HTC U Ultra review

OK, I know – we are meant to review every smartphone in isolation, without relentlessly comparing it to others in order to assess it. But by April 2017 we have already had great things to say about the Samsung Galaxy S8, the Huawei P10 and the LG G6.

Also see: How to watch HTC U11 live stream and our hands-on HTC U11 review.

The HTC U Ultra was announced before any of these phones, back in January at a press conference. HTC has adopted the ‘U’ branding because that’s who it says this phone is for – you. It believes it has designed a highly personal device. 

It’s definitely different enough to stand out, and I truly wanted to love this phone. In everyday use it does make a half decent argument for itself, but given its obvious flaws, it’s impossible for me to say outright that you should buy it. It simply isn’t good enough.

UK price and release date

The 64GB U Ultra is on sale for £649.99 SIM free from Carphone Warehouse. You can pick from the blue, black, pink and white versions.

Carphone also offers the phone on contract from around £35.99 with an upfront cost

You can also buy it direct from HTC. In the box is also a Quick Charge 3.0 wall charger, clear case, headphones, SIM tray tool and a micro-fibre cloth.

Design and build

HTC considers itself 'the master of metal' but the design mantra of the U series phones is 'Liquid Surface', achieved with glass. Liquid surface doesn’t really mean anything, but refers to the attractive depth effect the glass takes on, as opposed to Samsung’s method of placing colour sheets under a piece of glass that gives a flatter, 2D effect.

Before you even turn it on, it’s a beautiful device. With this break from metal phones, HTC has at least made the U Ultra to the highest build quality standards.

But it’s just too big. Absolutely huge, in fact. Now, I’m sure that many people out there still prefer the presence of a bit of bezel. Bezel-free devices may be the latest trend, but they are debatably harder to hold (the Xiaomi Mi Mix in particular is all screen and hard to grip without registering erroneous touches on the display). 

The U Ultra has a big old bezel at the chin, and what appears like a bigger one at the forehead. The chin houses a responsive fingerprint sensor and capacitive Android navigation buttons that look oddly too small for the design.

It appears HTC has copied this set up from the HTC 10, but because the U Ultra is so much bigger, there’s tons of unused space and the design looks wrong, almost like a manufacturing error, as there’s no good reason why there should be so much unused space. This is not good on a high-end phone, and I frequently missed the back and recent apps buttons because they are tiny and don’t stay backlit (though you can change this in settings to the detriment of battery life).

Once you turn it on, you see that the large bezel at the top houses a secondary display that is operated separately to the 5.7in main display (with more bezel to spare, by the way).

The U Ultra’s size means that it is undoubtedly a two-handed device. Even scrolling through Twitter with one hand on the train is perilous such is the unwieldy nature of the phone.

Maybe it’s our nostalgia for the brand (that One M8 tho) but despite these niggles it’s still nice to see HTC do something different and the U Ultra is certainly that. While HTC's phones have typically been variations of grey with a sleek brushed finish, the U Ultra is altogether more striking.

Whether it's striking in good way will depend on your personal taste. There are four colours to choose from, the Sapphire Blue and Brilliant Black options are best and the latter has a slightly green tint. However, the pearlescent Ice White and Cosmetic Pink colours are more garish but perhaps that's what you're after.

Our white review sample did grow on us though, with a slight pink glint in the right light.

The curved glass makes for a comfortable fit in the hand and although the material may be strong and harder to scratch, it has various downsides. The lack of friction makes the device slippery, it's a fingerprint magnet and, we suspect, prone to shattering if you drop it.

A clear case is included in the box to help with some of these issues but of course makes the phone even bigger and heavier.

HTC U Ultra fingerprints

Everything else is in check, with USB-C and a speaker on the bottom, SIM tray with two slots (though one gives the option for microSD up to 256GB) on the top, a textured power button and volume rocker on the right edge and nothing on the left edge. The power button is nicely textured but after I dropped the phone once, it lost its tactile click and is now mushy.

Painfully, there is no headphone jack on the U Ultra so HTC is following in the footsteps of Apple and Motorola on this front. It's a straight up crime that a USB-C to headphone jack dongle is not included in the box, and has meant I was immediately put off listing to music or podcasts on the phone.

You do get a pair of USonic headphones that utilise the reversible port though, but there aren’t the best. More on that further into this review.

The U Ultra retains HTC's BoomSound stereo speakers but like the flagship 10, only one faces forward. There are four microphones on the handset too for the capture of better audio in videos.

