HTC on Tuesday unveiled its flagship smartphone for 2017, the new HTC U11. HTC’s sleek new smartphone features a design unlike anything we’ve seen from other smartphone makers in recent years. Characterized by what HTC calls “liquid design language,” the U11 features a sleek rounded glass back with color baked on similar to the way pottery is glazed, but on the inside of the glass. The result is a gorgeous effect that catches light and reflects different shades in different directions.
Of course, the HTC U11 is more than just a pretty face. In this post, we’ll focus on five key features you won’t find on Samsung’s Galaxy S8 or on Apple’s iPhone 7.
I have already seen some people dismiss this new feature as a gimmick. While I cannot state whether or not pressure sensitive devices have a future, I can say that the “squeezable” feature of HTC’s new U11 actually is useful.
With Edge Sense, users can configure certain actions to be triggered by a simple squeeze of the phone’s edges. An example is a squeeze on any screen to open the camera, and then another squeeze to capture a selfie. Thinking about the feature in practice, it really does make perfect sense. Your grip is already positioned on the edges of the screen, and applying slight pressure couldn’t be easier.
Three AI assistants
You know what’s better than Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, and HTC Companion? Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, and HTC Companion all on the same device. You can read more about HTC’s implementation and its HTC Companion features in our hands-on HTC U11 preview, but there are a few things that stand out.
First, the U11 will be the first widely available smartphone with Alexa hot word support. That means you can say “Hey Alexa” and the U11 will automatically begin listening, just like an Amazon Echo. Second, the U11 also has hot word support for Google Assistant. Say “Hey Alexa” to wake Alexa, or “Ok Google” to wake Google Assistant.
The Snapdragon 835 is the first chipset to support two wake word commands, and the U11 is the first phone to take advantage of the feature.
Ok, so the HTC U11 can support two different hot words. Now that voice-controlled virtual assistants are so popular, how can HTC ensure that the experience is always a good one?
HTC’s new U11 has four strategically placed microphones on the device. One mic is always listening for wake words in a low-power stat, and then all four mics are hot when a wake word is spoken. Once the phone determines where the user is positioned in relation to the phone, three mics are disabled and the nearest mic listens to commands. It all happens in an instant behind the scenes, and it should result in the most reliable voice experience we’ve seen on a phone.
It’s difficult to describe just how impressive the loudspeakers are on the HTC U11. Suffice it to say there’s no other smartphone on the market we’ve tested that even compares.
Last year’s HTC 10 was already impressive when it came to audio playback, but we listened to a demo of the two phones playing the same song, one after the other. Compared to the U11, the HTC 10 sounded like a cheap toy. Sound coming from the U11’s next-generation BoomSound speakers is much louder than any other phone we’ve heard, and it’s fuller as well. You know how quiet and tinny the audio is when you play a video on your phone now? The U11 is basically the exact opposite of that.
The phone also ships with very cool new earbuds that include active noise cancellation, but you don’t need to charge them. Instead, they draw power from the U11’s USB-C port. Also nifty are the sonar sensors embedded in the buds, which can sense the shape of the wearer’s ear canal and tune the audio for an optimal experience.
Awful sales strategy
Sadly, we’ve saved the U11’s worst unique feature for last: Sprint. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with Sprint as a carrier. There is something wrong with launching a new flagship phone as a Sprint exclusive, however.
There are always various business factors at play when a smartphone maker releases a new phone as a carrier exclusive, but this deal has disaster written all over it. Sprint is struggling as subscribers continue to flee. HTC is struggling as pressure from much larger rivals like Samsung and Apple increases. Two struggling companies aligning to launch a new flagship phone as an exclusive is not a recipe for success.
The HTC U11 is also available unlocked from Amazon and from HTC, but the vast majority of consumers in the US purchase their smartphones from a wireless carrier (or from Apple). This exclusive deal is going to hurt far more than it helps.