It’s a tough task to review an HTC phone in 2018. Am I supposed to treat this company, whose phone design team was recently gutted by Google’s acquisitive forces, as a sustainable and continuing business? How exactly do I factor in the non-zero probability of HTC no longer even having a phone division this time next year? These are questions I don’t have great answers to, but what I can offer you is my informed judgment of the latest flagship from the Taiwanese company, the HTC U12 Plus. I’ve spent a few weeks using this $799 Android phone and I have plenty of facts and feelings to report about it.
Measuring 6 inches diagonally, boasting the usual high specs of our time, and clad in glass on both the front and back, the U12 Plus is a rather indistinct phone at first sight. Nonetheless, HTC manages to freshen up this handset’s aesthetic with a couple of sophisticated designs: one a translucent blue that exposes the internal components, the other an iridescent mix of pink and red that is basically unique among smartphones today.
With an already great camera on board, nonexistent side bezels, nice display, and no notch to spoil the view, the U12 Plus threatens to be the reasonable person’s phone of the year. And yet, priced as high as it is, and featuring one catastrophically bad design quirk, the U12 Plus ends up disappointing.
Let’s just dive right into the big novelty of the U12 Plus and why it’s so bad. With this phone, HTC decided to jettison all mechanical buttons and instead replaced the side keys with non-moving “buttons” that provide haptic feedback when you press them. It is no overstatement to call this design change an unmitigated disaster.
I understand why HTC did it: the company’s reasoning is that mechanical buttons are the first thing to break down on most phones (I guess we’re not counting accidental screen breakages), and anything that can be done to ameliorate that situation is a good thing. I also believe it’s possible to do what HTC tries to do with its faux buttons on the U12 Plus correctly. It’s just that HTC hasn’t achieved anything close to its original vision and idea.
The problem is prosaically simple: the U12 Plus is neither fast nor consistent in responding to my presses of the side nubs that pose as buttons. On any Android phone, my favorite shortcut is the double tap of the power button to launch the camera — a quick, instinctive action — which the U12 Plus turns into a comically haphazard frustration. I usually have to push the power button down hard to get the phone to react, but when I do that, I can’t lift off and return to press it (hard) again in time for the second half of the double tap. Then at other times, both the power and volume keys would react to the merest of glancing, unintended touches. I’ve been able to launch the camera while trying to turn the volume down, which is not a thing that should be happening on a phone without an excess of clumsiness on the part of the user.
Phone buttons are like the doorknobs in your house: essential, but rarely a topic of interesting conversation. But, just like doorknobs, bad buttons are something you’ll sense every single day you use the thing they’re on, and that’s why I have to hammer home this point. The faux buttons on the HTC U12 Plus were a problem that I could never overcome, and that soured my impression of the entire phone because they were ever-present in my use of it.
I find this self-sabotage by HTC a terrible shame because the rest of the U12 Plus is full of things I can commend. First among them is the phone’s new shape and size. I liked last year’s HTC U11 very much, then I appreciated the upgrades of the beefed-up U11 Plus, but didn’t enjoy its inflated dimensions. The U12 Plus hits the Goldilocks sweet spot. Its side bezels are so reduced, in fact, that it’s narrower than the U11, which leads to a meaningful upgrade in one-handed ergonomics. My Google Pixel 2 XL also has a 6-inch screen and a 3,500mAh battery (3,520mAh, if you insist on precision). However, it’s both taller and wider than the U12 Plus. If only HTC had put a regular old mechanical combo of the power button and volume rocker on its new phone.
Aside from having better buttons, the Pixel 2 XL is also one of the last remaining aluminum phones on the market, which means it’s easier to grip and handle than the glass-on-both-sides U12 Plus. HTC isn’t the only company guilty of this, but when I’m handling the U12, I feel like my hands have suddenly been oiled up. I rarely feel secure in my handle on the phone and I leave layers upon layers of smudges and fingerprints on its back. And it’s not just my biology that’s at fault here: I’ve seen the U12 Plus idly slip off a freaking mouse pad, a surface designed to generate grip and traction.
