HTC U11 Life review: The U11's affordable cousin is one of the best mid-rangers
The HTC U11 is fantastic so releasing a less expensive version that checks all of the key boxes makes sense. The HTC U11 Life is one of the best in a growing sub-$400 mid-range smartphone market that challenges today's flagships priced at least twice as much.
The HTC U11, see our full review, is one of the most underrated phones of 2017 and is often ignored because it has distinctive bezels, capacitive buttons, and no headphone jack. However, the camera is one of the best, it has IP67 dust and water resistance, HTC Sense is a light skin with extremely responsive performance, and it is priced hundreds less than competing flagships.
For those who like the HTC U11 or for those looking for a solid mid-ranger, the new HTC U11 Life is definitely one to consider. I've been using one on T-Mobile for over a week and it feels almost like I'm using an HTC U11 while being $200 less and a bit less fragile with shiny blue acrylic back.
Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 630 octa-core
Display: 5.2 inch 1080x1920 pixels resolution Super LCD with Gorilla Glass
Operating system: Android 7.1.1 Nougat with HTC Sense and August 2017 security patch
Storage: 32GB internal with microSD expansion card slot
Water and dust resistance: IP67
Cameras: Rear 16 megapixel, f/2.0 aperture camera. Front 16 megapixel camera with f/2.0 aperture
Battery: 2600 mAh
Wireless connectivity: 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac WiFi, Bluetooth 5.0, NFC
The specs are mostly mid-level, but you will also find a pair of the USonic earbuds, that employ a customized audio setup with active noise cancellation, in the box for an amazing audio experience. The U11 Life is also IP67 dust and water resistant.
The liquid glass back made the U11 stand out from the pack and with the HTC U11 Life, we see a similar high gloss Sapphire Blue color for the back panel. To save costs and price the device in the sub-$400 range, this back panel is constructed of acrylic. It still looks good, but also makes it less susceptible to breaking if you drop it on the back. Sapphire Blue was one of the most popular colors of the HTC U11, and the HTC U Ultra before that, so it makes sense that the blue is the chosen color for the US release.
The flash and camera are centered near the top of the back with the HTC logo about in the center of the back. There is nothing on the left side while the power and volume buttons are on the right. The USB Type-C port is oddly positioned off to the far right on the bottom. The microSD card and SIM card slot is on the top.
The front is pretty basic, especially when you compare it to the screen dominant devices of today like the LG V30 and G6, Apple iPhone X, Samsung Galaxy S8 and Note 8, and other modern smartphones. There are bezels on the sides, top, and bottom. There are also two capacitive buttons, one on each side of the oblong fingerprint scanner/home button, below the display. HTC has been using this approach for a couple years now.
The display is Super LCD and it looks great with accurate colors and excellent clarity. Google Daydream is not supported by LCD screens though so you won't be using VR headsets with the HTC U11 Life.
Unfortunately, there is no standard 3.5mm headset jack on the HTC U11 Life, but I think it is time for me to stop listing that as a con since it seems to be the present and future for most smartphones. HTC still offers a stunning audio experience on a smartphone through the USB Type-C port. HTC includes USonic technology to scan your ear to customize the audio output for your unique ear design. Earbuds with active noise cancellation are included in the box and they will blow you away. I could only have the volume set to about 70 percent maximum most of the time as audio is loud, crisp, clear, and simply stunning.
The rear and front cameras are both 16 megapixel variants. You can check out some sample full resolution photos in my Flickr album to judge the camera for yourself. It does well and will likely meet the needs of most people looking to capture life's moments and share them on social networks.
HTC U11 Life review: in pictures
The HTC U11 Life runs the Android 7.1.1 Nougat operating system with the August monthly security update present on my evaluation unit. HTC has a solid track record of updates for the OS and monthly security releases from Google. I expect to see Android O on this device in the near future.
The latest version of HTC Sense is present on the U11, but it is such a light "skin" that you cannot really distinguish it from stock Android. There is theme support, widgets, and a few other HTC custom features, but it is mostly a stock experience. This includes a lack of HTC duplicate apps like we have seen in the past as HTC continues to focus on providing Google apps for its users. I personally prefer HTC Gallery over Google Photos, but there are ways to get such apps if you try hard enough.
The HTC U11 Life works very well with Google Assistant's hands-free launch phrase. It also includes HTC Alexa, but a limitation of the Snapdragon 630 processor is the support for a single wake word. Thus, you have to launch the HTC Alexa app first before using the Amazon Alexa functionality.
Price and competition
The HTC U11 Life will be available SIM-unlocked on HTC.com for GSM carriers for $349. T-Mobile will launch it in carrier stores starting on November 3 for a price to be announced soon. It will appear as a T-Mobile Smart Pick and be prominently displayed to customers in stores. With its glossy blue back and low price, it is sure to attract customers.
The Moto X4 is similarly priced at $399.99 or $329.99 as an Amazon Prime Exclusive. The Moto G5S Plus is just $229.99 with a similar RAM and internal storage capacity. Many of these mid-range phones are comparable, but most lack NFC and Android Pay support too.
Daily usage experiences and conclusion
As a phone reviewer and guy who spends the majority of my time with high-end flagships, I was hoping to see the rumored HTC U11 Plus launch in the US. However, HTC isn't interested in cannibalizing possible HTC U11 sales so the US is seeing the more affordable HTC U11 Life launch as both an unlocked device and one that will be present in key locations in T-Mobile retail stores.
I think T-Mobile is the right carrier for this phone as people look for something affordable on one of the most cost-competitive carriers while also looking for a phone that stands out from the black and white slabes so prevalent today. The Sapphire Blue HTC U11 Life is attractive and the price is right.
To be honest, there is very little compromise in using the HTC U11 Life compared to the HTC U11 and I didn't really miss the U11 with the U11 Life in hand. Most of the time we see mid-rangers give up NFC, provide average cameras, or reduce the overall experience in some manner. I don't see that in the HTC U11 Life and it will be interesting to see if it appeals to the masses.