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HTC U12 Plus Hands-on Review: Too late to the party?

Although uncertainty looms over the future of the company’s smartphones that hasn’t stopped HTC from pushing a competitive new flagship out for 2018, in the HTC U12+.

In a naming discrepancy not nearly as baffling as Apple’s, it doesn’t appear that HTC will be releasing another top-tier handset during the second half of the year as it did with last year’s U11+; instead, it’s jumping straight to the U12+ which will serve as the company’s flag-bearer against every other top-tier device for the duration of 2018.

The U12+ expands the existing U-Series’ ‘liquid surface’ design language, with familiar traits like an eye-catching glass-backed body and the same Optical Spectrum Hybrid Deposition process to offer some truly striking colourways.

Ceramic Black features a silvery reflective finish, Flame Red shifts from a pinkish-red to gold, whilst the Translucent Blue option expands on the finish first sported by the U11+; with a gradiated blue back that actually lets you glimpse the phone’s internal components. Unlike the Solar Red U11, which made it to market after the phone’s initial launch, all three of these colour options will be available when the U12+ hits the market.

The phone’s sizeable front is dominated by an expansive 6-inch Super LCD6 IPS panel, rocking an 18:9 aspect ratio and a 2880×1440 resolution. It doesn’t boast rounded corners like some of the most cutting-edge phones on the market but HTC has worked to slim the bezels down over its predecessor (the U11+) by 1.12mm on each side. This renders the phone comfortable to hold despite its size. There’s also confirmed HDR10 support for platforms like YouTube and plans to add support for more services down the line.

Side by side with the likes of the Galaxy S9+’s Super AMOLED, the visuals look a little washed out, but at least there’s now a one-handed mode to make the user experience on such a large device a little more manageable.

HTC has been expanding its squeezable Edge Sense user experience on each subsequent U-Series phone and the U12+ gives us the first example of Edge Sense 2. It retains all of the quick and long-squeeze gestures we’ve already seen but now integrates a double-tap feature too, which could be considered convenient if it was more reliable (although it’s unclear whether our struggles with this new feature were based on user error or the pre-release software our test device was running).

HTC U11 Life hands-on review: Specs at a glance

Screen size 6-inches
Screen resolution Quad HD+ (2880×1440)
Weight 188 grams
OS Android 8.0 Oreo
Front camera Dual 8-megapixels w/ f/2.0 aperture
Rear camera Dual 12+16-megapixels w/ f/1.75+f/2.6, dual LED flash, UltraSpeed 2 dual pixel PDAF + laser autofocus array, OIS + EIS
Processor Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 845
Memory 6GB RAM
Storage 64GB w/ microSD expandability up to 2TB
Battery 3500mAh w/ QuickCharge 4.0 (QC 3.0 adapter in-box)
Extras IP68, Edge Sense 2, Hi-Res audio certified, fingerprint sensor, HTC USonic w/ Active Noise Cancellation, NFC
Colours Ceramic Black, Flame Red, Translucent Blue

Users will also be able to programme simple macros that operate within certain apps using this new build of Edge Sense to pull off discrete actions and the feature will also detect how you’re holding your U12+ to automatically lock screen rotation in certain situations; like reading, lying on your side in bed or when watching videos.

Beyond Edge Sense, there doesn’t appear to be much that’s ‘new’ within HTC’s software experience. The U12+ runs on Android Oreo out-the-box with a promised upgrade to Android P as soon as it’s ready for prime-time (ambiguous but still good to know). Edge Launcher is still in play, which helps zip to your favourite apps or contacts and there’s automated maintenance software on offer that should help to keep the phone feeling fast.

The U12+ is also a hardier beast than any of its predecessors. The company’s used the same trick as Apple did with the iPhone’s home button and made the hardware controls running down the phone’s right side solid-state, so they don’t physically move anymore and instead provide a haptic vibration when pressed. It’s a change we welcome if it means fewer potential failure points on a phone, plus it helps the phone retain its IP68 dust and water resistance certification.

