Opinion: The U Ultra Signals HTC’s Utter Identity Loss After a Compelling HTC 10

Opinion: The U Ultra Signals HTC’s Utter Identity Loss After a Compelling HTC 10

Throughout May of last year, I had the pleasure of reviewing the HTC 10, a sturdy little phone that ended up becoming one of my favorite releases of 2016.

At the time, HTC had a lot to prove to regular customers and its fanbase alike — the One M9 had been a colossal failure, blasted by the media for its stagnant design and scorched with criticism for its fundamentally-flawed Snapdragon 810. Indeed, by being one of the first devices to feature that processor, the One M9 harnessed an almost-unreasonable amount of flak for what would later become a systemic issue among 2015 flagships. The HTC 10 had to truly deliver in every key area in order to gain customer trust again, as well as impress the media that loved the M8 so much, yet cared so little about the M9. This desire to be brilliant again showed in their marketing strategy, which was seemingly aimed at core users by advertising battery life and performance, reassuring customers that “they’ve been working hard”, ending each short tease with the phrase “you’ll see it”.

And we did see and feel it: my review of the HTC 10 was surprisingly positive, and I noted that HTC delivered a “delightfully restrained user experience”. There was no ‘wow’ factor to go after, there was no gimmick to shove down our throats — HTC made a solid smartphone that tackled every specification with moderate success. In my review, I stated that it was “rare to see phones that focus on the user experience to the degree that the 10 does”, a sentiment echoed by devices like the OnePlus 3 and Pixel phones later that year. This phone lacked the compromises that sunk much of the appeal of its predecessors, and everything from the software UI to the outer design felt quintessentially HTC. The HTC 10 was the culmination of the design language and industrial design expertise we’ve loved for years, with a thoughtful Sense UI and solid internal hardware — capable camera, decent battery life, speedy processor, great audio output.

It seemingly wasn’t enough. Fast forward a few months, and the HTC 10 was starting to fall into the after-hype memory hole so many OEMs find themselves in after decent-but-unspectacular releases. I still held the opinion that the HTC 10 was one of the best devices we were already starting to forget, be it due to the admittedly-high price or the almost radio-silent marketing post-release, which came after much of the early year hype had passed along with its competitors. It was a shame because, in my opinion, more-extensive positive feedback could have prompted HTC to stick to the path they were on, and save us the disappointments we are seeing in early 2017. After the dismissal of Peter Chou in favor of now-CEO Cher Wang, however, the company hasn’t focused on smartphones enough to craft a consistent road to success. Cher Wang herself noted that the company had to “rethink smartphones”, saying that “[their] flagship is in direct competition with several others, we have had some problems with it for two years”. Perhaps such troubles with its competition are what then led HTC to just start copying it:

The U Ultra is not a particularly bad phone, but it is a specifically bad HTC flagship

The HTC U Ultra is, to me, an abomination coming from HTC. This isn’t to say it’s a particularly bad phone, but it is a specifically bad HTC device, because it foregoes so much of the tact and restraint that I think helped make the HTC 10 such a strong offering. Moreover, the HTC U Ultra is precisely what I feared would happen with HTC flagships once I realized the HTC 10 had failed to attract the attention the company needed to profit. The prime reason I dislike the U Ultra as an HTC device is that, to me, it’s simply not a device I’d expect from HTC — it’s a freakish amalgam of its competitors’ hardware and features, a far cry from the no-nonsense approach of the HTC 10 and a seemingly-desperate attempt to replicate the success of other companies through imitation.

The most obvious example is the undeniable influence that Samsung devices have had on the HTC U Ultra. While we could argue that the LG G6 also borrows some design elements from its South Korean rival, HTC’s imitation is much more blatant and direct, with strikingly similar elements on the back, though with a much shinier (and gaudier, in person) glass panel. HTC managed to merely copy one of Samsung’s signature design elements but failed to add one of its most beneficial features, wireless charging, which is currently featured only with glass or plastic back (though possible on metal). This is particularly troubling for a company that redefined the paradigm of Android design and build quality with its exquisite metal smartphones, and that achieved a construction pedigree unmatched by other OEMs.

