What does it take to make a good phone great? The Android landscape is littered with the corpses of good phones nobody bought, and HTC has made more than its fair share of them. The HTC U11 Plus, originally destined to be the Google Pixel 2 XL, is a giant leap forward for the company. But is it truly great, or just another good HTC phone? Let’s find out; this is the HTC U11 Plus review.
Having just come from using the Huawei Mate 10 Pro, the HTC U11 Plus feels like a kindred spirit. Picked up in a dark room, about the only way you’d tell them apart is the U11 Plus’s slightly taller profile, and thicker and heavier feel in hand.
The U11 Plus is the most contemporary-looking phone HTC has made in years.
That’s not to say the U11 Plus has a larger battery than the Mate 10 Pro; it’s actually slightly smaller. It doesn’t have a larger display either; both measure six inches on the diagonal with an 18:9 aspect ratio. This situation is kind of emblematic for HTC: even when it crafts a beautiful phone, someone else manages to do it slightly better.
Comparisons aside, the HTC U11 Plus feels very much like a 2017 phone. It’s big, hefty, very well machined, and glorious to look at. It finally adds smaller bezels to the HTC design language of the U11, even if it doesn’t go quite as far as some of its competitors. Regardless, this is the most contemporary-looking phone HTC has made in years.
The U11 Plus omits the headphone jack but maintains HTC BoomSound Hi-Fi Edition stereo speakers.
The U11 Plus omits the headphone jack but maintains HTC BoomSound Hi-Fi Edition stereo speakers. It includes an IP68 water- and dust-resistance rating and offers microSD expansion if you’re not using the second nano-SIM card slot.
A USB 3.1 Type-C port on the bottom can be used for faster charging and data transfer, as well as with the bundled USB Type-C headphones in the box which we’ll return to a little later. Flipping it over, the highly reflective backing of the ceramic black U11 Plus is a beautiful testament to how disgusting our hands are. The fingerprint scanner is now centered beneath the single camera lens on the back due to the move to smaller bezels up front. As expected, it’s fast and reliable.
Unfortunately, the U11 Plus slides around on a table mercilessly, so you’ll need to keep an eye on it if you don’t want to find it on the floor all the time. This happened so often during my time with it that I began corralling it on the table with my wallet, a book, keys, or any other immovable objects at hand. The same shimmying effect happens whether you place it face up or face down, so be warned. Needless to say, it’s also a bit on the slippery side.
Unless you’re into microbial culture farming, you’ll find yourself cleaning the U11 Plus a lot. The ceramic black version I reviewed got just as gross as practically every other glass-backed phone I’ve used lately. Grabbing a case for it might be wise, especially if the slipperiness, fingerprintiness, or fragility of the whole glass sandwich thing has you nervous. HTC has kindly included a clear plastic case in the box so it’s a no-brainer.
The U11 Plus doesn't quite match the screen-to-body ratio of other modern smartphone designs, but for HTC it's a nice step forward.
Fortunately, the metal frame of the phone has a little added texture to it, at least marginally improving grip. The power button also offers a ridged texture, making it easier to identify through feel alone. The buttons are very well fitted and sturdy to press. HTC has always made very well-built phones, and the U11 Plus is no exception.
An HTC phone that finally minimizes bezel size is pretty exciting. The U11 Plus doesn’t quite match the screen-to-body ratio of other modern smartphone designs, but for HTC it’s a nice step forward. Looking at the HTC U11 Plus on a retail shelf very much puts it in the same league as the V30s, Note 8s, Pixel 2 XLs or Mate 10 Pros of this world. So far so good.
Unlike Samsung and LG’s offerings, the HTC U11 Plus doesn’t have rounded display corners, though it has adopted the tall and narrow 18:9 aspect ratio increasingly becoming the new high-end standard. It features a 6-inch QHD+ SuperLCD6 panel with 2,880 x 1,440 resolution. Gorilla Glass 5 covers both sides of the phone so it’s just as slippery on the front as on the back, if you happen to place your phone face-down like some kind of barbarian.
While the specs sheet I was originally given by HTC says SuperLCD5 and AIDA64 on the unit I’m using backs that up, HTC now adamantly refers to it as SuperLCD6, both on its website and in an email to me. Last minute branding changes notwithstanding, what matters is not what HTC calls it, but just how good it is.
Unfortunately, the U11 Plus panel doesn't get anywhere near bright enough to be fully legible in bright sunlight.
Unfortunately, the panel didn’t get anywhere near bright enough to be fully legible in bright sunlight. It’s one of the most unbearably dim displays I’ve seen in years. You’ll manage just fine inside, but if you live anywhere where the sun comes out, you’re going to have issues. There’s some anecdotal evidence that not all displays are this dim, so you might be luckier than I was.
