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HTC U Ultra Review – A Good But Expensive Smartphone

HTC has a long legacy of making high-end metal phones, their first phone of 2017 seems to have abandoned their roots. The HTC U Ultra has a glass front and back, and boy is it one stunning Smartphone!

by Nicole on February 21, 2017
HTC U Ultra
Positives
  • Beautiful Design
  • Good Camera
  • Smooth Performance
Negatives
  • No Headphone Jack
  • Poor Battery Life
  • Selfies Could be Better
  • 2nd Screen has good 3rd party support
  • Expensive

Design

You have to give it to HTC: this is the first glass phone that I’ve seen that isn’t clearly 2 pieces of glass fitted to metal. The HTC U Ultra is curved, molded and looks like it’s been handcrafted with love. Most other phones shrouded in glass look like pieces of glass fitted with a metal bumper.

The bezels at the top and bottom are large, we can understand how the top seems long because of the 2.5-inch dual display that’s tucked in next to the front facing camera. On the bottom, there is a bit too much bezel for our liking. What really drew attention to it was that we kept missing the back button because there was so much dead space around the capacity button.

Its 170g weight with the larger surface area makes the handset feel almost too light. This is especially troublesome since its glass finish makes it very slippery. At 8mm thin, it’s comfortable in your hand with the metal bumper being slightly curved. Along the edges, you’ll find a power button, volume rocker, nano sim and microSD card slot, and a USB-C port. That’s right, no headphone jack. That fact is forgivable if a handset is too thin or if the battery is so larger that there is no room. But at 3000mAh and sporting massive bezels, we aren’t feeling very forgiving.

After a few days of use, we hopped online to make sure it really was made of glass. When you tap it, it sounds like plastic and even feels like plastic. But if you just look at it, its hyper glossy finish exudes luxury. There are lots of plastic phones that feel solid and well-built, and the U Ultra are among them.

The U Ultra does such a great job of catching the light, and it’s a beautiful handset, but I’m glad that there is a case inside the box. My review device didn’t come with a case, and by the end of the week I did have a few small hard to see scratches.

Hardware

The build quality feels classic HTC, very solid. HTC is following the trend of releasing last year’s processor in this year’s high-end Smartphones. Going with a Snapdragon 835 means releasing the handset later and extending development time. The manufacturers know what is going on with the 821 and have experience dealing with all of its nuances, like managing heat issues and extending battery life. If we’re being perfectly honest, the Snapdragon 821 has great performance; it’s really fast enough for the average user. Of course, those who want to push what they can do with a Smartphone will always want the latest processor, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone in the mainstream who won’t think it’s fast enough.

The fingerprint sensor is on the front of the handset and it’s fast and reliable. Over the week we tested the handset, we only had one or two missed attempts to unlock the phone.

HTC U Ultra Specifications
Dimensions: 162.41 x 79.79 x 7.99 mm, 170g
5.7-inch 1440 x 2560 S-LCD5 main screen, 2-inch 160 x 1040 secondary screen
Snapdragon 821 with 4GB of RAM and 64GB (expandable via microSD card)
Camera: 12MP rear cam with PDAF, laser AF and OIS, 16MP UltraPixel front camera
3,000 mAh battery
Android 7.0 Nougat with HTC Sense
HTC USonic headphones, USB-C, no 3.5mm jack, 4 hi-quality mics,

Full Spec Sheet over at HTC

Display

This 5.7-inch Super LCD 5 display has a resolution of 1440 x 2560 which gives it a pixel per inch density of roughly 513. The viewing angles are solid and it’s a big improvement from some of their handsets in the past that changed colors when you looked at it on even the slightest angle.

When using U Ultra outdoors it is bright enough to be visible in full sunlight and at night when you want to read in the dark it gets sufficiently dim. We do have trouble getting past that this is an LCD panel, even though the colors are bright as punchy it lacks the same contrast as an AMOLED panel.

We did have a few complaints about the display: we felt that the reds were a little orange and the colors were a little off.

It was also annoying that the auto mode for the display is in the settings and not in the notification bar. Meaning, you can’t select auto brightness from the notification bar. So, if auto mode is not on and you turn the brightness all the way down or up, you have to go into the settings to select auto. It’s really really a huge deal, and one of the small things that makes you remember that Android is skinned with HTC’s Sense. It’s not stock Android and there are some elements of sense that do feel a little dated because by comparison Nougat has just gotten so many things right.

