Tuesday, 03 July 2018 00:43

HTC U12+ review, a cool Android phone that's genuinely different


In a world of glowing rectangles, where manufacturers strive to outdo each other on features and benefits, and try outdoing Apple, HTC's newest U12+ flagship doubles down on Edge Sense to be edgily different.

The undisputed leader in the Android smartphone space is Samsung, with its impressive S9+ smartphone offering colours that pop off the screen, matched with excellent cameras that capture great low-light (and daytime) photos, along with cartoonishly lifelike emojis and plenty more.

Huawei's P20 Pro with its three cameras manages to outdo even the S9+'s cameras with even better low-light functionality, while mimicking the additional screen-space offered by the iPhone X's side ears on either side of the notch.

Then there's Google's Pixel 2 XL, which offers the purest Android experience of them all, and with the Android P beta, even mimics the iPhone X interface in many respects, although Apple has struck back with its impressive iOS 12 beta that I'm currently enjoying.

Add to the mix all of the other flagship and mid-range Android marvels, and you have a vibrant smartphone ecosystem of devices that has never been more advanced, capable and flexible.

So, where does this leave the HTC and its new U12+?

To start with, I view all of my smartphone experiences through an iOS prism, as an iPhone X, that I purchased, is my primary daily driver.

Of course, technology is my passion, not just my job, and being knowledgeable about as many different types of technology as possible is daily life for me, and so when I see great technologies in action, I am always very curious about them.

Of the many different devices to cross my path, one of the latest has been HTC's new U12+, which has doubled down on its Edge Sense technology to deliver new and customisable ways of interacting with your smartphone, and which I've found enjoyable and fun to use.

Also — before I go on — HTC has had a rocky path of late. It made the first Android phone, and was once one of the biggest Android smartphone makers, before which it was one of the biggest Windows smartphone makers too, but in recent times, it has had various reorganisations and lost its top-dog status to companies like Samsung.

Indeed, as I get set to publish this article, HTC will reportedly lay off 1500 workers from its Taiwanese factories after previously promising a return to profitability this year, but with its U12+ a sign of HTC's best new phone yet, if the company can keep the quality, features and benefits in play for future models, it will hopefully thrive well into the future, as it deserves to.

So, all that aside, what about the U12+?

Well, I first wrote about the U12+ back in May, after I'd had a chance to have a first look at the device, which left me impressed, in an article entitled: "HTC's new U12+ is an edgy, no pushover phone you can push around."

I looked at the various specs, which include 6GB RAM, a Qualcomm 845 processor, IP68 water and dust resistant rating, nicely loud Boomsound speakers, quality noise cancelling USB-C headphones included in the box, dual cameras on the front and back, dual 4G SIM slots, new haptic volume and power "buttons" which buzz but don't actually press down (similar to the new MacBook's haptic trackpad" and 2nd-gen Edge Sense functionality, amongst other features.

I also read some interesting reviews of the HTC U12+, not all of which are positive or negative, as you'll see below, although it's natural that reviews find things they do and don't like.

New haptic buttons

A couple I read indicated unhappiness with the haptic buttons, such as not easily being able to easily double-press the wake/lock button to activate the camera, or that the volume buttons couldn't be quickly pressed to quickly silence the phone or raise its volume.

Android Authority has a great write-up on the U12+, and mentions the issues it faced with the buttons as you can read here

However, after actually activating the ability to double press the wake/lock button to activate the camera, I couldn't replicate the problem. With the phone off, and the double press feature on, a quick double press of the wake/lock button activated the camera every time for me.

Adjusting the volume by very quickly pressing the volume up or down buttons is an issue – you can't super rapidly press the buttons but need to press, then press, then press.

That said, I was able to press either button a bit faster (but not super mashing button fast) and then quickly turn the volume up or down, so perhaps the reviewer was simply mashing the button too quickly for it to register separate presses, so this didn't actually become an issue for me.

In addition, simply holding the volume down button quickly takes it to mute, while pressing the volume up button takes it to maximum, but again, rapidly pressing without pretending it is an arcade button where you want the lasers to shoot as quickly as possible is possible, it just takes a tiny bit of practice and you've mastered it.

Meanwhile, What HiFi's review says the wake/lock button is easy to press when you're playing a game or reading something, but I didn't find this an issue. I guess it depends how you're holding the phone - perhaps they were holding it wrong, as Steve Jobs once famously said of the iPhone 4.

On accidental button pressing, I find myself pressing the Bixby button accidentally on the S9+, so accidental button presses are an issue, but in theory that is possible on any phone.

Forbes has similar issues with the haptic buttons for volume, and says changing the volume is "incredibly frustrating", but again, I just didn't have this issue once I took the time to practice pressing the buttons a few times, and I simply think these reviewers just gave up too easily after making a decision they didn't like the buttons.

The screen

Forbes also says there's a "very obvious and distracting light bleed along the bottom edge of the screen", but all I can say is that this definitely does not appear on my test unit.

Another issue Android Authority and at least another review I read mentioned was the notcheless 18:9's screen uses a "default DCI-P3 colour profile" that it feels is "a bit too saturated", but the article goes on to mention you can tweak this in the settings, which indeed you can.

You can also choose between DCI-P3 and sRGB colour modes, with DCI-P3 looking vastly better, so while this is an LCD screen and not an OLED screen which can naturally deliver better blacks, this is still an excellent LCD screen your eyes won't tire of looking at.

