HTC U Ultra review: Bad decisions in a beautiful body

I was almost giddy when I reviewed the HTC 10 last year. After years of casting about for the right approach, the company built a phone that seemed like a clear step in the right direction. Fast forward to January 2017: HTC revealed the $ 750 U Ultra, a glossy flagship that represented a totally new direction for the company. The phone packs a huge screen, a second display for quick controls and an AI-powered virtual assistant that promises to subtly help you out during the day. It’s an ambitious device, certainly, but what’s life without a few risks? Unfortunately, looks aside, HTC’s newest phone feels poorly thought-out. At the risk of sounding too grim too early, the HTC U Ultra is beautiful, expensive and misguided.

Hardware

Normally, I loathe putting phones in cases – engineers and designers didn’t slave away on these things just so you could hide them behind cheap plastic. But with the U Ultra, I didn’t feel like I had a choice. After years of crafting metal-bodied smartphones, HTC wrapped the Ultra in glass, including Gorilla Glass 5 on the 5.7-inch screen and a curved pane of colorful “liquid surface” on the back. (There’s another version of the U Ultra with sapphire crystal coating the screen, but it’ll set you back close to $ 1,000 — no thanks.)

I don’t have enough adjectives for how nice our blue review unit’s finish looks. Stunning? Striking? Rapturous? (That last one was a little much, but you get the idea.) Just as impressive is how those two glass sides gently curve toward each other, eventually meeting the thin metal rim that runs around the phone without any harsh or protruding seams. The only thing that breaks up the U Ultra’s sleek lines is a square hump where the 12-megapixel rear camera lives. For all of the financial trouble HTC has had lately, it still knows how to build an impeccably pretty machine. It’s too bad that the U Ultra isn’t water or dust resistant — a phone this pricey should be a little more durable.

The downside, of course, is that glass breaks. It’s a good thing, then, that a thin, clear plastic case is included in the box. HTC says the phone can handle drops from as high as a meter (3.2 feet) without a problem, but anything more than could wreck that beautiful build.

The other downside becomes apparent when you spin the phone around. Let’s see, there’s a volume rocker on the right side with the power button below that, the SIM tray up top, the USB Type-C port on the bottom and… damn: no headphone jack. HTC’s repudiation of that classic port actually started with last year’s Bolt/10 Evo, but the loss doesn’t sting any less now that we’re looking at a 2017 flagship. Since HTC already threw in a case, you’d think a freebie 3.5mm-to-Type-C adapter would be in order, but no — you’ll have to use the included USonic earbuds or find another pair of Type-C cans.

The annoyances don’t end there. I wish the fingerprint sensor and the capacitive Back and Recent Apps keys were centered in the expanse of black under the phone’s screen. That might sound like I’m nitpicking, but, as you’ll see later, HTC’s attention to detail wavers pretty frequently in this phone.

While this design is new for HTC, the stuff inside should be very familiar. We’re working with a quad-core Snapdragon 821 chipset paired with 4GB of RAM, an Adreno 530 GPU, 64GB of internal storage and a microSD slot that takes cards as large as 256GB. While your hopes for an insanely fast Snapdragon 835 chip might be dashed, this well-worn spec combo is still plenty powerful. More concerning is the 3,000mAh battery tucked away inside. That’s much, much smaller than I expected for a phone this big. Even the new LG G6, which looks downright tiny next to the U Ultra, packs a more capacious cell.

Displays and sound

The U Ultra’s face is dominated by that 5.7-inch, Super LCD5 panel, and it’s easily one of the phone’s strongest assets. Sure, there are brighter screens out there — LG’s G6 and last year’s Galaxy S7s come to mind — but the U Ultra’s panel nonetheless offers excellent viewing angles and decent colors. Thankfully, you can address that latter bit with a quick trip into the device’s settings, where you’ll find an option to tweak the screen’s color temperature as needed. Most people won’t ever bother doing this, but I found it crucial since the U Ultra’s screen is a few degrees too cool for my liking.

And of course, there’s that second screen sitting atop the main one. It’s easy enough to read at a glance and, on paper, it packs many of the same tricks I enjoyed on the LG V20. The way those tricks have been implemented, however, feels kludgy at best and completely dumb at worst.

For starters, that secondary screen can display the next event in your calendar, but there’s no way to specify which calendar you want it to use. That’s bad news if you rely on separate calendars for personal and work events, as I do. The screen displays a weather forecast for the rest of the day, but despite being a US-spec device, it insists on showing 24-hour time instead of AMs and PMs. You can control music playback in Spotify or Google Play Music, but that’s it; if, for example, you’re listening to Pandora station or a podcast in Pocket Casts, you’re stuck using the in-app controls. And for some reason, you can only access a tray of settings controls (think: WiFi, Bluetooth, etc.) when the screen is off. I get that HTC thought it was easier to swipe down into the quick settings panel, but why not make persistent controls an option? It’s sad to see that HTC’s attention to detail seemed to end with the U Ultra’s hardware.

Then again, HTC always had other plans for this additional space. It’s the little corner where HTC’s AI-powered Assistant, Sense Companion, lives, offering suggestions based on what it knows about you and your behavior.

