HTC has been struggling with its smartphones business for the past few years, and it has also cut down on the number of product launches per year. After last year’s HTC 10, we haven’t really seen any serious innovation coming from HTC. Not only did the recently launched HTC 10 evo not bring much to the table, but it featured the dated and problematic Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 SoC. Now, while we have been waiting for the successor to the HTC 10, the company has launched a premium smartphone under a completely new series called ‘U’.
The HTC U Ultra is a steeply priced device at Rs 59,990. However, for this price, the smartphone brings a new and refreshing design, a secondary display on top of the main display, audio enhancements and an AI-based companion that offers suggestions based on things you do. I’ve been using HTC smartphones since the Touch Diamond days, having used the Nexus One, Desire HD, and my current smartphone – the One M8. Last year, I reviewed the HTC 10, and was completely impressed, but didn’t feel the need to upgrade.
Now, with the U Ultra launched, things are confusing once again. Apart from the high price tag, most manufacturers are gearing up to launch their 2017 flagship smartphones running on Snapdragon 835 SoC. HTC has used last year’s Snapdragon 821 SoC on the U Ultra, which is a questionable decision. Additionally the secondary display tech is not new; we have already seen the on LG’s V10 and V20 smartphones, both of which haven’t fared too well. Does the HTC U Ultra have enough tricks up its sleeve to justify the Rs 59,990 price tag? Read my detailed review to find out. ALSO READ: HTC 10 review: Impressive, but shy of being brilliant
HTC U Ultra Design and Build
Let me be honest; the U Ultra looks gorgeous. In India, the smartphone is offered in blue and black color variant, and our review unit is the blue one. For the past few years, HTC’s flagship smartphones featured metal unibody design, but that changes with the U Ultra. This time around the company is going with a metal frame sandwiched between front and back glass.
HTC calls it the ‘liquid 3D design’ where the glass panel on the back looks like glittering liquid, and reflects light. Sure, it does, but one of the major problems is that it’s also a fingerprint magnet, and you will often find yourself wiping it clean to retain the smartphone’s shiny look. But there is one notable point here; while most smartphones with glass panels tend to easily slip out of your hands especially when your palms are sweaty, the same doesn’t happen with the U Ultra. HTC has also included a hard case in the packaging, but this takes away from the otherwise excellent look and feel of the phone.
Up front, you have the secondary display, front camera module and earpiece above the main display, and the ‘back’ and app switcher buttons on either side of the fingerprint sensor. The sensor is pretty quick in unlocking the device, and it works pretty well with moist fingers too. However, there’s something off about the alignment; it isn’t symmetrical with the amount of space on the bottom bezel. In fact, for the first couple of days, I struggled with the capacitive buttons as well, as they are placed a little lower than usual.
Turn to the back and you have the primary camera module with a noticeable bump, a dual tone LED flash and laser auto-focus module. The hybrid SIM-card tray is at the top, while the USB Type-C port is placed at the bottom. On the right edge, you have the volume rocker and a power / sleep button with a distinct pattern that makes it easily distinguishable to your fingers.
HTC U Ultra Specifications
The U Ultra has a 5.7-inch Super LCD 5 QHD display with a resolution of 2560×1440pixels and Corning Gorilla Glass 5 protection. HTC has used a top-notch panel that reproduces punchy colors, with deeper blacks and brighter whites. Text is razor sharp, the screen is pretty bright with good legibility under direct sunlight and the display offers good viewing angles too. Bluelight filters have become a norm these days, and the same is present on the U Ultra too – it causes less strain on your eyes, especially at night or when using the phone for many hours at a stretch.
Newly launched 2017 flagship smartphones such as the LG G6 and the Sony Xperia XZ Premium support HDR on the display, and HTC missing out on the feature could hurt it in the specification war. The U Ultra is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 quad-core SoC clocked at 2.15GHz. The chipset is made on 14nm fabrication process and it’s well balanced to offer sheer power and efficiency. It is paired with 4GB of RAM, and 64GB built-in storage, and a microSD slot for further expansion for up to a theoretical 2TB is also present. However, as it is a hybrid slot, you can either use two nano-SIM cards or one nano-SIM and one microSD card.
HTC U Ultra Secondary Display
One of the key highlights of the U Ultra is its secondary display that sits right above the primary display. With a resolution of 150×1040 pixels, the secondary screen acts like a ticker to display notifications – weather, time, calendar alerts, quick notes, toggles and also quick shortcuts for your apps. If you don’t want it, there is an option to turn it off, but that would be switching off one of the phone’s key features.
The display is usually turned off, but the moment you pick up the U Ultra, the secondary screen lights up to display relevant notifications, even when the main screen is off. The good part is that you can have control over the display, so sensitive information such as your chats, emails and text messages are not shown when the device is locked, but this would effectively make the screen redundant.
