HTC U11 Review: The Phone Worth Not Waiting For

With the 10th anniversary iPhone looming, with a second Google Pixel coming soon, with Andy Rubin’s debut of the Essential Phone, and with the release of the Galaxy Note 8, little attention has been given to the HTC U11, other than a few obligatory reviews that range from “hey this is great” to “this is good but I don’t care.”

That’s a shame, because people are overlooking a great device. I know this because after a year with my deteriorating Galaxy S7, I was ready for a new device, and I picked the U11.

The red one.

I could have waited to see what was in the offing with all these other big-name releases, but I didn’t need to. It was pretty clear that the U11 was the one for me. And now that I’ve had it for a couple of weeks, I feel even more certain I made the right call. In no particular order, Here are some reasons why.

It’s so red.

Oh my god it’s so red. “Solar Red” is the name HTC gave this particular variant of shining, liquid, blazing red. The other colors available also looked fantastic, but good god damn, that red.

I mean come on.

The software and performance.

HTC’s Sense skin on Android has been shaved down so thoroughly, that if you use a different launcher than HTC’s, you’d almost never know it wasn’t stock Google. And mercy me, it is fast. Now, the Galaxy S7 I had used to be fast, but it never felt as crazy-fluid as, say, my Note 5 did for a time. But the U11 is in a different league altogether. It’s such a pleasure to just zip through transitions, animations, app launches, share menus, and the rest.

The display.

It’s quad-HD and LCD, which is just what I needed. Yes, I’m a stickler for 1440p over 1080p if the screen in big enough to notice, and at 5.5″, this one is. (Would I notice the difference in normal use? Probably not. But I’m not normal, and when it comes to making imperceptible a display’s pixels, I check. Up close.

The fact that it’s LCD and not AMOLED like Samsung and OnePlus use means that the colors aren’t super-saturated and my eyes aren’t put under as much of a strain in just, you know, absorbing all that color. HTC’s LCD screen looks gorgeous, bright and crisp and easy on my eyes. It lacks the ostentatious pop of a Samsung display, which can be quite nice, but it’s truer to life and more akin to an iPhone or iPad display. But, of course, with much higher resolution. It does suffer more under direct sunlight and heavy glare than a rich AMOLED, but I’m cool with that.

It has bezels.

Yeah I said it. I like bezels on my devices. I like that I can actually hold a phone with my human hands made of meat and then operate it without the constant worry that I’m inadvertently making contact with the touchscreen on the sides. The U11 has just enough of a border around the conventionally-proportioned screen to look awesome and remove accidental-touch anxiety. Which sounds dirty now that I see it typed. Hm.

Oh, and HTC was kind enough to include a clear case with the phone, but it’s crap. I’m using, and would recommend, the Spigen Liquid Crystal case.

The fingerprint sensor.

It’s so fast! It’s almost too fast. With the S7, making contact with the fingerprint sensor to unlock the phone was all like touch, wait, click sound, unlock, whereas with the U11 it’s more like touchHOLY SHIT IT’S READY TO GO! It may even be too sensitive, waking the screen when any part of my hand comes near it.

The squeeze gimmick.

If you heard of the U11 at all, you probably heard that it is equipped with something called “Edge Sense,” wherein was literally squeezes the phone to activate certain functions. Most reviews have been critical of this feature, but it seems to me that they’re either not making good use of it or were simply predisposed to think it was silly before they ever tried it.

I think it’s default setting is to launch Alexa, but you have several additional options for what a squeeze does, and you can differentiate between short and long squeezes. Me, I chose the function that seemed the most useful and, frankly, the most obvious.

I made it turn on the flashlight.

I know, right? You’re like, damn, Paul that IS a good idea! I have the long squeeze activate Alexa, but I might even turn that off, since Alexa is also activated by the usual voice command.

The camera.

This is the feature that is being most lauded by folks like Vlad Savov and Daniel Bader, saying the U11’s camera rivals or even bests the Pixel. I have to say, it seems great, I have no complaints, but the S7’s camera was pretty great, too, and it doesn’t seem to my untrained eye to be obviously superior, but that’s fine.

It’s also a lot faster than my previous phone, especially when HDR is turned off, and that makes a huge difference, especially when you have squirrelly kids.

The sound.

I saved this one for last because it’s the area where the phone both enrages and delights me.

Let’s get this out of the way: It does not have a headphone jack.

I always thought this would be a deal breaker for me, the thing that solidified my alienation from the iPhone. I still think it’s stupid and needless to omit the headphone jack, and it will prove, I have no doubt, a pain in the ass for the length of my ownership of this phone. No headphone jack is a strike against it. Yes, it does include a USB-C adapter dongle for wired headphones, but still. (And third party adapters won’t work because of HTC’s proprietary DAC technology. Double-grumble.)