Viewing angles are nice and stable, although you naturally lose luminosity as you go off-center. Many hoped the HDR10 update would bump the maximum brightness up to provide the dynamic range HDR content needs, but it didn’t affect display brightness at all. HDR content still isn’t showing in YouTube or Netflix either, so I can only assume there are still licensing deals to be worked on there. Needless to say, don’t buy this phone for HDR10 content or for outdoor visibility right now.
The display was a little too cool out of the box for my taste, but HTC provides a color profile picker in the display settings so you can switch between the default DCI-P3 color space or sRGB. No matter which color profile you pick, there’s a slider for making things warmer or cooler to suit your personal preferences. This is the kind of feature all companies should provide out of the box.
There’s an always-on display that HTC calls Smart Display, which luckily doesn’t suck battery like you might expect on an LCD screen. There’s night mode and a whole host of screen-off gesture controls including old favorites like double tap to wake and sleep, swipe up to unlock (or go straight to your PIN or pattern screen), and a double swipe camera shortcut. Three-finger gestures can also be enabled for apps that support them.
The QHD+ resolution of the HTC display is plenty sharp enough at 537 ppi. Colors pop nicely and blacks get plenty black enough for me despite the U11 Plus not sporting an OLED display. The main issue is just display brightness. HTC tells me max brightness could be boosted via a software update down the road, but stopped short saying one is actually coming. In most circumstances the U11 Plus display is great, but there’s a very big “but” there you need to be willing to accept.
Like most other areas of the HTC U11 Plus, the camera provides excellent (if decidedly “no frills”) performance. Straight up: the HTC U11 Plus camera is excellent. It’s not quite at Pixel level but it’s not all that far off. It can’t crush noise in low light quite like the Huawei Mate 10 Pro and it doesn’t handle as wide a spectrum of photographic situations as well as the Pixel 2, but it’s still really, really good.
The HTC U11 Plus camera provides excellent, if decidedly no frills, performance.
There is no dual camera, no post-focusing, no portrait mode or other depth effects, and no motion photos or AR effects. The HTC U11 Plus camera just nails the basics. If you need those other photographic enhancements to be satisfied, HTC isn’t going in for any of it. The company’s been burned in the past, having offered dual cameras, post-focusing, and more in the past to no avail.
If you’re just looking for a basic camera app — one that looks and feels like it could have been released a few years ago — you’ll be perfectly happy with the U11 Plus. The camera app lags a little in low light environments, likely due to HDR Boost, but the results speak for themselves. You’ll quickly adapt to the slight delay when you see what the feature can do with dynamic range and shadows in high contrast environments. Shutter speed generally is nice and quick though.
OIS on the main 12.2 MP “UltraPixel 3” sensor — the Sony IMX362 Exmor RS — means low light photos come out remarkably well. Steady hands are not a prerequisite for clear shots. The main camera’s f/1.7 aperture produces nice and realistic bokeh, unmarred by the unconvincing and unreliable software blur most phone makers are going in for these days. The U11 Plus uses dual pixel PDAF, so locking onto targets is nice and fast.
A full manual mode is available for those that want more control and there’s support for RAW and 32-second-long exposures. But the U11 Plus handles most situations perfectly well in auto mode. There’s an exposure compensation slider with AE/AF lock for when you need it and HDR is an on-screen toggle, so you can have it on, off, or on auto.
The U11 Plus captures video with Hi-Res and 3D spatial audio recording via the four on-board microphones. You can shoot 4K video at 30 fps, 1080p at 30 or 60 fps, and Full HD slow-motion video at 120 fps.
There's no less than three different methods to quickly launch the camera.
You can launch the camera in a variety of different ways too: by assigning the camera as the Edge Sense squeeze shortcut, double-pressing the power button, or swiping down twice on the display when it’s off, although this last one needs to be enabled in the settings first.
No matter where you are in the UI — whether the phone is on or off, or even if you’re wearing gloves — you can get a photo with the U11 Plus. A wrist-twist gesture in the camera app will also switch between main and front-facing cameras.
The 8 MP front-facing camera has an f/2.0 aperture but no OIS, so you’ll need slightly steadier hands for crispy selfies or low light portraits. It has a pretty basic “makeup” mode and generally produces softer results than the primary camera. It’s capable of shooting 1080p video if you’re down with Snapchat or Instagram Stories, but there are many other more capable front-facing cameras on the market.
Looking at the image gallery below, you can instantly see how well the HTC U11 Plus handles colors. From bright artificial colors to the sky, the U11 Plus knocks it out of the park. In bright light it produces photos as good as any high end camera and even in dark environments it performs better than most.