It’s not a novel idea; LG has already tried it with its V10 and V20 smartphones. During my time with the U Ultra, I didn’t find myself actively using the secondary display. In fact, the only times that I actually used it was just because it’s there, and it’s really just a gimmick that you might not necessarily find yourself using actively.
The U Ultra has one other issue too: light bleed. This isn’t something I’ve noticed on other smartphones, and you’ll see it in the dark around the top edge of the main display. Now, whether the light bleed is coming from the secondary display or a part of the main display is anyone’s guess, but its not something that I expect on a device with a ‘premium’ price tag.
HTC U Ultra Software and Performance
On the software front, the U Ultra runs on Android 7.0 Nougat based on Sense UI 8. Unlike the once heavily bloated interface, HTC has done away with heavy customization. You have the typical HTC launcher, and sliding from left to right on the home screen opens the Blinkfeed interface, where you have a customized news feed from apps like News Republic and social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
The notification panel has an interface like the stock one, and you get all the Nougat goodies such as bundled notifications, split screen multi-tasking and more. In terms of pre-installed apps, you get Zoe Video Editor, Viveport to connect to HTC Vive VR headset, UnderArmour’s Record app to log your fitness activities from an Android Wear smartwatch, and News Republic, the news aggregator app.
The combination of Snapdragon 821 SoC and 4GB of RAM is good enough to ensure smooth running and top-end performance. During my time with the phone, I didn’t come across a single moment where the U Ultra felt under-powered or had any lag. Everything seems well optimized, and the smartphone is able to handle almost anything that your throw at it, be it watching 4K videos, playing graphics intense games or more. Of course, we haven’t seen what the upcoming Snapdragon 835 is capable of yet, and that is likely to have some visible and significant improvement over the Snapdragon 821.
HTC Sense Companion
A lot of smartphone makers are working on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and HTC doesn’t want to be left behind. At the launch of the U Ultra and U Play, the Taiwanese company briefly talked about its ‘HTC Sense Companion’ app. It learns from your usage patterns and offers recommendation on places to eat, changes in weather, information on bad traffic around you, upcoming meetings, reminders to charge the smartphone when you have a meeting scheduled and more.
Sadly, the app doesn’t come pre-installed and you need to download it from Google Play Store. When the Sense Companion is turned on, the notifications arrive on the lock-screen or on the second screen. However, even seven days after installing the HTC Sense Companion, I didn’t see a single notification that was particularly interesting to me. Yes, it is in the early stages, but it would have been nice to see something out-of-the-box being offered. We already have Google Now and Google Assistant, which has now made its way to all Marshmallow and Nougat based devices, and it does a better job on the whole.
HTC U Ultra Multimedia
Audio has also been a key focus area for HTC with its smartphones, and the U Ultra comes with Qualcomm’s Aqstic audio codec. And after Apple’s ‘courageous’ move to remove the 3.5mm headphone jack, HTC has gotten rid of the legacy analog audio port too.
The audio is routed via Bluetooth or the USB Type-C port. HTC has bundled high-quality in-ear headphones compatible with Type-C connector. The moment you start listening to music on these headphones, you’ll instantly notice the difference in sound quality. And while the quality may not appeal to audiophiles, it is top-notch compared to the stock headphones bundled by most brands.
The U Ultra also supports playback of Hi-Res Audio. The combination of the Snapdragon 821 SoC, DAC and a third party app like HibyMusic also let’s you enjoy listening to ultra high-quality songs in DFF format. Furthermore, HTC has also added the USonic enhancement, which detects sound levels around your environment to determine the best level of audio output. ALSO READ: Ok Google, your Pixel smartphones are impressive
Just like the HTC 10, the U Ultra also features the Boomsound audio enhancement, where the earpiece doubles as a ‘tweeter’ and the bottom firing speaker takes care of the mids and low frequencies. In terms of equalizer settings, you do get two modes to choose from: music and theatre mode. While music mode enhances vocals, theater-mode adds surround sound effect. The combination of both speakers offer loud and clear output, whether you’re watching movies or listening to music. Overall, HTC has done a good job to ensure that the U Ultra offers a good audio experience.
HTC U Ultra Camera
There was a time when HTC once had an industry-leading camera experience on its devices, but things changed with the original HTC One and its sub-par UltraPixel camera. The One M8 and One M9 were no different, but then came the HTC 10. It featured the best camera on any HTC phone, but again fell short to competition such as the Galaxy S7 and iPhone 7. ALSO READ: Samsung Galaxy S7 Review: The perfect smartphone money can buy
Now, for the U Ultra, HTC is still using the same 12-megapixel (UltraPixel 2.0) sensor with aperture of f/1.8 and large 1.55-micron pixels. The camera also includes optical image stabilization (OIS), phase detection and laser auto-focus. On paper, you have everything that you could possibly ask for in a smartphone camera, but does the performance live up to the expectations?
