HTC has been in something of a rut for some time. While we spoke favourably of the HTC 10 in our review, it failed to pack the punch that the firm was hoping. This lead to the firm's smartphone sales plunging 35 per cent, dipping to their lowest level in 12 years.
HTC knows that something has to change, and the U Ultra is proof of that. While the firm has told us that it's not the flagship handset in its portfolio, the handset marks a departure from HTC's cold, metal design language of old, and introduces a new eye-catching curved glass design, Dual Display technology and AI technology.
We got some time to fondle with the HTC U Ultra ahead of our launch and you can read our first impressions below.
The U Ultra is, in the design department at least, like no HTC smartphone we've seen before. The firm has taken a radical new approach, ditching the cold metal cladding of the HTC 10 and replacing it with a new, curvaceous glass structure somewhat that somewhat mimics the likes of the Galaxy S7 and Honor 8.
HTC has a lot to say about the U Ultra's design, and long lauded over the "liquid surface" that means the smartphone appears different colours when held at different angles. There's no denying that it's eye-catching, and we lusted over the sheer white model that appears almost iridescent when moved.
We prefer the new approach to HTC's design aesthetics of old, with the U Ultra's glistening rear making our iPhone 7 look somewhat dull, albeit more premium, in comparison.
There's a downside to the new design, though: it's a nightmare for picking up fingerprints. It's also unclear how tough this new glass structure will prove given that HTC hasn't added any added drop or waterproof protection, but the handset remained unscathed after we heavy-handily dropped it during our hands-on time (sorry HTC).
The U Ultra is a bit of a beast too. While it's svelte 7.9mm-thick frame allowed it to squeeze neatly into our skinny jeans pocket, it's tall 162mm frame means it was quite awkward to hold at times, particularly when trying to take a photo with one hand.
At the helm of the HTC U Ultra sits a 5.7in QHD Super LCD display, while a secondary 2in 'Dual Display' sits on top of this.
Taking tips from the LG V20, this secondary display throws up "important information" such as favourite contacts, event alerts, weather and reminders. While we didn't get to test it out fully, HTC boasts that, unlike notifications on some other devices, it won't interrupt you while using other apps.
The main 5.7in display is, just as it was on the HTC 10, plenty sharp and throws up natural colours, rather than the eye-popping brightness seen on the Galaxy S7.
Performance and hardware
A Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 chip sits under the hood of the HTC U Ultra, offering a quad-core 64-bit array of up to 2.15GHz and backed by 4GB of RAM. We're yet to run benchmarks, but performance seemed silky smooth during our brief hands-on.
There's also a 3,000mAh battery inside the U Ultra, but we're yet to see how this performs. HTC promised that the Dual Display won't have a detrimental effect, nor the always-on four mic set-up.
The HTC U Ultra, like the iPhone 7, dumps the headphone jack and instead opts for audio over USB-C. To ease this controversial move, the firm will chuck in its HTC USonic in the box, earphones that analyse your inner ears with a sonar-like pulse, and then adapts to suit you.
The HTC U Ultra is the company's first smartphone to run Android 7.0 out of the box, as well as the first to come with HTC's Sense Companion app baked-in - a sort of AI assistant that'll tell you when to charge your phone, who your closest friends are and offer up recommendations for affordable restaurants if you're a cheapskate.
Unfortunately, due to "early software", we didn't get to test out the AI app, bar swiping through reminders and recommendations that had been pre-shoved into the handsets dual display.
We were also unable to test out the handset's voice recognition smarts. The HTC U Ultra comes with a four mic set-up, which as well as enabling for 3D audio capture, allows the handset to be 'always listening', which the firm claims allows for more accurate and speedy handling of commands. It'll also allow you to unlock the smartphone by talking to it, with the U Ultra capable of recognising your voice.
Elsewhere, software wise, the U Ultra is undoubtedly HTC. BlinkFeed is correct and present, for some reason, and while HTC was keen to poke at rival firms that loaded too much guff onto their devices, you'll find the likes of Angry Birds and ES File Exporter (??) pre-loaded onto the smartphone. Still, the handset's home screens are largely minimal, and most of the pre-installed crap you don't want can be removed.
The camera on the HTC U Ultra is near identical to the 12MP Ultrapixel sensor seen on the HTC 10 but with phase detection autofocus thrown in for good measure. We're yet to try out its supposed improved night photo-taking capabilities, but snaps taken in a brightly-lit office environment seemed plenty bright, detailed and crisp, while the camera itself offered lightning-fast reactions.
In our full HTC 10 review, we did pick up on the fact that colours were sometimes lacking in punchiness, and will put this to the test fully on the U Ultra when we get one in for review.
We're a little confused by HTC's claims that the U Ultra isn't a flagship device, and with that in mind, are curious to see how big a price tag it will be slapped with at launch.
Saying that, we've definitely been won over by the eye-catching design of the U Ultra, and while we're not quite so enthusiastic by the secondary display, it's a nice touch in an ever-crowded smartphone market. The smartphone's AI abilities, along with its voice recognition smarts, seem promising too, and sees HTC striving to stand out against its competitors.
We do still feel like the HTC U Ultra is missing the "wow" factor, though. While its design is cool and its software different, we're not totally convinced that this will be enough to persuade buyers away from the latest from the likes of Samsung or Huawei.
Check back soon for our full HTC U Ultra review.