HTC U11 Review – The Squeezable Superphone

June 19, 2017 - Written By Nick Sutrich

The best smartphone camera on the market paired with a gorgeous design.

2017 is clearly the year of change when it comes to mobile devices, and HTC is no exception to this trend. Ditching the years of unibody metal phones, HTC has opted for a complete name and design change with its 2017 phones, starting with the recently released HTC U Ultra. The irony is that the true flagship from HTC isn’t the Ultra though, it’s the curiously named U11, a phone that features the same size 5.5-inch screen of the U Ultra, but without the secondary display. The U11 amps things up everywhere else though, sporting an IP67 water and dust resistant body, the latest in mobile processing technology, and tons of extras packed inside the box. It’s also got the absolute highest rated smartphone camera of all time from DxOMark, the standard in camera benchmarks. How well does it compete with the pack this year? Let’s take a look.

Video Review

Specs

HTC has stepped up its game from just the recently released U Ultra and beefed up the specs of the U11 considerably. Sporting a 5.5-inch Quad-HD display (2560 x 1440, 534 ppi), HTC has outfitted the U11 with Gorilla Glass 5 protecting it on the front and back for extra scratch resistance. Underneath the hood sits the cutting-edge Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 octo-core System-on-Chip (SoC), which is made up of 8 2.45Ghz Kryo 280 CPU cores and an Adreno 540 GPU. You’ll find 4GB of LPDDR4 RAM alongside 64GB of UFS 2.1 speed internal storage, as well as support for microSD cards for expandable storage. A 3,000mAh battery with QuickCharge 3.0 capabilities powers the experience, and a USB Type-C port is the only port you’ll find on the phone. Stereo speakers are also present on the U11, with one residing in the earpiece up top, and one residing on the bottom edge next to the USB Type-C port. There’s also a brand new squeezable element on the side of the phone, allowing users to literally squeeze the device to perform certain functions.

The U11 is a more svelte device despite the design similarities to the U Ultra, and features basically no camera hump on back for its new 12-megapixel UltraPixel3 camera. This rear camera features f/1.7 aperture, HDR Boost, a BSI sensor, 1.4-micron pixel size, optical image stabilization as well as UltraSpeed dual-pixel PDAF focusing technology. A 16-megapixel sensor with a 120-wide angle f/2.0 lens is found on the front. HTC supports high-red 24-bit audio output via the USB Type-C port or using the included 3.5mm audio jack adapter, as well as HTC’s USonic active noise cancellation earphones. The U11 records 3D audio and features BoomSound enhancements for all types of audio output. HTC Even made the U11 IP67 water and dust resistant, something the U Ultra doesn’t feature. The U11 supports dual-band WiFi up to 802.11ac speeds, and Bluetooth 4.2 is here, as well as NFC support and a front-facing fingerprint scanner for mobile payments. Android 7.1.1 Nougat is installed on the phone, and it measures in at 153.9mm tall by 75.9mm wide by 7.9mm thin, and weighs 169 grams. The U11 comes in Amazing Silver, Brilliant Black, Ice White, Sapphire Blue and Solar Red colors and retails for $649/£649/€749.

In The Box

HTC has been packing a lot of value into its phone boxes lately, and the U11 adds one important piece that seems to have been forgotten on the U Ultra: a 3.5mm headset jack converter. This small cable features a USB Type-C port on one end, and a 3.5mm audio jack on the other, giving customers immediate use of their 3.5mm audio accessories like headphones and car audio units even though the phone itself doesn’t feature this jack. Also included in the box is the usual set of manuals and SIM eject tool, a microfiber cloth for wiping all the smudges on the phone’s glass exterior, and a clear plastic case for providing some additional basic protection for the phone out of the box. HTC also includes a USB Type-A to Type-C cable for connectivity to devices like PCs and laptops, and a QuickCharge 3.0 wall adapter for ultra fast charging.

