HTC U11 Life Review: A Lot of Promise, Too Many Compromises

The HTC U11 marked a return to form for a company that had fallen on hard times in recent years. Once Android's premier phone maker, HTC had failed to produce a truly captivating product since 2013's HTC One M7. The $649 U11, in all its shimmering, color-shifting glory, marked a new beginning.

Now, HTC is looking to distill that winning formula into a smaller, less expensive model known as the U11 Life. From the exterior, it would seem HTC mostly succeeded; the U11 Life is a dead ringer for its big sibling. But competition among budget phones is fiercer than ever, and the newest member of HTC's family will need more than a flashy look to ascend to the top of the heap.

Availability

The U11 Life will be available beginning Nov. 3, both as an unlocked device for $349 and as a carrier-exclusive on T-Mobile. (T-Mobile hadn't announced pricing when this review was published, but we'll update it with that information as it becomes available.) The unlocked model is compatible only with GSM networks, like AT&T, T-Mobile, Cricket and MetroPCS. There is also an Android One version of the U11 Life without HTC's Sense software, though it's not coming stateside.

Design: Dialing back the HTC U11

You'd be hard-pressed to tell the U11 Life from the U11 at first glance. It's only when you look closely at the phones that you begin to notice where HTC saved money on the more compact handset.

The U11's high-gloss sapphire-blue finish makes a return in the U11 Life, and it looks almost as good as it did on the original. But there's a catch: Whereas the U11 employed glass on the rear and aluminum for the frame, the U11 Life utilizes a mix of acrylic and polycarbonate.

Rest assured; it still looks like it belongs alongside HTC's other U Series products, but it simply doesn't feel as premium. There's nothing wrong with plastic in phone design when used properly, but the U11 Life can't help coming off hollow, tacky and a bit cheap.

The U11 featured a curved slab of Gorilla Glass 3 atop the display that steeply sloped at the edges to sit flush with the aluminum frame. The glass on the U11 Life is much flatter, but to sell the illusion of depth, HTC painted the top portion of the sides black, right where the plastic rises to meet the face of the device. It's not very convincing, and leaves the front of the phone looking much worse than the back.

Then again, those bezels definitely don't help the cause. To be clear, I'm not of the mind that every phone must look like a Samsung Galaxy S8 or an LG V30. Reasonably sized bezels are more than acceptable, especially on inexpensive phones. But the U11 Life commits the same sin as its premium counterpart, in that its bezels are different sizes. The one above the screen is perfectly fine, but the bottom bezel is much too chunky, and the buttons and fingerprint sensor sit just a hair too low on the chin.

I felt like I had to crush the device every time I wanted to use Edge Sense.

None of these complaints are necessarily design deal breakers, but in a sea of gorgeous smartphones that utilize a diverse range of materials ranging from ceramic to metal, the U11 Life is a step in the wrong direction.

As with the HTC U11, you don't have to fear that water will ruin your U11 Life. The phone offers IP67 water resistance. That's the same protection offered by the iPhone 8; it's good for 3.3 feet of submersion for a maximum of 30 minutes.

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Display: Bright and accurate

The 5.2-inch 1080p LCD display on the U11 Life is about as strong as they come at this price range. Full HD is the perfect resolution for a screen this size, and the color reproduction, viewing angles and brightness leave little to be desired.

The U11 Life set an appropriately moody scene while displaying the trailer for the second season of Stranger Things. On its standard sRGB setting, the display delivered a slightly warmer cast with more realistic tones and better contrast than what I observed from the Moto X4 Android One, which also has a pretty solid display. HTC also provides an optional Vivid color mode that should satisfy users who demand more saturated hues.

The U11 Life's display can get pretty bright, too, topping out at 515 nits on our light meter. That's right on a par with the Moto X4's 513-nit result. The U11 Life covers 119 percent of the sRGB spectrum and turned in a Delta-E color accuracy score of 0.33. (Numbers closer to 0 are better.) For reference, the LCD screen in the more expensive U11 covered 166 percent of the sRGB spectrum, but stood equal in terms of accuracy, at 0.34.

