HTC’s getting smarter – well, its phones are. The HTC U Ultra (another new line of handsets to wrap your head around) is a phablet that’s packing in some high-end specs and an all-new AI companion… and for something below a flagship price.
Before we get into the AI on board (which is infuriatingly, boringly called HTC Sense Companion) let’s talk about the design: this is not an all-metal form. This is ‘Liquid Surface’ from HTC, and it’s a glass and metal frame that encases the 5.7-inch display.
It’s an odd look, one that’s both a single block color and pearlescent at the same time, depending on how the light plays off it. It looks pretty stunning from afar (especially the sapphire blue variant) and has a subtly curved back that feels nice to hold in the palm.
This is important ergonomically, as a phone of this size – 163 x 80 x 3.6mm (although it’s actually 8mm thick when you consider the massive camera protrusion that causes the phone to rock when placed on a table) is a hand-stretcher, wider than the iPhone 7 Plus and Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge).
The comparisons to Samsung are particularly noteworthy here, with a similar lozenge home button and the protruding camera seeming rather familiar, although it’s not overpowering.
Having that little curve is a nice feeling when shoved against the palm. It’s packed with some decent specs too, with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 combined with 4GB of RAM – not flagship level, but more than good enough for most tasks you can think of, if not all.
However, the feel of the glass in the hand is, well, a touch on the light side. It’s not quite plasticky under caress, but at the same time it lacks the raw strength of metal. This is an aesthetic choice and one that works in that respect – it just depends whether you like your phones to be lightweight or offer a bit more heft, depending on the price.
The buttons are well-placed for the most part – the larger size of the phone makes it harder to hit the volume rocker switch, but the same fingerprint scanner HTC has used in past years is on the front as a non-movable home button, and if it’s as good as before should be delightfully swift to unlock the phone.
In terms of colors, you’ll be able to buy this phone in black, white, blue or pink – although the last version is called ‘Cosmetic Pink’ in the marketing materials. Come on HTC, women don’t need to be told which phone is designed for them. We know pink phones can sell well, so just call it that and don’t make the gender targeting so overt….
The screen is one of the more impressive parts of this phone, coming with not one, but two on board: a large Super LCD 5.7-inch screen, with QHD (2560 x 1440) resolution and a smaller 2.05-inch (160 x 1040) resolution display above. It’s been done before by LG on the LG V10 and LG V20, but the first time we’ve seen it on a more global device.
The function of this is to prevent the phone from needing to fire up all the time, or preventing unnecessary distractions when playing a game – your calendar invites or message previews will appear there rather than an overlay to what you’re doing.
This section is also touch sensitive, allowing you to swipe through your favorite contacts, quick settings, top apps and more.
It’s not the easiest to glide your finger over, as it feels like you’ll touch the main display, but perhaps that’s already been managed out by HTC as we didn’t notice any mis-taps in our hands on time.
New artificial intelligence
The screen will also be used to display the HTC Sense Companion (HSC) information, where the phone will work out the things that you need to help you use it more effectively.
The early moves on this are pretty rudimentary – it’ll work out your favorite people and suggest alterations as time goes by, point out when it’s time to take an umbrella if rain is forecast after days of brilliant sunshine or check whether you really want that alarm or meeting when there’s a national holiday coming up.
None of that seems particularly ground-breaking (although this is a very early edition of this software, and one that HTC will presumable iterate on in the future) the battery management could be the most exciting.
Where some phones will automatically go into low-power mode when hitting a certain percentage, HTC says its AI companion will work out when you usually get home from work or traditionally need power and give you prompts, such as asking you to root out a charger or take a power bank on the go.
If that’s not available then the phone will start to disable poorly-performing apps and limiting the performance of the phone to try and eke out some more time so you can locate a charger.
You won’t be able to use any charger you want though, as this phone is USB-C, the more impressive but nascent port for charging the 3000mAh battery on board, which should be enough to see you through the day (although with HTC, you’re never entirely sure, we’ll be sure to test this in our full review).
The HTC U Ultra is always listening to you, thanks to four omni-directional microphones that HTC claims have longer distance recording than other phones on the market right now, and will be able to understand your voice commands as long as the phone is nearby.
This ‘always’ listening mode will apparently take less than 1% battery life to offer the performance without the need to constantly rush for a charger. That performance will be useful as the HTC U Ultra is running on Android 7 with its similar HTC Sense overlay, with Google Now baked right in.
Say your wake-up phrase to the phone and you can interact with the Now- which is presumably why HTC has decided not to unveil its own version of Cortana or Siri when creating its own AI system.
Your voice can even be used to biometrically unlock the phone – HTC says that this can’t be duped by an audio recording of your speech, but we’ll be testing that one out when we get our review device.
Audio and camera
The audio performance, as ever, should be superb on the HTC U Ultra, with Hi-Res audio playback coming through the bundled USonic headphones. Boomsound is also still present as a stereo speaker from the earpiece and firing out the bottom of the phone for a loud sound.
Hi-Res buds are nothing new for HTC, as they appeared on the HTC 10 and 10 Evo, but these will also allow you to create a personalised listening profile, to make your tunes sound as strong as possible for your own hearing abilities.
You won’t be able to use your own headphones unless you’ve got some USB-C cans… there’s no headphone jack here again, as we start the move towards a lack of headphone jacks on smartphones.
Hi-Res audio recording is supported by the new four microphone set up, with HTC claiming that the extra recording will allow for 3D sound – which is something we’re sure we’ve heard countless times before, but the hardware in here will definitely support some decent sound capture and augment 4K video nicely.
The camera is a 12MP affair, and is essentially the same one seen on the HTC 10. This means it’s got a strong performance in low light (thanks to the f/1.8 aperture), automatic HDR, RAW support and Ultrapixel 2 technology with larger pixels for enhanced low light capture.
Curiously, the front facing 16MP sensor (we know, larger than the back) is also Ultrapixel-enabled, but combines four pixels into one to create a lighter image. We queried why HTC wouldn’t do this on the rear as well, but it wouldn’t comment – presumably it’s satisfied with the size of the pixels already.
Picture snapping was swift and bright – the pictures were sharp enough, but if it’s anything like the HTC 10 the benefit will come with snapping in RAW mode and processing the resulting image through the inbuilt editor – you’ll get much better pics that way.
HTC U Ultra release date and price
In terms of an HTC U Ultra release date, we’re expecting this phone to land in Asia within a month and into Europe in the middle of February – so it’s not long before you’ll be able to get your hands on this new handset.
The U Ultra has all the specs we’re looking for in a phone that’s just below the cost of a flagship phone (although we’ve still not seen the HTC U Ultra price) and is covered in an attractive coating that only gets divisive once picked up.
The HTC U Ultra is, really, the HTC 10 Ultra – a more powerful, phablet version of that flagship phone from 2016, which gives us hope that we’re still going to see the HTC 11 later this year.
The rest of the power on board is impressive, although we’re not convinced that the HTC Sense Companion will be a useful AI out of the box.
Depending on the price, this could be a strong phone from HTC – but it depends on the power of its marketing, something the brand hasn’t been great at in the past, to see if it’ll be a strong seller to match.