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Saturday, May 26, 2018

HTC U12 Plus Review: Hands-on

HTC U12 Plus Review: Hands-on
PRICE WHEN REVIEWED
  • £699
HTC is having a funny old time of it since Google nicked a load of its employees. Having made the Google Pixel, Pixel XL and Pixel 2 (but not the LG made 2 XL), you’d be forgiven for thinking there wouldn’t be another HTC flagship.


But the HTC U12 Plus is its high-end phone for 2018 – and the company is so convinced it’s a winner, there’s no regular model. It’s Plus or bust.

The phone looks quite a bit like the chunky U11 Plus, but with some decent upgrades. HTC has been treading water for a few years now and needs a hit. Despite the strength of the U11 line, no one bought one.

Can the U12 Plus put HTC back at the top of the smartphone pile? Here’s what we think after we had hands on time with the phone.

HTC U12 PLUS PRICE AND AVAILABILITY
At £699 in the UK, the U12 Plus will rattle around the high-end price bracket but is still less than some key rival devices. Samsung’s Galaxy S9 Plus costs an eye watering £869 while the Google Pixel 2 XL is £799.

At the same price as the Sony Xperia XZ2, hopefully it will get the operator support it needs to actually sell some units when it goes on sale later this month (date TBC).

Of course, like every year, OnePlus has popped up to ruin everything by pricing its excellent OnePlus 6 from £469.

HTC U12 PLUS DESIGN AND BUILD
It’s always a good start when a phone is eye catching, and the HTC U12 Plus is that. Not quite in the same way recent Samsung Galaxy phones are, but the new colours had us swooning.

There’s black (which isn’t really black), red (which turns gold) and a translucent blue that shows off some of the internals through the sturdy Gorilla Glass 5. All three colours shimmer much like the colours of 2017’s U11, and while they are fingerprint magnets they are certainly lust worthy.

Speaking of fingerprints, the sensor is on the back, but the dual front cameras allow for face unlock, and the four mics for voice unlock.

The design is a little straight laced though, and the phone is a monolithic slab of tech that while shiny on the back is quite understated on the front and sides. The phone is very large and quite hard to hold with one hand much like the S9 Plus, but as the U12 Plus is noticeably thicker, you’re going to have to use two hands most of the time.

The display is a 6in 18:9 6in LCD. Like LG with the G7 ThinQ, HTC is sticking to LCD with its high-end phone, potentially to keep costs down but it still looks great to us. Above that screen is the surprising addition of two front facing cameras – matching the two on the back.

For us, it's refreshing to see the HTC U12 Plus has no notch. Along with the Galaxy S9 it's one of the few high-end flagships this year without one, and proves it's not a necessity despite the trend.

All four cameras here are flush to the casing and means you can take portrait photos or selfies. Even more unique to the U12 Plus is that none of the buttons physically move. The power and volume keys are pressure sensitive and give you vibration feedback rather than actually moving, which helps with the waterproofing and means they can’t break like a mechanical button might.

It’s a step closer to phones being completely seals units, though not quite – you still need the USB-C port for fast charging, but no wireless charging, despite the glass.

The three colours will all be available at launch, and we are taken by the Flame Red that transitions from red to gold in the light. Ceramic Black shifts from black to silver, and the Translucent Blue is less jazzy but does show less fingerprints.

It’s a desirable phone, but it may prove too utilitarian for some, even in the red.
HTC U12 PLUS FEATURES AND SPECIFICATIONS
The specs on show here are mouth-watering, particularly when paired with HTC’s close to stock Android skin. A Snapdragon 845 is paired with 6GB RAM and 64GB of expandable storage. It’s also dual SIM, but the SIM 2 space is taken up if you opt for a microSD card.

The tall 6in display is 18:9 Quad HD, but oddly its most interesting interaction comes not from the touchscreen but the sides of the device. Like the U11 and then the Pixel 2, HTC has put pressure sensitive sides into the U12 Plus, and this time round it’s called Edge Sense 2.

You can tap and squeeze where before only the latter was possible. You can tap the edge with your thumb one handed to bring up a scroll wheel of customisable apps and your calendar, for example. HTC admitted to us it’s a big ol’ phone, but this thoughtful feature makes it easier to use -  even if it’s inventing the problem before finding a solution.

It’s cool that HTC lets you customise all these taps and squeezes (unlike Google on the Pixel 2) but it might prove to be a granular option too far. We tended not to squeeze the U11 as it’s not the most natural action, and the ability to map a squeeze to simulate a tap on a certain part of the screen within certain apps still feels like an overly complicated inclusion.

We are more likely to end up using a tap or squeeze as a back button to make the phone easier to use one handed, but how natural this is in real world use remains to be seen.

More interesting is the camera set up here. Two 8Mp lenses on the front allow for real time adjusting of bokeh effect before you take the photo (though you can edit afterwards too). It’s a genuinely useful thing on a smartphone that shouldn’t be written off as gimmicky.

The U12 Plus having two cameras is very 2018, and the rear cameras are 12Mp and 16Mp with an impressive zoom that takes full advantage of the hardware. HTC is keen to highlight the video capabilities of the U12 Plus, and like on the LG V30 there are some decent features like zoom tracking that will zoom in or out automatically on a subject.

The main sensor on the rear cameras has an f/1.75 aperture, so hopefully it will perform well in low light – a high bar has been set this year by the Huawei P20 Pro, though. 

You’ll be able to record in 4K with OIS (important plus) at 30 and 60fps, so in our full review we’ll be very keen to see if this is the best smartphone for video. There’s also the option for slo-mo at 240fps with no length limit so you can muck about with that to your heart’s content.

Pairing this video set up are four microphones to capture the best audio possible. HTC calls it sonic zoom, as the mics can intelligently hone in on whatever you zoom in on when recording, and also block out ambient noise.

In a demo this worked great, so we will test the function properly in our full review. But if you’re looking for a phone to replacing your DSLR for video, it could be attractive.

And for one more branded feature, there is HTC’s Boomsound speaker set up on board. It’s loud and clear, but just like any phone in the world, you won’t want to play music from it. Radio and podcasts at a push. You’ll want to use headphones, but there’s no jack – there’s a 3.5mm dongle and HTC’s pretty good bundled, adaptive USonic in-ear cans in the box.

Rounding up the U12 Plus package is IP68 water resistance, a 3,500mAh Quick Charge 4 compatible battery (but only a QC3 charger in the box), but no wireless charging.

HTC U12 PLUS SOFTWARE
HTC’s software has been its strength for years given it doesn’t change stock Android too much. There are visual differences in menus and fonts are different throughout the OS, but it’s pleasingly customisable, and the additions you’ll find on the U12 Plus are mainly associated with Edge Sense functions or audio set up.

The camera app is clean and easy to navigate around despite the tons of options available to you. HTC lets you be as plain as you want with its software, or you can customise it to within an inch of its life. The company expects you to do the latter, and the U12 Plus still feels like an enthusiasts’ device more than a mass market option like the Galaxy S9.

SPECS
  • Android 8.1 Oreo
  • 6in Quad HD LCD
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 845
  • 6GB RAM
  • 12Mp main + 16Mp telephoto dual cameras, 4K video at 60fps
  • OIS/EIS
  • 8Mp dual front cameras
  • 802.11ac dual-band Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 5.0
  • 4G LTE
  • GPS
  • NFC
  • 3500mAh battery
  • IP68 water resistant

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