This is an odd one. See, while the Pixel is easily the most Google phone that Google has ever released, HTC was actually behind a lot of it.
What’s more, we think the Pixel XL is rather good. No, the design isn’t revolutionary and yes, it’s pretty costly, but it’s still a stellar phablet with a solid software offering.
All of which means that HTC’s own U Ultra has to live up to a benchmark set - in part - by itself.
Can it? Well, first impressions suggest it just well might, with a striking design and nifty features intimating that HTC is back in the big leagues.
Until we fully review the U Ultra, of course, there’s no way of knowing for sure how it stacks up next to the XL. That said, we can pitch the two against one another in a battle of specs and first impressions - which is exactly what you can read below.
HTC U Ultra vs Google Pixel XL: Design
This one’s surprisingly straightforward. For all its merits, the Google Pixel XL isn’t winning awards for its design. It’s not ugly, but it’s hardly ground-breaking, either.
In fact, it’s about as generic as Google could make it: you get an all-metal frame, glass front and chunky bezels, with silver and grey colour options. There's not a lot of wow factor here.
Even with a split matte-metal-and-glass design on the back the Pixel XL is the wrong side of subtle - which was a shame even before the U Ultra scampered out from under the wraps. Now it just looks like Google wasn’t trying.
The U Ultra ditches the all-metal shell so synonymous with HTC's flagship phones in favour of an all-glass get-up that’s, well, gorgeous.
The back curves on to the front, and the pearlescent finish shimmers to make the U Ultra look different depending on your viewing angle. It’s pleasant to hold and a beauty to behold.
Sure, we’ll want to test the sturdiness of the glass body in daily use but, on looks alone, the U Ultra walks it.
Winner: HTC U Ultra
HTC U Ultra vs Google Pixel XL: Screen
Or should that be ‘screens’? See, the HTC U Ultra is treading where the LG V20 has before it - namely, by sticking a second, 2in display above the main 5.7in one; both have a 2K resolution.
What's the point? Well the idea is that the smaller display populates itself with your favourite apps and contacts to give you a super-easy shortcut to the things you regularly use. It'll light up independently of the main display, meaning that you could fully check out notifications and complete simple tasks without needing to fully switch on. We'll have to wait until we’ve tested it before we pass final judgement on it, but it’s certainly a unique addition.
As for the Pixel XL, it offers a slightly smaller 5.5in screen, though with the same 2560x1440 resolution - which means you get a few more pixels per inch on it. We're big fans of the XL's display all round, actually, finding its AMOLED panel to be nice and punchy, with deep blacks and contrast rich enough to rival many a Samsung smartphone.
Which will come out on top? For this one we’ll need to put the two side-by-side. Until we do, it’s too close to call - so we’ll make it a draw.
HTC U Ultra vs Google Pixel XL: Camera
The HTC U Ultra has a tough battle on its hands to best the Pixel XL in the photographic stakes: the Google phone has an impressive 12.3MP sensor with large, 1.55μm pixels and a quick f/2.0 aperture lens.
It's really quite the photographic companion, with daylight results delivering impressive detail in our testing - particularly with HDR+ enabled - while low-light performance was equally solid. There’s no optical stabilisation, sure, but the combination of phase detect and laser autofocus almost always delivers in-focus snaps.
But tough battle or not, the HTC U Ultra has the potential to run it close.
It pretty much matches the XL in spec terms, with a 12MP sensor and a maximum aperture of f/1.8, plus optical image stabilisation and laser autofocus tech on-board, too. As for videography, you get four high-sensitivity mics that are capable of capturing ‘positional sound’ - basically, immersive, 360-degree audio.
Initial shots with the HTC suggest solid exposure and colour, with the camera app offering decent fine-tuning options. Based on the Pixel XL’s performance and HTC’s prior form, though, this one has to go to Google - but we're keen to be proven wrong.
Winner: Google Pixel XL
HTC U Ultra vs Google Pixel XL: Power
On paper, these devices are identical: each packs 4GB of RAM paired with a Snapdragon 821 chip - which should make both speedy indeed.