Display

HTC has brought its SuperLCD tech along for another ride with the U11, and it’s doing so with the best panel the company has ever put on its phones. Sporting a 5.5-inch size and Quad-HD resolution (2560 x 1440, 534 ppi), this panel looks as crisp as you should expect in 2017 from a flagship. There’s no resolution trickery here either, it’s running at full resolution without down-scaling, unlike some other flagships this year. Color accuracy and white balance here are nearly unmatched, with essentially perfect white balance that will make any screen look blue, green or yellow depending on how off it might be. It’s always impressive holding up a screen with perfect white balance next to one that doesn’t have such markers, and this is one such screen you can compare others against.

Black levels are the usual for an IPS panel though, and air on the side of good when the brightness is low, while turning obviously gray when the brightness gets jacked up. HTC offers the now-standard Night Mode for the screen, which can automatically adjust the panel to a much warmer hue at night to attempt to line up with your body’s circadian rhythm, thus allegedly granting better sleep for late night phone users. Refresh rate and pixel persistence is fantastic on this phone, unlike HTC’s last two generations of screens, and features little to no blurring while scrolling. Sunlight visibility is great too, although it’s not quite the best on the market, and the panel can go super dark in lower light conditions to help with eye strain. HTC even includes a glove mode, which allows the use of the touch screen even when wearing regular gloves, a godsend for users who live in colder climates and don’t want to buy special touch gloves. There are also a number of gestures built in to the system that allow actions to be performed while the screen is off and held in portrait mode, such as double tapping to wake the phone, or swiping down twice to launch the camera, among others.

Hardware and Build

While HTC has completely changed its design language this year, the U11 still looks and feels like a high quality HTC-built phone all the way through. Instead of using the unibody metal construction that the company founded so many years ago, HTC has opted for a full curved glass back to aid in water resistance, and likely to keep up with design trends in the mobile industry too. This results in a phone that feels just as premium as a metal one, since glass is also considered premium among smartphone enthusiasts, however it’s one that is significantly more fragile because of it, and likely more slippery too. Glass also has a nasty habit of becoming easily smudged, something that’s annoying to say the least, and there doesn’t appear to be any sort of heavy oleophobic coating here to prevent fingerprints and smudges either. On the bright side the move to glass enabled HTC to make the U11 fully water and dust resistant with an IP67 rating.

The U11 feels incredibly solid to say the least, with a thin, strong metal frame that runs fully around the edge of the phone, and curved glass on the back to better fit in the hand. True to expectations, HTC has been able to make the HTC U11 over 1mm thinner than last year’s HTC 10 by removing the 3.5mm audio jack from the phone. This trend has been revving up steam in the mobile market since the beginning of last year when LeEco debuted its first phone without a 3.5mm jack, and many OEMs are also removing this jack in hopes of thinner phones and digital media adoption. This time around HTC includes a USB Type-C to 3.5mm audio jack adapter in the box, something the recently released U Ultra didn’t have. Dongles are annoying to have to remember to carry around, but it’s at least a way to provide backwards compatibility for those of us that still rely on the ubiquitous 3.5mm audio cable to drive speakers.

Oh yes, it’s super shiny

The downside of only having a single USB Type-C port on the phone is when you need to charge the phone and plug in headphones or other speakers to listen to music. There’s no wireless charging on the U11, so utilizing even the headphones packaged with the U11 is going to be a challenge while needing to charge. HTC packed stereo speakers on the U11 in the same configuration as last year’s HTC 10; one on the bottom of the phone facing downward, and one built into the phone’s earpiece above the screen. A SIM card and microSD tray sits at the top, while the textured metal power button is on the right side near the mid-point, with the volume rocker just above. HTC also stuck with the front-facing fingerprint reader, which is packed inside a capacitive touch home button, flanked by a capacitive back and overview button. These back and overview buttons are tiny and a little too far down the face for my liking, with a large gap between them and the bottom of the screen.

Only one port

Of all the design aspects on this phone that might make it unique, the most unique qualifier here is the part you can’t see, or really even feel for that matter. HTC has outfit the U11 with squeezable sides, but they don’t squeeze the way you might think. The sides of the U11 are all metal, with a rounded trim of glass that slopes up toward the main front of the screen. It’s this sloping section that contains the capacitive sensors for the squeezing mechanism, and it’s only by the squeezing animation in the UI that you’ll know how hard you’re actually squeezing. Pushing into the sides of a metal phone feels odd no matter how you slice it, but thankfully the sensitivity can be adjusted in the settings, meaning that you can choose how difficult it needs to be to squeeze the device to activate the new features. We’ll cover the features of this below in the Software section.

