It's tough to stand out in a market dominated by Samsung's latest flagship.
HTC's proper 2017 flagship, the U11, has arrived, and it hits the market just a few weeks after Samsung released its Galaxy S8. Though HTC is miles away from Samsung in terms of market share, it's attempting to make a flagship on the same level when it comes to specs, hardware, and experience.
In terms of overall dimensions, the HTC U11 lands in between the Galaxy S8 and S8+ but is a closer comparison to the smaller GS8 when it comes to screen area. We spent some quality time with both phones together to see how they stack up.
There are plenty of internal similarities between these phones, but the companies have taken distinctly different approaches to hardware. Samsung made big strides this year in shrinking bezels and moving to an extra-tall 18.5:9 display, but HTC is sticking with the old model of a 16:9 aspect ratio and rather large bezels all around. Even further, HTC's traditional capacitive keys and front-mounted fingerprint sensor are in stark contrast to Samsung's switch in 2017.
HTC's hardware execution is excellent, but the Galaxy S8 just feels futuristic.
HTC's design decisions feel a little antiquated in general, but doubly so when sat next to the sleek and futuristic Galaxy S8. On the other hand, there are clear advantages to having a fingerprint sensor that's right where you expect and a flat display with bezels that reduce accidental touches. The U11's 5.5-inch display is smaller diagonally than the Galaxy S8's, but because of its wider aspect ratio there's actually more display here — but combined with the larger bezels, the entire phone is larger to boot. That doesn't necessarily have large implications for actual use of the phone, but when you set the two together you do notice how dramatically narrower and easier to grip the Galaxy S8 is.
Size aside, the HTC U11's hardware is equally impressive as the Galaxy S8's. HTC's manufacturing quality continues to be excellent, and the back glass panel curves and flows more effortlessly than Samsung's with colors that catch your eye differently from all angles. You don't get the dramatic edge screen effect or the big sweeping metal curves of the GS8, but the U11 just feels so ... solid when you pick it up. There's some value in that.
In waiting to release the U11 well after the original U Ultra and U Play, it let HTC make some key component upgrades that help it be a proper competitor to the Galaxy S8. The Snapdragon 835 processor is of course one major improvement, but we're also looking at a different 12MP rear camera from the U Ultra that incorporates new phase detection auto focus and a fast f/1.7 lens. The rest of the specs line up identically to the Galaxy S8: 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, a 3000mAh battery and a QHD display resolution.
HTC offers cleaner software ... but also, no headphone jack.
The one place Samsung is distinctly different here is with its inclusion of the 3.5 mm headset jack, which HTC has moved beyond. HTC includes some great USB-C headphones with the U11 that include active noise cancellation, as well as a USB-C to 3.5 mm adapter, but at this point this choice may still rub some people the wrong way. At the same time, HTC does offer a superior dual speaker setup on the U11 that can offer better sound at higher volumes than the Galaxy S8's single speaker.
HTC's software hasn't changed much in the past year (or two, if I think about it). On the upside, that means you're getting an extremely fast, smooth and generally bloat-free experience, with some light visual touches that nicely integrate into Google's Nougat software. But that also means some of HTC's apps are going to feel stale as you notice they're near identical to what you would've experienced on the last couple phones. The interface still feels consistent and everything looks fine, but it doesn't quite feel as modern as what other companies have on their latest phones.
Meanwhile Samsung has definitely pushed its interface into modern design expectations, and still offers a dramatically higher volume of apps and features so there's something here for everyone — even though that means it can be frustrating or overwhelming for those who want a simple and clean experience.
Fighting an uphill battle
In a high-end market so heavily dominated by Samsung, it's really tough for any phone to break out and take away sales. Despite the HTC U11 offering brilliant hardware and matching its internal specs, it's tough to pull ahead of the Galaxy S8. Phone buyers will have to be drawn to a few of the finer points in the U11's experience in order to choose it over Samsung — its brilliant colors, "traditional" dimensions and simpler software are its only real standout strengths compared to the Galaxy S8, while the lack of a headphone jack, wireless charging and strong brand recognition are hurting it.
It's not that the U11 is doing anything particularly wrong — and the phone overall seems to have what it takes to garner sales — but it doesn't necessarily have the standout features to grab the attention of average buyers who so often start with Samsung's latest phone as the default choice and work from there.