In night-time shots and dimly lit interiors noise can creep in, especially around the edges, and highlights are slightly blown out in some darker shots. In tricky high contrast shots, including several where I was shooting into the early morning or setting sun, the HTC U11 Plus performs incredibly well. It consistently pulled a ton of dynamic range out of challenging scenes even if the resulting images tended to be a little lifeless. Because the shots are so detailed though, chucking them into an app like Snapseed will get them looking punchier in no time.
The U11 Plus, like the Pixel 2 before it, is a real testament to what can be done with a single lens.
Color reproduction is generally very good, except in very poorly lit environments. I did, however, experience a few occasions where the U11 Plus would produce a weird cast to a scene. This can be seen in the graffiti image where it kept turning the green background blue. Detail is generally very rich even in difficult lighting conditions and the f/1.7 aperture lens creates gorgeous, natural-looking bokeh. The U11 Plus, like the Pixel 2 before it, is a real testament to what can be done with a single lens.
6 GB of RAM, HTC Sense UI, Android Oreo... the U11 Plus is lightning quick.
Unlike marketing, software has always been one of HTC’s strengths. For as long as I can remember, HTC phones have been the only ones besides Nexus devices widely lauded for their speedy software experience. The U11 Plus is no different.
With 6 GB of RAM, this phone was always going to be fast. But when all that RAM is handling Sense UI, it’s lightning quick. The HTC U11 Plus runs Android Oreo out of the box, although the unit I’m reviewing is still stuck on December’s security patch, despite February’s now being available. Naturally, all the Oreo features you’d expect are on board too.
The software experience is stock-like, much like versions of HTC Sense you may already be familiar with. For that reason I won’t harp on for long about the UI, and just mention a few standout features.
A couple of intuitive home screen gestures make life easier for both small handed folks and those uncomfortable with the kinds of hand gymnastics required to use a big phone one handed. Swipe up anywhere on the home screen to open the app drawer and swipe down from anywhere to pull down the notifications shade. The phrase “pull down” here should probably be replaced by “materialize” though, as there’s no animation I can see — the shade just appears. It can also be summoned by a dedicated notifications button you can add to the navigation bar.
Besides customizing the main nav bar, a whole secondary navigation bar exists to the right of the standard back-home-recents buttons. You can add any of the additional buttons to the main nav bar, or leave them in the second one, up to a total of five.
HTC has added gesture controls, a new Edge Launcher and a customizable second navigation bar.
A new pie-wheel shortcut menu called the Edge Launcher makes accessing your favorite apps, contacts and quick settings even easier. It’s kind of a circular version of Samsung’s Edge panels, in a form people might actually use. There’s space for 11 shortcuts per “panel” with two enabled by default, but you can have as many as five panels for a total of 55 shortcuts. The Edge Launcher also displays a calendar at the top of the screen, and the wheel’s position can be moved to better suit your thumb positioning.
The Edge Launcher can also be set as your Edge Sense shortcut, rather than the camera or voice assistant, and can be accessed directly from a screen-off state (speaking of voice assistants, you’ve got the choice between HTC Sense Companion, Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa). You can also use Edge Sense to create custom in-app shortcuts, and while it works OK, it’s far too fiddly to set up. Using it feels like a brain training exercise. I really like the intuitiveness of Edge Sense, especially for taking photos or launching Assistant.
Blinkfeed exists on the left-hand side of the home screen, in place of the Google feed, but it can be removed. Blinkfeed provides shortcuts to a curated list of content from the various services you add to it, like news sites, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Vimeo, or even your calendar. It’s still just as take-it-or-leave-it as it was the last time I tried to give it a shot, but it’s there if you like it.
It’s slightly annoying that the only way to get back to the home screen from Blinkfeed is by pressing the home button at the very top of the app. That means if you’re scrolling down the feed and tap home, it’ll just take you back to the top of Blinkfeed… where you’ll have to tap home again to get to the home screen. What’s worse is that the return-to-top feature is really slow, like a scroll in reverse, and double tapping the home button doesn’t expedite the process.
Sense UI is the Android skin for people who hate Android skins.
