Huge phone screens are becoming the norm, and HTC wants to try its hand at making a phone that’s larger than its traditional flagship – that’s how we’ve got the U Ultra.
The 5.9-inch HTC One Max from 2013 showed it was possible to make a phone that was too big, but this is a phone that’s much easier to handle thanks to a slightly smaller display.
The U Ultra is one half of a new partnership of phones – the other is the HTC U Play – which aren’t exactly flagship products but still pack some impressive spec, and may tempt you to upgrade even before the HTC 11 launches.
But in a market full of great large screen offerings from Samsung, Apple and other Android manufacturers, does the HTC U Ultra do enough differently to stand out from the rest of the crowd?
HTC U Ultra price and release date
HTC has priced the U Ultra at the top end of the market, at a whopping $749 (£649, about AU$1,050). That’s quite a step up from the HTC 10, which at the moment you can get for $599 (£500, AU$1,099) – and it can be found for even less when there’s a sale on.
It puts the HTC U Ultra in a similar price bracket to the iPhone 7 Plus, which is the most expensive of Apple’s line of phones.
The U Ultra is coming to the UK on March 1, and you can buy it directly from HTC. Pre-orders are available for the US right now and it will begin shipping in mid-March, while Australia will see a release on March 8.
- HTC's U Ultra features two screens, one along the top of the phone
- It offers extra functionality, including music controls and notifications
- HTC Sense AI hasn't launched yet, but may be a big deal
The headline feature of the U Ultra is its dual-screen design. On top of large QHD 5.7-inch display you’ll mainly use to interact with the phone is a 2.05-inch screen sitting alongside the front-facing camera.
This smaller display has a resolution of 160 x 1040, and displays a series of apps in a similar fashion to the second screen on the LG V20. It’s also reminiscent of the way you interact with the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge and its ‘Edge’ features.
The smaller display is a useful way to see information displayed without interrupting what you’re doing on the main screen.
For example, if you’re typing out a long email on the main screen you’ll see your Facebook Messenger notifications appear in the second screen, rather than having to come out of your email program to check them.
That’s useful as a reminder, and for a brief glimpse of what’s happening, but it won’t show you everything you need, especially if you receive a long message or complicated notification.
The secondary display itself runs a series of different interfaces. There are options for weather, music, contacts and calendar notifications, and you can also set it up to display shortcuts to some of your most-used apps.
We found the most useful option was a note app, as it meant our reminders were waiting at the top of the screen to jog our memory whenever we opened the phone. Spotify integration, meanwhile, makes the music app useful if you often want to flick through tracks.
You can scroll through all these mini-screens by flicking left and right on the screen itself.
Another highlight of the U Ultra is a new AI feature called HTC Sense Companion (HSC). Our review device didn’t have the feature included, however, so we’ll update this review when we’ve had the opportunity to see how it works in day to day use.
In our previous hands-on time with the phone we did get a chance to try an early version of Sense Companion. Among other things HSC will work out your favorite people and suggest updates as time goes by, advise you to take an umbrella if rain is forecast after days of sunshine, and check whether you really want that alarm to go off, or that meeting reminder, when there’s a national holiday coming up.
None of this seems particularly groundbreaking, although as mentioned that was a very early edition of the software, which HTC will presumable iterate on in the future. However, one area which does sound potentially interesting is battery management.
Where some phones will automatically go into low-power mode when hitting a certain percentage, HTC says its AI companion will work out when you usually get home from work, or habitually need power, and offer appropriate prompts, such as suggesting that you root out a charger or take a power bank with you when you're on the go.
If a quick recharge isn't possible the phone will start to disable poorly-performing apps and limit the performance of the phone, to try and eke out some more time until you can get to a charger.
Design and display
- Interesting glass backed design that you'll love or hate
- 5.7-inch QHD main display, which may be too large for some
The HTC U Ultra features a brave design choice you won’t see on any other manufacturer’s phone on the market in 2017. It’s the first phone from the company to embrace a glass back design – and it may not be to everyone’s taste.
HTC calls it a ‘liquid surface’ design, which combines glass and metal, and it isn’t unattractive. It can appear both as a single block color and pearlescent, depending on how the light plays off it, and it looks pretty stunning from afar – especially the sapphire blue variant.
