HTC has set down a marker with the first major smartphone launch of 2017 and brought a lot to show off: a powerful phablet and a mid-range phone in a new all-glass design, as well as its own AI-powered digital assistant.
The event had been tagged with the letter "U" ahead of time and it turns out this is both the branding for HTC's new range handsets and a play on "you" – as in, these two devices are all about you.
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The Sense Companion is HTC's take on Siri or Google Now, and will perform all of the usual tricks, like warning you about traffic nearby or an imminent rain shower. HTC has also built a small, secondary display into the front of its new high-end HTC U Ultra phablet, above the main screen, where the Companion can show alerts and messages from your VIP contacts.
It's an interesting idea, but it's worth noting LG got there first with the LG V10 and V20.
As for the handsets themselves, they're made from sculpted glass front and back rather than following the metal unibody design of recent HTC smartphones, a design the company is referring to as "liquid surface." This certainly gives them a premium finish but fingerprints and smudges could be a problem – we'll have to wait to get our hands on these devices to return a proper verdict.
The 5.7-inch HTC U Ultra is the heavyweight option of the pair, and marks the company's return to phablet territory. It comes with a QHD display, a Snapdragon 821 CPU, 4 GB of RAM, and either 64 GB or 128 GB of internal storage, plus the option of a microSD card to expand that, and a 3,000 mAh battery keeps everything running.
Those specs are very similar to the Google Pixel, so we'd expect the same snappy performance. The 12 MP camera is the same as the (excellent) one in the HTC 10, with the addition of phase-detect focus.
Also of note on the U Ultra are the four embedded microphones, letting you record 3D audio alongside your 4K videos, and unlock the phone with your voice. That's right: you don't even need to lift a finger to turn your morning alarm off.
The HTC U Play gives you a smaller, less powerful device. There's a 5.2-inch, Full HD display (without the secondary screen), a slower Helio P10 CPU, and either 32 GB or 64 GB of storage on board, which again can be expanded via memory card.
The lower-end phone has a 16 MP rear camera but there's no UltraPixel technology and no laser focus, so it's actually an inferior camera than the one on the U Ultra, despite the extra megapixels. The U Play comes with a 2,500 mAh battery inside to get you through the day but oddly enough is shipping with Android 6.0 Marshmallow rather than the Android 7.0 Nougat found on the U Ultra.
There's bad news for fans of the traditional 3.5 mm headphone jack, as both devices ditch it for USB-C. HTC says the move is to improve the quality of the HTC USonic audio system, which adapts to your ears to give you a personalized listening experience. Again, a feature we'll need to try out to see if it meets HTC's claims.
The phones are going on sale globally in February and March, with four colors to pick from: white, black, blue and pink. As yet local pricing and availability has yet to be announced, but you can expect the HTC U Ultra to get close to Galaxy Note 7 levels (US$700-800).
We're still waiting for the HTC 11 flagship, which may well show up at Mobile World Congress at the end of February, but this looks like a strong start to the year from HTC.
Product page: HTCView gallery - 5 images