Dismiss the HTC U11 at your peril this year. Here’s why.
Samsung had yet another juggernaut quarter, selling millions of Galaxy S8s and outselling every other Android manufacturer many times over. For all intents and purposes, the high-end market is a duopoly between the Galaxy and the iPhone, and no effusive story (like this) is going to change consumer behavior.
That fact is perhaps best exemplified by LG’s disappointing second quarter, which found the Korean company admitting that its excellent G6 flagship sold below expectations. Smartphones are a commodity, and now that we’ve entered a stage of maturity in the market — it’s hard to buy a bad phone from any company — the same forces play out year after year.
For the last few years, HTC hasn’t been inside that gale, and it would be a stretch to call it a force. Despite what I consider to be top-tier flagships in five of the last six years (2015’s One M9 was a bad phone whichever way you slice it), HTC can’t catch a break. The HTC 10 was a triumphant return to form in 2016, and the HTC U11 is 2017’s most solid phone so far. What does that mean? It starts with this:
If the U11 doesn’t sell well in 2017, it will have nothing to do with the outright quality of the phone itself. It’s a really great phone that does so much right with so few missteps along the way.
Before I used the phone, reading Andrew’s take on the phone surprised me. I wasn’t taken aback by the fact that HTC delivered another stellar piece of hardware, or that its software was unobtrusive and relatively lightweight. It wasn’t a shock to learn that the company didn’t need to ride the tiny bezel train to differentiation. What did surprise me was just how seamlessly everything connected — that the criticisms leveled against the U11 largely fall away once you begin to use it.
Having a reliable front fingerprint sensor, after coming from the Galaxy S8, is wonderful. Also wonderful is having a metal phone that doesn’t constantly feel like it is going to jello its way out of my hand.
And then there’s the camera: this is easily the best camera I’ve used on a phone to date. It’s fast and accurate; it produces great photos in almost every lighting condition. HTC still has one of the best manual modes of any phone maker, and with the U11 it hasn’t messed with a good thing. But now it is working with a stellar sensor, a robust stabilization system, and the Snapdragon 835’s exemplary image signal processor. Though I was initially skeptical that HTC called the U11’s camera an ‘UltraPixel’, I think the term is justified (as opposed to last year).
Finally, this is a sincerely beautiful phone; to see it in photos doesn’t really do it justice. Forget the criticism leveled at the U11’s front, since its nondescript status is merely a conduit to the superlative QHD display and easy-to-reach fingerprint sensor. There are fine details, like the colored aluminum around the sides that matches (most of the time) the reflective glass back, glinting in the light like a hyperactive funhouse mirror. I appreciate the subtle curvature of the front and rear glass that curves to meet the colored bezels, and the perfect symmetry that it forms.
When the U Ultra and U Play debuted at CES, I was very concerned about the state of HTC’s phone business.
But as good as the U11 is, it’s caught in a profoundly disconcerting reality of The American Carrier Cartel. I’m not the first to raise this point, but it’s worth re-asserting in the light of the Moto Z2 Force’s surprising carrier adoption: HTC is no longer a tier one manufacturer in the U.S., and its brand has almost no clout at the retail level.
Just look at what happened to the HTC 10 after it debuted at T-Mobile — it was quietly cut from the carrier’s inventory two months later. It also failed to burn barns at Verizon, which is likely why Sprint was the only U.S. carrier to invest in the U11 this year. I’m not going to be as bold as to say the U11 is a far better phone than, say, the LG G6, but LG has managed to leverage its brand outside of the phone space to ensure its place within it.
So even though you can only buy the HTC U11 from one American carrier, and arguably the least attractive one for most people, the U11 is doing considerably better than last year’s HTC 10. We won’t know specifics until the company announces its Q2 earnings in mid-August, but things are looking good for the U11, which has received the best reception of any HTC flagship since the One M7 back in 2013. We’re not looking at Galaxy S8, or even LG G6, numbers but HTC has grown used to counting in thousands, if low millions, in recent years. Any growth is going to look like a monumentally positive sign come August.
Back to the phone for a moment. When the U Ultra and U Play debuted at CES, we were ready to dismiss the upcoming flagship outright. The U Ultra is not a good product. Sure, it shares some visual similarities, but that’s where the family resemblance ends; the U11 is a far more compelling and well-rounded product, and it speaks to the fact that a lot more goes into the creation of a pocket computer than metal, glass, and bits. It all has to work together — properly — and HTC continues to be a leader in that regard.
If you skipped ahead and just want a tl;dr, here it is: dismiss the HTC U11 at your peril this year. There are plenty of reasons to recommend the Galaxy S8, LG G6, OnePlus 5 and myriad other Android devices launched in 2017, but for my money, the most solid, most reliable, most stable, and most enjoyable to use is the HTC U11.