48 hours with HTC's new flagship phone.
Happy Memorial Day to everyone in the states observing today.
I've spent the past couple of days getting to know HTC's next big thing, the U12+, and this is a good enough place as any to offer some initial takes of varying temperature.
I'm planning on using the U12+ as my daily driver for at least the next few weeks, through the Computex show in Taipei, Taiwan, and other travel thereafter. After a generally positive few months with the U11+, I'm hopeful the U12 can build on what was great about one of last year's more under-appreciated devices.
So here goes -- get ready for some bullet points! This is not a review, just a loose collection of thoughts from my first couple days with this phone.
On the outside, this is fundamentally the same phone as the U11+ -- a little chunky, especially compared to the Galaxy S9+ and OnePlus 6. Anyone coming from a U11 or HTC 10 though, will notice a significantly more modern design, and the near right-angle curve of the glass around the edges is a nice touch. The display's also noticeably brighter than the U11+, which was a pain point for some. I have the boring black version right now; I'm eager to sample the eye-catching iridescent red and translucent blue once I get to Taiwan.
HTC's audio is great as ever, and I've been appreciating the company's USonic noise-canceling earphones once again. BoomSound Hi-Fi also sounds phenomenal, especially coming from the tinny tweeter of the OnePlus 6.
OK. The new button system. It's weird, and I'm not sure it needs to exist. The U12+ replaces the volume and power keys with pressure-sensitive ridges -- fake buttons, if you will -- that respond similarly to an iPhone's home key or the trackpad on newer MacBooks. Technically, it's a continuation of the Edge Sense feature from the U11.
My unit's still in the "settling in" phase, though HTC says I am running retail-ready firmware here, so my experience should represent what you get if you buy a U12+ next month. That said, my first impression is that these new non-buttons are more awkward to use than the clicky side keys we know from other phones -- and less reliable at the basic task of being a button. It's different for the sake of being different. Clicks in rapid succession are tricky to pull off, sensitivity is inconsistent, and there's more effort involved in making things happen using either of these three keys. Often, they're just uncomfortable to use, because they're small, metal, and don't depress like a real button. They are a literal pain point.
It's possible this stuff may be addressable in a software update. But again, HTC says I'm on retail-ready firmware here.
One positive change around Edge Sense: I'm loving the new double-tap gesture on the side bezel for activating one-handed mode -- a necessary feature in a phone this tall that was absent on the U11+. I've had to turn up the sensitivity quite high to get it to activate reliably, though.
I haven't used the cameras a whole lot, but my first impressions are that it's worthy of the hype, and the lofty DxOMark (ugh) score. HDR Boost 2 rivals Google's HDR+ in backlit and other challenging scenes. Instant bokeh seems to work well, with above-average edge detection. Interestingly, the editor for these bokeh shots, where you can raise or lower the level of background blur, is none other than Google Photos. (In case there was any doubt that the next Pixel phones will include some sort of dual-camera bokeh mode.)
Low light performance is also solid, following the trend of previous HTC phones producing sharper shots than Google's Pixels in the dark, but with a little more grain. To early to say anything about telephoto, but obviously the physics of a 16-megapixel, 1-micron, f/2.6 setup means you're going to switch down to a digital crop of the main sensor in a lot of scenes with middling light.
Battery: Again, way too early to make a firm call. From what I've seen so far, I feel confident in saying it won't be a regression from the U11, but it also won't come anywhere near to the longevity of the Huawei P20 Pro. I'm hedging here for obvious reasons.
Performance is stupidly fast, of course -- this is an HTC phone. It has all the fluidity of the OnePlus 6 or the Pixel 2, only with, in my opinion, superior touch response.
HTC Sense is basically unchanged from Oreo on the U11/U11+, and that makes me sad. HTC needs to free up some designers to at least look at the Weather, Dialer, Messages, Contacts, Clock and other apps, some of which are more than four years old at this point. What's there works fine, with the exception of Sense Companion, which is still a waste of space. But if HTC is serious about continuing its phone business, let's just switch to Android One and be done with it, or go all-in with a more differentiated experience that isn't peppered with the dregs of older versions of Sense.
I'll have more to say on the HTC U12+ in our full review in the next week or so, but my first impressions are mostly positive, with the exception of some usability concerns around the side buttons. Let's be honest: the things that HTC is good at are kinda obvious at this point. Let's hope the gimmickry of the new non-button button setup doesn't tarnish an otherwise good product.
And hey, let's hope this company is still around and selling phones in 12 months time.