HTC, how hard thee’ve fallen

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“Help This (F**king) Company”

If you’ve stuck around in the mobile tech scene since 2013, that little quote above is very familiar and it’s still being used today to describe a smartphone OEM called HTC, based in Taiwan and was known as “High Tech Company” back in the day.

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HTC is still an ODM in relation to the Google Pixel, however.

HTC started out as an ODM, or Original Design Manufacturer, basically building devices for other companies according to their schematics. It wasn’t until much later that HTC started building their own devices and made a name for themselves in innovation. Well, such times are far behind now, as HTC continues to struggle with financial issues, reaching deeper in the red with every passing fiscal quarter. It’s a watershed moment, but one that won’t seem to be ending in favor of the company in light of some recent decisions.

WHY IS THIS SUCH A BIG DEAL?

If you’re relatively new to the mobile tech scene, you can be forgiven for not knowing that the company exists. Though back in the day, HTC was known as a relentless innovator, coming out with a bunch of new stuff that seemed to bring something new, along with some products which have now achieved legendary status. Some of which include;

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HTC HD2 – A Windows phone that is now considered a legend due to its relative ease in loading a different system image, making it one of the easiest devices to load non-official firmware, even ones not designed for the device originally. The HD2 is currently able to run Android Nougat and may well be able to run Android O.

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T-Mobile G1 – Known as the HTC Dream internationally, the G1 was the first commercially available Android device, launched in 2008 and although it received mixed reviews due to its design and young software, some noted the potential of the platform. Who knew its openness would soon become Android’s greatest strength (but also its biggest weakness).

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HTC Evo 4G – While it runs on WiMAX and not LTE, the Evo 4G was the first commercially available device sold in the United States that had 4G connectivity of any kind. It also had a large-at-the-time 4.3″ display that was one of the earlier devices to kickstart a screen-size expansion before the original Samsung Galaxy Note. It was launched in 2010 as a Sprint-exclusive.

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HTC One (M7) – At a time when most flagship Androids were made out of cheap flimsy hard glossy plastic (soft-touch plastic is how it should be done, OEMs), the original HTC One was quite a revelation. Not only did it have an exterior that’s 70% aluminum, it also had a great set of speakers that still sound better than a lot of current phones. The weak battery life and poor (but ambitious) camera let it down somewhat, but it did prove that flagship Androids didn’t need to feel flimsy.

SO, WHERE DID IT ALL GO WRONG?

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Well, remember when HTC used to be the king of Android phones? While Apple was (and still is) the 800-pound gorilla when it came to sales and market share  (at least in comparison to Android’s early days), when it came to Android phones, HTC was the undisputed champ in Android-land.

That is until these little guys dropped.

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Well, I said “little”. What I actually mean is huge.

Samsung joined the smartphone leagues in a big way with the Galaxy S in 2010. A little late but better late than never, right? Well, even if we can point to some “inspirations” from a certain fruit-named company, the Korean electronics giant did see success with the original Galaxy S and its successor, the Galaxy S2, with were sleeker than the comparatively bulky and heavy HTC rivals, which seemed better fit for the general consumer.

It wasn’t until 2012 where HTC really felt the pinch.

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HTC’s One X was the company’s 2012 flagship, and its chief Android rival was the Samsung Galaxy S3, while they’re both very similar in many key areas, like size, display resolution, raw processor specs and camera resolution, some are keen to call the One X the better overall device owing to its build quality and software.

However, the One X proved to be a bit of a commercial flop. It wasn’t that the phone was outright terrible (although its battery life is pretty poor), but because HTC failed to adequately market the darn thing. On the other hand, Samsung relentlessly pushed commercials and promotions for the Galaxy S3, ultimately culminating in a huge advertising campaign for the 2012 London Summer Olympics. As a result, the S3 was a huge success, with tens of millions of units sold in less than half-a-year.

From that experience, you would expect that HTC would learn from that and make sure that future devices are better prepped for the ever-increasing competition. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The M7 fell into manufacturing issues with led to a staggered release, and while its successor, the HTC One M8 fared much better, since then, the company has kept struggling, seemingly stumbling on its own feet in areas where it shouldn’t have. Some of it include;

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HTC One M9 – The successor to the One M8, but unless you flip it to the back, you wouldn’t know it. HTC hasn’t changed much on the device and while it does still look unique, from a consumer standpoint, it looks somewhat dated, especially as its chief Android rival has turned its slowly-sinking ship around in the looks department with the S6. The underwhelming camera, controversial processor and subpar battery life due to that processor also contributed to a somewhat “dead” market response to the device.