The back of the phone is subtly curved and feels nice to hold in the palm, allowing for a better grip than you might expect when you first set eyes on it. The U Ultra is wider than the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge or other phablets though, so those with smaller hands may have some issues with holding it.
Considering there’s a 5.7-inch screen on this phone, though, it’s quite easy to hold. The glass doesn’t feel slippery, like it can on some handsets, and you won’t find yourself losing your grip easily.
Our main complaint with the design is the weight of the phone – if you’re used to a heavier device, you’ll likely notice how the lack of heft detracts from that premium feel the phone is looking for.
We found all of the buttons easy to reach, including the fingerprint sensor which, as on other HTC devices, is on the front of the phone below the display.
The sensor is a little small compared to some others, and it can sometimes be tricky to get your thumb or finger on exactly the right spot to unlock your phone. We often found ourselves pressing down multiple times to be able to open the U Ultra up.
Either side of the fingerprint sensor are capacitive keys for ‘back’ and a list view of the apps you currently have running.
You’ll be able to buy the HTC U Ultra in black, white, blue and pink – although that last version is called Cosmetic Pink in the marketing materials. Come on HTC: women don’t need to be told which phone is designed for them. We know pink phones sell well, so just call it that and don’t make the gender targeting so overt…
The U Ultra features a Super LCD5 5.7-inch display with a QHD resolution – that’s 2560 x 1440 – so you get gorgeous picture quality no matter what you’re looking at. It’s larger than the display on the HTC 10, and at 513 pixels per inch it’s slightly less pixel-dense than the screen on HTC’s last flagship, but offers the same crystal-clear picture.
The brightness is also great on the U Ultra, while viewing angles are exactly as good as you’d expect from a phone made in 2017.
Interface and reliability
- Android 7 software packed in with Sense UI laying over the top
HTC has packed Android 7 Nougat into the U Ultra, with its own Sense UI over the top to give it a unique flavour.
Sense UI has a simple interface that makes everything easy to find, although it will feel slightly different if you were using a stock Android phone before.
A lot of the features here are Android 7’s, with a few of HTC’s bells and whistles added, which means you can use all the benefits of HTC’s UI without having to put up with a lack of customization, as you would on devices that run stock software.
One of the UI options Sense enables is news on your home screen. It uses a service called News Republic, which will source stories to your taste for you to see when you unlock your phone.
HTC’s Blinkfeed is also here to give you a full rundown of your day, with social media and news updates available via a flick of your finger.
When you’re on the home screen you can scroll left and see the highlights of all the services you’ve connected to Blinkfeed – you can see popular Facebook posts, tweets or even news stories, again courtesy of News Republic.
If you want a quick distraction and can’t decided which social media channel to use, Blinkfeed can be a useful little tool.
Movies, music and gaming
- No 3.5mm headphone jack may be a problem for some
- Limited speaker tech, unlike other HTC phones
- Nice big display for playing games and watching video
Media playback is likely to be a sticking point for some people who would otherwise be interested in the HTC U Ultra. As on the iPhone 7, Moto Z and some other phones there’s no traditional headphone port on the U Ultra, so your regular wired headphones won’t work with this phone.
You’ll instead have to opt for a Bluetooth headset or use HTC earbuds, which are included in the box. These connect to the USB-C port at the bottom of the phone, meaning you won’t be able to charge your phone and listen to music at the same time.
This will be a major issue for some, although when we connected our wireless headphones to the U Ultra it offered a solid connection which never dropped out.
HTC is renowned for its quality front-facing speakers, but, like the headphone port, these are missing from the U Ultra.
There’s no patented BoomSound technology as on the HTC 10. Instead there’s just one sound driver, meaning you lose a lot of the ‘oomph’ when listening to audio out loud.
If you’re looking for a phone that can just play the odd song, the U Ultra will suit you well as most phones on the market, but it’s disappointing considering HTC’s superior audio capabilities in previous phones, and we can’t see why it would omit decent speakers on a high-end phone.
We found watching video on the U Ultra to be a very enjoyable experience, thanks mostly to the high-resolution and super-bright display creating a beautiful picture.