But also included with the phone is a pair of USB-C earbuds. But not cheap EarPod type earbuds (though I think EarPods sound fine for what they are), but truly great sounding earbuds that – get this – have active noise cancellation built in. Now, this is not Bose-level noise cancelling. I think it’s fairer to call it “noise dampening,” but it nonetheless makes for a fantastic listening experience. Ambient noise mostly melts away and the music has the space and depth it needs to shine. I still think I like the sound of my Zero Audio Carbo Tenore earbuds better, but not enough to make me miss them when I have the U11’s included headphones.

(There’s always a lot of attention paid to HTC phones’ hardware speakers and how loud and full they sound for teeny tiny phone speakers. And they’re fine, but I don’t think they’re anything to get excited about.)

The bottom line.

As I said at the beginning, I was pretty sure I was going to like this phone, and while I may be engaging in some post-purchase confirmation bias, fine. The fact remains that not only did I wind up being happy with it, but it delighted me far more than I expected.

The tech press has been pretty unanimous in its warning to consumers to refrain from buying any new phones until the big release season is over. I’m sure the next Pixel and iPhone are going to be stellar, and that the Galaxy Note 8 is a technological wonder to behold. I would simply add to that warning, “unless you plan to buy the HTC U11.” As much as I’ll gaze in a awe at the devices to come, I’ll be happy to do so from afar, cradling my weird and wonderful U11.

And it’s red.

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Reunion at the Nexus: A (Smartphone) Love Story

Image from Google.

It was both a rebound relationship, and a practical one. Cynical? No, but not heartfelt. I had abandoned my beloved iPhone back in 2013 in order to remove myself from my cellular carrier, and the only economically feasible alternative that the new carrier offered was the Nexus 5. Black, matte, fast, solid. It wasn’t love, but it would do.

I couldn’t commit, though. I was distracted, I thought too much about the other phones I might have had. The camera was poor. I couldn’t get used to the width of the screen with my tiny hands, and I felt the colors of the display were too washed out, too, well, real. I couldn’t handle it. I left the Nexus 5 relatively quickly, and went instead for a first-generation Moto X.

GL_XFON_LSP_DINE IS_CRIMSON_01_Q313

The Moto and I were happy for a little while. It matched me in so many ways: it was cute, spunky, and just the right size, without being overbearing with bloatware or unnecessary extras or demands. It was good for a while.

But I really wasn’t ready. I see that now. I was still too attached to iOS and Apple, still in the thrall of the spell that Steve Jobs cast on me years ago. The novelty of change having worn off, I longed to return to the comfort and familiarity of iPhone. So I came crawling back, like I always had before.

And things were fine. We got along, we worked more or less in sync. But though I’d never say so, I was getting bored again. The new iPhones 6 were announced, and they didn’t have the undeniable gravitational tug on me all previous models had. They were beautiful, powerful, that was all clear, but I couldn’t become interested.

Meanwhile, on the other side of things, Lollipop appeared. A new look and feel to Android, more unified, cleaner, more, well, delightful. I was intrigued.

At the same time, iPhone and I started fighting more and more often. Its new operating system, iOS 8, was lovely, but buggy. Things that it promised it could do, it wouldn’t. It would offer up new features, and then fail to make them work, or not well enough. The problems themselves weren’t insurmountable, but they exacerbated what was an existing ennui, a worsening indifference, a deepening chasm.

One day, I felt it. I had moved on. Whatever iPhone and I had once had was over. It wasn’t its fault, and it wasn’t mine. But we had grown apart, and it was time to admit it.

But I didn’t know where I’d go next. I knew I wanted to be using Android for my phone (not my tablet, that’s still an iPad mini 2), but not what device I should use, nor what I could afford to get, as it would certainly have to be used or refurbished.

Though, aren’t we all both used and refurbished?

Image by HTC.

I eventually connected with an HTC One M8, which was beautiful and well-regarded. It wasn’t easy to make that connection, though, as the first three (yes, three) units I ordered were all damaged in different ways. Finally, I found a refurb that was in like-new condition for the right price (I was sent the wrong color, but I had given up at that point). Surely this would work! But as I’ve recounted in a previous post, it was not to be. There were far too many incompatibilities.

While this latest relationship was deteriorating, I began to think back. Remember that phone that handled things so well? It was a different size, sure, but better than other devices. It was well built, certainly. It was fast, and reports from other users said that it remained so a year after its initial release, as it was still being sold and marketed as a current-generation flagship device. And it would also be certain to get the update to Android, Lollipop, sooner than almost anything else. And that OS update would have positive effects on things like the camera, the battery life, and how much overall effort it took to fiddle and futz.

