“The U11 is the world’s first squeezable phone, and is loaded to the brim with top-end specs. Here’s how it fares”
I’ve always considered HTC as a strong brand, but I’ll be honest – it hasn’t given me a reason to jump up and shout from the rooftops in a while now, considering its last couple of offerings haven’t really rocked my boat. Its latest flagship, the U11 however, changes things. You see, not only is the U11 right up there with the very best thanks to its top-of-the-line hardware, HTC has ensured it ticks pretty much all the boxes when it comes to features expected from a premium flagship. And then, it added something else – something designed to make the device stand out from the crowd in a big way. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the world’s first squeezable smartphone.
In a nutshell, the HTC U11 (first impressions) looks quite nice, despite its glass body that seems fragile and gathers fingerprints like there’s no tomorrow. It also brings IP67 waterproofing, a solid set of cameras, and an interesting set of useful features. The performance is solid, while the battery life is pretty decent too. HTC has also done well to include a pair of noise cancelling earphones right in the box. And as far as the squeeze feature HTC has added (called Edge Sense) is concerned, I think it’s more than just a gimmick, and works well. The U11 isn’t perfect, far from it… but it is a compelling flagship. Read on for the details.
Before I get into the full lowdown, let’s tackle the U11’s headlining squeeze feature right up front. HTC calls it Edge Sense, and it’s activated by squeezing the lower part of phone from both sides. It took me a few tries initially to get the hang of how to press the phone from the sides to activate Edge Sense. But then I discovered the best way to do it is to use the lumpy part of the palm (basically the base of the thumb) cradling one side of the phone, and applying pressure using fingers from the other side. The phone vibrates to indicate it has registered the press and goes on to perform the task allocated to action.
You’ll find Edge Sense options in settings, and this is where you can customise the level of pressure sensitivity you find comfortable. You have the option of using basic features, which only let you assign a single task to a short squeeze. Or you can use the advanced features, which let you assign one more task to a long squeeze, in addition to the short press. The available task options include launching the camera, capturing a screenshot, launching the Google Assistant, launching any installed app of your choosing, toggling the flashlight, toggling voice recording, launching the Sense Companion, and toggling the hotspot. And once you’re in the camera mode, you can use a short squeeze to shoot and a long squeeze to switch to the front camera. As you can make out, most of these are pretty useful functions, and handy to have at your beck and call at all times. It’s quite something to be able to launch the camera straight from standby with a simple press, and then shoot a picture or a video using another press. One use case HTC pointed out to at the time of launch makes a lot of sense. Since the phone can survive a quick dip in water, it’s quite handy to be able to shoot a picture using Edge Sense when the screen is wet. Wet screens don’t really register touches properly, so Edge Sense comes like a saviour in this case. Also, since Edge Sense can also be used with gloves on, so that’s another good use case.
HTC says it’ll continue to improve this feature with updates, and make it more useful and more customisable. As things stand right now, the feature is handy to have, but it could definitely do with some more options and customisability for sure. Also, whether the Edge Sense features would work with third-party cases, especially the hard-back ones, is something that remains to be seen.
The U11 continues with the same design ethos as the U Ultra (review) – which means it looks pretty good, especially from the rear. The glass body seems fragile and is very prone to smudges and fingerprints, but stands out in a crowd. HTC launched the U11 in five hues, and it remains to be seen what colours make it to India. The blue is my personal favourite, but the red is rather nice too. The layered glass design reflects light differently when you see it from different angles, effectively changing the colours depending on available light. So the blue can look purple, while the red changes from anything to orange to gold. The silver unit I have changes to grey or blue, as is evident from the pictures. It’s a personal choice of course, but suffice to say that the overall look is rather unique.
From the front though, the U11 hardly looks any different from others, and I hate that the navigation keys are placed closer to the bottom, just like the U Ultra. Don’t let that be a deal killer though. Just remember to keep the included wiping cloth with you if you hate smudges like I do. Or, use the included transparent case to keep the phone from collecting fingerprints.
Talking about ports and controls placement, things are as they should be – except for the missing 3.5mm audio socket of course.
The U11’s primary shooter has received a score of 90 from DxOMARK, which is the highest ever figure for a smartphone. This one-ups the Google Pixel’s score of 89, and indicates how capable the U11’s shooter really is, at least on paper. The HTC U11 brings exciting camera with it for sure – a 12MP primary sensor with large pixel size, OIS, f/1.7 aperture, PDAF, Auto HDR, and support for 4k, slow-mo and RAW stills shooting, it’s loaded to the gills. It also boasts dual pixel tech, dubbed UltraSpeed Autofocus in this case. At the front is a 16MP sensor, rocking UltraPixel tech for better selfies in low light. There are other goodies too – four microphones placed all around the device enable 3D audio recording while shooting videos, while a new feature called Acoustic Zoom amplifies the sound when you zoom into subjects.
The camera app is quite minimalistic, and includes basic modes like panorama, hyperlapse and slow-mo. There’s a pro mode that offers more creative control and gives you the option of shooting in RAW.