SlashGear looks at durability, which takes things to extremes. Apply enough force to the phone — and that means way more force than everyday usage will ever generate — and apparently the haptic buttons can pop off, after which they apparently don't work any more.

This scenario is unlikely to manifest itself out of a test lab, as is the apparent reality that you can prise off the back casing – again, something you need to forcefully do. Apply a case to your smartphone as any wise person should do, and this obviously won't be a problem.

My test unit didn't come with a case, but HTC's excellent U12+ online instruction manual, chock full of excellent info and guides for all aspects of the U12+, indicates the retail version of the device comes with a protective case in the box.

There are also great cases out there, as TechRadar and Digital Trends individually write about.

Look, I surfed the Web, played with various apps, tried the cameras, used the audio sonic volume boosting feature of the video camera to capture better audio, changed settings, did speed tests, and everything performed as a flagship 2018 Android Oreo 8.0 phone should, set up super fast face unlocking and plenty more – and that's with aplomb.

Edge Sense 2.0

The thing that impressed me most, however, was the Edge Sense features.

One new feature lets you double tap with either your left or right thumb, depending on whether you are left- or right-handed, and have this perform one of a stack of different options.

You can double-tap to shrink the screen for better use in one handed mode. It can be set to go back a screen, or launching a floating navigation bar, launch Google Assistant, the camera, an app, a screenshot, the flashlight, Wi-Fi on/off, music control and more.

While some might find the ability to shrink the screen to a re-sizeable smaller size to be very useful, I loved the ability to set this to be the back button.

Of course, you can use the on-screen back button, but to do this one handed is very handy.

I'd have liked the option to do single, double and even triple taps, so I could customise for more actions by just tapping, but being able to go back this way was almost as useful as simply sliding the screen back or forwards as you can on iOS, and is the closest thing to that convenience that I've seen on an Android phone.

You can also squeeze the bottom half of the phone with a similar set of choices, but here you can squeeze with a short press or a long press.

You can even determine the pressure or "squeeze for level" for both the short and long squeezes, so you can even more easily differentiate between the two types of squeeze.

The only other phones to offer this feature, besides HTC's most recent older U models, are the Google Pixel 2 models, but these are limited to activating Google Assistant only.

HTC's U12+ has many more options, as partially described above, so you really can customise this feature to do almost whatever you want, and with double tapping, short squeezing and long squeezing, you really do get to squeeze out additional value from this phone that no other phone can offer.

You can also double tap the screen to wake up or sleep when on the lock screen, apply on screen gestures to do one of five different things on the lock screen, like picking up the phone when off and swiping down twice to activate the camera, unlocking with the rear fingerprint reader, having an always-on display when the phone is off so the time and other info is always faintly displayed, increase the sensitivity of the screen with a "glove mode" and plenty more.

Even regular phone calls sounded just fine, although as always in these modern times, using WhatsApp, FaceBook Messenger or some other voice and video chat app gives much better quality sound that the traditional phone calling capabilities. 

Use a case!

You'll definitely want to use a case with this phone, but unless you're incredibly careful and can guarantee you'll never be accidentally bumped into by someone else while handling your phone, you'll want a case no matter what phone you're using.

The model I'm testing is the translucent dark blue casing that shows elements of the back of the phone, without exposing anything, and it's a cool look, although any case that isn't transparent will hide this.

To conclude, while I remain an iOS iPhone X user, I really like the HTC U12+, and while it doesn't offer the stylus that makes Samsung's Note series even better than its Galaxy S-Series devices, it's a very worthy contender that you should at least inspect for yourself when deciding on your next Android smartphone purchase.

Any of the current top flagships or less expensive mid-range marvels, as I dubbed them previously, should also easily be on your list of phones to check out in store before you decide on which phone is for you, but if you like to be different, and want to use your phone in ways that no other smartphone can offer, while having all the power you need to do the everyday smartphone stuff you're doing now, the HTC U12+ is definitely a contender.

What would I change?

  • Well – the phone is slippery, but plenty of flagships are, and as noted above, use a case!
  • I'd keep up the work on the buttons to make them feel definitely like actual buttons, while remaining haptic, so reviewers have nothing to complain about in that regard.
  • I'd put in a bigger battery, and upgrade to the three rear cameras that the Huawei P20 Pro pioneered, that at least some of Apple's 2018 iPhones will offer and that every Android maker will start offering next year on flagships.
  • I'd keep on improving Edge Sense and find ways to deliver even more Edge Sense features whenever the Android P 9.0 upgrade arrives.
  • I'd also offer versions with even more internal storage, seeing as Apple is likely to deliver a 512GB iPhone this year (or next), given its iPads already started offering 512GB last year.

So, would I buy this smartphone if I were primarily an Android user and in the market for a new phone?

If I was in the market for a new Android flagship, it would be a tough choice given the top-notch competition — no pun intended regarding some flagship models with iPhone X-like notches — but the squeeze and double tap factor would, in my theoretical world where I use an Android as my daily driver, see my theoretical self thinking this is what would be the killer user interface and experience features I'd go for over the others.

It's the one phone where you truly can use the force — your force — to wield your hand-held smartphone weapon in ways you just can't elsewhere, but the question is whether that's important to you.

Whether it'll deal the KO blow to get you to choose it over the others, be they Androids or iPhones, is something you will choose, but if you do check out the U12+ before making a final Android purchase decision, be sure to take a look at HTC's U12+ user guide to truly understand what it can do, and whether that's more than enough — or not enough — for you.

Whatever happens, and whichever smartphone brand and model you choose, may the force be with you.


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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.



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