HTC U Ultra review: A big beauty that's plagued with problems

HTC’s first flagship since the 10 is too big, too crippled, and too expensive to be considered as a phone worth buying.

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Standard shooter

When HTC released the 10 last year, it brought a new rear Utrapixel camera setup that produced stellar results: a 12-megapixel sensor with 1.5 micron pixels, with a super wide f/1.8 lens, laser autofocus, optical image stabilization, and two-tone LED flash. Since that phone landed, however, the Pixel has taken photography to another level.

u ultra pixel camera Greenbot

Both images are fine, but the one on the right from the Pixel has more accurate colors and detail.

So you’d think the U Ultra would have some new tricks for 2017, but sadly, the camera inside the phone is the same as last year’s flagship. That’s not to say it’s bad, because it’s not, but there’s nothing new here to get excited about. Panoramas and Zoe mode (for moving pictures) are still represented, but there’s no wide-angle shooting like on the LG G6 or portrait mode like on the Mate 9—really, there’s no new features at all to play with. It’s basically the absolute minimum you’d expect from a phone at this price range.

u ultra pixel photo Greenbot

Even without a second camera, the U Ultra (left) handles portrait shots well, but the Pixel is still crisper and more lifelike.

But the U Ultra still takes great pics. You get a nice set of manual controls, HDR, and a handy exposure slider when in automatic mode. Despite OIS it can struggle a bit in low light and there was some over saturation with brighter colors (particularly reds), but nothing some light editing couldn’t take correct. I had little trouble quickly capturing crisp, vivid images (though HDR took a noticeable second or so longer to process after snaps), and there’s nothing specific to criticize. It’s just a little boring.

Where HTC did upgrade things is with the front camera, giving it a massive 16MP UltraPixel sensor with lots of selfie-inspired features. HTC is hardly the first phone maker to pack the front camera with lots of megapixels, and it makes sense to put some effort into the camera that most people probably use more often then the rear one. The results are quite impressive for a front camera, and whether you’re using it for video calling or Snapchat, your images will be nearly as good as if you were using the rear lens, even in a dark room (where the screen acts as a flash).

Sense of surprise

With so much wrong with the U Ultra, I didn’t expect much from its Sense interface, but I was pleasantly surprised. HTC has built a nice layer on top of Android Nougat that doesn’t alter the stock OS too much but adds some well-intentioned additions.

htc sense screens Greenbot

HTC Sense adds some nifty things to Nougat, like the ability to rearrange apps in the drawer and a different sort of assistant.

And I’m not just talking about extra settings (of which there are many). I’m talking about subtle little touches that enhance and elevate the experience in intuitive ways. There are badges on the app icons that support them (a feature that’s finally coming in Android O). You can hide apps from appearing in the drawer without uninstalling them. And there’s a handy little Play Store button at the top of the apps list. You’ll get a couple of apps to uninstall and the unsightly BlinkFeed tiles to turn off, but otherwise it’s a pleasure to use.

One of U Ultra’s marquee features is the Sense Companion, HTC’s spin on the AI assistant trend. It’s not a Google Assistant copycat, and it’s actually a pretty good idea. Instead of asking questions, HTC’s aide offers suggestions based on how you use the phone, like reminding you to charge up before the battery gets too low or offering new restaurants based on your cuisine choices. I wasn’t able to test its full powers in my short time with it, but it’s a refreshing change from the standard call-and-response virtual assistants (besides, Google Assistant is already available by long-pressing the home button).

Should you buy it?

If you like overpaying, big phones, fingerprint smudges, second-screen gimmicks, and charging multiple times a day, and hate headphone jacks, the U Ultra is your dream phone. But for $750, there just isn’t much to like here. And the coup de grace is the lack of support for Verizon’s network.

htc u ultra mirror Christopher Hebert

The HTC U Ultra is only slightly less reflective than a mirror.

If you’re absolutely in love with the design, you can check out the 5.2-inch U Play whenever it hits the U.S., but there’s issues there too, with an even smaller battery and a lesser processor, and it’ll still cost you $500. Ultimately the U Ultra is just too expensive, but even if it were a few hundred dollars cheaper, there are just too many bad decisions and cut corners to seriously recommend it.

It might be “made for U,” but trust me, you don’t want it.

This story, "HTC U Ultra review: A big beauty that's plagued with problems" was originally published by Greenbot.

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At a Glance
  • With a giant frame, small battery, and $750 price tag, the HTC U Ultra is nothing more than an ultra waste of your money.

    Pros

    • Shiny back is shiny.
    • Second screen can be useful at times.
    • Sound quality is stellar.

    Cons

    • Frame is just too big.
    • No headphone jack or water resistance.
    • Battery too small to get through most days.
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