Review: HTC’s latest smartphone flagship, the U Ultra, looks good and is full of desirable features

Eyecatching design, all the hardware specifications you’d expect from a top-tier device, impressive software that includes Dual Display, and a great camera make the HTC U Ultra a decent device

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 24 February, 2017, 6:09pm

HTC is not having an easy time on the smartphone front, having recorded its seventh consecutive quarterly loss in the last quarter of 2016. However, the company has a new strategy of targeting the high-end market with a more streamlined portfolio, and the HTC U Ultra is among the first of these new devices to be rolled out.

Design and hardware

The HTC U Ultra comes with a 5.7-inch display protected by a curved Gorilla Glass 5 screen, as well as an independently controlled two-inch “Dual Display” screen along the top. Like an increasing number of smartphones, it is a dual-nano SIM device, with the second slot able to accommodate a micro-SD card to bump storage up to 2TB.

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The most distinctive aspect of the HTC U Ultra is probably the curved “liquid surface” glass back of the phone. HTC curved the glass not only along the four sides of the device, but also at the corners, giving it a sleek, polished appearance that looks better in real life than in photos.

Unlike a metal smartphone, the UTC U Ultra does not feel cool to the touch in an air-conditioned room. This is likely due to the poorer heat dissipation of glass, though it never warmed to an uncomfortable level. As you can expect, the glass back is highly reflective and is a magnet for fingerprints, though the liquid surface treatment makes them somewhat less visible.

The hardware specifications look like what you would expect from a top-tier flagship device today: 4GB RAM, Bluetooth 4, NFC, USB 3.1 Type-C port, GPS and GLONASS for location, and even support for China’s BeiDou satellite navigation system. The HTC U Ultra feels noticeably lighter than other 5.5-inch to 5.7-inch devices in its class.

Software and features

Hardware specifications aside, HTC has gone to great lengths to give its Android 7.0 device an added edge against other flagship competitors. The most obvious would be the Dual Display that is stacked along the top. Like LG’s V20 smartphone, the second screen is aligned to the right, with the front-facing camera to the left.

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You can configure what appears on the Dual Display by selecting “Secondary display” from within Settings. Add app short cuts, quick dial entries, or a static text reminder, while weather forecasts, upcoming calendar events and music player controls menus can also be added (or removed) from the screen. You swipe left or right to switch between the various menus.

The HTC U Ultra comes with a 12-megapixel camera with phase detection auto focus and laser focus. In practice, we found the auto focus system to be lightning fast, guaranteeing that captured photos are sharp and clear. And it works through clear glass too, though a warning pops up if the laser focus system is inadvertently blocked – such as by a stray finger. This is not to say that taking blurred photos is not possible, but you would have to work at it to make it happen.

The camera also features a Pro Camera mode that offers a variety of manual controls over settings such as ISO and shutter speed, and even the ability for shooting in RAW – expect a brief pause after taking each RAW shot though.

Elsewhere, HTC Connect offers support for all the mainstream devices you would care about streaming to: Chromecast, DLNA, AirPlay and Miracast.

HTC also touts a special earbud with “USonic” technology, which utilises sonar-like pulses to analyse your ears and create a unique sound profile for individuals. This only works with the bundled USB-C earbuds, and won’t work on your own wireless earbuds or headphones. (The HTC U Ultra doesn’t have a stereo jack.) I did not have adequate time to give it more than a cursory listen, thought it certainly sounded much better than the average bundled earbuds.

Performance and battery life

Under the hood, the HTC U Ultra runs on the cutting-edge Snapdragon 821, with performance and battery life among the best on devices shipping today. While this will likely be superseded by devices incorporating the Snapdragon 835 over the next few months, the HTC U Ultra is one of the fastest smartphones you can buy right now.

Rather than reinventing the wheel, the HTC U Ultra uses Quick Charge 3.0 (QC 3.0). The key advantage of QC 3.0 over the older QC 2.0 is its substantially improved efficiency, which essentially increases the longevity of the built-in battery given the less heat generated. On this front, we can verify that the phone never feels warm while charging.

Conclusion

It is quickly evident that HTC has made a strong effort to make a smartphone that ticks all the right boxes. Indeed, some have criticised HTC for potentially risking its own identity by adhering too closely to the design cues and features from other smartphone vendors. Despite this, there is little question that the HTC U Ultra is a strong flagship device with a range of desired features.

Whether it has what it takes to generate excitement and spur sales though, is something that remains to be seen.

Price: HK$5,698

Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 821

Display: 5.7 inches (2560 x 1440 pixels) with 2-inch dual display (160 x 1040 pixels)

Dimensions: 162.4mm x 79.7mm x 7.9mm

Weight: 170 grams

Memory: 4GB RAM, 64GB ROM, expandable micro-SD slot

Battery: 3,000 mAH, Quick Charge 3.0

OS : Android 7.0

Cameras: 12 megapixel with f/1.8 aperture, with a 16 megapixel front-facing camera