Of course, I was thinking about the Nexus 5, the phone I had abandoned so long ago. I was older, I had matured. So had the phone. Perhaps now we were ready to try again.

I found one at the right price and in the right condition. It arrived, and we got to know each other again, and it was great. It was a revelation.

The phone wasn’t just fast, but faster than I remembered. The camera was workable, better than I gave it credit for (though still not great). The phone felt good to hold, the screen looked gorgeous, and the expanded display size was a relief to my eyes. The OS was now familiar and fun, not a slog through new territory. And then Lollipop came over the airwaves, and made it even better. It was a beautiful thing.

But one important thing was very different this time. This time, it was red.

Very red. Bright-orange-pink red. Obnoxiously red. It was perfect.

Now, I still live in the iOS world with my iPad, and it’s a good friendship, one that suits me for its particular purposes. But it’s fun to also be in the Android world, to be experiencing both development arcs of these dominant platforms. Particularly for the purposes of this blog, but also my own enthusiasms and curiosities, I can be part of both ecosystems’ conversations.

How long will the Nexus 5 stick around? I can’t say, of course. Undeniably fascinating devices, current and future, await. The Nexus 5 is the right device right now, even though it’s a little older, catching up with the times, and trying its best. Just like me.

HTC One M8: Fast to be Dropped, Slow to Respond

IMG_0313

In the midst of my enthusiasm/disorder of gadgeteering on the cheap, I managed to have possession for a couple weeks of an HTC One M8, the phone that upon its release was more or less universally hailed for its build quality and performance.

Guess what. I didn’t really like it. And I really, really thought I would.

I assumed it’d be a good phone for me because of the rave reviews, of course, but also because it was the Android device that seemed to have been designed with the same degree of thought and care that Apple products are. The metal, the curves, the heft. It wasn’t a mimic of an iPhone, as it was clearly designed with different priorities in mind. iPhones get generally thinner and more svelte as they iterate, while the M8 looks more like it’s been designed to be felt, with noticeable weight, a striking metallic sheen, and a substantial footprint. It looks absolutely lovely.

But I liked almost nothing else about it.

I’ve passed the point where total one-handed use is a necessity. The industry is clearly moving away from it, and that being the case, it becomes more a matter of degrees and trade-offs. How much one-handed use are you willing to trade for the benefits of having a bigger screen or battery? That kind of thing.

But even with my change in perspective and expectations, the HTC One M8 fails in some basic areas of one-handed usability. Most notably, it’s just too damned slippery. Without using glass or plastic for the chassis, and with the metal polished to an extreme degree of smoothness, the phone is just far, far too easy to drop. Without immediately applying an unnaturally firm grip, the thing just slides right out of my hand.

Making this worse is how sensitive the volume rocker on the side is. The slightest tap against the rocker activates it, which always gets in the way of whatever it was you actually intended to do with the phone. And it’s all the easier to accidentally hit the volume rocker because, again, you need to grip the damn thing so firmly in order to not destroy it. It is a feedback loop of frustration.

I needed to put it into a case just to hold it. Not protect it, just hold it.

And then there was the software. Reviews and anecdotes reported the M8 to be incredibly fast and smooth in performance. This was not my experience. Now, as a gadgeteer-on-the-cheap, my phone was a refurbished unit, so I suppose it’s possible I had just gotten a lemon, but I found the phone to be incredibly laggy and jittery in almost everything, particularly in multitasking, camera, and photo gallery. I kept researching ways to mitigate the problem, thinking it must somehow be my own fault, but nothing helped, beyond the occasional cache-clearing. And that, only a touch.

The HTC skinning of Android, Sense, is not awful. On the whole it adds features and mostly stays out of the way of the “pure” Android experience, but what it does add is mostly pointless, and in the end adds up to needless additional complexity.

One night, desperate for a change, I considered attempting a rooting and flashing of stock Android, but at the last moment I chickened out, afraid to screw something up and brick the device.

Instead, I unloaded it.

I should say, though, that I did like the camera, when it worked. Most reviews are lukewarm on the camera for being gimmicky and insufficiently stuffed with megapixels, but I found that I was getting some lovely shots with it. (See below for a couple of examples.) The editing tools were mostly useful and interesting, and so I actually consider the phone’s camera a big plus for it. But, alas.

I might have had a bum unit, but even if I did, the M8 was a big disappointment. But there is a silver (but not a “Glacial Silver”) lining to this story, as I have settled on what now feels like the phone of my dreams, and it’s a kind of reunification story, and not a reunification with iPhone like you might expect. But that’s for another post.

This photo uses the M8's dual camera setup to alter the focus of a photo after the fact. IMAG0117_1-1