The HTC U Play is, the Taiwanese firm claims, “for the playful U”. It’s an attempt to give the phone an identity, but it hasn’t really worked. The U Play is a good phone – there’s a pleasing display, premium design and decent cameras – but it’s suffering an identity crisis.
It sits below the flagship HTC 10 and its bigger brother, the HTC U Ultra, and neither of the new U handsets will supersede the firm’s next flagship phone, the HTC 11 (although it won’t be called that), which is due to launch in the next month or so.
There’s a solid spec sheet, yet the price doesn’t help differentiate it from the swelling ranks of mid-to-high-tier handsets, and it means the HTC U Play risks slipping quietly into the background.
There’s style and there's substance – it just feels like we’re missing that je ne sais quoi.
HTC U Play release date and price
- HTC U Play price: £399 SIM-free (around AU$650)
- HTC U Play release date: March 1 in UK, March 8 in AU
The HTC U Play release date is slated for March 1 in the UK and March 8 in Australia, but interestingly HTC has no plans to bring the handset to the US. It is, however, introducing the U Ultra stateside – a phone which has more going for it, and which benefits for a couple of defining features the U Play lacks.
The HTC U Play price is £399 (around AU$650) SIM-free in the UK, while pricing for Australia has yet to be confirmed.
It’s all about U
- HTC Sense Companion not ready yet, ‘coming soon’
- No headphone jack, but bundled ear-analyzing buds
The focus here is firmly about personalisation. The U Play is a phone which HTC says will listen to you, learn from you and “capture the best of you“.
However, as it currently stands the U Play is missing its biggest component in fulling that promise. When the U series was announced at the start of the year HTC made a big deal about its Sense Companion – its answer to the Siri, Cortana and Alexa smart assistants of the world – but if you’re one of the first to pick up the U Play you won’t be able to use it out of the box.
Sense Companion is currently unavailable, and while we’ve been told the assistant is “coming soon“, there’s no firm date for the software update to hit the phone.
Companion, we’re told, will learn your daily usage patterns, journeys and more, and help you with what to wear, where to eat and which apps to use. If it works well it could be the feather in the cap that the U Play is desperately searching for; until we see it in action, though, it’s just an unfulfilled promise.
As soon as the Sense Companion update lands on the HTC U Play we’ll get to work testing it out and will update this review with our findings.
The HTC U Play does come with HTC USonic, a clever analyzer that uses the bundled HTC USonic earbuds to engineer the audio output specifically to your ears using a sonic pulse.
Plug the USonic earbuds in and you’ll notice one of the shortcomings of the HTC U Play… no headphone jack. Instead they plug into the USB-C port on the base of the phone, which is okay until you hit the problem of wanting to charge the handset while continuing to use the headphones. You simply can’t.
You either have to switch to a Bluetooth set (but who wants to carry around two sets of headphones?) or stop listening to music. You can, of course, opt to use the internal speaker – but that’s not really feasible when you’re in the office or on public transport.
The first time you plug the earbuds in the U Play will recognize that they're USonic buds and launch the setup wizard so you can analyze your ears. It’s a simple, quick process that just takes a few seconds.
When the results are in you can toggle the effect on and off so that you can hear the difference – although while there is a difference it doesn’t feel especially dramatic.
Audio playback is enhanced, but it’s not clear whether that’s because the phone really has accurately mapped the inside of our ears, or whether it’s just using the BoomSound-style enhancements we’ve enjoyed on previous HTC phones.
A notification appears at the top of the screen when USonic is enabled, and you can tap this notification in the pull-down panel to “readjust to your environment”.
So if, for example, you move from a noisy place to a quieter location (or vice versa) give this a quick tap and USonic will tweak the playback levels to give you optimum quality by detecting the sound environment around you.
Design and display
- Premium metal and glass design
- Lightweight and easy to use one-handed
- 5.2-inch, full HD Super LCD 2 display
The HTC U Play sports a classic smartphone look, with a glass front, metal frame and a slightly more unique pearlescent ‘Liquid Surface’ glass rear.
