HTC U11 smartphone review: A return to form
Overview, Design, Display, & Audio
Note: This article was first published on 25th June 2017.
It feels like almost every flagship smartphone in recent memory has had some kind of gimmick to help separate it from the crowd: the LG G6 and Samsung Galaxy S8 have ultra-tall screens, Motorola's Z Play has its modular accessories, Sony's XZ Premium can shoot video footage at 960FPS, and Huawei's P10 Plus has its Leica-branded double camera monochrome/RGB setup. Not to be left out, HTC's new U11 also has a unique trick: it's the first squeezable smartphone. Okay, let's be honest, that sounds pretty silly, but HTC really believes it's the next big breakthrough in smartphone interaction.
More importantly, HTC hasn't neglected the other parts of the phone - like the display, processor, audio and camera - with improvements in all of these key areas. The result is a surprisingly good smartphone, in fact it's probably the best device HTC has made in years.
The U11 shares the same design as the U Ultra and U Play, launched earlier this year. HTC calls this design "Liquid Surface Construction" and it's easy to see why. The entire back of the phone is ultra glossy, curved Gorilla Glass 3, with a reflective, mirror-like surface that looks almost like water. The glass itself is color treated during production, with layers of different colors added as the glass is being formed, resulting in a gorgeous color-shifting finish that reminds me of the custom paint jobs you sometimes see on high-end exotic cars. The only drawback to a finish like this is it's an absolute fingerprint and smudge magnet.
Sapphire Blue, Brilliant Black and Ice White, first seen on the U Ultra, all make a return, alongside two brand new shades: Amazing Silver and Solar Red. Our review unit is Amazing Silver, which looks silver in some angles, and light blue or purple in others. Solar Red has strong gold overtones - HTC likens it to the color of a sunset. Amazing Silver will launch with the phone in June, while Solar Red will be available at a later date.
HTC has also made a few improvements on the design from the U Ultra: the U11 is now IP67 dust and water resistant, meaning it can be fully submerged in 1m of water for up to 30 minutes. The ugly camera bump on the rear is gone too, the new rear camera is sleek and flush with the back of the phone.
The front of the phone isn't as exciting as the rear, as HTC has stuck to a 5.5-inch display with a familiar 16:9 aspect ratio, rather than the ultra wide-screen formats adopted by LG and Samsung. The bezels on the side of the phone are also quite thick and, unlike the U Ultra, the U11 doesn't have a secondary display above the main one.
Below the display, the oblong home button doubles up as a fingerprint scanner, and is flanked by capacitive Back and Recent keys. The fingerprint scanner is a little skinny for my liking, but it's responsive and works well. The capacitive navigation buttons are also a little on the small side and, as I mentioned in my U Ultra review, I wish they were centered properly - there's a massive amount of unused space above the home button and soft keys.
The power button and volume rocker are both found on the right side, while the combination nano-SIM and microSD card slot is found on top.
On the bottom of the phone there's a single USB-C port and that's it - like the U Ultra, the U11 doesn't have a 3.5mm headphone jack. The small slit next to the USB port that looks like a card slot is actually a uniquely-shaped speaker grille.
Display & Audio
While the bezel around the display could be a bit thinner, the screen itself is top-notch. The 5.5-inch Super LCD 5 panel has a QHD 2,560 x 1,440 pixels resolution (~540ppi) with great colors. As with most LCD panels, contrast isn't as good as Samsung's AMOLED panels, and at maximum brightness, it's not quite as bright either, but it's still bright enough to be used easily under direct sunlight. One drawback to the display is that, unlike most other flagship smartphones, it is not compatible with Mobile HDR content.
HTC phones have always had above average audio performance, and the U11 is no exception. The U11 sports HTC's BoomSound Hi-Fi edition speakers. Like the U Ultra and HTC 10, the stereo speakers use the earpiece speaker and a single downward-firing speaker on the bottom of the phone rather than two dedicated front-facing speakers like old HTC phones. Having said that, HTC tells us that the internal speaker design has been improved, with the entire body of the phone now acting as a resonant acoustic chamber, resulting in louder sound and deeper bass. Sound quality is excellent for a smartphone, and is noticeably louder and with more bass than the HTC U Ultra.
HTC also bundles a pair of its USB-C USonic earphones with the U11, which feature a built-in DAC, active noise cancelation and a custom feature that creates an optimized audio profile by scanning the inside of your ear canals. The earphones are quite good, and are easily superior to almost every other bundled earphones out there.
If you prefer to use your own headphones, thankfully, the U11 also comes supplied with a USB-C to 3.5mm jack dongle. According to HTC, this dongle actually has its own built-in performance-grade DAC, which should enhance your listening experience, no matter what headphones you plug into it. Personally, I didn't notice much of a difference, but your mileage may vary.
Finally, it's worth noting that the U11 continues HTC's support of Hi-Res Audio files, so you’ll be able to get the full experience from any music you throw on it.