At least the U Ultra does better at cranking out the tunes. The days of two front-mounted speakers on an HTC flagship are long behind us, but the compromise on display here works well anyway. There’s one front speaker that doubles as the earpiece and another speaker mounted on the phone’s bottom edge. Together, they’re capable of pumping out loud audio, and with decent channel separation, to boot. There’s a little software trickery at play here, too: When playing audio through the speakers, you can switch between “music” and “theatre” modes. I suppose the latter is supposed to sound more spacious, and it works to some extent, but the music mode tends to flatten out whatever you’re listening to so that it feels more present.

Similar software makes the included USonic earbuds more than just a cheapie pack-in. When you pop the buds into your ears for the first time, you’re ushered through a quick customization process that automatically tunes audio specifically for your head. I’m no acoustician, but to my ears, the difference was immediate. The earbuds are also meant to change the way that same audio sounds based on your environment, so you’ll continue to get great sound while you’re, say, waiting for the train to show up. The thing is, it’s a manual process that requires you to tap a notification every time you want to re-tune based on ambient sound. HTC fanboys might pine for the company’s audio halcyon days, but the U Ultra definitely still has some game.

Software

When HTC released the 10, it also updated its approach to the Sense interface. Long story short, the company streamlined the Sense interface, discontinued some apps where Google was clearly doing better work and added theming options so your phone doesn’t have to look like mine. The U Ultra ships with Android 7.0 Nougat onboard, but HTC’s approach to augmenting it hasn’t changed much since last year. In general, that’s fine by me: I’m a Sense fan (though it certainly isn’t for everyone) and Nougat brings enough notable changes in its own right. The less HTC messes with it, the better.

That — along with a lack of carrier pressure — explains why there are so few extraneous apps on the U Ultra. HTC’s Boost+ is a resource management app that made it very easy to free up storage space. My inner paranoiac had me frequently thumbing the controls to squeeze every last ounce of performance out of the phone, but I never actually noticed any speed gains. The app gets bonus points for letting me lock certain apps with a PIN or pattern to keep prying eyes out of my business. BlinkFeed is back too, for better or worse; a quick left-to-right swipe on the homescreen reveals a grid of content to digest.

BlinkFeed pulls content from social networks like Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter and LinkedIn, among others, along with articles from NewsRepublic if you’re so inclined. I didn’t have many issues with the sorts of stories the app automatically provided. Be warned, though: BlinkFeed likes to put sponsored posts right in your eye-line when you open it. Really? If you’re going to have me look at ads by default, give me a discount on the phone or something. While the ads are easy to disable, making them opt-out rather than opt-in does nothing for the overall experience.

The stuff I’ve mentioned so far is classic HTC. Sense Companion is not. There’s a team somewhere within HTC that has spent months building an AI-powered virtual assistant that means to offer suggestions (like a reminder to bring a power bank on a day your calendar says is busy) on that underutilized second screen. As it turns out, “means to” are the operative words in that sentence; I’ve been testing the phone for nearly two weeks and Sense Companion hasn’t done much of anything. I’m opted-in; I’ve allowed all permissions, and still nothing. Every once in awhile I’ll get what looks like a Companion notification, but it’s a false alarm; the phone is asking me to opt-in to suggestions that never come.

Annoying as it is for review purposes, HTC made this choice deliberately. The idea isn’t to overload users with AI-fueled notifications; subtlety is key here, with prompts to bring an umbrella timed for blustery days you’ll be out in the thick of it. Anything more pervasive than that might make you turn Sense Companion off altogether and, well, HTC can’t have that. Even now, it’s unclear whether what I’m experiencing is wrong or not, and that doesn’t bode terribly well for the feature’s short-term prospects. Sense Companion’s true value will only be made apparent in time, and it will almost certainly get better eventually. Still, if this is what everyone who buys the phone will have to deal with, I can’t imagine people would bother with Sense Companion for very long.

Camera

It’s impossible to miss the U Ultra’s main, 12-megapixel camera — it’s tucked away in that big, squarish lump around back. On paper, the camera seems promising enough: It has a f/1.8 aperture, large, 1.55-micron sensor pixels, optical image stabilization and hybrid phase-detection-and-laser autofocus, just like many other recent flagship smartphones. What the U Ultra lacks is consistency. In good lighting conditions, I found that this 12-megapixel sensor typically captures ample detail and accurate colors, but it occasionally struggles to accurately expose photos. Even then, they’re never bad, per se — just less impactful than what you’d get out of rivals like the Google Pixels. (Yes, I get that’s not a completely fair comparison since the Pixels rely on more algorithms to make photos look good, but the difference is clear nevertheless.)

Given its track record, HTC knows just how hard it is to nail a smartphone camera. The HTC 10 seemed like a great step forward last year, earning the company a surprisingly high spot on DxOMark’s mobile scale. At its best, the U Ultra produces clearer, more brightly rendered photos than the 10. Every other time, the U Ultra walks down the middle of the road. Put another way, this camera would’ve been a remarkably solid contender last year, but last year’s performance doesn’t do HTC much good now.

