HTC caused quite a splash in January when it unveiled the U Ultra, its latest flagship.

Last year’s top model, the HTC 10, was widely praised as a good-looking, high performance Android phone but struggled to stand out among heated competition, and has not seemed to revive the Taiwanese company’s fortunes. While it ticked all the right boxes, in a world of curved screens and powerful handsets available at low prices, it could be accused of playing it safe.

No such claims can be made about the U Ultra. It ditches the 10’s metal body for glass, has a massive 5.7-inch display, adds an intriguing second screen at the top and follows the iPhone in getting rid of the headphone jack.

It also claims a first in having an AI assistant that will give you advice such as what to wear for the weather or to set your alarm later on bank holidays. Strangely, this last feature is not available on the phone at launch – HTC says it will come with an update in the next couple of months – so it’s impossible to judge it.

But at £649 when it is released on March 1, its near the top of the smartphone price range. Is it worth it?

Design

htc u ultra 2017
Credit: HTC

The U Ultra is a big device. Not only does it pack in a 5.7-inch display, but the physical buttons at the bottom and the small second screen at the top means there’s a lot of phone here. It’s relatively comfy to hold by the sides but reaching up to the top of the screen is going to be a stretch for all but the giant handed.

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The glass design is really nice. As with all glass-backed handsets, my black version picked up a lot of fingerprint marks, although it wasn’t as obvious as on some phones. It comes in three other colours: blue, pink and white.

However, the glass back and large size did lead to my major problem with the U Ultra: slippiness. It’s very droppable, but worse, it has some magical knack of falling off any surface you put it on. It has slid off my bedside table every night without fail.

You’ll need a case – so it’s good that the phone comes with one.

Second Screen

The most instantly noticeable thing about the U Ultra is the thin 2-inch touchscreen that sits at the top right of the front and is completely independent of the main screen.

 

It’s not a brand new idea – LG’s V10 did the same – but it is the first to hit the UK. You can swipe through the second screen to show weather information, your next calendar appointment, quickly open your favourite apps or your closest contacts, or control music, and it’ll show your notifications such as emails and text messages. The second screen also can be used while your phone is locked and the main display is off – to load the camera or toggle do not disturb mode, for example.

It’s an idea that works in theory, and is an innovative move in a smartphone market that is currently short of them, but the theory is a little better than the practice. I found the music controls and quick-dial contacts genuinely useful at times, but it was easy to forget they were there. Years of improvements to Android mean it’s pretty easy to access this stuff in a second by unlocking the phone.

The notifications could do with some tweaking too: if you get one email the second screen will show it, but unless you’ve unlocked your phone to read it or dismiss it, every time you get another email the second screen will still show the first one. It’s an idea that could well improve over time, but it didn’t feel like a reason to buy the U Ultra.

One more point on notifications: The U Ultra has a green LED in the top left of the phone that flashes when you have a notification – and keeps flashing until you dismiss it – like the BlackBerrys of old.

You can limit it by making it flash only when the screen is off and removing it for some alerts. But there’s no way to completely get rid of it. If you get a lot of notifications it’s incredibly annoying, and not being able to get rid of it is awful design.

Camera

The camera is essentially the same as that which features in last year’s HTC 10 – a 12-megapixel affair with a 16MP selfie camera that can switch to a 4MP “Ultrapixel” mode for low light.

And as with last year, it’s good but not exceptional: photos are detailed and well lit, but to me they seemed to lack sharpness and the colours seemed a little washed out.

I wouldn’t be put off buying the phone because of the camera, but at the same time it’s not a reason to want it.

No headphone jack

Apple took all the headlines when the iPhone 7 ditched the headphone jack, but it hasn’t been the only one. Lenovo and now HTC have also removed the 3.5mm jack in favour of audio through the phone’s USB-C charging port.

I wasn’t a big fan of Apple making this move, but at least it made some sense – the company explained that it helped make the iPhone water resistant, and bundled both its own headphones and an adapter with the phone, as well as developing better Bluetooth connectivity.

HTC has a pair of USB-C headphones in the box, but no adapter, so you have to buy one if you already have a set you like. There seems to be little reason to get rid of the jack except that Apple already has – and the rest of the world isn’t there yet.
Software

The U Ultra runs Sense HTC’s version of Android Nougat 7.0. Each manufacturer’s flavour of Android is a matter of personal choice but I can’t get on board with HTC’s. It’s made progress in recent years by putting things like Google Photos in place of its own app, but there’s still too much on here.

Swipe right from the home screen for example, and you get “Highlights”, a weird feed of news, adverts and social media posts. A few times a day notifications from HTC’s news service pop up unwanted. Operationally it’s quite faithful to Google’s “clean” Android, but things still get in the way.

Other points

  • Battery life is below what I’d expect of a phone this size, especially straight out of the box, although it will get you through the day.
  • Generally, the phone is zippy and responsive, and the haptic feedback is reassuring.
  • As usual with HTC, sound through the speakers is well above average.
  • Memory at 64GB should be enough for almost anyone. A 128GB version also exists, but does not appear to be on sale in the UK at launch.

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