How much smarter can a smartphone get? The most potentially innovative thing about HTC's new U Play and U Ultra phones is in the software, a personal assistant that can "suggest you dress warm and leave for work earlier on a snowy day" or remind you to recharge your phone mid-day if you've been using it heavily.
"AI plus you will be invincible," HTC head of global marketing Darren Sng said. "We are just in the initial phase of AI."
Beyond the assistant software, HTC's new phones are remixes of features we've seen all over the place. Sprinkle Samsung's adaptive audio over HTC's own powerful BoomSound speakers; pop LG's secondary display on top of HTC's well-loved Sense UI. We got some time with the U Ultra and U Play in advance of the phones' launch tonight, and they look good. But will they be good enough?
The HTC U Ultra is "part of the flagship range" for the new year, according to Sng. HTC always uses attractive materials, and this year it's moved on from the M series' stainless steel to a sort of luminous, shimmery colored glass. It comes in black, pink and white, but the best color is dark blue, and it has a real automotive-paint shimmer.
The phone has a 5.7-inch, 2,560-by-1,440 screen with a 2-inch, 160x1040 "secondary display" tacked on at the top. The secondary display works a lot like the one on LG's V20: it pops up notifications and favorite contacts, and apparently, with time, it learns which notifications and people you consider "important" and only bothers you with those.
"You have the big screen for all of your regular stuff that you do, and the little screen for only the most important stuff in your life, and that's powered by AI," Sng said.
The U Ultra runs Qualcomm's Snapdragon 821 processor, with 64GB or 128GB of storage and 4GB of RAM, plus a memory card slot. The U Ultra is Cat 11 LTE, which means download speeds up to 600Mbps, which is as fast as any phone today runs, although it falls short of the gigabit LTE T-Mobile and Sprint are promising.
The U Ultra has a 3000mAh battery, and HTC's AI assistant will tell you when to charge, Sng said.
"We know your calendar events. We know whether you're going to make it to the end of the day ... most power-saving modes will prompt you at about 10-15 percent, at the time it's actually too late to do anything," he said.
HTC says the U Ultra will be available for pre-sale unlocked starting today. But it didn't give a price. The Play will be available in "select global markets," but HTC didn't say which ones or when.
Frequency bands on the spec sheets give some clues, though. The Ultra is properly banded for AT&T and T-Mobile, but lacking the CDMA radio for Sprint and Verizon.
The HTC U Play, meanwhile (above), has a more mundane, 5.2-inch 1080p screen and no secondary display. The phones are unibody, but not waterproof. It runs a Mediatek Helio P10, 32GB or 64GB of storage and 3GB or 4GB of RAM. There's a memory card slot, but the U Play is not banded to work well in North America, missing several of our critical LTE bands. So it may not come out here.
HTC thinks it can square the circle by providing both megapixels and "ultrapixels," bigger pixels designed for low light. Both the U Ultra and the U Play have 16-megapixel front cameras with a lower-res, low-light mode available. The Ultra has a 12-megapixel main camera with large "ultrapixels" for low light performance; the Play has a more standard 16-megapixel camera.
Sng said "in 2017, you'll see us do something really different for the camera," but didn't give more details.
Personally, I'm more excited about HTC's adaptive audio, a feature that it introduced on the HTC Bolt which significantly advances an older Samsung feature I used to love. First of all, yes, there's no headphone jack on either of these phones; they'll come with USB-C headphones.
The "USonic" headphones scan your ears using "sonar-like reflection" to determine how your hearing is crappy, enhancing sound in those parts of the spectrum. I tried it, and it made a real difference—everything sounded richer. Of course, it only works with HTC's own earbuds for now.
Both phones have HTC's latest version of BoomSound, which makes for separated tweeter and woofer speakers on the front.
There's one big, buzzy feature lacking from the U series: VR. Because the phones don't use an OLED display, they aren't Google Daydream compatible, Sng said. HTC also said that video images of an "HTC Vive" branded phone were just concepts.
HTC makes really nice phones. The HTC 10 was the best phone for music listeners last year, and the same could be true of the U Ultra, if it wasn't for the lack of a headphone jack. There just aren't high-end headphones designed for USB-C yet, so you'll have to use a dongle. I was very impressed by HTC's adaptive audio, though, and I hope the feature will be compatible with more sets of headphones in the future.
Otherwise, a lot of the U Ultra's uniqueness is riding on the AI features, and that makes me nervous. Can the phone really tell which notifications are important to me, in a trustworthy way? Will it be able to tell me what to wear when I leave the house in the morning? I didn't see any evidence of this on the demo devices.
As for the shimmery glass bodies, they're gorgeous. If you remember the LG G Flex series at all, they're a bit like those, but considerably more premium feeling as they're glass rather than plastic. That said, Samsung is also doing beautifully with the color-under-glass on its Galaxy S7.
Here's HTC's problem: its flagship phones are never bad. Yet they can't sell any. HTC is stuck in a very difficult middle spot in the mobile phone market, where its phones are priced like Samsung and Apple but those companies' massive marketing budgets suck all of the air out of the room.
The U Ultra's high-res, 5.7-inch screen beats everything in Samsung's and Apple's lineups right now. But LG is stepping up with the G6 at Mobile World Congress in late February, and we're anticipating a potential 5.7-inch Samsung Galaxy S8 in late March or early April.
HTC needs to differentiate itself with its assistant software. So far, Siri, Google Assistant, and Cortana have been more voice search engines than anything else. They don't do much of a proactive job of pushing content you'd like to see before you ask for it, the way Honor's Magic phone intends to do in China.
Can HTC make a phone that really feels like it's for "U?" We're looking forward to fully reviewing these in the future.