HTC U11 review: the best-value flagship phone

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HTC U11 review: the best-value flagship phone
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Forget the squeezy gimmick, HTC has returned to form with its new smartphone.

When HTC teased the U11, it went big on the fact that the phone would be a squeezy revolution. The truth is considerably more prosaic: the HTC U11 is a great phone, but that’s nothing to do with the fact you can squeeze it.

So to be fair, before we get onto the important details about the handset, let’s look at this squeezy new feature in more depth. To be clear, this feels just like a normal phone; you’re not getting some kind of stress reliever/ketchup-bottle hybrid.

Edge Sense, as it was finally christened, works like this. You can squeeze both the edges of the bottom half of the phone where you’d usually be holding it and something will happen. You can change what this does, but by default it’s configured to help you with camera operations. One squeeze launches the camera app, even when the phone is locked; the second then captures a photograph.

That sounds useful, especially if we were reviewing this phone with gloves, but it’s actually not that handy. First, squeezing the phone makes it very hard to keep the camera lens still. Second, the camera feels markedly less responsive when taking a “squeeze shot” than when capturing with the onscreen shutter button. And timing is everything in cat-based photography, as any self-respecting ailurophile will tell you.

You can change the squeeze’s function, too, although some of the options are more useful than others. Launching an app is a bit pointless, but the screenshot facility is nice for people who get fed up of the hand contortions required to take a screengrab in Android, and using it as a shortcut for the voice-recording app is handy for journalists. Activating the torch with a squeeze is useful in the dark conditions you’d likely need extra light in. It’s also possible to launch apps with a long squeeze if you want to set up two different shortcuts.

Even if you do customise the squeeze, though, it’s not really that useful and you quickly forget it’s there. Fortunately, that’s easy to do, as this feels just like any other phone; HTC clearly hasn’t gone out of its way to redesign around the feature. Just as well, as we can’t see anyone else copying it anytime soon. 

Of course, if you really do like Edge Sense, and want to protect your new purchase, you'll have to be sure that any case you get isn't so rugged that it blocks the squeeziness. To that end, it's best to consider one of the official HTC ones. They have a flip case or a clear plastic back plate to protect that vulnerable looking back. Though given you'll likely find the whole feature underwhelming, it's entirely possible any case will do.

Design

With that out of the way, let’s get onto something that’s more interesting – the design. As mentioned, HTC hasn’t had to make any concessions for its pointless squeeziness and, to the naked eye, it looks like a normal smartphone. A very stylish smartphone.

The most eye-catching thing about it is the backplate, which dazzles with a mirror-finish rear panel topped with glass. It seems to change tone depending on the angle you hold it at, and it really does shout out for attention. This isn’t a handset for someone looking to blend in.

Unfortunately, this shininess comes at a cost. We have never come across a phone this prone to fingerprints. Maybe it’s because the light colouring makes the fingerprints more obvious, but the upshot is that if you find polishing your phone a chore, this might not be the handset for you.

Otherwise, it’s a 5.5in phone, so it’s certainly on the chunkier size (it makes the Galaxy S7 feel positively tiny by comparison), but there’s nothing out of the ordinary here. The fingerprint scanner is at the front of the phone below the screen, and both the power button and volume rocker are on the right-hand side. As with most modern smartphones that have the feature, the memory card slot is built into the same tray as the SIM card holder.

Further good news: HTC has finally joined Sony, Samsung and Apple on the water-resistant train. The U11 is IP67-rated, which means it will survive a short dunk in water and a phone call in the rain.

The bad news is HTC has gone the way of Apple and got rid of the 3.5mm headphone jack. The HTC U11 comes with a USB Type-C adapter with a headphone amp built in, so in theory not only will your old headphones work, but they should sound better than ever. HTC also throws in a set of USB Type-C noise-canceling earbuds in the box, and they do a far better job than most pack-ins.

These are both good concessions. But not as good keeping the 3.5mm headphone jack in the first place. 

Screen

Let’s move onto the screen, which unlike the Samsung Galaxy S8 and the LG G6, has a traditional 16:9 aspect ratio.

On the surface of things, it should be a beauty. It’s 5.5in in size, has a resolution of 1,440 x 2,560 pixels and uses HTC’s own Super LCD screen technology. Unfortunately, it’s not as good as it sounds on paper. The main issue is colour accuracy: the reds, greens and yellows look oversaturated, which isn’t ideal.

Elsewhere, things are better. The contrast level is superb at 1,599:1, and the screen reaches a brightness of 520cd/m2. That, combined with a polarising layer, means that glare isn’t a problem in bright sunlight, although there’s a hidden issue that becomes apparent when you look at it in landscape mode while wearing polarising sunglasses.

This is because of the way the polarising layer is implemented: on other phones (the Google Pixel, for instance) it’s orientated diagonally, meaning you can see the screen in both landscape and portrait mode.

Next: Performance, camera and verdict

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