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HTC U Ultra hands-on review: the new HTC era has begun

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© nextpit by Irina Efremova

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If you thought HTC was quietly stepping back from the smartphone market, you were wrong. With the U series, the Taiwanese company breaks from its traditions, and instead it looks toward the future. We gave the HTC U Ultra a hands-on review. Here, we'll tell you how the phablet differs from its predecessor.

HTC U Ultra release date and price

The HTC U Ultra with 64 GB of internal memory comes in black and blue. The U Ultra variant with 128 GB internal memory and sapphire glass display protection will also come in the same colors.

The 64 GB version is available unlocked for $749 and will work with T-Mobile and AT&T. If you order the device now, you'll be happy to know that the device will ship on March 10 according to HTC. Pre-orders are already on their way. No word yet on when the 128 GB sapphire glass version will be available, but it will cost 849 EUR (about $898 USD). The prices are typical for HTC devices. The U Ultra is cheaper than the Google Pixel XL, which has similar technical specs.

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The HTC U Ultra will be available in black and blue at first, then white and pink will be on offer later. / © NextPit

If you prefer something more eye-catching, there will also be white and pink colored HTC U Ultra phablets in the future. It's unknown when those two will be available. 

HTC U Ultra design and build quality

Forget everything you thought you knew about HTC's design. HTC takes the U-series away from the full-metal unibody housing. For many years, HTC held on to this kind of smartphone design, while more and more competing manufacturers, including Apple with the iPhone 6, also gave their products in metal enclosures. HTC, represented by Fabian Nappenbach, product director at HTC Deutschland, told us during the presentation of the HTC U Ultra that the new design took two years to develop. The reason it took so long was that the company had to develop a manufacturing process for the edges and corners of Gorilla Glass 5 to be rounded. Also, the sapphire glass had to be produced in the size that HTC needed.

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The Gorilla Glass 5 flows into the frame on all sides, even around edges. / © NextPit

Between the front and the back is an aluminum frame, on the sides of which you'll find the familiar volume buttons, power button, as well as the USB Type-C connector and a loudspeaker grille at the bottom of the frame. A 3.5 mm headphone jack is no longer required, same as the HTC 10 Evo. HTC provides the same headphones that came with the Evo.

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The four color variants look much different depending on the light conditions and angle. / © NextPit

Overall, the HTC U Ultra leaves a very good impression. No creaking and crunching, the buttons all have a pleasant pressure point. The transitions are practically seamless from the front of the frame all the way to the back.

When looking closely at the HTC U Ultra you will quickly see four small holes: one on the back and front sides and one on top and bottom in the frame. HTC uses a total of four microphones, which are used for speech control. Each of the microphones is an omnidirectional microphone, almost like on Amazon's Echo and Echo Dot. Within a radius of two meters around the U Ultra, the smartphone will reliably recognize voice commands and trigger actions thanks to these four microphones. Unfortunately the software on the hands-on devices was not yet final, so we could not test this function.

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The small holes are among the four microphones that have been installed around the U Ultra.  / © NextPit

Another special feature is on the front of the HTC U Ultra. Like the LG V20, HTC also incorporated a small second display in the U Ultra. You will find out all about the two displays in the next section. 

HTC U Ultra display

The main display of the HTC U Ultra measures 5.7 inches and offers a QHD resolution (1,440 x 2,560 pixels). The pixel density is 513 ppi. The second display sits above the main display and next to the front camera, with a 1,040 x 160 resolution.

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We've already seen a similar second screen on the LG V20. / © NextPit

Similar to the LG V20, contextual information is displayed on the second display. But HTC feeds the display via the HTC Sense Companion, using AI to show frequently used information and combining it with information from apps that are installed on the smartphone. Need an example? If the battery is at 50 percent and you have planned a long-distance flight on the same day, then the Sense Companion reminds you that you should charge the smartphone again. Or, if it is lunch time, then it will suggest good restaurants in the area. In the short hands-on session, we were not able to test this function extensively due to lack of time and final software. But we will provide you with this as soon as the final software and smartphone is available for a more comprehensive review.

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In the HTC U Ultra, the Sense Companion feeds the second screen intelligently with information. / © NextPit

HTC U Ultra software

HTC will ship the U Ultra with Android 7.0 Nougat and its own HTC Sense interface. The Sense Companion is, like other HTC software components, preinstalled as an app. Currently, we don't know if the Companion will be available on older HTC smartphone as an app. This possibility exists though; the software department at HTC is testing the possibilities, according to Fabian Nappenbach.

