HTC deserves some credit for resisting the latest mobile trends and not churning out another phone brandishing a notch with the U12+. The Taiwanese phone maker’s latest flagship Android phone couldn’t be more different than its notchy brothers on the market.
The U12+ trades thinness for thickness and it’s a weighty-feeling device in the hand as well as in your pocket. The screen doesn’t have round corners, and it doesn’t have a notch. There are dual cameras on the back and front. The back of the Translucent Blue model is partially see-through, exposing some of the components. The sides can still be squeezed to launch an app or shortcut and they’ve even got a new double-tap trick.
And get this: The volume and power buttons aren’t even real buttons! They look like physical buttons, but they don’t actually move when you press them. They’re like the faux haptic home button on the iPhone 7 and iPhone 8.
Different is good when you’re way ahead of the competition and can experiment with weird new features without missing a beat. But in the ultra competitive mobile space where bang-for-the-buck matters more than ever, cute party tricks just aren’t compelling enough reasons to throw at $800 at.
Thick, but still sleek design
I knew the U12+ wasn’t like other phones from the moment I ripped the plastic wrap off its metal-and-glass body.
At 8.7mm, it’s thicker than the 7.7mm iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X, and even the 7.8mm Huawei P20 Pro.
I’m aware we’re talking about a mere millimeter of thickness here, but I felt it every time I picked it up. If I hadn’t started doing daily pushups as part of a challenge with a friend, I think my hands would have gotten sore from constantly handling it. It sounds like I’m being dramatic, but when I switched for a few days from my iPhone 7 to an iPhone 8 Plus last year, the bigger size and heavier weight initially gave me finger fatigue.
The U12+’s thickness doesn’t mean the phone isn’t premium — it’s a very well-built device.The metal-and-glass design, while not symmetrical from the profile like an iPhone X or Galaxy S9, is still sleek. Unfortunately the test unit HTC sent somehow got a deep scratch on the back after the first day of babying.
I tested out the Translucent Blue version, but it also comes in Ceramic Black and Flame Red, though the latter don’t have translucent glass backs. Exposing the rear is a nice design touch I wish more phone makers were brave enough to try. It’s a nice throwback to other translucent and transparent gadgets from the ’90s and ’00s, like the iMac and Game Boy Color.
Without a notch, the U12+’s 6-inch display doesn’t cover as much of the front as other phones, and depending on your preference, that’s either a good or bad thing. I’m all-in on phones with notches if that means a higher screen-to-body ratio, but the U12+’s slim top and bottom bezels didn’t bother me; the Pixel 2 XL and Galaxy S9 both sport the same “forehead” and “chin,” and I highly recommend both.
The display is good. It’s a very good Super LCD 6 panel with a crispy 2,880 x 1,440 resolution, wide color gamut, and HDR 10 support. But it’s no OLED screen. Most people won’t care, but when even a $530 phone like the OnePlus 6 has an AMOLED screen with deeper blacks, it’s disappointing the U12+ doesn’t. Also, for whatever reason, I found the OnePlus 6’s display easier to read in direct sunlight even though it has a lower peak brightness level.
Though many phones are just getting around to putting stereo speakers in, HTC’s flagships have had them for years. The U12+ has the company’s usual BoomSound stereo speakers — one firing from the bottom and one through the earpiece. They’re louder and sound better than my iPhone X and even the Pixel 2 XL in my opinion.
There’s no headphone jack on the phone — HTC ditched the port years ago — but you do get a pair of USonic USB-C wired earbuds that come with active noise cancellation, which are much better than the iPhone’s pack-in EarPods.
On the back, just below the camera, is your typical fingerprint sensor. It works as well as any other. The U12+ also supports Face Unlock, but it’s also no different from the face recognition on other Android phones. Which is to say it’s fast and convenient, but you’ll still need to use the fingerprint reader for Google Pay and if you want better security for your data.
Real buttons > haptic buttons
The only hardware feature that’s so polarizing I have to devote an entire section to it are the buttons.
Rather, the buttons that aren’t real buttons. As I briefly noted earlier, the volume and power buttons aren’t mechanical — they’re pressure-sensitive.