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That design, though

The One M9+ did bring a larger QHD display and a fingerprint sensor, but neuters the entire experience with a MediaTek Helio X10. It also didn’t help that a leak from Evan Blass raised expectations to very high levels.

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The One M9 we thought we would get…..

 

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HTC One A9 – As it turned out, the HTC One M9 wasn’t actually HTC’s hero device for 2015. Oh, no no no. That actually was supposed to come later in the year, and it was called the One A9. And yes, you’re forgiven if you thought it looked a lot like an iPhone 6. Sure, Apple had the same antenna-band design, but the A9’s camera lens position (though centralized) and overall shape is a near-dead ringer for an iPhone 6. For fans of the company’s design legacy, this was definitely polarizing. It also didn’t help that the phone had a bit of an anemic battery for its size (2150mAh) and was priced at $499, the same price as a 32GB Nexus 6P, along with Europeans getting a less-appealing variant. Oh, and it actually has a successor, the A9s, which is actually less appealing than the A9. On the plus side, its software is great and performance is top-notch. Worth Nexus 6P money, though? This guy doesn’t think so.

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These 2 both start at $500. Take your pick.

OKAY. WHAT ABOUT NOW?

Well, remember the HTC 10? It was the one phone that should have signalled the comeback of HTC from its rather dismal 2015 (and yes, it was rather dismal, even going down to the company being worth less than the cash it had in the bank), and quite a number of people thought so.

The HTC 10 has managed to successfully right the wrongs of its predecessor in many ways. While it does retain a familiar design, it’s refreshed with capacitive buttons (and a fingerprint sensor) along with large heavy chamfers that give it a fresh but unique look. It also featured a much improved camera featuring a Sony Exmor RS IMX377 1/2.3″ 12.3MP sensor paired with an f/1.8 26mm lens and OIS and a very beefy dedicated DAC and amp combo. Other improvements like USB-C and a QHD display are expected, but no-less welcome and while HTC’s new speaker layout isn’t as beefy or loud as the M9 and its predecessors, it does still sound better than a lot of smartphone speakers, and also packs in a more efficient Qualcomm Snapdragon 820, which rights many wrongs of the 810.

By that account, you’d expect the 10 to bring HTC back on the map with strong sales. But no. It didn’t.

While the phone did help reduce losses later on, sales weren’t meeting expectations, not even close. The phone was $700, and while it did offer quite a bit for that money, its chief Android rival had already launched the Galaxy S7 line, righting many wrongs with both of its predecessors along with its typical heavy marketing. The 10 also launched in the age where $400 phones got really good, meaning that selling just a solid device isn’t enough to warrant a premium price tag. Did HTC learn?

Sadly, no. They still haven’t.

Aside from the HTC Bolt (known as the HTC 10 Evo outside the US), which had the same controversial Snapdragon 810 SoC as the M9 and the loss of the headphone jack and was also priced high up at $600, HTC’s real sin should probably be the U Ultra, HTC’s highest-end device for the first few months of 2017.

The U Ultra is only the second truly huge HTC device in recent memory, the first one being 2013’s 5.9″ One Max. Featuring a 5.7″ QHD IPS main panel plus a 0.2″ secondary ticker, the U Ultra is properly massive, even more so than Huawei’s Mate 9 superphablet. The U Ultra also retails for $749 excluding tax as an unlocked-only device in the United States. With taxes, it can go over $800, depending on state. That is a huge price to pay and you’d expect that what you get in return is a truly compelling handset that packs in everything but the kitchen sink and some unique features to help it stand apart. Well, unfortunately, as I mentioned in one of my earlier articles, HTC has not learnt its lesson yet again and the U Ultra has several shortcomings that really plagued the device’s reputation. Compared to its smaller metal sibling, the HTC 10, the U Ultra has;

  • The same 3000mAh capacity battery as its much smaller sibling, but with a much larger display along with a secondary ticker.
  • Lack of a dedicated 3.5mm headphone jack along with beefy dedicated hardware. The device strangely and bizarrely does not ship with an adapter and the included USonic earbuds don’t work with non-HTC USB-C devices. This was also the case with the Bolt, so it’s disturbing to see this continue.
  • Lack of water-resistance or dust-proofing (which the Bolt had).
  • No wireless charging despite the glass back.
  • Some machine-learning features that Google Now already does.
  • Higher MSRP
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Almost as large, but with much more packed in it.

Aside from the similar performance and huge camera hump, which don’t matter as much compared to the above, the U Ultra really doesn’t seem to offer much of a compelling reason to pick it up over some of its rival offerings. You can buy the Huawei Mate 9 pictured above, which is actually slightly smaller overall in comparisons but has a similar combined screen size with a much larger 4000mAh battery and arguably more features at a more palatable $599. The OnePlus 3T isn’t as large, but at $440 – $480, it’s an extremely compelling package. LG’s G6 and Samsung’s Galaxy S8 are coming and they’re probably going to offer features not found in the U Ultra for around the same or lower price point.

