HTC’s U Ultra flagship is an epic fail

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HTC has a serious problem: it cannot deliver a flagship worth getting excited about. A while back, the company at least tried to do things differently, to get consumers talking, but lately it seems happy just to have a new high-end smartphone on the market — even if everyone knows it’s way behind the competition.

Last year’s flagship, called HTC 10, was better than its most-recent predecessors, but it failed to stand out against devices like Apple’s iPhone 6s and Samsung’s Galaxy S7. So no one cared about it. This year’s HTC U Ultra is no different — it’s probably the most uninspiring device in its segment. How disappointing.

First off, the name is terrible. It’s what you’d expect an aspiring smartphone maker to name its budget flagship. What does “U Ultra” even mean? I have no idea. And it looks like HTC doesn’t either, judging by how its press release starts.

U laugh, U cry

U love, U lose

U play, U fight

U work, work, work…

U question why

U want change

U dream big

U are bold

U are unstoppable

U are U

We hear U

We see U

We learn from U

It’s all about U

To the brilliant U

What is that? I think that a preschooler could come up with something better.

Moving on to the actual device, the U Ultra feels similar to the LG V20, save for the exterior design and the fact that it’s unveiled a couple of months too late. It’s got a 5.7-inch main display, with a resolution of 1,440 by 2,560 and Gorilla Glass 5 on top or sapphire, depending on the storage option (64GB or 128GB, respectively).

The secondary screen is a 2.05-inch unit, with a resolution of 1,040 by 160, and it can show contacts, favorite apps, reminders, notifications and more.

Most of the hardware is fine, but if you look at HTC’s choice of processor — Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 821 — you will realize that it only has a couple of months before the Android-toting competition wipes the floor with it in terms of performance. Actually, that’s not true, because it goes on sale in mid-March in US.

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In the smartphone market, if you are an Android maker that launches a new flagship just before a new high-end processor goes on sale — namely, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 830 — you have already lost control of the narrative. It doesn’t help when the battery is a 3,000mAh unit. That doesn’t give me confidence regarding battery life, though there’s Quick Charge 3.0 support for topping it quickly.

The likes of Samsung, Xiaomi and LG will have faster devices in a few months. Remember, MWC 2017 kicks off next month, and we are bound to see Snapdragon 830-toting flagships then — and with more than the 4GB of RAM the U Ultra has. Do you believe an older generation processor and subpar battery and RAM will help when the U Ultra is pitted against its new rivals? I don’t think so.

Not even the software is the latest, because HTC will ship the U Ultra with Android 7.0 Nougat (and its Sense skin on top). Google already introduced version 7.1, and we have no idea when HTC will update the U Ultra to the latest release. Fellow Android vendors have already started to roll out Android 7.0 Nougat, which makes things even more complicated for HTC.

At least the optics appear to be competitive.

HTC equipped the U Ultra with a 12MP UltraPixel 2 main camera, with optical image stabilization, f/1.8 lens, laser and phase-detection autofocus, and 4K video recording. It’s got all the software features you’d expect from HTC, including Zoe. There’s also RAW support, if you want the best image quality.

On the front, there’s a 16 MP UltraPixel camera that can record videos up to 1080p in quality. There’s the obligatory selfie-mode included, which selfie lovers will probably appreciate. But there’s nothing groundbreaking here.

HTC did do something right, however, when it chose to include a very generous base storage option. I think that 64GB is more than enough to start, and the fact that it can be extended using a microSD is commendable. There’s even Flex Storage support, which makes the storage (both internal and external) appear as a single device in Android.

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Needless to say, there’s 4G LTE and a dual-SIM option, the usual array of sensors, and a bunch of software add-ons to give users more control and flexibility. One of the most-interesting features is Sense Companion, which gives you tips on restaurants, what to wear depending on the weather and when to recharge your U Ultra to make sure you don’t run out of battery soon, among other things.

There’s also BoomSound speakers, a promising audio technology called USonic, USB Type-C, and no headphone jack. But, there’s nothing here to make your jaw drop and say “I really, really want this!” Not even the fact that it’s got a glass back impresses these days. The Galaxy S7 has one too, remember? Other devices offer metal, which feels just as premium (and is more durable). Available colors include black, blue and white in US, while internationally it will also be sold in pink.

Maybe I’m being too harsh, but it’s because I believe HTC can and should do more to attract consumers. It used to come up with such interesting devices in the past that I can’t help but feel disappointed by what it announces nowadays. I don’t expect it to take things too far, but at least give us a flagship has something special and that will not feel like last year’s hardware a few months after launch.

Is that too much to ask considering it is offered for $749? That’s a lot of money. It’s in the same range as an iPhone 7 Plus or a Galaxy S7 edge, and both look more appealing.

I rest my case.

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