It seems like decades since HTC released the fantastic One M7, a flagship smartphone that elevated the company's design and engineering team to elite status. Since then HTC has stagnated and even reasonable devices like last year’s HTC 10 simply didn’t sell anywhere close to enough units to satisfy the company.
And this brings me to the device on hand today: the HTC U Ultra. Unfortunately, this is not a smartphone that will return HTC to its glory days. If anything, odd design decisions show us that HTC currently lacks innovative thinking in their engineering department.
The HTC U Ultra is a massive handset. It has a 5.7-inch display as well as a secondary display, similar to the LG V20, and capacitive navigation buttons. When combined with large bezels and a huge chin, the U Ultra can be an unwieldy device. It’s definitely too large for its display, and in an era where LG and Samsung are moving to displays that attempt to cover the entire front of the phone, the U Ultra seems dated right out of the box.
The U Ultra has been constructed using premium materials: glass on front and back, as well as metal around the sides. This is a combination we’ve seen before on Samsung’s devices, and HTC has pulled it off reasonably well here, though perhaps not as well as Samsung.
The issue with using a glass back on any phone is that it can be quite slippery, and considering how it can be tricky to hold and operate this massive phone on a good day, the glass back doesn’t do you any favors. This isn’t a phone for clumsy people.
The shiny glass back is also a massive fingerprint magnet. The back is one of the most reflective glass panels I’ve seen, and it attracts all sorts of grease and oil like nothing else. I like keeping my phones clean, but this is an impossible task with the HTC U Ultra; just picking up this handset will leave fingerprints on the back, detracting from what’s otherwise a nice design.
HTC has opted for slimness with the U Ultra. The phone clocks in at 8mm thick and 170 grams heavy, which is reasonable for a phone of this size. For some bizarre reason, though, HTC has only managed to cram a 3,000 mAh battery inside, which is well below average. This has a massive impact on battery life, as I’ll discuss later. The U Ultra also has a camera bump, so perhaps HTC should have filled out the phone to the thickness of the camera with a larger battery.
While the capacitive buttons on the U Ultra can be hard to hit – the back button is a stretch when using the phone in your right hand – I’m pleased to see a fingerprint sensor included here. Having this sensor on the back would be a more comfortable location, but the sensor is nonetheless responsive and works well as a home button.
The headphone jack is one of the biggest omissions here. This dumb design choice began with Apple and it’s just awful. In 2017, most people are still using wired headphones, and many have their favorite pair. Even though HTC’s included headphones are reasonable, I wouldn’t and don’t want to use them over my trusty Sennheiser earbuds. Except I can’t use my favorite earbuds because HTC decided to omit the headphone jack.
I even tried to use a third-party USB-C to 3.5mm audio dongle on the U Ultra, only to be told this accessory was “incompatible” and I should use the included HTC headphones instead. So the U Ultra knows I’ve plugged in a 3.5mm audio jack dongle, but it doesn’t let me use it. What a ridiculous, user-hostile decision.
There are some better aspects to the U Ultra’s design, though. You get stereo speakers and ‘BoomSound’, with the U Ultra combining the in-call speaker with a bottom firing speaker to improve the audio experience. It’s not quite as good as dual front-facing stereo speakers, but it comes close. There’s also a microSD card slot included alongside 64GB of storage, so you’re well covered storage-wise.
One of the main attractions on the U Ultra, and something HTC hasn’t done before, is the secondary display. It’s a 2.05-inch 1040 x 160 panel placed above the top right corner of the handset, providing additional controls and information. While this is a neat idea, in practice it doesn’t add much to the experience, and many of the features provided by the secondary display are simple gimmicks.
The primary uses for the additional display are notifications and shortcuts. Whenever you receive a notification, it pops up in the secondary display so you can see a small snippet of information from within any app. This sounds good, but Android handsets have been using pop-down cards when notifications are received for a little while now, and in practice this achieves the same result without the use of an extra screen. It’s a similar thing for shortcuts to music controls, contacts, apps, and so forth: it’s handy to have this ability in a small extra screen, but you can achieve largely the same experience by quickly jumping to your home screen.
