HTC U11 life review

Positives
  • Premium looks
  • Lovely display
  • Decent camera
  • Solid battery life
  • Water resistant (IP67)
Negatives
  • Feels cheap
  • All plastic
  • No headphone jack
  • Still pricey

HTC recently launched the U11+, its new flagship, and the U11 life, a mid-range phone with the look and feel of the U11. I’m a big fan of the U11 — other than the lack of headphone jack, it’s a great handset with an impressive camera that just missed the slim-bezel, ultra-widescreen trend by a few months, something the U11+ now remedies. But what about the U11 life? Can HTC really deliver a U11-like experience for half the price? I just spent a few weeks using an unlocked, US-spec, U11 life review unit, so let’s find out.

Design

If you’ve seen the U11, you know exactly what the U11 life looks like. At first sight, it’s hard to tell them apart. The U11 life has a smaller 5.2-inch display (vs. 5.5-inch) with similarly massive bezels, and the same gorgeous liquid blue back, but with a single LED flash (vs. dual LED) next to the camera. Look closer, and there are other small differences. The USB Type-C port isn’t centered along the bottom edge, but offset to the right — a clear nod to past HTC phones, like the iconic One M7.

Pick up the U11 life, and that great first impression falls apart. It just feels cheap, unfortunately. While many mid-range handsets are made of aluminum and glass these days, HTC chose to replace the U11’s glass back with acrylic (plexiglass) and the machined aluminum frame with molded plastic. I’m puzzled here: the acrylic back is a passable substitute (even if the blue hue doesn’t quite match the U11’s), but the plastic frame — complete with visible molding marks —  is just disappointing at this price point.

Gone too, are the U11’s machined aluminum power/lock key and volume rocker, replaced with plastic buttons that just don’t have the same pleasant tactile feedback. At least the IP67 rating and notification LED carry over to the U11 lite, along with Edge Sense, which is interesting if not somewhat gimmicky.

Display

The U11 life features a 5.2-inch 1080p Super LCD 3 IPS panel with a standard 16:9 aspect ratio. It’s a lovely screen — bright, with punchy colors, good contrast, and decent viewing angles. This display definitely stands out at this price point, but if anything, the colors are a bit too saturated by default. I’d prefer using another color profile about two thirds of the way between the existing sRGB and Vivid settings. Otherwise, I have no complaints.

Camera

On paper, the U11 life’s cameras aren’t anything special. Both feature 16MP sensors and f/2.0 lenses (with phase-detection AF in the rear). There’s no IOS here, presumably to keep costs down. I’ll admit that my expectations were low considering I’ve been spoiled by the latest crop of flagship shooters (hello there, Pixel 2), but I was surprised with the U11 life’s imaging performance.

As you can see from the camera samples, the U11 life takes nice photos. While HTC uses commodity hardware here, it more than makes up for this with excellent camera software — both in terms of experience and image processing. The HDR Auto mode is particularly well sorted (thanks no doubt to Qualcomm’s ISP), and it’s nice of HTC offer a manual (Pro) mode on a mid-range phone. Good stuff.

What’s missing, then? I’d like to see the UltraPixel mode from the U Ultra make a comeback. This setting improves low-light performance by lowering the resolution to 4MP and binning pixels. Video recording is fine, by the way. The U11 life supports up to 4k capture (1080p maximum in front) with high-resolution audio, but lacks the U11’s 3D audio feature. All in all, I think most people will be happy these shooters.

Reception and sound quality

I tested the U11 life in San Francisco, CA and Portland, OR on T-Mobile’s LTE network and didn’t experience any issues with reception, call quality, or data speeds. Unlike the U11 and its excellent 2-way BoomSound Hi-Fi speaker system, the U11 life just features a single speaker on the bottom edge. It’s fine for phone calls or the occasional YouTube video, but it’s nothing to write home about. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

Despite being a mid-range phone, the U11 life lacks a headphone jack. This is vexing to say the least, especially since HTC doesn’t include a USB Type-C to 3.5mm adapter in the box. On the plus side, the handset is bundled with HTC’s USonic USB Type-C earbuds with active noise cancellation, and like the U11, it supports aptX-HD and Airplay for high-quality wireless audio playback.

Specifications

Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 630, octa-core, 2.2GHz
RAM 3/4GB
Internal storage 32/64GB
External storage microSD
Screen type IPS
Screen size (inches) 5.2
Screen resolution 1920×1080 pixels, 424ppi
Rear camera 16-megapixel, f/2.0, phase-detection AF
Flash single LED
Front camera 16-megapixel, f/2.0
Dimensions (mm) 149.1 x 72.9 x 8.1
Weight (g) 142
Battery capacity (mAh) 2600
Removable battery No
Fingerprint sensor Yes
Operating system Android 7.1.1, Sense UI/Android 8.0, Android One
Colours Brilliant Black, Sapphire Blue, Ice White
Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, dual band
GPS Yes, A-GPS, GLONASS
Bluetooth Yes, v5.0
NFC Yes
Infrared No
USB Type-C
Headphone jack No
FM No
SIM single SIM, nano SIM
Radios 2G/GSM/EDGE, 3G/WCDMA/HSPA, 4G/LTE Cat 12

Performance and battery life

The U11 life is powered by Qualcomm’s new mid-range Snapdragon 630 and features 3GB RAM and 32GB of built-in storage (with microSD expansion up to 256GB). Basically, this means you’ll enjoy good performance and solid battery life in all but the most demanding situations. Sure, the U11 handles games better, but for most tasks, you’d be hard-pressed to notice any difference in performance.

I didn’t have any problems with battery life despite the smallish 2600mAh cell. The U11 life easily powers through an entire day on a charge, with often juice leftover for the next day. And unlike many other mid-range phones, the U11 life features NFC, which, together with the fingerprint reader in front, enable Android Pay.

Software

There are two U11 life models available. The “default” version I’m reviewing runs Sense UI on top of Android 7.1.1 (Nougat), and the Android One version — which is not available in the US — runs pure Android 8.0 (Oreo). Like with the U11, Sense UI remains lightweight, fast, and a pleasure to use. HTC’s done a great job at keeping things as stock as possible while adding useful touches. This goes a long way in bringing that U11 experience to the U11 life.

Like the U11, the U11 life features Sense Companion and supports both Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, but unlike HTC’s flagship, you have to choose which assistant is listening by default when the phone is locked (the U11 responds to both “OK Google” and “Alexa” voice triggers).

Pricing and conclusion

You can look at the U11 life in two ways. On the one hand, it provides 80-90% of the U11’s awesome DNA for about half the price ($350 unlocked or $300 on T-Mobile). That’s impressive. At the same time, the U11 life is a little too expensive and feels a little too cheap to really hit the mark in this very competitive mid-range segment.

So it really comes down to your priorities. If you’re looking for a flagship-like experience on a budget then by all means, go for it. But if you’re really price sensitive and looking for quality materials and standard mid-range features (like a headphone jack), then perhaps the U11 life isn’t the right handset for you.

I’ll tell you this: when I first touched the U11 life, I was put off by the plastic build, the lack of headphone jack, and the price. But once I actually started using this phone, all this melted away. At the end of the day, there’s no substitute for a great experience, and HTC delivers.

Rating
Design / 8
Camera / 8
Sound / 7
Performance / 7
Battery Life / 8
Software / 8
Price / 7
Editor's Choice / 9
Hardware / 7
Display / 8
HTC U11 life

The U11 life delivers a U11-like experience for about half the price. That's impressive. Still, it's a little too expensive and feels a little too cheap to really hit the mark in this very competitive mid-range segment.

7.7
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