Press on the volume buttons when the phone’s off and they won’t move. The power button rumbles the whole button when pressed, and when the phone’s on, the volume buttons vibrate just the same.
They work the just like the iPhone 7 and iPhone 8’s haptic home button. It’s a weird feeling at first, but you get used to it. Except they’re not very good on the U12+ and are more trouble than innovation.
I constantly found myself pressing harder than I should have to register a click. I couldn’t figure out how to take a screenshot because pressing the down volume button with the power button didn’t work.
The haptic buttons does mean the phone is more sealed from the elements like water and dust, but it’s just not a worthwhile tradeoff. Not when there are plenty of phones that are also IP68-rated and have mechanical buttons that still work fine.
The U12+ also comes with Edge Sense 2, the second generation of the squeezable side tech that debuted on the U11 and Google incorporated into the Pixel 2 and 2 XL.
You can still squeeze the phone to launch an app, shortcut, or the Google Assistant or Alexa. But you can also double tap the sides to activate a number of shortcuts; by default the touch feature shrinks the homescreen for easier one-handed use.
Additionally, the edges know when you’re holding them. So if you’re holding the phone in landscape for, say, playing a game, it can auto lock to to that orientation. Ditto for holding the phone in portrait.
I found these feature fun at first, but quickly became annoyed by them and turned them off, but you may feel differently.
At the end of the day, Edge Sense 2 and the pressure-sensitive buttons are gimmicks most people could do without. They don’t make the U12+ more intuitive or easier to use and often get in the way.
Pretty solid cameras
You can always count on Apple, Google, and Samsung to push phone photography to its limits. But HTC’s quietly crept up since the U11 last year.
The U11 had one of the best cameras — some even went as far to say it rivaled or was better than the Pixel 2 — on a smartphone.
I didn’t have a chance to test out the U11, but after shooting with the U12+, I see what everyone’s talking about.
On the back, there’s your now typical dual-camera setup. The main camera is a wide-angle 12-megapixel shooter with f/1.7 aperture and the secondary camera is a 16-megapixel telephoto lens with f/2.6 aperture. You get optical image stabilization and electronic stabilization as well for smoother shots and video.
It’s now common to find dual rear cameras on most phones, but the U12+ has twin cameras on the front, too. Both front-facing cameras have 8-megapixels with f/2.0 aperture. The second camera is there just for assisting portrait mode photos.
Both the front and rear cameras take fantastic photos. They’re not as contrasty as shots from the Pixel 2, but shots are sharp, have good dynamic range, and aren’t oversaturated. The camera’s also fast to launch, autofocus, and shoot.
Like many flagship phones, the U12+ can shoot portrait-style photos — HTC calls it “Bokeh mode” — with blurred backgrounds with both the back and front cameras.
I took a few selfies and the cameras did a decent job separating the foreground from the background. See for yourself how it compares with the Pixel 2 XL’s portrait mode.
And here’s a comparison with the front-facing cameras:
Drop the gimmicks
Over a thousand words into this review and I haven’t even gotten to the specs and performance. And that’s on purpose because it’s nothing particularly special.
The fact is, the U12+ is as fast as any other 2018 Android flagship. It has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chip, 6GB of RAM, 64GB or 128GB of internal storage (expandable up to 2TB via microSD card), and a 3,500 mAh battery. And the phone runs on Android 8.0 Oreo with HTC’s own Sense skin.
I wish there was more to say, but there really isn’t. The U12+ is speedy, animations are fluid, and apps open quickly and stay suspended in the memory well.
Battery life is where the U12+ really falls short. A 3,500 mAh battery is generous by most standards, but the phone always drained quickly. It’s a big phone with a big battery so I expected it to last a day and a half, but it barely made it from morning to evening.
It’s no secret HTC’s been struggling for years. The company’s phones are no longer the must-haves they once were. These days, Samsung, Huawei, OnePlus, and even Google are making the Android phones everyone lusts for. They have the best of everything for a complete package.
There are legitimate things to appreciate on the U12+, but like LG, the company’s glory days are long behind it. If there’s any company that HTC could learn a lesson from, it’s OnePlus. Next time build a great, gimmick-free phone and sell it at hundreds less than Samsung or Apple. People will flock.