The HTC U series marks a new design language for the Taiwanese company. Gone are the all-metal chassis in favour of a sleeker – and arguably more premium-feeling – glass and metal design. And in the case of the HTC U Ultra, it’s a fresh new look that impresses quite a bit.
While the U Ultra is definitely one of the sleekest-looking smartphones we’ve reviewed, other aspects of the device…aren’t quite as good. These, coupled with a steep price tag, don’t exactly make the U Ultra a compelling flagship.
Design & First Impressions
This is really one of the U Ultra’s best qualities. Not only does the glass back give the U Ultra a very, very sleek and premium look, it also allows me to get a good grip on the phone thanks to the glossy finish. Sure, it’s a fingerprint magnet, but a quick wipe is enough to get rid of them.
The ergonomics of the U Ultra is good too. Despite its sizeable 5.7-inch display, the U Ultra doesn’t feel too unwieldy to operate. I can reach the power button and volume rocker with relative ease, and the rounded sides make the U Ultra a comfortable device to use for long periods of time.
But there are a couple of questionable design choices with the U Ultra. Take the top and bottom bezels of the phone, which are quite sizeable in comparison to, say, the Samsung Galaxy S8 devices and the LG G6. Granted these flagships were unveiled later than the U Ultra, but at the end of the day, these are phones that the U Ultra will be compared to.
Because of the large bezels of the U Ultra, what we have is a device that is much bigger than it actually is. To put things into context, let’s take the Huawei Mate 9: despite packing a bigger 5.9-inch display, the Mate 9 is actually physically smaller than the U Ultra. On top of that, the extra dimensions would’ve been justified if the U Ultra had a bigger battery, but I digress.
Moving on, we have the fingerprint sensor of the U Ultra on the front of the device, which is pretty decent. While it’s not as quick as sensors found on Huawei or honor devices, it’s quick – and accurate – enough for daily usage. I also like the fact that I can wake the device by simply tapping on the fingerprint sensor.
All in all, the U Ultra is certainly a looker, but it could’ve been designed better – especially when it comes to efficient use of space.
For a 2017 flagship smartphone, the U Ultra’s hardware aren’t exactly cutting edge. Its Snapdragon 821 processor – while capable – isn’t Qualcomm’s best offering this year, and the 3,000mAh battery is especially concerning for a device this size.
That being said, the U Ultra definitely performs like a proper flagship. There’s no noticeable hiccup throughout my time with the device, and gaming on it is really quite enjoyable.
HTC Sense on the U Ultra is a surprisingly pleasant version of Android. It is fast, responsive, and there are minimal bloatware. I also love the fact that Google Now works really, really well on the U Ultra: even with the phone in my pocket (locked, of course), I can wake it up with the “Ok Google” command. Believe it or not, not many Android phones can detect this command when they’re locked.
Another feature highlighted in the U Ultra is HTC’s “Sense Companion.” According to the company, it’s meant to be a “personal companion that’s always learning from you and the things you do every day.” In a lot of ways, it sounds a lot like HTC’s take on Google Now, only…less present.
See, even though I’ve enabled Sense Companion and practically allowed every possible permission from it, I rarely get any notification from Sense Companion. In fact, I’m getting more Google Now cards than Companion notifications. I may be a unique case here, but I’m seeing other users reporting the same issue too.
Nonetheless, HTC Sense is a no-frills take on Android, and I like it. It is stable, I had absolutely no issue with app crashing or anything of that sort while reviewing this device, and aside from the odd issue I faced with Sense Companion…I really enjoyed HTC Sense on the U Ultra.
Packed with only a 3,000mAh cell, battery life isn’t the U Ultra’s strongest suit. On moderate to heavy usage, I only got about three hours of screen on time with the U Ultra. If I manage my usage more carefully, I can stretch it out to four hours, which still isn’t great for a flagship smartphone.
The fast charging of the U Ultra, on the other hand, is decent. Within 30 minutes of charging, the U Ultra charged up to about 45%. This isn’t a great charging rate, but it’s not horrible either.
