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HTC U11 Life review: HTC’s flashy Android One smartphone

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In the last couple of months, HTC has been extremely busy. Alongside the flurry of phones, like this one HTC U11 Life, the company has also been partially acquired by Google for the cool sum of $1.1 billion.

It’s now seemingly under pressure to deliver to its investors and in order to regain a foothold in the smartphone market, the Taiwanese company has released a stripped down version of its flagship device. The result is the flashy HTC U11 Life.

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HTC U11 Life review: What you need to know

At £349, the U11 Life is the younger and cheaper brother of the HTC U11. It comes equipped with Qualcomm’s latest mid-range processor, the Snapdragon 630, includes 4GB of RAM and has a 5.2in Full HD screen.

Its front-facing 16-megapixel camera is excellent for selfies and IP67 dust- and water-resistance design sets it apart from other mid-range smartphones. Thanks to the partnership with Google, the U11 Life is the first HTC phone to run on Android One (based on Android 8 Oreo) straight out-the-box.

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HTC U11 Life review: Price and competition

The U11 costs £349 for the 64GB version (4GB of RAM). We were sent the 32GB variant with 3GB of RAM, instead, which doesn’t have a UK price. We’re chasing HTC on pricing and availability for this model. Other than storage and RAM, the two models are identical.

At that price, the U11 Life is not shy of competition. There’s a stack of mid-range smartphones to contend with: the blisteringly quick Honor 9 costs £385, the modular Motorola Moto Z2 Play sits at £365 and then there’s the unbelievable Samsung Galaxy S7, which may be old, but can be picked up for only £395.

For a more affordable option, there’s the Honor 6X and Moto G5S, both that are both around £220 and then there’s the Vodafone Smart V8 at £165 with its excellent selfie camera.

HTC U11 Life review: Design and build quality

At face value, the HTC U11 Life isn’t a radical departure from the regular U11. On the back, the phone is coated in the same beautifully coloured “liquid glass” rear, which glares different shades of blue or black depending on the angle light catches it.

The material it’s made up of is slightly different: it’s made from acrylic glass instead of regular glass but it still picks up plenty of fingerprints. The design does have its benefits: its rounded edges make the phone comfortable to hold and makes it easy to tuck away in jean pockets. Better still, the phone is IP67 dust- and water-resistant so it’ll survive a dunkin in up to a metre of fresh water for 30mins.

Elsewhere, as with its plus-sized alternative, the volume rocker and ribbed power button are sensibly placed on the right edge, with the solitary USB Type-C port on the bottom edge. And again, there’s no 3.5mm headphone jack, although to make up for this you do get a pair of HTC USonic USB Type-C earphones included in the box.

There’s a fingerprint reader doing double duties with the central home button just underneath the phone’s display, flanked by touch-based capacitive back and recent apps buttons. And the U11 Life also has the same pressure sensors built into its frame as its bigger brother: give the phone a squeeze and you’ll be able to carry out various shortcut actions, from launching Google Assistant to capturing selfies without having to locate an onscreen button.

For connectivity and expansion, meanwhile, the HTC U11 Life has 32GB or 64GB of internal storage, which can be expanded by up to 256GB through a microSD card. Unlike some of its competitors, though, the U11 Life features only a single-SIM slot.

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HTC U11 Life review: Display

As for the display, the U11 Life doesn’t follow the same road as the U11 Plus, with its frame-filling edge-to-edge display, but instead has a Full HD (1,920 x 1,080) 16:9 5.2in screen, bezels and all.

It’s a pretty good display, though. At a measured 553cd/m2 peak brightness, the U11 Life should be readable in even the most bright of ambient light.

Technically, it’s great, too. Tested with our i1 Display Pro colour calibrator, its Super LCD panel achieved an impressive contrast ratio of 1,932:1, meaning images have a great impact, and the U11 Life also has a wide colour gamut, with a recorded 93.8% sRGB and 80.4% DCI P3 coverage.

Colour accuracy isn’t as good, with an average Delta E of 2.87 and maximum of 9.31, which means it can’t match the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S8, but by-and-large it’s a good quality screen and one I find it hard to find significant fault with.

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HTC U11 Life review: Software

So far, so ordinary, but software-wise, the U11 Life is a little bit special. Firstly, it ships with Android 8.0 Oreo straight out-the-box, which is good to see, especially when even some high-profile flagships still haven’t upgraded to it yet (OnePlus 5T, I’m looking at you).

