HTC emerged from the shadows today to announce two new phones: the HTC U20 5G and HTC Desire 20 Pro.
The Desire 20 Pro is exactly what you’d expect; a basic budget phone with a mildly impressive (on paper) quad camera and a middling SoC. The U20 5G, though… well, that U moniker instantly raises the stakes.
Are U kidding me?
Let’s quickly rewind to last October. HTC CEO Yves Maitre was in full confession mode and talked candidly about the company’s near-fatal missteps in the smartphone market. Maitre cited a lack of innovation for its failures while promising that HTC would return to the premium space, presumably with a device that addresses said criticisms.
The rumors began to swirl. A 5G-ready phone was in the works that could prove there was life in the old dog even after Google poached much of its talent back in 2017. A device that could play with the Android big boys was coming.
Instead, what we have to kick off this mooted U-turn is a basic mid-range phone paired with a couple of questionable hardware choices. Set to retail at NT$18,990 (~$640), the specs, design, and target price suggest this isn’t the “flagship” phone Maitre teased eight months ago. Even judged on its own merits, however, we still have a relatively uninspired comeback phone for the venerable brand.
We’re bringing two new smartphones to Taiwan – the HTC #U205G, which supports both standalone & non-standalone #5G networks; and the HTC #Desire20pro, a powerful device that packs in premium features. Both sport 5 lenses with a whopping 48-megapixel main camera. #htc pic.twitter.com/xiqr4dj4Mo
— HTC (@htc) June 16, 2020
Aesthetics are always subjective, but the U20 5G is a far cry from the industrial boldness of the One M7 and One M8, or the curved plastic cool of the One X. Even the slightly too in-your-face see-through glass of the U12 Plus and that weird blockchain phone were at least distinguishable from the crowd. The best the U20 5G can do in terms of visual flair is a garish yellow ring around just two of the four camera sensors in the putrid green (not the official name) colorway, or a marginally less obnoxious light blue accent for the silver variant.
You’ve probably spotted the rear fingerprint reader already too. I personally don’t mind having a rear sensor, but it’s an archaic inclusion in an era of in-display readers and more advanced biometrics like hardware-based face unlock. There is a hole punch on that huge 6.8-inch full-screen (if you ignore the chin) display, so that’s one trend in the bag at least.
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Then we come to the raw specs. I won’t list them all here, but the core components are a Snapdragon 765G processor, 8GB of RAM, a 5,000mAh battery, 256GB storage, and a quad rear camera. There’s actually some decent stuff in here, most notably the huge battery and impressive base storage which is also expandable.
The Snapdragon 765G is a savvy choice too. We’ve tested the sub-flagship chipset and found that it’s not far off leading silicon from a year ago and it shares some important feature parity with the Snapdragon 865, especially when it comes to AI smarts. With 8GB also in tow, this is a mid-ranger that shouldn’t falter in the performance stakes.
Mid-range phones are more interesting than ever and the HTC U20 5G... isn't.
The camera setup is far less encouraging, however. In addition to the main 32MP camera, the quartet is rounded out by — stop me if you’ve heard this one before — an 8MP ultra-wide lens, a 2MP depth sensor, and a 2MP macro camera. The latter is a particularly egregious example of “me too” design. We’ve already seen plenty of evidence that 2MP just isn’t enough to produce serviceable macro shots. Add in the assistive depth sensor and you’ve really got a dual camera that HTC can market as a quad camera.
All of this — plus the absence of a headphone jack — paints a pretty underwhelming picture. Competent? Yes, but taken as a whole, it shows a staggering lack of ambition from HTC.
Hard To Care
It’s no secret that HTC’s market share barely registers as a blip compared to the likes of Samsung, Huawei, Xiaomi, and beyond. While there were some bright spots post-HTC’s halcyon days with the HTC 10 and the HTC U11, a string of high-profile critical and commercial misses sent the company’s smartphone business into a downward spiral into near oblivion. HTC’s eventual retreat from crafting marquee phones has been a sorry sight to behold. As was seeing a once brave, bold brand reduced to licensing out its own name to desperately claw at the increasingly lucrative Indian market.
With no major release in 2019, the stage was set for a Lazarus-esque revival in 2020 — a small ember of an old flame began to flicker that HTC’s own CEO was keen to rekindle. In that context, it’s hard not to be disappointed that a glorified mid-ranger is all HTC could muster. It certainly doesn’t help that the name “HTC U20 5G” sounds like it should be attached to a rebooted flagship. For a career HTC apologist like myself, that’s just cruel.
It also really doesn’t help that mid-range phones are more interesting than they’ve ever been right now. The iPhone SE has shaken up the market in dramatic fashion, Chinese OEMs like Realme and Redmi are delivering incredible value phones, and the Google Pixel 4a and OnePlus Z are waiting in the wings. Even fellow struggler LG is attempting to do something a little different with the design-conscious LG Velvet.
The HTC U20 5G has only been confirmed for the Taiwanese market so far, though other channels were hinted at prior to launch. HTC’s US channels haven’t mentioned the U20 5G or the Desire 20 Pro. In fact, HTC’s US Twitter account has been completely dormant since January. Yikes.
Whether or not the U20 5G does eventually hit Western shores, now was absolutely not the time to showcase a cookie-cutter phone that could’ve come from any no-name brand.
HTC needed to come back with a bang, and it barely mustered a whimper.
What do you make of the HTC U20 5G? Cast your vote in the poll above and hit the comments to share your views.