Unlike previous HTC smartphones, the U Ultra has a secondary display to complement the 5.7-inch main display. Measuring 2.05-inch with a 1040 x 160 resolution, the secondary display can show upcoming events, what song is currently playing, and even customisable shortcuts to specific apps. Push notifications are also shown on the secondary display. While this is a neat hardware to have, it’s not exactly something I can’t live without.
As for the 5.7-inch 1440p Super LCD 5 display, it’s plenty sharp and vibrant. Although the U Ultra has an LCD display, its colours are vibrant and punchy enough to rival that of an AMOLED panel, which is a pleasant surprise. It shouldn’t be a surprise, of course: HTC’s Super LCD displays have always been really good.
Despite not packing front-facing stereo speakers anymore, HTC BoomSound is still very much present on the U Ultra. Although the stereo setup is now made up of a bottom-firing speaker and another speaker in the earpiece, the U Ultra’s audio quality is noticeably better than other flagship-tier smartphones.
Speaking of audio, the U Ultra also does away with the 3.5mm headphone jack. While this isn’t a huge issue for me – I usually use my Bluetooth earphones – I imagine some users won’t share my sentiment. For what it’s worth, the provided HTC USonic Type-C earphones are actually pretty good with plenty of bass – it’s comfortable for prolonged usage too.
Any flagship smartphone worth its salt should have great camera performance, and this is one area the U Ultra does not disappoint.
In broad daylight, the U Ultra’s 12MP f/1.8 camera can take really crisp, sharp and detailed shots, but these are not exactly surprising: many smartphones today can take good shots with proper lighting. That being said, when shooting in less ideal lighting, the U Ultra still manage to retain these admirable traits.
However, the shooting experience of the U Ultra isn’t quite as pleasant – there’s a noticeable pause in between shots, and this pause gets much more apparent when shooting in low light conditions.
While the U Ultra may not have class-leading camera performance, it’s more than capable at taking great-looking shots in all lighting conditions. However, I do wish the camera interface is more pleasant to use – it doesn’t feel as seamless as other competitors’ camera UIs.
Retailing at RM2,999, the HTC U Ultra has plenty of competition, and one that immediately comes to mind is Samsung’s Galaxy S7 edge.
Initially launched last year for RM3,099, the S7 edge can easily be found selling for less than RM2,500 now. For much less money, the S7 edge offers a more vibrant 5.5-inch dual-curved Super AMOLED display, IP68 rating, a bigger 3,600mAh battery, and most of all, superior camera performance. Then again, the U Ultra does have an arguably sleeker design, not to mention a secondary display that some consumers may find useful.
Another alternative to the U Ultra is the Huawei Mate 9, which retails at RM2,699. For RM300 less, the Mate 9 has superior battery life thank to its sizeable 4,000mAh battery, comparable – if not better – camera performance, as well as a slightly bigger 5.9-inch 1080p display, although it’s not as sharp as the U Ultra’s 5.7-inch 1440p panel.
On the other hand, the U Ultra is definitely the sleeker-looking device in comparison to the Mate 9. The U Ultra also feels more premium thanks to its glass back; it’s a stark contrast over the Mate 9’s more utilitarian design language.
The HTC U Ultra is a looker, and it has all – well, most – the makings of a flagship smartphone, but these are all marred by questionable hardware choices. The U Ultra’s secondary display isn’t groundbreaking in any way, and its battery life is underwhelming for a device of its class and price point. Plus, removing the headphone jack on a device this big is inexplicable.
Despite these shortcomings, I still thoroughly enjoyed using the U Ultra. It’s a beautiful phone with a reasonably good software experience, and its camera performance (while not the greatest) is good enough to capture great-looking shots.
Hopefully, this isn’t the best from HTC in 2017 as it has already fallen behind the Samsung Galaxy S8 and LG G6 in terms of interest. If rumours are to be believed, the HTC U – codenamed Ocean – will be the Taiwanese company’s most interesting flagship yet. Let’s hope HTC is bolder with that one.