HTC U12+ hands-on preview: Big, beautiful, unattainable

By | 23rd May 2018

Sleek, modern, and still not coming to U.S. carriers.

HTC has been experiencing quite the rough patch throughout the last couple of years. Once a fan favorite with phones like the One M7 that pushed design boundaries and experimented with camera and audio tech, the Taiwanese company now struggles to sell units in any significant capacity. In fact, many average consumers don't even recognize the brand name anymore — at least in the States.

That's partly because HTC's recent flagships haven't even been available in the U.S. Sure, you can buy an unlocked U11 directly from htc.com, but that's just not how American consumers buy phones. Most people want to walk into their local carrier store, see their options up close, and finance a phone through their monthly bill. Without any retail presence, HTC has been gradually fading into obscurity, despite its excellent flagship-tier devices.

That's precisely what makes HTC's latest phone, the U12+, frustrating from the get-go. While it supports the AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon networks (sorry, Sprint), the U12+ won't actually be available in any brick-and-mortar stores — just htc.com and Amazon, where you can already pre-order a unit. That's a real shame, because based on my brief time with the phone so far, there's a lot to like about it.

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HTC U12+ Hands-on video

If you're not in a reading mood, check out our hands-on preview video instead! If, on the other hand, you want a more detailed summary on the phone, read on for my full impressions.

HTC U12+ Hardware and specs

Let's clear the air right away: the U12+ is the only model HTC is announcing at this time. There was no smaller U12 at our private briefing, and HTC tells us that there are no current plans for one. So why use the Plus moniker? HTC simply wanted to convey that the U12+ is a large phone, which feels slightly misleading without a U12 proper.

Thankfully, the U12+ lives up to HTC's reputation of gorgeous industrial design, with the glass-and-metal sandwich we've come to expect from a 2018 release. It uses the same Liquid Surface design language as last year's U11 and U11+, with a comfortably arched backing and rounded corners, though it takes more after the latter in terms of layout. This is a modern device with an 18:9 display and a rear-mounted fingerprint sensor — though notch haters rejoice, there's nothing protruding into the top of the display.

Speaking of the display, it's a 6-inch Super LCD 6 panel, bearing a Quad HD+ resolution — that's 2880 x 1440 — and protected by an unspecified version of Gorilla Glass. While I typically prefer OLED displays, the U12+ looked fantastic during my brief hands-on time, easily outshining the brightly lit room and even direct sunlight. The elongated aspect ratio of the display also allows for the much larger screen in a body that's just a few millimeters taller than the U11, and even slightly narrower. With this in mind, it's easy to see why there's no smaller U12 — though don't be fooled, this is still a large phone.

Around the back, the U12+ looks a bit like a cross between the U11+ and the LG G6, with HTC's first dual camera assembly since the One M8. It's aligned horizontally, and comprised of a 12MP primary sensor and a 16MP telephoto lens — more on that in a little bit. The real talking point on the back of the phone is the trio of eye-catching high-gloss finishes. The Ceramic Black (which is more of a deep gray) and color-shifting Flame Red finishes look fantastic, but HTC's big focus this year is the transcendent Translucent Blue. It's not quite as sharp as the see-through U11+ if you ask me, but it's still striking to be able to see the phone's inner components, and this is the model being pushed to most markets.

Translucent Blue is the most visually striking finish, and the one HTC is pushing to most markets.

As far as specs go, the U12+ is equipped to go head-on against the Galaxy S9+ and LG G7 with a 2.8GHz Snapdragon 845 chipset, along with 6GB of RAM and either 64GB or 128GB of storage, expandable via microSD. There's a fairly large battery inside — 3500mAh, to be exact — and it's Quick Charge 4.0-compatible, with a Quick Charge 3.0 charger included in the box.

There's no headphone jack, and the U12+ still doesn't support wireless charging despite a glass back — HTC says it likely won't support wireless charging until it's at speed parity with wired, though I just don't see the problem with having either option available.

On the bright side, the U12+ still features HTC's dual speaker BoomSound setup, using the earpiece as a tweeter and the bottom-firing speaker as a subwoofer. While not quite as effective as the traditional BoomSound layout with dual front-firing speakers, I find this arrangement to be the perfect compromise between loud, high-quality output and slim bezels. I haven't yet experienced LG's Boombox feature on the G7, but the U12+ sounded plenty loud and clear on a conference room table.

Much like Apple's Force Touch, the buttons on the U12+ don't actually depress, they just "click" back at you.

The most interesting part of the U12+'s hardware is something I didn't notice until I picked the phone up — at which point it made itself immediately obvious. Those power and volume buttons on the righthand side of the frame? They're not buttons. Just like the Force Touch trackpad on recent MacBooks, the buttons on the side of the U12+ are non-moving parts that use HTC's Edge Sense technology to detect pressure and "click" back at you. It's a strange feeling, and it didn't seem to work too well on the pre-production units I handled, with plenty of false positives and missed presses, but it's certainly an interesting idea and helps to ensure the phone's sealing for its IP68 water ingress rating.

HTC U12+ Software and features

The U12+ is running Android 8.0 Oreo, with HTC's Sense interface in the passenger seat. Though 8.1 would've been nice to see, the company claims that it's already working on the Android P update, which should be available later this year. This is largely the same software experience as the U11+, with on-screen buttons and pressure-activated actions enabled along the sides of the phone — the latter of which is one of the most significant updates to the U12+.