Performance and Memory

The Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 is one of the absolute fastest mobile processing packages on the market, and Qualcomm’s latest and greatest. As one of the few phones out right now powered by the Snapdragon 835, you can expect the best performance you’ll find on a device, especially thanks to HTC’s lauded fast and light skin. The inclusion of UFS 2.1 storage this time around also means that the phone will continue its blazing performance under any kind of stress, as the read/write performance of the U11 is at the top of the top when it comes to mobile phones. Internal storage performance is incredibly important when it comes to sustained performance of every day tasks, and helps to avoid stutters and hitching when the phone is trying to process and load lots of things at once. Gaming performance is as should be expected from the highest of high-end devices out there. Every game we tested, no matter its graphical finesse, ran perfectly smoothly and without hitches. The fast internal storage helps both with fast loading and consistent performance, keeping things smooth and steady as you go.

As Android has evolved, so too have the base set of functions that enable better multi-tasking and user productivity. Multi-window was officially adopted in Android 7.0 Nougat, meaning the HTC U11 is able to run two apps at once out of the box. As is expected from other devices with this functionality, apps will run above and below each other when the phone is held in portrait mode, and on the left and right sides when held in landscape. The usual set of functionality is here too; resizing each app is done by dragging the split bar in the middle of the screen, while switching sides is done via a handy little button that pops up when clicking this bar. Essentially all apps are supported here, so you shouldn’t find many limitations, if any, on the apps that you want to truly multi-task with.

Benchmarks

The HTC U11 hangs with the best of them out there, topping the charts in every benchmark we ran. The only phones you’ll find that are faster, depending on the test of course, are going to be the Exynos-powered varieties of the Samsung Galaxy S8, a model only available outside the US market. Check out the results of the benchmarks run below.

Wireless Connectivity

HTC shipped us the Sprint version of the U11 for testing, which at the time of writing this review was the only US carrier officially carrying the U11. This means that Sprint customers will get the full features of their network, including support for all of Sprint’s LTE+ spectrum, as well as built-in WiFi calling. The unlocked HTC U11, sold both in the US and Worldwide, should support nearly every carrier out there, including support for carrier aggregation (LTE+) and ultra fast LTE-A (4CA) Cat16 1024Mbps download, 75Mbps upload speeds.

The HTC U11 is launching in single and dual-SIM varieties depending on market. Full support for NFC and mobile payments are here, aided of course by the fingerprint scanner, which makes authentication faster, easier and more secure than just using a PIN. HTC has outfitted the U11 with Bluetooth 4.2, a slight disappointment considering Bluetooth 5.0 is now on a few phones out there. You’ll also find support for dual-band WiFi at 2.4GHz and 5GHz, and speeds up to 802.11ac.

Battery Life

Over the years it has become pretty clear who the Android battery life champion is, and HTC continues to work its battery longevity magic with the U11. HTC has consistently put smaller batteries in its phones than other OEMs, all while retaining the same battery life, or better, than its competitors. The U11 features some of the absolute best battery life we’ve ever seen from an Android device, all without having a massive battery that adds extra weight or bulk. I would regularly end a day with around 50% battery left, and even heavier usage days resulted in 30% battery left by the time I headed to sleep.

Standby time is even crazier too, with some aggressive sleep schedules thanks to HTC’s new Boost+ feature, which is enabled by default. The nice thing is that I never experienced delayed notifications due to this battery saving feature either, something not all OEMs can say. I’d regularly find that the phone would only lose 2 to 3 percentage points when leaving it off the charger at night, resulting in a battery that’s still ready to give a few more hours, or maybe even a full day depending on use. The U11 also supports Qualcomm QuickCharge 3.0, meaning around 80% battery recharge in as little as 30 minutes using the included charger, or any number of supported QC3.0 chargers out there.