The additional display also works when the main display is off. You can pick up the handset or tap on the screen while it’s ”off” to view the time and basic notification icons. Again, neat, but always-on displays have been implemented without secondary displays on both AMOLED- and LCD-laden handsets previously.
As for the main display, we’re looking at a 5.7-inch 2560 x 1440 Super LCD5, with a pixel density of 513 PPI. This screen provides a sharp viewing experience, and like previous Super LCD panels, its viewing angles are excellent for an LCD. Its peak brightness is acceptable, at approximately 450 nits, though it falls behind several other modern LCDs, some of which can push up to 700 or 800 nits in direct sunlight.
Due to issues with an app I use for testing on the HTC U Ultra, I couldn’t run my usual array of display color tests. However I can report that contrast is good, at 1547:1, and the color temperature of this display isn’t fantastic, falling well into the ‘cold’ range thanks to accentuated blues. You can correct the color temperature somewhat through the U Ultra’s display settings.
As a general observation, the U Ultra’s display looks decent, as do many of today’s flagship smartphone displays. It’s disappointing that the U Ultra doesn’t support Daydream, because a 5.7-inch 1440p display would well suited to VR applications.
Hardware Overview and System Performance
The hardware inside the HTC U Ultra is nothing we haven’t seen before. The phone is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 SoC, comes with 4 GB of RAM and 64 GB of storage, and packs a typical range of connectivity including Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac and Category 11 LTE for up to 600 Mbps downloads.
As a quick refresher, the Snapdragon 821 is a quad-core SoC with two dual-core Kryo CPU clusters, one clocked at 2.15 GHz, and the other at 1.59 GHz. There’s an Adreno 530 GPU typically clocked up to 624 MHz, plus a quad-channel LPDDR4 memory controller at 1866 MHz, good for 29.8 GB/s of memory bandwidth.
The HTC U Ultra also features hardware such as Bluetooth 4.2, NFC, A-GPS and microSD storage expansion. There’s even USB 3.1 gen 1 connectivity through the USB-C port, which is a relatively rare inclusion, as many flagship devices still stick to USB 2.0. As for audio, the U Ultra supports high-res 24-bit/192kHz audio and active noise cancellation with the included headphones.
In general system and CPU-bound workloads, the HTC U Ultra performs on-par with other Snapdragon 820 and 821 devices. The Kirin 960, which uses more powerful ARM Cortex-A73 CPU cores, is around 15 percent faster on average, and we can expect similar or larger margins when the Snapdragon 835 hits.
For those upgrading from an older handset like the HTC One M9, which was powered by a Snapdragon 810, you can expect to see 60 percent greater CPU performance from the HTC U Ultra and its Snapdragon 821.
Graphics, Throttling and Storage Performance
GPU performance is strange here, as it seems HTC is deliberately downclocking the GPU to conserve power. The Google Pixel XL, which uses the same SoC and the same Adreno 530 GPU, achieves 19 percent more performance on average. This margin can jump to as high as 35 percent in some situations, such as in GFXBench’s off-screen performance tests. Similar margins were seen when comparing the U Ultra to other Snapdragon 821 devices.
This performance downgrade doesn’t see the U Ultra fall significantly behind the pack, and won’t have a big effect on current Android games. It’s a tight race at times, but the U Ultra does pull ahead of the Exynos-powered Samsung Galaxy S7 in most scenarios to finish 7 percent faster on average. Again, you’ll also see a decent jump in performance moving from a device like the HTC One M9.
As expected from the downclocked GPU, the HTC U Ultra doesn’t throttle significantly. Long term GPU performance is just 13 percent behind the Pixel XL, a device that throttles its GPU by 13 percent after 30 minutes of GPU-intensive 3D work. The U Ultra can still get quite hot during usage, but at least performance is consistent
The HTC U Ultra produces excellent storage performance for the most part, especially its sequential and random write speeds. This leads to great app loading times and a generally snappy experience, again in line with other top-class smartphones.
HTC has struggled in previous years to produce a high quality smartphone camera that competes with the best. The HTC U Ultra represents a step in the right direction, and although the camera here isn’t as good as you’ll find in the Google Pixel, iPhone 7 or Galaxy S7, it's good enough for typical day to day usage.
