At CES 2017, HTC hurriedly patched together a press briefing ahead of its 12 January unveiling of its latest devices, inviting members of the press who were already present for CES. The two new devices, the U Ultra and the lower-end U Play, represented a big, bold move away from the HTC designs we’ve known for years.
And that was important, because HTC has barely moved away from the tried and trusted all-metal design it pioneered since the original HTC One M7 back in 2013. Countless phone makers have drawn inspiration from that iconic design – including Apple – and in our last few reviews we noted how they were beginning to look dated and…boring.
So this is it: HTC’s brand new design language ditches the metal in favour of glass made with a process that reflects light in different sheens when moved around; and on the front, the flagship U Ultra sports a secondary display at the top right, showing off only important notifications when necessary.
More interestingly, the HTC U series introduces a new software feature that’s the buzzword of the tech industry currently: artificial intelligence (AI). HTC claims where AI may be powerful, but it is at its best when it works together with a human.
The AI software, called HTC Sense Companion, learns from each individual user’s behaviour, so that over time the software can Sense (heh) a pattern and deliver benefits such as smarter notifications, better battery life, and provide assistance and advice throughout the course of the day.
Unlike other AI such as Google Assistant, the AI framework on HTC Sense Companion is more modest in scale, focusing on core apps and other specialised areas. HTC did not elaborate on how it works, and since the units provided for photos were fresh devices with no accounts synced, HTC also could not demonstrate how exactly Sense Companion works.
One thing we do know is that Sense Companion would leverage on a new hardware feature on the U Ultra: a secondary display that’s akin to that on the LG V10 and V20. Notifications are pushed to this screen, while basic shortcuts and customisation options can be made on this screen. It isn’t always on, and it works independently from the main screen; a double tap on the secondary display wakes it up.
At this point, I should talk about the core hardware of the devices. But that information was not provided ahead of the official announcement of the products.
What HTC did tell us was quite interesting nonetheless. The U Ultra’s display is a 5.7-inch 2K panel, plus the independent secondary display. The U Ultra sports a new 12MP UltraPixel sensor with OIS, PDAF, laser AF, and auto HDR, while the front camera has been bumped to a 16MP module with an “UltraPixel” mode.
Besides that, the U Ultra also packs an impressive four microphones placed around the body. This works in tandem with another unique feature on the U series: voice recognition and voice unlock. It runs off Google API, but due to time constraints, I was not able to test it out.
On the other hand, the U Play more modest in specs, with only a 16MP rear sensor with OIS, PDAF and Auto HDR. Like the U Ultra, the U Play also gets voice recognition and voice unlock – but there is no secondary display.
In many ways, the new HTC designs are both familiar and refreshing. For one thing, they’re reminiscent of some of the best-looking smartphones in recent years: the glass back is a Samsung tradition since the Galaxy S6, while the bold colours and reflective hues are similar to what honor did with the honor 8 smartphone. The secondary ticker is of course not a new addition: LG’s V10 and V20 both use a secondary display.
But for HTC, these introductions bring a refreshing change to an old horse. The colours are striking – besides the traditional Brilliant Black and Ice White, there are two new colours: Sapphire Blue and Cosmetic Pink.
Remember, this is a company that has largely persisted with offering Glacial Silver and Gunmetal Grey for the longest time. So yes, it is quite a big deal that HTC is finally adding colours to its devices. They are also quite comfortable to hold, too: both devices feature a subtly curved back.
Both devices are also neither thin nor light, which is somewhat a good thing. There’s generous space to grip on the sides, and though it’s not confirmed at the time of writing, I’m sure the additional heft would result in a larger battery.
The software, besides the Sense Companion which is supposed to run in the background, is largely the same as previous HTC Sense builds. Both the U Ultra and U Play run Android 7.0 out of the box, and a quick run through of the software found nothing unexpected: it’s fluid, fast, and rather light (despite the presence of some bloatware apps).
HTC is also bundling a pair of new in-ear earphones called the HTC USonic. It is a pair HD audio earphones that customises its audio output based on the unique shape of the user’s ear canals. It does so by emitting a sonar ping to create a profile of the user’s inner ear; hence the name.
But are these changes enough to see HTC making a revival? A HTC rep also mentioned that it will work on a larger-scale marketing push for the U series when it launches globally, but after years of fading into the background, HTC appears to be banking on some tried-and-trusted ideas to spring back into life.
HTC’s new U series smartphones are set to launch in Malaysia sometime towards the end of February 2017.