​HTC U Ultra phone: full, in-depth review

HTC’s new flagship Android smartphone looks amazing but what else?

HTC U Ultra
  • HTC U Ultra
  • HTC U Ultra
  • HTC U Ultra
  • Expert Rating

    4.25 / 5

Pros

  • Looks stunning
  • Fast at everything
  • Good audio features

Cons

  • No headphone jack
  • Expensive

Bottom Line

HTC's flagship phone brings some interesting features to the top of the market including great looks and 24-bit audio. But there's better value elsewhere.

Would you buy this?

The HTC U Ultra's camera

The HTC U Ultra’s cameras might take you by surprise. The front camera is 16-megapixels while the main, rear one is 12-megapixels. HTC calls the 12-megapixels ‘Ultrapixel’ as the larger size supposedly allows for greater (4x) low-light performance. We took a great many photos to find out.

A fast shutter married with laser focus meant we missed few shots.
A fast shutter married with laser focus meant we missed few shots.

First up, kudos to the laser focus and fast shutter. We rarely missed a shot with this camera. We found that it was best when High Dynamic Range (HDR) was left on – processing by the fast CPU means operation doesn't slow down – as otherwise pictures with bright light could appear a little dark (but were still better than most of the market).

More of that fast shutter. But turning HDR off means that subjects can get a bit dark.
More of that fast shutter. But turning HDR off means that subjects can get a bit dark.

However, indoors we have high expectations after spending time with the excellent Google Pixel XL and Samsung Galaxy S7 cameras and were a little disappointed. Yes photos can be useable, but there were often colour casts and noticeable sharpening. Performance was better than the Huawei Mate 9 (indoors only) though and sharpening effects didn’t make the subjects look like cartoons as with the latest Apple iPhone 7 cameras. However, in very low light subjects were hard to make out compared to rivals.

(left) Indoors in modest light we could get colour casts and soft focus. (middle) In very low light, performance couldn't match rivals. (right) More low light examples of grain and motion blur.
(left) Indoors in modest light we could get colour casts and soft focus. (middle) In very low light, performance couldn't match rivals. (right) More low light examples of grain and motion blur.
Not all indoor shots come out badly but the better the lighting, the sharper the image.
Not all indoor shots come out badly but the better the lighting, the sharper the image.

Outdoors and the U Ultra showed itself to be a very capable performer even in challenging light. It generally focused fast and shot quickly meaning that we usually got the snap that we wanted even when subjects and background were moving quickly. However, there’s no question that after using the Huawei Mate 9 camera in similar conditions we were a little disappointed with the results. Just check out what that was capable of here. Still, it’s one of the best on the market but it didn’t really blow us away or ever stop us in our tracks despite the great opportunities afforded by some stunning lighting situations.

Not the greatest dynamic range but then this was very challenging lighting. Pro Mode allows for manual adjustments.
Not the greatest dynamic range but then this was very challenging lighting. Pro Mode allows for manual adjustments.

The Selfie camera offers some interesting features including selfie video and selfie panorama. Using it in low-light Ultrapixel mode can make things look soft but helps in dark environments. At full, 16-megapixel mode things get much sharper and more acceptable. The make-up mode is a bit more subtle than the Beauty mode we’ve seen elsewhere and this proved attractive to our models.

Selfie Panorama mode took some getting used to. It has issues with moving backgrounds for obvious reasons.
Selfie Panorama mode took some getting used to. It has issues with moving backgrounds for obvious reasons.


(left) Ultrapixel mode drops resolution at the expense of better low-light performance. (middle) Full 16-megapixel resolution. (right) With Make-up mode ramped up to maximum.
(left) Ultrapixel mode drops resolution at the expense of better low-light performance. (middle) Full 16-megapixel resolution. (right) With Make-up mode ramped up to maximum.

Other features include slow-motion and 'Hyperlapse' (fast time-lapse) features. The 'Zoe' camera captures three-seconds of video with images to add some dynamism. But it still feels gimmicky.

Panoramas were handled well.
Panoramas were handled well.

Video is generally impressive. While we couldn’t figure out how to get 4K video working (check back for that), Full HD smoothed out walking motion, had a modest dynamic range (bright and dark areas could lose detail when in the same shot) and focusing was instant. Sound was captured clearly (we could hear our own footsteps) and background noise was muted. In dark areas the camera would adapt quickly - ramping up the grain slightly but in a way that allowed us to see more than was visible with just our eyes.

Read more: ​Oppo R9s Plus phone: Full, in-depth review

Battery life

We had our doubts about the battery life: two screens, one of which is UHD, plus a thin body and a relatively-small 3,000mAh battery didn’t fill us with optimism. However, it managed to last a full day no matter what we threw at it – on one occasion that included 350 photos being taken.

The Boost+ app also enables some machine learning and we expect it will further enhance matters over time by optimising background app usage. Basically, it’s noticeably ahead of the Google Pixel XL (which has similar, top-end specs) and not as far behind the (big-battery'd) Huawei Mate 9 as we’d expect.

Conclusion

In our offices, the Ultra U currently is being carted around alongside a Google Pixel XL and a Huawei Mate 9 – its two big rivals. Which are we going to use after this review? Well they all excel in different ways. Firstly, we’ll keep using the Ultra U some more and see how long-term usage affects things like battery life. However, we do miss the low-light performance of the Pixel XL (not the battery life) and we miss the camera on the Huawei Mate 9 (but not in low-light). The Ultra U also looks MUCH better than both of them and music sounds fantastic when we can remember to bring the earbuds with us – otherwise we can’t listen to anything!

As for pricing, at $1,199 it’s very expensive and that’s just for the 64GB version. It rivals the Pixels and the iPhones but the $999 Huawei Mate 9, at $999, is significantly cheaper and subsequently much better value. The Sapphire coated 128GB version is likely to cost significantly more but also be significantly more durable.

So ultimately, this is too expensive to recommend outright but the styling will be worth a premium to some as will the audio features and perhaps the speed. Our main caveat would be that the Samsung Galaxy S8 is out soon and it may be worth waiting to see what that brings to the table before shelling out for this.

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Read more on these topics: smartphones, Android, phone, htc, mobile phones, smartphone, Phones
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