The HTC U Ultra: Will It Win U Over?

By James O Malley on at

HTC has been struggling as of late. Despite the success of the HTC One a few years ago, more recently it has been crowded out by its many Android competitors, and of course, by the sheer marketing might of Samsung. This morning, it announced its new flagship devices for 2017 - can the HTC U be the product line that wins back HTC some respect?

The HTC U Ultra and U Play are 5.7" and 5.2" devices respectively. The former is the heavyweight, running on a Snapdragon 821, with a 64 bit quadcore processor that runs up to 2.15ghz. It has a 12MP camera with 1.55μm pixel on the back and a 16MP wide-angle camera on the front (which sounds the wrong way around, but the rear camera has smaller pixels, which means better quality photos). In other words, it is a bit better than last year's HTC 10. The full spec-sheet is here.

And the latter? Unsurprisingly "Play" is a fun euphemism for "less powerful" - and is aimed at midrange consumers instead (full specs here).

But this isn't what's interesting. What's interesting are some of the features that HTC has built into the devices.

The most obvious new feature (only on the U Ultra, mind) is the addition of a small, thin extra screen at the top of the front of device - next to the selfie-camera. The idea is that this can display notifications or shortcuts without having to light up your entire screen (and thus drain the battery accordingly). This isn't entirely new - we've seen similar before on the LG V10 and V20, but what HTC claims will make the difference is that it is powered by what it calls the "Sense Companion" AI. This means that it won't simply display your most recent notification but instead it will use its intelligence to figure out what is the most important notification to you right now.

This AI is also used for some Google Now-style features. For example, the phone will mine your calendar and give you predictive information, such as warning you if traffic to your next appointment is heavy, or whether it will be raining once you reach your destination.

The second most obvious feature - or lack thereof - is that HTC has gone the same way as Apple and has consigned the 3.5mm headphone jack to history. Proof, if proof be needed, that when Apple jumps, the rest of the tech industry says "how high?".

But as for the most interesting feature? This might be something that gets us talking: Voice unlocking.

That's right, apparently the U can use your biometric voiceprint to identify if it really is you - and if it confirms your identity it will unlock. No pin, no fingerprint required. The phone has four microphones built into it that are always listening - presumably to make sure that the phone will always catch what you're saying. It'll be interesting to see just how effectively it works as I believe this hasn't been seen before, and surprisingly so given the proliferation of voice-activated devices as of late.

The new devices are due to hit in mid-February, and no pricing has been announced yet, but we'll keep you posted.