2nd Display

2nd Screen Customized Message

The 2.05inch (160 x 1040 resolution) strip that sits on top of the U Ultra’s main 5.7in screen seems like a gimmick. We have been a long time fan of the LG V20, and on that Smartphone, we didn’t really 2nd screen all that much. We do worry that like the V20 the novelty will wear off. Having said that, we liked what HTC did with the 2nd display more than LG, the 3rd party app integration has a few bugs, like I can’t set my default player to Soundcloud (Spotify works) but when I’m playing Soundcloud the 2nd screen does recognize it as a music player and lets me control it. We also didn’t like that if you don’t have an appointment in your calendar, it tells you you’ve got nothing going on. Maybe it’s just me, but the fact I was always being reminded that I had no plans was a bit of a downer.

I did use the 2nd display quite a bit, I liked the hourly weather. I cycle to get around, so hourly weather is very important to me. There are so some solid interactions as well: you can double tap to just wake up that display, lift it forward to have the time turn on, and when HTC finally launches the AI Sense Companion app it will use the 2nd display to communicate with us.

No two ways about it, it’s a gimmick, but it’s one that we don’t mind using (unless leaving it out would make the handset cheaper).

Sound

HTC U Ultra – speaker & USB type C in blue

The dual speaker setup doesn’t follow the classic front-facing BoomSound speakers, we’ve got the HTC BoomSound Hi-Fi edition which is the bottom speaker is paired with the speaker on the front which you also use to listen to phone calls. It’s got good sound, a little tinny, but loud enough and above the average performance of a Smartphone speaker.

It is annoying there is no headphone jack, especially since there is so much room to put one.

The headphones that come with the smartphone are great, like really great!

So many audiophile settings:

HTC USonic
HTC BoomSound™ Hi-Fi edition
3D Audio recording with 4 microphones
Hi-Res audio stereo recording
Hi-Res audio certified
Noise cancellation

USonic is really cool, it listens to your environment and re-calibrates the headset, I tried it on loud trains, quite parks and in cafe’s. You notice a difference when you let it pause the music to listen to your environment.

Software

HTC Sense Companion – When it launches we think it will be cool!

Running the latest version of Android we have little to complain about with the device UI. Sense is not intrusive and we do love Nougat. Split-screen mode, a renewed notifications center, and improved battery life through Doze mode which is meant to help out with battery consumption when your display is off. We especially like using split-screened mode on a display this big, it really makes sense.

We are missing Google’s Assistant. Talking naturally to your handset is something that I got used to with the Pixel, but Google Now is quite good as well since it takes away having to manually search for the information that appears on your screen. Since HTC did build the Pixel, we’re hoping that the U Ultra won’t take too long to get the planned update with Google Assistant and Android 7.1.

Speaking of Artificial Intelligence the U Ultra was supposed to ship with the Sense Companion, which was meant to make your phone more intelligent. It’s an added brain for your phone, it checks your calendar to make sure that you’ve got enough battery to make it through the day, or tell you to leave early for a meeting if it sees that there is traffic. Unfortunately, HTC didn’t include the software at launch and, like Android 7.1, it will be included in an update “at a later date”.

There was one bit of software that HTC had been using in the past that we thought was the basis for the Sense Companion app, and that’s Sense Home. Remember the widget that would offer you a different set of apps based on your location? For example Maps, podcast app and music when you’re out, or Chromecast, news reader or smart home controls when your get home. I genuinely found the app useful; after a few months it really did become quite smart. It won’t be shipping on any phone running Android 7.0 and above. My suspicion is that Android changed and rather than work on updating the widget they took that base and are morphing it into Sense Companion. We can’t wait to see what HTC comes out with!

Customization is one of the big themes in Sense and with the length of the U Ultra we’re glad that the navigation controls have gotten an update. If you don’t want to use the hardware buttons you can add software buttons, the order of which can be changed and you can add a button that drops down the navigation bar. Annoyingly the navigation bar doesn’t drop down to hide away when you open the keyboard. With the larger bezel size we wouldn’t mind a lower keyboard.

BlinkFeed is one of the most distinctive elements of Sense and it hasn’t changed much since Sense 7.0, there is the option to add content as soon as you open the menu, which is handy. If you’re used to having a content aggregation widget this is the best one around.

