HTC U12 Plus

Previewing an HTC flagship phone is so infuriating. It’s always the same thing: a handset that offers an impressive spec sheet, with many of the right elements that mean it should be vying for a place with Samsung or Apple at the top of the smartphone tree.

And it's the same old story with the HTC U12 Plus: it's a phone that impresses greatly in places, but doesn’t stick its head above the parapet in any meaningful way… so there's not much for potential purchasers to get very excited about.

That said, the £699 / $799 starting price is a little lower than a few other flagships on the market, including the iPhone X and Samsung Galaxy S9, which should help to make it a fairly attractive proposition.

The glass back is really eye-catching.

However the lack of really impressive features is a shame, because the U12 Plus has the potential to excel as a camera, a music player and easy-to-use smartphone… but there are a few slips that could prevent it being considered as a strong alternative to the incumbent handsets at the head of the pack.

Were it to have a massive battery, an innovative camera or a next-generation screen, it could be a very different story. 

In fairness, the snapper is strong, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before, and with a 3,500mAh power pack inside we can see the battery life being average once more.

Squeezy sides are back

The main element of ‘innovation’ is the squeezable sides we first saw on the HTC U11. The ability to tense your palm to open all manner of things, from starting the camera and taking a picture to firing up Alexa, was okay, but it wasn't something that felt natural.

HTC hasn’t given up on the idea though, keeping the squeezable sides but adding the ability to double-tap the sides of the phone to perform various actions – plus you can code this input to perform almost any task you want in any app.

Want to flip a page in an ebook? Call up a boarding pass from your airline’s app? That’s now possible with a few setup taps.

HTC U12 Plus review

You can alter the pressure of the squeezable sides, which helps a little.

However, we’re still very much unsold on this feature. To activate the double-tap you have to strike a very specific part of the phone, and it’s not where the hand naturally sits.

The squeezing of the phone is also something that still feels unnatural to us – HTC says it’s worked on this, making it more useful and relevant, and it’s true that things like the phone knowing when it’s being held, and not auto-rotating at the wrong times, are useful… but there’s something that doesn’t feel right about this handset.

Maybe it’s something you just need to get used to, and we feel like we'll need a few days before incorporating these actions into our everyday use of the handset becomes natural, but right now they don’t feel like obvious interactions.

HTC U12 Plus review

The translucent blue version of the phone is striking.

A striking design

HTC has a history of making beautiful phones – a rival manufacturer recently told us their handsets ‘looked like HTC units’, and they saw that as a huge compliment.

That’s because, despite all its troubles, HTC still knows how to make a stunning handset, and the U12 Plus is just that. 

From a hand-feel point of view it’s a real shame that metal is no longer being used as the primary material in phone design, as it just sits in the hand so nicely; but it’s not ideal when you’re trying to get 1.2Gbps of data into a phone, as metal can interfere with cellular connectivity.

HTC U12 Plus review

The glass HTC is using is a good alternative to metal.

So it’s glass instead, and HTC has employed the design imperative to brilliant effect here, using a layered 3D glass process with ‘cold polishing’ to create a phone that has a two-tone look and almost zero bezel either side of the screen.

It’s a really stunning handset to look at – tilting it back and forth shows off the lovely two-tone effect, and it’s something not many other brands have gone for. A similar effect has been achieved on the Honor 10, but you’d have to say that HTC is still the front-runner in great-looking phones.

However, HTC has still managed to take a great design and make you pause: there are no mechanical buttons on this phone, and while this is great in terms of things not failing, it's not so good when it comes to actually doing stuff.

There are protrusions on the side of the phone where the buttons would be, but they don’t move at all. Instead they vibrate when sensing a touch, and it doesn’t really mimic the feel of a regular key.

HTC U12 Plus review

The haptic, non-pressable buttons irk.

The power key, which also unlocks the phone, feels okay – the haptic feedback under the finger is what you'd expect – but the volume keys above just don’t; they seem incongruous given how you'd expect a button to feel when pressed.