That’s not to say that HTC doesn’t understand anything about cameras. I often go back and forth, but HTC’s camera interface is my current favorite: It lends itself well to instantaneous shooting and the Pro mode (which lets you capture RAW images) allows for fast, meticulous fiddling. The included Zoe mode — yes, it’s still kicking around — shoots brief snippets of video along with a photo, just because. (For you iPhone people, think of it as a Live Photo broken down into its constituent parts.) And, vain as I am sometimes, I have frequently used and mostly enjoyed the U Ultra’s 16-megapixel front-facing camera.

Performance and battery life

Rather than wait for Qualcomm’s new top-tier Snapdragon 835 chipset to become widely available, HTC went with last year’s 821. It’s the classic choice between new and tried-and-true, and it’s worth noting that other manufacturers made the same decision this year. Fortunately, the 821 is still an excellent platform and I never felt as though I was missing out. The combination of these four processor cores with an Adreno 530 GPU and 4GB of RAM should sound familiar, but more often than not, they made for fluid app use, gameplay and general navigation.

Ah, but there are those pesky words: “more often than not.” For some reason, while the U Ultra didn’t so much as hiccup while playing intense games, my week of testing has seen more random bouts of lag than I would’ve expected. They happened most frequently as I was jumping in and out of open apps or even just unlocking the phone. These slow spells occurred perhaps once or twice a day and passed quickly, but they were more frequent than I cared for considering devices like the Google Pixels use the same components and were almost perfectly speedy. Your mileage may vary, though, and it’s worth reiterating that most of the time the U Ultra was snappy.

HTC U Ultra Google Pixel XL Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge HTC 10
AndEBench Pro 18,789 16,164 13,030 16,673
Vellamo 3.0 5,398 5,800 4,152 4,876
3DMark IS Unlimited 30,320 29,360 26,666 26,747
GFXBench 3.0 1080p Manhattan Offscreen (fps) 44 48 47 48
CF-Bench 38,065 39,918 46,290 49,891

The U Ultra’s high-end components can be taxing on a battery, especially when we’re working with a modest 3,000mAh cell. I typically got between a day and a day and a half of moderate use on a single charge — and by “moderate” I mean I pick up the phone and fiddle with it a few times an hour, rather than sitting around glued to it.

Since I’m the kind who charges his devices every night, that kind of battery life is more or less adequate for me. With that said, there’s no denying that some of its fiercest competitors do a better job. With a Google Pixel XL, a physically smaller device with a bigger battery, I could get about two full days of use without having to overthink it. The Moto Z Force, another smaller device, could last for about three days if I played my cards right. (LG’s V20 had a bigger battery, and it was removable, but it actually fared a little worse than the U Ultra in daily use.)

The point is, I’m struggling to understand why HTC couldn’t give us something better. There’s also no denying that the U Ultra didn’t fare well in the standard Engadget rundown test, where we loop an HD video at fixed brightness with WiFi turned on. On average, the U Ultra lasted for about 11 hours and 40 minutes before dying. That’s far short of the Pixel XL’s 14 hours, but still a half-hour better than the V20.

The competition

If you’re in the market for a fancy new smartphone and you need it now, stop and look at a Pixel XL first. It has a bigger battery. It has the same Snapdragon chipset but feels faster in use. It packs a superior camera. And don’t forget: HTC also built the thing for Google. Sure, it lacks the U Ultra’s sheer style, but the promise of fast and frequent software updates should help ease the blow. Some people really like the idea of a second screen, and those folks need to see the LG V20. It has more pronounced audiophile tendencies and the controls on the auxiliary display just work better

And then, of course, there’s the current crop of 2017 flagship phones. Despite its odd aspect ratio, LG’s G6 is a return to slightly more conventional hardware, and so far I’ve been impressed with the not-quite-final version I’ve been playing with these last few weeks. (Our full review will come when after we’ve tested a finished model.) It uses the exact same Qualcomm chip as the U Ultra, but squeezes those components into a tiny, sturdy metal body that also houses a great 13-megapixel dual camera setup. The G6 also packs Google’s Assistant, rather than something like Sense Companion, which has so far been a notable positive.

Meanwhile, the U Ultra’s biggest competitor — Samsung’s heavily leaked Galaxy S8 — is almost here. We know it will have a Snapdragon 831 chip, we know it has an AI assistant that could find a life beyond just phones, and we know it’s pretty damn good-looking. We’ll have to wait to confirm the rest of the juicy details at the launch event on March 29th, but based on what we know so far, I’d be a little worried if I were HTC.

Wrap-up

I can’t stress this enough: the HTC U Ultra is not a bad device. It’s beautiful, well built and plays home to a lot of good ideas. I think HTC was right to build a big phone, and the way it wants to subtly integrate an AI assistant into that second screen is genuinely smart. It’s just unfortunate that the good ideas here have been obscured by bad design decisions and what seems to be a terminal a lack of focus. Now, it’s very, very possible we’ll see another flagship phone from HTC before the year is over. For the company’s sake, I hope it takes a hard look at what the U Ultra does and doesn’t get right before it bothers to release its next big thing.

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