It didn’t take long for the HTC U Ultra to be panned by nearly every tech blog out there. Also cued a very rare rant moment from the likes of Marques Brownlee and Flossy Carter

And what was HTC’s response to all of this? Release a $150 more expensive version of the U Ultra with sapphire and 128GB of storage. *facepalm*

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Why???

THE UPSHOT

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Really, though. The one factor in why HTC is still failing is because they’ve still got their heads high up in the clouds.

HTC doesn’t seem to realize that the smartphone market has changed dramatically since losing to Samsung in 2012 and despite these massive changes, the company still insists on making very solid but also very expensive smartphones, despite falling sales year-over-year.

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Aside from the LG G4, most current flagships have become very good, with extra features like the Motomods on the Moto Z to help justify their extra cost.

This isn’t 2012 to 2013 where most of its rivals lack polish or slick software and where sub-$400 phones were trash sandwiches in comparison to flagships. This is 2017, where expensive flagship phones have been very refined and have added some extra-but-useful lifestyle addons like water + dust resistance, enhanced audio, adaptable cameras and long battery life.

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Phones like the Honor 8, OnePlus 3T and Axon 7 (left to right) offer an experience that’s very close to flagship-grade with a significantly cheaper MSRP.

Since 2016, the premium-midrange/budget buster market, conceived by the Nexus 4 + 5 and made popular by the OnePlus One, have gotten much more enticing, with OnePlus’ own OnePlus 3 and 3T leading the charge, while being followed by similarly enticing options like the extreme audio of ZTE’s Axon 7 or the beauty and stills performance of the camera bolted on Huawei’s Honor 8. Those phones cost between $400 for the Axon and Honor and $440 – $480 for the 3T depending on storage, and all offer very high-end hardware and come very close to the experience of a proper flagship without the flagship tax penalty.

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These market changes mean that selling a phone whose main distinction is being a pretty plus solid handset for a high price isn’t going to cut it anymore as flagships and even mid-priced devices carry that same distinction. If HTC still insists on charging very premium prices, it better come up with a very compelling selling point. The 10 had beefy audio as one of its prime selling points, but the loss of the headphone jack and its accompanying high-end audio chops mean that that’s no longer the case until it is brought back. Good design and slick software isn’t enough in 2017 when even a $400 Honor 8 has the same distinction. HTC needs something seriously compelling, and software that’s branded as an “AI companion” even though it’s not really AI isn’t it.

The HTC 11, HTC’s actual hero smartphone for 2017, needs to make a very strong first impression. The U Ultra barely nails the core smartphone essentials, which makes it a very tough recommendation at its current price tag. The 11 needs to absolutely nail those essentials while adding features that help define the company while also being useful so that they’re not considered gimmicks. The company also needs to properly and adequately market the device so that consumers will know about it and can garner enough interest for it to have a chance. And no, releasing a “special”, more expensive version of a phone that no one seems interested in isn’t the way to do it.

But in light of these recent events, maybe the HTC 11 will just be another expensive HTC that barely edges out a OnePlus without a headphone jack and offers less than the equivalent Samsung or Huawei, and then there’ll be a limited offering that costs even more with new additions that no one asked for.

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Please prove me wrong, HTC. You’ll need to.

HTC, how hard thee’ve fallen

THROWBACK: Samsung Galaxy S3 – Propelling Android to the mainstream

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Even if you aren’t much of an Android fan, you’ve probably heard of the Samsung Galaxy S3 (called the Galaxy S III back then). It was the phone that sold to seemingly no end and was probably one of the very first Androids that actually gained supreme widespread consumer appeal. Not only did it cement Samsung as an innovator and manufacturer of some of the hottest smartphones around (no Note 7 pun intended) but also helped propelled the Android OS to the mainstream. Let’s take a little trip back to see how it all was like.

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Back in 2011, Samsung’s Galaxy S2 was selling pretty well, with 10 million sold after 5 months. Naturally, that created some attention towards the company, including one company who Samsung may or may not have taken some design inspirations from.

_DSC4363_lznThe great Samsung vs Apple court litigation came about in Spring 2011, where both sides accused each other of taking design cues from the other, ranging from “Slide to Unlock” and rounded corners to even some icons and features that devices made by the 2 companies share.

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It would seem that Samsung is fighting a losing fight, as Apple has amassed a lot of brand recognition with a huge loyal following. Samsung would be forever seen as an imitator and a “follower” to Apple if nothing was done, which would also hinder the reach of Android, which Apple’s then-CEO Steve Jobs once remarked it as a “stolen product”. Samsung would need a radically different smartphone with a totally different design language and philosophy in order to prove that the company is capable of being much more original.