In fact, we've not found anything in the Play store to challenge the Pixel XL’s processor - although it does get a bit hot after a gaming marathon. It's zippy, responsive and makes multi-tasking a cinch.
Will the U Ultra be the same? Well, our first impressions were positive.
Really, until both are benchmarked in identical conditions there’s very little between them. What could swing it is how the HTC is skinned…
HTC U Ultra vs Google Pixel XL: OS
...and HTC hasn’t always covered itself in glory when it comes to slick, streamlined software. Thankfully, in our first hands-on session with the U Ultra, its Android OS seemed mercifully bloat-free and zippy.
It’ll take a full test, of course, to get a proper feel for how the HTC handset’s Nougat offering feels - but we’re quietly hopeful that it’ll deliver a delightfully light experience.
With the Pixel XL’s Android Nougat equally as speedy - which is a relief, given how much Google talked up the software pre-launch - what is there to divide the two?
The answer is AI. Or, rather, versions of AI. The Pixel XL is one of the first and only devices to offer Google Assistant built-in. A Siri rival capable of setting alarms, answering basic questions and searching through your sorted Photos collection, Google has big plans for app integrations and advanced AI performance.
Meanwhile, HTC brings Sense Companion to the table. One day it, too, might be gifted Google Assistant but, until then, you’ve got the slightly different - but still smart - learning software to get you by.
The U Ultra does voice integration well, with four always-on mics for ‘biometric voice unlock’, while it’ll also monitor your battery, check your calendar and learn who your real friends are - and adapt performance to match.
Which is best? Having enjoyed just an hour with the HTC handset - and with such different on-paper offerings - it’s impossible to be conclusive.
HTC U Ultra vs Google Pixel XL: Storage and battery life
Finally, the category also known as ‘best of the rest’, where the quieter but not to be forgotten stats tend to hide.
Google’s Pixel XL comes in 32GB and 128GB guises - with a £100 price hike to match for the latter. That said, with unlimited cloud backup with Photos, 32GB is just about manageable.
As for cell capacity, 3450mAh on the XL seems capacious but, with that screen to run, it doesn’t deliver mind-blowing stamina. Under normal usage conditions, it’ll do a day on a single charge. Still, though there’s no wireless charging, the bundled fast-charger will zap an additional seven hours’ worth of charge in next to no time.
Meanwhile, the HTC U Ultra skips straight into the middle ground with 64GB of storage capacity as standard, alongside a 128GB option. Its battery capacity is 3000mAh, though it’ll need a real-world test to see whether that Sense Companion tech really can eke out extra from the cell - especially with two screens to power.
Oh, and the HTC U Ultra doesn’t have a headphone jack. For now, there’s not enough to call it between the two - but we have a sneaking suspicion that the Pixel XL will beat the HTC on battery life.
HTC U Ultra vs Google Pixel XL: Verdict
So far, so close. Sometimes, weighing up the stats of a pair of devices leads to a clear winner emerging. Not so here.
Whether it has something to do with HTC having assisted in the design and production of the Pixel XL or it’s simply a matter of coincidence, these two phones are very evenly matched on hardware specs - which makes picking an on-paper winner that much more difficult.
Much as we berated Google for up-talking the Pixel XL’s software at its launch, to the detriment of what was also a solid hardware offering, it seems in this battle of flagship phablets that software will play a big role in determining the victor.
If HTC’s Sense Companion can deliver on its promises of well-integrated learning smarts the Taiwanese mobile maker could be on to a winner. That said, prior evidence - paired with promises of ongoing improvements - points towards Google’s OS and AI offering being the slicker of the two.
In fact, the real kicker could be price. The Pixel XL is no cheap handset, with the 32GB costing a hefty £719 and, while there’s no word yet on how much the HTC U Ultra will set you back, it’s likely to be a fair bit less than that.
Watch this space.
Overall winner: Draw