HTC used to be one of the Android space’s shining lights. Its apple screen repair launches generated a lot of heat and punters, generally speaking, were very interested in what the company was doing on a monthly basis. New phones sold well and the company enjoyed rapid growth, which helped propel Android into the mainstream.
But then everybody else got in on the act… and, well, things kind of started spiralling out of control shortly thereafter. Samsung and LG grew their share of the market and then, in recent years, we had in influx of Chinese phone makers (OnePlus, Huawei, OPPO) which made matters worse for HTC.
This fall from grace was not all HTC’s fault, though – it is a relatively small fish in a pond full of sharks. The fact that it has managed to hang on until 2017 is, quite frankly, a miracle. The company’s financial’s for the last few years have read like a Cormac McCarthy novel (and not in a good way).
Still, things aren’t all bad. The company is now back, vying for your custom, with another flagship handset called the HTC U11.
As before it’s a metal, premium-grade flagship, though this time with a bit of extra glass thrown in for good measure.
Can it fare better than 2016’s all-metal HTC 10?
HTC U11 Review: Design
As time goes on I find it very difficult to critique the aesthetic design of most high-end smartphones, but particularly ones from HTC – HTC is arguably one of the earlier pioneers of luxurious metal smartphone design, but like Sony it is also one of the Android OEMs that has remained most static.
In the case of the broad outlook of the smartphone industry though, it must be said that flagships are looking more and more alike than ever, and they all more or less fall into that iPhone/Galaxy S type design. Which is fair enough, clearly this is what consumers want and what they tend to buy. A kind of consumer tech “natural selection” has led us to this ubiquity of metal and glass slabs somewhere around the 5in size with rounded off corners, industrial style design, and neatly punched and machined grilles, ports, and buttons.
And, I don’t really have a problem with this.
But from a critique perspective the sameness does tend to blur the lines after a while, so much so that it’s difficult to venture any kind of “useful” opinion.
I’m reminded of a professional wine expert friend of mine who, while we were holidaying in South Africa and tasting various locally produced wines, commented (as the rest of us tried desperately to identify the different notes and flavours) that a particular well-reputed Chardonnay “tastes like a Chardonnay,” much to our bemused befuddlement. Indeed, in the current market, many phones including the HTC U11, by the same token “look like high-end phones”.
In neither case is it a criticism, but nor is it praise; there’s nothing wrong with the HTC U11 design (or indeed any other similarly designed phone), in fact it’s very good, but it still just looks like a high-end phone with nothing particularly spectacular about it. It can’t really escape what it is. Just like that Chardonnay. Good. Very good. Great even…but not that different from the rest.
The last few successive generations of HTC flagship have not been very different from each other at all. They’ve still been pretty great when it came to aesthetic design and build, however, and the low number of units flying off the shelves could hardly be attributed to this facet of the phone.
I can totally understand why HTC went in a different direction this time around – as its sales of previous models weren’t doing well, it wanted to grab a bit of attention with something flashier.
Personally, for my blood (and I realise it is totally subjective), HTC went a bit too far on the flashy front – or should I say flashy rear. I just can’t get past that high-sheen gloss metallic finish, it’s far too shiny. In and of itself I just find it garish and that is enough for me not to have any desire to use a phone like this as my daily driver, or even out in public.
But on top of that it does have many practical ramifications as well. It’s more of a fingerprint magnet than even your average glass-backed phone, it is extra, extra slippery; it won’t sit happily on virtually any surface you leave it on and it is unsteady in the hand. And as well as being unsightly, the mirror-finish back also reflects your face and anything else around it, but not in a nice way – remember those freaky circus mirrors from the fairground that give you a giant Franken-forehead or a huge goofy chin? Yeah, it’s like that and it’s because of the phone’s curvature combined with the mirror finish.
I do not like it, sir, not one bit.
Which is a shame, as otherwise there is a lot to like about the exterior design and build. As I’ve come to expect from HTC, it is reassuringly solid and well put-together; the physical keys have excellent and satisfying clicky feedback (plus the power button is textured for easy location by feel), and best of all this is the first HTC flagship with proper IP67 waterproofing. It’s great, this is the first HTC that you can take near the water – but what a price to pay that we have to put up with super shiny circus mirror finishes.
It is, aside from the shine, nicely shaped with an elegant, smooth curvature and an attractive layering of the glass and metal. I WANT to like this phone’s overall design – and it’s so close…but the finish ruins it. If HTC later releases a matte finish color option I for one will be much happier.
HTC U11 Review: Battery
Battery life has been a serious sticking point of ours with past HTC flagships. I can’t remember the last time we tested an HTC lead model where we were impressed with how long it could run on a single charge.
So, naturally, there was a lot of apprehension when testing the HTC U11.
In our standard video test, running a two-hour film (in this case The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug) from 100% charge, with the film pre-loaded and screen brightness set to full, the HTC U11 drained down to 69% charge.
Now, that is not bad by any means, in fact it is quite respectable. But how good or bad this actually is for you does depend on your typical use of a smartphone – and I think it’s fine up until a certain level, at which point it kind of goes over a cliff.
For me, this is fairly decent power drain as I’m not a power user and don’t run my apple parts that hard outside of a testing scenario.
On a phone with this kind of battery consumption I can expect to get a good couple of days on a single charge, with my typical light-to-moderate use pattern, and I did encounter this in my non-video, day-to-day testing.
If you’re a very light user who only does a bit of occasional browsing, and the odd call or text, you’ll find this phone will last longer, maybe three days or even a bit more.
However, if you’re a bit of a smartphone fiend like Rich, you’ll blast through this thing’s power reservoir in a day easily.
I’d say this kind of battery life is fairly average for most high-end flagships, and for me this is fine, but for some it’s just not adequate. You need to factor in your own use patterns, are they light, moderate, or intensive? If you fall into the first two tiers you’ll probably be more than happy with the HTC U11. If you’re in the third, this is a no-go.
Ultimately, it’s important to bear in mind that there are better options out there with much longer life even with intensive use; amongst others the Samsung Galaxy S8 and Galxy S8+, the Apple iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, the Google Pixel and Pixel XL, and the Huawei Mate 9.
So, once again, good…but not great. In this respect it’s a lot like the previous handful of HTC flagships.
HTC U11 Review: Display