March 2013 doesn't seem like a long time ago. That's when the first HTC One launched, with its gorgeous metal body and oversized (for the time) 4.7-inch screen. Unfortunately, it was overshadowed by its competition and just didn't find as many buyers as it could have. Every year since then, we've had a new model with upgraded features but the same general identity - and the same fate.
Four years is several lifetimes in smartphone terms, and HTC should have launched this year's model, rumoured to be called the HTC 11, by now. Instead, it has launched the HTC U Ultra, and it's an entirely different kind of phone. Is this meant to indicate a change in direction for the once-dominant Taiwanese brand, or is it just a stopgap to keep momentum going until the true 2017 flagship is launched? Either way, HTC desperately needs a hit, and we're curious to see whether the U Ultra will be a breath of fresh air or just a novelty.
HTC U Ultra look and feel
Love it or hate it, at least you can't say that the new HTC U Ultra isn't original. If you're looking at it from the front, the first thing you'll notice is its size. This is one of the bulkiest phones around; bigger all around than an iPhone 7 Plus (Review) but very slightly smaller than the Samsung Galaxy C9 Pro (Review) we got our hands on recently. If you don't like huge phones, the silver lining is that at 170g, it's the lightest of the three.
That aside, the U Ultra's main selling point is its glossy, shimmery, curvy coloured glass back. You have a choice of Sapphire Blue and Brilliant Black in India - HTC isn't selling the white and pink variants here. Our review unit is Sapphire Blue, and it really does look like a jewel. According to HTC, the colour is bonded to the glass and there are multiple layers, giving it depth and richness. It's hard to believe that this isn't metal. The only thing we don't like is the huge camera bump on an already thick phone.
The look is certainly distinct, but it has its downsides. The entire rear gets covered in fingerprints and smudges with even the slightest touch, and you'll have to keep wiping this phone if you want to show it off. It's also incredibly slippery - we soon learned to hold this phone very carefully, and we couldn't even put it in our laps without it finding some way to slide off. HTC includes both a microfibre cloth and a clear plastic shell in the box. Both are indispensable, but the shell adds even more bulk to an already unwieldy phone and cheapens its look, defeating the entire purpose of the glass back.
Holding the glass front and rear together is a metal frame that runs around the perimeter of the U Ultra. It's a slightly different tone of blue, which adds yet another dimension to the striking look when you turn this phone around in your hands. The power and volume buttons are on the right, and there's a hybrid dual-SIM tray on the top. On the bottom, you'll find a USB Type-C port and a speaker grille. There is no 3.5mm audio port.
On closer inspection, there are a few touches that resemble last year's HTC 10 (Review). The dual-LED flash and laser autofocus window have the same design, as does the ridged power button and narrow fingerprint sensor. Not all of these are good things - the power button is difficult to locate and too shallow to be comfortable. It's tricky to use the narrow fingerprint reader and capacitive buttons, which are all placed right at the phone's bottom edge, making it difficult to reach them and still keep the phone balanced.
HTC has tried to implement a secondary screen in exactly the same way that LG did it on its X Screen (Review) and V20 (Review) models. It sits right above the main screen but doesn't extend all the way across so that there's still room for a front camera. It can display two lines of text and status icons, and some app notifications can be shown here. You can double-tap the secondary screen to check the time and notifications when the phone is in standby, without lighting up the entire screen.
This additional strip explains why this phone with its 5.7-inch screen is roughly the size of the Samsung Galaxy C9 Pro with its 6-inch screen. Phones this large are unwieldy and difficult to carry everywhere, but at least you get to watch movies and play games on a huge screen. This phone doesn't give you that tradeoff.
One thing that HTC is notably silent on is durability. There's no mention of water, dust, or shock resistance. We also spent our entire review period feeling a constant anxiety about dropping this phone and shattering it.
HTC U Ultra specifications
HTC hasn't detailed the exact resolution of the secondary screen, but it looks like a seamless extension of the main display, which has 1440x2560 pixels. It's extremely crisp, with punchy colours and great viewing angles. The whole front face is made of Corning Gorilla Glass 5. We wouldn't expect anything less at this price level.
