HTC U12+ Review: No buttons, no problems?

Sense is the new press?

Over the years, HTC has slotted itself into a decent position in the the smartphone market. While sales have remained relatively quiet, its products reflect quality. We liked what HTC did with last year’s U11+ and with the U12+ flagship for 2018, it wants to iron things out further.

No Buttons?

While much of the HTC U12+’ clad remains similar to last year’s U11+, there’s noticeable change. The translucent blue finish is one but so are the volume and power buttons. You might think there is nothing different about them but in fact, they are not clickable anymore.

Non-mechanical power and volume buttons

There is a haptic response you get when you press them similar to ‘Force Touch’. But while this sounds good on paper, real life usage is a mixed bag. The inconvenience comes when having to use two buttons simultaneously such as when taking a screenshot.

Adjusting to the new buttons has a bit of a learning curve

Otherwise, the button performance is quite inconsistent. Sometimes, the softest of presses can trigger the buttons whilst at other times, putting full force on them may also not work. I think by not having the flexibility to customize sensitivity for these buttons, these problems arise. For HTC though, this is a bold move that highlights its belief in the Edge Sense technology and the problems may be ironed out via a future software update.

Edge Sense 2.0

HTC’s Edge Sense technology is one of a kind. In fact, even Google with its Pixel lineup has adopted it. And with the U12+, the second iteration of the technology is here. It introduces double tap actions and holding gesture support which is useful at times.

New additions in Edge Sense 2.0

Within holding gestures, there is smart rotate and smart dim. Smart rotate prevents the phone’s display from rotating when the phone is held whereas smart dim delays screen timeout when the phone is held. The latter works great consistently while smart rotate is a hit or miss, sometimes preventing the rotation of the screen even when you would want it to because of how you are holding the phone.

The smart rotate feature in action

On the other hand, the double tap actions are useful to trigger certain apps or the one-handed mode. This one too is useful in certain scenarios but even at its lowest sensitivity, it is fairly easy to trigger when not required. For the most part, I found myself using the short squeeze gesture for taking screenshots only because the traditional button combination didn’t work.

Hardware

HTC isn’t known to produce particularly slender and light phones. And the U12+ is yet another example of that. Coming in at 8.7mm thick and 188g, the phone feels very substantial in the hand. Considering its design, it doesn’t feel particularly unwieldy but adds heft in your pockets.

The phone has a bit of heft to it

I particularly like the liquid surface finish with the translucent look. But with it comes a trade-off that not many may like. The Gorilla Glass used to reinforce the phone is a custom one which becomes a bit more prone to scratches compared to the traditional Gorilla Glass 5. This though certainly doesn’t make the glass prone to shattering having dropped the phone a couple of times during testing with no visible damage.

The notch-less 6-inch LCD6 panel is underwhelming for a flagship

Unlike many 2018 flagships, the U12+ skips the notch trend for a more traditional front panel. Its a 6-inch LCD6 display which is not the best among its competition. Viewing angles are good but sunlight legibility and overall brightness is a let down especially when the phone comes bundled with one of the best Boomsound stereo speaker experiences on a smartphone till date. That being said, if you were looking for the headphone jack on the U12+, you will find none with HTC promoting the use of its USB-C powered U-Sonic noise-cancelling headphones.

The phone packs some very impressive internal hardware

Honing in on internals, they are nothing different from the standard 2018 flagship smartphone. An octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor clocked at 2.8GHz alongside 6GB of RAM and 128GB of on-board memory. The phone provides micro-SD expansion support or dual-SIM slots depending on preference and a speedy fingerprint scanner at the back of the IP68 certified shell.

User Experience

A harmony in both software and hardware is what we have come to expect from high end flagships. And the U12+ delivers on that front incredibly well. Opening up applications, multitasking and RAM management is all very snappy and running split-screen applications also doesn’t bog down the phone.

Over daily use, the phone remained speedy and responsive

Software wise, the phone runs Android 8.0 Oreo draped in HTC’s rather outdated Sense user interface. While on the optimization front, HTC is great at its software. But the rustic feel of it indicates a change is required. For many years, the company has kept the skin relatively unchanged and particularly now, things like the redundant News Republic notifications or the BlinkFeed panel cause frustration.

BlinkFeed and News Republic on HTC Sense can become obtrusive

Aside that though, more underrated features like the rapid face unlock and the smart display feature enhance the overall phone experience. Frankly, aside the aesthetic complaints with user interface, HTC has nailed user experience with the U12+ and it is evident in our speed test videos too.

Camera

Since the HTC One M8, the U12+ becomes the first from the company to offer dual-cameras. The primary 12+16MP sensors lie at the top center of the phone and bring some very useful features. Portrait mode and 2x zoom are the most noteworthy and in general, the U12+ camera is a good performer.

The pair of cameras provide good all round performance

During the day, the camera captures high dynamic range and detail at the expense of a slightly slower shutter speed. Portrait edge detection also stays impressive in both outdoor and indoor conditions. The level of performance drops off at night with some noise creeping in however even so, the overall level of the camera remains very good. Over on the front, you will find the dual 8MP sensors which is unique. However performance wise, there is more to be desired. Detail and dynamic range is good for selfies but when taking portrait selfies, pictures soften up and lose considerable detail. Specifically at night, the selfies taken come out pretty bad.

For video recording, the phone comes with 4K support at up to 60fps. The primary camera unit comes with electronic image stabilization and optical image stabilization on one of the two lenses. Video quality and stability was impressive throughout testing however the phone easily overheated when in use outdoors, maybe due to the summer temperatures. However this is not something I have experienced with any other smartphone.

Battery Life

In a chassis such as the one on the U12+, a 3500mAh battery is no surprise. Unlike the complaints from many people regarding battery life, I did not face that issue. The phone got close to 6 hours of screen-on time consistently. Translating this to layman’s terms, the phone should be able to get you through your 9-to-5 work hours over moderate use mixed on WiFi and cellular.

With its 3500mAh cell, the phone exhibits impressive battery performance

Of course, carrying around the charger will bring benefits. It supports Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 3.0 which charges the phone from 0-50% in 30 minutes. But while many may suspect wireless charging support with the glass back of the phone, HTC has gone against that route this time around.

Final Verdict

Having known the HTC U12+ for a month, it is a good phone. Does it offer something unique? Yes. But does its unique selling point work flawlessly? No. With the upgrade, HTC has improved its camera technology, design philosophy and overall user experience.

The phone is pricey at Dh3449

However the good and bad combined comes at a price that is hard to digest. Retailing at Dh3449 locally, the phone is a steep ask considering HTC’s situation and its local competitors. The world of smartphones has become fiercely competitive and when other flagships are selling for sub-Dh3000 tags, the HTC U12+’ pricing is something HTC could reconsider.

Could a software update solve the phone’s problems?

There is no doubt the company is onto something. But with its core features requiring a bit more fine tuning, HTC has some work on its hands. Whether that is by addressing the U12+’ problems via software or by reworking something with a next generation flagship. We are not quite sure but look forward to what HTC has in store next.