The U Ultra comes with a 12-megapixel “Ultrapixel 2” rear sensor with 1.55μm pixels, attached to an f/1.8 lens. There’s also optical image stabilization, plus a combined PDAF and laser-assisted autofocus solution. On the front is a 16-megapixel with an f/2.0 lens. 4K video recording is included on this device.
There are some really solid aspects to this camera. I was very impressed with the level of detail provided by its 12-megapixel images, especially when viewing 100% crops. HTC’s image processing reduces noise without causing a massive loss in fine detail, which can be an issue on some competing cameras. There’s no oil painting effect seen here, and that’s a fantastic result for a relatively low megapixel rear camera.
Colors produced by this camera are accurate, and the U Ultra meters well to avoid even subtle incorrect tones. If anything, images captured in good lighting are a little underexposed, though for the most part the U Ultra is a ‘what you see is what you get’ camera. What you won’t get is vibrant or well saturated images like you will find from the Pixel XL or Galaxy S7, and these types of images tend to be more sharable. U Ultra images require a bit of editing before you send them to your social media accounts if you want those beautiful, if slightly unrealistic shots.
The U Ultra has an automatic HDR mode, but it’s quite slow compared to the regular fast shutter. Whether the U Ultra is capturing HDR shots or not, dynamic range is weak in general, and several steps behind the Pixel XL and other competitors. Indoor shots in particular can suffer from minor amounts of washing out; this has been an issue for a number of HTC cameras in the past.
Low light performance is impressive: the U Ultra produces vibrant, bright night time images thanks to its large pixels and wide aperture. Shots in these conditions have surprisingly low amounts of noise, and OIS reduces blur for the most part. It’s only when you move into very dark environments that you can capture somewhat blurry images, but even then it’s not a huge deal, and these images are probably too dark to use anyway.
The front facing camera is decent, mostly due to its high resolution, and it produces good selfies in both strong and low light. 16 megapixels is probably overkill for selfies and I’d prefer to see larger pixels than a larger resolution here, but it’s hard to complain about the actual results provided by the U Ultra.
The camera app included with this phone is decent, with a sensible layout and easy access to the camera’s main features. Thanks to phase detection and laser autofocus, the U Ultra can focus quickly, though certainly not as fast as the Galaxy S7. I’m pleased to see HTC has included a full manual mode here, which really should be seen in every high-end phone these days.
The HTC U Ultra includes a 3,000 mAh (11.55 Wh) non-removable battery, which is very small for a device of this size. The Google Pixel XL, for example, contains a 3,450 mAh battery in a smaller body, while the Huawei Mate 9 loads in a 4,000 mAh battery into its 5.9-inch body. 3,000 mAh is too small for a 5.7-inch handset: it’s the same battery capacity as the HTC 10, the company’s last flagship with just a 5.2-inch display.
While the Snapdragon 821 is a reasonably efficient SoC, the small battery capacity is not enough for daily usage. Switching over to the HTC U Ultra as my daily driver felt like I was going back to the days of the Galaxy S6 with its poor battery life, and this isn’t what I’ve come to expect in 2016 or 2017.
As you can see in the charts above, the U Ultra is obliterated by phones like the Pixel XL and Mate 9 in nearly every test. Just 4.45 hours in PCMark’s battery test is a terrible result, and puts this handset well behind basically every other flagship I’ve tested in the past 12 months. Those who demand good battery life from their phone should look elsewhere.
The HTC U Ultra comes with Android 7.0 out of the box, plus HTC’s ever-improving Sense UI. Sense hasn’t changed significantly since I reviewed it on the HTC 10, though this version is running atop Nougat rather than Android 6.0 Marshmallow, and there have been a few minor upgrades along the way.
Unfortunately the U Ultra is still running the January security updates at the time of writing (April), and I don’t hold high hopes for HTC upgrading this phone too often. HTC’s record is pretty average in this regard, so if you want fast updates and the latest security patches, stick to a Google Pixel or a handset where the manufacturer has openly promised to release patches on a monthly basis.
Sense’s design language has improved to the point where it now fits in reasonably well with the rest of Android. HTC has toned down their additions and changes, so things like the notification pane and settings screen are much closer to stock Android than versions of Sense several years ago. This helps make the U Ultra feel less bogged down and unnecessarily changed in comparison to most software skins from competitors.
