Tech blogs and review sites love to make mountains out of mole hills as much as they love to sing the praises of the companies that send them free handsets. Currently, most of them are all up in arms over the latest offering from HTC, the HTC U Ultra. Comments and pull quotes that highlight the fact that it would be the best phone on the market, if it was 2016, or complaining about the lack of a headphone jack right after reviewing their new Bluetooth headphones, or the choice of processor that HTC put in it when the one they “wish was in it” hasn’t come out yet. They say there’s no such thing as bad press, but when you start off with reviews that are so critical, it’s hard to bounce back. The saddest part of most of these reviews is that the majority of the people writing them have never even seen the device, let alone spent any significant time using it. Keeping that in mind, as someone that has used the device, albeit for a very short time, I have to honestly say that they just don’t get what HTC has gone for with the Ultra, or at least not what I see that they are going for with their latest design.
Taking a look under the hood on the U Ultra, you will see a very 2016 set of specs, and that is not a bad thing at all. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor features more than enough horsepower to get you through even the toughest multitasking sessions. The 5.7” primary display is supplemented by a secondary “notification screen” that brings the rationale behind the 3000 mAh battery into perspective. The 4GB of internal RAM and 64GB of internal storage are also more than enough for keeping your Apps and basics running all day long. The expandable storage slot (which takes up to 2TB SD cards – if they ever become available) will easily save the photos and videos you take and allow you to load a very large music catalog on to your Ultra without any worry of running low on space. The front is equipped with a fingerprint sensor and 16MP/4UP camera with optical image stabilization. The back features a 12UP shooter with an f/1.8 lens for faster shooting conditions. We move around to the bottom of the device that features a powerful speaker system and that USB-C port that is a “do-it-all” port on the Ultra since there is no 3.5mm headphone jack – more on this choice later. Overall, the blogs and tech reviews have this correct, it is a VERY powerful phone for 2016.
Unfortunately, it is 2017, which means that that Ultra is flying a bit behind the times in some of those leaked new items like new processors and GPU’s. Devices will be hitting shelves later this year with the newer Snapdragon 835, 6GB of RAM and even more storage options. Of course, the same could be said of 2018 or 2019, there will always be something bigger, better, faster and stronger in the pipeline, so why wouldn’t you wait for the HTC 11 or the Samsung Galaxy S9 instead? The answer lies in something more simple than specs, for the Ultra and for the HTC U Play for that matter, it’s all about you, the user. HTC has been pioneering the software end of smartphones going back to early 2000’s. From their ground breaking Sense OS on Windows Mobile to innovations like Sense Home and that ever popular Weather Clock, HTC has been working up to what the Ultra and Play will bring to the user. Their name for this incredible achievement is Sense Companion, but I’ll just call it what it should be – Life Organizer.
My personal favorite feature of the Ultra is Sense Companion. Sense Companion is a virtual assistant of sorts, that will remember what you do and when you do it, then remind you if you forget. For example, if you leave the office everyday at 5:30 and call your wife, that one day you forget to call, the phone will remind you that you normally call your wife when you leave the office. If you have to get the kids to practice at 4:00 on Tuesday and traffic is bad, Sense Companion will check traffic at 3:30 and let you know you need to leave if you want to be on time. When planning that weekly golf outing, it will let you know that rain is expected in the morning so you can pack your umbrella. The long and the short of it is that Sense Companion isn’t just a digital assistant that will ‘remind you’ of things, but it learns from what you do, so it can be proactive for you and save you time and energy. Imagine how simple organizing your life could be if your phone remembered what you forgot to tell it? To me, this is the future of the smartphone, and despite the fact that ‘everyone’ has one coming this year, I can’t imagine that with the head start that HTC had with their Sense system, anyone will catch them very quickly.
Moving back to the device itself and the feel of it, I have to admit that the only thing I could say when I held it for the first time, was that the Ultra felt like it was at home in my hand. It is a huge phone, but the craftsmanship that HTC put into the Ultra made it feel much lighter and smaller than it really is. I would use the term, “Balanced,” but that word just doesn’t go far enough. Between the curved glass edges and the solid metal banding around the device, the Ultra fits so well in the palm of so many sized hands that it’s hard to imagine one person not loving the feel of it. HTC accomplished this by stretching the screen further vertically, rather than horizontally, which gives the device a taller, but narrower design. In simple terms, they made the device hand sized, but made a gargantuan sized screen that fit it perfectly. The ergonomics of the Ultra also leads us to the biggest question mark in the design of the Ultra, the 3000 mAh battery.
In a time when Phablets are getting larger and larger, their batteries are growing with them. These days, it’s not uncommon to see a 4,000 or even a 5,000 mAh battery in a 5.7+ inch screen device. When I was first made aware that the Ultra was only packing 3,000 mAh and didn’t feature wireless charging, my heart sank a bit. But after using it for a while, I realized that the secondary display really helped save on the battery usage. Instead of powering on a 5.7” display to read a text and reply, the Ultra only has to power on the tiny secondary display that sits along the top edge of the larger display. After seeing how little battery is used by the secondary display, I believe that the 3,000 mAh battery should make it through an average day of work for me without any issue. For those nights that I need a bit of a boost, the Ultra features Quick Charge 3.0 technology that will top off the battery in almost no time at all. Worse case scenario, a quick trip to the charger at lunch time or right before I head out the door for home should get me through a long evening out.
This brings me back to what really sets the Ultra apart, and really any HTC handset coming in the near future, the Sense Companion feature. I don’t think it can ever be stressed enough that higher end smartphones will all do the basic tasks very well. Even mid-range smartphones will handle most of the day to day tasks without any headaches. This begs us to question, what’s next. How fast does an App need to open? How much better can a mobile camera get? How much more storage does a device need? The HTC Ultra has plenty of horsepower to open those apps and keep then running along at a very impressive pace. The camera on the Ultra is second to none and should provide a shooting experience that even the most demanding mobile photographers can enjoy. The 64GB of storage is starting to look a bit long in the tooth, but again, expandable memory will help this along quite nicely and it’s more than devices like the Galaxy S7 or Note 5 have on board. Sense Companion though, that’s where the action is taken to the next level. By learning from you and adapting your phone to your needs, HTC is taking the smartphone and turning into what’s next, the Intelligent Phone.
The birth of the intelligent phone takes the concept of the smartphone to the next level. It’s not a phone that needs to have monster specs or one amazing stand out feature. It’s a phone that needs to understand you and what you need. That’s what HTC has created in the U Ultra, and for that matter, in the U Play. It’s a device that anticipates you, that understands your needs. It’s a device that knows you, that helps you organize your life. Maybe that’s where the U name comes from, at least that makes the most sense to me. The U Ultra will is available for pre-order at htc.com for $749.99 and includes a crystal clear case and a pair of USonic Earphones in the box. It’s currently only being offered as an unlocked GSM device, so Verizon and Sprint users may have to wait a bit to see if a CDMA/LTE version hits the HTC store.