The SoC is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 821, which has two 2.1GHz CPU cores and two 1.6GHz cores plus integrated Adreno 530 graphics. This is last year's flagship chip, but alleged supply issues with Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835 have forced nearly all manufacturers to either delay their 2017 models or come to market with whatever is available. For this reason, we expect HTC and several other companies to release placeholder models like the U Ultra now, and also launch more powerful ones over the coming months.
There's 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, with microSD card support going up to a theoretical 2TB, but you do lose the ability to use a second SIM. You also get 100GB of Google Drive space free for two years. 4G and VoLTE are supported, as is Wi-Fi 802.11 ac, Bluetooth 4.2, NFC, GPS, and GLONASS. Sensors include a gyroscope, magnetometer, and the usual ambient light, motion and proximity sensors. The phone and bundled Type-C cable both support USB 3.0 transfer speeds.
Battery capacity is 3000mAh which seems a bit low for a phone this size, but explains the relatively low weight. One of our favourite things about previous HTC phones was their stereo front-firing BoomSound speakers - the U Ultra still uses this name, but has one speaker on the bottom with the earpiece acting as a second one.
HTC U Ultra software
We're glad to see Android 7.0, though HTC's Sense UI skin leaves something to be desired. We found the homescreens cluttered, especially with text or icons visible on the additional strip above the Android status bar. HTC's BlinkFeed news reader is in its usual place to the left of the first homescreen, but this time the only source is a spammy "viral news aggregator" called News Republic. There's also a preinstalled News Republic app which pushes annoying notifications, so overall this feels like a poor move.
One of the HTC U Ultra's most hyped features at launch time was a new AI-powered interactive voice assistant called Sense Companion. HTC said that its assistant would learn each user's individual habits and provide all sorts of useful suggestions. We found the app when we began our review, but all it showed us was a blank screen. After some confusion, we found HTC's fine print stating that Sense Companion won't be available till later in 2017. A few days into our review, we found an update on the Google Play store, and after installing it, we were offered Google Now-style cards showing traffic information, points of interest nearby, and weather updates.
All of this seems completely redundant considering that these are basic functions that Google Now and even homescreen widgets already provide. There was also still no sign of any voice controls. Maybe HTC will continue to add functionality with updates, but we don't see this displacing existing tools or delivering anything like the integrated experience of Google Assistant on the Pixel series of phones.
The secondary screen has more promise, but again HTC hasn't implemented it as well as LG has. You can swipe to scroll between panels for app shortcuts, contact shortcuts, reminders, music controls, weather forecasts, and calendar events. You can't drag and drop icons to the shortcut slots, and full-screen apps are still interrupted when you get a call. Apps can't use that space for their own purposes. You can't set the secondary screen to stay on all the time either. After having used the LG V20, this phone feels like a poor imitation.
Bloatware isn't too much of a problem. Aside from the aforementioned News Republic and Sense Companion, there's HTC's Zoe video editor, a Themes app, Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and a system optimisation tool called Boost+. You get a co-branded version of the Touchpal keyboard and an HTC Help app which includes hardware diagnostics and service contact information. There are also shortcuts to Under Armor's Record activity tracker and HTC's own Viveport VR app store.
HTC U Ultra cameras
One of the reasons for HTC's relatively poor showing against its competition over the past few years is that it put its faith in its in-house Ultrapixel camera technology. This basically used larger physical pixels which allow more light in, at the cost of overall resolution. It never quite worked, especially since other companies were promoting high megapixel numbers and high-res video recording. Ultrapixel tech was then demoted to the front cameras of subsequent phones.
Now, HTC says the U Ultra has a 12-megapixel primary camera "with Ultrapixel 2", while the 16-megapixel front camera can switch into an Ultrapixel mode for better low-light shots. Buzzwords aside, what it all comes down to is that we were extremely impressed with overall photo quality.
