Ignore the gimmicks; the HTC U11 is fantastic phone with a great camera at a pretty reasonable price.
What we love
- Great camera with stunning low-light performance
- Well priced
- Zippy processor
What could be improved
- Boxy design
- Rear glass is a fingerprint magnet
- No headphone jack
- Edge Sense feels like a gimmick
What Is It?
The HTC U11 is a phone that, for some reason, you can squeeze. You should ignore this feature; at worst, it's a gimmick, at best, it's an extra button. The emphasis on squeezing your smartphone shouldn't steal the thunder from this fantastic device: the U11 is HTC's best in years, and for once, it isn't just playing catch up.
If you actually do want to squeeze your phone, the bottom half of the U11's aluminium frame is filled with haptic sensors that can differentiate between a long squeeze and a short squeeze. Out of the box, a short squeeze will open up the camera. Long squeeze is off by default. Both gestures can be customised to open almost any app, launch Google Assistant, or toggle select quick settings.
HTC's had a tumultuous time when it comes to the cameras in their flagship smartphones. On paper, they seemed good, with high quality sensor scores to boot. In practice, they suffered from issues like long load and capture times, distorted colours, and poor HDR.
The U11 changes that in a big way: it's touting what's quite possibly the best camera in a smartphone right now.
During the day, it's a fairly typical high-end smartphone camera: it's fast to open, fast to focus, fast to shoot. Colour reproduction veers more towards natural, but with maybe a touch more saturation than you'd get from an iPhone.
Where the U11 really shines is low-light photography; the camera manages to do a lot with even a little ambient light. More importantly, it keeps photos sharp and detailed, free from the blur other smartphone cameras can cause when you're shooting at night; I've managed to take photos in dark bars that almost look like they were taken during the day.
The main compromise the U11 makes when it comes to low-light photography is blowing out strong light sources to create a brighter overall image. The most intense lights in your photo tend to come across as a white glow, but this isn't a terrible trade-off to keep other elements from being obscured by darkness. Despite the intense white lights, photos taken by the U11 deliver a striking contrast between the lightest and darkest elements in an image.
Reliability is the U11 camera's greatest strength: out of all of the photos I've taken with the phone, it only fumbled focus on one, regardless of how challenging the lighting situation's been. It’s the kind of camera where you don't need to take a second shot "just in case".
Water-resistance is another first for a HTC flagship: the U11 is rated IP67, which means it can be submerged in water as deep as one 1m for up to 30 minutes. It's worth remembering that the rating only applies to freshwater; the phone will probably survive an encounter with chlorinated water, salt water, or beer, but you'll want to wash it off with fresh water immediately after to prevent any corrosion.
The U11 is the first phone in Australia to ship with the new top-of-the-line Snapdragon 835 processor, and it's genuinely a big step up from last year's chipsets. There's a noticeable improvement over last year's top of the line devices. Most day to day tasks feel just a little bit faster. You'll only save yourself a couple of seconds here and there, but there's enough of an improvement to see a difference. I wouldn't say these kind of performance gains are the main reason to buy one phone over another, but it's certainly nice to have. The U11 ships with 64GB of expandable storage, which is another nice to have, especially at its $999 asking price.
A healthy battery life is another win for the U11: even with heavy usage, I still found myself with at least 30% at the end of a day. Lighter users might even be able to squeeze two days of usage between charges.
HTC's version of Android is inoffensive for the most part; it's one of the cleaner takes on Google's operating system around at the moment. There's no double up in apps or core functionality, like you might find in other smartphones (we're looking at you Huawei). One weird quirk is an extra panel to the left of your home screen called "Blinkfeed". This is meant to aggregate news and your social media updates, but there's also advertising for some reason. You can turn this feature off entirely, but pushing ads on a premium phone isn't a great look for HTC.
Priced at $999, the U11 comes across as good value. You get the speed, water-resistance, and high quality camera of more expensive phones like the Galaxy S8 without sacrificing much else. The savings are a little less dramatic on a contract, but if you're looking at plans under $100, you'll still be able to save a little under $10 a month in some cases.
What's Not So Good?
Edge Sense - the U11's headlining feature - is a little undercooked. While squeezing the U11 might technically be a new way to interact with your phone, it doesn't do anything that an extra button on the side of the phone couldn't. In fact, a button would have probably been a friendlier option. A short squeeze works fine as a gesture, but still requires a reasonable amount of force, even on the lightest sensitivity setting. While this prevents errant activations, it means a long squeeze is almost painful. Death-gripping an aluminum device isn't exactly natural.
As it stands, you're pretty much limited to using Edge Sense for two extract shortcuts. An API is coming for developers, allowing them to add squeeze functionality to apps, but I'm guessing that support for this will depend on how successful the U11 is.
The U11's shiny glass back is the very definition of a fingerprint magnet. It looks amazing in marketing photos, but it will collect fingerprints like Pokémon as soon as you take it out of the box. A cleaning cloth and clear case are bundled with the phone, and realistically, you'll need one or the other. Popping the case on could be a good idea, as the U11 can be a little bit slippery. It's built from Gorilla Glass 5, which does give you a bit of extra insurance against drops, but it's certainly not indestructible.
As impractical as the U11's glass back is, the look is modern and unique. That's more than can be said the phone's front, which is dated in appearance and a little boxy compared to 2017's spate of slim bezel flagships. Healthy bezels on all four sides make the U11 feel quite big for a 5.5-inch phone, and the off-centre fingerprint reader bugs me far more than it should. These design issues don't detract from the U11's usability, but I can't help but wish the phone was just a little smaller.
HTC's been keeping the headphone jack off from its smartphones since late last year, and the U11 is no exception. Instead, you're expected to use a wireless alternative or the USB Type-C buds included in the box. While the out-of-the-box headphones sound better than you'd expect (and even offer passable noise-cancellation), you still face that awkward dilemma where you can't charge your phone and use wired headphones at the same time.
I get that HTC is trying to make its headphones smarter than the buds you normally get with a phone (they can adapt their sound to their environment, and don't require extra charge for noise-cancellation), but it feels like this is a scenario where the company could have its cake and eat it too. Include USB Type-C headphones in the box, but keep the headphone jack too. At the very least, there's a USB Type-C to 3.5mm dongle in the box this time around, which makes the omission a little bit more palatable.
Who's It For?
The U11 is a phone that checks almost all of the boxes: you get an incredible camera, 64GB storage, lightning fast performance, solid battery life, and water-resistance for $999. That's pretty damn good. The front of the phone could be prettier and the back could be less of a fingerprint magnet, but the only thing that's really missing is a headphone jack.
If you're after a high-end device like an iPhone 7 or a Galaxy S8, the HTC U11 should also be part of that conversation.
What Else Can I Buy?
Samsung Galaxy S8
Samsung's Galaxy S8 is pretty much the Android flagship at the moment; it will set you back at least $200 more than the U11 if you're happier with the smaller model, and about $350 more if you want the S8+. The S8 has a slicker design and a slightly nicer version of Android, but the U11's camera edges out Samsung's when it comes to low-light photography.
If you want to spend a little less, Huawei's P10 is the best bang-for-buck Android flagship on the market. It's about $100 less than the U11 outright, a little smaller, but still has a great camera. Huawei's take on Android isn't quite as polished as HTC's though, and the P10 isn't water-resistance.
The lower-end configuration of LG's G6 is about the same price as the U11 outright and shares a number of the same features, including water-resistance. The U11 has a faster processor and more storage out of the box, but G6 has a prettier design and squeezes a bigger screen into a smaller package.