HTC doesn’t include its own video app, but if you want to play files directly from the phone’s storage you can launch a simple video player, while you’ve got Google Play Movies or YouTube for online content, and you can also download apps such as Netflix to enjoy movies on the go.
Storage-wise you should be safe with the U Ultra, as it comes in 64GB and 128GB options. We had the 64GB for the purpose of this review, and even with HTC’s software onboard you’ve still got 53GB to fill up with media and apps.
If you’re a gamer the HTC U Ultra will suit your tastes whether you want to test out the odd puzzler or play the latest and greatest mobile titles.
We played a variety of games, and found everything to run smoothly. The likes of Pokemon Go did take a little while to load at some stages, but once it was up and running everything worked well.
Benchmarks and performance
- Snapdragon 821 processor and 4GB of RAM packed inside
- Not phenomenal benchmarking scores though
Under the hood of the HTC U Ultra is a top-of-the-range Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor – although it won’t be top-of-the-range for long, as the Samsung Galaxy S8 and HTC 11 are due to launch shortly after the U Ultra, and both are rumored to have newer Snapdragon 825 processors on board.
This setup is still impressive though, especially as it’s back up by 4GB of RAM. That’s more than enough RAM to get you by, and when we were scooting around apps we found the U Ultra to be reliable, and able to keep up with everything we wanted to do.
Running the phone through benchmarking software, we found it returned an average score of 3851. That’s OK for a mid-range phone, but it’s not really strong enough considering the price of the U Ultra.
For example, the HTC 10, a phone with an older processor setup onboard, scored 4962 – and even that was a score we were disappointed with at the time, as the Galaxy S7 had just managed 6542 on the same test.
If you’re looking for decent power in your device you’ll want to go for either the HTC 10 or any other flagship phone from this year, as you’ll get more impressive performance than you will from the U Ultra.
- Average battery life that should last you a full day
- 3,000mAh cell powering a top of the range processor and high res display
When you buy a new phone these days you expect a device that can last a full day without having to be put on charge – and the good news is that we found the U Ultra just about manages this. That said, it sometimes won’t last as long as you’d hope for.
There’s a 3,000mAh battery here powering the large QHD screen and high-end processor. We regularly found the phone would die off towards the end of the day, around 10pm or so.
Considering the U Ultra is powering a 5.7-inch QHD display, it’s a bit disappointing that HTC didn’t opt for a larger cell.
The standard TechRadar battery test – playing a 90-minute video clip from the phone’s memory on full brightness, with connectivity options on – left the battery at 79% capacity.
That’s a similar result to the HTC 10, which dropped 22% of its battery life in the same test; it’s a slight improvement, but nothing to write home about.
The U Ultra supports fast-charging if you need a quick top-up. Disappointingly, though, there’s no wireless charging, and it’s not clear why HTC isn’t embracing the feature on this phone.
It was assumed the HTC 10 didn’t include wireless charging because of its all-metal design, but we would have thought the inclusion of glass in the design here would give HTC the opportunity to include tech that a lot of people are now expecting to see in their high-end phones.
- 12MP rear camera, which we saw on the HTC 10
- Zoe camera mode tries to recreate Live Photos option from the iPhone range
- Super high level 16MP front-facing camera
You’d expect a kick-ass camera to be a highlight of a phone as pricey as the HTC U Ultra, but not only does the camera here not kick ass, in truth it’s a little disappointing.
On paper a 12MP sensor doesn’t sound thrilling, and it’s remarkably similar to the HTC 10’s camera, which we didn’t exactly fall in love with.
The f/1.8 aperture is pretty fast, although despite this we found that images taken in auto mode tended to turn out a little darker than we’d hoped for.
And when we pixel-peeked at images we’ve taken the focus seemed to be a little off. You can tap the screen to focus, which we recommend doing as the autofocus wasn’t fantastic.
Photos from the U Ultra don’t stand up against those from the likes of the iPhone 7 or Galaxy S7 Edge, but this will still suit you if you’re looking to take the odd shot to share on social media.
A big bonus of the U Ultra’s camera, however, is the interface, which we found simple to use. The shutter button on the right-hand side of the screen is easy to hit, while if you swipe in from the left you’ll find a series of other shooting modes.
That includes Zoe camera. This is a mode that captures three seconds of video around your photo, and works in a similar way to Live Photos on the latest iPhone models, enabling you to create short interactive video clips.