Perhaps, as with the squeezing and tapping, it’s something you have to get used to… but HTC is asking us to learn an awful lot of new ways to interact with this phone for the sake of changing things up.

The screen is a 6-inch, 18:9 affair, coming with the high-end quad HD resolution. It might not, at first look, seem as impressive as the iPhone X however, simply because it lacks that handset's notch, and thus the display doesn’t seem to fill the whole front of the phone.

HTC U12 Plus review

The HTC U12 Plus is capable of showing HDR 10 content.

In reality this feels like an unfair assessment, as the lips top and bottom don’t just offer a pleasant symmetrical look, they also house the improved Boomsound speakers – and the thinner bezels on the right and left of the phone still make for a device that's easy to hold.

What’s less impressive about the screen is the off-center brightness, whereby if you tilt the phone around too much it darkens a touch – the Super LCD technology that HTC has been using for years looks fine, but it doesn’t offer the deep contrast, and, well, the ‘wow’ factor that you get with Samsung's and Apple's flagship devices.

HTC U12 Plus review

The lips at the top and bottom house great speakers.

That said, the color reproduction is strong, and you can turn it up or down depending on your preference. 

With the richer setting enabled, the effect when watching movies is impressive: you’ll feel the full range of cinematic colors as a result.

Powerful but slow camera

HTC U12 Plus review

The 12MP + 16MP cameras could be good, but need work.

HTC is telling everyone, once again, that it's got one of the best cameras on the market with the snapper on the HTC U12 Plus… and that's possibly true. It's hard to fully assess its capabilities in a test environment, but the pictures we took were pretty sharp and in focus.

There are two sensors on the phone. The 12MP 'regular' sensor comes with both an impressive optical image stabilizer (OIS) and an electronic one, to effectively counter camera-shake for sharper shots.

There's also a 16MP telephoto lens alongside, allowing for both zoomed-in shots or bokeh (background blur) effects. The result of the latter is pretty average to be honest, but given that the camera is often among the least-optimized features on pre-production phones, we won't worry too much about that right now.

HTC U12 Plus review

The two front-facing cameras don’t offer stunning visuals.

What's odd here is that HTC has taken so long to put two sensors on the rear of its phone, as it was one of the leaders in the dual-camera revolution with the HTC One M8 a few years ago. 

However, the brand lost its nerve, and reverted to a single sensor… so it lost any right to call itself a pioneer in this area as a result.

HTC U12 Plus review

The rear camera is strong, sharp but the shutter is a little slow as usual.

That hasn't stopped it making a decent snapper here though: the HDR Boost function really does a good job of analyzing your snaps and working out what's going on in the image, and improving and sharpening it. 

In side-by-side comparisons with the Google Pixel 2, the HTC U12 Plus delivers better night-time shots, with more natural colors.

While the results are good, the time taken from the shutter being pressed to the phone taking the picture is, as ever with an HTC phone, maddeningly slow, meaning you need to wait a little too long to take another picture.

Sure, you're not going to need that speed all the time, but it's not something rivals' handsets suffer with.

HTC U12 Plus review

The two sensors on the front of the phone have a good spec, and with some tweaking might offer great selfies.

The front of the phone has a dual-8MP sensor too, allowing for wider selfies, and there's the ability to flash the screen to illuminate subjects. This results in some fine pictures, but again nothing sensational. 

When images from the HTC U12 Plus are placed side-by-side with similar images from an iPhone X, for example, there's a marked difference in quality, favoring the iPhone.

Skin tones look a little washed out, and the beauty mode that's on by default overcooks things a little.

HTC is an odd brand when it comes to its cameras – it often produces a phone with a strong capabilities, but you'll need to press a few buttons to make it work. 

Samsung is similar – and, in fact, it's a feature of many Android phones – but there's nothing on offer here to suggest that this is a phone that's going to trouble the Google Pixel 3 when it comes to image quality.

Amazing audio

HTC U12 Plus review

The bundled USonic headphones are among the very best we’ve seen incluced free with a phone.

