Whisper it, but HTC is on a bit of a roll right now. Having made our Gadget of 2016 with the Vive and provided the hardware brains behind Google’s Pixel, it’s back with a phone of its very own: the gorgeous HTC U Ultra.
A completely different beast to last year’s HTC 10 and 10 Evo, the U Ultra marks a big change in the way the manufacturer makes its kit. Instead of sticking with the metal unibody design we’ve seen from the HTC One (M7) onwards, the Ultra introduces a stunning all-glass make up and centres around HTC’s new artificially intelligent Sense Companion.
And it’s got two screens, just like the bonkers LG V20. But is the HTC U Ultra any cop? We got to grips with the handset before its unveiling to find out.
HTC U Ultra design: heart of glass
HTC’s phones used to be adored for their design. Then everyone else decided that all-metal phones were the way forward as well. Having adopted a new all-glass make-up, the HTC U Ultra is a unique proposition.
Its glass back is curved onto the phone’s front, and that makes it different to anything we’ve seen before. Samsung’s flat-panelled S7s look positively ordinary in comparison, which is really saying something.
You won’t see the full effect in our pictures above, but the Ultra’s back looks different depending on the lighting you're stood in with different shimmers and reflections lending the phone real personality. This is a handset you’ll be loathe to hide away in a case, even though its back is a fingerprint magnet and won’t survive a tumble from any great height. Because - you know - glass shatters.
Still, this aesthetic lends a pleasant weight to the Ultra that you generally don't find in recent phones. It feels genuinely pleasant to wrap your fingers around.
HTC U Ultra screen: bigger is best
Bonnie and Clyde. The Dudley Boyz. Brown sauce and bacon. These stand among history’s greatest duos, and HTC is hoping the same will go for the dual-screen pairing on its Ultra.
While that might sound like a bit of a stretch, there is some serious tech wizardry behind the Ultra’s 5.7 and 2in displays - both of which offer a 2K resolution. Let’s start with the simple stuff though: that main screen is absolutely massive and the same size as Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7. RIP.
That gives you plenty of real estate for both Netflix binging and getting lost in your Instagram feed. Or indeed anything else you might want to get up to with this huge blower. Seeing as it’s powered by the same Snapdragon 821 chip and 4GB RAM you’ll find in the Google Pixel, the Ultra should be plenty speedy as well. And it’ll have the brawn to power HTC’s new Sense Companion, which is where that dinky second screen comes in...
HTC U Ultra Artificial Intelligence: smarter than your average phone
A different beast to Google’s own AI assistant, the Sense Companion - running via Android 7.0 Nougat - is designed to smarten up how your phone works on a day-to-day basis. It’ll check your calendar and monitor your battery to make sure has the juice to survive a late one, tell you to leave for work early if the trains are borked and learn who your real friends are so its notifications actually count for something.
To that end, the Ultra’s second screen is dedicated to making use of the Sense Companion, and will populate itself with your favourite apps and contacts amongst other things. Sounds like a gimmick, right? We’re a little uncertain ourselves.
For an AI assistant to be a phone’s MVP it has to be really, really good. Not just a slightly better version of Apple’s Siri, which is barely as smart as your average Premier League footballer. Having only spent an hour with the HTC U Ultra, it’s impossible to know which way this one will go.
From what we’ve seen so far, HTC is really going all out with the Ultra. Especially with regards to its voice integration. This phone has four always-on microphones to enable ‘biometric voice unlock’ - which is a fancy way of saying your phone will unlock when it hears your voice and not your mate’s - and other voice-enabled tasks.
HTC U Ultra camera: HTC 10? Same again
HTC’s 10 ironed out most of the camera woes we’d seen in its past phones, so all bodes well for the Ultra. Especially since its rear-snapper features pretty much exactly the same specs that you’ll find in the 10. That means a 12-megapixel sensor with optical image stabilisation, laser autofocusing and a f/1.8 aperture. So you can expect decent photos in pretty much any conditions, even if they won’t stun you like an iPhone 7 Plus or Google Pixel.
From our initial shots with the handsets, exposure and colour was solid. Plus, HTC’s own camera app gives you plenty of choice over how to tweak and fine-tune your pics.
As for its selfie capabilities? The Ultra is very well set indeed. Whereas the HTC 10 had a 5MP front-facing camera, this phone features a 16MP affair that should provide a lot more detail. Say goodbye to grainy Snapchats then.
HTC U Ultra extras: storage to spare
So the HTC U Ultra is shaping up nicely. With a hearty 64GB storage as standard, a 3000 mAh battery and a front-facing fingerprint scanner, this has the makings of 2017’s first great phone. Despite the fact that several of its parts are borrowed from last year’s HTC 10.
Although we couldn't tell from our time with the Ultra, we do wonder how long that battery will last with two screens to power. The HTC 10 could trundle on for almost 48 hours off one charge. That's unlikely to be the case with the Ultra.
Also you'll have to do without a 3.5mm headphone jack as the Ultra's audio skills are restricted to Bluetooth and USB-C. Buyers will get a pair of USB-C buds bundled in with this phone but - going on past form with the HTC 10 - they're unlikely to be anyhting special. Even if HTC has devised a special software trick to calibrate them with.
HTC U Ultra initial verdict
While pricing and availability are yet to be announced for the HTC U Ultra, you shouldn’t have to wait long to get your hands on this phone. Even more intriguingly, the Ultra only represents the first big step change from HTC this year with its flagship replacement for the HTC 10 still to come. For now, this is a very exciting handset and that's not something you could say about last year’s HTCs. Here's hoping it lives up to expectations in our full review soon.