The other obvious example is the “second screen” curiously borrowed from the LG V20, with both having similar functionality. As Miles from XDA TV noted, though, the HTC U Ultra does end up falling behind in terms of functionality and implementation. Other marketing points such as Sense’s AI features are likely going to be ignored as well, if even noticed at all. Most of it comes in the form of suggestions and observations that range from mildly convenient to obvious and unnecessary.

And all of this for what improvement, exactly? The HTC U Ultra is still a massive phone with its 5.7 inch display, making it harder to handle than the HTC 10 due to its sizable bezels, not to mention it is far slipperier and more fragile too. The HTU Ultra’s processor suffers from the same lack of year-on-year oomph we see in other early 2017 devices launching with the Snapdragon 821, and the larger screen is not supported by a larger battery than what’s found on the HTC 10 — at 3,000mAh, most of my contacts and fellow reviewers have struggled to get more than a day’s worth of battery life from the U Ultra. For a price tag north of $700, one would expect more than last year’s phone with a new screen feature wrapped in a new design, especially when the phone isn’t even waterproof like the Samsung Galaxy S7 that it draws inspiration from. It even dumps the 3.5mm headphone jack among criticisms that have brought trouble to much bigger brands as well.

Instead of being the trendsetter that kickstarted the enthusiasm for quality metal Android devices, HTC is now following the glass herd

The HTC 10’s design was clearly something we’d expect from HTC, with chamfers that added character and robustness that didn’t need cleaning or babying. The U Ultra, on the other hand, collects smudges, attracts gunk, and can gather scratches in a way that makes it feel less premium and less durable than any flagship HTC has made since the One M7. It might look excellent in promotional material and carefully-shot review footage, but during your day-to-day use your device will end up looking plasticky at best, or feeling greasy and gross at worst. When compared to the unassuming sturdiness of the HTC 10’s metal construction, I find that HTC has traded tried-and-true familiarity and expertise for an approach to hardware design they do not excel at, aiming to mimic others who have a proven track record. Instead of being the trendsetter that kickstarted the enthusiasm for quality metal Android devices, HTC is now following the glass herd and chasing Samsung’s success.

The “hype lag” after their release certainly didn’t help, and in the end I have a hard time believing the HTC U Ultra will get better reviews and even better sales than the HTC 10. While time will prove or disprove that last assessment’s accuracy, I do see the U Ultra as HTC’s loss of identity, a sign that they are willing to waste a release cycle against some of the most competitive flagships of the year, by experimenting with a product that could hardly be called theirs if it wasn’t for the logo on the back. To me, it also shows that HTC doesn’t have much of an idea of what made its previous phones so great, what should be kept and what should be improved — and perhaps most importantly, how to market and sell their devices.

The audio-centric, speedy metal ‘superphones’ we saw in the M8 and the HTC 10 were, to me, some of the better devices of their respective years, while the U Ultra is a phone we most certainly won’t even get to review at XDA Portal due to a striking lack of interest from our readers and forum users (it’s just not worth it). It’s a shame, because I had high hopes for HTC’s 2017 flagship — and while the company might make a U turn and release a proper successor to the HTC 10 later in the year, it’s also hard to ignore that they missed a great opportunity by not propping up a solid competitor ahead of Samsung’s delayed S8. They had a head start they haven’t enjoyed in previous years – the M9 got demolished at MWC 2015, and the HTC 10 came after the first round of 2016 flagships – and they wasted it on an uninteresting device that offers many things nobody asked for, nor expected from them.

HTC made it clear the U line is its own endeavor, and that other flagships are coming with a reduced output of phones in general, giving the company more time to focus on individual releases by disregarding low-end markets. If the U Ultra is anything to go by, though, we should keep our expectations in check. Many of the problems that have plagued HTC and undermined its success remain unaddressed, even those that they themselves recognize (such as marketing), while the company also walks away from the trends it set, the expertise it amassed and the design decisions that awarded it so much praise from the media just a few years ago. Trading all of that for a samey and uninspiring release like the HTC U Ultra, at such a crucial time for smartphones, really does make it hard for us to believe in HTC. First, the company needs to believe in itself, its smartphone tradition and the product philosophy that helped catapult Android into the mainstream in those early days of glory.


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