Themes is both an independent app in the apps tray and linked through to from the Personalize menu and other areas of the device. Through Themes you can customize just about anything in the UI visually. The most talked about theme style is Freestyle which lets you place icons anywhere as it doesn’t adhere to the traditional grid system in Android.

Camera

HTC U Ultra – camera in blue

The HTC U Ultra is bucking the trend of having a dual camera shooter. It can capture a perfectly decent photo in the right lighting conditions, but this is true of most midrange phones. On the cloudy days that often pepper Taipei during the ‘winter’ there was a good amount of detail and the sky did have a nice texture.

The camera app is classic HTC. We did all of our testing in Auto, the rear camera takes a great photo, we’re happy with the color representation and the detail.

 

When it comes to Selfies we weren’t impressed, we felt that the camera lacked the ability to show detailed photos of my skin. The shots always seems to have a beauty filter on, even when it’s turned off. The selfies look fine, they just lack detail. We’re surprised that with the heavy fashion focus on the brilliant finish the front camera isn’t as good as the back.

When you take the handset into low light conditions it performs okay. There is an acceptable amount of graininess in the snaps and in pro mode you can take some good-looking photos, but we found that they lacked the detail we were looking for in a high-end smartphone. Low light is what sets the mid range apart from the high-end these days. If all you’re after a smartphone for taking photos of your nights out you’ll be ok with the results but if you’re really into photography then the over exposure or lack of detail might annoy you.

Low light sample photos:

The U Ultra’s cameras are good, they don’t really impress but at the same time, they really aren’t a disappointment. The camera really is a mixed bag: you can take a great shot, for the most part they are fine and not at all disappointing. If we didn’t have to compare it to other handsets we’d happily live in this phone, but with $400 phones having some serious chops the U Ultra performs well but it sadly not at the top of the pile.

Battery Life

You can make it through the day, but you can’t be a moderate to heavy user. If we were heading out for an evening out we would need to top up. Making plans on the fly, taking food photos and maps to different venues we would need to start the evening at 75% to make it through.  This would also mean that on our 25 minute sybway ride home we’re only have 13% left when we walked through the door. The U Ultra has a small battery for the screen size and the 2nd display can’t help things. At only 3000mAh it’s smaller than the Pixle XL which HTC also produced but with at 3450mAh battery.

Taking a look at the battery consumption below you’ll notice that we did top up to 75% before going out, so that’s 4.5 hours of screen on time after being charged to 75% again. What I should add is streaming music is as intense as having the screen on, and I listened to about 1 hour over the whole day, so I would say that it got 5.5 hours. Again, that’s after a top up so these numbers aren’t good.

We aren’t confident in the battery life. We could say that it’s all day, but like other phones like the Huawei P9 or OnePlus 3(T) we have to top up. May people call them all day, in fact, I do say if you’re a light to moderate user (and aren’t out late) you’ll make it through the day. Anyone who spends over an hour commuting a day will likely find this battery lacking. It’s good that it comes with fast-charge, you can get 30% in 20 minutes and a full charge in just under two hours.

3.5 hours of screen on time is what I got on my best day but it seems to be getting around 2.5-3 hours before I reached for the Quick Charge 3.0 wall charger. It’s definitely a phone that you’re going to have to charge once a day.

Add 45 minutes of streaming music through Soundcloud and we can round up the screen on time to 3.5 hours.

Price

Too expensive at $750USD/Euro, it’s flagship without the spec race. I’m not sure that the glass back and audio excellence are enough to justify the price tag. The Pixel XL isn’t much more expensive but has the latest updates and much more solid battery life.

Rating
Design / 9
Camera / 8
Sound / 9
Performance / 8
Battery Life / 6
Software / 8
Price / 6.5
Editor's Choice / 8
Hardware / 7
Display / 7.5
HTC U Ultra

If you're a light smartphone user that listens to a lot of music and wants an absolute stunner of a phone the HTC U Ultra is a great choice. I'm not sure the U would be my daily driver, it's a little big for me and the battery life just isn't there. As dazzling as the back of the U Ultra is it's hard to look past the very average battery life when HTC did pack a much bigger battery into the similarly sized Pixel XL And sure the 2nd screen is cool, but it's something I could easily live without especially if it made it more affordable. But even with its brilliant finish, the HTC U isn't going to win over the mass market with so many great handsets priced at $400.

7.7
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