Once again, HTC rebooted itself. This year we haven’t seen a flood of phones come from the Taiwanese company. It’s decided to focus on a very small number of products. That’ll continue into 2018 as HTC sold a significant piece of its mobile division to Google for more than $1 billion. But, until next year, all we know is that HTC believes it can get by with just three phones leading its lineup. The U11 debuted in May, and then the 2017 flagship was joined by the U11+ and U11 Life.
HTC’s U11+ is nearly identical to the U11. The main difference is the aspect ratio of the display. With the U11+, you’re getting a larger 6-inch display with 18:9 aspect ratio. To achieve that, HTC greatly reduced the top and bottom bezels. The U11 Life, meanwhile, doesn’t enjoy the same benefits. It’s a mid-range phone, but HTC didn’t seem to care enough about it to do anything but make a miniature U11 with watered-down specifications.
The front and back of this phone tell very different stories. When you’re looking at it from behind, the U11 Life is really attractive. It’s made of blue-colored plastic, not glass, but the appearance makes you think otherwise. And it doesn’t feel cheap in your hands. HTC successfully imitated glass; however, the plastic doesn’t necessarily give a strong and weighted feel. It’s more the look of glass you’re getting from the U11 Life’s back.
You have to wonder why HTC didn’t use glass (or aluminum) considering a number of other products in the segment are boasting premium materials. Even HTC used aluminum in 2015 for the One A9, so reverting back to plastic these days is a bit puzzling.
Unfortunately the U11 Life’s front doesn’t get any better. The top and bottom bezels, often referred to as the “forehead” and “chin,” are massive. HTC didn’t shrink them in any way. The bottom bezel hosts the home button (also a fingerprint scanner) and two capacitive buttons. Up top, somehow a large bezel is necessary to house the earpiece and front-facing camera. This was the perfect opportunity to slim down the bezels by embracing on-screen navigation keys, and instead we got a dated design.
Also, not that it matters to everyone, the power button and volume rocker are very weak. Half the time you attempt to press them you’re not sure if you actually did because there’s no click. It feels like you’re pushing on a pillow.
If there’s any consolation prize to the poor design, it’s the inclusion of Edge Sense and IP67 certification. HTC’s touch-sensitive technology lets you squeeze U11 Life to complete actions. And, for those of you who take your phone everything, there’s no need to worry about water or dust. The U11 Life is built to handle tough conditions, and the plastic body probably won’t shatter into a million pieces upon hitting the ground. But honestly, HTC dropped the ball to reinvigorate design for mid-range hardware.
Performance matches design. The U11 Life doesn’t blow you away with its display, speed, battery life, or camera. Those are the essentials every phone aims to be decent at, and HTC’s U11 Life falls short in most areas. At least the display is pretty good. HTC included a Super LCD display that, at Full HD (1920×1080) resolution, shows crispness and vibrant colors. Usually a display based on LCD technology comes across as cold and lifeless, but the panel on the U11 Life bucks that trend.
Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 630 is the showrunner here. It’s paired with 3GB or 4GB of RAM, so the U11 Life won’t slow down from multitasking. What holds performance back is, though, is the processor itself. The Snapdragon 600 series isn’t made for speed. Qualcomm positions these processors to be efficient. And that the U11 Life is. Apps don’t load instantaneously, but you can easily jump between Android Messages, Twitter, and Google Maps without things crashing or restarting. It’s certainly on par with other phones using the same processor or a similar one.
HTC does pick up a minor victory in audio. The USB-C port, which is the only port available, feeds premium sound into your ears. USonic technology brings active noise cancellation and high-res audio stereo audio, the latter being a longtime advantage for HTC. There’s also decent sound firing out of the sole bottom-facing speaker, and you could argue it makes for a better listening experience than some flagships’ speakers do.
And don’t worry, HTC includes the USonic-ready earbuds with every U11 Life. So you’re not forced to buy your own or go all-in on Bluetooth.
Battery life is on the underwhelming side. HTC doesn’t give a clear estimate, but we’re able to share what we found. The U11 Life can make it through a regular day. Just don’t push the phone to its limits. If you’re constantly switching apps and using power-hungry services like Snapchat for hours, you’re not going to be too happy. But, for those who check their phone here and there to respond to messages or check emails, you’re going to get by.
The good news is that HTC included Quick Charge 3.0 to refuel the phone fast.
There was a time when the best non-stock Android experience came from the Taiwanese company. Well, as the years have gone by, HTC lost that advantage. Samsung, too, presents an attractive software overlay on top of Google’s mobile operating system. And, seriously, HTC’s Sense is starting to look and feel old.
The U11 Life is running Android 7.1 Nougat out of the box, which is now slightly behind. But there is a software update immediately available that brings the phone up to Android 8.0 Oreo. HTC continues to be one of the best at delivering timely software updates.
Props to HTC for going light on pre-installed apps. The U11 Life doesn’t have anything overlapping with Google’s standard batch of apps on any Android device. The only bloatware found on the U11 Life are Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and Under Armour Record. Everything else belongs to HTC or Google.
Also, as mentioned before, the U11 Life does ship with Edge Sense. So you can squeeze your phone to launch the camera (or any other designated app). There are also in-app options like taking pictures, zooming in on Google Maps, and anything else you want to set.
Does the U11 Life have good cameras? That’s tricky. Overall, it’s probably better than most competing products. The 16MP rear camera handles itself well in good lighting, but it loses sharpness as soon as natural light’s gone. The HDR Boost really helps the U11 Life take passable shots.
HTC’s U11 Life sits in an awkward position. At $300 or $349 (depending where you buy from), it’s less expensive than the OnePlus 5T but more expensive than the Moto G5 Plus. Both of those competitors, though, might be a better choice for you. Motorola created a well-made phone that’s very affordable. OnePlus, meanwhile, brought modern qualities to its blazing-fast flagship. So it leaves HTC in the corner with the U11 Life, which looks really old and doesn’t particularly excel at anything.
It’s not a bad phone, per se. You just find something much better while saving money or spending a little bit more. So, to be clear, the U11 Life isn’t worth your attention. If you’re loyal to HTC, go for the high-end U11.