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HTC U Ultra review: This gorgeous big phone costs too damn much

Don't be fooled: This isn't a flagship phone, it just has a flagship price.

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Dan Graziano
Dan_Graziano2.jpg

Dan Graziano

Associate Editor / How To

Dan Graziano is an associate editor for CNET. His work has appeared on BGR, Fox News, Fox Business, and Yahoo News, among other publications. When he isn't tinkering with the latest gadgets and gizmos, he can be found enjoying the sights and sounds of New York City.

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5 min read

The HTC U Ultra would have been a good phone in 2014. Here in 2017, its crisp 5.7-inch display, high quality speakers and fluid glass design are overshadowed by the curious decision to omit key flagship features. The phone lacks both wireless charging and water resistance. Like the iPhone 7, it lacks a headphone jack.

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6.8

HTC U Ultra

The Good

The HTC U Ultra has a sharp design, crisp display and loud speakers. A secondary display gives quick access to notifications and app shortcuts.

The Bad

The phone's premium price and large size make unsuitable for most people. There's also no headphone jack, it isn't water-resistant and its battery life is poor.

The Bottom Line

The U Ultra is missing too many flagship features to justify its high price.

The flagship features it does flaunt -- a secondary display and smart AI assistant -- ultimately fall short and don't justify its extortionate price. This would be a different review if the U Ultra cost $400, but instead it's priced at the top end of the market, at $750, £649 or AU$1,199. That's a lot to pay for a phone that sacrifices so much.

HTC may get another chance if it releases the rumored HTC 11, but as an interim phone, the U Ultra just doesn't do the job. Android fans should hold out to see what's around the bend with the HTC 11, Samsung Galaxy S8 and LG G6, or look to the Google Pixel XL or OnePlus 3T for large-screen goodness that hits the mark.

A puzzling design

The U Ultra doesn't feel as premium as the all-metal HTC 10, but the reflective glass body makes it one of the prettiest phones I've seen in a long time. I'm especially fond of the blue model I used for this review.

But there's a new trend in the mobile market. We're now seeing phones with larger displays in smaller bodies, such as the LG G6 and, it's rumored, the Galaxy S8. The U Ultra's front fingerprint sensor, secondary display (more on that later) and large bezel make it bigger than just about every other phone on the market. It's truly massive and difficult to hold and operate with one hand.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Missing features

HTC made the decision to give the U Ultra no headphone jack, like the iPhone 7. The company claimed omitting it gave it more flexibility in the design, but the U Ultra's design isn't anything revolutionary. It's also a letdown that the U Ultra isn't water-resistant. It's 2017, and a flagship phone that isn't water-resistant (especially one this expensive) simply isn't worth it.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

To listen to music you have to buy a $12 USB-C to 3.5mm adapter from HTC and only HTC, because it uses a specific format to boost audio quality. The company blocks third-party adapters. For $750, this adapter should be included with the phone.

HTC does include a pair of specialized USB-C headphones that can create a personalized sound profile based on the size of your ear canal. They were comfortable to wear and it's a cool idea, but I couldn't tell any difference from my cheap Bluetooth headphones.

One screen too many

The U Ultra has two displays: that beautiful 5.7-inch Quad HD (2,560x1,440-pixel) screen and a second 2-inch strip that sits at the top right edge of the phone, next to the camera. Similar to what we saw with the LG V20, this secondary screen can be used to display notifications and control music playback, view the weather, change a setting, or quickly jump into a favorite app or contact -- but that's it. I wish there were more customization options, such as removing unused screens or changing what is displayed.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The notifications screen will also show the time, date and weather when the main display is off, but unlike a few other phones, it isn't always on. It will light up when a notification comes in or if you double tap it. It feels like HTC missed an opportunity here.

While I enjoyed being able to control music without having to pull down the notification bar or opening Spotify, most of the time the secondary screen felt more like a gimmick than a vital feature.

A not-so-smart assistant

The U Ultra is HTC's first phone with its new Sense Companion app. This smart virtual assistant will provide recommendations based on how you use the phone. HTC says it can give you updates on traffic, recommendations on restaurants and other nearby attractions, and provide general usage tips to improve your experience with the device.

Unfortunately, Sense Companion never lived up to the hype. It didn't warn me about the blizzard that hit New York recently and rarely provided me with any useful updates. The inclusion of the companion is even more puzzling when you consider the U Ultra comes with Google Assistant, which did provide information on the blizzard, traffic alerts and more. HTC says the assistant will learn from you over time, but these were basic missteps.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Camera

The 12-megapixel rear camera on the U Ultra won't win any awards like the Google Pixel or iPhone 7, but it will get the job done. Photos taken outdoors were crisp with true color representation, although they were also a little overexposed, especially photos taken indoors or in low light situations. While the laser auto focus was accurate most of the time, it would occasionally lose focus and result in blurry photos.

