HTC U Ultra second opinion: U expect more

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HTC's first phablet in years is a perfectly fine phone that feels a little half-baked in places — and for $750... well, you expect more.

Five or six years ago, HTC was a titan of the smartphone world. But the past half-decade hasn't been kind to the Taiwanese company. It's lost money, market share and several high-profile designers and executives.

Nevertheless, HTC's still here, and still making pretty good phones, both under its own brand name and for Google under the
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contract. The latest high-ender to come out of HTC is the U Ultra, the first "phablet"-sized HTC flagship for more than three years — launched first in Taiwan before being sold unlocked in the US and Europe. It's big, shiny, and more than a little quirky.

So does HTC still have some of its old magic left? I've spent the past week getting to know the phone, and while there are glimmers of hope, the U Ultra just isn't competitive at its current price.

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An enormous phone, but one with top-notch build quality and an eye-catching aesthetic.

The HTC U Ultra is giant glass slab of a phone. We're used to 5.7-inch devices becoming more svelte and hand-friendly, thanks to the late Galaxy Note 7 and the just-launched LG G6, but this thing is a big bezel-ly beast that's a little tougher to one-hand than other phones with this display size.

Even the enormous
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, with its sizeable 5.9-inch display, is actually smaller physically than the U Ultra. (Though, true, you lose some of that space to on-screen buttons on the Mate.)

What we're dealing with here is essentially a supersized HTC 10 with a really unique and highly reflective polished glass rear, and one or two weird quirks up top thanks to an LG V20-style second screen.

For as physically huge as this phone is, it is at least a good-looking piece of hardware. HTC still knows how to design a phone, and the build quality is excellent, with flawless joins and a comfortable, if slightly slippery in-hand feel. And the back of the Ultra looks stunning, especially the blue model that catches the light like wet, metallic paint. The white model I've been using this past week has a pearlescent finish that's also not without its charms.

Around the front, HTC's stuck with capacitive keys, freeing up some display space, sandwiched around an excellent super-fast fingerprint scanner, which doubles as your home key.

And despite some fairly aggressive sharpening effects — which I don't particularly mind, and may well bug you — the screen itself is impressive, with daylight visibility much improved over the HTC 10's disappointing 5.2-inch panel.

Like the LG V10 and V20 before it, there's not much depth or utility to the Ultra's second display.

But that's just one of the U Ultra's two screens, so, let's talk about that secondary display for a bit. LG fans may remember it from the V10 and V20, and HTC's implementation of this feature is basically a carbon copy, inheriting all the same pros and cons as those devices. For me, the second screen never really goes beyond being slightly useful, with some areas of the software on it being decidedly half-baked, without much depth or utility.

The second screen can show you notifications, music controls, shortcuts to your favorite apps and contacts, and upcoming weather conditions. But the notification side of things — moderately useful as it is — doesn't work perfectly with some apps. Same deal with the music widget, which hilariously doesn't work with anything besides Play Music. And the contacts shortcut only lets you create shortcuts to call people, rather than text or instant messages. It's all just a bit half-assed, like HTC put in the bare minimum work to get this feature done, without making sure it was fully baked.

Sense is still great, Sense Companion not so much.

The same goes for the much-vaunted Sense Companion feature, which is supposed to use AI (because everything is AI now) to show you weather conditions that might affect your plans, as well as traffic updates and something to do with fitness that never seemed to appear on my phone. If this sounds like a poor man's version of Google Now, that's because it pretty much is. I didn't find it at all useful after the first few days, so I ended up turning it off in short order. (During that period, Sense Companion spent more time telling me about what it was going to do than actually doing it.)

Thankfully, the rest of HTC's Sense software is far more competent. The experience is just as lightweight as on the HTC 10, with a handful of HTC apps complementing an otherwise Google-centric software suite. BlinkFeed is still around to bring social updates and news to your home screen, and HTC's Weather and Dialer apps — though pretty much untouched for a couple of years now — work just fine. There's nothing too crazy layered atop
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, which is just fine for those of us who appreciate minimal clutter and a stock Android aesthetic.