Unlike on Apple devices though, you have to choose a separate mode to take Zoe pictures, and this makes it rather redundant – if you want to capture video you can just use the video shooting mode, so it doesn’t really add much.
It’s also quite impractical to share these clips on social media, so you’ll just end up viewing Zoe camera images on the phone.
There’s also a panorama mode, for when you want to stitch a few frames together to capture a sweeping landscape or city skyline.
You may also want to explore the pro mode if you’re a fan of phone photography. Here you can play with the white balance, ISO, focus and more to get the best possible images out of the U Ultra’s camera.
The front-facing selfie shooter on the U Ultra is a big upgrade over the HTC 10. The sensor is 16MP – even bigger than the U Ultra’s rear shooter – and offers video recording at Full HD as well as an auto HDR mode.
If you want a good front-facing camera shot, the U Ultra will deliver. We found selfies to be lively and vibrant compared to those from other cameras we’ve used.
However, in a market that has the Galaxy S7 Edge and iPhone 7 Plus it’s the rear camera that really needs to impress, and it’s a shame HTC hasn’t made a bigger effort to improve it for the U Ultra.
The HTC U Ultra is a phone that doesn’t really know where it sits in the market, and it’s hard to fathom who it was built for. It takes a lot of what made the HTC 10 a great device and sprinkles on a little extra, but the design is very different, and it all comes at a higher price.
The lack of powerful speakers and an overtly premium design don’t help the U Ultra to shine, though, and it’s a little disappointing that HTC hasn’t just super-sized the metal HTC 10 with a larger display.
Who’s this for?
The U Ultra is built for those who like the HTC look and ethos, but who want a larger device than the HTC 10.
Most of what made the HTC 10 one of the best Android devices on the market is on display here, packaged with a larger screen and a few extra added features.
The secondary display on its own isn’t a reason to buy this phone, but it’s a nice little addition – and it makes some of the irritating elements of jumping around on an Android phone that little bit easier to handle.
The screen on the HTC U Ultra is also another big plus. The large QHD display is a thing of beauty, and if you’re going to be regularly gaming or watching video, this is a great phone for doing both.
Should you buy it?
If you’re looking for the best battery life on the market, go for the slightly smaller Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge. The battery life isn’t atrocious on the U Ultra, but we’ve certainly seen better, and that’s a disappointment in the latest from HTC.
We’d also recommend taking a good look at the design of the U Ultra before you splash out. It can look great from afar, but this certainly isn’t a design that will appeal to everybody, especially those who are used to phones with full-metal unibody designs.
If you want a big phone and you’re a fan of HTC’s design ethos, the U Ultra may well be the handset for you. Just bear in mind that you won’t be getting that much more than the HTC 10 offers, while paying a good deal more.
First reviewed: February 2017
Not a fan of the HTC U Ultra? Here are the phones you may want to consider instead.
Last year’s flagship HTC phone continues to feature in our roundups of the best phones money can buy. It has a stylish all-metal uni-body design, a beautiful QHD display and amazing audio capabilities.
It also features an improved battery, but it’s only running Android 6 Marshmallow software at the moment, and doesn’t have the dual screen you get on the HTC U Ultra. However, considering that the HTC 10 costs quite a bit less than the U Ultra it’s hard to recommend the U Ultra over it if you’re looking for a great-value HTC device.
Read our full HTC 10 review
Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge
At the time of writing the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge is ranked our number one phone in the world – and it’s clear that with the U Ultra, HTC is trying to achieve a lot of what Samsung has done fantastically well with this device.
While you don’t get the U Ultra’s secondary display you do get a lovely curved display here, along with phenomenal picture quality that arguably makes this the better pick.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge review
Huawei Mate 9
Looking for a phone with a large display that doesn’t cost as much as the U Ultra? Huawei’s latest phablet may be the best option for you. It features a 5.9-inch Full HD display and the latest Kirin 955 SoC (system-on-a-chip) inside, as well as a 20MP rear camera.
The spec isn’t as impressive on Huawei’s latest phablet, but it’s quite a bit cheaper than the U Ultra at $599.99 (£579, AU$999).
Read our full Huawei Mate 9 review