Overall the design is bold, different but frustrating after extended use. I use a lot of phones and the initial good impressions of the U Ultra are suddenly dulled when you hold a better designed phone (in one hand) and realise the U Ultra is a step backwards from the marvellous HTC 10

Specs and features

Second sight

In 2017 as we see bezels shrink and screens get taller, the HTC U Ultra has gone full traditional phablet – it’s a big old device at 162.4 x 79.8 x 8 mm, housing a 5.7in Super LCD display with a 2560 x 1440 resolution and 513ppi. The screen produces colours excellently, and we have no complaints when viewing video, web browsing or playing games.

HTC U Ultra screen

Then there’s also a small, thin strip screen at the top of the device like we saw on the LG V10 and V20. It’s two inches with a resolution of 1040 x 60.

We can’t say that this is a feature we ever hankered after, and in fact now that we have it on the U Ultra, it’s kind of annoying. Not because it makes an already large phone even bigger, but because it also isn’t very useful. You can scroll through customisable panels for weather (the best one), app shortcuts, reminder, calendar, favourite contacts and music controls.

The weather auto updates with forecasts, which is cool, and the reminder panel is good for ‘get milk’ and other temporary mind jogs. But the app shortcuts are redundant when you can hit home and tap the app anyway, and the whole display is only on when the main screen is.

HTC U Ultra second screen

With both screens off, raise to wake shows the time, date, notification icons, battery and weather on the secondary display. You can then scroll through all the normal modes, with an additional quick toggle menu for access to Wi-Fi, flashlight, Bluetooth and more. Bafflingly this handy option is only available when the phone is locked.

A secondary screen is not high on the list of consumers’ must-have features on a phone, and the way it has been hurriedly implemented on the U Ultra is disappointing. OK, you can read the first line of a notification when you’re in another app without obstructing what you’re seeing, but it means an already huge phone has to be bigger, and doesn’t improve the user experience. It complicates it.

Processor, storage and RAM

Aside from the screens, the phone runs on the Snapdragon 821 processor also found in the OnePlus 3T and LG G6, paired with 4GB RAM. There’s definitely enough power under the hood for most people, and the 821 is a proven chip despite the 835 now debuting on the Galaxy S8.

4GB RAM is still all you really need on a phone too short of doing literally every computing task on it at once, and the U Ultra stood up to solid performance in multitasking. App load times are good, as is switching between apps.

Units ship with a generous 64GB storage, but that is becoming standard for flagship Android devices today. A limited edition 128GB version with Sapphire glass is available in Taiwan.

In terms of pure power, the U Ultra is a high-end device, if not the most powerful. But with constant use it feels limited and overblown at the same time, which makes for a frustrating experience. The hardware and software are inextricably linked, but not in a good way. It is also a weighty device at 170g, not helped by its stretched dimensions.

Benchmarks

Benchmarking phones against each other isn't the be all and end all as they aren't properly indicative of everyday use. The U Ultra is still an good performer for the average user. You just should note that in five tests it ranked lowest on four.

Camera

The camera is a 12Mp sensor with OIS while the front facing camera is 16Mp. The latter can use UltraSelfie with UltraPixel tech (lot of ultra going on here), a mode that is four times more sensitive to light than the normal mode. Get ready to photo that face.

Photos come up well but can look a tad washed out or too dark - the lighting conditions generally have to be spot on or the sensor struggles. 

It really wasn't that dark outside in the above image

The rear facing snapper can also take in 2160p video at 30fps. The camera app is a little tricky to use and feels a bit toy like, but once you’ve found the settings menu then it can produce very good, if not class leading, images. The camera bump is also huge on an already thick phone. Surely HTC could have made it flush?

But some things are missing

There’s also everything else you’d expect; NFC, Bluetooth 4.2, 11ac Wi-Fi and fast charging with Quick Charge 3.0. But there’s no wireless charging despite the move to glass (metal phones prohibit it), and no waterproofing whatsoever. These things won’t matter to everyone, but many competing Android phones now have both as standard, and at £649 the U Ultra really should have one or both.

There’s also no headphone jack, and the sad fact of the matter is HTC can’t get away with this. Apple can. It’s not fair, but it’s true.

Even though I’d prefer a headphone port on the iPhone 7, at least Apple shipped an adapter with every phone. In the UK, you don’t get an adapter with the HTC U Ultra and the UK HTC site doesn’t stock it, so you have to use the bundled headset.

That’s fine if you like black HTC in-ear headphones, but I personally struggle with comfort of in-ears. So with no other option besides Bluetooth headphones (I don’t have any and they are expensive), I immediately considered the U Ultra a no-go for audio. This is bad for HTC – I won’t be the only one who will grimly persevere with the included headphones. They are too bass heavy and there’s not a whole lot else to say other than to repeat my frustration.

Power play

And then there’s the battery – it’s 3,000mAh, which simply isn’t enough for a phone with two displays. This phone is physically massive, and it’s simply not a big enough cell to keep it going.

