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HTC U12 Plus Review: We Wanted You to Be Better

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Remember Spider-Man: Homecoming from last year with Tom Holland? Remember the big ferry scene where Spidey screws everything up and gets unwanted help from Iron Man? And then afterward, they have a conversation? During the back-and-forth, Peter says to Tony Stark, “I wanted to be like you.” Then, much like a sort of father figure, Tony replies, “And I wanted you to be better.”

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That quote pretty much sums up the HTC U12 Plus, HTC’s only flagship for 2018. While it has all the intentions in the world to be a leading contender for the best flagship of the year, it falls short in too many areas where I wish it would strive and outrank the Galaxy S9s and LG G7s of the world. Because if it did, it would probably be my favorite phone so far. But it doesn’t, and I can’t say I’m not disappointed.

The Good

My experience as a whole wasn’t entirely negative or disappointing. In fact, I’m a fan of lots of the work HTC poured into the U12 Plus, starting with the design. It has the company’s 3D glass design on the back which, if you get the Translucent Blue variant, comes with a portion up at the top which reveals the internals of the phone. It’s a super unique look of which I’m a huge fan. Plus, the entire device is IP68 certified for water and dust resistance.

As for the rest of the build, the U12 Plus’ front is covered in Corning Gorilla Glass 3, while the frame is aluminum without the pesky gloss finish many manufacturers are including nowadays that reduces grip-ability. Its weight is a little much at 188 grams, but it at least feels sturdy enough to bestow confidence in the beholder.

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On the front sits a 6-inch 2880×1440 18:9 Super LCD display. HTC’s been using LCD screens instead of OLED for some time now and they’ve been able to get the technology pretty down pat. It’s a really nice screen to look at. Of course, you don’t get the inky blacks of an OLED panel, but you do get vibrant colors and good contrasts which is what many consumers look for.

Under the hood of the U12 Plus sits a Snapdragon 845 processor with 6GB of RAM and 64GB of RAM. On paper, these specs are enough for a 2018 flagship-level experience in terms of performance, and that’s what you get here. Apps open quickly, games run at smooth framerates, and multitasking is a breeze. In other words, it performs much like any other high-end phone from this year.

Powering the experience is Android 8.0 Oreo with HTC’s Sense UI on top. It’s a fairly light skin with some built-in apps out of the box. The default home screen is much like that of past versions with a dense icon layout, vertically-paginated app drawer, and BlinkFeed to the left. You’ll also find custom HTC apps for messaging, weather, your alarms, the cloud, news, a calculator, and more. However, these can be disabled and, therefore, hidden from your view, leaving you with Google’s apps that also come installed and serve a much better experience.

Despite these slight downfalls, HTC keeps Android clean of any major customizations with a largely stock experience onboard. You won’t find any major tweaks to sections of the OS such as the settings app, the notification panel, or the recent apps switcher. The lock is significantly different, but it’s totally fine since you probably won’t be looking at it much thanks to the snappy rear-mounted fingerprint reader. All in all, HTC’s skin is one of my favorites on the market, and with some additional tidying up, the company could achieve an even greater experience.

Speaking of a great experience, the U12 Plus is one of the best phones to use for listening to music. Its set of BoomSound speakers utilizes a bottom-firing grille paired to the earpiece for stereo separation and louder volumes with crisper, cleaner output. And while HTC doesn’t exactly advertise this, the phone’s body is used as a sort of resonance chamber (I can tell since the device vibrates a ton while playing loud music), therefore making the speakers even louder than they would be with a normal chamber near the bottom of the handset.

Plus, for private listening, HTC includes its Usonic earbuds in the box. They connect over the USB-C port (sorry, no headphone jack here) and can be fine-tuned to your own hearing ability thanks to the company’s technology. They seal inside your ears really well and block out most outside noise, leaving you with a pretty great listening experience for jamming out to some hip-hop or lounging to soothing jazz.

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One of HTC’s strengths as of late when it comes to smartphones is the cameras the company equips. The U12 Plus is certainly no exception. On the back sits a 12MP main camera with an f/1.8 aperture along with a secondary 16MP shooter with an f/2.6 aperture. The main sensor packs dual pixel phase-detection autofocus, laser autofocus, optical image stabilization, and 4K video capture at 60 frames per second.

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Photos shot with the U12 Plus always come out beautiful. Color reproduction is consistently on point, dynamic range captures enough detail to produce realistic shots, and vibrancy is never disappointing. And thanks to the secondary camera, you get lossless zoom which I appreciate since you can get shots like these.

The second camera also enables portrait mode much like other phones’ sensors nowadays, and it’s totally fine. Edge detection isn’t as precise as, say, a Pixel 2, but it’s good enough for a more dramatic shot.

In addition, video captured with the U12 Plus is also pretty grand. Good sharpness, audio, color, and contrast are all captured at 4K/60fps, and the same holds true for other formats as well.

Something you don’t typically find on a smartphone are dual front-facing cameras, but the U12 Plus has them in the form of twin 8MP shooters with f/2.0 apertures. For normal selfies, the main 8MP lens gets the job done, while the secondary camera is only there for portrait mode shots which is okay at best. It’s kind of a waste of hardware since you can do portrait mode with just one camera and special software, but whatever.

The Bad

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Despite the beginning of this review being pretty positive, there’s plenty bad about the U12 Plus that makes my decision whether to recommend it extremely hard.

