We think it's fair to say we've always liked the HTC phones, but never at the price HTC intended for them. The HTC U Ultra is a perfect example of that - it's a solid phone, but in the US it is a whopping $200 more than an LG V20. Is it better than the V20? "Yes" in some areas (and "no" in others), but we can't justify the massive price premium.
Sure, the camera is great, but the LG V20 had one of the best cameras of 2016 (remember that the U Ultra also uses a 2016 camera). And it has a secondary screen, but we found it less useful than LG's implementation. The main screen was one of the areas where the HTC beat its opponent, though.
The story of the chipset is similar - it's really good, but hardly something we've never seen before. This particular implementation even lags behind the 2016 flagships by some measure. Not a big deal normally, but if you're going to charge more than the competition then you better have a good explanation why.
We did enjoy the "liquid surface" glass on the back of the HTC U Ultra - it's one of its truly unique features. And since this isn't the most compact phone in the 5.7" category (or any other for that matter), then we would have at least expected extra features like a bigger battery, wireless charging, waterproofing... or at least one of those. As you might have guessed already, the U Ultra has none of those. Not even a headphone jack.
The LG V20 is the first phone we thought of when we saw the HTC U Ultra and with good reason - this secondary screen was pioneered by LG. As we found out, the 5.7" QHD screen on the HTC offers deeper blacks and higher contrast ratio than the similarly specced LG screen.
But LG actually made use of the secondary screen for extra app controls. On the U Ultra, it is just reserved space for notifications. And the LG V20 is thinner, with a larger, removable battery and you get a proper headphone jack with QuadDACs. All for $200 less. Unfortunately, the V20 is not available in Europe, so the U Ultra goes unchallenged there.
Who needs a secondary screen when you have an Always on display? Okay, the secondary screen can be useful even when the main screen is on, but as already established, HTC didn't make the best use of it.
The Samsung Galaxy S7 edge has an AOD Super AMOLED screen with great sunlight legibility. Plus, its 12MP camera boasts Dual Pixel autofocus, which allows it to focus faster than the HTC (and there's no 6 min limit to 2160p videos). The phone is waterproof and offers fast wireless charging. Those are things that make you feel you got your money's worth, even though we're talking less money than the U Ultra.
If you're going to be paying the big bucks, why not just get an Apple iPhone 7 Plus? There's a reason those sell so well - they are very good phones. It's just that they are too expensive for what they do - a bit like the U Ultra actually.
This one has a dual camera, something the LG V20 also has but the HTC U Ultra does not. And Apple's implementation does digital zoom and digital bokeh quite well. Then there's the waterproofing, 3D Touch screen, stereo speakers too. Keep in mind, you're going to pay more if you want to match Ultra's storage and you're losing the secondary screen.
The Google Pixel XL isn't cheap either but its camera is universally acclaimed as one of the best. Plus, fans of a pure Google experience will take no substitutes. Somehow we think Google is better poised to develop AI-based digital assistants than HTC.
The Pixel is surprisingly lacking in fancy specs - it uses the same Snapdragon 821 like the HTC, it lacks wireless charging, true waterproofing (but does have splash resistance), not even more basic stuff like stereo speakers or a microSD slot.
With all said and done, it's probably Huawei that has the phablet to beat. They've managed to fit a 5.9" screen in the Mate 9, which is more compact than the U Ultra. And you get a second-generation dual camera tuned by Leica, which (similar to the iPhone) offers lossless zoom and bokeh effects. Not to mention the striking B&W photos.
Then there's the in-house Kirin 960 chipset, which outperformed Qualcomm's chip and will remain competitive this year. And there is the price aspect too - more than 100 euros less than the U Ultra.
The HTC U Ultra is a fine phone and we enjoyed our time with it. But we had to return our review unit and we'd be reluctant to pay HTC's asking price to get it back. You see, the U Ultra picked a fight with some of the best 2016 flagships and didn't win. And the 2017 flagships are already arriving. And we'd forgive all of that if the price was decent - what HTC is charging is not going to fly - not on the enthusiast's market where the top-dollar purchases are made.