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HTC U Ultra Review: Glossing Over The Cracks

HTC is still hanging on in there as a smartphone option for many, despite some notable failures in their recent past. With Samsung currently the largely undisputed king of delivering Android handsets and Apple sitting out on their own with iOS, HTC has seemingly fallen behind LG, Huawei and other manufacturers as a choice for consumers. Whether this is down to marketing, past experiences with the handsets, price, release date, or a combination thereof is up for debate. One thing isn’t; HTC haven’t progressed their offering proportionally in line with the competition. They look to start to right that ship with the HTC U Ultra, their 2017 flagship, and we review it here.

Huge thanks to our friends over at Clove UK for the loan unit – head on over for a huge array of smartphones and peripherals!

HTC U Ultra

HTC U UltraLet’s dive right in with what you get in the box. It’s a stacked little box actually. Nice and white like most HTC packages, but inside you get:

  • The HTC U Ultra obviously
  • SIM removal tool
  • Clear hard plastic case
  • A hefty user guide
  • Wall adapter
  • USE Type-A to USB Type-C charging cable
  • Ear buds

Nice to see ear buds making a return to smartphone unboxings with it being hit or miss whether manufacturers include them in the last generation of devices.

Specs – HTC U Ultra

  • 5.7″ QHD Super LCD 5 display (1440 x 2560) with Corning Gorilla Glass 5
  • Secondary 2.05″ display up top with 160 x 1040 pixels
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 SoC  with Adreno 530 GPU
  • Android 7.0 Nougat
  • 64GB internal storage with expandable storage up to 256GB via microSD
  • 4GB RAM
  • 12MP rear facing camera with 1/2.3″ sensor, max. aperture of f/1.8, OIS, laser and phase detection autofocus and dual-LED flash, capable of 4K video at 30fps
  • 16MP front facing camera capable of 1080p video recording
  • WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.2, GPS, NFC, Fingerprint sensor, USB Type-C port
  • 3000 mAh battery

Quite the specs, however due to the release schedule of HTC, they were on the cusp of  the next-gen Snapdragon chips and as such are behind competitors such as Samsung’s Galaxy S8 which has a later chipset. Still, the 4GB RAM, 64GB internal storage, QHD display, and optics all look on par with other manufacturers, on paper. The proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating however.

First Impressions & Overview – HTC U Ultra

HTC U Ultra

I was a huge HTC fan and still have them in my heart. From the first time I held an HTC TyTN, or XDA Orbit, through to the Google Nexus One, and into the HTC One M7 era, I’ve just loved their build quality. I was actually a fan of the original incarnation of Sense too, TouchFlo 3D which I used on my old Windows Mobile devices. However, since then, HTC has seemingly been stuck at the same cross roads. Corners were cut, and whilst the design of devices continue to be great, along with build quality, their feature set has been derivative and their software had been bloated until the last couple of generations.

The HTC U Ultra sees a return to form, of sorts.

From the moment you pickup this device, not only will you feel its elegance and curves, but you’ll damn near drop the thing! The glass coating on the back is the most slippery back of a device since the Nexus 4, and in my opinion beats that into second place. Sitting on a flat surface it has no issue wiggling its way on to the floor. Sadly this is one beautiful phone where I’d suggest equipping the case people!

As you look at the device, the textured power button sits in the centre of the right hand side of the HTC U Ultra, with the non-textured volume rocker above it. There is nothing to see but the sleek curve of the device on the left hand side. Up top is the SIM and microSD card tray with a pinhole mic (don’t mistake that for the SIM ejection port people!), and down on the bottom edge is the Type-C port, another pinhole mic, and the speaker. Around front is a centrally located earpiece, with the front facing 16MP camera offset to the left alongside a notification LED. Below that is of course the primary and secondary displays, with the fingerprint/home button central at the bottom of the screen, with capacitive buttons on either side. Around back, is the humped 12MP rear facing camera and dual-LED flash, and nothing else but glorious glossy glass and of course, fingerprints!

