HTC U Ultra hands-on review: the new HTC era has begun – Hardware reviews

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If you thought HTC was quietly stepping back from the smartphone market, you were wrong. With the U series, the Taiwanese company breaks from its traditions, and instead it looks toward the future. We gave the HTC U Ultra a hands-on review. Here, we’ll tell you how the phablet differs from its predecessor.

HTC U Ultra release date and price

HTC is in a hurry because the U Ultra will be available before the Mobile World Congress. From mid-February, the first phablets will appear in some markets. First to hit the market will be the HTC U Ultra with 64 GB of internal memory, in black and blue. In March, HTC will also launch the U Ultra in a variant with 128 GB internal memory and sapphire glass display protection, in the same colors.

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The HTC U Ultra will be available in black and blue at first, then white and pink will be on offer later. / © AndroidPIT

If you prefer something more eye-catching, there will also be white and pink colored HTC U Ultra phablets in the future. It’s unknown when those two will be available. We do know the price, and it is typical for an HTC device. The 64 GB version is available unlocked for pre-order for $750 and will work with T-Mobile and AT&T when it ships in early March. The 128 GB and sapphire glass version will cost 849 EUR (about $898 USD). The U Ultra is cheaper than the Google Pixel XL, which has similar technical specs.

The U Ultra is now available for pre-order from htc.com for $750, in an unlocked version that will work with the LTE networks of AT&T and T-Mobile. It will ship in early March. 

HTC U Ultra design and build quality

Forget everything you thought you knew about HTC’s design. HTC takes the U-series away from the full-metal unibody housing. For many years, HTC held on to this kind of smartphone design, while more and more competing manufacturers, including Apple with the iPhone 6, also gave their products in metal enclosures. HTC, represented by Fabian Nappenbach, product director at HTC Deutschland, told us during the presentation of the HTC U Ultra that the new design took two years to develop. The reason it took so long was that the company had to develop a manufacturing process for the edges and corners of Gorilla Glass 5 to be rounded. Also, the sapphire glass had to be produced in the size that HTC needed.

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The Gorilla Glass 5 flows into the frame on all sides, even around edges. / © AndroidPIT

Between the front and the back is an aluminum frame, on the sides of which you’ll find the familiar volume buttons, power button, as well as the USB Type-C connector and a loudspeaker grille at the bottom of the frame. A 3.5 mm headphone jack is no longer required, same as the HTC 10 Evo. HTC provides the same headphones that came with the Evo.

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The four color variants look much different depending on the light conditions and angle. / © AndroidPIT

Overall, the HTC U Ultra leaves a very good impression. No creaking and crunching, the buttons all have a pleasant pressure point. The transitions are practically seamless from the front of the frame all the way to the back.

When looking closely at the HTC U Ultra you will quickly see four small holes: one on the back and front sides and one on top and bottom in the frame. HTC uses a total of four microphones, which are used for speech control. Each of the microphones is an omnidirectional microphone, almost like on Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot. Within a radius of two meters around the U Ultra, the smartphone will reliably recognize voice commands and trigger actions thanks to these four microphones. Unfortunately the software on the hands-on devices was not yet final, so we could not test this function.

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The small holes are among the four microphones that have been installed around the U Ultra.  / © AndroidPIT

Another special feature is on the front of the HTC U Ultra. Like the LG V20, HTC also incorporated a small second display in the U Ultra. You will find out all about the two displays in the next section. 

HTC U Ultra display

The main display of the HTC U Ultra measures 5.7 inches and offers a QHD resolution (1,440 x 2,560 pixels). The pixel density is 513 ppi. The second display sits above the main display and next to the front camera, with a 1,040 x 160 resolution.

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We’ve already seen a similar second screen on the LG V20. / © AndroidPIT

Similar to the LG V20, contextual information is displayed on the second display. But HTC feeds the display via the HTC Sense Companion, using AI to show frequently used information and combining it with information from apps that are installed on the smartphone. Need an example? If the battery is at 50 percent and you have planned a long-distance flight on the same day, then the Sense Companion reminds you that you should charge the smartphone again. Or, if it is lunch time, then it will suggest good restaurants in the area. In the short hands-on session, we were not able to test this function extensively due to lack of time and final software. But we will provide you with this as soon as the final software and smartphone is available for a more comprehensive review.

