Tuesday 22 August 2017

Great camera aside, HTC's latest smartphone squeeze is a real wheeze

Review: HTC U11, €699 from Three

HTC U11
HTC U11

HTC hasn't gone away. The company that used to dominate smartphones in Ireland is still putting out some innovative new models. Its latest flagship is a 5.5-inch phone that comes with a 'squeeze' feature. This lets you control certain functions by applying pressure on each side of the lower bit of the phone. By default, a short squeeze opens the camera, while a long squeeze can do something else.

You can program the squeezes to apply to other functions, however, such as taking a screen shot, launching an app, turning your wifi hotspot on or activating voice recording. It also works to wake your phone up from a locked state.

It's not flawless to use, as I found it to be a little inconsistent. Then again, it's a first attempt at the feature - software upgrades might smooth out a few glitches.

Fundamentally, is this a gimmick or a useful feature? I can see its potential. Because it's a physical action, this feature also works with gloves, in the rain, or even underwater (the phone is waterproof). So it makes your phone's camera a lot more versatile.

It also addresses the problem of speed. One problem with phone cameras is always the amount of time they take to launch. It's usually at least two taps or swipes with the feature often activated too late to get the shot you took your phone out for.

That said, some phone systems (especially Sony) often put a camera button on the side that immediately activates the camera.

And my experience with the U11 is that it doesn't always register a squeeze (although you can adjust the pressure level in settings).

As for the phone's other features, I have nothing but praise. The camera quality on the U11 is excellent. HTC appears to have put most of its camera effort into the front-facing selfie camera. In what might be a sign of the times, the selfie camera is a whopping 16-megapixels that can change its approach (to 'ultra pixel' focus that is better in low light) according to the level of light available around your face.

By comparison, the rear camera stays at 12 megapixels, the same resolution level as Apple's iPhone 7.

Video-recording gets a superb level of effective image stabilisation, meaning that even if your hands shake a bit, it renders the footage really smoothly. It's a great feature to have and is up there with Apple's iPhone 7 Plus.

The U11 has a fairly innovative audio system. It uses the entire front panel as a speaker in a similar way to Sony's high-end new televisions. Its 'uSonic' earphones also claim some smart features, taking a reading of your ear's inner canal and adjusting the audio direction accordingly. The earphones also include a degree of active noise cancellation by using signals recorded by the earphones' microphone.

If you want to record video, the phone's microphone has a neat trick that helps far-away people. The microphone effectively zooms its audio focus as you zoom the camera in. It does this with some help from the phone's four omni-directional microphones. (HTC calls this "3D audio".)

HTC has invested in its microphones because it seems to believe we're set to use voice commands more for everyday features. In this regard, the U11 is the first phone to include support for both Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. (The first is of use in Ireland, while the second is very limited.)

Under the hood, it comes with 64 gigabytes of storage, which is a decent amount.

It has a pretty large battery (3,000mAh) that will last most people a full day. And its power quotient is ample, with 4GB of Ram and the latest Snapdragon (835) processor.

It connects to a charge via the newer USB-C standard, but a converter to the older miniUSB connection comes in the box.

The U11 is about the same size as the iPhone 7 Plus, which is to say that it is physically quite large. The reason this is worth noting is that the main phone it competes with - Samsung's recently released Galaxy S8 - has a bigger screen on a smaller phone. Given the natural limits of the human hand, this makes the U11 slightly less ergonomic than its main competitor.

To add to this, Apple's next iPhone (due in September) is also expected to have some type of bezel-less screen, making the ordinary handset's display bigger. So by the end of the year, the U11 may look a generation behind in terms of its aesthetics. That said, this is probably true of most flagship handsets that aren't Apple or Samsung.

The U11 model I got to review had a shiny blue rear casing. While it was pleasing to look at, it was an instant smudge magnet. You can also get the phone in black, with a red variant promised later.

Overall, HTC's U11 is a high-end smarpthone with lots of excellent features. It certainly won't disappoint as a cameraphone. Whether or not 'squeezing' will take off as a permanent smartphone action remains to be seen.

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