When we say “familiar,” though, we’re not talking about the phone’s design and materials. In fact, the U Ultra’s exterior is unlike anything else in recent memory. Some of HTC’s usual design flourishes, such as the pill-shaped fingerprint sensor and the centered UltraPixel camera, are still here, but the company’s designers traded the usual aluminum look for a finish that seems almost liquid. The frame is still made of metal, but the back is covered with a beautiful curved glass that looks almost pearlescent under the right light. It’s a gorgeous effect born from HTC’s obsession with material science that plays well on all four of the U Ultra’s colors (black, white, blue and pink). And beyond all that, it feels pretty great in-hand too, in part thanks to a sleek profile measuring just under 8mm at its thickest point.
While you might notice those finishes first, it’s the screen that makes the U Ultra feel more like an LG phone. Well, the second screen, to be more precise: It sits above the Ultra’s 5.7-inch Quad HD Super LCD 5 display just like it did on the LG V10 and V20. Sure enough, you’ll be able to add shortcuts to apps and get weather readouts, but HTC is counting on artificial intelligence to actually make that second screen useful. Contrast that with devices such as the V20, where notifications appear as events occur, ultimately leading to a list sorted by time rather than importance.
Not so on the U Ultra. It only displays notifications from people it thinks you want to hear from, though that requires some initial setup. Darren Sng, HTC’s head of global product marketing, laid out situations where the phone would try to be proactive. Let’s say there’s rain in the forecast today: The so-called Sense Companion will warn you on that second screen before you leave the house. And if a holiday rolls around and you don’t have any pressing events in your calendar, the assistant will shut off previously set alarms. (That last one sounds a little dicey to me, but we’ll have to wait and see how well this works over time.)
Those machine learning smarts extend beyond that second screen. As with Huawei’s Mate 9, the phone will attempt to suss out underlying patterns in how we use our phones and allocate resources or shut down services in response. And like basically everything else at CES, you can talk to it through an array of microphones. Look closely enough at the U Ultra and you’ll spot four of them dotting the body. They’re always on and always listening for your voice within a range of about two meters.