Sound

For years, HTC featured an audio pedigree that was unmatched among smartphone manufacturers. Having started with Beats and founded the front-facing stereo speaker configuration on its phones, HTC’s smartphone featured the best sound output without comparison. Nowadays there are enough OEMs out there that use some sort of stereo configuration, taking the spotlight away from HTC, and to make matters worse HTC doesn’t even put both speakers on the front anymore. Like last year’s HTC 10, you’ll find the U11 has stereo speakers on its body, with one residing in the earpiece above the screen and one next to the USB Type-C port on the bottom.

While HTC doesn’t have massive bezels on its phones anymore, it would have been nice to see this bottom speaker facing, well, your face. It’s a little more awkward than stereo front-facing speakers, but the quality and volume of these speakers still surpasses many out there and provide sound that can fill a room with clear, clean sound. Sony has the edge now in speakers on the body of a phone, but this is better on-body sound than any of LG, Samsung or Google’s phones will give you without a doubt.

Don’t forget too that HTC has jumped on the bandwagon of removing the 3.5mm audio jack on the device, something none of the aforementioned companies have done. This may make a phone that’s less prone to getting unwanted water or debris in it if you’re taking it on adventures, but the need to have a dongle attached to the only port on the phone, the USB Type-C port, is detrimental if a user needs to charge the phone while listening to music.

You’ll also need to remember the 3.5mm adapter cable if you want to use existing peripherals, and without a mature USB Type-C audio ecosystem out there, it’s not easy to find ways to connect the U11 to external devices unless you use Bluetooth. HTC supports the aptX codec on the U11, which means that if you decide to go Bluetooth for audio and have a compatible accessory, you’ll be hearing some seriously high quality audio that will sound more or less equivalent to wired audio when listening to compressed music files, such as MP3s.

HTC includes their amazing USonic headphones in the box which plug into the USB Type-C port. These earbud type headphones feature active soundscaping to your ear drums and can customize the audio profile via the software-based sound options on the phone. The bass response, overall frequency coverage and everything else used to measure headphones here makes it pretty clear that these aren’t just your regular pack-in headphones; these will likely replace any earbud you own, and maybe even some over the ear type headphones as well.

Software

HTC’s skin has long been one of the fastest, most light Android skins out there, all without compromising on important features. HTC has continued to move toward a more stock Android look for many of its icons and apps, losing that more unique dual-tone look that they harbored for so long. This will likely please more users than anything, but if you really like the original look it’s likely you’ll find an icon pack or theme in HTC’s exhaustive theme store to replace the look. HTC’s theme store is immense, with thousands of customization options to choose from, and the ability to make your own theme and upload it to the store without hassle.

By default the launcher features familiar looking widgets and icons, and maintains the BlinkFeed pane on the left-most side of the home screen. BlinkFeed continues to be one of the best news and content aggregation services out there, and it’s all built into the home screen for easy access.  BlinkFeed will refresh news and social media feeds throughout the day, combining everything into one pane of glass for you to endlessly scroll through. HTC has even updated the Sense launcher to feature Android’s new long-press actions when long-pressing on icons, allowing quick and easy access to common app features by simply long-pressing on its icon on the home screen or in the app drawer.

Gestures are back and better than ever thanks to some intelligent use of the sensors in the phone. HTC utilizes the popular double-tap the power button to launch the camera, as well as three-finger gesture support for apps that allow it. Screen-off gestures like double-tap to wake, swipe up to unlock and others rely on the phone being held in portrait mode first, helping to keep from accidentally pressing things while in a pocket or bag.

HTC Sense Companion is included with the U11, just as it was on the U Ultra, and fulfills what appears to be expected from OEMs in 2017.  Unlike Samsung’s Bixby, however, HTC Sense Companion is more of a suggestion piece that acts like BlinkFeed for real life instead of being a virtual assistant that attempts to replace Google Assistant. In fact Google Assistant is here in all its glory, accessed by long-pressing the home button or saying the “OK, Google” catch phrase.

HTC Sense Companion is designed to give you suggestions for things like restaurants, things to do, when to charge your phone and how much time it has left until empty, the best travel routes to commonly accessed places, upcoming events, weather data, fitness reminders and more. HTC is clearly trying to replace Google Now, if anything, and is working Sense Companion into the system level to utilize as much functionality on the device as possible. Whether or not this is something you’ll leave enabled is another story, but in the review period it was rather useful and did a great job of providing information ahead of needing it.