Front-on, the U Play looks similar to the latest iPhone and Galaxy handsets – although that’s no bad thing, and unlike Samsung, HTC has removed its branding from the display side for a cleaner, minimalist finish.
The textured power/lock key and volume rocker are easy to locate on the right side of the phone, while your 2-in-1 nanoSIM and microSD tray resides on the top of the U Play.
The 5.2-inch display means dimensions are kept to a relatively compact 146 x 72.9 x 8mm, making the HTC U Play easy to hold and operate one-handed. At 145g it’s also surprisingly lightweight, which is nice during extendingBut n gaming sessions or movie playback.
However it also means the U Play feels a little cheaper than it is, while the Liquid Surface rear proves to be rather divisive. It’s available in four base colors: white, blue, pink and black, but twist the phone in the light and you’ll be treated to a variety of hues.
We had the white HTC U Play for review, and grew fond of the way it played with the light, but others we showed it to were less impressed with the finish.
What everyone can agree on though is a lack of grip. While we were able to firmly grasp the U Play with one hand, the brushed metal sides and smooth glass rear meant there was little for the palm to play with; if you’re accident-prone you’ll want to stick a cover on your U Play before venturing outdoors.
Back to the front and you’ll find a fingerprint scanner that doubles as the home button below the screen. Digit recognition is fast and accurate, and it’s flanked by touch-sensitive multi-tasking and back keys, which remain hidden until you wake the screen and their backlights trigger.
Turning our attention to the screen, the 5.2-inch Super LCD panel boasts a full HD (1080 x 1920) resolution, providing bright, colorful and detailed imagery.
There’s not a lot more to say on this subject – it’s a spec we’ve come to expect at this price point, and the U Play’s screen doesn’t disappoint.
Interface and reliability
- Android 6 isn’t the latest version
- HTC’s Sense overlay is easy to use
- Five gestures available for quick access to features
The HTC U Play arrives running Android 6.0 Marshmallow, which isn’t the latest version of Google’s operating system. That’s rather frustrating, considering Android 7.0 Nougat launched back in October 2016 and we’re still waiting for several high-profile manufacturers to roll out the latest version.
It’s all the more annoying if you glance over to the HTC U Ultra, which launches at the same time as the U Play, and see that it comes with Android 7 out of the box. An all-round bizarre situation then, and it makes the U Play seem like a second-class citizen on its home turf.
While you may not have the latest software, what you do find on-screen is pleasing. HTC’s Sense interface overlays the Android operating system, providing a relatively clean and fuss-free experience.
HTC retains the app drawer on the U Play, a feature other manufacturers have started to remove, but has added its Blinkfeed Highlights panel – accessible with a swipe from left to right on your home screen.
It pulls what it thinks are important updates from key apps such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and your calendar, and presents them in a series of cards. I found the U Play wasn’t particularly great at pulling in the things I really cared about, though, so I removed it completely.
The HTC U Play does come with a selection of gestures, accessible from the settings menu. These include things like double-tapping the screen to wake, and swiping down twice on the display when it’s off to launch the camera.
We found double-tap to wake useful, but we didn’t have any pressing need for the other options on offer.
Overall the HTC U Play has a familiar Android interface that's easy to navigate, ensuring that anyone transitioning from another Android handset won’t have any issues getting to grips with their new phone.
Movies, music and gaming
- Poor internal speaker quality
- Good screen for movies and gaming
- No headphone jack or adapter in box
We’ve already talked about the USense earbuds that come bundled with the HTC U Play, but the phone arrives light on multimedia applications.
That does make it much easier to decide which app to use though, as you’ve got just one choice: HTC has opted to use Google’s suite of apps, which include Play Music and Play Movies & TV.
The former gives you standard music playback for any tracks you download onto the U Play, but Google also offers its own subscription streaming service through the app, if you’d rather have instant access to millions of songs without actually owning any.
You can always install third-party alternatives such as Spotify or Tidal if you’re already allied with those services, though, so you’re not totally tied to Google’s way of playing music.
