Author(s): Ben Wood
This morning HTC revealed two new smartphones, the U Ultra and U Play. These will come as welcome arrivals for long-standing HTC fans. The company has had a tough time over the past couple of years, with some products failing to meet expectations, particularly in camera performance. Its most recent flagship device, the 10 phone, failed to capture consumers' imagination owing its near-identical design to previous generations of HTC devices.
In the competitive world of Android smartphones, consumers want a product that stands out from the crowd and the good news is that HTC has addressed this. The two new phones have a very distinctive glass finish the company calls "liquid surface design". It's almost impossible to appreciate how good the four different colour variants look without having the product in your hand – the photos just don't do it justice. The finish has an iridescent effect with luminous colours that seem to change when seen from different angles.
But a shiny glass back alone won't be enough to change HTC's fortunes, so the company has worked hard in other areas too. The U Ultra phone has a 5.7-inch primary screen with an additional narrow two-inch display directly above it, in a very similar manner to LG's V10 and V20 smartphones. The U Ultra ticks many other boxes, including decent front and rear cameras and a powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor.
The U Play is a more affordable product with a 5.2-inch screen and MediaTek processor, and is squarely aimed at the mid-tier market. Both products will launch initially in Asia in time for Chinese New Year.
HTC has added some additional smart features through its HTC Sense Companion. Echoing the broader industry focus on artificial intelligence, the company has enabled its software to learn from owners' daily habits. For example, HTC claims its new phones will offer optimised battery life based on expected requirements throughout the day; so if the phone notices a conference call in the calendar for the evening it will conserve power to get through the whole day. They will also provide smart notifications, so if there have been several days of sunshine but rain is expected, it will display a weather warning.
In our view, it's unlikely these capabilities will make any difference at the point of purchase, but they might deliver an unexpected moment of delight for someone who has bought a device.
One other notable development is in the headphones. Like others, HTC has removed the 3.5 mm headset jack. Both new devices come with a smart headset that connects directly to the USB-C port and offers a feature called USonic. This analyses the user's inner ears with a sonar-like pulse and then optimises the headset's sound. It also provides optimisation based on the device's surroundings.
Without trying this capability in a variety of environments it is hard to know how much of a difference it will make, but if marketed correctly it could be another aspect of the new devices that helps them stand out in the sea of Android sameness. The same applies to the inclusion of four microphones on the devices to optimise audio recording and voice interactions.
Of course, these products are just one round in HTC's fight back into the smartphone space. It's a tough market, but these new phones should give the company another roll of the dice – particularly if the unique glass finish is not copied too quickly by rivals. With more devices promised later in the year it's going to be interesting to see whether HTC can reverse its current smartphone fortunes.