HTC U Ultra: Interesting Design, A Bit Dated Internals And A Price That’s Just Too Steep

HTC has been struggling, for years now, and by the looks of it, the company is entering the new year with some strange decisions. Most of us know that HTC saw a constant fall of its smartphone sales for years now, ever since the company launched its One flagship series. The first model (HTC One M7) came with an inferior chipset, at least compared to other flagship models that came alongside it. Further, the camera was plain inferior compared to all other flagship models.

Yes, the audio part of it was brilliant, along with an excellent screen and a fabulous design (HTC One M7’s backside literally became the standard most manufacturers use today, even though many believe Apple started the trend with the iPhone 6), but the phone flopped, mostly because of the weak marketing machine behind it.

Years passed, but HTC kept on struggling. One M8 and the One M9 were excellent devices, but their price was just too high, with the, now infamous, Ultra Pixel camera lagging behind other camera solutions. 2016 saw the release of the HTC 10, a marvelous device that showed how HTC can still make a top-of-the-line smartphone that’s better than any competitor. The device didn’t end up being a best seller, again thanks to the horrendous promotion from HTC. And now it seems the company is in free-fall that won’t end brightly.

The newest flagship device from HTC won’t save the company; in fact, it could push it further down the drain. The U Ultra is a solid device, but there’s more than one reason why the device won’t sell in large numbers.

Firstly, the design is just wrong. The phone’s huge, larger even than the LG V20, a proper behemoth amongst smartphones. This is due to the fact that the U Ultra comes with an auxiliary screen meant to play the role of a handy notification panel, letting you know what’s going around without the need of unlocking the main screen. Add the large home button under the screen to the formula and you’ve got yourself one proper brick of a smartphone. Yes, the device is flagged as a phablet, but even by phablet standards, the U Ultra is just too big. The 5.7-inch screen sports a Quad HD (2,560 x 1,440 pixels) resolution, a standard for flagship models these days. The screen looks excellent, with excellent sharpness, lively colors and excellent view angles. The matrix used is Super LCD, meaning that the screen isn’t capable of offering super-rich colors like AMOLED displays, but the colors still look pretty solid.

The auxiliary screen is rocking a 160×1040 resolution and sports the same pixel density as the main screen. It is placed on top of the main display, but it is not using the whole strip above the display since the selfie camera is placed next to it. A thin strip of pixels placed above the main display can prove to be pretty handy since most of the time we unlock the screen, we do it in order to check out notifications, look at the time, or check out which song is playing at the moment. The small secondary screen can do all that, and it is a cool solution, the fact that was proven by relatively strong sales of the LG V10 and the LG V20.

And what to say about the design, which looks like someone took soap and went haywire. The phone looks just too glossy, like a cheap plastic smartphone that sells for $100 or less. HTC just didn’t manage to pull the “double glass sandwich” look right. And the feel, while you’re holding the phone, is extremely anxious one. Since the device is huge and since it is made out of glass it has the worst grip of them all; every second feels like a minute since you’re be constantly on the guard to not drop the phone. The extremely slippery surface along with enormous dimensions isn’t a good combination. The only solution to the problem is putting the phone inside a protective case, but then it looks even worse and it’s even larger, making it impossible to recommend it for persons having regular sized hands, even those having huge hands will have problems while holding the U Ultra.

The internals are solid; Snapdragon 821, 4 GB of RAM along with two storage options – 64 GB and 128 GB along with an SD card slot that can house cards of up to 2TB. The camera is excellent – the main camera uses the same sensor featured on the HTC 10, which is a brilliant 12 MP Ultra Pixel solution. A few things were changed but the main camera is pretty much the same one featured on the HTC 10, the same one that was one of the best cameras in the smartphone world. The battery capacity is a solid 3,000 mAh. We expected more since the screen is so huge, but HTC isn’t really known for putting large batteries inside its devices.

Further, HTC is trying to make the phone unique by equipping it with a series of “AI enhancements” that should make using the phone much easier – after all the U in the title is for the user. For instance, you can give voice commands to the AI assistant, even if the screen is turned off. Also, the phone can advise you to hook it to a charger, to recommend you new music to listen to, to learn your daily route and look for the traffic in that area, and many more things. HTC is just following other manufacturers such as Huawei and Samsung who already equipped some of their models with machine learning capabilities. It will be interesting to see how the AI system of the U Ultra works with Google’s AI features.

The phone comes without a headphone jack (not being the first model from HTC to come without a 3.5 mm jack since the HTC Bolt was the first to start the trend) because HTC believes the headphone jack is outdated and that USonic earphones coming with the phone work much better when used via USB-C connector. As HTC claims “We removed the headphone jack because we believe the audio experience on the phone can be so much more than just the simple transmission of sound. The sonar-like capabilities of USonic wouldn’t be possible with a 3.5mm headphone jack. We have microphones built into both earbuds that “listen” for sonic pulses, which can then adjust your audio to match your ears’ unique architecture. We believe the market is ready to push audio into new innovations that benefit consumers’ listening experience.” Ok, but the clarification doesn’t sound too convincing.

Last, but not least, once turning on the phone you’ll find the latest Android Nougat, which is something we expected to see. It would be horrendous for the 2017 flagship device to come with Marshmallow (even though HTC put Android Marshmallow on the U Play, the second model from the U series, a move that’s just plain idiotic). And for the end, the price. With the price of $749 (for the 64 GB version), the HTC U Ultra is just too expensive. Instead of trying to construct a smartphone that will pack lots for the money, HTC went off the track and again released a flagship device that’s just too expensive. For that money you could buy OnePlus 3T, rocking the same processor, the same amount of storage (without an SD card slot, though), a better design and a better (if not smaller) screen and you’d still have $350 for a nice new gaming console or a weekend in Paris. HTC is a company currently struggling to stay on the surface, and they just can’t release a smartphone that costs this much. Their models don’t sell like the ones from Samsung, Apple, and Huawei, meaning that HTC must release models that offer the best bang for the buck.

And while HTC U Ultra is certainly an interesting model that offers a lot of cool features, it just isn’t the best bang for the buck, not by a longshot. We now must wait for the spring to see what HTC has in plans for their main 2017 flagship model (the U Ultra isn’t the main flagship for 2017), and hope that the next flagship device (HTC confirmed that the company won’t name it HTC 11) will bring a perfect combination of the right size, excellent design, powerful specs, and the price that’s more fit for a device coming from the company that is on the brink of disappearing from the smartphone world.

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