Enter the Samsung Galaxy S3.

The Galaxy S3 brought forth a new design language that was not seen on its past devices. The square-ish and blocky form factor was replaced with a curved shape all over the device which is designed to conform to the palm. The device was made out of a polycarbonate shell with a “Hyperglaze” coating that made the device’s rear casing shiny. That rear casing also pops open to reveal a removable 2100mAh battery, a microSIM slot and a microSD card slot that officially supports microSDXC cards up to 64GB (higher capacity cards may work due to the microSDXC standard, however).

Inside, the device does see a pretty significant hardware bump in quite a few key areas for the year.

SoC Samsung Exynos 4412 Quad (International), Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Plus (USA)
CPU Quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 clocked at 1.4GHz (Exynos), Dual-core Qualcomm Krait clocked at 1.5GHz (Snapdragon)
GPU ARM Mali 400MP4 (Exynos), Qualcomm Adreno 225 (Snapdragon)
RAM 1GB of LPDDR2 (Exynos), 2GB of LPDDR2 (USA)
Storage 16GB NAND with eMMC-based storage controller, microSDXC card slot up to 64GB officially
Dimensions 136.6mm (height), 70.6mm (width), 8.6mm (depth)
Display (main) 4.8” (diagonal) AMOLED with a resolution of 720×1280, Gorilla Glass 2 with oleophobic coating.
Main camera 1/3” S5C73M3 (Samsung?) sensor with a resolution of 3264×2448 (8MP), f/2.6 aperture with 1.4 micron pixels, HDR, video recording up to 1080p30, zero shutter lag, contrast-detection autofocus.
Front camera Samsung S5K6A3 sensor with a resolution of 1392×1392 (1.9MP)
Location GPS, A-GPS, GLONASS
Speaker Single rear-mounted mono speaker next to camera module, 3.5mm jack
Software Android 4.0.4 “Ice Cream Sandwich” with “TouchWiz Nature UX” overlay
Sensors Accelerometer, gyroscope, proximity, ambient light, compass, barometer
Power 2100mAh Li-ion (removable), no fast-charging
Features Smart Stay, S Beam, S Voice, voice shutter, smart features.

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The Galaxy S3 was also one of the first devices to gain a display that was worthy of being called “HD”, with its HD Super AMOLED panel with a resolution of 720×1280, resulting in a density of 306PPI. Despite that, though, the phone actually had a lower effective resolution as it utilized a PenTile diamond subpixel matrix, in contrast to the RGB layout used in the S2’s Super AMOLED PLUS panel. As a result, some content looked somewhat fuzzy, although the display’s infinite contrast does make up for that, although since it’s an early Samsung OLED with early software, it is very oversaturated, something Samsung has gradually toned down over the years.

_DSC4388_FotorSpeaking of software, the Galaxy S3 also marked the debut of Samsung’s overhauled custom UI; TouchWiz Nature UX, which is based on Android 4.0.4 “Ice Cream Sandwich”. The overall layout is largely similar to the previous version of TouchWiz, but with many elements taken from Google’s new “Holo” design language used in the stock build of ICS, added with some nature-inspired elements like a water-drop-inspired lockscreen, “bloop” touch sound effects (which became irritating after just a short while) and lots of blue-ish elements throughout.

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The new software also features new features, such as “Smart Stay”, which keeps the screen awake as long as you’re looking at it (barely works), S Beam, which uses Wi-Fi Direct to transfer files to another device after tapping them back-to-back and motion-activated gestures for commands like a palm-swipe to take a screenshot. Much of these proved to be gimmicky, something that went over to its successor, the Galaxy S4, but some did actually prove to be useful, which explains why they’ve become a mainstay.

_DSC4382_FotorThe S3’s camera maintained the same resolution as its predecessor, but features an ever-so-slightly wider aperture and new software that allows the phone to take quick burst shots, take a single shot without severe latency, and even pick the best shot out of a burst of 8 photos.

As for the photos themselves, they’re not bad for a 2012 phone, although you do see some weaknesses such as narrow dynamic range, more motion blur in less ideal lighting due to the lack of OIS and more digital noise. Apple’s iPhone 5 can pull better shots due to more conservative post-processing as Samsung’s software juices up the saturation and sharpness to absurd levels at the time, which they’ve since toned down, although the S3 is still capable of some very solid photos.