It’s also the first “Android One” smartphone I’ve come across. This isn’t some new flavour of Android; instead, it’s a joint hardware and software standard that limits manufacturer customisation and guarantees both security and software updates for a certain time. In this case, two years.

Android One phones also typically run stock Android, or near enough, which means there’s little out of the ordinary when it comes to the U11 Life’s software. The only differences arise through support for the phone’s squeezable frame and the bundled USonic earphones.

The latter is particularly interesting for two reasons: first, they can scan your ears and will automatically tweak the EQ depending on how sensitive you are to various frequencies; second, they have active noise cancellation.

Generally, they’re good for bundled earphones and the active noise cancellation worked reasonably well, but I found the personalised sound profile a little over bassy.

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HTC U11 Life review: Performance

Inside the U11 Life, there’s a 2.2GHz octa-core Snapdragon 630 processor with 4GB of RAM (in the 64GB variant). The phone is fast enough for your daily browse, Pokemon GO or similar, but its performance doesn’t offer anything special over its competitors.

^ HTC U11 Life Geekbench 4

The same cannot be said for its Adreno 508 GPU, whose performance is disappointing. In the GFXBench Manhattan 3 test, the U11 Life returned an average of only 13fps in the onscreen (native resolution) benchmark, a long way behind the Honor 9 with an average of 35fps.

^ HTC U11 Life GFXBench Manhattan 3.0

Battery life isn’t all that great either. The U11 Life’s 2,600mAh battery (which isn’t removable, by the way) lasted 11hrs 10mins in the Expert Reviews video rundown benchmark, which is pretty mediocre, but not far off the sort of stamina delivered by key rivals. The Honor 9, for instance, lasted 11hrs 36mins in the same test. Only the Moto Z2 Play in this price bracket performs significantly better.

^ HTC U11 Life battery life

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HTC U11 Life review: Camera

One thing the U11 Life doesn’t inherit from the U11, unfortunately, is its rear camera. Instead, what you get here is a 16-megapixel f/2 camera with phase-detect autofocus. Results are mediocre for a £349 smartphone; by comparison, the sub-£250 Moto G5S and Vodafone Smart V8 provide a near-identical performance, while the Honor 9 performs a lot better.

Still, it’s a competent camera, able to pick up plenty of detail and doesn’t oversaturate the colours. With HDR enabled, there’s better contrast between light and dark areas, such as in the shots below.

^ Without HDR enabled

^ With HDR enabled

Under low-light conditions, there’s a lot of image noise, though, although the camera again performs much better with HDR-enabled. With flash, image noise is completely eliminated and colours remain balanced. Unlike the Vodafone Smart V8 with its yellowish tint, the U11 Life doesn’t skew skin tones of photographed subjects.

^ Indoors without HDR

^ Indoors without HDR, but with flash

The 16-megapixel front-facing camera is incredible, though, and makes this the best mid-range phone for selfies in my book. The sensor captures plenty of light due to its f/2.0 aperture and the sheer number of pixels help the U11 Life capture an incredible amount of detail.

^ Selfie with the U11 Life

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HTC U11 Life review: Verdict

The U11 Life could have been a bit of a damp squib – a cut-down version of the HTC U11 without that phone’s great camera, top performance, battery life and big screen – but it’s got a lot going for it.

It’s one of the first mid-range smartphones in the UK to ship with Android One, it has IP67 dust- and water-resistance, the same glossy design as its bigger brother and a phenomenal front-facing camera.

In the end, though, it just misses out on a recommendation and that’s all down to the strength of the competition at this price. The Honor 9, for instance, will cost you only £30 more and beats it for all-round performance, while the Motorola Z2 Play (around £365) matches it for performance but has far better battery life.

Hardware
Processor Octa-core 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 630
RAM 4GB
Screen size 5.2in
Screen resolution 1,920 x 1,080
Screen type Super LCD
Front camera 16-megapixel
Rear camera 16-megapixel
Flash LED
GPS Yes
Compass Yes
Storage (free) 64GB
Memory card slot (supplied) microSD
Wi-Fi 802.11ac
Bluetooth 5.0
NFC Yes
Wireless data 4G
Dimensions 149.1 x 72.9 x 8.1mm
Weight 142g
Features
Operating system Android 8.0
Battery size 2.600mAh

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