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The Sense Companion can be distributed as an app to future HTC smartphones. / © NextPit

Since the software wasn't ready during our hands-on review, we couldn't go deeper into the special features like voice control and the AI, so we can't provide you with our impressions yet.

HTC U Ultra performance

The technical specs for the HTC U Ultra are similar to those of the Google Pixel and Pixel XL, which are produced by HTC. The phablet will be powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 with 4 GB of RAM, plus 64 GB or 128 GB of internal memory for apps and personal data. Thanks to the MicroSD card slot, storage capacity can be expanded by up to 2 TB.

Since the hardware is so similar to the Pixel XL, we assume that the performance will be similar to it and other smartphones powered by the Snapdragon 821. We will fully review this in a few weeks.

HTC U Ultra audio

How is the audio quality of the HTC U Ultra? BoomSound is, of course, still available despite a completely new design. HTC is settling on the system we already know from the HTC 10 and 10 Evo. One loudspeaker is at the bottom, while the second is hidden in the top loudspeaker for telephone calls.

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The provided headphones can be attached with USB Type-C connector. / © NextPit

The quality of the included HTC USonic headphones we will have to test in the final review, but as in the HTC 10 Evo, two small microphones have been installed in the in-ear headphones which customize the sound based on your ears.

HTC U Ultra camera

The HTC 10 proved that the company knows about camera quality. The Google Pixel and Pixel XL show that HTC has learned from the past, in the choice of the cameras, and does not want to commit the mistakes of the One M8 or M9 again. In the U Ultra, HTC wisely chose the camera from the Google Pixel and Pixel XL.

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The main camera is basically taken from the Google Pixel, only it's OIS instead of EIS. / © NextPit

The camera shoots with 12 MP and videos are in 4K. Thanks to the four microphones, 3D audio can also be recorded while video recording. The pixel size is 1.55μm and should also provide good images in the low-light range. When focusing, HTC relies on the combination of laser autofocus, contrast and phase. Unlike the Google Pixel Phones, HTC uses a lens with optical image stabilization, but not an electronic version. Whether this was a good decision, we will definitely see in the final review.

The front camera is 16 MP, while videos are captured in Full HD. Interestingly, in poor light conditions, the front camera can combine four pixels by pixel binning to reduce noise. The maximum resolution is then also reduced by a factor of four, so that only 4 MP selfies are available. In the absence of non-finalized software, we can not tell you whether this UltraPixel mode is useful to actually minimize noise. The final test will surely reveal this.

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Selfies can be shot with a maximum of 16 MP. In UltraPixel mode, four pixels are combined into a large one. / © NextPit

In addition to the UltraPixel mode, there is also a panorama mode for selfies. By tilting to the left and right during the recording you can thus take a wider field of view. This mode will be great for group selfies.  

HTC U Ultra battery

The battery of the HTC U Ultra is 3,000 mAh. HTC states that this is enough for 26 hours of talk time in 3G/4G networks, and a standby time of up to 13 days. We were also told that the HTC Sense Companion eats a maximum of one percent in total during always-on operation. These are, of course, only indications from HTC and we must check this ourselves in the final test by using it during everyday life and with battery life benchmarking tests.

Early Verdict

HTC is ringing in a new era for itself with the U-series. Instead of just improving technical specs with ever-faster hardware or a larger and higher-resolution display in order to impress, the U Ultra is designed to add value and ease to life of the smartphone owner.

In theory, the HTC Sense Companion along with the second display will be two additions to make everyday life easier for the user. Instead of just being "simply brilliant", future HTC products will be easy for us, the users. We will see in the final review whether the device and the final version of the software will live up to its promise of being designed with the user in mind.

Go to comment (12)
Shu On Kwok

Shu On Kwok
Senior Editor

Since 1999, Shu has written about the colorful world of IT and telecommunications. His career started as a presenter at the five-hour TV show NBC GIGA, which led him through several career stages until he finally joined the AndroidPIT team in May of 2015. His passion for mobile devices and gadgets knows no boundaries. Whether Android, iOS or Windows, Shu feels at home with any OS.

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  • Darren Millar 1
    Darren Millar Mar 14, 2017 Link to comment

    So many disparaging comments. Personally I love the U Ultra, it ticks all the boxes that a top end device should and it looks great too. I don't see the point in trashing something you've never tried (I'm assuming that applies to 90% of the "haters gonna hate" crew).

    It's like saying a Ferarri is garbage because you can't afford or you've never driven one. That kind of attitude/mentality really sucks.

