If ever you need proof that necessity is the mother of all invention, then take a look at the HTC U Ultra.
HTC used to be famous for its metal phones, then everyone else decided to make them too. So it's made a phone that's almost entirely glass instead. And it looks awesome.
Sure, there's more to the U Ultra than its sumptuous design. It's the first phone you can buy in the UK with two screens: one being a gigantic 5.7in affair, the other a thin 2.05in strip for instant notifications-related gratification. It’s also got HTC’s artificially intelligent Sense Companion ticking away under its hood.
They're nice touches for sure, but the Ultra is really a uniquely handsome Android phone that stands out for its bold aesthetic above anything else. And do you know what? I’m very much OK with that.
HTC U Ultra design: A glass masterpiece
There's a reason that the HTC U Ultra looks the way it does, and you can kind of blame the iPhone 6. Before that slab of aluminium brilliance, HTC was pretty much out on its own in making all-metal handsets. Then its thunder was thoroughly stolen and everyone lost a lot of interest in its subsequent One M9 and HTC 10 flagships.
The (almost) all-glass U Ultra is an obvious way to stand out again. And boy does it get the job done.
When I first saw the U Ultra I didn't quite know what to make of it. There have been similar phones before - Samsung's Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge both have flat glass backs - but this HTC is different. Its back is curved on to the phone’s four corners so it looks as though the device has been built as a whole rather than by slapping several different parts together. Even more significantly, the U Ultra’s glass has been ionised so that even its black edition changes colour according to the light around you. It’s an effect that's difficult to describe, but pick up the handset yourself and its subtle shimmers and reflections are sure to set your heart aflutter.
I really, really like it but the U Ultra’s unique make-up won't be for everyone. Not least because it's ridiculously prone to smudges and - newsflash! - glass shatters. If you drop this thing then gravity will not be kind to it, even though HTC says it’ll survive a fall of about a metre. So the sensible thing to do is get a case that’ll cover up this vulnerability, but clearly that’s a less than ideal solution as it means you don't then get to gaze on every inch of its loveliness.
As for the rest of its design, this phone is pretty much identical to any Android right now. Its 170g weight barely registers in your hands. At 8mm thin, it's a slight device, but not so much that it feels insubstantial. And its metal frame accommodates a power button, volume rocker, nano sim and microSD card slot, and a USB-C port. That’s right, just like the iPhone 7 this handset has no headphone jack - but we'll chat more about that later.
HTC U Ultra main display: Big, but not bezel-less
So what makes the HTC U Ultra different is its glass design and two displays. And even though it’s the smaller screen in this pairing that's really interesting, the bigger 5.7in panel is quite something.
A couple of years ago, you'd think a screen this size would be simply too huge. Nowadays it's a real boon. The more YouTube, Instagram and Netflix we consume on our phones, the more it makes sense to have a generous Quad HD screen to enhance that experience. You certainly won't catch yourself squinting at the U Ultra anytime soon.
Even though it's technically a beast of a device, you don't feel that way when using it thanks to its curved back and slender build. You can't really use this HTC one-handed, but nor is it a strain to hold and handle.
How does it look? A generous 1440 x 2560 resolution - that's roughly 513 pixels per inch - means that you're treated to visuals with plenty of punch and vibrancy. The latest trailer for Zelda: Breath of the Wild had us quivering in anticipation, while football highlights on Match of the Day 2 were suitably sharp. Since this is an LCD panel we're talking about - rather than the AMOLED screens you'll find in a Samsung - contrast could be better, but this isn't a major quibble. Of the big-screened phones you can buy, this is on par with the iPhone 7 Plus and Huawei Mate 9.
Still, it doesn’t have the wow factor of the Xiaomi’s Mi Mix 6.4in bezel-less display. If you want to own the future of smartphones, then its incredible 91.3% screen-to-body ratio is the shape of phones to come. The U Ultra is more a reflection of the best they can do right now.
HTC U Ultra secondary screen: The good kind of gimmick
So how about that secondary display then? On first impressions, the 2.05in strip that sits on top of the U Ultra’s main 5.7in screen screams of gimmickry - just as the LG V20’s does. While it’s certainly not essential, I’ve used it more than I expected to.
In essence, this is because it works with third-party apps. Always-on screens were all the rage last year, with handsets such as Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and the LG G5 constantly showing you the time and some notifications. As useful as that sounds, no-one really nailed the concept due a combination of so-so readability, limited usage scenarios and app support.
Although the U Ultra’s secondary screen isn’t always-on - it wakes up when you get a notification or flip your phone up - it does a much better job of the same idea without proving a huge drain on battery life. Its 160 x 1040 resolution ensures you can always read what’s onscreen and HTC has designed the thing to work with all the apps you’d want. That means WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Gmail and many more.
If you get sent a short text, you can read the whole thing without unlocking your phone. It’s the same routine that you get with a smartwatch, only it won’t cost you an extra S$300 in addition to the price of your phone.
That’s not all this secondary screen can do either. When your U Ultra is unlocked it’ll show you upcoming calendar events, reminders you’ve set yourself and a 12-hour weather forecast for your location, among other things. It’s also meant to work hand-in-hand with HTC’s new Sense Companion, but I’m not so sure about that one.