The downside, of course, is that glass breaks. It's a good thing, then, that a thin, clear plastic case is included in the box. HTC says the phone can handle drops from as high as a 3.2 feet without a problem, but anything higher than that could wreck that beautiful build.
The other downside becomes apparent when you spin the phone around. Let's see, there's a volume rocker on the right side with the power button below that, the SIM tray up top, the USB Type-C port on the bottom and ... damn: no headphone jack. HTC's repudiation of that classic port actually started with last year's Bolt/10 Evo, but the loss doesn't sting any less now that we're looking at a 2017 flagship. Since HTC already threw in a case, you'd think a freebie 3.5mm-to-Type-C adapter would be in order, but no -- you'll have to use the included USonic earbuds or find another pair of Type-C cans.
The annoyances don't end there. I wish the fingerprint sensor and the capacitive Back and Recent Apps keys were centered in the expanse of black under the phone's screen. That might sound like I'm nitpicking, but, as you'll see later, HTC's attention to detail wavers pretty frequently in this phone.
While this design is new for HTC, the stuff inside should be very familiar. We're working with a quad-core Snapdragon 821 chipset paired with 4GB of RAM, an Adreno 530 GPU, 64GB of internal storage and a microSD slot that takes cards as large as 256GB. While your hopes for an insanely fast Snapdragon 835 chip might be dashed, this well-worn spec combo is still plenty powerful. More concerning is the 3,000mAh battery tucked away inside. That's much, much smaller than I expected for a phone this big. Even the new LG G6, which looks downright tiny next to the U Ultra, packs a more capacious cell.
Displays and sound
The U Ultra's face is dominated by that 5.7-inch, Super LCD5 panel, and it's easily one of the phone's strongest assets. Sure, there are brighter screens out there -- LG's G6 and last year's Galaxy S7s come to mind -- but the U Ultra's panel nonetheless offers excellent viewing angles and decent colors. Thankfully, you can address that latter bit with a quick trip into the device's settings, where you'll find an option to tweak the screen's color temperature as needed. Most people won't ever bother doing this, but I found it crucial because the U Ultra's screen is a few degrees too cool for my liking.
And of course, there's that second screen sitting atop the main one. It's easy enough to read at a glance and, on paper, it packs many of the same tricks I enjoyed on the LG V20. The way those tricks have been implemented, however, feels kludgy at best and completely dumb at worst.
For starters, that secondary screen can display the next event in your calendar, but there's no way to specify which calendar you want it to use. That's bad news if you rely on separate calendars for personal and work events, as I do. The screen displays a weather forecast for the rest of the day, but despite being a US-spec device, it insists on showing 24-hour time instead of AMs and PMs. You can control music playback in Spotify or Google Play Music, but that's it; if, for example, you're listening to a Pandora station or a podcast in Pocket Casts, you're stuck using the in-app controls. And for some reason, you can only access a tray of settings controls (think: WiFi, Bluetooth, etc.) when the screen is off. I get that HTC thought it was easier to swipe down into the quick-settings panel, but why not make persistent controls an option? It's sad to see that HTC's attention to detail seemed to end with the U Ultra's hardware.
Then again, HTC always had other plans for this additional space. It's the little corner where HTC's AI-powered assistant, Sense Companion, lives, offering suggestions based on what it knows about you and your behavior.
At least the U Ultra does better at cranking out the tunes. The days of two front-mounted speakers on an HTC flagship are long behind us, but the compromise on display here works well anyway. There's one front speaker that doubles as the earpiece and another speaker mounted on the phone's bottom edge. Together, they're capable of pumping out loud audio, and with decent channel separation, to boot. There's a little software trickery at play here, too: When playing audio through the speakers, you can switch between "music" and "theater" modes. I suppose the latter is supposed to sound more spacious, and it works to some extent, but the music mode tends to flatten out whatever you're listening to so that it feels more present.
