Weird phone features are back again.
The last few years have seen phone makers largely dump fun little gimmicks in favor of refining the basics: design, display, performance, and battery life.
Nothing wrong with a solid all-around phone, but that’s also why people think phones are boring. You now what’s not boring? HTC’s new flagship, the HTC U 11. Why? Two words: squeezable sides.
The HTC U 11 sports the U-series’ “liquid design,” which melds glass and metal to create a seamless design that’s both elegant to look at and to hold.
Indeed, the phone’s four different colors (Brilliant Black, Sapphire Blue, Amazing Silver, Ice White) are attractive, reflecting hints of different colors at different angles (like navy in the black, and green in the blue), but they’re also fingerprint magnets. Not a deal-breaker since the Jet Black iPhone 7 and Samsung Galaxy S8 are also fingerprint magnets, but I kind of wish this glossy trend would end.
On the plus side, the HTC U 11’s IP67 water- and dust-resistant, meaning it’s just as weather-proof as the iPhone 7.
High-polished looks aside, the HTC U’s got the same specs as the S8, including a Android 7.1.1 Nougat (with HTC Sense), a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chip, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of internal storage (expandable via microSD card), and a 3,000 mAh battery with Quick Charge 3.0 via USB-C.
Speaking of USB-C, that’s how you’ll listen to music because there’s no headphone jack. While Apple’s reason for killing the jack is all about wireless audio, HTC insists USB-C is just superior for playing high-res music with its bundled USonic earbuds, which feature an integrated amplifier and built-in active noise cancellation without any extra bulk. Whatever.
The HTC U 11’s also got BoomSound Hi-Fi stereo speakers blasting sound from the bottom-firing speaker and the earpiece. I got a brief listen comparing it the old HTC 10 and the HTC U 11’s sound fidelity is definitely fuller.
Asia will get a version with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. When I asked why Asia always gets a variant with more RAM and storage, Nigel Newby-House, HTC’s associate vice president of portfolio planning, said it’s a spec sheet thing; consumers in Asia apparently consider technical specs deeply, and when a cheaper phone has more RAM or more storage than a premium-brand device, it’s just not a good look.
The 5.5-inch Quad HD resolution Super LCD display is nice and sharp, and while it’s not going to wow you the way the Galaxy S8’s “infinity display” does, it holds its own against other phone screens. Below the screen, you’ll find a pill-shaped fingerprint sensor flanked by capacitive Back and Recent Apps buttons.
HTC has also improved the cameras. The back’s got a 12-megapixel camera with an f/1.7-aperture lens with faster autofocus than its previous phones. On the front, you’ll find a 16-megapixel selfie camera with an f/2.0 lens and a 150-degree field of view.
The specs are great, but the HTC U 11’s marquee feature is Edge Sense, the phone’s pressure-sensitive sides.
The phone performs different actions depending on how hard you squeeze it. For example, you could set a short squeeze to take a screenshot, or launch the Google Assistant, turn on the Wi-Fi hotspot, or launch an app, to name a few shortcuts. A longer squeeze might be configured to launch the flashlight.
Let’s be real here: It’s strange to squeeze the edges of a phone. But after a few squeezes it felt no weirder than using Motorola’s double-twist gesture to launch the camera or double-chop gesture to turn on the flashlight.
In other words: It’s a gimmick, but it’s a somewhat natural and practical one, and if you don’t like it you can turn it off.
There are varying levels of pressure Edge Sense can detect to prevent accidental squeezes. Pick the force level that’s right for you. Moreover, Edge Sense works with gloves on.
Return of HTC?
As one of the underdogs of the phone world, I want to see HTC rise back from its ashes as much as anyone. Gimmicky as Edge Sense might be to most people, the company’s still brave enough to try new things. Its timing is always wrong (it was the first to do an aluminum unibody design, dual cameras with bokeh effects, stereo speakers, etc.) but it’s clear the company still knows how to innovate.
The HTC U 11 is a step in the right direction for HTC. It’s got flagship specs, a beautiful design, and the quirky Edge Sense to give it that special something, but all of this might not be enough.
My only gripe is that HTC’s not pricing it to slay the competition. Though the company says pricing is forthcoming, I’m told it’ll be priced competitively with other premium flagships, which means HTC could end up shooting itself in the foot again when the phone launches in the coming weeks.
It’s tough especially when you’re competing with high-quality Chinese phones that sell for less (OnePlus anyone?), but pricing the HTC U 11 lower than a Galaxy S8 or LG G6 would make the phone a little more attractive.
You can build a great phone, but if few people buy it, that’s a business problem, not an innovation one.