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

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.

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 Plus Samsung Galaxy S9 LG G7 ThinQ OnePlus 6
Display size, resolution 6-inch LCD; 2,880x1,440 pixels 5.8-inch; 2,960x1,440 pixels 6.1-inch IPS LCD; 3,120 x 1,440 pixels 6.28-inch OLED; 2,280x1,080 pixels
Pixel density 537ppi 570ppi 563ppi 402ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 6.2x2.9x0.34-0.38 in 5.81x2.70x0.33 in 6x2.8x0.31 in 6.13x2.97x0.31 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 156.6x73.9x8.7-9.7 mm 147.7x68.7x8.5 mm 153.2x71.9x7.9 mm 155.7x75.4x7.75 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 6.6 oz; 188g 5.75 oz; 163g 5.7 oz, 162g 6.2 oz; 177g
Mobile software Android 8.0 Oreo Android 8.0 Oreo Android 8.0 Oreo Android 8.1 Oreo
Camera 12-megapixel standard, 16-megapixel telephoto 12-megapixel Dual 16-megapixel (71 degree, f/1.6 and 107 degree, f/1.9) 16-megapixel standard, 20-megapixel telephoto
Front-facing camera Dual 8-megapixel 8-megapixel 8-megapixel (f/1.9) 16-megapixel
Video capture 4K 4K 4K 4K
Processor 2.8GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 Octa-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 845 2.8GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 845
Storage 64GB, 128GB 64GB, 128GB, 256GB 64GB 64GB, 128GB, 256GB
Expandable storage Up to 2TB 400GB Up to 2TB None
Battery 3,500mAh 3,000mAh 3,000mAh 3,300mAh
Fingerprint sensor Back of phone Back Back Back
Headphone jack No Yes Yes Yes
Special features Squeezable sides, water resistant (IP68), Quick Charge 3.0 Dual-aperture camera, water-resistant (IP68); super slo-mo video; wireless charging; iris scanning Water resistant (IP68), wireless charging, DTS:X 3D Surround, Quad DAC Portrait 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) TBA AU$1,199 (64GB), AU$1,349 (256GB) AU$978-AU$1,030, converted AU$702 (64GB), AU$769 (128GB), AU$835 (256GB)

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