The rear camera offers laser autofocus and PDAF, and we found it to be extremely quick, though macros sometimes benefited from us tapping the screen manually. There's optical image stabilisation, a dual-tone LED flash, 4K and 720p/120fps slow motion video recording, and high-res audio capture using four microphones. HTC, which pioneered the use of dual camera sensors, seems to have dropped that feature from its premium phones just as everyone else is jumping on the bandwagon.
We were able to take some stunning shots with incredible detail, and depth-of-field effects were also quite good. The textures of plants, metals and cloth were reproduced brilliantly, and looked great on the phone's high-res screen. Low-light shots came out very well lit, though colours depended a lot on the kind of light available. In terms of definition and lack of noise, these are some of the best low-light shots we've ever seen. Videos are also good, though the phone heated up considerably when recording 4K video. However, a six-minute countdown timer appears on screen when capturing 4K video, and recording just cuts out when it's done.
The front camera is quite capable, but not as much as its 16-megapixel rating suggests. The Ultrapixel mode seems to make a difference in terms of exposure adjustment in the dark, without any drastic drop in quality. For some reason, the setting for this is buried in a side menu.
Tap to see full-sized HTC U Ultra camera samples
HTC U Ultra performance
Other than the HTC U Ultra heating up when recording video and our persistent anxiety about dropping it, we didn't have any general usability problems. Apps run well, and Android 7.0's split-screen feature is supported (though not really obvious unless you know how to use it already). The screen is great in all kinds of conditions including under direct sunlight.
No Android phone today runs badly, and it takes benchmarks to really illustrate the difference between a budget and ultra-premium device. We saw a pretty high score of 135,084 in AnTuTu, and 4,201 in Geekbench's multi-core test. The phone managed to push out 45fps in GFXBench's T-rex test, and scored 30,401 in 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited. Beyond this, games and 4K videos were perfectly smooth.
HTC's bundled headset is called USonic. It uses a USB Type-C connector and leverages the digital interface to create a custom sound profile using sonic pulses to gague the shapes of your ears. This needs to be done through the U Ultra's Settings app, and sounds like a short bust of radio static. The headset itself is pretty good across all types of music, but turning the USonic feature on and off feels like toggling an equaliser - you might like it better either way. There isn't any way to create a profile manually. Out of curiosity, we tried this headset with another Type-C equipped smartphone as well as a Windows laptop - neither one detected the headset as an audio device, which means it's useless without a supported HTC phone.
The 3000mAh battery lasted us through almost an entire day of moderate to heavy usage including video streaming and gaming, but gave up when we would have expected more. Our HD video loop test lasted 9 hours, 45 minutes which doesn't compare well to other phones in this price class. Thankfully, fast charging is supported - we were able to get from zero to 70 percent in an hour.
When we take a look at the phones that you can buy today for Rs. 20,000 - 45,000, it's really hard to justify spending just under Rs. 60,000 on something like the HTC U Ultra. It looks unique and has a fabulous camera, but how much are those things really worth? For that kind of money, the Google Pixel and iPhone 7 series seem like better all-rounders, even though they're both several months old now. There's also the fact that the LG G6, Samsung Galaxy S8, and other 2017 flagships will be launching soon - plus of course, models that won't be announced till the Snapdragon 835 is ready.
HTC itself might still pull an HTC 11 flagship out of its hat later this year. Everything points to the fact that the U Ultra has been released because HTC needs to keep people interested in what is typically flagship season.
The U Ultra is meant for buyers who don't have any budget limitations and don't care about detailed specifications. It's a statement piece, and as such, it succeeds. It does score well for its design, display, and camera, but subjectively, you don't get a lot of the finesse that you do with other existing phones. With its awkward second screen, overall bulk and ordinary battery life, and with a marquee feature like Sense Companion up in the air, it's very hard to recommend this phone at this price. If you do care about getting the most bang for your buck, our best advice is to wait at least a month or go with one of the more established options.