It's getting harder and harder to make an impression when it feels like every major phone manufacturer is gunning for the super-powered, top-tier flagship title. The HTC U11 has tried to get you to sit up and take notice with features like squeezable sides that can launch an app and a virtual companion that promises to learn your preferences and make life easier. But the irony is that those bundled extras don't speak as loud as stunning design, a 2,560x1,440 resolution (QHD) screen to rival the Samsung Galaxy 8, quality of life perks like water resistance and an obscenely fast octa-core processor.
The trouble with the pressure-sensitive squeezable sides and the virtual assistant is that they feel like in-the-way gimmicks more than they feel like innovations. I relied more on Google Assistant than HTC's own Sense Companion, which offers up tailored recommendations for restaurants, smart alarms based on your calendar, reminders to charge (oh so important) and other tidbits. Much like the squeeze, it was fun to test out, but I found it getting in the way more than I found it handy to have around. With Amazon Alexa functionality, it feels like HTC is banking on other virtual assistants too.
At $649, £649 or AU$999, it's also doing everything for less than the other usual suspects like the Galaxy S8 or the LG G6. Even with those extra features turned off, you can't ignore performance like this at that price. The U11 is a good phone and a worthy buy, but not because of its forgettable "perks".
Feeling the squeeze
This is going to be the biggest point of contention with the U11. It's been billed as a new way to interface with your phone: a one-handed, pressure-sensitive squeeze of the sides can activate the camera, launch apps, turn on the flashlight, whatever basic function you program it with. There's short and long holds, and it's contextual. By default, squeeze once to launch the camera, again to snap a quick pick with one hand. HTC Edge Sense, as it's called will also work underwater, where regular capacitive touchscreens falter. And in a water-resistant phone, it's easy to snap submerged selfies without workarounds.
Some people are going to love the novelty. I was not one of those people. In my first week with the U11, I squeezed it to launch the camera accidentally more times than on purpose. The squeeze provides haptic feedback, but the sides themselves don't actually move and it felt a little strange on the higher pressure settings. That, and the rudimentary programming available meant the Edge Sense didn't quite live up to the hype. I would have loved to set a short squeeze to skip songs on Spotify, for instance, but that level of specificity just isn't there yet. I didn't keep the HTC squeeze switched on for long.
Look, don't touch
The pearlescent "melted glass" rear of the phone is gorgeous right out of the box in every colour option (in red, black, blue, white and silver), but for me it was a total smudge magnet, which quite literally detracted from the lustre. Beneath a clear case the effect will be a little diminished, but you'll have a stunning, big-screen, smear-free phone for your troubles. Speaking of that screen, the glorious QHD, 5.5-inch display rivalled the best efforts I've seen from competitors. Sitting flush in a chassis with curved edges, the U11 looks great and feels great.