Home Mobile devices HTC U Ultra – beauty and brains (review)

HTC U Ultra – beauty and brains (review)

The beautiful, big HTC U Ultra is part of HTC’s strategy to regain its premium position and it does a good job in a very crowded flagship market.

I wrote this review in two parts – first after a week's use to review the hardware and second after another week's use to review HTC Sense that makes this phone different. It needs time to kick in to get to know you, your patterns and contexts. With that disclaimer, let’s move on.

First, understand that the flagship Android market segment is crowded with many extremely competent “glass slabs” that, hardware wise, it is hard to do more with. Most use a Qualcomm Snapdragon 8XX; 4/32/64GB/microSD; have very good cameras, screens, batteries, and run a lightly skinned Android 7.0. Point scoring here is about the finish, build quality, screen type, bigger pixels, and a certain je ne sais quoi like brand credibility, or in this case a separate ticker screen, that tips you one way or the other.

To position the 5.7” HTC U Ultra it has all the hardware features e.g. Snapdragon 821, seen in the Google Pixel/XL, LG V20 and G6, Sony Xperia XZ performance, a host of Chinese-made smartphones that are usually sold in China, and the ill-fated Samsung Galaxy Note 7. It leads the pack in looks with a Gorilla Glass liquid surface (the Sapphire Blue is a lovely colour), a great camera, and HTC’s renowned build quality (it also makes the Google Pixel).

Spoiler alert – put it on your 2017 shopping list, at least until the more expensive Snapdragon 835 processor starts appearing.

Out of the box – HTC U Ultra

(Australian model number HALT018-00 so take care if buying overseas)

  • Handset
  • Qualcomm QuickCharge 3.0, 5V/2.5, or 9V/1.7 or 12V/1.25A
  • USB-A to USB-C cable
  • USB-C head buds/mic
  • Clear bumper cover

Set-up is easy although it is much harder to avoid Google (a standard test especially for Chinese use) and there were frequent nags to log into Google. That is fine, if you want to use Google services.

It is a bigger, taller phone than similarly sized competitors due to the 2” x 160-pixel high ticker screen on the top right. It is similar in size to the LG V20 that also has a ticker screen.

It looks great – the Sapphire Blue is stunning but like all glass covered devices, it is an incredible fingerprint magnet. It has a traditional fingerprint/home key on the front lower bezel and backlit recent apps and back capacitance keys. It has a slightly rounded edge and narrow but noticeable side bezels.

The volume rocker key is above the power key on the right side and, while the latter is knurled for a different feel, I too often pressed volume. The phone has a subtly curved back but it is flat enough so that it does not rock when typing on its keyboard. There is a camera bump on the back.

Specifications

 

HTC U Ultra

Screen 5.7 inch, Quad HD 2560 x 1440, 513ppi, super LCD 5
plus 2” 1040 x 160 Ticker covered in Gorilla Glass 5, 69.7% screen to body ratio
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 821, 64 bit quad-core, up to 2.15 Ghz
RAM/Storage 4/64GB and microSD to 2TB, OTG and Flex Storage support
Rear Camera 12MP, HTC Ultra Pixel 2, 1/2.3”, 1.55μm pixel; f/1.8, 26mm wide-angle; OIS; PADF and Laser Focus; Auto HDR; Sapphire lens; RAW format support; Dual LED flash; Panorama, Zoe, Slo-mo; 2K record, camera bump on top, middle, back
Front camera 16MP, HTC Ultra Pixel, Auto HDR, 1080p record, selfie panorama,
Battery 3000mAh Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0, USB-C
Connectivity Wi-Fi AC, dual band, 2 x 2 MIMO, Bluetooth 4.2, Wi-Di, NFC, Chromecast, DLNA, GOS
Audio

HTC Usonic (buds)

HTC BoomSound Hi-Fi edition

3D Audio recording with 4 microphones

Hi-Res audio stereo recording

Hi-Res audio certified

Noise cancellation

Comms

Cat 11 (600/50Mbps): Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 17, 20, 28,

38, 39, 40, 41 with 2CA, 3CA

VoLTE,Wi-Fi Calling (varies by region and operator)

Dual SIMM (one for microSD)

VR QHD screen supports VR but at present HTC Vive is VR product
Android Android 7.0 with HTC Sense
Size/Weight 162.41 x 79.79 x 3.6-7.99 mm, 170g
Price A$1199

What it has not got (in comparison to the most fully featured Samsung 2016, S7 Edge)

  • Wireless Charge
  • IP68 water and dust proofing
  • 3.5mm audio jack (USB-C buds supplied)
  • Super AMOLED, always on display but the ticker screen can be always on

None of these are deal-breakers.

Performance

As expected it performs very similarly to most other Snapdragon 821 based smartphones. It and the Pixel could well be cloned. Over two weeks it performed well, no lags, and did a lot of work.

But to put this in perspective, Huawei’s Mate 9 with its Kirin 960 SoC is nearly 40% more powerful in some tests and that will also be true of Snapdragon 835 and Exynos used in the Samsung Galaxy S8. It is using 2016 technology. Again not a bad thing but there will be more powerful phones very soon.

Sound

It uses the earpiece as a front firing speaker and has a bottom firing speaker under the lower bezel.

In normal phone use, it was loud and clear for hands-free but the physical differences between the two speakers meant stereo reproduction and separation was limited – better in music mode. I suspect the set-up is more about volume (theatre mode) which there was plenty.

It has four microphones and can record 360° audio for VR or high-res audio if you need it.

The audio feed to Bluetooth and an AV Amp was clean, allowing for those devices to do what they are best at.

