HTC's glittering U Ultra and U Plus stand out, but will they stack up?

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The humble HTC 10 has been largely overshadowed by competitors like Samsung’s Galaxy S7, but this spring, HTC has set its sights on recapturing some momentum with two new phones: the HTC U Ultra, and HTC U Play. Both phones will come out in “early 2017,” which we think means around early March or late February.

These phones represent a new philosophy, or a cheesy new branding, at least. “We hear you. We see U. We learn from U. It’s all about U,” HTC touts in its marketing campaign.

Branding aside though, the first thing U are going to notice is the unique finish on these phones. Both the larger phablet-sized HTC U Ultra and the iPhone-sized U Play may be the glossiest, classiest phones I have ever held. The sapphire blue editions are particularly stunning.

The phones’ vivid colors come from a rear shell made from a new type of engineered glass with richer coloring than we’ve seen before. Many glass phones, like the Galaxy S7 devices, have color, but you can see the shiny color coating underneath the glass. Somehow, HTC has simply made the glass shiny and mirrored — it appears all the way through. It’s difficult to describe how gorgeous and smooth these phones look. Visually, HTC has entered a new dimension.

HTC calls this glass “liquid surface,” but the technical word for it is Optical Spectrum Hybrid Deposition, and HTC says it has worked on the technique for more than two years. Technical jargon aside, it’s so glossy you could use these phones to put on makeup. Sadly, that also means that they are fingerprint magnets. We had to repeatedly wipe down the surfaces to make them look good during photography, but it’s difficult to say how bad they will get during everyday use, or if the fingerprinting will get on your nerves. You can order the phones in black, ‘ice’ white, ‘sapphire’ blue, and ‘cosmetic’ pink, but colors will vary based on the country you live in.

Despite their fragile, glassy look, HTC representatives also told us both phones are built to withstand a normal fall from about 1.6 meters, or the height most people have their phone at while taking a selfie. The durability may stem from the metal frame, which gently curved around the edge of the phone, much like a Galaxy S7 or iPhone 7, with a brushed metal, minimalistic look. Just don’t dunk them. The phones some water resistance, but cannot stand full submersion underwater. Both designs were comfortable to hold.

On the front, both devices have a flat Gorilla Glass screen of varying sizes. The larger U Ultra has a 5.7-inch Quad HD (2,650 x 1,440 pixel) Super LCD screen, along with a smaller 2-inch screen sitting on top of it, exactly like LG’s V10 and V20 phones. This extra screen spits out important notifications and other vital information from HTC’s new Companion AI assistant, which we’ll talk about soon. The smaller U Play has no extra screen, but does have a respectable 5.2-inch Full HD (1,920 x 1,080 pixel) Super LCD screen. Both screens were vivid and beautiful, with relatively deep blacks and bright colors.

Both U phones come with HTC’s new AI assistant, the HTC Sense Companion. Think of it as a much more modest version of Siri or Google’s Assistant. HTC believes Siri and its kin are almost useless right now, and its Sense Companion is coming at the problem from a new perspective.

“AI is trying to be helpful, but not really helping,” says Darren Sng, VP and head of global product marketing at HTC. “When we think about AI, we think about telling jokes. We use our personal assistants to tell jokes.”

Sense Companion, in contrast, is supposed to help you quietly, in just the right ways, at just the right time. For example, it won’t tell you the weather every day, but it will suggest that you dress warmer if it’s snowing out, or the temperature changes. It also works with several apps, like Uber Eats, Yelp, and Foursquare, to get to know your dining habits. If you happen to walk by a restaurant it thinks you may enjoy, and it’s a time that you normally eat, the Sense Companion may recommend it. The key is that it’s supposed to learn more over time.

“We can understand more than Google can,” said Sng. “We can provide meaningful AI even without [Google’s Assistant because we] can understand the patterns between apps and the usage. You enable us to understand you.”

Like any good assistant, the Sense Companion also has voice recognition backed by some impressive hardware. On the U Ultra, four omnidirectional microphones isolate your voice from surrounding noise as long as you’re within six-foot range. Biometric voice unlocking also means can unlock your phone by talking, much like you can with a fingerprint.

The Sense Companion can help you navigate your phone, accept or reject phone calls, snooze or dismiss alarms, etc. And though it’s listening 100 percent of the time for your commands, it will have less than a 1 percent effect on battery life — or so we’re told. Since it takes several weeks for it to get to know you, we weren’t able to test much in the hour we had with the phone.

Does it work? We have no idea. It sounds like HTC has the right approach, but there is a real danger in the assistant being either too aggressive, too quiet, or too useless. We will test it out when we have the phones later this spring. Until then, we have a skeptical eyebrow raised. We do like the idea of voice unlocking, though. But always-on microphones are also unnerving.

The U Ultra and U Play are being released as a pair, but there are some big differences between them. Both devices come with Android 7.0 Nougat installed, along with the HTC Sense interface, which is very minimalistic this time around. Both of them also have MicroSD card slots for expanded storage, fingerprint sensors in the home button, and a 16-megapixel selfie camera up front with HTC’s ‘Ultrapixel’ technology. Peer closer and you’ll see that the U Play has some significant omissions, though.

The U Ultra has a top-of-the-line 2.15GHz 64-bit Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor in it, 4GB of RAM, 64GB or 128GB of storage, and a 12-megapixel Ultrapixel 2 rear camera with laser autofocus, optical image stabilization, and phase detection autofocus. On top of that, there is a limited-edition model that has a sapphire screen. The screen also packs more pixels, it has BoomSound (great sounding) front-facing speakers, that fantastic four-mic setup, and that extra notification screen up top.

The U Play is not so well endowed. It runs on a significantly weaker MediaTek Helio P10 processor, some models will only have 3GB of RAM, storage will start at 32GB and scale to 64GB, it cannot listen to you all the time or unlock based on your voice, it has weaker speakers, , and the rear camera is a standard 16-megapixel sensor that lacks laser autofocus. It should still take great shots, but they won’t be quite as nice as the larger Ultra. 4G LTE speeds on the Play also top out at 300Mbps — half that of the Ultra (600Mbps). The battery is also smaller, at 2,500mAh instead of the 3,000mAh on the Ultra.

We cannot yet say if the HTC U Ultra or U Play are our favorite phones of 2017, but they stack up well against the competition, at least for now. We were hoping that HTC would opt for Qualcomm’s next big processor, so it is disappointing that it picked the Snapdragon 821, which has been out for some time. It’s also bothersome that HTC still has not addressed some basic features, like waterproofing, that competitors already have.

At the same time, when it comes to camera quality, sound quality, and that gorgeous glass back, the U Ultra will probably lead the pack.

Cost is the big question. We were told that the U Ultra will have a similar price to a high-end phone like the iPhone or Galaxy S7, which means it will be $650 to $800. The competition is stiff at that price, as you can tell by our favorite smartphones list. As for the weaker U Play model, we hope that it will cost less than $500. Even at that price, it will face stiff competition from our favorite cheap phones.

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