I also love how HTC has refused to include duplicate apps on their latest flagships. There’s just one web browser, one music app, and one photos app on the U Ultra, meaning you won’t see any ‘which app should I use’ dialog boxes on first use. There are a few bloatware apps around the place, but these are relatively easy to hide and remove, and bloatware is definitely better than duplicate apps on Android.
There are a couple of handy additions around Sense, such as BlinkFeed, which is still included here to the left of the primary homescreen. BlinkFeed is a handy news aggregator and works quite well if you set it up correctly. Of course for those that don’t want an entire homescreen panel occupied by HTC’s news feature, you can disable and remove this panel entirely.
HTC’s Boost+ app can come in handy at times, particularly to free up storage space and remove unnecessary cached files. Many Asian Android OEMs include similar apps on their handsets, so this app isn’t revolutionary, but it does include some handy features and tools.
There aren’t many other noteworthy features or setting additions, aside from basic things like theme support and the HTC Connect wizard for sharing media to other devices. Android’s feature set is already very strong, especially Android 7.0, so the only additions HTC could make would be largely gimmicks.
A special mention must be made to the stock keyboard too. The predictive software HTC uses with their keyboard (a variant of TouchPal) is excellent, which makes the typing experience fantastic out of the box. There’s a lot of features packed into the keyboard too, such as support for resizing and easy access to emoji.
That Price. What Just Happened?
There are too many problems with the HTC U Ultra for me to recommend it. It has a larger-than-average screen that will appeal to those who prefer big phones, but I see no reason to purchase this handset over alternatives like the LG V20 and Huawei Mate 9.
The U Ultra is a massive handset, far bigger than is necessary for a 5.7-inch phone. Its build quality and use of materials is excellent, but the large glass back panel makes the phone slippery and hard to hold. It’s also an enormous fingerprint magnet, which will annoy those that like keeping their phone clean.
The lack of a headphone jack and the phone’s dumb restrictions on what third-party 3.5mm audio dongles work is a terrible move. The included headphones may be great, but I still want to use my own wired headphones. You don’t need to copy everything Apple does, HTC.
There are some decent aspects to the U Ultra. Its performance is respectable for a phone released today; the Snapdragon 821 keeps up with most of the competition, despite HTC’s choice to limit the GPU performance. I like the inclusion of 64 GB of fast NAND as standard along with a microSD card slot. There’s also a fingerprint sensor and hi-fi audio support included in this handset.
The camera was also reasonably impressive thanks to its excellent level of detail, solid color accuracy, and great low light performance. It’s not as good as the Pixel XL or Galaxy S7 – both of these cameras produce more vibrant and shareable images – but it’s decent enough. HTC’s camera app is particularly nice and capture speeds, outside of the HDR mode, are fast, while the 16-megapixel front facing camera is also quite good.
There are good and bad aspects to the display. The main 5.7-inch 1440p panel is good quality for an LCD thanks to great viewing angles and contrast. However, the additional 2-inch display above the main screen adds nothing to the experience. It’s a gimmick, plain and simple.
HTC only managed to cram a 3,000 mAh battery into the U Ultra, and that leads to below average battery life. The Huawei Mate 9, admittedly a slightly larger phone than the U Ultra, absolutely obliterates the U Ultra in our battery benchmarks. The excellent Pixel XL also outperforms the U Ultra by a significant margin.
But the real kicker here is the price. At $749 (Amazon has it for about $100 less already), the U Ultra is way too expensive to recommend. The far superior Google Pixel XL and iPhone 7 Plus are both roughly the same price as the U Ultra, which is ridiculous considering the gap in quality. The Huawei Mate 9, available for under $600, is another fantastic buy for those interested in a larger screen phone. The U Ultra would need a $300 price cut for me to even consider recommending it, and that’s just not going to happen.
Pros: Decent but not outstanding hardware, including the Snapdragon 821 SoC, 12-megapixel rear camera, and 5.7-inch 1440p display.
Cons: Terrible battery life. Secondary display adds nothing. Unnecessarily large body attracts fingerprints like no other phone. No headphone jack. Laughably expensive.