Audio quality via the wired, USB-C-connected bundled earbuds is very good, with rich bass and resonating mid-tones providing a pleasing listening experience.
However it’s not all good news. The lack of a headphone jack will irk some audiophiles, and the fact that HTC doesn’t even provide a 3.5mm adaptor in the box (at least not in our pre-sale box) further frustrates.
Audio quality from the internal speaker also disappoints, especially as this has generally been an area where HTC has excelled in the past. Playback is tinny and distorted, making for uncomfortable listening.
The poor speaker performance carries over to video playback and gaming, and you’ll want to plug in the USense earbuds or invest in a set of Bluetooth headphones to improve your experience on the U Play.
It is comfortable to hold though, with the curved, smooth rear providing a pleasing surface for your palms, while the lightweight design means you won’t have your wrists aching 20 minutes into a blockbuster film.
The 5.2-inch Full HD display provides a crisp, clear and bright viewing experience for both movies and games, although quality isn’t as pin-sharp as you’ll find on the larger, QHD U Ultra.
Specs and performance
- Octa-core processor and 4GB of RAM gives plenty of power
- Not flagship performance, some slow loads
The HTC U Play comes with an octa-core MediaTek Helio P10 chipset and 4GB of RAM under the hood, giving it plenty of power to perform even the most strenuous of mobile tasks.
Generally the U Play runs smoothly, but there were the odd times where the phone would freeze and re-boot (this happened three times during our 10-day review period), or apps would take a little longer than expected to load.
The freezing issue should be something HTC can iron out with a software update, but it's a little annoying when it does happen.
High-profile games load in good time, and we were able to easily play Boom Beach, Clash Royale and Pokemon Go without issue on the HTC U Play.
Running the Geekbench 4 app on the U Play produced an average multi-core score of 2,821, placing it comfortably below the flagship phones currently available and reiterating the phone’s mid-range status.
That number is significantly lower than the 5,207 clocked by the Honor 8 and the 4,313 by the OnePlus 3T, but it’s on par with the 2,600 scored by the Moto Z Play. The HTC U Play certainly doesn’t put in a bad performance, and it’s still a highly usable phone, but you can get more power for your money.
- Disappointing battery which struggles to see out a day
- Regularly needs a mid-afternoon top-up
The HTC U Play packs a 2,500mAh battery into its 8mm-thick body, which is decidedly smaller than most of the competition in its price range – and it shows.
We found that the HTC U Play continually struggled to see out a full day on a single charge, usually requiring an early evening top-up.
And with slightly heavier usage, including a couple of hours of simultaneous gaming and Spotify streaming, we found ourselves reaching for the USB-C charger by early afternoon.
Even lighter usage appeared to drain the battery quicker than on rival handsets, and while it is possible to eke out a full day (7am to around 11pm) from a single charge you'll need to resign yourself to not using the U Play very much.
Running the TechRadar battery test, which involves playing a 90-minute Full HD video with screen brightness at max and Wi-Fi on, the U Play lost 30% of its life. That’s a pretty weak showing, with the Honor 8 losing 20%, the OnePlus 3T 14% and the Moto Z Play just 7% in the same test.
In short then, anyone other than a light user will need to carry a charger with them to ensure their HTC U Play can see them through until bedtime.
There are a couple of power-saving modes to help you extend the battery life, with the standard power saver reducing screen brightness, conserving CPU usage and limiting background activity.
It can help eke a little more time from your handset, but if you’re really desperate you may want to switch to extreme saver, which reduces you to just a few core apps for use in emergencies, basically making your smartphone dumb – it’s a last-resort setting.
- 16MP front and rear cameras
- Strong performance producing high-quality snaps
While the HTC U Play disappoints in the battery department, it goes some way to making up for that with a strong camera showing.
HTC has equipped the U Play with 16MP snappers front and back, although the rear-facing camera has a few extra tricks up its sleeve in the shape of auto HDR (high dynamic range), speedy auto focus and OIS (optical image stablization) to improve low-light, back-lit and fast-moving scenes.