Performance & Use – HTC U Ultra

The HTC 10 was lauded as a return to form by most for HTC, and performance was one area that it delivered on, acceptably enough, for general real world use. The same can be said for the HTC U Ultra here too. Skipping through menus, jumping into the camera for a quick snap, playing our staple games and viewing media is all handled with absolute easy thanks to the SoC included. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 is a powerful chip and it almost makes you forget about the 810 of a few years back which hampered many a device. Couple that chip choice with 4GB of RAM and multi-tasking is a breeze also.

We ran a suite of synthetic benchmarks for those that pay attention to such things and the HTC U Ultra did well enough getting decent scores. Real world usage is much more of an indication of ability for the average consumer however and it simply flew through our tasks daily. You’ll notice that in the AnTuTu benchmark, the HTC U Ultra is way behind many last gen devices. We haven’t seen any issues in gameplay however.

Audio quality is another area that HTC have always made a big deal of. HTC Boomsound returns in a slightly different form here. Gone are the two front facing speakers of yesteryear, with one front speaker in situ on the 2017 flagship which is used in conjunction with the bottom edge speaker in “Theater Mode” which is supposed to convey a surround sound feel, and it falls slightly short of that but does increase clarity and immersion in some media consumption. Listening to music through headphones is a decent experience as ever however. I’d prefer to see the return of the proper Boomsound please HTC.

Moving on to the display. Well, it’s a beauty for sure. The 5.7″ QHD stunner is bright and vibrant and has decent colour accuracy, with the ability to edit the temperature in the software too for finicky types. They’ve also take a leaf straight out of the LG V series of devices and dragged in a secondary display. Like LG’s implementation, or Samsung’s Edge functionality, HTC allows you to view calendar entries, add quick app shortcuts, and reminders among others, but the use case is limited. This is coming from somebody that wanted to grab an LG V10 for that very reason. I’m less than enthused after a week or so using it.

One issue with the huge screen of the HTC is that they have done nothing to shore up the screen-to-body ratio of the device to make it hand friendly. Not only do we have the slippery, though gorgeous, glossy glass to contend with, we now have to have Kong-sized hands to hold the device. Comparing this to other 2017 flagships such as the LG G6 and Samsung’s Galaxy S8, the HTC U Ultra has the worst screen to body ratio by some distance at just 69%, and is bigger in every dimension than the competition, aside from thickness. For myself, somebody who has medium-sized hands, it’s just not easy to hold and operate. In 2017 HTC need to be more clever than this.

I will also add here that I found touching the screen very different to any other flagship I’ve ever reviewed, used as a daily device or had hands on with. What I mean by this is that touch points were sometimes not recognised on the first 2-3 tries. Press and hold actions were distinctly difficult as pressing down on such a glossy display sent my fingertip/thumb moving which registered as a swipe and not a press and hold. Furthermore, clean freaks will hate this device. Have a cloth spare at all times if that bothers you. I’m not sure whether it is simply an issue that can be fixed with software, but the touch sensitivity was very strange and detached me from the enjoyment of the display.

Let’s touch on charging and battery life briefly before we move on. Frankly, good battery life, not a lot more. It beat out my ageing OnePlus 3 which is an easy feat, despite them having the same battery capacity, however I could regularly only get  2 hours of screen on time, albeit the device did last a good couple of days without me touching it. The acid test for me has always been a standby time of this length (24-36 hours is fine) which I can easily deliver 3-4 hours of screen on time during it at any point. Sadly, I couldn’t with the HTC U Ultra, and it’s in good company. I’ve been unable to get that on anything in the last year.

Charging the device was speedy thanks to the included Quick Charge technology, however the device gets rather warm when charging which was a little alarm in the wake of recent battery related incidents. No issues came of it however.

Software – HTC U Ultra

HTC U UltraThere’s not much to say here that hasn’t been said already in our HTC 10 review. The software hasn’t really changed a jot here and we’ve still got the colourful skin atop Android Nougat with a few of HTC’s touches. Gone are the days of multiple applications with HTC happy to let Google deliver apps where they better their offering (in their opinion – not always shared).

I don’t mind the aesthetic HTC is throwing up currently, but I’m not a fan of their homescreen implementation at all. With larger devices, to have an app drawer that leaves as much space as it does, even in the tightest configuration you can set, is criminal. What a waste!

