Last year, HTC’s flagship 10 smartphone won plenty of accolades — we liked it because the company bucked the gimmicks and built a no-nonsense device that was excellent in its own right. With a new year comes a new flagship, though, and this time HTC is taking a very different approach. Meet the HTC U Ultra, a peculiar little machine that’ll feel at least a little familiar to fans of other high-end smartphones.
When we say “familiar,” though, we’re not talking about the phone’s design and materials. In fact, the U Ultra’s look is unlike any in recent memory. Some of HTC’s usual design flourishes, like the pill-shaped fingerprint sensor and the centered UltraPixel camera are still here, but designers traded the usual aluminum look for a finish that looks almost liquid. The frame is still made of metal but the back is covered in a beautiful curved glass that looks almost pearlescent under the right light. It’s a gorgeous effect born from HTC’s obsession with material science that plays well on all four U Ultra colors (black, white, blue and pink). And beyond all that, it feels pretty lovely in-hand too, though it helps that the U Ultra is a terribly sleek device — it’s just under 8mm at its thickest.
While you might notice those finishes first, it’s the screen that makes the U Ultra feel so much like an LG phone. Well, the second screen, to be more precise — it sits above the Ultra’s 5.7-inch Quad HD Super LCD 5 screen just like it did on the V10 and V20. Sure enough, you’ll be able to add shortcuts to apps and get weather readouts, but HTC is counting on artificial intelligence to actually make that second screen useful. On devices like the V20, for instance, notifications just appear as events occur, ultimately leading to a list sorted by time rather than importance.
Not so on the U Ultra. It’ll only display notifications from people it thinks you want to hear from, though that requires some initial setup. Darren Sng, HTC’s head of global product marketing, laid out situations where the phone would try to be proactive, too. Let’s say there’s rain in the forecast today — the so-called Sense Companion will warn you on that second screen before you leave the house. And if a holiday rolls around and you don’t have any pressing issues in your calendar, the assistant will shut off previously set alarms. (That last one sounds a little dicey to me, but we’ll have to wait and see how well this works over time.)
Those machine learning smarts extend beyond just the second screen, by the way. Like with Huawei’s Mate 9, the phone will attempt to suss out the underlying patterns in how we use our phones and allocate resources or shut down services in response. And just like basically everything else at CES (where HTC quietly showed off the new phone), you can talk to it through an array of microphones. Look closely enough at the U Ultra and you’ll spot 4 of them dotting the body — they’re always on and always listening for your voice within a range of about two meters.
Of course, playing with a phone like this for 45 minutes can only reveal so much. It’ll take time for the true value of HTC’s approach to AI to become apparent, but at least the Ultra itself seems to run like a charm. My usual routine of scrolling through lots of websites, launching lots of apps and switching between them all willy-nilly couldn’t throw the Snapdragon 821 (with 4GB of RAM) for a loop, and all of Android 7.0 Nougat’s niceties are ready and waiting for you. There’s a 12-UltraPixel camera with an f/1.8 aperture and optical image stabilization on the Ultra’s rear — it seemed to take crisp, nicely exposed photos in our Vegas demo room — but the front-facing camera technically snaps selfies at an even higher resolution. It’s a 16-megapixel sensor with what Sng calls an “UltraPixel mode” that presumably resamples that extra image data into a better photo, but the results weren’t really apparent in our brief round of testing.
Oh, and get this: HTC ditched the headphone jack too, so you’ll have to use some USB Type-C headphones. Despite what Apple said months ago, it feels like it takes a certain degree of courage to leave the standard headphone jack alone these days. At least you can augment the phone with more storage. You’ll be able to choose from 64 or 128GB variants right out of the gate, and while the latter has sapphire glass covering the screen instead of Gorilla Glass 5, both will take microSD cards as large as 2TB.
For those who don’t need a secondary screen, or even just a phone that big, there’s the HTC U Play. It takes the same style and AI chops and pairs them with a smaller body and a more manageable 5.2-inch 1080p display. As you’ve probably already figured out, this smaller variant is also a little less impressive — it packs one of MediaTek’s octa-core Helio P10 chipset and ships with either 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage or 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. The main camera has been knocked down to 16-megapixels (none of that UltraPixel business here), too, though we’re currently not sure what how much less these models will cost than the flagship U Ultra.
I’ll admit to be being a little confused when I first met these two phones. Sure, HTC always had a peculiar sense of self as a company, but it seemed like the progress made with the 10 would ensure some logical, safe upgrades when it came time to craft a sequel. That’s definitely not what we’re looking at here — HTC is done playing it safe, and the Ultra doesn’t feel a lick like an HTC 11. More curious is HTC’s assertion that just having a second screen by itself doesn’t really help users much. I’d have to agree with that — after having used the V20 for a while, LG’s implementation just felt like a way to offload notifications and highlight a few extra controls. It was enough for some people, but the V20’s additional screen never felt all that useful. By making it a sort of home for a virtual assistant, HTC might have found the second screen’s ideal purpose.
There are still plenty of questions that need answers, but HTC certainly look a leap into new territory with these two devices. The biggest? Whether the U Ultra and U Play managed to transcend gimmickry and fit all these components together into something new and valuable. We’ll get cracking on our full review once HTC sends along some review units, but until then, you can pre-order the U Ultra from the company’s website starting today.