the camera and take a selfie, set a long squeeze and hold to trigger a voice assistant, or change either of them to open apps and perform other functions. It’s nice to have this many options for the squeeze function, and HTC has recently launched a beta program where squeezes can be used in applications. I have tried to use it a few different times with spotty results – in most cases so far, the phone triggered the global setting and not the in-app shortcut. But I’ll continue testing this moving forward, especially since users can actually program specific taps in pretty much any application to a squeeze or hold. Overall, it’s nice to see the function move from the flagship iteration into the Life version of the U11.

The hardware bits and pieces within are all dialed back a little bit, which is expected on a phone that is supposed to be more affordable. The Snapdragon 630 powers the device, and, so far, it has been able to keep up with my usage that revolves around media consumption and some gaming. The 630 is backed up by 3 GB of RAM and only 32 GB of onboard storage, though a microSD card can be used for more storage.

I have played quite a few games on the HTC U11 Life already, including recent hits like Shadow of War, and I haven’t noticed the phone struggle to keep up. The performance is actually noticeably smooth, which is a feather in the cap for the phone’s specifications and optimization. So far, it doesn’t feel like anyone will be sacrificing very much in the Life.

And the same goes for the battery life, thanks to the 2600 mAh unit inside the U11 Life. It seems that power consumption is relative, as I have gotten the phone to go the distance in my short time with it already. The phone has been able to last for around 4 hours of SoT on average usage, which I thought was pretty impressive – in fact, it was what made me want to continue testing the phone, to make sure that this experience is definitely the norm.

These earphones are definitely above average

Audio has always been a focus – in one way or another – for HTC, and the U11 Life tries to make up for the lack of a headphone jack with a pair of USB Type-C earbuds that are included in the box. These Usonic-compatible earbuds feature Active Noise Canceling, which is triggered in the notification shade and tweaked in the settings. While I might not quite understand what the automatic setting is actually looking for in my ear, the result has been an enjoyable experience. These earphones are definitely above average and provide a full sound that doesn’t muddle out the highs by paying too much attention to the bass and lows. Music and YouTube have been a blast to enjoy thanks to this sound experience.

There is something that we can’t really let slide,

There is something that we can’t really let slide, however – while it’s nice that these HTC earphones are included in the box, there is no adapter so that you can use your own 3.5 mm jack headphones. Instead of putting one in the box, users will have to buy an adapter separately for an extra cost. This is a bit of a bummer, despite the good time that the USonic earbuds provide, and we felt the need to draw attention to what could be a contentious choice by HTC.

A place where HTC wanted to continue the high-end experience as much as possible is in the camera package. In hoping not to compromise on the photography side, HTC put 16MP cameras on both sides of the phone, so that even selfies are taken at a high quality. This seems to be the case so far. The rear camera is different from the 12MP shooter on the original U11, including the move to a f/2.4 aperture on both units. I, personally, have not spent enough time with the original HTC U11, which was regarded as a pretty great camera experience. For that reason, I decided to continue testing the U11 Life camera with one of our original U11s to get a better gauge of HTC’s more affordable offering.

And finally, there is the software, which is the familiar HTC Sense. Some might not like HTC’s take on Android, but it is certainly less in-your-face than other iterations. HTC’s Sense Feed returns as well, collating social media posts in a grid format for easy viewing. Aside from that, a number of features from previous HTC devices return here, like Motion Gestures. You can even theme the interface to your liking, thanks to a pretty powerful theme engine and app.

One of the most interesting additions on the U11 family of phones has been Amazon’s Alexa. The AI assistant makes its way to the U11 Life, and yes, you can program it to one of the Edge Sense squeezes. As an avid Google Assistant user, I’ll be getting a further feel for Alexa as a potential daily voice assistant, and we’ll touch more on that in our full review. It is pretty nice, though, that the choice is there to begin with.

Google Assistant vs Siri vs Bixby vs Amazon Alexa vs Cortana – Best virtual assistant showdown!

For all that HTC is trying to do with this device, the hope that the U11 experience can be had for less money hinges on the price. As we mentioned before, different versions of the U11 Life will be available, with either Android One or HTC’s own software. In almost all cases, the phone will sell for $349, which is a pretty aggressive price for a phone that, so far, has been succeeding in providing a reliable alternative to a flagship phone that doesn’t sacrifice too much.

In the few days that I’ve used the HTC U11 Life as my daily driver thus far, I’ve been a bit surprised at how easily it has handled my everyday tasks and usage. It would be easy to just dismiss it as a lesser version of a sought-after flagship phone. But real world experience with the U11 Life has me thinking a bit harder. And for that reason, we will bring you our full review in the coming days, after we assess the question: Can a near-flagship experience be achieved in a phone that is $349? Stay tuned to find out here at Android Authority and let us know what you think of the HTC U11 Life and the other new phone in the series, the U11 Plus!

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