Besides Blinkfeed, Sense Home provides themes and advertising opportunities for HTC’s partners. Fortunately it can be disabled if you don’t want those notifications popping up. The Quick Settings area and the settings menu are both familiarly laid out and clean. Overall, Sense UI is the Android skin for people who hate Android skins.
|HTC U11 Plus|
HTC U11 Plus:6.0-inch Super LCD6
2,880 x 1,440 resolution (QHD+)
536 ppi, HDR10, 18:9 aspect ratio
Corning Gorilla Glass 5
HTC U11 Plus:Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835
HTC U11 Plus:6 GB
HTC U11 Plus:128 GB UFS 2.1
HTC U11 Plus:Yes, up to 2 TB
HTC U11 Plus:Main camera: 12.2 MP UltraPixel 3
BSI sensor with f/1.7 aperture
Slow-motion video (1080p at 120fps)
4K video recording
Front camera: 8 MP
BSI sensor with f/2.0 aperture
1080p video recording
HTC U11 Plus:3,930 mAh
Power saving mode
Extreme power saving mode
Quick Charge 3
HTC U11 Plus:Edge Sensor
Ambient light sensor
Sensor Hub for activity tracking
HTC U11 Plus:USB Type-C (3.1)
Wi-Fi: 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac (2.4 & 5 GHz)
Streaming media from the phone to compatible
AirPlay, Chromecast, DLNA, and Miracast devices
GPS + AGPS, GLONASS
HTC U11 Plus:2G/2.5G GSM/GPRS/EDGE
- 850/900/1800/1900 MHz
- 850/900/1900/2100 MHz
- HSDPA 42, HSUPA 5.76
- FDD: Bands 1,3,4,5,7,8,12,17,20,28,32
- TDD: Bands 38,39,40,41
- 2CA, 3CA, 4CA and 4x4 MIMO
- Support Cat 15 LTE: downloads up to 800Mbps, uploads up to 150Mbps
- VoLTE and Wi-Fi calling (where supported)
HTC U11 Plus:Dual Nano-SIM
HTC U11 Plus:HTC USonic with Active Noise Cancellation
HTC BoomSound Hi-Fi Edition
3D audio recording with 4 microphones
Hi-Res audio certified
USB Type-C to 3.5mm adapter with integrated DAC
Supports aptX HD, LDAC 24-bit codecs
HTC U11 Plus:IP68
HTC U11 Plus:Android 8.0 Oreo with HTC Sense
HTC Edge Sense
HTC Sense Companion
|Dimensions and weight|
HTC U11 Plus:158.5 x 74.9 x 8.5 mm
Minimizing animations and throwing extra RAM at an already bare-bones UI makes the U11 Plus feel really fast, but what about benchmark apps? What story do they tell about the U11 Plus in relation to other flagship devices? (Note: We don’t put much stock in benchmark apps for indicating real-world performance, but we all like us some comparable numbers)
The HTC U11 Plus is powered by the 10 nm 64-bit octa-core Snapdragon 835 (MSM8998) with four high performance cores clocked at 2.45 GHz, four energy efficient cores clocked at 1.9 GHz, and the Adreno 540 GPU.
The version I’m reviewing is the 128 GB variant with 6 GB of RAM, the only one coming to Europe, although there’s also a 64 GB/4 GB version in other markets. That memory is UFS2.1 and LPDDR4X respectively. There’s also microSD expansion via the second nano SIM card slot.
I haven't seen a UI as fluid as this since unboxing the Pixel 2.
In benchmarks apps, the HTC U11 Plus performs very compellingly. In a battery of tests I ran against the LG V30 Plus, Samsung Galaxy Note 8, Huawei Mate 10 Pro and Pixel 2, the U11 Plus consistently ranked well, coming in second in more than half of the tests and even winning a couple.
Real-world performance is equally impressive, with no issues in gaming tests for problems like overheating or dropped frames. Under heavy strain the U11 Plus even cools down significantly faster than a similarly built device like the Mate 10 Pro. Launching apps and games is always fast and general UI navigation is smooth and responsive. I haven’t seen a UI as fluid as this since unboxing the Pixel 2.
Audio is another area where HTC has typically out-performed its rivals. While HTC used to dominate the game with stereo front-facing speakers, times have changed. The company moved to BoomSound Hi-Fi Edition on the HTC 10, where the stereo front-facing speakers were replaced by a bottom-firing main speaker in tandem with the earpiece speaker.
Personally, I don’t like Hi-Fi Edition as much as good ol’ BoomSound, but HTC continues to provide superior audio quality. The company tells me the speakers on the U11 Plus are 30 percent louder than the U11, and I don’t doubt them. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the phone’s speakers are the best around; I’ve heard very good things about the Razer Phone speakers, although I’ve not had the pleasure of hearing them for myself. The HTC U11 Plus’ speakers are far better than most, providing a more palatable music experience than many cheap Bluetooth speakers. Not bad for smartphone audio.
The HTC U11 Plus’ speakers are far better than most, providing a more palatable music experience than many cheap Bluetooth speakers.