Audio: A downgrade from the U11

Sound is once again a major focus for HTC with the U11 Life, as the company is shipping a pair of its USonic USB-C in-ear headphones with every handset. It's a good thing, too, because like other recent HTC phones, the U11 Life has no 3.5-millimeter port.

That's something to be expected from a high-end smartphone in 2017 but it's surprising to see in a sub-$400 device. The U11's stereo speakers didn't survive the downscaling, either, so the U11 Life has just a single bottom-firing speaker to show for its troubles. The audio is not terribly clear and sounds a little tinny, though it does get loud.

The U11 Life seems woefully shorthanded in the battery department.

All of that is secondary, however, because the preferred mode of listening is through those packaged headphones. HTC says its USonic technology analyzes the properties of your ear to deliver a personalized experience, along with active noise cancellation. When I tried it out while listening to the song "Slomo" by Slowdive, I definitely noticed more pronounced bass and treble, with overall loudness increased — but it felt a little over the top, like the software was pushing the highs and lows farther than they could go.

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Performance: Right in line with a midrange model

The Snapdragon 630 processor and 3GB of RAM inside the U11 Life provide all the performance you really need in a phone. Unless you're playing particularly demanding games, this isn't a device that should be easily tripped up, as the benchmark results indicate.

The U11 Life tallied 4,136 on Geekbench 4, a test that measures overall system performance. On 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited, a test that determines graphical capabilities, the phone topped out at 16,641. The Moto X4, which makes use of the same chip and amount of RAM, scored 4,122 and 16,815, respectively. In the end, the U11 Life ranks among the most capable devices in this price range.

Of course, the larger U11 outclasses it with its Snapdragon 835 chipset and extra gigabyte of RAM. But even so, you're not likely to notice the difference in all but the most strenuous usage.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           In terms of storage, the U11 Life offers 32GB on board and the capability to expand that to 2TB with a microSD card. The phone also incorporates NFC for Android Pay.

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Camera: A class leader

One of the things we loved most about the U11 was its camera, and we're pleased to find that the U11 Life inherits some of that photographic prowess. The front and rear shooters are both rated at 16 megapixels and feature f/2.0 apertures, though the single camera on the back of the phone also gets phase detection autofocus.

The photos from the U11 Life aren't quite iPhone- or Pixel-quality, but they are excellent considering the device costs just half as much as most flagships. In comparisons with the $400 Moto Z2 Play, HTC's phone consistently delivered the better shot, with better dynamic range and low-light performance, and more realistic white balance.

Consider the blue wall above. The U11 Life gets the colors just right and reins in the highlights, while the Z2 Play casts a greenish tint over everything and blows out the scene where the light falls.

Moving to a close-up on that fruit, the Z2 Play actually claims the crisper shot, which is evident in the texture of the apple. But the U11 Life fares better with the concentration of light falling on the orange pear.

When you compare selfies, you can see that  the U11 Life's photo possesses truer-to-life contrast with finer detail, which is particularly evident in my hair and shirt. Again, the HTC shows a clear advantage in lighting the scene.

Battery: Small size, predictable results

Oddly enough, long-lasting batteries have almost exclusively become the domain of budget phones, like the $179 Moto E4 Plus and the $199 Asus ZenFone 4 Max. You would think, then, that HTC has equaled its value-minded rivals in this crucial area.

Whereas the U11 employed glass on the rear and aluminum for the frame, the U11 Life utilizes a mix of acrylic and polycarbonate.


It hasn't, and there's a good reason why. At 2,600 mAh, the U11 Life's battery is a little more than half as large as the ones powering the E4 Plus and the ZenFone 4 Max. Those handsets deliver around 15 hours of usage on a single charge. In our testing, conducted via continuous web surfing on AT&T LTE, HTC's phone managed to last just 8 hours and 25 minutes.

