A squeezable phone emerges, but do we need it?
The HTC U11 is a very different phone to others on the market.
It’s the result of HTC needing to do something big to convince you that it’s the phone you should buy over the Samsung Galaxy S8 or forthcoming iPhone 8 – and it believes that a squeezable phone is the way to do that.
You read that right: a squeezable phone. The device itself doesn’t actually flex, but you can apply pressure to the sides of the U11 to activate different apps and functions.
It’s all part of HTC’s desire to find a way to innovate with a high-spec black rectangle, trying to reimagine the way we use our smartphones.
The HTC U11 is more than that though – it’s an incredibly powerful handset with a list of specs, one that will have any tech fan salivating, packaged together in an all-new design language for 2017, offering brilliant audio, apparently the world’s best smartphone camera and will even offer Alexa integration (eventually).
HTC U11 release date and price
The new HTC phone will be available in some territories from May 18 and will be available in the UK from June, with a worldwide release program (we’ll update this piece with more specific information in the coming weeks as we find out definite dates from regions).
In terms of price, it’s set for the same as last year’s HTC 10, which began life costing £649, and will be the same for the U11. (Likely around $700 / AU£900 unlocked).
The desire to bring something different from HTC clearly has come at a cost, and while the price is a clear indication of the amount of tech stuffed into the HTC U11, it’s still a lot to swallow for the average consumer… and the squeezy sides will really have to impress to give a good enough impression at that cost.
Design and display
Before we talk about the innovative Edge Sense user interface (which is what HTC is calling the ability to squeeze the phone) let’s talk about the design of the U11, as it’s pretty striking.
It’s based on HTC’s new Liquid Surface design language, seen in the HTC U Play and U Ultra, and features ultra-strong Gorilla Glass 5 bent to create a rolling chassis that’s full of curves.
There are five options in terms of your choice of HTC U11 color: Solar Red (easily the most impressive), Amazing Silver, Brilliant Black, Sapphire Blue and Ice White.
Each has a two-tone effect, but despite the fact this is a glass-covered phone (with a metal strip holding the two front and back pieces together) it lacks the premium finish of an all-metal device.
If anything, this phone feels more like polycarbonate or plastic than premium glass, but that does make it pretty light.
It’s going to be a pretty subjective design, with some people loathing the plastic, curved look and some loving the two-tone pearlescent sheen.
In the hand it feels a little bulbous compared to other smartphones on the market thanks to the rolling design, and the glass does have a plastic texture (thanks to being so thin) but it doesn’t feel cheap.
However, the HTC U11 will munch up your fingerprints in an instant, the shiny design ruined within a few seconds of fondling. Thankfully it all wipes off pretty easily, but it’s not anywhere as attractive as an all-metal body when it comes to staying shiny.
It’s only fair here to reiterate that this isn’t just a glass-phone-that-looks-plastic. The combination of colors within the glass, as well as the effort gone into making it rounded, is impressive, but it doesn’t feel as premium as the metal of last year still.
The display is a 5.5-inch QHD affair, but it’s not the longer 18:9 ratio that’s been seen on other flagship phones from Samsung and LG. The Super LCD 5 tech used is clear and sharp, and while it lacks the pop of Super AMOLED found on Samsung’s phones, it still looks natural and vibrant at the right times.
There’s a danger that HTC is getting left behind by not adopting the new wider format – as it looks impressive – but the brand told us that it wanted to make sure that the industry adopts the new screen standard before making the jump.
Edge Sense and Alexa
HTC has decided it’s time to upgrade its user interface again, and while it’s not changed the look of it too much, the way you can get involved with the phone has altered massively.
That’s because Edge Sense lets you squeeze both sides of the phone – on the bottom half of the handset – and interact with what’s on screen.
A short squeeze will open the camera, a long one Google Assistant, but this can be customised. You can choose apps to open, start the torch or begin and end an audio recording.
It’s an interesting way of doing things, but one that sounds better than it works in real life, at least in our early testing.
The issue is that even at the lowest pressure levels you’re still required to put a fair amount of forced into the phone to make sure you’ve activated the Edge Sense interaction, so it doesn’t feel as intuitive as it could.
That said, it does feel like a system that you’ll need to learn over time and become familiar with, so it’s not really fair to rate it fully in our hour or so with the U11.
But it feels like a shame there’s no tactile feedback on how hard you’re squeezing other than a slight buzz when you press in to the necessary level of force… we’re looking for a phone that has a level of physical depression, rather than a squeeze-and-hope.
The thing that’s going to kick the U11 into overdrive when it comes to user interaction (yeah, exciting stuff) is the ability to map that squeeze to any function within the phone.
This will likely mean you can reconfigure the squeeze to do different things in different apps – which would be handy, but has yet to be properly confirmed so it’s only what we can assume.
We say assume, because the function still isn’t enabled despite the phone’s imminent launch – in fact, you won’t get that ability until July of this year for some reason.
The other thing you won’t be able to play with until then is Alexa – Amazon’s voice assistant will be packed into the mix for HTC’s new phone… despite Google Assistant being on board.
The assumption is that HTC believes Alexa to be the superior voice assistant, the popularity of the Echo making it a feature to have on the phone.
However, it’ll be interesting to see whether Alexa is the equal of Google Assistant on the device… apart from being able to order things for you, it’s hard to see where the genuine need for another voice assistant resides.
Alexa’s presence appears to be a tacit admission from a major tech player that Amazon is winning the war of the voice assistants, something that’s likely to not endear HTC to Google.
The rest of the HTC interface is as predicable as before… it doesn’t offer anything new compared to the competition, relying on Google’s suite of apps rather than its own options to perform functions.