The front 16-megapixel camera was disappointing. Despite the high megapixel count, the camera more often than not produced blurry photos and would require multiple takes for an decent image.

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An outdoor photo taken with the HTC U Ultra.

Dan Graziano/CNET
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An indoor photo taken with the U Ultra that shows some overexposure and dull colors.

Dan Graziano/CNET


Battery life is not good

The U Ultra has a 3,000mAh battery, which is smaller than the Galaxy S7 (3,100mAh), OnePlus 3T (3,400mAh) and LG V20 (3,200mAh). In our tests, it lasted an average of 9 hours and 50 minutes of continuous video playback in airplane mode. That's not very good compared to those other phones, which ranged from 12 hours (LG V20) to just under 17 hours (OnePlus 3T) hours in our lab tests. In real life, the U Ultra's battery will get you through a work day, but you'll need to charge up again around dinner time.

The battery does support Qualcomm's Quick Charge 3.0 technology, which will fully charge the phone in an hour when you use the included USB-C cable. I would have also loved to see wireless charging, especially with the move away from the all-metal design, but HTC opted not to include it.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Wait for the next big thing

The U Ultra is a fully capable device. The 5.7-inch Quad HD display is gorgeous, the speakers are loud and the fingerprint sensor is fast. The camera is decent and while the Snapdragon 821 processor may not be the latest and greatest, the phone's performance was never an issue. It all comes down to the price and size of the device. It's simply too big to hold comfortably and too expensive for what it offers. When you pay a premium price, you expect premium features. This isn't the case with the U Ultra.

HTC U Ultra compared to Google Pixel XL, LG V20, iPhone 7 Plus


HTC U UltraGoogle Pixel XLLG V20Apple iPhone 7 Plus
Display size, resolution 5.7-inch; 2,560x1,440 pixels5.5-inch; 2,560x1,440 pixels5.7-inch; 2,560x1,440 pixels5.5-inch; 1,920x1,080 pixels
Pixel density 513 ppi534 ppi515 ppi401 ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 6.4x3.1x0.31 in6.1x3x0.34 in (at its thickest)6.29x3.01x0.3 in6.2x 3.1x0.29 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 162.4x79.8x8 mm (at its thickest)154.7x75.7x8.6 mm (at its thickest)159.7x78.1x7.7 mm158.2x77.9x7.3 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 6 oz; 170 g5.92 oz; 168 g6.24 oz; 177 g6.63 oz; 188 g
Mobile software Android 7.0 NougatAndroid 7.1 NougatAndroid 7.0 NougatApple iOS 10
Camera 12-megapixel12.3-megapixel16-megapixel, 8-megapixel wide12-megapixel (telephoto), 12-megapixel (wide)
Front-facing camera 16-megapixel8-megapixel5-megapixel7-megapixel
Video capture 4K4K4K4K
Processor 2.15GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 8212.15GHz + 1.6GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 8212.15GHz +1.6GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 820Apple A10 chip (64-bit)
Storage 64GB / 128 GB32GB, 128GB64GB32GB, 128GB, 256GB
RAM 4GB4GB4GBN/A
Expandable storage Up to 2TBNone2TBNone
Battery 3,000mAh (nonremovable)3,450mAh3,200mAh (removable)21 hours talk time on 3G, 16 days standby, 13 hours internet use LTE
Fingerprint sensor Home buttonBack coverBack coverHome button
Connector USB-CUSB-CUSB-CLightning
Special features Second screen, dual-SIM optionalGoogle Assistant; unlimited cloud storage; Daydream VR-readyRear cover release key; Both cameras capture wide-angle images; secondary screen on topWater and dust-resistant, portrait mode mode
Price off-contract (USD) $750$769 (32GB); $869 (128GB)AT&T: $829; Verizon: $672; T-Mobile: $770; Sprint: $792$769 (32GB); $869 (128GB); $969 (256GB)
Price (GBP) £649£719 (32GB); £819 (128GB)Not available (converts to about £630)£719 (32GB); £819 (128GB); £919 (256GB)
Price (AUD) Converts to AU$995AU$1,269 (32GB); AU$1,419 (128GB)AU$899AU$1269 (32GB); AU$1419 (128GB); AU$1569 (256GB)
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6.8

HTC U Ultra

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 7Camera 7Battery 6
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