Sadly, there’s no 3.5mm headphone jack, with the in-box active noise-cancelling USonic headphone’s instead plugging directly into the phone’s USB-C port. This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise as the company hasn’t included a headphone jack on a high-end phone since the HTC 10 EVO came along.

As for external audio, HTC has used the same BoomSound Hi-Fi Edition speaker setup as found on its most recent predecessors; with the earpiece dealing out the mids and high frequencies, whilst the bass comes from the loudspeaker beneath the display. HTC claims the U12+’s interpretation is 50 percent louder and offers superior clarity over last year’s U11 – something we’re tempted to put to the test come time for a full review.

The U12+ will come with a Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 adapter in-box but will actually support faster QC 4.0 fast-charging thanks to the Snapdragon 845 processor at its heart. That chipset, paired with 6GB of RAM also makes this the most powerful HTC ever and a respectable competitor against ever major flagship phone currently on the market.

We were hoping that alongside its fast-charging talents, the U12+ would accommodate wireless charging, which continues to gain traction with major manufacturers, but alas, it wasn’t to be. Alongside fingerprints and smears, that glass back does also feature a fingerprint sensor (without gesture support) and the phone’s headline dual rear camera module.

The new UltraPixel 4 sensor packs in a 12-megapixel primary snapper and a secondary 16-megapixel sensor to provide 2x lossless optical zoom and up to 10x enhanced digital zoom; similarly to Huawei’s recent efforts. We haven’t seen an HTC flagship with a dual camera since the One (M8), which from HTC’s perspective is due to a lack of innovation with the technology until this point.

An evolution of the U11’s UltraPixel 3 sensor, there’s full-sensor dual-pixel PDAF (phase detection autofocus) at work but thanks to a new UltraSpeed 2 focusing system, low-light shots should also sharpen up quicker as a result of the additional laser autofocus array as well.

The 12/16-megapixel camera module uses f/1.75 and f/2.6 apertures, along with 1.4μm and 1μm pixel sizes respectively. Its improved HDR Boost 2 algorithm can process more frames at the same time for better noise reduction too, hinting at superior HDR still capture than the likes of Google’s Pixel 2 and low light performance that should give Samsung’s Galaxy S9 cause for concern.

Combined OIS and EIS (optical and electronic image stabilisation) persists across photo and video capture, right up to the phone’s maximum 4K resolution at 60fps, whilst slow-motion capture matches that of the iPhone X with 1080p recording at 240fps available. HTC wanted to offer longer slow-motion recording with audio capture in place of the 960fps super slow-motion burst capture modes we’ve seen on the likes of Sony’s and Samsung’s phones; a decision we can get behind for those planning on using the U12+’s camera on the regular.

In total, the U12+ actually possesses four cameras, with dual front-facing wide-angle 8-megapixel sensors that not only offer up real-time adjustable background blur like the main snappers but also depth-aware face unlock functionality.

The phone’s Sonic Zoom function (which filters out background noise as you zoom in on a subject) is supposedly 60 percent louder and 33 percent more focused compared to the U11, and the quad-microphone setup employed by the U12+ that enables this feature also accommodates dual wake-word support as the phone plays nice with both Google’s Assistant and Amazon Alexa out-the-box.

If this first encounter with the U12+ hasn’t convinced you that this thing is packed to the gills, nothing will. HTC has clearly poured time and energy into making meaningful changes and updates to its flagship formula; we’re just left wondering whether it’s too little too late (and whether the company should have stuck to its guns with regards to dual cameras all those years ago).

The HTC U12+ is set to hit the UK in late June, priced at £699, which sets it in between the likes of the OnePlus 6 and Samsung Galaxy S9+. For what’s on offer, that seems like a pretty enticing price-point, but we’ll have a clearer picture of whether it’s worth the price come full review time. Stay tuned…


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