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In the HTC U Ultra, the Sense Companion feeds the second screen intelligently with information. / © AndroidPIT

HTC U Ultra software

HTC will ship the U Ultra with Android 7.0 Nougat and its own HTC Sense interface. The Sense Companion is, like other HTC software components, preinstalled as an app. Currently, we don’t know if the Companion will be available on older HTC smartphone as an app. This possibility exists though; the software department at HTC is testing the possibilities, according to Fabian Nappenbach.

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The Sense Companion can be distributed as an app to future HTC smartphones. / © AndroidPIT

Since the software wasn’t ready during our hands-on review, we couldn’t go deeper into the special features like voice control and the AI, so we can’t provide you with our impressions yet.

HTC U Ultra performance

The technical specs for the HTC U Ultra are similar to those of the Google Pixel and Pixel XL, which are produced by HTC. The phablet will be powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 with 4 GB of RAM, plus 64 GB or 128 GB of internal memory for apps and personal data. Thanks to the MicroSD card slot, storage capacity can be expanded by up to 2 TB.

Since the hardware is so similar to the Pixel XL, we assume that the performance will be similar to it and other smartphones powered by the Snapdragon 821. We will fully review this in a few weeks.

HTC U Ultra audio

How is the audio quality of the HTC U Ultra? BoomSound is, of course, still available despite a completely new design. HTC is settling on the system we already know from the HTC 10 and 10 Evo. One loudspeaker is at the bottom, while the second is hidden in the top loudspeaker for telephone calls.

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The provided headphones can be attached with USB Type-C connector. / © AndroidPIT

The quality of the included HTC USonic headphones we will have to test in the final review, but as in the HTC 10 Evo, two small microphones have been installed in the in-ear headphones which customize the sound based on your ears.

HTC U Ultra camera

The HTC 10 proved that the company knows about camera quality. The Google Pixel and Pixel XL show that HTC has learned from the past, in the choice of the cameras, and does not want to commit the mistakes of the One M8 or M9 again. In the U Ultra, HTC wisely chose the camera from the Google Pixel and Pixel XL.

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The main camera is basically taken from the Google Pixel, only it’s OIS instead of EIS. / © AndroidPIT

The camera shoots with 12 MP and videos are in 4K. Thanks to the four microphones, 3D audio can also be recorded while video recording. The pixel size is 1.55μm and should also provide good images in the low-light range. When focusing, HTC relies on the combination of laser autofocus, contrast and phase. Unlike the Google Pixel Phones, HTC uses a lens with optical image stabilization, but not an electronic version. Whether this was a good decision, we will definitely see in the final review.

The front camera is 16 MP, while videos are captured in Full HD. Interestingly, in poor light conditions, the front camera can combine four pixels by pixel binning to reduce noise. The maximum resolution is then also reduced by a factor of four, so that only 4 MP selfies are available. In the absence of non-finalized software, we can not tell you whether this UltraPixel mode is useful to actually minimize noise. The final test will surely reveal this.

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Selfies can be shot with a maximum of 16 MP. In UltraPixel mode, four pixels are combined into a large one. / © AndroidPIT

In addition to the UltraPixel mode, there is also a panorama mode for selfies. By tilting to the left and right during the recording you can thus take a wider field of view. This mode will be great for group selfies.  

HTC U Ultra battery

The battery of the HTC U Ultra is 3,000 mAh. HTC states that this is enough for 26 hours of talk time in 3G/4G networks, and a standby time of up to 13 days. We were also told that the HTC Sense Companion eats a maximum of one percent in total during always-on operation. These are, of course, only indications from HTC and we must check this ourselves in the final test by using it during everyday life and with battery life benchmarking tests.

Early Verdict

HTC is ringing in a new era for itself with the U-series. Instead of just improving technical specs with ever-faster hardware or a larger and higher-resolution display in order to impress, the U Ultra is designed to add value and ease to life of the smartphone owner.

In theory, the HTC Sense Companion along with the second display will be two additions to make everyday life easier for the user. Instead of just being “simply brilliant”, future HTC products will be easy for us, the users. We will see in the final review whether the device and the final version of the software will live up to its promise of being designed with the user in mind.

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