When it comes to the results, I wish I could say that the U11 is the best smartphone shooter there is, but in all earnestness, I can’t. The Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8+ (review) are still the kings of the night, while it’s tough to beat the HDR mode on the Google Pixel / Pixel XL (review). On rare occasions, I noticed some daylight shots from the U11 looking slightly washed out. The night shots looked great for social sharing, but the U11 does seem to boost the ISO quite high in some cases. I could be nitpicking here, but do not let this sour the deal for you – the HTC U11’s cameras are very, very capable. The front camera is extremely solid in terms of the selfies it shoots (there’s a screen flash feature if you need it), while the primary camera captures pristine stills too. Most shots I captured in daylight show lots of detail and nice colours. The 4k and slow-mo video footage also looks quite smooth – no complaints there.
HTC pulled out all the stops when it comes to the raw specs of its latest flagship. The 5.5-inch Super LCD 5 screen rocks 2k resolution, and while it doesn’t match the punchiness of the Samsung Galaxy S8’s Super AMOLED display, it’s still quite capable and vibrant. And then there are the innards – the top-of-the-line Snapdragon 835 processor, 6 gigs of RAM, and 128GB storage. Things hardly get better than this as far as smartphones go. In fact, the variant that I’m using for this review only comes with 4GB RAM and 64GB storage, but the model making its way to India would be the higher-end version. And as things stand, my usage with the 4GB RAM model was butter smooth – apps and games (both regular and heavy), worked smoothly, and I didn’t face any jitters while navigating around or multitasking. Goes without saying that the higher-end model should be even better in terms of performance. The fingerprint sensor integrated into the home button at front works well too.
The 3,000mAh battery is pretty decent – lasting me almost 14 hours on video loop, and easily a full day in real-life, medium usage. The device packs in a bunch of battery-saving modes, and even things get tight, you can juice it up pretty quickly, thanks to Quick Charge 3.0 support.
Software-wise, the U11 runs Android 7.1.1, and I’d have expected nothing less from a new flagship. HTC’s proprietary skin is there on top of course, complete with BlinkFeed and all the staple features from the brand. The Sense Companion assistant that debuted with the U Ultra and U Play is there, and evolved slightly since the last time I used it. It learns from user behaviour and keeping throwing up suggestions or prompts based on hardware state (such as battery levels), location, your calendar appointments, etc. In fact, you get no less than three smart assistants on the U11 – apart from the Google Assistant and the Sense Companion, it also supports Amazon’s Alexa in countries where it’s available. The Google Assistant on the U11 can be invoked straight from standby – thanks to the always-on microphones.
Then there are the usual software features seen on previous HTC devices – BlinkFeed, themes support, and Motion Launch gestures. The latter include double tap to wake up and sleep, swipe up to unlock, swipe left to jump to the home screen, swipe right to launch BlinkFeed and swipe down twice to launch the camera – all from standby.
The phone is loaded on the connectivity front too, covering most standards including dual-band Wi-Fi, NFC, Airplay, DLNA and Miracast. However, it misses out on Bluetooth 5.0 and sticks to v4.2. Bluetooth 5.0 is a feature we saw on the Samsung Galaxy S8+, and is the new standard that enables streaming audio to two wireless speakers / headsets simultaneously. However, the U11 does support Hi-Res audio, and even boasts USonic, the feature that lets you create a custom audio profile suited to your own ears.
And last, but not the least, is the retail box itself. The pair of Type-C based USonic earphones included with the phone support active noise cancelling. Of course, they are no match for noise cancelling headphone from the likes of Bose or Sennheiser, but it’s still nice to get premium ones right in the box. HTC has also corrected the mistake it made with the U Ultra by including a Type-C to 3.5mm adapter in the U11’s box – so you can use your own headphones if you want.
The U11 is all set to land in India very soon [Update – June 16th: the HTC U11 has been launched in India for Rs 51,990] , and as soon as it does, it’s going to be challenged by the Samsung Galaxy S8. The LG G6 (review) is a very strong rival too and in the premium space, all flagships need to go head on with the Apple iPhone 7 Plus (review) anyway. The upcoming OnePlus 5 will also be a big threat too of course. However, I think the U11’s main competition is going to be Samsung’s current flagship. In this scenario, HTC’s flagship contender is looking at a tough battle ahead. I don’t have a price for the U11 yet, and HTC’s pricing strategy hasn’t been great in the past. That said, I do expect the brand to set an aggressive price for its latest flagship this time around. However, do keep in mind that it’s a premium device – so expect a price upwards of half a lakh ruppes. HTC’s decision to launch the 6GB RAM variant in India makes sense, given how spec-obsessed most of us are. And if it can price the smartphone well, I think the HTC U11 makes for a compelling purchase. It packs in a smorgasbord of features, frills and bundled goodies, and offers the looks, performance and camera capabilities expected from a top-end, premium smartphone. Combined with the handy Edge Sense built in, the new smartphone from HTC looks like a complete package, and one that can match anything else out there. The U11 I think, brings back HTC into the reckoning in the premium flagship space, and just for that, deserves a long, hard, and careful look.
Editor’s rating: 4 / 5
- Looks gorgeous
- Innovative and useful Edge Sense features
- Capable cameras and smooth performance
- Comes with ANC earphones
- Fingerprint magnet
- Lacks 3.5mm audio socket
- Misses out on Bluetooth 5.0
Photos by Raj Rout