The phone was an instant success, amassing 9 million pre-orders in just 2 weeks, and selling in a rate that actually outsold an iPhone (albeit a model from 2011), which was unheard of from an Android device from an OEM that wasn’t known widely. Despite, a manufacturing issue with Pebble Blue S3 variants, the device went on to sell 20 million in 100 days, eventually reaching 60 million 2 years after the phone was released, and added another 10 million a year later. The device also showcased Samsung’s marketing muscle, with tons of ads airing between TV programs and game events, along with a massive promotional campaign that aired during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. The S3’s success didn’t come without casualties, as former Android juggernaut HTC suffered a significant sales slump and eventually a decline in profits and even losses due to its failure to market their devices adequately.

It doesn’t hit all the high notes, though. Even though Samsung boasted about its “Hyperglaze” finish, that finish was easily scratched and also easy to scuff, as the marks on my unit should show. It also made the phone feel rather tacky and cheap, almost like a toy despite its high price-tag at the time. The plastic side-rails had its chrome-like finish flake out only after a few months and the home button on this particular unit is probably the worst I’ve ever used, with extremely mushy feedback and almost no feel. Kinda funny when you consider that the Galaxy S6 edge has the best home button I’ve ever felt due to its great clicky feel and direct travel.

The software is also a pretty significant pain-point. The Galaxy S3 was one of those Samsung phones that got really slow just after a few months and despite an update to Android 4.1.2 and 4.3 Jelly Bean, the phone just chugged along at a snail’s pace, sometimes taking seconds to even register a touch. Furthermore, if you own an i9300 model, Samsung did not release Android 4.4 “KitKat” to the device, citing performance issues, leaving it EOL with just 2 major OS upgrades, so some have taken the liberty to install custom firmware in order to bring it up to the current day, like my own unit shown above. Some phones also have issues with their eMMC controllers, causing the device to be totally unusable until a new mainboard is installed.

The Samsung Galaxy S3 isn’t my favorite Android device because it does seem to have quite a number of issues that we’ve come to associate with Samsung with their future flagships, especially the performance buffs, which have actually grown into a meme itself. Despite that, it’s hard to deny the influence it had on Android as a whole. The Galaxy S3’s success not only soldered Samsung to the top of the pack, it also propelled Android into the mainstream, reaching more and more people and cementing the platform as the dominant one of all in terms of market share. And it also certainly proved that the company was  able to come up with some original ideas for a change. Had the Galaxy S3 failed, we would be in a very different world right now. The success of the S3 was only followed by the Galaxy S4 and the Galaxy S7 line (the S5 and S6 did not sell as well).

So, kudos Galaxy S3. You weren’t perfect and you were actually quite flawed. But you did do Android a huge favor in its history and for that, we salute you.

THROWBACK: Samsung Galaxy S3 – Propelling Android to the mainstream

Let’s not buy the HTC U Ultra

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First, a quick note.

While the HTC U Ultra is currently HTC’s highest-specced device, it isn’t a true successor to the HTC 10, HTC’s 2016 flagship and hero device. And I don’t mean that as a jab. It’s actually a stopgap between the 10 and upcoming HTC 11, made to appease Note 7 switchers with its size and design.

The HTC U Ultra is now on sale in the United States, so if you’re one of the patient ones who were really waiting for this device, your patience is rewarded.

…..Or has it?

Before we delve any further, let’s get the specs out of the way.

SoC Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 (MSM8996Pro), 14nm FinFET manufactured by Samsung
CPU Quad-core Qualcomm Kyro, with 2 clusters in a big.LITTLE configuration. Big clusters clocked at 2.15GHz and little clusters clocked at 1.6GHz
GPU Qualcomm Adreno 530, clocked at 600MHz
RAM 4GB of LPDDR4
Storage 64GB NAND with UFS 2-based storage controller with microSDXC slot up to 2TB. 128GB model available in certain markets
Dimensions 162.4mm (height), 79.8mm (width), 8mm (depth)
Display (main) 5.7” (diagonal) IPS LCD with a resolution of 1440×2560, Gorilla Glass 5 with oleophobic coating (128GB models use sapphire glass)
Display (ticker) 2.05” (diagonal) ticker display (presumably IPS LCD) with a resolution of 160×1040
Main camera 1/2.3” 12.3MP 4:3 aspect ratio (4048×3036) Sony Exmor RS IMX378 with f/1.8 aperture and 1.55μm pixels, HDR, up to 2160p30 video recording, up to 720p120 slow-motion, manual ISO, shutter speed and white balance controls, aided by laser + phase-detection autofocus, OIS and dual LED flash.
Front camera 16MP BSI “UltraPixel” sensor with f/2.0 aperture, HDR, video recording up to 1080p.
Location GPS, A-GPS, GLONASS, Beidou
Speaker Dual tweeter + woofer combo, headphone audio through USB Type-C
Software Android 7.0 “Nougat” with HTC Sense overlay
Sensors Accelerometer, gyroscope, proximity, ambient light, compass, front-mounted fingerprint sensor, pedometer.
Power 3000mAh Li-Po battery (sealed), Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 fast-charging
Features U Companion, Sense features.