KeyVPN is included, at least on the Sprint variant of the U11, and gives native VPN access for a large number of different type of VPN connections for those that utilize such a platform for work-related or other activities. Sprint also includes 6 months of access to TIDAL, the high-res streaming service that’s set to take advantage of all the audio capabilities of the HTC U11.

Squeezable Sides

Easily the most unique aspect of the HTC U11 is the squeezable left and right sides of the phone, which give access to a new way of launching shortcuts or apps depending on the context. Upon initial setup you’ll configure the pressure sensitivity of the squeezable sides, which is denoted by a squeezing animation on each side, and measured via a pressure sensitive bar in setup. Since the sides are metal you’ll never feel any sort of feedback as to how hard you’re squeezing, so adjusting this bar to a comfortable level is important if you want to actually use the feature.

By default, squeezing the phone will launch the camera, and squeezing it again while in the camera will take a picture. Advanced mode allows multiple actions to be performed when the device is squeezed, and squeezing is broken down into short press and long press. Options for any of these settings include launching the camera, launching Google Assistant, taking a screenshot, toggling the flashlight, creating an instant voice recording, launching HTC Sense Companion, toggling the WiFi Hotspot, or launching any app installed on the phone. The amount of options here is nothing short of fantastic and likely gives just about anyone a good option for adding an extra easy way to quickly perform tasks or launch common apps on the phone.

Both of these options can be enabled while the screen is off too, giving yet another way to launch apps or start common tasks even without needing to unlock the phone first. Creating a voice memo or launching Google Assistant might be the single most useful options while the screen is off, as they can be powerful ways of managing your day-to-day tasks and reminders without needing to do more than just squeeze the device. Some actions have secondary actions as well, like taking a picture by squeezing once the camera is launched, or toggling Google Assistant for voice typing if the keyboard is open.

Camera Software

Last year HTC changed their camera software pretty drastically, and this year we’re seeing that same software with both the U Ultra and U11 phones from HTC. HTC’s biggest problem with this UI is the relatively slow mode switching, which is really only made slow by the fact that you need to pull down the mode selection menu at the top, and then scroll through a list of horizontally scrolling icons until you find the mode you want. The last mode used is retained as well, so launching the app will automatically launch the last used mode, and HTC at least makes up for the fairly clunky mode switching list by providing a fast switching button on the bottom to move between the last used video and photo modes. This isn’t quite as fast as just having a dedicated shutter and record button there all the time, but it does lessen the pain of the slow mode switching.

HDR is set to automatic mode by default, and the phone does a great job of deciding when to use HDR and when to keep it off. Flash is disabled by default, something that’s great for smartphones since they don’t generally do a great job of illuminating a scene, regardless of flash technology used. Both of these features can be quickly toggled at the top of the screen without needing to enter a settings menu, and the front and rear cameras can be toggled between by clicking the circular arrows next to the shutter button.  Clicking to focus also brings up the exposure slider, and quick swipes up or down on the screen will brings exposure bias higher or lower to illuminate or darken the scene overall.

The U11 features a number of different modes all broken down into four main categories: Pictures, Video, Selfie Pictures and Selfie Video. These categories help make a little more sense of the available modes on the phone, again especially since it takes a bit longer than needed to get to a mode thanks to the horizontally scrolling row of mode icons instead of having a quicker grid. Settings for each mode are found just underneath their mode listing, and include items like aspect ratio, timer, picture format and more. RAW mode is here in all its glory too, giving options for JPEG and RAW capture, scene selection, white balance, exposure, ISO, shutter speed and manual focus.

Camera Performance and Results

Last year HTC pretty drastically changed their camera software UI, for better or worse, but it’s the back-end changes that have the most positive effect on photo and video quality. Utilizing what HTC dubs as the UltraPixel 3 camera, the HTC U11 is likely the finest smartphone camera on the market in any situation, with very few exceptions. Every scenario we tried resulted in a picture that was stunning, and often times looks like a picture not taken from a smartphone at all. HTC seems to have finally struck the perfect balance of a great camera hardware and smart camera software.

