True to its previous tagline, HTC decides to be a ‘Quietly Brilliant’ company again in CES 2017, as we were invited to a private suite to have a sneak peak of the company’s flagship for 2017. While the name of these devices come as no surprise due to previous leaks, the HTC U family marks the next journey for the company’s smartphones and there will be no HTC 11. Like its previous ‘YOU’ campaign many years back, the HTC U Ultra and U Play are made with the same DNA, HTC believes that a great phone experience starts with great software and it is all about the user, which is why both of these smartphones will come preloaded with a new AI enabled HTC Sense software running on top of Android Nougat.
As in how AI works on the phones, HTC says that the phone learns your behaviours, for instance if you have always checked into a restaurant via Foursquare, the phone knows the type of food you like and suggest that you check out other relevant ones. Another example would be creating a specific event on the calendar, the phone will know the best time to block your calendar based on history. In a nutshell, the phone would actually predict the events that you would have in the day and suggest accordingly. The AI experience is also made possible by HTC’s very own built-in always on voice recognition software, which runs on Google’s API and listens to the user’s command with the phones’ far-field microphone.
Now, onto the phones, starting with the HTC U Ultra, this flagship device is done with a mixture of metal and glass material. HTC says that the phone’s design tends to mimic the properties of liquid, the liquid surface design features a 3D glass that reflects when in contact with light, which I personally like despite being a fingerprint magnet. By all means, the U Ultra is unmistakably an HTC device, you still find the textured power button and the front capacitive fingerprint scanner on the device, it also has the same corners that you will find on the iPhone 7. I’m glad that HTC has brought the BoomSound Hi-Fi edition speakers to the Ultra, which is located at the earpiece and bottom of the device.
However, HTC has removed the headphone jack, and they have a darn good reason to do that for a better audio listening experience on headphones. Just like the HTC 10 Evo, the Ultra’s USB-C port is used to transmit audio to its U Sonic earphone, which detects ambient sound around you and offers the best music listening experience on the phone.
I’ve tested the sound quality and I must say, I’m impressed with how well they did noise cancellation on it. But still, I would really prefer if HTC hadn’t removed the 3.5mm headphone jack since most audiophiles are still using old school headphones, and the Ultra isn’t even waterproof despite of the port’s removal.
One new hardware on the U Ultra would be its secondary display which is very obviously inspired by the LG V20, HTC says it is also AI-enabled and at the time of preview, it isn’t possible to see how it works until I get to use one myself. Like the V20, the Ultra’s secondary display allows you to add shortcuts to contacts, show the current music playback, customise your personalised display name on top and many more.
In terms of specs, the U Ultra is powered by a Snapdragon 821 processor, while not the rumoured Snapdragon 835, it is still a rather capable hardware. It has a 5.7-inch Quad HD SLCD5 display that looks gorgeous, a 12-megapixel UltraPixel main camera continues to exist with OIS, PDAF, Laser AF and Auto HDR, the selfie shooter is now a 16-megapixel sensor that offers an UltraPixel mode, which will ensure that your selfies look bright even in the darkest moments.
Though the Ultra may be the spotlight in HTC’s private suite, the U Play is a more compact smartphone with a 5.2-inch Full HD display, it has the same design elements as its bigger Ultra sibling but with different hardware, a 16-megapixel main camera with OIS, PDAF and Auto HDR, there’s also no secondary display and BoomSound Hi-Fi speakers. However, the U Play still has a 16-megapixel front camera with an UltraPixel mode, and its headphone jack is also removed for support of the company’s AI-enabled HTC U Sonic earphones.
As much as I love the new HTC U smartphones, I am still a little disappointed and have hoped for more, apart from being the first smartphone to have AI, which is still a untested feature, HTC has made just another new flagship smartphone that probably isn’t going to WOW the smartphone industry like it did with the One M7. HTC says the U Ultra and Play are just the very beginning of what they have to offer, and there will be more exciting models to come later this year. I certainly can’t wait to see what HTC has to offer, especially the rumoured Vive capable smartphone, the company really needs to shine beyond just making beautiful smartphones, and I can’t wait to perform a full review on the U Ultra and U Play.