Fancy a taste of Android Oreo, but don’t have the cash to splash on a Pixel 2?
HTC is out to change that with the U11 Life, the first Android One phone to hit the UK. It’s running totally stock Oreo, with a design inspired by the gorgeous glass U11 and a few Pixel-esque features, like squeezable sides for waking Google Assistant.
With sights firmly focused on the mid-range, though, can it muscle in on Motorola - who has been doing the almost-stock-Android thing for years now?
DESIGN & BUILD: REFLECT ON IT
With the same green-tinted shiny back panel as the U11, the U11 Life looks every bit the high-end phone. Get it in your hands, though, and you’ll soon spot how HTC has kept the price down.
Instead of Gorilla Glass front and back, here you get a polycarbonate frame covered by an acrylic back panel. It makes the whole thing feel a lot lighter, and is nowhere near as life-proof as glass: it picked up a few scuffs and scrapes in just the few short weeks we spent reviewing it, and it attracts so many fingerprints you’d think they were magnetic.
It also sounds hollow when you give it a tap. So it looks the part, but doesn’t feel as premium as the similarly-priced Honor 9.
Chunky display bezels don’t help matters, either. Sure, it leaves room underneath for a fingerprint sensor and light-up hardware buttons, but with OnePlus and Honor making the switch to skinny 18:9 aspect screens, these more traditional mid-rangers are going to start feeling out of date really quickly.
That finger scanner is a little sluggish, too. Huawei’s sensors are a lot quicker to skip the lock screen.
On the plus side, you do get IP67 water-resistance - something that’s still tough to find at this price. Props to HTC for adding it here.
SCREEN & SOUND: HALF-PRICE HEAD TURNER
HTC has long been a steadfast supporter of LCD screens for its phones, and that doesn’t change here - but don’t go pining for OLED just yet.
The U11 Life has a seriously impressive display for the cash, with vibrant colours and dynamic range that help give photos and videos plenty of pop. Viewing angles are on point, too.
Brightness is perfect for indoor use, but it could be a little lacking when stepping outside on sunny summer days. You don’t get HDR support, either, but that’s pretty much par for the course in mid-range phones right now.
It’s a 5.2in panel with a Full HD resolution, so text looks sharp enough to read at almost any size, and while contrast isn’t getting anywhere close to OLED, photos and videos still have a decent amount of depth to them.
Audio isn’t as impressive, though. The Life doesn’t have the U11’s BoomSound Hi-Fi Edition speakers, making do with a single driver pumping weedy, fairly quiet audio out the bottom of the phone. It’s all too easy to block it with your hand and mute it completely.
It also copies one thing we wish would have stayed on the U11 - the missing headphone jack.
You either use the bundled USB-C headphones, go wireless, or scramble around for a dongle. Not that HTC stuck one in the box of our review unit. None of the third party ones we tried worked, either.
On the plus side, using USonic tuning does make the bundled buds sound pretty decent. It’s a quicker process than Samsung’s AdaptSound, using sonar to quickly scan your ears and then tweak the audio accordingly. Going to be sticking with HTC’s provided in-ears? Then it’s definitely worth doing.
PERFORMANCE & BATTERY LIFE: NEEDS MORE JUICE
It’s no surprise that the U11 Life arrives with a set of mid-range internals - you’re not paying the big bucks for it, after all.
A Snapdragon 630 is no pushover, though, especially when paired with 3GB of RAM. It mostly matches the Moto X4 for flat out performance, loading apps and games in quick time and showing minimal lag or stutter when switching between them. Sure, it’s slower than a flagship, but not by much.
If you want a little extra helping hand when it comes to multitasking, there’s a version with 4GB of RAM available direct from HTC. It also doubles the on-board storage from 32GB to 64GB, but seeing how both phones have a microSD card slot for adding more capacity whenever you need it, you can probably save your cash.
3D games only have to render at 1080p, so don’t struggle to play smoothly, although some of the more demanding titles in the Play Store can be a little jerky. If silky-smooth gaming is a must, you’ll have to spend a little more cash on your phone.
The one thing HTC probably shouldn’t have skimped on is the battery. The U11 Life makes do with a 2600mAh cell, which is a lot less than you’ll find in most of its rivals. Battery life is only average at best, and saps rapidly whenever you’re doing anything strenuous like tethering or streaming video.
It’ll still get you through to the end of the day, just about, but this is a phone you’ll be plugging in the moment you get home, rather than just before bed. Annoyingly, the USB-C port is offset to one side of the phone, instead of dead centre - it’ll take some getting used to. Don’t expect fancy extras like wireless charging here, either.