HTC’s U Ultra and Play look AMAZING but are they any good?

HTC has struggled to keep up in the past few years, its phones veering from the gimmick-laden Ultra Pixel camera HTC One M8 to the mediocre M9, and settling on the solid but overpriced HTC 10. This year the firm has gone full circle back to gimmicks again, adding a second screen to its HTC U Ultra flagship.

This is not a discrete second screen of the kind seen on the YotaPhone, but a strip that runs across the top of the phone’s huge 5.7in screen. It shows notifications and shortcuts to apps you commonly use, whether the phone’s main screen is on or off.

That’s not the only phone HTC announced today, though. Also unveiled was the HTC U Play, a smaller 5.2in version of the Ultra, without the second screen and with significantly less impressive core specifications. Both phones in the series feature a new chassis design that the company describes as being made from “thin but durable liquid surface coloured glass”.

It’s an attractive look that changes subtly depending on the light – sometimes, it looks more glassy, other times more metal. Both models charge via USB Type-C, but only the HTC U Ultra has HTC’s trademark BoomSound speakers on board.

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HTC U Ultra and HTC U Play: Key specifications

HTC U Ultra

HTC U Play

5.7in 2,560 x 1,440 Super LCD 5 screen with Dual Display and Gorilla Glass 5 (64GB model) or Sapphire Glass (128GB model) 5.2in 1,920 x 1,080 Super LCD with Gorilla Glass
80 x 8 x 162mm (WDH), 170g SIZE: 73 x 8 x 146mm (WDH), 145g
Quad-core, 2.15GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor Octa-core MediaTek Helio P10 processor
64GB or 128GB storage 32GB or 64GB
microSD storage expansion up to 2TB microSD storage expansion up to 2TB
12MP rear camera 1.55μm pixels, f/1.8, laser and phase detect autofocus, OIS 16MP rear camera, f/2 aperture, phase detect autofocus, OIS
16MP front camera with UltraPixel mode 16MP front camera with UltraPixel mode

HTC U Ultra and HTC U Play: Smarter than the average phone

A lot of what lifts the HTC U above the average high-end smartphone isn’t its design or that extra screen, but the ability to understand more about you and your needs. HTC is calling this artificial intelligence, but I think that’s stretching it a bit.

What HTC is building is much more like the kind of machine learning that Apple uses to do things such as recommend apps you might want to use at a particular time. That’s not to underestimate how useful it is, but calling it AI is stretching what “intelligence” means almost to breaking point.

At the heart of the smart stuff in HTC U is HTC Sense Companion, a piece of assistant software that learns from your behaviour over time, as well as giving you smart reminders – for example, reminding you to charge the phone if it thinks it’s going to run out of battery before you get home.

And those four microphones in the U Ultra also add another clever feature: the ability to recognise who is talking to it. This means it can recognise and act on your voice commands without opening it to other people, a bit like the voice print unlock on the Google Pixel phones.

This focus on “U” (can you see what they did there?) even extends to the headphones. A feature dubbed HTC USonic analyses your inner ear using a high-frequency sound pulse and then adapts how the headphone speakers deliver audio to suit your ear.

Underneath all this, the software is, of course, Android 7 with HTC Sense baked on top of it. Sense has always been one of my favourite overlays, and it remains one of the nicest versions of Android visually, and the only one that doesn’t immediately make me want to reach for a vanilla launcher such as Google Now or Nova.

HTC U Ultra and HTC U Play: Camera and display

There’s also a front-facing camera which can switch between 16-megapixel images and what the company calls a 4MP “Ultra Pixel mode” to deliver better shots in low lighting. And there’s a panorama mode on the front-facing camera which lets you take wide-angle selfie shots. The 16-megapixel rear camera uses phase-detection autofocus and has optical image stabilisation.

The HTC U Play comes with a 5.2in, 1080p display (423ppi). This is an IPS LCD rather than OLED, but which generally looks very good.

The larger HTC U Ultra adds two key features to the mix. The first, and most obvious, is a 2in second screen strip that sits on the top of the main display and is designed to deliver notifications from your most important contacts without interrupting whatever you’re doing on the main 5.7in QHD (2,560 x 1,440) screen.

The second Ultra-exclusive feature is for audio capture. The HTC U Ultra has four built-in microphones that are always on, delivering superior performance for voice-activated service, as well as 3D audio recording for your home movies.

The top tier U Ultra comes with 128GB of storage, plus sapphire glass on the front for additional durability. That’s likely to cost a bomb, but there is a more frugal 64GB version that comes with Gorilla Glass 5 on the front.

There are significant differences between the two phones under the hood as well. Where the Ultra gets a 2.15GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor, the Play is equipped with a MediaTek Helio P10 processor, and it’s only available in 32G and 64GB flavours. Both phones have microSD slots for storage expansion up to a theoretical 2TB.

HTC U Ultra and HTC U Play: HTC U: First impressions

I was able to spend a little time with both the HTC U Ultra and HTC U Play at this year’s CES and I can definitely say that the company has delivered a great-looking phone. It reminds me a little of the glass and metal look of some iPhone 7 models, but without the slight harshness that Apple’s designs sometimes seem to have.

Will this be enough to make the HTC U one of the best smartphones this year? I’ll be able to say for sure once I’ve had one long enough to run our performance tests, but the early indications are that it’s a more than a credible contender.

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