That aside, the theme engine is back in full force, but I wish they didn’t force an HTC account down your throat to use it. Font changes, colour customisation, icon changes and more are all on offer here and we’re thankful that HTC is keen to let their software, in the back-end at least, be stock. Settings and options are all where one would expect and HTC’s additions such as HTC Boomsound configuration and their Secondary Display options are all neatly nestled in and formatted as stock. Nice.

Camera – HTC U Ultra

HTC U Ultra

Ahh, the camera. HTC hasn’t had the bets of times during their Ultrapixel experiment, and with the optic packages of flagship devices now judged alongside, if not more heavily than, general performance, they need to ensure they knock this one out of the park.

Nope, they don’t quite manage that, but they do deliver a decent point and shoot device.

Standard modes are available with ease, as is the manual mode which gives greater control over the ISO, focus and white balance of the shot to be taken which is fine. The viewfinder itself is simple and clear, and there aren’t too many options to clutter it up but enough to provide general point-and-shooters with what they need.

HTC U Ultra

HTC U UltraThe issues start to creep in when you look deeper however. For example, want to change the resolution of your photo? Cool, but you’ll have to tap and toggle through all the options to get to what you want rather than pick from a list. This goes for video resolution selection too. Want to take more than a 6 minute 4K video? Cool, you’ll have to take multiple as 6 minutes is apparently the longest it will take in one sitting. How about you fancy taking multiple shots in HDR mode? Again, no problem, we got you, simply wait an age for the post-processing and then press the button again, you know, like it’s not really continuous. Burst mode does fire in non-HDR situations however and I understand the processing element of HDR, but if I have my finger on that button, it should shoot again as soon as it’s ready – it doesn’t.

These little irritants are enough to detract from what is otherwise a good, if not remarkable shooter.

The Pro mode is okay, but the controls are juddery and sensitive and don’t really give you the feel you’re in control. I’m not a professional photographer by any means, so they might have a different take as you can get some lovely shots with this mode, but I found it very hit and miss, especially with macro shots.

Surprisingly, I actually preferred the front facing camera to the rear on this device. Perhaps it was down to how I was using it, but perhaps as a vlogging tool this would server those users well?

Overall the optics here aren’t poor. They’re decent. They just aren’t on par with the competition and you have to say that has been the case for many years over at HTC. There is the school of thought here that the selfie generation won’t really care as they filter the hell out of their pictures, something HTC allows you to do natively here, but that’;s not really a defence when you have a mode entitled “Pro” is it?

Conclusion – HTC U Ultra

Summing up the HTC U Ultra is a difficult task for me. I want HTC to do well, and I always have. I’ve been part of their Elevate program, and I’ve owned more HTC-manufactured devices than any other. In all good conscience I can’t suggest that the HTC U Ultra is anything more than an HTC 10 in a nicer body though. The software feels the same, performance is marginally improved, and the optics seem very similar.

Factor that alongside the £620 price tag and you’re paying for a form that delivers aesthetically, but a function that is at the lower end of the flagships on offer.

This isn’t a bad phone at all taken in isolation. That’s backed up by the score that’s been given to it in this review. If this was the only phone on the market with these specifications I’d be all over it and I wouldn’t feel terrible about using it every day. Hell, I didn’t during the review period. That said, I am not sorry to see it leave, and there are more options out that which does nothing to help the HTC U Ultra’s cause. The strength of that competition is the issue HTC need to start to contend with. Is it acceptable in 2017 to be okay at everything and command a flagship price point?

If HTC were a Premier League football team, they’d be Arsenal currently. They look great, have some stand out features, but flatter to deceive when it comes to the crunch, and seemingly have owners who are happy enough sitting at the bottom of the top tier. Take a glance over at the strides Huawei have made HTC – take a leaf from their book perhaps otherwise all you’ll continue to do is gloss over the cracks.

HTC U Ultra

£620
HTC U Ultra
7.2

Build Quality

9/10

    Camera

    7/10

      Performance

      8/10

        Battery Life

        7/10

          Value

          6/10

            Pros

            • Lovely finish and build
            • Good performance
            • Acceptable battery life

            Cons

            • Slippery as all hell
            • Unremarkable optical package
            • Large device

            About Craig Bradshaw

            Tech enthusiast and Editor-in-Chief of MobileTechTalk

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