Similar software makes the included USonic earbuds more than just a cheapie pack-in. When you pop the buds into your ears for the first time, you're ushered through a quick customization process that automatically tunes audio specifically for your head. I'm no acoustician, but to my ears, the difference was immediate. The earbuds are also meant to change the way that same audio sounds based on your environment, so you'll continue to get great sound while you're, say, waiting for the train to show up. The thing is, it's a manual process that requires you to tap a notification every time you want to retune based on ambient sound. HTC fanboys might pine for the company's audio halcyon days, but the U Ultra definitely still has some game.
When HTC released the 10, it also updated its approach to the Sense interface. Long story short, the company streamlined the Sense interface, discontinued some apps where Google was clearly doing better work and added theming options so your phone doesn't have to look like mine. The U Ultra ships with Android 7.0 Nougat onboard, but HTC's approach to augmenting it hasn't changed much since last year. In general, that's fine by me: I'm a Sense fan (though it certainly isn't for everyone) and Nougat brings enough notable changes in its own right. The less HTC messes with it, the better.
That -- along with a lack of carrier pressure -- explains why there are so few extraneous apps on the U Ultra. HTC's Boost+ is a resource management app that made it very easy to free up storage space. My inner paranoiac had me frequently thumbing the controls to squeeze every last ounce of performance out of the phone, but I never actually noticed any speed gains. The app gets bonus points for letting me lock certain apps with a PIN or pattern to keep prying eyes out of my business. BlinkFeed is back too, for better or worse; a quick left-to-right swipe on the home screen reveals a grid of content to digest.
BlinkFeed pulls content from social networks like Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter and LinkedIn, among others, along with articles from NewsRepublic, if you're so inclined. I didn't have many issues with the sorts of stories the app automatically provided. Be warned, though: BlinkFeed likes to put sponsored posts right in your eye-line when you open it. Really? If you're going to have me look at ads by default, give me a discount on the phone or something. While the ads are easy to disable, making them opt-out rather than opt-in does nothing for the overall experience.
The stuff I've mentioned so far is classic HTC. Sense Companion is not. There's a team somewhere within HTC that has spent months building an AI-powered virtual assistant that means to offer suggestions (like a reminder to bring a power bank on a day your calendar says is busy) on that underused second screen. As it turns out, "means to" are the operative words in that sentence; I've been testing the phone for nearly two weeks and Sense Companion hasn't done much of anything. I'm opted-in; I've allowed all permissions, and still nothing. Every once in awhile I'll get what looks like a Companion notification, but it's a false alarm; the phone is asking me to opt-in to suggestions that never come.
Annoying as it is for review purposes, HTC made this choice deliberately. The idea isn't to overload users with AI-fueled notifications; subtlety is key here, with prompts to bring an umbrella timed for rainy days you'll be out in the thick of it. Anything more pervasive than that might make you turn Sense Companion off altogether and, well, HTC can't have that. Even now, it's unclear whether what I'm experiencing is wrong or not, and that doesn't bode terribly well for the feature's short-term prospects. Sense Companion's true value will only be made apparent in time, and it will almost certainly get better eventually. Still, if this is what everyone who buys the phone will have to deal with, I can't imagine people would bother with Sense Companion for very long.
It's impossible to miss the U Ultra's main, 12-megapixel camera -- it's tucked away in that big, squarish lump around back. On paper, the camera seems promising enough: It has a f/1.8 aperture, large, 1.55-micron sensor pixels, optical image stabilization and hybrid phase-detection-and-laser autofocus, just like many other recent flagship smartphones. What the U Ultra lacks is consistency. In good lighting conditions, I found that this 12-megapixel sensor typically captures ample detail and accurate colors, but it occasionally struggles to accurately expose photos. Even then, they're never bad, per se -- just less impactful than what you'd get out of rivals like the Google Pixels. (Yes, I get that's not a completely fair comparison since the Pixels rely on more algorithms to make photos look good, but the difference is clear nevertheless.)