That's more than an hour off the 9:40 smartphone average. And to make matters worse, the U11 Life doesn't support any of Qualcomm's Quick Charge technologies. Granted, a battery this small doesn't take a long time to top off, but nevertheless, the U11 Life seems woefully shorthanded here.

Battery life is one of the few areas you shouldn't have to compromise on when spending less on a smartphone, and it makes HTC's otherwise well-rounded offering that much harder to recommend.

Software: Close to stock, with three assistants

Most phones have one virtual assistant, and some are lucky to have two. But there are no fewer than three vying for your attention on the U11 Life: Google Assistant, HTC Sense Companion and Amazon's Alexa.

Fortunately, each serves slightly different purposes. Google Assistant and Alexa definitely have some overlap, but Alexa can be ignored by those who aren't fully invested in Amazon's ecosystem. Amazon's digital companion functions pretty much the same way as it does on the company's Echo devices, but in the U11 Life, it's housed in an app called HTC Alexa.

Alexa had no trouble answering my queries, but the interaction was purely conversational, with no visual feedback like you get with Google Assistant. And you can't trigger Amazon's AI with a specific command; HTC told us the nature of the chipset in the phone prevents anything other than one wake phrase, which, in this case, remains "OK, Google."

Sense Companion is very different. HTC's own assistant doesn't try to answer your questions but instead optimizes your phone based on how it's used. For example, it'll remind you to charge at the end of the night, or let you know when a bad forecast poses trouble for your evening plans. It's not an indispensable feature by any means, but we like that HTC tried to differentiate its assistant from the pack.

What's even more interesting than the presence of all these assistants is the way you can choose to access them. Just like the U11 and Google's Pixel 2, the U11 Life boasts squeezable sides, which HTC calls Edge Sense. You can set the Edge Sense to perform specific actions when the phone is idle, as well as on a per-app basis. You can enable Advanced Mode, so that a press is treated differently than a press and hold. And as always, you can adjust the force level to your liking.

That last detail is important, because HTC's sensor placement on the lower left and right sides make squeezing your phone a little harder than it sounds. I found it much easier to attempt a squeeze with my fingerprints instead of the side of my palm, though, of course, nobody holds their phone that way. Otherwise, it felt like I had to crush the device every time I wanted to use it, and that was only at the second-most-sensitive setting.

Beyond those modifications, the U11 Life runs a fairly stock version of Android 7.1.1 Nougat, with HTC's slight modifications. Those include BlinkFeed, the company's Google Now-like interface that lives to the left of your home screen, as well as apps like Boost that claim to improve your device's performance, and Zoe for editing video. The company says an update to 8.0 Oreo will be available within 30 days.

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Bottom Line

Like so many other phones at the sub-$400 mark, there's a lot to like in the U11 Life. The screen is sublime, the camera is strong and the performance is dependable. To sweeten the deal, the U11 Life even comes with a free pair of USB-C headphones in the box.

But then you see where HTC cut corners, and the phone becomes a harder sell. Batteries have gotten larger, more efficient and faster to charge over the years, and yet the U11 Life asks you to make do with less. The look and feel are similarly disappointing, especially when competing handsets, like the Huawei Honor 6X and the Moto G5 Plus, sport all-metal bodies for hundreds less.

Luckily for T-Mobile subscribers, the U11 Life will be one of the best midrange devices on the carrier's roster. But it's not quite good enough to tangle with the iPhone SE, which also costs $349. Apple's pint-size powerhouse might not offer HTC's plurality of virtual assistants or squeezable sides, but then, with a strong camera and timeless industrial design, it doesn't have to.

If you're shopping off-contract, the plethora of options is even more overwhelming. Shiny though it is, the U11 Life is yet another respectable budget phone searching for a way to stand out.

Credit: Shaun Lucas/Tom's Guide

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