For starters, one of the U12 Plus’ premiere features is the array of faux buttons. HTC is using pressure sensors that detect when you depress one of the keys to change the volume or shut down the device. In theory, they could be a pretty good alternative to traditional buttons that can fall out or malfunction over time. But in practice, they’re pretty terrible.

Oftentimes, I’ll need to press extremely hard just to turn the volume up a notch. Other times, I can lightly press on a key and have it perform the action I want. There are also times where I’ll press the volume up button and it’ll bug out, thinking I’m still pressing down and increase the volume to a level that blasts my eardrums out if I have headphones in.

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Clearly, inconsistency is the name of the game here. Sure, I can adjust how hard I wanna press on the buttons, but even by doing so, I experience the same problems I would have otherwise. Plus, they don’t feel as satisfying as actual buttons since the feedback you get for pressing them is a slight vibration at the bottom of the phone. It’s nowhere close to the Taptic Engine Apple developed for 3D Touch on the iPhone and it feels just as slow and dumb as vibration motors have felt on previous Android phones. The very least HTC could’ve done was implement the motor from the LG G7 for a more precise “tap” after hitting a button, but they probably didn’t even consider that.

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The buttons can be especially clumsy to use thanks to the mere size of the U12 Plus. It’s bigger than most other Android phones with a 6-inch 18:9 screen, including the LG V35. I blame this on the large forehead and chin above and below the display which seem kind of unnecessary. I mean, yes, HTC probably needed the room for the enormous dual selfie cameras they had to implement, but they could’ve just done a notch and cleared up some room for the display. I dunno, maybe I’m just picking apart the phone at this juncture, but something just bugs me about the phone’s overall footprint.

The same goes for some other design aspects of the U12 Plus. For instance, the display is simply too dim for anything but in-door usage, the camera can be really slow to capture a photo (especially in low-light where the camera can hang for four to five seconds), there’s no headphone jack which really bugs me since HTC doesn’t even include a 3.5mm adapter in the box, and there’s no Sprint support if you’re a yellow carrier customer.

On top of all that, the U12 Plus takes a good while to charge. I can juice up from zero to 50 percent in around 45 minutes which is noticeably slower than most other Android phones with Quick Charge 3.0.

The Ugly

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This takes us to the worst parts of the U12 Plus, starting with that battery. Inside the device, HTC includes a 3,500mAh cell which, in theory, should be plenty to get you through a full day. However, in practice, it’s the complete opposite. I can barely get through a 10-hour day without the phone dropping to 25 or 30 percent before dinner. Plus, standby times are atrocious with as much as 10 percent regularly dropping within an hour of the phone simply sitting at my desk not being used.

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Unfortunately, that’s not the only ugly part of the U12 Plus. HTC’s Edge Sense feature, which lets users squeeze the phone to perform various actions and access shortcuts, is also pretty bad. It uses the same pressure sensitivity technology as the faux buttons to distinguish different levels of pressure. For instance, a slight squeeze can open the camera, while a longer-lasting firm squeeze can open something like the Google Assistant. And this year, users can even tap on either side of the device to do things like shrink the screen for one-handed operation and open side menus.

With so much going on, it’s a wonder HTC thinks it can handle it all with its software. Unfortunately, it can’t. I’ve been trying to use Edge Sense with the U12 Plus ever since I got the phone in the mail and it’s been so inconsistent, I decided to turn it off just a couple of weeks later. Sometimes all I need is a brief squeeze to open the camera, while other times it requires me to squeeze so hard it feels like I’m about the crush the phone. I also get lots of random squeezes that are completely unintentional, likely due to the new “tap” functionality onboard that requires so little pressure.

While it’s useful to have access to shortcuts via a quick action like squeezing the phone, the U12 Plus never really felt like it was adding convenience to my life all because of just how bad my experience has been with Edge Sense. And it’s kind of odd since Google pull off the squeeze functionality for its Pixel phones much better than the creator of the feature itself. Plus, most of the same actions performed using Edge Sense can be assigned to a reprogrammable side button, similar to BlackBerry’s phones.

Overall, I never really saw any value in using the feature and kept it off during almost my entire review period, partially because of how bad it was and to try and save as much battery life as I could.

Finally, I want to touch a bit on the software of the U12 Plus. I realize I just praised it and now I’m talking about it in the ugly section of this review, but hear me out. Despite its clean nature and refreshing fluidity, I’ve run into many bugs that I can’t get over. For instance, sometimes HTC’s Sense Home launcher would randomly crash on me for no reason. Other times, apps would force close and I have no idea why. Then, the camera app would sometimes need to be double-tapped in order to open. It’s little annoyances like these that discourage me to use the handset as my daily driver.

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By now, Tony Stark will have asked Peter for the suit back. But instead of giving it back to him after Parker proves himself, Spider-Man stays in the same place that got his million-dollar armor taken away and never gets anywhere. That’s how I feel about HTC. Despite the company making an effort year after year, they never hit the nail on the head and instead hammer another one into their coffin. The U12 Plus has all the intentions of being a flagship phone what with its list of specs and features, but its faulty execution of said features outweigh the phone’s good qualities by way too much. And that’s sad because the cameras and speakers are really good.

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Overall, I wouldn’t recommend the U12 Plus to virtually anyone. In fact, I don’t think I could even recommend it to HTC fanboys who only buy HTC phones. There are just too many mistakes that make it a lousy option for your next smartphone. Oh, and it’s definitely not worth the $800 price tag. Not in a million years.

So yeah, skip this one. Just hope and pray to God HTC doesn’t do the same thing next year.

Rating: 5/10

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