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- Innovative idea
- Grip can make the camera framing move
- Both Edge Sense and Alexa feel too half-baked
The headline feature of the HTC U11 is Edge Sense, which essentially enables you to squeeze the phone and have it... do stuff. The reason we're being so vague is you'll get a different action depending on how hard and long you squish the phone for.
Out of the box, a quick squeeze on the bottom half of the phone will open the camera, and it’ll be in ‘basic’ mode.
When you've opened the camera, you can use Edge Sense to take a picture, or long-hold the sides to move into selfie mode (hopefully you're following this...).
This feels like it should be fairly intuitive, but we found we had to remember to do it time and again. And when you're taking a picture by pressing the sides of the phone, it'll cause the handset to tilt slightly, so you can miss the framing of the shot you're going for.
The idea of just squeezing the phone is smart in one way: you don’t need to move your fingers to hit the screen. But you can just double-tap the power button of the U11 to launch the camera and then press the volume down key to take a picture – and that’s actually more comfortable.
Head into Settings and you can customize what an HTC U11 Edge Sense squeeze does, and add a secondary gesture for squeezing and holding. Most of these are pretty innocuous. You can launch an app of your choice, start voice recording, toggle Wi-Fi or use the flashlight.
The most up-to-date choice for those who like to experience the latest tech features and fads is to launch a voice assistant. You can choose the standard Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa. And the HTC U11 is one of the first Android phones to integrate Amazon’s assistant.
You download an app called HTC Alexa, which lets you talk to it just by saying “Alexa”, even if the phone is asleep. It can’t get past your security but is fairly good at recognizing different voices, and is a way to bypass Edge Sense.
At times it takes a few attempts for the HTC U11 to realize you’re talking to it, though, as if it was off playing solitaire or something.
Alexa’s current strength, other than the usual feats of being able to tell you how many people live in Belgrade or the age or Michael Caine, is connection to smart home services. However, we’ve struggled to get our Philips Hue lights working with HTC Alexa.
Abilities outside of Alexa’s basics are added through things called Skills, which are effectively assistant mini-apps. Even after a couple of hours of deleting, reinstalling and unplugging we couldn’t get the HTC U11’s Alexa to ‘see’ our Hue lights with the Philips Hue Skill.
Alexa on phones isn’t quite the ultra-streamlined dream just yet, which is perhaps one reason Amazon didn’t go for an instant Android-wide roll-out. For example, you can’t yet use it to control Spotify on the HTC U11. You’ll just be told it’s “not supported on this device”. And it can’t do things like send text messages or open apps either.
Skills can bridge these gaps to an extent, but we’re a way off where we need to be for Alexa to be genuinely useful. Or easy to use for people who don’t spend their lives tinkering with tech.
The HTC U11’s Edge Sense has a similar problem. What promises to be the best thing about it is yet to land: the ability to have it work contextually in any app at all.
So if you're after coffee shops in Google Maps, you should be able to 'code' that to a short press. Or if you want to open the pro mode on the camera, a long press will do that rather than opening the selfie mode.
The problem is this functionality isn't coming until months after launch. We want to be able to squeeze the phone when Spotify is live to play/pause, but have it open the camera from the home screen.
And one final thing: it’s not sensitive enough. Well, that’s not quite accurate: it’s too sensitive sometimes if you set the pressure levels lower, and too hard to grip and activate at other times.
That’s because you don’t hold your phone precisely the same way each time, and the extra effort to grip the sides isn’t a natural movement.
Overall, we like what HTC is doing in terms of trying to innovate here… it just doesn’t quite work well enough. There is something here though, and maybe when the final customizing capability appears this feature will be a must-have.
But right now, it takes effort to relearn how to hold your phone – and given that Edge Sense is probably the headline feature of the U11, not launching it fully finished is a big opportunity missed.
- Clean interface
- Fast performance
- Google apps aren't always the best substitute
The interface on the HTC U11 is still as slick as ever; while Sense is no longer the leader in terms of our favorite Android overlay, it’s still up there.
The decision to flip to Google’s suite of apps, rather than loading HTC phones with duplicate apps, keeps things clean. For the most part this works, as the Google apps are pretty good.
