Just a few weeks ago we asked whether it was time for HTC to come up with a new smartphone design, and it appears that the call was heard with the launch of the new U Ultra. However, a move over to a Samsung Galaxy, LG V20 hybrid was not necessarily what we were asking for. This begs the question, is the U Ultra something wonderful and new from HTC, or just a clone of other company’s innovations?
At a glance, the HTC U Ultra is a compelling flagship offering, with top of the line processing, display, and camera hardware. HTC has also gone into overdrive on the added extras, including Quick Charge, BoomSound speakers, and even making an early leap into the personal assistant space, rivaling the likes of Alexa, Cortana, Siri, and Google Assistant. The only real complaint we’ve seen on the hardware side is the lack of a 3.5mm audio jack. This will be a shame for many and a deal breaker for others, but there are workarounds and HTC clearly views a digital future for audio accessories. As Apple might say, this could be seen as courage.
The HTC U Ultra is a compelling flagship with top of the line processing, display, and camera hardware, and with a myriad of extras.
However that’s probably the only bold statement made by the U Ultra. The handset’s design and selling features only really go to show that HTC is still playing catch up to its competitors, rather than pulling the industry forward on its own terms as it once did. I previously criticized HTC for continuing to build handsets with an outdated and overused design language, and yet here we are with a “new” look that just screams Samsung Galaxy.
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I’m not sure if the look of the HTC U Ultra is deliberately designed to capitalize on the absence of the Galaxy Note 7, but I can’t imagine it working out in HTC’s favour because the design is so close. Consumers may well be interested in Note 7 alternatives this year, but that doesn’t mean they want something that looks the part but differs on features. “Is that a Note 7?” “Oh no, it’s the new HTC U Ultra” is a conversation that I imagine customers would tire of quickly. Not to mention there’s no S-Pen.
The same copycat issue rears its head with many of the U Ultra’s other identifying features too, albeit borrowing from the less well known LG V20 and Pixel XL. For HTC, this is a timing problem more than anything, as I could have bought a V20 last year if I wanted the secondary ticker display, and the Pixel XL if I was keen for a virtual assistant. Remember, the phone won’t actually be hitting the US until March, and I can see little reason to wait.
That said, it would be unfairly harsh to lambast HTC for identifying useful features and wanting to integrate them into its own products, and hopefully do so better than others. After all, phones have borrowed a lot from each other over the years and iterated to produce better features. Lately this includes fingerprint scanners and dual camera setups, and I actually think that the U Ultra’s overall hardware package is certainly the most impressive from the company in a long time.
However, the problem for HTC’s latest flagship is that this all comes together to produce a smartphone that doesn’t have any huge firsts to call its own. Instead, it’s more likely to be known as the phone that copied, even if it ends up providing a better overall experience than previous implementations. For me, HTC’s biggest problem at the moment is one of brand recognition. Both in terms of a unique look for the broader public and unique cutting edge features to entice the tech savvy. The U Ultra doesn’t do anything to address this.
The U Ultra certainly offers more for your money than other recent HTC flagships, but is that enough?
To return to a more positive note, the U Ultra addresses my other big complaint about HTC’s recent flagship phones, and that’s the value for money. I would argue that the HTC 10, Bolt and even the One M9 didn’t offer enough to warrant the huge price difference between them and cost effective flagships like the OnePlus 3T or the Honor 7 or 8.
This all changes with the U Ultra, it’s feature packed to the brim with notable extras for music and movie enthusiasts, selfie addicts, and it has lept into the AI market early, which is a trend I’m sure we’ll be hearing much more about this year. This handset certainly sets HTC back on the right path in terms of premium features, but it’s not clear if there’s enough unique about the model to recapture interest in the way that the One M7 and M8 did.
As you can probably tell, I’m quite torn on the U Ultra. On balance though, despite an impressive looking spec sheet, the U Ultra shows HTC to be more of a follower rather than a leader, at least when it comes to hardware. That’s really not where the company needs to be if it wants to turn its smartphone business back around. Where do you stand on HTC’s latest flagship?