The USB USonic Buds are good and tuneable to your own sound profile.

Comms

I have not tested a Cat 11 LTE modem before so this was a treat. It is a pity that Australian carriers are not up to this level just yet – Telstra with its 4GX in major capital cities is closest.

It supports VoLTE and Wi-Fi calling (which needs carrier support) as well as two- and three-carrier band aggregation. On a test in the Sydney CBD outside Telstra HQ, I got just over 300M/50Mbps, the fastest speeds yet achieved.

Screen

It uses an HTC designed, 2560 x 1440 (QHD or 2K), Super LCD 5 (that is an HTC marketing term) – a typical RGB, IPS matrix. (like the LG V20 or G6) but compared to these it had visibly lower contrast, brightness and colour accuracy. In part, that is due to its adaptive brightness mode that favours battery life over brightness – my advice is to switch that off and play with the colour temperature setting until you get what you like.

But even at full brightness, it favoured cooler blue/white than white/white. That was evident when viewing photographs on the screen versus a calibrated external monitor where they were noticeably brighter and more colour saturated. And like most LCD panels, there is a characteristic greyness to blacks and a faint glow on a black screen.

Daylight readability was average to good, but in all respects, it is a top-quality screen. Gorilla Glass 5 has shoulder height drop protection that should protect the curved edges/corners but the use of the supplied clear buffer case is good insurance.

The use of a Super LCD screen is not a deal-breaker.

Screen 2

HTC U Ultra Big Little

It has 2”, 1040 x 160 Ticker screen on the top right. It is one way (like the LG V20) to expand the use of the screen and to help compensate for no “always-on-display.” If you set it to always on it will shorten the battery life by a couple of hours.

It is used for frequently used apps – weather, contacts, notifications or to interact with the HTC Sense companion.

In trying different modes and displays, I found it moderately useful to show appointments – but if I had the phone longer I would find more uses for it.

HTC Sense Companion

It is HTC’s version of a digital assistant and, like all the rest, it states that it needs to get to know you and to track your use and behaviour to be of most use. In a short-term review situation that is hard.

To do that it needs unfettered access to location, calendar, contacts, email, phone, apps, photos, music, notifications, activity, and device data. This may sound a lot but it is like any other digital assistant.

For the first few days, it was damned annoying, offering a wide range of suggestions until you train it by a thumb up or down gesture.

The most frequently cited use is that it can check your calendar and compare battery use and recommend a charge, pack a spare battery, or not. I think it is probably best to hone the accuracy of voice recognition.

This is a work in progress and regrettably, I did not see enough over the test period to give it the thumbs up or down.

Camera – what U see is what U get

It is based on the camera in the HTC 10 (DXOMark here) and, at 88, is one point behind the Google Pixel.

Since then HTC has tweaked the interface, camera app, and worked to deliver the best photo in natural to low light. I think it outdoes the Pixel after the latest firmware updates.

Rather than describe all light conditions (in full auto use) let me simply say that all shots were close to perfect with good colour, white balance and detail. High praise, and in direct comparisons, it is marginally ahead of the Pixel XL.

Autofocus was blazingly fast – better than the Pixel. It defaults to 4:3 and 12 MP resolution shots.

My only gripe is that HDR disables flash, so you need to determine if you need HDR (for details) or flash for low light. The big pixels work amazingly well in low light and HDR can extend exposure time and lead to blurry images. Rule of thumb – use dual LED auto flash for inside low light shots.

Video shots were good to great with OIS working to reduce blur, even while walking.

The panorama was good and OIS works well.

Zoe – three-second video (like Apple Live Photos) was delightful to capture the moment.

Selfie: It has an optional low light pixel binning mode that shoots in 16MP and outputs the best 4MP shots I have seen. It also has selfie panorama.

Video: 2K record at @ 30fps produced accurate daylight videos capped at 6 minutes, creating 54Mbps files. I preferred the HD @ 30fps creating 20Mbps files. The four mic, 360° audio capture (192Kbps @48kHz) was very good and will also do Hi-Res FLAC at 96KHZ and 24-bits.

To summarise – great detail, fast focus, accurate colour and one of the better all-rounders.

UI

It is a very light skin over Android 7.0 and bloatware is kept to a minimum. It addresses the cosmetic shortcomings of pure Android, especially in the notifications area where it has more useful shortcuts.

The Boost feature is a great memory/storage cleaner and very customisable.

Battery

It has a non-removable 3000 mAh battery that, coupled with the Snapdragon 821 (more energy efficient than the 820) and some aggressive battery management, gave me a little more than a day (26 hours) of standard use. On one test day, I took 360 photos and used GPS and the battery was exhausted by 10 pm – about 14 hours use.

Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 will fill the battery from zero to 100% in about an hour.

Summary

I have a penchant for HTC, being a very long-term user. Yes, they went off a little, but since then HTC 10 are back and producing very good phones – not just flagships either. Build quality is excellent and it seems to have looked at the HTC 10 and improved on that.

The second screen verges on a gimmick – unless you have a real need for it, then it is not a compelling feature. Two things – first, you need to use it to get value and second, HTC could and should do much more here.

HTC Sense Companion has potential but unless you use it for an extended period as it gets to know you then it is not a compelling feature either. I can see people simply using OK Google.

Camera – almost 9.5 out of 10 and users will not be disappointed.

Looks - it is one of the better-looking smartphones and much more attractive than the similarly equipped Google Pixel that took ugly pills before breakfast.

So, if you are looking for an Android flagship class smartphone, this must be on your list.

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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw ray@im.com.au  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!