HTC Begins ‘Transformation’, Announces U Ultra: An AI-Powered, Headphone Jack-Less Flagship

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HTC Begins ‘Transformation’, Announces U Ultra: An AI-Powered, Headphone Jack-Less Flagship

HTC, the embattled Taiwanese smartphone maker, is wasting little time in the new year. In a surprising move, the company announced its newest devices today, the U Ultra and U Play, which serve as the beginning of a company-wide “transformation.”

The former of the two devices is the company’s latest flagship and a stark change from last year’s reserved, but excellent, HTC 10. Instead of the familiar all-metal design, the new U phones are entirely glass with a high-gloss effect reminiscent of Samsung’s latest Galaxy devices. The company calls it “Liquid Surface” construction, saying the phones are built out of a material that not only looks like liquid but also imitates its characteristics. I have no idea what that means for a smartphone, though apparently the devices do offer interesting reflections, according to those who have handled them in person.

htcuultra_design.pngAside from the new exterior, the U Ultra packs several other important changes. The first is the unfortunate removal of the headphone jack. Once heralded for its fantastic front-facing stereo speakers and commitment to providing an excellent audio experience (as recently as 2015 with the One A9), HTC has now followed in the footsteps of Motorola and Apple by tossing aside the standard 3.5mm port. Though it is not the first, and certainly not the last, HTC’s disavowal of the headphone jack is a surprising move from a company previously known for its audio prowess.

The second noteable change is the addition of a thin, 2-inch screen above the standard 5.7-inch QHD display. It’s similar in form and function to those found on LG’s V10 and V20, allowing users to quickly access notifications, reminders, shortcuts to favorite contacts and the like.

htcuultra_screen.jpgThe biggest change, however, is the push HTC is making in its software this time around. On the 10, the Sense experience was fast and fluid but lacked any flourishes to make it stand out from a crowded field. With the U Ultra and U Play, the story is different. This is where the naming scheme of the new generation of devices comes into focus. The new U devices are meant to focus on you (or u), the user, rather than you focusing on the smartphone. In practice, this means a push into AI, though whether it’s true artificial intelligence is up for argument.

The new software enhancements allow the phone to learn your tendencies and offer up helpful suggestions when the time is right, like suggesting you try that new restaurant you’ve researched when dinnertime rolls around. HTC is pulling all of its AI work under its own digital assistant umbrella, which it calls the Sense Companion. Just like with Siri, Cortana or the Google Assistant, you can direct the Sense Companion with voice commands, even if the screen is off.

Of course, how well all of this works remains to be seen. HTC has shown a small smattering of the ideas it’s now placing under the “AI” moniker before, but what its Sense Companion will be able to do beyond a few contextual suggestions won’t be clear until the phone is in the hands of reviewers later this year.

htcuultra2.jpgBeyond those noteable changes, the U Ultra is much like any other flagship smartphone. It comes with Snapdragon 821 processor, 4GB of RAM, 64 or 128GB of storage, plus a microSD card slot for further expansion. HTC has struggled with the rear-facing camera historically, but the company delivered a solid effort last year with the 10. On the U Ultra, the camera is largely unchanged save for the addition of phase-detection autofocus. It’s still a 12 megapixel UltraPixel camera, with an f/1.8 aperture and optical image stabilization. The front-facing camera looks to retain much of the high quality set by the 10 last year, which was the high mark for selfie cameras across the market. It scales to 16 megapixels, but also has an UltraPixel mode that offers 4 megapixel images.

Battery could be a source of concern, with only a 3,000 mAh cell packed into the flagship. Powering a 5.7-inch QHD and a second screen to boot is no breeze, thus the handset will have to work mighty hard to make 3,000 mAh suitable for most users. Smaller phones, like the Pixel XL, routinely come with larger batteries in this day and age.

htcuplay.pngThe second phone announced today is the U Play, a smaller, cheaper alternative to the flagship device. This is not a Pixel/Pixel XL situation. There is a clear discrepancy between devices in nearly every facet, not just price. The U Play is a 5.2-inch smartphone with a 1080P display, Helio P10 processor from MediaTek, 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage or 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. On top of that, the smaller U device will ship with Android 6.0 Marshmallow, as opposed to the latest version, Nougat. The camera comes in at 16 megapixels but doesn’t contain any UltraPixel features. The U Play model does have the AI enhancements in the software and the same interesting construction. It will be less costly than the U Ultra, but just how much remains unknown.

As for the flagship, it’s available for preorder starting today on HTC’s website. The 64GB version starts at $749 and is available in three colors: blue, black and white. The pink variant press was shown at the launch event is not currently listed. Orders will begin shipping at the end of January in Taiwan, and March for the rest of the world.

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