2017 might be the year of barely-there bezels and dual-camera cleverness, but for the U11, HTC has gone for something a little different.
It’s a world’s first - a handset with hug-friendly haptics.
Those squeeze-sensitive touch panels at the sides give you a new way to interact with your phone, one that won’t have you tapping on a touchscreen. Is it unique? Definitely. But is it enough to buy a phone for?
There’s more to it than that, of course. Picking up where the HTC 10 left off last year, the U11 packs in top-end specs, a laser focus on sound quality, and a set of AI assistants that are meant to streamline your life.
Oh, and it’s utterly gorgeous. Let’s not forget about that.
HTC U11 DESIGN & BUILD: ART OF GLASS
Aluminium has been something of an HTC trademark, ever since the all-metal HTC One arrived and every other phone company followed suit. The U11 has more in common with HTC’s style-focused U range, though.
Instead of metal, you get glass - and lots of it. The entire back of the phone is covered in reflective, mirror-like Liquid Surface glass, which catches the light brilliantly at almost any angle.
It’s just like a pool of water, with different coloured layers baked into the glass to create crazy combinations that look so much cooler than the flat colours you’ll find on other phones. If you've ever seen one of TVR's crazy colourful sports cars, you'll know what I'm talking about. Photos just can't do it justice.
Sapphire Blue, Brilliant Black and Ice White, first seen on the HTC U Ultra, all make a return, alongside two brand new shades: Amazing Silver and Solar Red.
Only Amazing silver, a mix of blue, purple and silver shades, will be available at launch. Solar Red, easily my favourite, will come later - it appears bright crimson when you look at it face-on, but turns into a stunning gold at more extreme angles. Whichever you pick, though, the colours are truly outstanding.
Sure, glass is more brittle than metal, so you’ll have to take more care with the U11 than you might have done with the HTC 10, and you'll need to keep a cloth handy to avoid it becoming a mess of fingerprint smudges and smears. But from the back, it’s a properly good-looking phone.
From the front, though, the U11 doesn’t look quite as radical as the competition - even if it’ll feel familiar to existing HTC owners.
The 5.5in screen sticks to the familiar 16:9 aspect ratio, rather than going for something skinnier like the LG G6 or Samsung Galaxy S8, and the bezels are fairly substantial. It feels sizeable when you pick it up, but isn’t so large that you won't be able to tap out texts with one hand.
A fingerprint-sensing home button still sits at the bottom, alongside capacitive Back and Recents keys - there are no onscreen keys taking up precious screen space here. The sensor is seriously quick, too, unlocking the phone almost the millisecond you brush your fingertip over it.
The 3D glass curves towards the central metal frame, on both the front and the back, so the phone sits comfortably in your hand. Which is useful, really - as it’s the frame that hides the U11’s most unique feature.
HTC U11 EDGE SENSE: SQUEEZE TO PLEASE
HTC calls the touch-sensitive panels built into the sides of the U11 Edge Sense: give 'em a squeeze and you can do all kinds of actions, like launch an app, turn on the torch, or even snap a selfie.
Even better, it'll work when you're wearing gloves, so you can take photos on the ski slopes without risking frostbite. Or maybe you want a neat throwback to an 80’s walkie-talkie? Use it to launch Google Assistant, without having to shout “OK Google” first. It works when the screen is off, too, so you can jump straight in rather than waking the phone first.
Out of the box, you’ve got to squeeze pretty hard to get it to work, but a quick dive into the menus and you can adjust the sensitivity. It only recognises one kind of squeeze by default, too - you’ve got to turn on Advanced mode to get short and long squeezes to work side-by-side.
The sensors only cover the bottom half of the phone, though: depending on how you grip it, you might need to shimmy your hands down a bit to properly register your squeezes.
HTC has clearly given the tech some thought, adding a delay to the camera so your hand doesn’t shake every time you squeeze to snap a photo, but right now it still feels more like a neat concept than a must-have addition.
That’s mainly because at launch there are only a few HTC-specific apps that fully support Edge Sense. Yes, developers can now start adding their own squeezy shortcuts, and yes, HTC will eventually release an official app that will let you add personalised shortcuts to any app you’ve got installed, but that’s all just potential as it stands. As with the LG G5’s modular add-ons, how useful it ends up being will depend on how well it’s supported.
So, after a few weeks of use, it hasn’t transformed my handset habits. But I’ll stick with it until more apps support it, and update this review with how I get on, because as a concept it’s a good one.
HTC U11 SCREEN & SOUND: HERE COMES THE BOOM
Up front, the 5.5in LCD display uses an IPS panel, with a QHD resolution. That's pretty much par for the course for a flagship in 2017, and while it gives a good first impression, with bright whites, vibrant colours and high brightness, I'll have to spend more time with the phone before I can judge it on picture quality.
Audio has been a big deal for HTC for a few years, and that hasn't changed for the U11. It can handle 24-bit Hi-res audio files, and Boomsound speakers make a welcome return. This latest Hi-Fi edition of the tech turns the whole phone into a resonating chamber, which makes a huge difference to sound quality. Music tracks have real bass now, and when you crank the volume up to the max, you can feel the vibration. For listening around the house, you won't need to connect a Bluetooth speaker - the phone is powerful enough by itself.
There is something missing, though Look around the edges all you want - you won't spot a 3.5mm audio socket. It's USB-C or Bluetooth only. At least HTC bundles a USB-C to 3.5mm adapter in the box, so you'll be able to use your own earbuds if you like. It even has a built-in amplifier for driving more powerful headphones - something you won't find on other adapters.
The bundled USB-C buds also return from the U Ultra, so you might not need to supply your own pair. They've got one-touch calibration, which bounces sonic waves around your ears to get the best possible audio. They include active noise cancellation now, too, which should help you listen at lower volumes but still drown out the sounds of everything around you. I haven't had a chance to properly test these out yet, but it'll be one of the first things I do once I get hold of a handset.
The U11 has its fair share of microphones - four, placed at different points on the phone so you can record 3D audio. HTC reckons it's the best sound recording you'll get on a smartphone, but again, this is something I'll need to test out before passing judgment.
Those microphones are always on, with a 1.5m range, so you can wake the two voice assistants. That's right: there's not just Google Assistant on board, but Amazon's Alexa too. Or rather she will be, once an app update arrives in July.
Alexa has her own wake word, separately from Google Assistant, and can do everything your Echo can. It'll be the first time Alexa has properly appeared like this on a phone, and could be a major reason to pick up a U11 once she arrives.