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HTC U11 review: More than just gimmicks


The U11’s screen is good, but pretty standard. We’re working with a 5.5-inch Super LCD 5 at Quad HD. That works out to a density of about 534 pixels per inch. Colors aren’t quite as vivid as on an AMOLED display, but solid clarity and color reproduction put it in the same ballpark as its rivals. I only wish the screen was a little brighter. It’s a little dimmer than the Galaxy S8 and iPhone 7 Plus, making it tougher to read under harsh daylight.

The U11’s speakers, on the other hand, are very, very good. It’s been a long time since HTC’s BoomSound heyday, but the U11 is louder and clearer than any other smartphone I’ve tested recently. In fact, while I was testing the speakers at the office, I had to deal with more than the usual amount of stink-eye from non-Engadgeteers because of the volume. (To my knowledge, no HR claims have been filed.) You’ll need more oomph for, a party, but the U11’s built-in sound system is good enough for gathering people around a YouTube video.

Without a headphone jack, you’ll need to use Bluetooth cans or HTC’s pack-in USonic Type-C earbuds. They’re a little too heavy on the bass for me, but they’re comfortable and offer a more welcome surprise: active noise cancellation. Even better, they don’t need batteries since the earbuds draw power from the phone. While handy, these pack-ins are nowhere as good as isolating noise as, say, a pair of Bose QC35s. The U11 can also tailor the way the phone plays audio through those earbuds. Each audio profile is specifically tuned for your ears, and mine made my music sound noticeably crisper and brighter — good stuff.

Software

When the company launched the 10, it also revealed an approach to Android that felt cleaner and fresher than before — Sense UI’s visual noise was dialed down and extraneous apps were killed in favor of Google’s own. These were steps in a positive direction and led to a mostly uncluttered version of Android 7.1 Nougat for the U11. In general, it runs very, very well, but it feels a little stale when compared to updated interfaces from rivals like Samsung.

Rather than revamp the interface, HTC focused its efforts elsewhere. The U11 comes with support for three — three! — virtual assistants right out of the box, which is a little insane. Most of you are probably familiar with Google Assistant, and it works the way it always does: either long-press the Home button or get its attention with “OK, Google,” then fire off a request.

HTC’s Sense Companion is much less vocal, offering up notifications and reminders based on what it knows about you and your environment instead. Is it going to rain? It will suggest you pack an umbrella. Once it gets late in the day, it’ll tell you how many steps you’ve taken and even remind you to charge your phone when it knows you have plans later. Essentially, HTC’s assistant tries to stay subtle while being proactive — it’s meant to slide into your life when you need it and disappear when you don’t. In general Sense Companion plays it safe by only occasionally surfacing notifications. I would’ve preferred it to be a little more in-my-face and but there isn’t a way to make the Companion offer handy tips more regularly.

Then there’s the newcomer, Alexa. Amazon’s voice interface is available on a few smartphones right now, but the U11 is the first to give it a proper home. You just say “Alexa” and she’ll spring to life. The U11 lacks the Echo’s far-field voice recognition, so it occasionally takes a couple tries to rouse it. Other than that, it’s the same solid performer you expect. Alexa has access to all the skills I’ve enabled on my home Echo, and the U11’s great speakers mean audiobooks and music from Amazon come through loud and clear. In fact, Alexa’s only true failing is that when she can’t tell what you’re saying, the app window and screen stay active until you dismiss the app or try again. If you’re not paying close attention, a failed Alexa conversation could leave the U11’s display lit up, burning precious battery.

Edge Sense

Don’t forget that you can squeeze this phone to make it do things. For all the hype, Edge Sense is very simple. The best way to think of it is as an invisible convenience key with two settings: a squeeze performs one action, and a squeeze-and-hold performs another.

Getting Edge Sense up is simple: just clench your way through a demo. You’ll have to enable the advanced mode to get access to the squeeze-and-hold gesture, though, for reasons beyond comprehension. By default, the squeeze action is set to launch the camera, with a second squeeze snapping a photo once everything is in position. Thankfully, none of those actions are set in stone. Rather than launching the camera, you can set a squeeze to launch an app, take a screenshot, toggle the flashlight and even fire up the mobile hotspot.

Frankly, I kind of hated it at first because I couldn’t consistently get my squeeze pressure right. Things changed once I dialed down the amount of pressure needed — lighter grips meant less time wondering why things weren’t working properly. (This also means Edge Sense is easier to trigger by accident, but I don’t mind.) Now I instinctively squeeze the U11 every time I need to grab a quick photo and get a little frustrated when other phones don’t work the same way. Granted, Edge Sense doesn’t do anything that a dedicated button couldn’t, and it’s easily disabled for anyone who doesn’t want it. It’s handy, but it’s no game-changer.

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