So the buttons are terrible, the surface finish is questionable, and the price is hard to swallow. What’s actually good about the U12 Plus? Well, I still like the efficient size of this phone for all the specs and capabilities contained within, I appreciate the lack of a camera bump, and the bundled USB-C earphones are very good. Then again, HTC has decided to ship the U12 Plus without a 3.5mm audio adapter — so with every step forward, the company is managing to take some related step back. I don’t mourn the loss of the particular adapter that was in the U11 or U11 Plus box, which was awful, but the idea of a company shipping a phone with no direct means to connect to my wired headphones feels like it belongs back in 2006.
HTC finds the strength of its new phone in the same old things it’s been doing for a while. The 6-inch 2880 x 1440 screen is a Super LCD 6, and it’s nicely readable in all conditions, exhibiting none of the problematic oversaturation I clashed with during my review of the U11 Plus a few months ago. Most Android flagships at the U12 Plus’ price tier have moved on to use OLED, with various degrees of quality on offer, but I don’t feel like I’m missing out on much with HTC’s IPS LCD. Perhaps people who like to use the always-on display option (which HTC offers on the U12 Plus) might notice the phone’s battery depleting faster than it might with an OLED panel, but we’re talking tiny degrees of difference.
Also good, bordering on glorious, is HTC’s camera inside the U12 Plus. The main camera has a 1.4μm pixel size with a max resolution of 12 megapixels, and its lens has a nice and wide f/1.75 aperture. HTC has added optical image stabilization, which works in concert with electronic image stabilization in video at up to 4K / 60 fps or 1080p / 240 fps. I like the video produced by the U12 Plus, though at this point the stuff HTC is offering is basically table stakes. The company didn’t feel the effort to also include a 960 fps super slow-motion video mode would have been worth it, so it hasn’t. I tend to agree with that decision.
Image quality from the U12 Plus is only sometimes surpassed by Google’s Pixel 2 camera and Huawei’s P20 Pro. The Pixel is better at exposing bright sunny scenes, whereas HTC is still, after all these years, susceptible to overexposing and presenting a hazy look to outdoor photos. The P20 Pro is the reigning champion of night photography, and the U12 Plus can’t knock it off its perch. But aside from those two exceptional cameraphones, I consider the U12 Plus to be the best mobile camera on the market. Yes, it’s better than the iPhone X and the Samsung Galaxy S9.
On a photo walk around my local neighborhood with the Pixel 2 XL and U12 Plus, I had real trouble picking a winner. Sometimes the HTC phone would strike the better color balance, sometimes the Pixel would judge the exposure better, but they’re close enough to where it makes little difference which one you choose. Like the Pixel, HTC’s camera system is geared to produce photographic-looking pictures — which is to say that the errors and faults these cameras produce resemble those that you might have gotten from an analog film camera. This is a matter of preference, but for me, the Pixel and HTC’s line of phones are the cameras that produce the most realistic images. The U12 Plus camera is good enough to make me okay with using that phone as my daily driver. However, I’m sticking with the Pixel 2 XL because of the pervasive issue that is the U12’s fake-button calamity.
One of HTC’s headline marketing features with the U12 Plus is the Edge Sense system that lets you squeeze the sides of the phone to activate various functions. Since its introduction last year, I’ve struggled to find a use that would make it more than a gimmick, and the new evolved Edge Sense 2 doesn’t elevate my opinion. You can now get the phone to react to double taps of the side of the phone as well as squeezes. You can program shortcuts to various things inside apps, too, though that’s finicky and often frustrating in practice. As with the fake buttons, the detection system for squeezes on the U12 Plus is inconsistent and more annoying than assistive.
On the software front, HTC again delivers a fast and responsive version of Android. The company brings back its theming store and supposed AI companion, neither of which I find useful or desirable. Maybe if they were of a higher quality, we could give a damn about them, but they feel like a waste of time and effort so far. HTC also includes Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa as preloaded options, substituting them with Baidu Assistant in China. This latter approach is much more sensible for a company with limited resources like HTC; it lets U12 owners access their preferred choice of popular voice assistant without picking a favorite or forcing anything on them.
