Is the HTC U Ultra the underdog of 2017?

Are "U" impressed with HTC's Ultra smartphone?

HTC has adopted a different approach with its flagship smartphones this year. The revamped U series is strikingly different and at the helm is the U Ultra. This top-end device is one of the Taiwanese brand’s flagships for this year but how does it stack up against the competition?

Design and build

A significant departure from the older metal uni-body finish on previous HTC smartphones, the U Ultra boasts a metal and glass design. The company describes the surface as “sophisticated liquid” and personally, there is not much to complain about. It complements the curves of the device nicely and the sapphire blue finish adds to the eye candy.

The reflective back coupled with the sapphire blue colour makes for an appealing design

Unfortunately, the finish attracts numerous fingerprints and smudges when in use. The microfibre cloth provided out of the box can be used to clean them off but for a more permanent solution, the case out of the box or a third-party one is recommended. Its 12MP camera protrudes a fair bit making flat surface use difficult because of the constant rocking.

But despite the downsides, the material is robust just like the surrounding metal on the handset. Rough usage has not resulted in any distinctive scratches and at 170g, the phone not only looks but also feels premium in the hand as well.

Multimedia

The front of the U Ultra packs a unique configuration. You find the 5.7-inch Quad HD display alongside the secondary display. The Super LCD5 panel has reasonable sunlight legibility but is not the sharpest out there. However, colours seemed to be more accurate and realistic. Casual video watching works like a charm and viewing angles are quite good. I would have preferred smaller bezels for a more immersive experience but this varies from user to user.

The second screen functions similar to active display technology. You’re given information about notifications and the time on the lock screen. During usage, the display provides shortcuts to preferred applications, information about weather and music playback and your agenda, among other functions. The display didn’t hinder my usage experience but I didn’t find myself using it beyond calling my pinned contacts.

True-to-life colours of the S-LCD5 Quad HD display

Complementing the display is the sound. The BoomSound speakers were loud and clear throughout my usage with limited loss of quality. If you prefer using headphones, the U Ultra does not come with a 3.5mm headphone jack. However, the USB type-C headphones provided are stellar with USonic technology, which adapts audio output to the shape of your own ear – something we first saw in the HTC 10 evo a couple of months ago. 

User experience

Alongside the Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor and 4GB RAM, the U Ultra features Android 7.0 Nougat skinned over by Sense UI. As I’ve said before, HTC’s skin is relatively bloatware free and comes close to the stock Android experience. But despite the higher end processing power, usage fell a bit short. RAM management was a hit or miss and the phone lacked fluidity during use.

During an interview at the U Ultra’s launch, HTC’s head of smartphone business gave #GNTECH a glowing description of the device’s AI assistant, called Sense Companion. Its purpose is to push relevant notifications and learn your habits as you use the device. I did notice this come into play and it integrates quite well with Google Now. However, its best part was that it remained very non-obtrusive while doing so, which impressed me.

Multitasking is a bit sluggish despite the U Ultra’s 4GB of RAM

For gaming, both 2D and 3D titles worked well. There was no noticeable lag and frame drops stayed to a minimum. This is due to the Adreno 530 GPU on board but when loaded with heavy graphics, the handset was warm to the touch especially towards the top end of the device. This is not a major deal-breaker but was prominent enough to be noticeable.

Using the phone on a regular basis, some of the smaller issues I noticed were about its button placements. The back and multitasking buttons seemed slightly hard to reach with one hand due to how far apart they are. The home button too seems a bit on the lower side and with it not being centered, it certainly doesn’t help my inner OCD. Regardless, the in-built fingerprint sensor is very reliable although slightly on the slower side.

Camera

At the rear, you find a 12MP sensor with an f/1.8 aperture. Its performance was impressive, producing sharp pictures with great dynamic range all at the expense of a slow shutter speed. At night, images were reasonably noise-free and reproduced colour well. The primary camera is also capable of 4K video recording at 30fps. Thanks to its in-built optical image stabilisation, videos came out smooth but did have a weird warping effect.

Over on the front, the 16MP camera took pictures with great detail thanks to its auto-HDR functionality. Moreover, the lens was wide enough to accommodate group selfies without any problems.

Battery life

For a phone of this calibre, the 3,000mAh battery on board is a bit underwhelming. In typical usage scenarios over Wi-Fi and cellular data, the device clocked just over four hours of screen-on time. Setting brightness to a minimum could add another half hour to the time but that’s about it. For this display panel, the life is above average but coming from previous smartphones with beefier batteries and Full HD panels, the lower battery life was disappointing.

Battery lasts just over four hours with a single days’ worth of use

Nonetheless, recharging the phone via the USB-C port was fast. The device supports Quick Charge 3.0, which means the phone can go to a full charge within a few hours. This is particularly useful when travelling for quick boosts to the battery. Despite many things going for the handset, it is here that one of its major disadvantages lies.

Conclusion

Having completely changed its direction, the Taiwanese manufacturer has done well to make the U Ultra a strong contender among other flagships. Its design and finish definitely makes it stand out alongside the various software tweaks and “U” features, although they don’t do justice to the larger screen real estate.

While software and battery being slight downsides, they’re certainly not too big of a disadvantage to serve as deal-breakers. In addition, the handset is one of the few on the market with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 821 processor, which upcoming flagships such as the LG G6 are expected to have. HTC definitely has a head start in this regard, although the 835 isn’t too far away.

The U Ultra is available for Dh 2,799. This is certainly a premium price to pay but considering what it offers in terms of looks and features alongside support for memory expansion via microSD and dual SIM support, this may turn out to be a worthy choice for “U”.