  • Ron Lunsford 2
    Ron Lunsford Mar 13, 2017 Link to comment

    I have to say that I was completely excited to see the Ultra in person after the announcement, and after seeing it, I was even more excited to own it. I know people have criticized HTC over the price, and the fact it is only available for full retail (which honestly, you can still spread out the cost with PayPal and pay just $31.20 a month) but after having this phone for a week, I can't imagine a better phone. Of course, that's because I need a few things from my device that maybe the average user isn't looking for...

    1) Top notch camera - I thought my Note 5 had a great camera on it, but then I shot an image with the Ultra and just can't go back. Crystal clear images, sharper in low light, more accurate color - the Note tends to be a bit over saturated, the Ultra is much closer to reality.

    2) Notifications - I get a ton coming through my phone on a normal business day. I can control about 90% of it through the second screen rather than firing up the larger screen on my Note and killing the battery. Saves me a ton of time and a ton of battery every day.

    3) Big Screen - I like to remote into my work computer from my phone when I need to get to file information that I don't have with me. The Note and the Ultra both have a 5.7" display which is about right for me, the Ultra just seems to be a bit more fit for the screen as it has a slight aspect ration difference, but both are great for that.

    4) Speed - I want to get through my phone quickly. Windows Phone was the best OS on the planet for this, but the second screen really does speed this process along. I was shocked over the first few days how much I actually use it. By the end of the week, I would say about 9 out of 10 notifications are taken care of from the smaller display.

    5) Quick Charge - The Note 5 has Quick Charge 2.0 tech in it... It's a life saver for me. I need 10-20% of my battery restored before I head out the door from work, I can get it done in about 30 minutes. The Ultra tops that with the 3.0 version that gets me about 50% in the same amount of time. Of course, the Ultra doesn't seem to need it as often as the battery easily lasts the full day plus now that I am only firing up that baby screen to check who emailed or texted me. Bonus usage again!

    6) Communications - I need something that handles about 10 email accounts, hangouts and standard messaging very easily. The email program that the Ultra comes stock with really left me feeling flat, but I replaced that with Blue Mail and won't consider looking back. Between the second screen functions and the quick delete features in Blue, I'm hacking through emails in a fraction of the time I used to.

    7) Good Audio - First off, don't believe the rumors - you can use the cheap USB-C adapters with the Ultra, you just won't get the USonic features that the proper earphones will give you. I'm not sure if that has as much to do with the adapter as it does the earphones, but my $4.99 adapter worked just fine. That said, the audio quality on the Ultra is fantastic. Even the speaker phone is loud and clear. My daughter's dance music gets a bit of a tin sound to it when it's cranked up, but overall, it's very sharp.

    So, that's what I need from my device and the U Ultra nailed it from the start. I don't notice any processor lag from the 821, it has plenty of RAM for multitasking and it doesn't overheat or get crazy under the heaviest gaming loads. It will be the phone I have in my pocket for quite some time because it will only get better and better once the Sense Companion feature rolls out. Until then it's the perfect photo capturing, battery sipping, communications powerhouse that I need to get me through my day.

    Lin JianXing

    • David Martrano 29
      David Martrano Mar 13, 2017 Link to comment

      I'm glad you like it!

  • Motalib Hossin 2
    Motalib Hossin Mar 10, 2017 Link to comment

  • 22
    ljhaye Jan 13, 2017 Link to comment

    This is one of their worse phones.

    • Brittany McGhee 21
      Brittany McGhee Jan 13, 2017 Link to comment

      What makes you say so?

      Darren Millar

      • Motalib Hossin 2
        Motalib Hossin Mar 10, 2017 Link to comment


      • Motalib Hossin 2
        Motalib Hossin Mar 10, 2017 Link to comment


      • David Martrano 29
        David Martrano Mar 12, 2017 Link to comment

        Brittney, the price of this phone is scaring consumers away! HTC has a bad habit of overriding their products. That is why the 10 had slumping sales. Plus they really do not bring any new innovations to the table. Average at best!

  • Dean L. 34
    Dean L. Jan 12, 2017 Link to comment

    What? No Verizon version? Will there eventually be a Verizon version? HTC has had their phones compatible with Verizon's network like forever. I like the specs and some of the features of this phone but hope that HTC will bring it to Verizon. Will have to wait and see.

  • 26
    Andrew Burgin Jan 12, 2017 Link to comment

    This looks more like a Samsung phone than a HTC one,The Rest are realising the Best way to sell there phones,is to make it look like a Samsung phone,its like the Double of the Note 7,How many times have HTC offered a Home Button on there phones?not to many

    • Xchris 2
      Xchris Jan 16, 2017 Link to comment

      Most of their phones since November 2015 have had the fingerprint scanner in that position on the front

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