The sun rises in the east, and HTC makes metal phones. Like death and taxes, some things in life are just inevitable.
Or at least that’s what I thought, until the U Play landed in my hands. What’s this - glass? I’m having to rethink my entire life philosophy.
With a brand new look, renewed focus on the mid-range instead of wallet-busting flagships, and talk of AI-controlled assistants to streamline your day, the U Play is anything but another also-ran budget bargain.
At least that's what HTC wants you to think. I got to try one out ahead of launch to see if there really are brains beneath the good looks, or if the beauty only runs skin deep.
HEART OF GLASS
HTC calls its new-look design Liquid Surface, because it morphs and bends like a water droplet. I just call it gorgeous.
Take one look at the all-glass rear that curves into the U Play’s metal frame; see how its pearl-effect colours glint and change in the light, and you’ll have to do a double take. Yes, this really is a mid-range phone. It reminds me a lot of the Honor 8, only even slicker. Impressive stuff.
OK, so it’s a bit of a fingerprint magnet, but it didn’t feel like the phone was about to slip out of my hand at any point - the metal frame, while super-skinny, gives you plenty to grip on to. And that's despite the phone being one consistent thickness, instead of having a palm-friendly bulge like the HTC 10.
That slim design comes at a cost, though. HTC decided to follow Apple’s lead by ditching the 3.5mm headphone jack on the HTC 10 EVO, and hasn’t found any reason to bring it back here.
You’re either forced to use the bundled USB-C headphones, make the switch to Bluetooth, or buy a 3.5mm adapter - you don’t get one in the box.
HTC reckons its headphones are worth sticking with, though. They’ve got built-in microphones that detect ambient noise and adjust your music to drown it out, and use ultrasonic pulses to customise the sound based on your ear canals.
Sounds fancy, sure, but I wasn’t convinced by the tech when I tried the HTC 10 EVO. I’ll have to wait for a full retail version of the U Play to see if things have improved here.
AI OF THE TIGER
Power on the U Play and you’ll spot HTC’s familiar Sense UI, this time laid on top of Android 7.0. It’s great to see the latest version of Google’s OS running out of the box, so you won’t have to worry about being out of date as soon as you’ve handed over your cash.
It’s got a MediaTek P10 octa-core CPU running the show, along with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, which is pretty much on-the-money for a mid-range phone. It felt snappy enough swiping around home screens and jumping between apps, although because it’s not Qualcomm silicon it won’t work with a QuickCharge power adapter.
I’m a little worried the 2500mAh battery might not be big enough to power the 5.2in, 1080p LCD screen for more than a day between charges, though. That’ll be one of the first things I test when I get hold of one for a full review.
Aside from a few pre-installed apps, the one standout addition is Sense Companion, an AI-controlled assistant that’s supposed to scan your contacts, calendar and alarm clock to keep you ticking over. Think bumping your alarm clocks on a bank holiday, or letting you know whether you’ll need a brolly for today’s meetings, but only if the last few days have been blazing sunshine.
It sounds clever, but doesn’t sound all that different to how Google Now works at the moment - I’ll have to compare both after using the U Play for a few weeks so it’s had time to learn my habits.
HTC hasn’t cut too many corners to make the U Play a mid-range phone, but the camera is one of them.
Whereas the more expensive U Ultra has laser autofocus and large, 1.55um pixels, the U Play makes do with phase-detect autofocus instead. It’s still got a 16MP sensor, though, along with an f/2.0 lens and optical image stabilisation, so it should still be a cut above most mid-range phones.
I haven’t had the chance to properly test it out just yet, or the 16MP front-facing camera, but the built-in UltraPixel mode could come in handy for low-light selfie shooting: it takes four pixels and down-samples them into one pixel, so you end up with a lower resolution snap, but taken with much more light hitting the sensor.
Otherwise, you can expect HTC’s usual selection of camera modes and settings, including a Pro mode that shoots in RAW, HTC Zoe animations, a panorama mode and automatic HDR.
Pictures looked crisp and detailed enough on the 5.2in display, which has fairly vibrant colours and the piercing bright whites you'd expect from an LCD panel. Blacks and dark colours weren't quite as prominent, but that's the sacrifice you make for not going with OLED.
HTC U Play initial verdict
Fair play to HTC for trying something new - the U Play looks gorgeous in person, and really stands out from the growing crowd of all-metal slabs currently doing the rounds.
I’m not convinced the AI-controlled Sense Companion assistant will be a killer feature just yet, and things like camera quality, battery life and CPU performance are still up in the air, but I’m liking what I’ve seen so far when it comes to design.
With the U Ultra taking most of the limelight thanks to that spiffy secondary display, there’s a danger that the U Play will go by unnoticed. That’d be a real shame, as if HTC gets the price right, it could be a real mid-range winner.