From that spec sheet, your impression would be that it’s a big phone. And yep, it is, especially with a big 5.7-inch display paired up with a secondary ticker display. And with big phones come big specs right? Well, not entirely.

See, the HTC U Ultra is a big phone, but it makes very poor use of space in it. Some of which are as follows;

  • No headphone jack – Presumably to follow the iPhone 7 and HTC’s own Bolt, the HTC U Ultra ditches the discrete DAC and amp combo plus the 3.5mm jack in favor of audio output through USB-C, which does have some benefits like automatic audio tuning with the included earbuds. However, there’s no good reason to remove the jack on a phone this large. While Apple can claim that they need space and Motorola can claim that their Moto Z was simply too thin for one, for a device this big and chunky, there’s simply no excuse for leaving this out other than following Apple.
  • Battery – Though some of you might assume it’s due to battery, right? Sadly, nope. Despite the large size and the chunky-by-2017 8mm thickness, the U Ultra packs in a mere 3000mAh powerpack. On its own, that’s not bad, but when paired with a huge display along with a secondary ticker (both are presumably IPS LCD), the result is average battery life at best. When competitors are stuffing larger powerpacks in smaller form factors, the U Ultra really does feel like it’s not making any good use out of its extra space.
  • The extras – Manufacturers would usually use whatever remaining space to stuff in whatever feature they can have, such as wireless charging and water-resistance plus dust-proofing. Sadly, the HTC U Ultra has none of those, despite its large glass back and chunky dimensions.

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The biggest issue with the U Ultra, however, is the price. The device retails for $749 unlocked. That is a crapton of dough for a smartphone and you would expect a phone of that price to pack in the very best a smartphone manufacturer can offer. Sadly, the U Ultra feels more like a repackaged HTC 10 with storage and processor improvements than an actual device built from the ground up, which it probably is when you realize that this is actually a stopgap device that probably doesn’t have much development time.

For $749, the U Ultra is a mediocre device in terms of value. While it is limited to 32GB in this particular trim, the Google Pixel XL offers better battery life and faster Android updates for $20 more (if you can find one). The LG G6 is either a hair or significantly cheaper depending on carrier and you’ll get largely similar specs but with water-resistance and the upcoming Galaxy S8 will have a larger display while largely retaining the overall dimensions of its predecessors. Huawei’s Mate 9 also offers a big chassis but arguably makes much better use of its space with its 6-inch display that takes up nearly 78% of the phone’s face and stuffs a huge 4000mAh battery in a chassis that’s also thinner than the U Ultra, making it able to last a full day and then some rather easily, and is also cheaper at a mere $600. The OnePlus 3T and ZTE Axon 7 may not be of the exact same calibre, but both offer 90+% of what the HTC offers at a much lower price (The 3T goes for $440 and $480 for 64GB and 128GB respectively while the Axon goes for $400 in its 64GB trim). The Axon also gets bonus points for picking up where HTC left off, with its big brassy twin-speaker grilles offering punchy stereo audio and beefy AKM audio hardware though its 3.5mm jack. See where I’m going?

It’s not all bad, though. The Ultra is a seriously gorgeous device with really clean software that has excellent day-to-day performance and a really solid camera package. But when pretty much every other flagship and even mid-priced devices offer the same thing, the U Ultra doesn’t seem to be that worth it, and the extra AI-based features aren’t going to push this device far into the mainstream, unfortunately.

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If you really want a big HTC, then maybe the U Ultra is worth it to you and if you really want one, I can’t really stop you from buying one. But to everyone else, you would really do yourself a favor by waiting for the HTC 11. Even if you have no plans to buy the 11, HTC will definitely be giving out price cut promotions for the U Ultra, which will be coming sooner rather than later as prospects of it even selling is very slim.

Maybe next time, HTC……. again.

Let’s not buy the HTC U Ultra

Something new

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Well, I had to do this since it was enticing.

But I recently got a new phone, not as a new daily driver but as some sort of backup/media consumption device to supplement my Moto Z in some areas where it might not be as viable mainly due to its very average battery life.

And that new phone is……..

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……A VIVO Y55L!

I know, it doesn’t sound exciting, but I got this for less than $5 off a carrier, so it’s actually kinda sweet.

Here are the basic specs for those who are interested.