Let me first talk about the camera interface. It’s as slick and simple as the one we’ve seen on the HTC 10. Along the bottom, you have the front and rear camera switcher button on the bottom left, followed by the video camera, still camera shutter button and the quick access to gallery shortcut.
Along the top, you have HDR toggle on the left, LED flash toggle on the right, and drop down in the middle which gives you access to different modes such as selfie video, selfie panorama, selfie photo, slow motion video recording, hyperlapse, video and pro mode. With pro mode you get access to control auto white balance, ISO, shutter speed and focus. The U Ultra also includes support for clicking photos in unprocessed RAW format.
The camera app is very fast, and has no shutter lags. Talking about photo quality, the U Ultra is capable of capturing some good photos in broad daylight. But the photo quality isn’t consistent enough when compared to competition such as Galaxy S7 and iPhone 7.
Most outdoor photos looked good, but I noticed the sky blown out at times. And with HDR mode on, some amount of purple fringing in photos is noticeable too. Take a look at the camera samples below.
(Photos have been resized for web, click on them to view full-resolution photos)
Close-up shots look good. The foreground is clearly focused whereas the background has shallow depth-of-field. The colors captured by the camera module are accurate and well saturated too.
Low-light shots also look good, but the sensor becomes too sensitive to light at times. Below are some photos captured in auto mode.
To get better pictures, adjusting the exposure levels manually does the trick. Be careful with this as lowering the exposure levels too much could make the photos completely dark. Check out some of the camera samples below.
For selfies and video calling, the U Ultra comes with a 16-megapixel (UltraPixel) front-facing camera. Selfies captured in daylight look good, but the low-light ones are a bit tricky. You can choose the aspect ratio between 1:1 and 16:9 (9-megapixel). You can also click 4-megapixel, 2-megapixel, 16-megapixel and 4:3 UltraPixel selfies. Out of all, the ones shot in UltraPixel and 16-megapixel resolution look good and detailed.
For low-light selfies, the screen flash mode is also present. It does a good job of lighting up the scene, but grain is noticeable when you view the photos on the PC. Still, it is better than most smartphone cameras out there.
The U Ultra also supports 4K video recording at 30fps, slow-motion video recording at 240fps, and full-HD video recording at 60fps. I shot some videos to test the quality and they looked pretty good. My only complaint is that the area around the back gets slightly warm when recording videos for over three minutes.
HTC U Ultra Battery Life
The U Ultra packs in a 3,000mAh battery, which is a bit small when compared to other smartphones in the premium price segment and for a large screen device. The smartphone also comes with support for Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0 technology for fast charging. The technology helps the smartphone battery to quickly charge from 0-100 percent in about an hour-and-thirty-minutes. In terms of battery life, the U Ultra manages to run for a full day on a single charge, with screen-on time going up to five hours.
I’ve always had Wi-Fi, 4G, Bluetooth and GPS on all the time, as well as a smartwatch connected 24×7. Even with auto-sync on all the time, I could go without charging up for the entire day. However, on days when I had heavy usage, the U Ultra would need a top-up sometime around the evening. While this is not something that you would expect on a 2017 flagship smartphones, but it is acceptable as such.
With the U Ultra, HTC has got the basics right for the flagship smartphone. It has top-of-the-line specifications that you’d need for smooth day-to-day performance. Right from the gorgeous design and sturdy build quality, to the crisp and punchy display, and good audio performance, there are things that HTC got right.
However, there are some misses too. For instance, the camera is good, but it’s not consistent. Also, while other manufacturers will be launching Snapdragon 835 SoC based smartphones soon, HTC’s 2017 flagship smartphone is stuck on last year’s Snapdragon 821 chipset. The addition of a secondary display is questionable, as it may not always be useful, and looks more like a gimmick. The HTC Sense Companion is also out of place and has nothing exceptional to offer when you compare it to Google Assistant.
There’s no headphone jack, which might be an issue if you already have a good pair of wired headphones. While competition such as iPhone 7, Galaxy S7, and the recently launched LG G6 feature water and dust resistance, the same is missing from HTC’s premium smartphone. Also, while the metal frame makes it difficult to add wireless charging, the presence of glass design poses no issue at all in adding the feature, making it a missed opportunity for HTC.
With a number of misses, HTC is still charging a premium of Rs 59,990 for the U Ultra, which is questionable as the Samsung Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 edge are available for much less. The Pixel and Pixel XL may be a little more expensive, but being Google phones you are assured software updates as and when they are rolled out. Even the OnePlus 3T with similarly top-end hardware can be purchased at half the price of the HTC U Ultra. However, it isn’t a bad phone by any means, and you won’t be disappointed with it by any means.