In the first half of this year, HTC fell to the all-time bottom. The company was once a high flyer in the smartphone arena, with handsets like the HTC One propelling it to success. But then a rather confusing array of handsets and failure to capture the attention of Android phone fans with more recent releases have seen the company’s sales nosedive. HTC has now suffered 11 consecutive quarters in financial loss, and despite the reports that the company released 1500 workers to cut the cost, seems that HTC is on an unstoppable charge toward the city of Bankruptsville. Their new flagship phone, HTC U12+, is apparently one of the reasons for such a decline in selling performances. Although it flaunts a very fast and powerful hardware, the cumbersome UI and some awkward design solutions toppled down its general performance.
The most obvious reason for that is the decision that U12+ goes fully digital, with all functional buttons being placed on the touchscreen display, which stirred a lot of controversies. Physical buttons are good because they’re reliable. Touch-sensitive or “digital” buttons, like the ones on the iPhones 7 and 8, can work when sparingly used. But U12+ goes all touch, which left behind frustrated and confused users. That didn’t help the sales at all.
It’s unnerving because the U12 Plus is basically a good phone. It has great performance, day-long battery life, and a solid camera. But you shouldn’t have to deal with visual interruptions throughout your smartphone experience because of digital buttons. For that price, which is $800, it’s unreasonable. But let’s not run in front of the carriage.
The HTC U12 Plus is big and hefty, but that’s not a bad thing. The glass back and front edges blend into the metal frame, which makes the phone comfortable to hold, and the weight emphasizes the U12’s build and quality craftsmanship. A horizontal module on the back contains two cameras, with a flash and easy-to-access fingerprint sensor below. HTC still holds to its Liquid Surface design, meaning that depending on the light there is a variation of color within the layers of glass. This is more apparent in the Flame Red and Ceramic Black color options, but the Translucent Blue model is eye-catching and looks great too.
Looking at the front, it seems that HTC is finally embracing the bezel-less look, since the edges surrounding the screen are slimmed down. The bezels are still on the thick side compared to the U12’s competition like the Samsung Galaxy S9, LG G7 ThinQ, and OnePlus 6, but it’s a big improvement over the obsolete look of the HTC U11.
U12+ also has a 6-inch Super LCD screen with an 18:9 aspect ratio and a 2,880 x 1,440-pixel resolution, with a pixel density of 537 pixels-per-inch. It’s pretty colorful and the picture is sharp, though we would like it a bit brighter. Outdoors, in direct sunlight, it gets a bit tough to see what’s going on on the display. Blacks are okay but aren’t as inky as you’d find it on an OLED screen.
The viewing angles on the U12+, however, aren’t great; the screen looks a lot darker when viewed from the side, which can be a problem when sharing the screen with someone.
At the bottom of the U12+, there is a USB Type-C charging port and a speaker grill. The role of the second speaker is taken by the top earpiece. The sound is really great, thanks to HTC’s BoomSound tech, and it can get really loud if you wish. Maybe a better place for the bottom speaker would be the bottom bezel of the screen, since most of us cover the bottom edge of the phone with our hand in the landscape mode. Following the trend, there’s no headphone jack, but HTC does provide USB Type-C earbuds in the box.
That brings us to the main flaw of U12+, and those are buttons on the phone. They’re all on the right edge, with the volume gauge at the top, and a textured power button below. But they’re not actual buttons, because you can’t push them in like normal mechanical buttons. Instead, they’re touch-sensitive, so you’re applying pressure to the button to make it work. The tactile response you get from pressing these digital buttons is strong, but not overwhelming. Unfortunately, every now and then you’ll accidentally trigger one of these buttons. After a while, users tend to get used to these interruptions, but there’s no way to stop them from happening. Simply by holding the phone in a natural way, the screen turns off from too much pressure on the power button. Or randomly shifts into Do Not Disturb mode from pressure on the volume down button. Even volume up button stopped working for a short time, which worried us considerably, even though it never occurred again. To make matters worse, digital buttons make holding the phone while walking a frustrating affair, as well as keeping it in your pocket. Next thing you know, you’ve taken five photos because you accidentally double pressed the power button and launched the camera (a shortcut that’s also not as reliable as a double press on mechanical buttons). The saving throw is that HTC is aware of these problems and will likely treat it with a software update.
The HTC U12 Plus is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 processor, and it comes with 6GB of RAM. It’s the same amount of power you’ll find in other flagship phones, and the U12 Plus does well with performance. Apps open quickly, scrolling feels fluid, and games like PubG: Mobile run without a hitch. HTC U12+’s UI is Sense, layered over Android 8.0 Oreo OS, which is not the optimal solution, due to the limited customization options and slow animations. Another problem is the overabundance of built-in apps that aren’t very useful. In fact, most of HTC’s pre-installed apps do not look good, unlike the default Android apps on other phones.
What makes things worse is the amount of pre-installed software you can’t uninstall. There’s Under Armour Record, TouchPal, Viveport, News Republic, and Zoe Video Editor. Sadly, most of those apps aren’t very good and end up being bloatware. The U12 Plus will get the update to Android P later on this year, and we hope HTC takes a moment to strip down the software a little more and make it more bloat-free.
At its core, the HTC U12+ is a solid high-end smartphone. It’s fast and powerful, has a great screen, impressive camera, and HTC is actually trying to innovate some features. The problem is, this phone doesn’t surpass the competition in any area. Things that U12+ does right, the competition does even better. There’s just no standout reason to buy this phone over the Pixel 2 XL, Galaxy S9 Plus, or even LG’s G7 ThinQ.
This is a good phone spoiled by a lackluster software experience, terrible buttons, and a price tag that’s too high. If you can get past those things, I don’t think you’ll regret buying it. For most people though, I’d say it’s safe to pass on the U12 Plus.