SoC Qualcomm Snapdragon 435 (MSM8940), 28nm LP
CPU Octa-core ARM Cortex-A53, clockspeed ranging from 960MHz to 1.4GHz per core
GPU Qualcomm Adreno 505 clocked at 450MHz
RAM 2GB LPDDR3
Storage 16GB of eMMC 5.1, microSDXC card slot up to 128GB++
Display 5.2” (diagonal) IPS LCD with a resolution of 720×1280, 282PPI, screen film preapplied.
Rear camera 8MP 4:3 aspect-ratio (3264×2448) unknown rear sensor (1/3.2” IMX179 with 1.4 micron pixels?) with f/2.0 aperture, HDR, up to 1080p30 video recording and 480p120 slow-motion and manual ISO, shutter speed, focus and white balance controls plus single LED flash
Front camera 5MP (2592×1944) unknown sensor with f/2.2 aperture and up to 1080p30 video, screen flash
Location A-GPS/GPS/GLONASS/Beidou (depending on region)
Speaker Single front-mounted earpiece, single mono bottom-mounted main loudspeaker, 3.5mm headphone jack
Software Android 6.0.1 “Marshmallow” with FunTouch OS 2.6, Google Play Services preloaded on international models
Sensors Accelerometer, Gyroscope, compass, proximity, ambient light sensor and pedometer
Power 2730mAh Li-ion battery (non-removable). 60h of mixed usage with 6 hours of on-screen time (early tests), 5V/2A charging over microUSB
Features Dual SIM (without taking up an SD slot), raise to wake, themes, multi-window, one-handed mode, gestures.

And some more pictures of the device for your viewing pleasure.

Something new

No, the iPad Pro is not a proper laptop replacement

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If you’ve been following Apple’s ads as of late, you may have seen something like this;

This is part of Apple’s push to make the iPad Pro more viable as an alternative to a traditional computer. However, while I applaud Apple’s ambition, the sad truth is this.

The iPad Pro is actually an unsuitable replacement for a proper computer running a desktop OS

Now, I’m pretty sure some of you are going to throw torches and pitchforks at me for saying that, but let me explain one important detail.

I own an iPad Pro 12.9″ ever since January of last year and it has been my main computing device when I’m away from my laptop ever since, although my phone does provide nice backup.

Let’s be honest here. The iPad Pro is a good tablet. Actually, no. It’s a damn fine powerhouse with immense amounts of power and superb hardware. As a general purpose large tablet, both the 9.7-inch and larger 12.9-inch models do extremely well for general browsing, basic work, entertainment and gaming.

However, past iPads have also done that generally well, so the Pros are kinda like an iPad Air Plus in that regard. While Apple has pushed the idea of the Pros being a laptop-replacement since its reveal, even putting nifty additions such as keyboard shortcuts and even an Alt-Tab task switcher (which is extremely useful), it doesn’t change the fact that the reason why the iPad Pro can’t be a suitable replacement for a proper computer is iOS.

Now, before you get the wrong idea, it isn’t that iOS is bad. It’s more that the Pro runs an operating system designed for mobile devices, specifically ones running on an ARM architecture. iOS works very well on phones and smaller tablets. Sure, Android fanboys will nag at how it hasn’t changed much over the years and yes, Apple’s UI philosophy doesn’t scale as well on larger phones, but it is easy to use and also has a coherent, consistent design.

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Sadly, iOS isn’t as shiny on a bigger canvas like an iPad Pro 12.9. While split-screen multitasking and a separate window for videos are wonderful, it doesn’t change the fact that this is an OS primarily designed for phones, just maximized for use on a larger display. It’s more limited in capability and also doesn’t offer as much flexibility. This isn’t a problem limited to iOS. Android on tablets also suffer from the same issue, maybe made even worse due to its much fewer numbers of apps specifically designed for tablets.

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Basically, let’s put it this way. The iPad Pro is a fine general-purpose large tablet for entertainment, light work and browsing. However, a proper computer replacement it is not. Its software is just far too limiting for it to properly replace a proper computer, unless that computer happens to be a netbook. To be honest, Microsoft’s Surface Pro is not my first choice for a tablet, since it seems to be designed more as a laptop without a keyboard than an actual tablet. But if I wanted a laptop replacement, the Surface will be my first pick. The iPad Pro just feels more like it was designed to be a tablet than a laptop replacement. I applaud Apple’s ambitions, but I think an iPad-like device running macOS would make far more sense as a laptop-replacement.

No, the iPad Pro is not a proper laptop replacement

The “thin” race needs to stop

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It seems that a major trend in the industry is to make the next generation of products even slimmer than its predecessors. For the first few years, that was understandable. These devices need to be made more compact and easier to hold, especially phones, since they’re almost always held in the hand. Lately, however, the trend has gotten too bizarre and I think it’s high time that we stop this whole race right now.