The sound from the bottom-firing woofer is naturally bassier and fuller, while the earpiece speaker serves as a tweeter. The woofer also sounds significantly louder even though HTC assured me the U11 Plus’ speaker design is “primarily front channeled.”
In combination they’re very good, and really loud, but the bottom-firing speaker is all too easy to cover with your palm or finger while gaming, throwing that balancing act out of whack, and varying the audio quality and volume. For all the benefits Hi-Fi Edition might provide, the inconsistency alone makes me pine for the BoomSound of old.
In-call sound quality is great, whether on cellular networks or VoIP/VoLTE. The impressive speaker volume is also nice to have up your sleeve in noisy environments. On that note, the U11 Plus supports a multitude of 2G, 3G, and 4G networks, with 2CA, 3CA , and 4CA carrier aggregation and 4×4 MIMO (it works on some AT&T and T-Mobile bands in the U.S.). There’s also support for Cat. 16 LTE, so you shouldn’t have any trouble streaming music or video.
Android Oreo provides support for longer-range or higher-throughput wireless connections courtesy of Bluetooth 5. Oreo also supports Bluetooth codecs like Qualcomm’s AptX HD and Sony’s LDAC for 24-bit audio.
The lack of a 3.5 mm headphone jack will be a dealbreaker for some, but HTC has thrown in a USB Type-C to 3.5 mm adapter with a built-in DAC for your regular, cabled cans.
There’s also a pair of USB Type-C USonic Active Noise Cancelling earbuds in the box for good measure. The U11 Plus settings let you insert the buds and map your ear canal to tune the earbuds to your specific hearing profile. BoomSound Hi-Fi Edition also applies to the headphone experience, with Hi-Res Audio certification, and BoomSound has two audio profiles: music and theater.
The 3,930 mAh battery in the HTC U11 Plus is 30 percent larger than what’s in the U11.
The 3,930 mAh battery in the HTC U11 Plus is 30 percent larger than what’s in the U11. It supports Google’s USB Power Delivery standard and Quick Charge 3 via the included charging brick. There is unfortunately no wireless charging on the U11 Plus despite that glass back.
Using the 5V 2.5A/9V 1.7A/12V 1.25A HTC charger, you can get from zero to 100 percent capacity in less than two hours, and I typically hit seven or more hours of screen-on time with screen brightness set to 50 percent (except for when the default Battery Saver kicked in at 15 percent). Battery Saver consistently helped drag out at least another two hours from a battery that had already powered along for around five hours of screen-on time.
If you keep the screen set at 100 percent brightness or turn off Battery Saver that number will drop to a couple of hours less. How a possible future update that changes max brightness will affect battery life is anyone’s guess. Even with regularly maxing out screen brightness when outdoors, the U11 Plus will still get you through a solid day and a half of mixed usage, which is perfectly acceptable.
Pricing and final thoughts
At 699 pounds or 799 euros, the HTC U11 Plus isn’t cheap, but it’s also nowhere near as expensive as the 939 euro-Pixel 2 XL or 899 euro-Galaxy S8 Plus, both of which have half as much storage and less RAM. There’s no denying those phones justify their hefty price tags in manifold ways, but the question is: does the HTC U11 Plus justify its price tag? To that question, the answer is a definitive yes.
The HTC U11 Plus has a fresh design, even if it’s not as advanced as some competitors. It offers a mostly great screen, even if it’s not as bright as others. It packs a very good camera, even if it falls slightly short of the best of the best.
The U11 Plus also offers a near-unparalleled software experience (outside the Pixel line). It also offers among the best smartphone audio on any phone anywhere. It packs more than enough power, storage, and battery life to keep even the most demanding user happy. The HTC U11 Plus is, in short, a breath of fresh air for HTC fans who have felt a little let down in recent years.
The HTC U11 Plus is, in short, a breath of fresh air for HTC fans. If you can buy one, that is.
If you like HTC phones, the U11 Plus is the phone for you. If you’re open to any and all devices then you’ve got a tough choice to make. Can you live without a headphone jack? Do you want a secondary camera? Can you even buy this phone in your market? For the money, the U11 Plus is an excellent buy, and I would recommend it to anyone in a heartbeat.
But HTC’s lack of plans to release this phone in the U.S. demonstrates that even when it manages to produce a phone that goes from good to great, HTC is still HTC. There is amazing competition on all sides of the U11 Plus, from the $549 OnePlus 5T to the equivalently-priced Mate 10 Pro and the Pixel 2 at a couple hundred dollars more.
Has HTC brought enough to challenge any or all of those alternatives? Absolutely. Will it matter? Not if you can’t buy it.