Edge Sense 2 is the biggest refinement of the U12+'s software experience over previous devices.

Dubbed Edge Sense 2, HTC's pressure-sensitive technology is getting revamped with a handful of useful new features that fans of the original Edge Sense on the U11 and Pixel 2 will likely appreciate. Last year's phones were able to recognize squeezes of different pressures, but the U12+ is a bit more sensitive, now able to read light taps as well. You can double-tap on either side of the phone and the software will quickly shrink down to one-handed mode — it even recognizes which side you tapped and shifts the minimized screen in that direction.

My favorite feature of Edge Sense 2 is Smart Rotate. The U12+ recognizes when it's being held in portrait orientation (based on how your fingers are touching the sides) and automatically disables rotation until you let go or shift the phone's position in your hand. As someone who hates having to disable auto rotation when laying in bed, I'm very excited to have such a practical feature in Edge Sense — and better yet, one you never even have to think about. Still, I'm concerned about whether or not these less pressure-based actions will be possible through a case. We'll have to wait and see, I suppose.

If you don't like this or any other Edge Sense 2 feature, though, you can reprogram almost any action to do basically whatever you want. If you're coming from a Pixel 2, for example, you might find it more natural to set a squeeze to launch Google Assistant, rather than toggling the flashlight, as was the default setting on the units I handled. Then again, you might prefer Amazon's Alexa service, which comes pre-installed on the U12+. You can set that to launch with a squeeze instead, or set it to something different like a double-tap to have both options quickly accessible.

Edge Sense 2 aside, this is pretty standard fare Android 8.0. You'll still get HTC's collection of apps and services, including the BlinkFeed timeline to the left of your home screens, but that can all be disabled or covered with a third-party launcher if you prefer a more stock look and feel. Perhaps the only gripe I have with the software is that there's no support for gestures on the fingerprint sensor (i.e. swiping down to open the notification shade), but HTC says that this was a deliberate decision to avoid confusing consumers, given how many tasks are already possible through Edge Sense.

HTC U12+ Cameras

HTC has toyed with dual cameras in the past — most famously with the One M8, and going as far back as the EVO 3D — but it never played out terribly well. This is the company's first foray back into dual cameras since they became a standard feature on almost every modern flagship, and while I haven't gotten to spend any quality time with them just yet, they sound promising on paper.

HTC doesn't have a great history with dual cameras, but the U12+ looks promising.

The primary camera is a wide-angle 12MP UltraPixel 4 sensor (1.4μm) with an ƒ/1.75 aperture, while the secondary camera is a telephoto 16MP sensor (1.0μm) at ƒ/2.0 that allows for 2x optical zoom and 10x digital zoom. Like with most phones, the cameras work together for portrait mode photography, but (mostly) unique to HTC is the ability to change the point of focus after you've already taken the photo. Both lenses sport OIS and EIS for stabilization, as well as what HTC calls UltraSpeed Autofocus 2 — which is essentially just a combination of phase detection and laser autofocus. For what it's worth, the U12+ received a DxOMark score of 103, losing out only to the Huawei P20 Pro's score of 109.

When it comes to video, the U12+ can shoot in 4K at up to 60fps in h.265, or you can slow things down with 240fps slow-motion video in 1080p. HTC acknowledged that other phones like the Galaxy S9 can shoot at much faster frame rates, but didn't want to step all the down to 720p to achieve it with the U12+. While you're filming, you can smoothly zoom in on a subject with one touch, and even directionally amplify the audio using Sonic Zoom (previously called Acoustic Focus); using the four microphones found on the U12+, HTC claims Sonic Zoom is 60% louder and 33% more focused than on the U11.

The U12+ features dual front-facing cameras as well, totaling up to four sensors across the device. Both selfie cams are wide-angle, with an 84° field of view — in fact, they're the exact same 8MP 1.12μm f/2.0 sensors. When used together, they allow for the same portrait mode features as the rear cameras, including refocusing after the fact. While these cameras don't have OIS like the rear sensors, the EIS should be enough to stabilize group selfies and walking vlogs.

HTC U12+ Hands-on preview

I've gone this entire time without mentioning the U12+'s price, because well … it's a doozie. The 64GB U12+ is up for pre-order now in either Translucent Blue or Ceramic Black for a whopping $799, and up another $50 if you want the 128GB trim (only available in Translucent Blue), with no word on Flame Red availability. That's right up in Galaxy S9+ and LG G7 territory, and while there are certainly people who would be better suited with the U12+ (I'm certainly interested), HTC just doesn't have the leverage to be asking for as much as or more than Samsung and LG anymore.

HTC is offering direct financing for the U12+ to soften the blow ($34/mo for 24 months at 0% APR), but this still doesn't do anything to help with its lack of retail presence; you won't be able to buy the U12+ in any physical stores in the U.S. or Canada (where the 64GB model costs $1099 CAD and the 128GB option is $1169 CAD), and that's a huge problem if the company hopes to sell its new flagship in any capacity in North America. Though, quite honestly, I'm not convinced that it does anymore.

As much as I want to see HTC succeed, I'm doubtful that the U12+ will do anything to fix its predicament. Not just because of its high pricing and limited availability, but because aside from a few pretty paint jobs, it really doesn't do much to differentiate from the much more accessible competition.

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