I Was Wrong about the U11: HTC’s Latest Flagship Can be a Remarkable Phone
Just over 4 years ago, I had finally upgraded to what I felt was the next level of Android smartphones, the HTC One, which would later get the M7 moniker. It was premium, solid, and felt expensive, unlike my Galaxy Nexus which was everything other than that.
I kept that phone for a year going from HTC Sense to the Google Play Edition software. HTC not only made a premium phone, but they also made it decently open. Unlike many other manufacturers HTC did not lock down their phone’s bootloader, leaving it unlockable in a practice that remains until this day; even offering their warranty to unlocked phones. Somewhere along the way, HTC lost its way and after the excellent (yet arguably iterative) One M8 they fell further by offering dozens of cheap devices, and their premium devices were always behind the times. The M8, like the M7 before it, was class leading and award winning and felt like it was a few minute changes from perfection; however what came next derailed the entire company. The M9 showcased their inability to accept change that the “UltraPixel” was bust, that their design was getting dated due to the rest of the market finally catching up to to their metal construction, and enthusiast hopes clinging to what were ultimately false renders resulted in the perfect storm that hastened their spiral into demise, with both their reputation and finances tanking with no precedent.
There was a glimmer of hope early last year with the HTC 10. While the design was reserved, it was easy to love and adopted many of the improved features that their competitors had for a generation now, like a QHD display and much better optics. Unfortunately, HTC launched up against the Galaxy S7, a phone that appealed to the masses and left little to hate. Following the HTC 10 and in what seemed to be an ill fated and late attempt to capitalize on the market gap left by the Note7, HTC then launched the U Ultra, its dual displayed monster. Unfortunately, the U Ultra was not the phone HTC needed by carrying an extreme cost, large size, poor battery, and limited market reach. Along with with the U Ultra came word that we would not be seeing a successor to the ultimately unimpactful 10 and that the U Ultra would be HTC’s 2017 flagship, leaving fans of HTC let down. Surprisingly though, HTC did have another flagship up its sleeve, and while it is more like a smaller and more-developed twin of the U Ultra, it is also the spiritual successor to the 10 (in part signalled by the otherwise-redundant ’11’ in its name). I finally decided to pick up a U11, after being disappointed with what the OnePlus 5 had to offer, and over the next few weeks I will be writing a few pieces on it, with a decidedly XDA flair.
If are looking for a comprehensive review of the phone, for now we would recommend you look towards some of the other excellent reviews that have been published. I want to focus on what the U11 can be instead what it currently is, because quite frankly, while the hardware package is compelling and the phone has immense potential, the software leaves a lot to be desired despite HTC’s relative competence in this space.
While it is undeniable that HTC’s Sense software is among the lightest weight and best-performing interfaces (the U11 is class-leading in this regard), that speed is mostly relegated to the main interface, and does not fully apply to HTC’s home sourced applications. It starts with the horribly outdated and laggy lockscreen, for example. It was back in 2011 that HTC introduced lockscreen shortcuts to Sense, a novel concept to Android that AOSP would go on to adopt in a less intrusive manner. However, Android has changed a lot since 2011’s Gingerbread, Sense has not. While there is benefit in this design it now encroaches on the utility of the Android lockscreen by reducing the amount of available space and slimming the amount of viewable notifications to 2 while compressed, and about 4 to 5 when expanded. I am someone who likes to do a lot of notification checking and replying from my lockscreen, and having a limited amount of quick preview space flanked by the icons below and clock/weather widget up top makes you run out of space quickly. This is compounded by HTC’s reliance on forcing additional undismissable notifications when music is playing, when night mode is enabled, when WiFi Calling is ongoing… you get the picture.If you are a “power user”, the HTC lockscreen and ongoing notification mess might just drive you mad. However, as enthusiasts know, this is a fixable annoyance and if you are willing to put in a little work, it becomes a total non-issue.
The next thing that feels dated about Sense is the primary color pallette for the UI. Sense is still dependent on the stock AOSP color theme which when compared to the light UI of LG and Samsung, and the dark grey and blue UI of the Pixel is not only old, but also subjectively dingy and ugly. HTC does claim to have a theme manager, but it is more of a joke when compared to other offerings allowing minor customizations to the few included applications that you likely will replace anyways. Dialer withstanding, there is not another single application I use on a regular basis that benefits from this theming. Basically, you are stuck with that feels like a forgotten interface that is straight out of 2014. There are also a few other oddities like the camera UI that lags horribly when launched, the odd animation stutters that show up when expanding notifications on the lockscreen, and the fact that HTC removed the custom DPI setting from Developer Settings, seemingly to hide the fact that the camera is poorly coded and cannot adapt to a new scaling. The whole software package makes the U11’s inside feel old and dated that does not have the eye-appeal of its competitors, and this is in stark contrast to the hardware which feels rejuvenated and fresh, even if it too is a bit recycled. Those of us regular readers of XDA know that there are theming engines that work with most Android builds like Substratum, and just like the lockscreen issue this theming mess looks to be fixable as well.
I mentioned earlier that I am going to focus on what the HTC U11 can be, because nearly all of those issues stated above can be fixed with some time, root, and ROMs from our developer community — in fact I have already started crafting a more-refined user experience for myself. While there are a few things that flashing a ROM cannot fix, the U11 also brings a lot of greatness to the table. Fragility be damned, the phone looks spectacular and is one of the best-feeling phones I have used in a long time. It has great speakers, and the USonic “gimmick” is the real deal, it sounds fantastic, and almost makes up for the lack of the 3.5mm port. Outside of what feels like the odd animation glitch, the performance of this phone is top notch and makes my Galaxy S8 feel like a mid-ranger in comparison, especially when scrolling through well-coded applications.
Despite its smallish size, the 3,000mAh battery paired with more-efficient components has enough to get you through a day – if just barely – and includes all the fast charging tech you would expect. While Edge Sense and the lack of the 3.5mm port are attempts at class-departing features, the U11 delivers a no frills smartphone experience without throwing useless things your way — that is, gimmicks can easily be ignored, and most annoyances can be swiftly worked around. Unfortunately though, there are some flaws I have found that are not easily fixed. I have found the camera to be a little slow in its default HDR Auto mode and HTC still is missing 1080p60, the screen does not sport the best viewing angles, and no matter how hard you try, the phone will not grow a 3.5mm port.
All-in-all though, the U11 is a fantastic phone, and I do not use that word lightly. We can only hope that it does not continue the HTC 10’s legacy of being one of the best phones that many have already forgotten about. On the surface, the U11 takes much of what makes the Google Pixel XL a great phone and improves on nearly every aspect of it while being more affordable. I will be putting that to the test as I begin to root and run custom ROMs from our forums, and as I get to see if I can effectively nail the perfect user experience for my needs.
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