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HTC U review: Hands on with HTC's new AI-laden flagship phone

Ian Betteridge
12 Jan 2017

HTC’s latest phones, the U series, are about much more than just a new design

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Consumers often go with products that they know, which in the world of smartphones means Samsung and Apple hog the limelight. But step away from the big two and you’ll find there’s a bunch of really great phones out there, offering things you can’t get from an iPhone or Galaxy.

HTC is a case in point. The company’s phones have always been pretty good, with the odd exception here and there, but it’s struggled to get enough traction to knock Samsung in particular off its perch. Given the quality of the phones, that’s a big shame, and if you’re looking for a high-end phone, I’d always encourage anyone to take a look at what HTC has done.

Its latest effort is the HTC U, which consists of two models: the HTC U Ultra and HTC U Play. Both phones in the series feature a new case design, which the company describes as being made from "thin but durable liquid surface coloured glass". It’s a nice look that changes subtly depending on the light – sometimes, it looks more glassy, other times more metal. Both models use USB Type-C, thankfully, which means you won’t be short of charging options.

Camera and display

There's also a front-facing camera that can switch between 16-megapixel images and what the company calls a 4-megapixel "Ultra Pixel mode" to deliver better shots in low lighting. And there's a panorama mode on the front-facing camera that lets you take wide-angle selfie shots. The 16-megapixel rear camera uses phase-detection autofocus and has optical image stabilisation.

The HTC U Play comes with a 5.2in, 1080p display (423ppi). This is an IPS LCD rather than OLED, but it generally looks very good.

 ^ The HTC U Play's "liquid" finish catches the light and looks great

The larger HTC U Ultra adds two key features to the mix. The first, and most obvious, is a 2in second screen strip that sits on the top of the main display and is designed to deliver notifications from your most important contacts without interrupting whatever you're doing on the main 5.7in QHD (2,560 x 1,440) screen.

The second Ultra-exclusive feature is for audio capture. The Ultra has four built-in microphones that are always on, delivering superior performance for voice-activated service, as well as 3D audio recording for your home movies.

The top-tier U Ultra comes with 128GB of storage, plus sapphire glass on the front for additional durability.

^ The HTC U Ultra has an extra 2in screen that sits immediately above the main one

Smarter than the average phone

A lot of what lifts the HTC U above the average high-end smartphone is its ability to understand more about you and your needs. HTC is calling this artificial intelligence, but I think that’s stretching it a bit. What HTC is building is much more like the kind of machine learning that Apple uses to do things such as recommend apps you might want to use at a particular time. That’s not to underestimate how useful it is, but calling it AI is stretching what “intelligence” means almost to breaking point.

At the heart of the smart stuff in HTC U is HTC Sense Companion, a piece of assistant software that learns from your behaviour over time, as well as giving you smart reminders – for example, reminding you to charge the phone if it thinks it’s going to run out of battery before you get home.

And those four microphones in the U Ultra also add another clever feature: the ability to recognise who is talking to it. This means it can recognise and act on your voice commands without opening it to other people, a bit like the voice print unlock on the Google Pixel phones.

This focus on "U" (can you see what they did there?) even extends to the headphones. A feature dubbed HTC USonic analyses your inner ear using a high-frequency sound pulse, and then adapts how the headphone speakers deliver audio to suit your ear.

Underneath all this, the software is, of course, Android 7 with HTC Sense baked on top of it. Sense has always been one of my favourite overlays, and it remains one of the nicest versions of Android visually, and the only one that doesn’t immediately make me want to reach for a vanilla launcher such as Google Now or Nova.

I was able to spend a little time with the HTC U at this year's CES and I can definitely say that the company has delivered a great-looking phone. It reminds me a little of the glass and metal look of some iPhone 7 models, but without the slight harshness that Apple’s designs sometimes seem to have.

Will this be enough to make the HTC U one of our favourite smartphones in 2017? We’ll be able to say for sure once we’ve had one long enough to run battery and performance tests, but the early indications are that, once again, it’s a more than credible contender.

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