HTC is debuting the Ultrapixel 3 sensor with the U11, a sensor that packs over 12-million 1.4-micron sized pixels into a single package. This sounds identical to last year’s HTC 10, however the inclusion of the same dual-pixel PDAF focusing technology and a newer generation sensor result in some significant strides in overall photo quality when compared to last year. In fact it’s not been since the One M7 that we’ve seen this sort of unbelievable camera performance and quality from HTC, and this time around it’s doing it with plenty of resolution to boot. As the name’s pedigree suggests, the Ultrapixel 3 sensor performs incredibly well in any condition; dark, light, movement or not, this camera does everything well without fail.

The new dual-pixel focusing technology puts the U11 on par with the Galaxy S7 and S8 family when it comes to lightning fast focus times in milliseconds, not larger fractions of a second like most phones do. HTC is also utilizing an advanced optical image stabilization motor here to keep things stable even during bumps and shakes, although we’ve seen better performance from some other cameras in this particular category before. Daytime shots and good lighting in general always brings the best out in any picture, regardless of camera, but many smartphone manufacturers are too heavy handed on the processing and often times muddy detail even in good light, but not HTC.

HTC is utilizing some incredible algorithms here that bring out tons of detail in all the right places, all while trying to fight unnecessary amounts of noise where possible. The results are the single most detailed photos you’ll see out of any smartphone on the market, higher megapixel count or not. Every scenario we tried is gorgeous; tons of detail is present, and the new focusing technology means the right thing will be in focus and extra sharp essentially every time. To top it off the dynamic range, color accuracy and white balance are absolutely unmatched on any other smartphone, even Google’s incredible Pixel camera, which up until now has remained the king of smartphone cameras since its launch last Fall.

Low light performance is the best we’ve seen from any smartphone too, and it’s not just detail or illumination that stands out, it’s color accuracy and focusing accuracy as well. You’ll notice in our sample shots below that all the late night shots are clean, clear and well balanced, with the right focal points and crisp results. Even the front-facing camera does an amazing job of keeping things balanced, clean, clear and accurate looking, in both good and poor light.

Video mode is equally as good, although the OIS used here isn’t quite as good or stable as what is found on some other phones. Namely the LG V20 and Sony Xperia XZ Premium can provide better stabilized video, especially when comparing 1080p video, which often features additional digital stabilization as well as hardware OIS. Still the overall balance and shot quality from the U11 is amazing, and the 3D audio recording abilities are simply stellar. Listen to these videos on a home theater system and you’ll feel like you’re right where the phone was in the scene; the 3D audio really is that good. Don’t take our word for it though, check out all the shots and video in the gallery below.

The Good

Shiny new design

IP67 rating

Squeeze sensors are more than gimmicky

The best smartphone camera available

3D audio recording

Amazing audio playback quality

Fantastic on-device stereo speakers

Tons of features, themes and options

Light and ultra fast skin

Phenomenal overall performance

Some of the best battery life around

QuickCharge 3.0 support

Lots of pack-in extras like the USonic headphones

The Bad

Glass build makes this fragile and a fingerprint magnet

Bezels are bigger than some other 2017 phones

No 3.5mm audio jack

Mode switching on the camera is clunky

Conclusion

After years of criticism and declining sales numbers, HTC has come back full force to deliver one of the finest smartphones you’ll find this year, and quite possibly the best phone they’ve ever made. Packing the absolute best camera you’ll find in a smartphone today, the HTC U11 puts HTC back on the map for smartphone cameras, and of course rockets them to the top in the feature. HTC is also delivering some of the most top notch sound reproduction on any phone, including a pair of stereo speakers built right in to the phone to deliver better quality audio than some Bluetooth speakers. The only part of the U11 that remains a bit dull is the SuperLCD 5 IPS display, which doesn’t impress as much as some other phones on the market. Epic battery life, tons of features and a new IP67 water and dust resistant build, among a swath of other positives make this an absolute must buy in 2017.

Buy The HTC U11