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HTC U12 Plus review: This squeezable phone is too gutsy for its own good

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The Good The HTC U12 Plus lets you customize its squeezable sides to launch any app. It has a fast processor, good cameras and is water-resistant.

The Bad Its "fake" side buttons are tiring to use. Photos required too much editing to make good. Battery life is mediocre for a battery this size. There's no headphone jack.

The Bottom Line While the HTC U12 Plus is one of the most unusual phones you can buy, it lacks the refinement to truly compete against Samsung, LG and OnePlus.

7.8 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8
  • Camera 8
  • Battery 8

Don't be fooled by the HTC U12 Plus' conventional looks. There's very little that's ordinary about this phone, from the buttons that vibrate when you press them -- they don't push in -- to the squeezable and tappable sides, to the intriguing translucent backing of the blue model.

The part of me that rallies behind smartphone innovation loves HTC's moxie. It's trying to push the boundaries of how a future-looking phone should be -- one that relies on touch and haptics rather than old-school buttons.

But another part of me feels that HTC is trying too hard to make its version of "fetch" happen. The "buttonless" buttons feel forced and unpleasant to use, and I still haven't trained myself to squeeze the phone when I want to open an app. It just doesn't feel like a natural motion to me and after a while my hands get tired. HTC's custom software that rides on top of Android Oreo is outdated, too.

HTC said it'll soon improve the button vibration in a software update, but that wasn't ready when I tested the device.

What HTC does today might matter tomorrow. It's possible that the U12 Plus is a real-world proof-of-concept testbed for the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL phones we expect to see in October. In 2017, Google paid HTC $1.1 billion to hire certain employees (the two teams are completely separate now) and also use some of HTC's intellectual property, pressure-sensitive sides certainly included.

There is a certain set of power users who will gravitate to what the U12 Plus has to offer, but this is by no means a mainstream phone. HTC makes beautiful devices, and when you add the compelling design and top-tier specs like a big battery, water-resistance and Qualcomm's Snapdragon 845 processor, you have a stylish phone for an early adopter who enjoys feeling out novel tech.

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Double-tap the sides to do things like shrink the HTC U12 Plus' screen.

Josh Miller/CNET

The HTC U12 Plus competes against the Samsung Galaxy S9, the LG G7 and the OnePlus 6. All three are much more mainstream options, and Samsung and LG's phones are both more widely available through carrier and retail stores. You'll need to buy the U12 Plus through HTC.com.

The U12 Plus will cost $799 (64GB) or $849 (128GB) in the US, and in the UK it'll sell for £699. The US price converts to AU$1,050.

Is the U12 Plus really translucent?

I reviewed the HTC U12 Plus in translucent blue (there is no "regular" U12), but it also comes in black and red, both opaque. But I love the see-through backing in blue, which subtly gives way to a glimpse of the hardware guts within.

The U12 Plus has a 6-inch Super LCD screen with a 2,880x1,440-pixel resolution. The screen gets pretty bright and colorful. But when you compare it side by side with the Galaxy S9, which uses an AMOLED display, the HTC U12 Plus isn't quite as rich or vibrant when viewing the exact same websites in full brightness on the Chrome browser. That is, so long as you're not standing in direct sunlight -- HTC's phone washes out more easily in challenging lighting.

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Peek-a-boo! Yes, you're really peering inside the HTC U12 Plus.

Josh Miller/CNET

Otherwise, the 18:9 screen ratio makes a taller, more narrow phone that's so common now, and which makes the phone easier to use one-handed. No complaints there, nor with the clear plastic case that comes in the box -- it's boring, but gets the job done, and the backing remains visible.

As for the rest, an accurate, easy to reach fingerprint reader lives on the back. The U12 Plus is waterproof with a rating of IP68 (it passed two of our standard dunk tests). You won't find wireless charging or a headphone jack, and you'll need to use a USB-C dongle adaptor if you want to use wired headphones.

Can we talk about those vibrating buttons and squeezable sides?

The power and volume buttons on the U12 Plus' right side look like normal buttons, but instead of pressing in, they vibrate every time you lock and unlock the phone, power it on and off, and adjust the volume. I'm not one for haptic feedback to begin with, but these "buttonless" buttons are unsettling at best and uncomfortable at worst.

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They look like real buttons. They aren't.

Josh Miller/CNET

The vibration of the power/lock button feels the most natural, since you just give it a firm tap. But the volume rocker button seems "stiff" and gives me the chills when I use it. Why? No idea. I just know that I don't want to use these controls.

The one advantage I can see of these haptic buttons over physical controls is that the phone won't turn itself on in my purse or pocket, since the "buttons" rely on your intentional pressure. I hope HTC's planned fix will make these keys feel more fluid.

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