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HTC’s U Ultra is a compendium of bad ideas

Written by White Angelis

Today HTC announced the first major smartphone launch of 2017, the HTC U Ultra, and that new device represents a unique combination of failed and misguided ideas from years past. Instead of learning from the mistakes of others, the Taiwanese company has seemingly decided to compile them all into one singular handset — hoping, perhaps, that a half dozen bad ideas would somehow magically transform into a genius concept. Sort of like Louis C.K. trying to eat his way to the other side.

So what exactly is wrong with the U Ultra? I’m glad you asked! Here, in no particular order, are all the missteps that other companies have already made before HTC, and which HTC should have been wise enough to avoid:

Headphone jack omission, part 1 — It’s user-hostile and stupid. We said so when Apple did it last year, and nothing has materially changed to alter the facts for HTC. That simple 3.5mm jack lets you plug in any one of hundreds of thousands of models of headphones from the past few decades; it just makes your phone vastly more versatile and compatible. Without it, at least Apple has boutique manufacturer Audeze offering excellent Lightning alternatives, but the choice of USB-C headphones is almost nonexistent. HTC is giving users a choice between liking its bundled headphones (which work only with HTC devices, despite using a supposedly universal port), going wireless, or just pretending they don’t like music.

Two months between announcement and release — Outside of its home market of Taiwan, the HTC U Ultra will start shipping in March, which will be a good couple of months after its announcement. You have to go back more than a decade, to the heyday of Nokia and Sony Ericsson, to find such a relaxed schedule between the official unveiling of a phone and its retail launch.

Things changed when companies like HTC arrived on the global stage and started stealing the incumbents’ thunder. In 2010, Nokia’s N8 was supposed to be the first smartphone capable of recording 720p video, but it took months to make its retail debut, by which point the HTC Evo 4G was already on sale. By March, HTC will be competing with devices that may or may not have better specs, but will certainly feel fresher in the consumer’s mind.

HTC U Ultra and its second screen
HTC U Ultra

Second screen gimmick — LG tacked a second screen on its V10 smartphone in late 2015. That was a kickass device with a terrific camera, but its second display, which sat immediately above the main one, mostly just served to redirect notification pop-ups and offer awkwardly small shortcuts. HTC’s implementation looks like a similar afterthought: the extra display contributes practically nothing that you couldn’t do more easily with the main screen. If this extra display ends up saving you battery life with the U Ultra, it’ll certainly be less time than you’ll spend being annoyed by its off-center position, which leaves the top left corner open for a massive selfie camera.

Headphone jack omission, part 2 — For many years, Android phone makers have justified gimmicky extras in their devices, such as a second screen, on the grounds that they needed to differentiate themselves from the iPhone. Well, in 2017 the differentiation is to simply have the basics everyone’s been used to for a decade: give the people the headphone jack that Apple wouldn’t. That was too obvious for HTC, apparently.

HTC U Ultra

Battery size — HTC has gone for a Quad HD 5.7-inch screen on the U Ultra, which together with the 2-inch second screen will consume plenty of battery power. That calls for a large battery, but HTC sates itself with just a 3,000mAh cell. Compare that to the OnePlus 3T with 3,400mAh, Google Pixel XL with 3,450mAh, or Galaxy S7 Edge with 3,600mAh, all of them featuring 5.5-inch displays.

Price — People will very much be comparing the HTC U Ultra against the above phones because of how much this new handset costs: $749. That’s a steep price to pay for 64GB of storage, 4GB of RAM, and a Snapdragon processor that might no longer be top of the line by the time of the U Ultra’s actual release. The preceding HTC 10 was also priced in the upper stratosphere of mobile devices, and HTC had to do an almost perpetual series of discounts in the United States to keep its sales up.

HTC U Ultra

Glass back, part 1 — Boxers who can’t take too many hits to the chin are said to have a “glass jaw.” Because glass breaks easily. You can toughen it up, you can protect and engineer the hell out of it, but it will still break much more often than the classic aluminum that HTC design is best known for. Sure, glass can look sophisticated and different, but Sony moved away from it with its latest Xperia generation after chronic complaints about the fragility of the glass backs on its earlier Xperia Z models. Yes, HTC has a whole design philosophy underpinning the many angles of symmetry and the depth of reflections of its so-called Liquid Surface, but in the end it just makes the phone flimsier and more vulnerable.

Glass back, part 2 — When you clean a window at home, do you then spend all your time with your hands pressed up against that window? Do you touch it instinctively when you’re anxious? Do you toy with it while eating? People do all of those things with their phones every day, and the result is a smudgy mess of fingerprints. Oh, and I don’t know if you spend much time carrying windows around in your pocket, but glass is also slippery, and the U Ultra is an unhappy example of a very slippery phone.

Leather, metal, and other organic materials can age beautifully and take on character with everyday wear and tear. Glass can only degrade, scratch, or shatter.

HTC’s U Play and U Ultra
HTC U Play and U Ultra

Missing the anti-bezel bandwagon — In pursuing its new design language and superfluous extra screen, HTC didn’t address what’s likely to be the real hot trend driving smartphone sales in 2017: killing the bezels. Xiaomi did it already with its Mi Mix, Apple is rumored to do something aggressive on this front with its 10th anniversary iPhone, and we know LG is planning it for the G6 (which, incidentally, could end up being on sale before the U Ultra). Consumers are very fast to raise their expectations, and by this summer we might all have very different expectations for what a flagship smartphone should look like.

“AI” — This sin belongs to the entire tech industry. Every piece of software that has even a small computational or predictive element to it is getting branded as “AI” this year. The very notion of artificial intelligence has now been tainted by overuse from overeager marketers. By jumping into these contaminated waters, HTC is merely signaling that it, too, lacks a sufficiently differentiated product that can merit a unique name of its own. And, as if Android updates weren’t torturous enough already, the layering of the supposed AI elements into HTC’s Sense UI is likely to further complicate the process of getting a U Ultra updated in a timely manner.

Headphone jack omission, part 3 — In late 2015, HTC made a big deal out of the high-quality audio converter and high-powered amplifier it had built into the One A9. The Taiwanese company even went to the extraordinary length of rearranging the phone’s logic board to ensure minimal electrical interference with sound processing — because smartphone users shouldn’t have to compromise their music listening while on the go. This is literally the company that said, you can bring your big, power-hungry headphones with you, we’ve got you covered. Shrugging off the headphone jack today is inconsistent with the narrative HTC has been pushing for a while, whereas to curry favor with fans, a company needs to be able to tell a consistent story.

HTC U Ultra

Of the companies that have released flagship smartphones without a headphone jack in recent times, Lenovo has privately expressed shock at the virulent backlash it faced with the Moto Z, Apple has undergone more than a year of criticism, and LeEco is the sort of reckless operator that is now teetering on the brink of financial ruin. HTC also has a jack-less phone in its portfolio, which is so underwhelming that you probably haven’t heard of it.

HTC’s U Ultra is a member of that unfortunate breed of device that results from companies putting together various random pieces without having a singular cohesive vision. It’s a collage of historic failures, glued together with an unconvincing message about design experimentation and innovation. Not even the sprinkling of magic AI dust can help this misjudged, mistimed smartphone.

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White Angelis

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