HTC U11 first look: Stunning hardware, advanced audio, and a camera that may be the best

HTC led the smartphone industry with unibody aluminum phones a few years ago, but has now switched to the glass panels and metal frames we see on other phones. HTC makes its phones look better with liquid surface and brilliant colors.

The new HTC U11 should be shipping to customers soon, but in the meantime I'm evaluating a Sprint model. After spending the last five days checking it out, I'm very pleased that I ordered my own sapphire blue unlocked HTC U11 for the amazing $599 pre-order price.

I was not that impressed with the HTC U Ultra, even though the design was stunning. With the HTC U11, we see the true 2017 HTC flagship with a Snapdragon 835 processor, water resistance, and much more.

Sometimes I have to eat crow here on ZDNet and after some initial testing it appears that HTC may actually have earned the highest DxOMark of 90 for the best smartphone camera. I just couldn't believe it since HTC has failed to live up to its potential with its cameras for the last couple of years. Look at the campfire photo below that I took this past weekend. The clarity and detail captured by the HTC U11 is rather stunning. I'll be shooting more photos as I work on my full review.

Specifications

  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 octa-core
  • Display: 5.5 inch 2560x1440 pixels resolution Super LCD 5 with 3D Gorilla Glass 5
  • Operating system: Android 7.1 Nougat with HTC Sense
  • RAM: 4GB
  • Storage: 64GB internal with microSD expansion card slot
  • Water and dust resistance: IP67
  • Cameras: Rear 12 megapixel UltraPixel 3 with 1.4µm pixel, f/1.7 aperture camera with OIS. Front 16 megapixel with f/2.0 aperture and UltraPixel light sensitivity
  • Battery: 3000 mAh with QuickCharge 3.0 charging technology
  • Wireless connectivity: 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.2, NFC
  • Sensors: Fingerprint, G-Sensor, Gyroscope, Compass, Ambient Light, Proximity, Edge Sensor
  • Dimensions: 153.9 x 75.9 x 7.9 mm and 169 grams

I'm very pleased to see IP67 dust and water resistance and specs that match phones that cost hundreds more.

The retail box includes the HTC U11, HTC Rapid Charger 3.0, USB Type-C cable, HTC clear case, HTC USonic adaptive active noise-cancelling earphones, and a dust cloth.

Hardware first thoughts

HTC has some cool colors on the HTC U11, including amazing silver, sapphire blue, black, ice white, and solar red. Sprint customers are limited to the sapphire blue, which is the color of the unlocked one I ordered. The solar red and ice white aren't available in the US. The solar red looks very cool in photos with it appearing gold at some angles.

The main display is 5.5 inches with 2K resolution and Super LCD 5 technology. It looks great and is a traditional display with fairly small side bezels and no curved edges.

I was blown away by the audio performance of the HTC One M7 a few years ago, and it's great to see HTC getting back to its roots of providing the best immersive audio experience on a phone. The USonic earbuds that come in the package combine the custom tuning functionality with active noise cancellation and I can't wait to travel with this phone and earbuds on my future business trips.

In addition HTC improved the BoomSound speaker experience with an advertised 100 percent more loudness and 150 percent improvement in dynamic range audio. You get a solid speaker experience with the HTC U11, but I still prefer the fabulous headset experience.

The camera is fast and so far is proving to be as good as advertised. It may actually be the best smartphone camera currently available today, but I need to spend more time shooting with it over the next couple weeks.

HTC has a very cool technology for recording video where its real-life recording amplifies the sound associated with the subject you zoom in to while shooting video. Again, I need to test out this functionality.

One of the unique features of the HTC U11 is the Edge Sense squeezability. You can squeeze the lower half of the two sides with a single squeeze or a squeeze and hold to launch the camera and another app. Within the camera app, you can also squeeze to capture a photo. So far, this works well for me and may prove useful for some situations. It seems to me that squeezing to capture a photo causes some motion of the phone which may lead to blurry photos, so I'm not yet sold on this part of the technology.

Software first thoughts

The HTC U Ultra is powered by Android 7.1 Nougat. Google Assistant is present and unlike the Samsung Galaxy S8, you can launch it even when the phone is off. HTC will also support Amazon Alexa, again with voice commands enabled when the phone is off.

HTC Sense Companion is installed on the device, but it takes time to learn your daily life patterns so hasn't yet been a part of my life long enough to be helpful.

While this is a Sprint model I am testing, I am pleased to say that there are only a couple apps preloaded on the phone. These include AAA, Sprint carrier call utility, and KeyVPN. I'm actually stunned to see a phone with carrier support launch in such a pure fashion and hope this becomes a trend for HTC.

A few HTC apps and loaded on the device, including flashlight, HTC Sense Companion, themes, News Republic, Boost+, TouchPal keyboard, Viveport, Zoe Video Editor, and UA Record.

Typical HTC widgets, wallpaper, and settings are included. These all look much like what we have seen on HTC device previously.

Summary

While I have purchased many HTC phones in the past, I honestly did not think HTC could make another phone that I would purchase. The HTC U11 has changed my opinion and the eight reasons it beats the Google Pixel are backed up now by some personal experiences using the phone.

My unlocked model should be here soon and will then turn into my daily driver. If the camera continues to impress, then there will be even more reasons to buy the HTC U11.

It is priced at just $649, which is $100 less than the Samsung Galaxy S8. The LG G6 is priced about the same, although it is on sale at T-Mobile for just $500.

The Edge Sense squeeze functionality is interesting and doesn't take away from the device. I don't think it is an essential function, but there are definitely use cases where it makes sense to squeeze the device to launch apps.

If you have anything specific you want me to test out, please leave a comment below.

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