HTC U11 review: A powerful Android phone that knows how to have fun

The HTC U11 fixes many of the U Ultra's problems, and adds a killer chip, a great camera, and a super-fun gimmick.

At a Glance
  • HTC U11

    PCWorld Rating
    $644.86 MSRP $649.00
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    on Amazon

The annals of Android are littered with one-and-done gimmicks that were originally hailed as the next big thing. Indeed, from slide-out game pads to built-in projectors, way too many Android phones have included features that never caught on. So, will the new Edge Sense feature in the HTC U11 meet a similar fate? Probably. But the U11 is still a great phone that’s fun to use.

A more pocketable version of the ill-conceived U Ultra, HTC’s newest flagship isn’t just another spec’d-out handset with good looks and a great camera. The new Edge Sense feature lets you launch apps and actions by squeezing the sides of the phone. It’s a gimmick for sure, but one of the funnest gimmicks ever to grace an Android handset.

It’s great to see HTC thinking outside the box, and with the U11, HTC is making a statement: Anyone can make a powerful phone, but remember when these handheld computers used to be delightful too?

Industrial design as a liquid asset

If you’ve ever seen a U Ultra in the flesh, the U11 will be instantly familiar. From the front, it looks exactly the same as the U Ultra, with the off-center camera, pill-shaped home button/fingerprint sensor, and extra-large forehead and chin. A textured power button is still unfortunately positioned below the volume rocker.

htc u11 top Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

The HTC U11 features the same “liquid” enclosure as the U Ultra, but the camera bump has been toned down.

Flip it over, and the U11 is even more reminiscent of the U Ultra. The back plate uses the same “liquid” surface, which looks just as stunning as it does on the U11’s big brother, despite the persistence of the microphone hole, which mars the liquid effect a bit. The Ultra’s signature Sapphire Blue color remains as well.

You’ll find some other small design changes, like a round camera instead of a square one, a far-less-protrusive camera bump, and slightly less tapered edges. But HTC has fully embraced its new design language with the U11, putting all traces of the antenna lines and speaker grills of the HTC 10 and One M9 firmly in the past.

A smaller, easier-to-hold body

While the U11 and U Ultra may share many of the same visual cues, the similarities end when you pick it up. Gone is the U Ultra’s second screen. And where the Ultra was monstrous and cumbersome, the 5.5-inch U11 is downright svelte. Its smooth contours let it rest naturally in your hand with a glass back that somehow feels more luxurious than the glass on the Galaxy S8 or the LG G6.

htc u 11 u ultra Doug Duvall/IDG

The U11 (left) is much more pocketable than the enormous U Ultra.

One of the many complaints I have with the U Ultra is that its enormous size makes it far too prone to dropping when holding it with one hand. The U11 fixes that with not just smaller dimensions, but also (apparently) a change in materials. I repeatedly rubbed my fingers across the back of each phone, and the U11 felt tackier and more resistant to gliding. The new liquid design phone is still a fingerprint magnet, but the U11 seems to pick up fewer smudges than the U Ultra.

Strong bass response, beautiful pixels

After the LG G6, the Galaxy S8, and now the Essential Phone, we have certain expectations for screen-to-body ratio in new flagship handsets. HTC didn’t get that memo. The U11’s bezels are about as big as the eight-month-old Pixel’s, and its 71 percent screen-to-body ratio makes it look more like a budget phone and less like a premium one.

htc u11 full Doug Duvall/IDG

The U11 is proud of its bezels and does nothing to hide them.

But just because its Super LCD5 Quad HD screen doesn’t stretch to the edges doesn’t mean you’re getting an inferior product. At 534 ppi, its display has a higher pixel density than the U Ultra’s 513ppi, and despite sticking with an LCD panel, the U11 is just as bright and vibrant as its OLED peers. Elsewhere, you get a Snapdragon 835 chip, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of storage, all of which add up to a phone that can stand shoulder to the shoulder with the G6s and S8s of the world.

htcu11 usb c Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

The U11 doesn’t have a headphone jack, but its bundled USB-C USonic earbuds sound quite good.

Audio buffs will be bummed to learn that the U11 doesn’t return the headphone jack that was cut from the U Ultra. That said, HTC has included a 3.5mm-to-USB-C adapter this time around. Also in the box is a pair of noise-canceling USonic earbuds that use the phone’s ear-scanning wizardry to deliver the best possible audio profile for each user. It seems like a bunch of hooey, but as with the U Ultra, HTC’s audio prowess is on point here.

At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating
    $644.86 MSRP $649.00
    View
    on Amazon

    The HTC U11 has a top-notch processor and camera, and its Edge Sense quick-launch feature is a gimmick that's super fun.

    Pros

    • Fixes most of the U Ultra's problems.
    • Edge Sense is a fun way to launch apps.
    • Incredibly fast with a great camera.

    Cons

    • Battery life is only OK.
    • No headphone jack.
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