Outstanding camera work means that shiny HTC phone stands out
- Tech Review: HTC U Play Price: €450 or €49 on contract from 3 Ireland
- The good: for a mid-tier phone, the camera is superb
- The bad: the rear casing is a magnet for fingerprint smudges
- Overall rating: ****
The first thing you notice about HTC's U Play is how shiny it is. HTC calls this pearlescent effect on its rear casing a 'liquid surface', because it's made mostly of toughened Gorilla Glass (with metal edges). In a sea of gold, grey and black phones, it sets the handset apart aesthetically, even if it shows up your fingerprints in a less than merciful way.
One of the most important things I look to in a new phone is its camera. For a mid-tier model, this one is absolutely outstanding. It has a 16-megapixel camera on both front and back, each with an f2 aperture at a 28mm focal range. It's good in low light and, because of that f2 aperture, produces some moderately nice bokeh (background blur) to photos. This makes subjects stand out a little more in your photos and is especially useful for portrait shots of people.
In selfie mode, there's an 'ultrapixel' mode for very low light scenarios. The only trade-off with this is that you won't get quite as much detail per square millimetre as in the regular mode. But you'll get a clearer, better shot so it's a trade-off worth making.
Video quality on this phone is very good, too, even if its top resolution is full HD (so no 4K). The rear camera has optical image stabilisation, meaning that even if your hand is a little shaky (or you experience juddering for some other reason, such as being in a car), the resulting video is generally smooth and silky. This is a must-have on cameraphones these days.
There's a lot of other stuff for photography enthusiasts to get their teeth into on the U Play, courtesy of a 'pro' mode. When selected, this lets you manually vary aperture, ISO, shutter speed, white balance and other elements. It's fun to have but, realistically, only a tiny number of people will use it as it's a bit fussy to set up when you need to take a quick snap.
It's really good to see HTC taking the camera function so seriously on a mid-tier device. It will result in better quality photos and videos for a lot of people.
I liked the phone's size, too. With a 5.2-inch high-resolution (423 pixels-per-inch) screen, the U Play is arguably perfect-sized smartphone for a majority of users. It's big enough to watch videos on without squinting while still being just about compact enough to perform most functions one-handed. The phone's design makes the most of the screen, too, with commendably thin bezels and borders. This is in contrast with other phones that sometimes turn a 5-inch screen into the physically dexterous equivalent of a bigger one because of wide, fat bezels.
I say this as someone who likes the biggest possible phones. Given the choice, I'll almost always opt for a 'plus'-sized device of 5.5 inches (like the iPhone 7 Plus) or even 6.2 inches, like Samsung's new S8. But for most people, the happy medium is probably still somewhere closer to five inches.
There isn't much to say about the U Play's battery life. Its 2,500mAh battery delivers usage experience that's right about what you'd expect from this type of handset. If you use it moderately, you'll easily get a day out of it. If you hammer it with constant social media use, you'll be drained by the afternoon.
And it's in this context that one of the U PLay's other aspects comes to the fore.
This phone uses USB-C charging. For some, this may be a pain as they may already have built up a collection of more traditional microUSB chargers and cables about the place.
So if this is your first USB-C gadget, you'll only have one cable and will probably need to go out and buy more (budget euro-stores still only stock MicroUSB or Apple compatible ones).
Stick with it, though, as it's worth it. Aside from data transfer speeds (which, admittedly, doesn't count for much as no-one transfers stuff to and from phones via cable any more) USB-C generally means quicker charging. In my experience, the U Play went from 10pc to 50pc in about 20 minutes, which is a decent rate.
Besides, most other phones are switching over to USB-C now. Even the next iPhone might switch, if the latest rumours are correct. (Apple's MacBook laptop line already uses USB-C.)
The USB-C port also another purpose on this phone. HTC has followed Apple's path in not including a 3.5mm headphone jack on the phone. So if you want to physically connect headphones to the handset, it has to be done through the USB-C port. HTC bundles a pair of earphones with the right connection jack to this end. But if you're getting this phone, it's likely that you might want to start thinking permanently about wireless headphones.
The U Play comes with a reasonable 32GB of storage as standard, although you can also stick in a memory card to bring it up to 2,000GB. In terms of power, I didn't notice any problems with its 3GB of Ram and MediaTek P10, 64-bit processor. As with many phones, it takes a nano-sim, the same size as an iPhone. I like the fingerprint scanner, which is on the lower front of the handset rather than on the back
Overall, I really like the look and feel of HTC's U Play. It's a really good mid-tier phone with enough muscle and sparkle to feel like a premium handset.