The U Ultra came off charge most mornings at 8am and was hitting 20% before 6pm while I was testing all its features. Screen on time is frustratingly low, meaning the U Ultra is nowhere near being a power user’s phone, when the two displays and large dimensions mean this is the main thing it should be.

HTC hasn’t commented on why the battery is so small, but considering it says it left out the headphone jack to easier design a curved back, it reeks of a company trying to be different with design to stand out, yet try to appeal to an iPhone audience by copying Apple’s most annoying design decision of recent times. Go figure.

Overall, the U Ultra’s unwieldy design could be forgiven if it was a two-day powerhouse with waterproofing and a headphone jack. The fact that it’s not is bitterly disappointing.

Software and HTC Sense Companion

The phone’s UI is still HTC’s Sense, which is quite close to stock Android. HTC has moved even closer to stock Android since the 10, and our U Ultra review unit ran 7.0 Nougat. Rather than replicating every Google app with an HTC equivalent, the U Ultra pushes you to use Google’s Photos, Gmail, Calendar and everything else.

Sense has become very discreet, save for the HTC Sense Companion you will find on the U Ultra. HTC calls it AI, but it isn’t AI – it’s a set of reminder and tutorial functions that pop up from time to time to help you out. Sometimes it’s simply to say that the phone is checking performance for you and will let you know if an app is using too much power, or to let you know about traffic in your area.

HTC Sense Companion

Senseless

These prompts feel untargeted, and despite the fact it’s meant to learn your habits, I found it next to useless. I know Android tends to prompt you to manage power efficiency and such, but I’d rather this phone just did it for me rather than telling me it’s possible. The phone also doesn’t yet have Google Assistant, so you’re left with the inferior Google Now function and an invasively unhelpful Companion. I used neither.

The USonic headphones work with the software to enhance your listening experience on the phone, but I felt like the technology wasn’t up to much. It apparently analyses your inner ear and adjusts the audio output to suit (in my experience by cranking up the bass far too loud).

It’s not adaptable, so won’t adapt to your surroundings unless you manually go through the procedure again. Some may find it beneficial, but I feel it’s one more thing HTC didn’t automate that delivers a less than satisfactory user experience.

Despite this, Nougat runs fast and responsive, and the notification shade is one of the best I’ve used for quick replies and actions. In fact, the efficient software is one of the best things about this phone.

On the HTC 10, the hardware amplified its quality but paired with the U Ultra’s hardware it makes the software feel unremarkable and clunky. The default settings display text and icons very large, which adds to the unrefined overall feeling I have about the device as a whole.

HTC U Ultra: Specs

  • Android 7.0 Nougat
  • 5.7in Quad HD LCD screen (2560x1440)
  • 2in second screen (1040x160)
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor
  • 4GB RAM
  • 64GB storage Micro-SD card slot
  • 12Mp UltraPixel rear camera with phase-detection and laser auto focus, OIS and dual-tone flash
  • 16Mp front camera with selfie panorama
  • dual-band 11ac Wi-Fi
  • NFC
  • Bluetooth 4.2
  • GPS
  • Fingerprint scanner
  • USB Type-C
  • BoomSound Audio
  • Non-removable 3000mAh battery
  • Nano-SIM
  • 162x80x8mm
  • 170g
  • Android 7.0 Nougat
  • 5.7in Quad HD LCD screen (2560x1440)
  • 2in second screen (1040x160)
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor
  • 4GB RAM
  • 64GB storage Micro-SD card slot
  • 12Mp UltraPixel rear camera with phase-detection and laser auto focus, OIS and dual-tone flash
  • 16Mp front camera with selfie panorama
  • dual-band 11ac Wi-Fi
  • NFC
  • Bluetooth 4.2
  • GPS
  • Fingerprint scanner
  • USB Type-C
  • BoomSound Audio
  • Non-removable 3000mAh battery
  • Nano-SIM
  • 162x80x8mm
  • 170g

SHOULD I BUY HTC U ULTRA?

HTC has confused me with this phone. The HTC 10 fixed the problems of the One M9 but the U Ultra is a Frankenstein device. When a phone gives a better impression powered off than on, you know you’re in trouble. It’s not a bad phone full stop, but it does a lot to an unacceptably middling standard.

It feels cobbled together despite the liquidity of its beautiful design and makes too many compromises with its massive body, no headphone jack or waterproofing, a small battery, and gimmicky use of the secondary display.

In a year of excellent high-end smartphones, it’s impossible to recommend the U Ultra above the Galaxy S8, LG G6 or OnePlus 3T to name but a few. The HTC U 11 is just around the corner but frankly, I am worried that HTC may soon find itself powering off for good.

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