WHY IS THERE A NEED FOR SUCH THIN DEVICES ANYWAY?

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Simple. Earlier devices were notorious for being thick and somewhat bulky. The whole “thin” race has started a long time ago, especially in the pursuit of making a product that works well while being offered in a sleek package that looks good and also isn’t much to hold. It wasn’t too long ago that a device that is 10mm in thickness is considered slim. For a while, it made a whole lot of sense, and we didn’t get any significant drawbacks from that. Not so these days, however.

REASON #1 – BATTERY CAPACITY

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Arguably a big reason why I think the thinner race needs to stop is battery capacity. When you make a device thinner, you reduce its overall internal footprint, meaning that there is less internal space for something like a bigger battery. For quite some time, however, this wasn’t such a big deal as other components got more efficient, so the reduction in battery capacity is usually mitigated or outweighed by the increased efficiency of the internal components. It also helped that this was also at the time when devices got bigger, so there was more space for a bigger cell, so that too outweighed the con of less depth.

However, it seems that newer devices are going to need those bigger batteries, as they either gain more functionality that adds more power load or have new capabilities that encourages heavier use. Case in point; The 2016 MacBook Pro. Despite gaining a brighter DCI-P3 display along with an OLED touchbar that’s always-on under use, the battery capacity shrunk by as much as 25% due to the fact that the machine was made to be thinner than its predecessor. Even though the Intel Skylake-based processors were more efficient than the Haswell-based processors of its predecessor, the display along with the always-on touchbar meant that the machine would usually come up short of Apple’s 10-hour battery life figure, unless one is extremely frugal in usage, which is quite a departure from past MacBook Pros, which usually managed to meet or exceed Apple’s claims in normal use quite easily. And with phones getting new functionality, it’s high time that even those start bulking up a bit to accommodate bigger batteries.

#2 – SPACE CONSTRAINTS FOR LARGER BATTERIES

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This ties into the first point, but in a different light. The point for a thicker device is to make more room for a larger battery, but some manufacturers have tried (and usually succeed) in stuffing large batteries in slim housings. However, a recent event may have to give OEMs a lesson in pushing the boundaries.

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The Galaxy Note 7 recall is still fresh in some folk’s minds and Samsung is due to publish an official report later in the month on why the device ended up being a fiery mess instead of a truly great smartphone that it was. However, a firm called Instrumental have recently published a report that seems to arrive at a pretty significant theory on why this is so; that the device is simply too small to accommodate such a large powerpack. Aside from Samsung engineers leaving too little space around the battery to account for its expansion due to heat, there also doesn’t seem to be a “ceiling” to account for systematic bulging of the battery over time.

When batteries are charged and discharged, chemical processes cause the lithium to migrate and the battery will mechanically swell.  Any battery engineer will tell you that it’s necessary to leave some percentage of ceiling above the battery, 10% is a rough rule-of-thumb, and over time the battery will expand into that space.  Our two-month old unit had no ceiling: the battery and adhesive was 5.2 mm thick, resting in a 5.2 mm deep pocket.  There should have been a 0.5 mm ceiling.  This is what mechanical engineers call line-to-line — and since it breaks such a basic rule, it must have been intentional.  It is even possible that our unit was under pressure when we opened it.

This is something that everyone needs to learn. Just because you could doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Thin phones with really big batteries just don’t match. If you want to stuff in a big battery, you need to bulk the phone itself up a little bit to ensure that it is safe.

REASON #3 – IS THERE REALLY ANY BENEFIT THESE DAYS?

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In the past, we saw immediate benefits by slimming devices down as they were easier to hold on to and also were less of a drag in pockets due to their lower profile. However, past a certain point, is there really any benefit to having a thinner phone? I’d argue no, simply due to the rule of diminishing returns.

After a certain point, the benefits to a thinner device simply isn’t as noticeable compared to a more significant leap, like 15mm to 8mm. Going from 7mm to 5.2mm isn’t a significant jump, and will also lead to compromises that I’d argue we could do without.

There’s also some issues like some ergonomic issues due to the really sleek profile and also durability due to how thin it is, making it more fragile, especially to drops and bends.

WRAPPING UP

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I feel that it’s high-time that this whole race needs to stop while it still can. I’ve seen some signs of optimism, but more need to take notice. I like my devices to be reasonably thin but also thick enough so that it can house a large power-pack that also has enough space around it so it doesn’t get too constrained to the point where it can become a safety hazard. Simply put, there’s really no point in making phones any “thinner” other than for bragging rights, and I think OEMs really should stop before they realize what’s going on.

The “thin” race needs to stop