Things have been kept relatively low-key in the camera app, with Panorama and Pro modes accompanying the standard Photo option. Auto HDR is on by default, but this can be toggled by tapping the icon on screen, although for the most part we left it on auto.
There’s also a Zoe mode, which captures three seconds of HD video with every shot. This isn’t anything new – and HTC has been offering it way before Apple came along with its Live Photos – but the implementation here isn’t as smooth.
The U Play saves the photo and the three-second clip separately, so unlike with Apple’s implementation, your photos don’t 'come to life' as you scroll through them.
The responsive sensor enables you to capture shots in rapid succession, and image quality is generally very good, with the U Play able to capture a high level of detail and colour in shots.
The U Play performs well in low light too, an area where many handsets struggle, with clean shots dealing with the limited light well.
Moving to the front-facing 16MP camera and the quality is still good, but it’s not quite as good as the rear snapper, with no OIS or HDR to aid your shots.
For selfies though it’s excellent, and the 'makeup' mode does its best to smooth skin tones while not making you look like an alien, as some beauty modes can.
There’s a selfie panorama mode too, allowing you to squeeze a number of buddies into your snap by tilting the U Play left and right while it captures the shot. It’s not a feature we envision getting a great deal of usage, but it could be handy at the odd family gathering or group night out.
The HTC U Play is a solid Android smartphone. It has enough grunt under the hood, a decent display, strong cameras and smart bundled earbuds – but it’s a package which feels like it’s missing something.
The price still feels a little high, the battery life is disappointing, and the lack of a headphone jack will irk some users – but it’s the general sense of belonging, or rather the lack of it, that has us still scratching our heads over the U Play.
It sits in a highly competitive bracket of the market in which phones need to do something spectacular to stand out, and the U Play doesn’t have that knockout punch in its locker to make people sit up and take notice.
Who’s it for?
Without that clear place in the market it’s difficult to say exactly who the HTC U Play is for. There are a number of strong alternatives at the same price, with the U Play potentially winning over those looking for a unique, eye-catching design and solid cameras at a non-flagship price point.
Should I buy it?
If you’re taken by the unique styling of the HTC U Play, and need a solid camera on your smartphone, then this handset won’t let you down.
You’ll need to carry a charging cable if you’re out for the day, and invest in a set of Bluetooth headphones if you don’t want to use the USB-C earbuds, but in today’s world those are trade-offs some can stomach.
The HTC U Play has plenty of competition, and we’ve picked out three handsets you might want to consider before taking the plunge on this phone.
HTC U Ultra
If you’re looking for more features the U Play’s big brother is what you’ll want. The HTC U Ultra has a larger 5.7-inch display with a higher QHD resolution, but the talking point here is the secondary screen just above this.
It gives you quick access to a selection of apps such as weather and Spotify, as well as quick settings, contacts and notifications, without interrupting the action on the main screen.
Elsewhere there’s a 12MP rear camera, 16MP front snapper, a more powerful Snapdragon 821 chipset, 4GB of RAM and either 64GB or 128GB of internal storage.
All this comes at a cost though, with the U Ultra carrying a flagship price tag even though it’s not HTC’s top device.
When it comes to bang-for-your-buck smartphones, few do it better than OnePlus, and the 3T is a shining example of that.
You get a 5.5-inch Full HD display, Snapdragon 821 chipset, 6GB of RAM, 16MP rear camera, 16MP front camera and a 3,400mAh battery for the same price as the U Play.
It is a bigger handset, and you’ll need two hands to use it comfortably, but if you're comfortable with the size then the OnePlus 3T is a superior option.
Moto Z Play
The Moto Z Play is also designed to play, and arguably does a better job of it than the U Play thanks to its headphone jack, long-lasting battery and cheaper price.
It's not all good news though, as the Z Play doesn't provide stellar performance and its camera is a little weaker.
There's an ace up the sleeve of the Moto Z Play though, and that's the fact that it works with Motorola's Mods, which means you can clip on add-ons such as JBL speakers, an optical zoom camera and even a projector to transform your phone.
First reviewed: February 2017