If we're talking quality in the HTC U12 Plus though, let's get right to the audio quality: this is where HTC excels, and already we can see that the U12 Plus is going to be a phone for the music lover.

There's so much space on board, with 64GB (128GB in some areas, including the US) of built-in storage, plus a microSD slot that can accept cards up to 2TB, which is great for when you want to download stuff from Spotify and not fill up your memory, or if you just want to stick your massive music collection on there.

And when you want to play your music, you've got so many options that are all equal in quality: the new and improved Boomsound speakers offer more volume, but that's combined with upgrades to the bass and overall audio power, so you're not getting overblown sound but strong, punchy notes.

HTC U12 Plus review

The bottom speaker annoyingly fires downwards, but this doesn’t appear to impede sound quality.

If you're thinking of using this phone as a kitchen companion when making dinner, or in the shower (which is fine, as it's IP68-rated) then you'll love what's on offer here.

The external speakers are only part of the equation though, with the audio quality that really impresses coming from the bundled headphones. Yes, HTC has ditched the headphone jack (and that sucks), but it's made up for it by including superb earbuds in the box.

These things are noise-cancelling, but also have microphones inside that can send an audio wave into your ear and work out the right levels of audio for your specific tastes. It's hard to know whether this truly works, but the side-by-side comparison HTC offers as a 'before and after' of the audio quality suggests a big jump.

If you're using the HTC U12 Plus as a video recorder, then the Sonic Zoom (which is a funny name anyway) is a neat feature, using multiple microphones to really zero in on a conversation, musical performance or whatever sound the object you're filming is kicking out.

It really works, and in a loud environment the quality is high. If you're someone who likes to film a gig, the HTC U12 Plus seems like it'll be the phone to get.

Early verdict

The HTC U12 Plus is another curious phone from the brand. Like the HTC 10 and HTC U11, the Taiwanese firm has not made a 'bad' phone for a while. There are some real highlights on offer here, in the shape of a nice design, good camera and excellent audio. 

The HTC Sense Android overlay, which we've not talked about here as it's not upgraded from previous models, remains one of the better skins, and it's all put together in an attractive package.

However, it's in the nuances that HTC misses the opportunity to streak ahead. A fingerprint scanner on the rear combined with a face-unlock option is cool, but it's nothing we've not seen before, and it's not as good as the options from rivals Samsung or Apple (in the case of face recognition), as it doesn't use infrared, so you can't unlock your phone in the dark.

HTC U12 Plus review

The HTC U12 Plus is just a striking phone the second you look at it.

The camera is fine, but also nothing new. The battery life will probably be okay, with 3500mAh seeming like a lot, but HTC has never offered brilliant longevity in the battery stakes. The Snapdragon 845 chipset combined with 6GB of RAM is a good package, but again it's nothing innovative.

Speaking of innovation, the only examples here are the absence of physical keys and the Edge Sense 2 squeezable sides… and our early feeling is that these aren't attractive options. They're cool additions, but not an intuitive experience.

Where the HTC U12 Plus excels is in the combination of audio and design: in a vacuum, where reputation and marketing spend counted for nothing, HTC would be winning a lot of fans for these features. 

Sadly for HTC, that's not where we're at, with the top brands able to spend obscene amounts of money pushing their devices.

(We're not convinced that HTC would be able to match up even with the same budget, based on previous efforts, but that's a point for another day).

Overall, the HTC U12 Plus is an impressive phone, but the brand has been churning out top phones for a while – it needs to do something striking and innovative, and it hasn't really done so here. 

It feels like a phone from a brand playing catch-up, rather than leaping ahead, but the slightly more palatable price tag compared to rival flagships means you should still definitely look forward to our full review of this phone.

The price seems reasonable compared to the competition, and if you want a (relatively) affordable phone with great audio quality we have a sneaking suspicion that you'll really like the new HTC flagship phone – even if you never use those squeezable sides.

Gareth Beavis
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