Speaking of forcing things on the user, however, HTC’s News Republic integration is still on the U12 Plus and it’s now pushier than ever. News Republic is a crappy news app, which we only ever hear about in the context of HTC’s deal with the app’s maker. What it does on the U12 Plus is push notifications to your lock screen and into your notifications shade. It’s intrusive, annoying, and I’ve yet to see it actually being informative. Yes, you can disable it, but at $799, shouldn’t the phone be set to “not annoying the user” by default?
Other nuisances in the HTC software include the preloaded Touchpal keyboard, which is atrocious. Before I am able to swap in Google’s Gboard, however, setting up the U12 Plus confronts me with a list of suggested apps to install, most of which are thinly disguised bloatware (unless you’re really into Candy Crush Soda Saga, in which case, more power to you). HTC is operating a non-premium business model at a premium price.
The speed of using the HTC U12 Plus, I have to reiterate, is not to be questioned. Powered by a Snapdragon 845, this phone is quick to do just about anything. But it’s also buggy. Google Photos, for instance, refuses to sync for me while running in the background; I have to open the app to get its auto-backup feature to run. I also encountered flickering images and GIFs in the Twitter app, which might have been a fleeting incompatibility, but it’s not one that I’ve seen with any other phone. Additionally, the U12’s Battery Saver mode kicked in randomly one day early on in my review, making me think the phone’s display was particularly dim and unimpressive. I had more than 80 percent of charge left, so it wasn’t a situation where the automatic power preservation should have been turning on.
An intriguing, but ultimately flawed addition HTC has made to its software on the U12 Plus is a smart auto-rotation lock. This works by using the pressure-sensitive sides to understand how you’re holding the phone and intelligently rotates the screen only when you want it to. Thus, when you’re laying in bed reading, it’ll stay in portrait mode, but when you realign your grip for a landscape video, the phone will know that and turn appropriately. That’s the theory, but in my experience, this function was way too inconsistent to rely on. I ended up just toggling the auto-rotate on and off manually as I usually do.
I have one final annoyance with HTC’s software: the persistent Music / Theater sound mode notification anytime I’m playing back audio on the phone. Toggling between the two affects the sound you get out of the speakers, with one giving you much deeper, richer voices, but why that must be housed in a notification impossible to dismiss, I don’t know. The same is true of night mode, which generates another notification that I can’t swipe away. Just at the moment in tech history when Apple and Google are making gestures toward reducing the blare and intrusion of too many notifications, HTC apparently feels comfortable with cementing system states into your notification bar.
As far as the basics go, HTC gets most of them right. Battery life on the HTC U12 Plus is good without being great. It’s not on the same tier as my Pixel 2 XL, but it comfortably outlasts the iPhone X, going more than a full day of conventional use — meaning some photography and YouTube, plenty of podcast listening, and near-constant email and Twitter checks — and its endurance matches up well to the busy digital lives of today. HTC’s speakers on the U12 Plus are also good. Again, not as awesome as the best in the category, which in my judgment is a title owned by Huawei’s P20 Pro right now, but the U12 produces clean and crisp sound, with an especially nice warmth when flipped to Theater mode. It’s not all good news, though, as I found Bluetooth connections with the U12 to be easily interrupted by the way I grip the phone. That was a major nuisance while I was out on a photo walk with this phone and my pair of Jabra Elite 65t wireless earphones.
The questions about HTC’s future as a phone maker will persist, but they would have been much more vexing had the company produced a compelling phone with the U12 Plus. Instead, HTC has given us plenty of its signature design, spec, and camera strengths, encumbered with a heavy dose of software bloat and one inexcusably bad design decision. I’ve long been a fan of HTC’s work, but it feels like the time has come for us to recognize that the company’s bleak future as a phone maker is of its own making.