That’s fine, and having everything backed up to the cloud can be a godsend at times, but it does mean that sometimes when you just want to see a photo – and need to open Google Photos to do so – it can take a little longer than expected.
The HTC U11 camera isn’t hugely upgraded from last year, with a 12MP sensor that can shoot in RAW (and likely relies on that mode to get the best images).
However, there are some tweaks and impressive performances we noted in the testing, with the new HDR Boost mode really adding to the flavor of snaps.
The low light performance, thanks to the new f/1.7 aperture, seemed to be excellent as well, with some very gloomy situations coming out bright and clear with a single snap.
The speed of the camera’s operation isn’t brilliant from sleeping – it can take a second between pressing the shutter button and the picture taking to get the snap, which is something that has been noted for HTC phones in the past.
Turning off the HDR mode does seem to improve this, but it’s confusingly not as snappy as the Google Pixel… which has an older processor and was also manufactured by HTC.
However, this could be one of the best smartphone cameras on the market, if the new DxOMark score of 90 (the best achieved by a smartphone) is anything to go by. We’re always wary on basing predictions of future performance on these scores though, as it doesn’t always translate to brilliant real world performance.
What it does mean is that HTC has created, once again, a technically very able camera, and with the new 0.3 second autofocus on board, combined with the HDR capabilities, it should mean some great snaps if you’re willing to work for them.
The front-facing camera packs in more pixels, moving up to a 16MP sensor, and offers the HTC panorama mode for selfies, where you twist the phone left and right to capture more of your chums in that photo that lets everybody know where you were, and 150-degree image capture to let in more info.
Will this be the best camera in the world? The slower shutter speed doesn’t bode too well, but given we only spent time with a preview sample, this could be fixed before it reaches the market, so the upgrades could come to solve things.
If there’s not a raft of changes, then again you’ll have a snapper that’s technically very adept – the HTC 10 would take brilliant pictures if you went into manual mode, selected the RAW method of capture and enhanced each snap – but not the greatest point and shoot option on the market.
We’re pretty excited to see what HTC is offering with the audio prowess on the U11, as it’s got literally every feature most will be looking for in a good phone for music.
The first – and most important one – comes with the headphones. The new U Sonic headphones – already among the best we’ve ever seen bundled in the box with a phone – have been upgraded again to include active noise cancellation, so you’ll get unparalleled quality booming into your ears.
On top of that there’s the ability to have the HTC U11 map your inner ear sonically, allowing the phone to build a picture of how you can hear sound and altering the output accordingly to make it a tailored audio experience.
The HTC U11 uses USB Type-C as a connector at the bottom – and there’s no headphone jack, in a move that feels less courageous than one of a brand feeling empowered by Apple to lose the port.
However, HTC has done everything it can to make up for the loss by including a rather robust 3.5mm headphone jack adaptor… with a digital audio converter in it.
This made the sound quality insane coming out of the HTC U11, with a pair of Sony headphones offering sublime audio quality from a very basic audio file.
If you’re more of an audiophile, the HTC U11 continues the brand’s support of Hi-Res Audio files, so you’ll be able to get the full experience from anything you throw on the phone.
And if you’re not into headphones, then HTC’s iconic Boomsound is back as well… although still not in the dual front-facing speaker configuration we’ve enjoyed in the past.
Holding the phone in the hand, the sound is pretty good. The treble and bass is separated out between the two speakers top and bottom, and while it irks that part of the sound is firing away from you, it’s still loud.
However, place it on a table and the effect is rather magnified, with HTC claiming to use more of the phone as a resonance chamber to improve performance.
It’s not perfect, and we miss the days of dual speakers pumping forward, but it’s a decent enough way to watch YouTube.
We’ve always been a little worried about the way HTC approaches battery life, as while it’s generally been OK, the performance has never been stellar.
That’s partly because the brand insists on sacrificing battery size over design, and once again its new phone doesn’t lead the industry in terms of power pack performance, with the HTC U11 packed with a 3000mAh battery.
That shouldn’t be too bad – after all, it’s the same that Samsung has in the Galaxy S8 – but HTC’s battery management is always something of a worry, the daily performance being on the ‘slippy’ side.
Compare that to other phones coming out at the moment – with the OnePlus 5, for instance, rumored to have a 4000mAh battery pack – and it’s hard to see why HTC won’t finally just go all in on a larger, better-optimised power unit.
There’s no wireless charging on offer either, with HTC’s Darren Sng telling us that it’s ‘not convenient’ enough thanks to the slower charging speeds on offer – but in reality, it’s a conscious design decision, one where less cash is spent on designing a more streamlined phone.
Is it necessary? No, but it would have been a nice option to have for some. Almost convenient.
When it comes to worldwide market share, the words ‘HTC’ and ‘tailspin’ have been bandied about by the media for a while now and that description has always felt a little unfair to the brand.
It’s been consistently making excellent handsets for years (perhaps the HTC One M9 aside…) but with a poorer marketing strategy and nothing to really define it apart from the rest of the industry its excellent design and elements of innovation haven’t been enough.
That’s how it feels with the HTC U11… in a vacuum, this is an excellent handset. The Liquid Surface design is subjective but certainly striking, and it’s hard to ask for more on the spec sheet, apart from possibly a bigger battery.
And if you’re into audio, it’s hard to recommend any other handset beyond the HTC U11 – the amount of effort the brand has put in is amazing here.
But it’s in the headline feature that the worry lives. This phone is going to be sold on the ability to squeeze it, and while that’s a feature that needs a lot more testing, the early time we’ve spent with it has left us unconvinced.
This is one of the more intriguing phones of 2017, and one we’re genuinely excited to try out in a full review to find out whether the higher price, strong spec sheet and new method of interaction fuse together into something that will break the magnetic pull Samsung and Apple enjoy in the smartphone world.