On the inside, the U Ultra packs some small upgrades over last year's HTC 10 — a Snapdragon 821, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of base storage + SD, a slightly upgraded 12-megapixel camera around the back, and a 3,000mAh battery.

Now, 3,000 isn't a huge number for a phone with such an enormous display (or I guess "displays" in this case), but I've been pleasantly surprised with how much mileage it gets me. The Ultra certainly isn't a multi-day phone, but nor is it anywhere near as anemic as some past HTC efforts like the One A9, which would routinely expire by lunchtime. I've been getting a good solid day jumping between Wi-Fi and LTE, with around 4 hours of screen on time — comparable with what I've been seeing from the LG G6.

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There's no wireless charging — disappointingly, for a glass-backed phone — but you at least get Quick Charge 3 for rapid refills.

The U Ultra has no headphone jack because ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Don't expect to plug anything else into the Ultra's while it's charging. There's no headphone jack here... and I really don't understand why. It's not like there isn't the room for one. Now, HTC does include a set of excellent USonic USB-C earphones in the box, which sound great, because they use sound waves to map your inner ear and tune things accordingly. That's all well and good, but there's no headphone dongle in the box either, so you'll have to order one separately to use your existing cans. This, in a phone which costs 750 U.S. dollars.

At least HTC continues to nail the basics of the smartphone experience. Day-to-day performance is just as great as I've come to expect from the company's phones — speedy across the board, with fast app load times and no problems with apps getting bumped out of memory.

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The HTC 10's 12-megapixel "Ultrapixel 2" camera was the first really great HTC camera in years, and the U Ultra builds on that with a slightly upgraded IMX378 sensor, added phase detect autofocus, behind the same f/1.8 lens, along with OIS.

I'm not quite as down on the Ultra's camera as Andrew Martonik was in our
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, but it's clear that while it is good, it's not up to the level of some of its immediate competitors, like the Google Pixel and LG G6. To me, it seems like the issue isn't the optics — on paper, the U Ultra beats both the Pixel and the G6. But Google and LG have better processing, which means sharper low-light pictures and better dynamic range. The U Ultra sucks in lots of color detail in darker scenes, but fine details are blotchy, and the phone has a tendency to overexpose night shots, which only exacerbates things.

I'm pretty happy with the U Ultra's camera overall. It's not the best, but it's pretty good. However I hope HTC steps things up a notch in the direct successor the 10, which is on the cards for later this spring. Again, it's not necessarily the hardware that needs an upgrade, but HTC's processing — what it does with all the data scooped up by the sensor.

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There's maybe 80 to 85% of a fantastic handset here.

The U Ultra is a difficult thing to sum up. It's not a bad phone by any stretch, and yet it doesn't feel fully formed. There's maybe 80 to 85% of a fantastic handset here, but I think there's also a lack of focus. Gimmicky, half-baked features like the Sense Companion and Secondary Display don't add much to the experience in their current form. Meanwhile on the hardware side, we have a gigantic phone with a relatively small battery capacity and giant bezels that go against the grain of the smartphone world in 2017. Expect the U Ultra to look even more dated when Samsung drops the almost bezel-free Galaxy S8 Plus on us in the very near future.

This is a phone which will satiate HTC fans just fine. But even they have to know something even better is coming in just a few months time — to say nothing of the U Ultra's immediate competition from Huawei, LG and soon Samsung. You've got to really want that HTC software experience in a big ol' form factor to drop 750 bones (or
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) on this thing.

I really hope HTC can build on the positives here as it prepares its successor to the HTC 10. More than that, I want the company to convey what's special about an HTC phone in a market where everyone has great build quality and decent performance. Because if the U Ultra is any indication, the search has so far been fruitless.

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