However, there are some areas where having Google’s does get rather in the way: for instance, Google Photos still feels like it would rather always have an internet connection, and doesn’t show all your pictures instantly, instead asking you to choose which folders to display.
If you take a screenshot, you expect to be able to see it in the gallery, and while it’s easy enough to find, it doesn’t feel intuitive… and that should be the primary metric when deciding on a user interface.
It’s interesting to note that moving to the HTC U11 from the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus has shown how slick the ‘slide up’ motion on Samsung’s phone is. With that phone you just give the screen an upwards swipe and you’ll get into your list of apps – it’s like what Google is doing with Nougat.
HTC’s stuck with the older version of the user interface, and it doesn’t feel as advanced. There are some Nougat features in there – being able to go split-screen, for instance – but this is mostly very familiar territory, and could do with an overhaul.
And while we appreciate that it’s probably early software, the HTC U11 does suffer from some judder at times, with some apps playing up a touch.
It’s nothing major, but it borders on glitchy every so often… not what we’re expecting from a big flagship, but unfortunately a common problem as companies rush to launch with the best and brightest software.
That said, this phone is insanely powerful. With the Snapdragon 835 CPU on there, along with 4GB of RAM, everything generally whipped along pretty quickly, and the Geekbench score of 6312 is up there with the very best at the moment, the benchmarking app lauding the raw power offered by the HTC U11.
It’s a shame to see what’s happened to BlinkFeed (the feed of information on the screen to the left of the main home screen); four years ago it seemed like a genuinely powerful reason to buy an HTC phone, but since then it’s eroded to the point of being useless.
The problem is twofold: firstly, the layout of the information, which is a mixture of your calendar, social networks and curated news feeds, is a visual mess compared to other apps on the market right now.
The second issue is that it’s now filled with sponsored ads, coming far too regularly – it’s understandable that HTC is trying to find ways to bolster revenue, but it jars when you’ve just spent so much money on a phone only to be served with ads.
News Republic, the app that underpins the news aggregation, isn’t intuitive enough either – some of the things it suggests are just nonsense given the topics we asked to see, and it doesn’t seem to learn that well either.
Ultimately, we found browsing Twitter was a more enticing experience; turning BlinkFeed down to just social networks was useful, but with the ads as well still too irritating.
- Genuinely impressive at times
- Needs to do more
Sense Companion is something we approach with trepidation… because it sounds almost too good to be true.
An artificial intelligence (AI) app of sorts, it’ll look at the weather where you are, your calendar, your battery level and daily usage to give you insights on how to use your phone better.
Got an appointment later in the evening and your battery’s dwindling? You’ll get a notification when you’re still at work, when you can do something about it.
Or been using the phone a little too much today? You’ll get a notification telling you that you’re in the ‘above average’ usage category, with a rundown of what apps you’re using.
It’ll even tell you where to eat at a particular time of the day if you’ve got location settings enabled.
In terms of how genuinely useful the app is to use… well, it’s not quite HTC's promised AI assistant, but it’s helpful. Being told daily we’re above average for our usage isn’t fun, but probably true. The battery notifications are useful as well, if a little too regular.
However, it doesn’t quite go far enough. The usage prompt doesn’t offer any tips on what to do – we ended up downloading Forest, an app that encourages you to put your phone down, but that’s something Sense Companion could have offered.
And the lunch notifications aren’t useful enough – most of the time we don’t want to eat out, and when we do we know how to use Google to find a place.
With a bit of work, Sense Companion could be genuinely useful… but it’s not quite there yet, which is starting to feel a bit like a common theme with this phone.
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Gareth has been part of the consumer technology world in a career spanning three decades. He started life as a staff writer on the fledgling TechRadar, and has grown with the site (primarily as phones, tablets and wearables editor) until becoming Global Editor in Chief in 2018. Gareth has written over 4,000 articles for TechRadar, has contributed expert insight to a number of other publications, chaired panels on zeitgeist technologies, presented at the Gadget Show Live as well as representing the brand on TV and radio for multiple channels including Sky, BBC, ITV and Al-Jazeera. Passionate about fitness, he can bore anyone rigid about stress management, sleep tracking, heart rate variance as well as bemoaning something about the latest iPhone, Galaxy or OLED TV.