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

HTC's squeezable phone pushes boundaries, but lacks finesse.

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Jessica Dolcourt
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Jessica Dolcourt

Editorial Director / CNET Money, How-To & Performance Optimization

Jessica Dolcourt leads the CNET Money, How-To, and Performance teams. A California native who grew up in Silicon Valley, she's passionate about connecting people with the highest standard of advice to help them reach their goals.

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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.

htc-u12-1707
7.8

HTC U12 Plus

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.

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 HTC's custom software that rides on top of Android Oreo is outdated, too.

Peek under the hood of the HTC U12 Plus

See all photos

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.

In addition to vibrating keys, the U12 Plus expands the use of HTC's pressure-sensitive sides. This is the fourth HTC-made device to open an app or complete some action when you give them a squeeze. But the U12 Plus builds on last year's HTC U11 and Google's Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL with more you can do.

The squeezable area (about the bottom third of the phone) has more customization options than before. You can launch any app with a short or long press, and squeeze again to do something else -- take a photo in the camera app, snooze an alarm or answer a call, for example.

You can also double-tap either one of the pressure-sensitive sides to do something else entirely: go back, shrink the screen for one-handed use, take a screenshot or open an app.

My brain finds these interesting, but I had to keep reminding myself to squeeze and tap. Interacting with the phone this way never quite became second nature.

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Watch this: HTC U12 Plus is unique, but not for the masses

Dual-camera photos are good, but need fine-tuning

The U12 Plus' 12-megapixel (wide-angle) and 16-megapixel (telephoto) lenses took good photos in all kinds of lighting. Pictures looked darker and less detailed than the Galaxy S9 Plus' when I compared the two on a computer screen. However, you can adjust the brightness with the on-screen slider, which helps, or edit photos after the fact.

In one scenario where I took a photo in artificial lighting of a framed needlepoint picture, the U12 Plus processed the picture with whiter colors but less contrast than the Galaxy S9 Plus. Samsung's phone pumped up the yellows but created a deeper layer of contrast. The real light quality was a warm, creamy yellow somewhere in between.

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A framed needlepoint taken by the HTC U12 Plus, left, and Galaxy S9 Plus, right.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

HTC has packed the native camera app with plenty of photographic tidbits, like 2x optical zoom, OIS and manual controls. Like most Android phones, it supports the raw format, and includes filters and AR stickers to add pizzazz.

Selfies shot through the U12 Plus' 8-megapixel dual cameras are more detailed than when taken through the S9 Plus. HTC gives you some options for automatic or manual bokeh mode to make your portraits attractively blurred. My curly hair stumps just about every bokeh effect I've ever tried, but the U12 Plus' kept more definition than others. Still, the S9's selfies are brighter and smoother (because of an aggressive beauty mode).

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The Galaxy S9 Plus, right, edges out the U12 Plus here when it comes to brightness, detail and focus.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

One neat feature is the ability to isolate sound in video so that the phone focuses on the person you want to hear more than the surrounding din.

As far as cameras go, the U12 Plus can hold its own, giving you usable images and video at every turn.

Battery life: We expected better

A Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor makes the U12 Plus one of the speediest phones there is. It went neck and neck with the Galaxy S9 phones and LG G7 ThinQ in our battery of benchmarking tests, and in real life, it handled tasks like a pro.

No surprise it lags when processing photos, uploading or downloading images or playing resource-intensive games like Riptide GP Renegade.

Battery life was another story. The 3,500mAh battery is larger than those on the Galaxy S9, LG G7 and OnePlus 6, but it seemed to drain quickly, both in our looping video test in airplane mode and in real-world observation. The U12 Plus ran out of steam at just over 12 hours of continuous video playback. By comparison, the other phones mentioned above spooled video for between 15 and 17 hours on a single charge.

This is a phone you'll absolutely need to power up daily, and keep an eye on if you're going to be out late at night, lest you're forced to invoke one of the phone's two battery saving modes.

HTC U12 Plus unboxing: What comes in the box

  • Clear case
  • Usonic earbuds with rubber tips
  • Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 wall adaptor (supports up to Quick Charge 4.0)
  • USB-C charging cable
  • SIM card ejector tool

HTC U12 Plus specs versus Galaxy S9, LG G7, OnePlus 6


HTC U12 PlusSamsung Galaxy S9LG G7 ThinQOnePlus 6
Display size, resolution 6-inch LCD; 2,880x1,440 pixels5.8-inch; 2,960x1,440 pixels6.1-inch IPS LCD; 3,120 x 1,440 pixels6.28-inch OLED; 2,280x1,080 pixels
Pixel density 537ppi570ppi563ppi402ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 6.2x2.9x0.34-0.38 in5.81x2.70x0.33 in6x2.8x0.31 in6.13x2.97x0.31 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 156.6x73.9x8.7-9.7 mm147.7x68.7x8.5 mm153.2x71.9x7.9 mm155.7x75.4x7.75 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 6.6 oz; 188g5.75 oz; 163g5.7 oz, 162g6.2 oz; 177g
Mobile software Android 8.0 OreoAndroid 8.0 OreoAndroid 8.0 OreoAndroid 8.1 Oreo
Camera 12-megapixel standard, 16-megapixel telephoto12-megapixelDual 16-megapixel (71 degree, f/1.6 and 107 degree, f/1.9)16-megapixel standard, 20-megapixel telephoto
Front-facing camera Dual 8-megapixel8-megapixel8-megapixel (f/1.9)16-megapixel
Video capture 4K4K4K4K
Processor 2.8GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 845Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor (2.8GHz + 1.7GHz), or Octa-core Samsung Exynos 9810 (2.7 GHz+1.7 GHz)2.8GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 8452.8GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 845
Storage 64GB, 128GB64GB, 128GB, 256GB64GB64GB, 128GB, 256GB
RAM 6GB4GB4GB6GB, 8GB
Expandable storage Up to 2TB400GBUp to 2TBNone
Battery 3,500mAh3,000mAh3,000mAh3,300mAh
Fingerprint sensor Back of phoneBackBackBack
Connector USB-CUSB-CUSB-CUSB-C
Headphone jack NoYesYesYes
Special features Squeezable sides, water resistant (IP68), Quick Charge 3.0Dual-aperture camera, water-resistant (IP68); super slo-mo video; wireless charging; iris scanningWater resistant (IP68), wireless charging, DTS:X 3D Surround, Quad DACPortrait mode, notifications toggle, dual-SIM, Dash Charging
Price off-contract (USD) $799 (64GB), $849 (128GB)Varies: $720-$800 (64GB)AT&T: N/A, Sprint: $792, T-Mobile: $750, Verizon: $750, U.S. Cellular: $749.70$529 (64GB), $579 (128GB), $629 (256GB)
Price (GBP) £699£739£559-£589 converted£469 (64GB), £519 (128GB), £569 (256GB)
Price (AUD) TBAAU$1,199 (64GB), AU$1,349 (256GB)AU$978-AU$1,030, convertedAU$702 (64GB), AU$769 (128GB), AU$835 (256GB)
htc-u12-1707
7.8

HTC U12 Plus

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 8Camera 8Battery 8