One day, smartphones will just reduced to their simplest, most elemental form: a single slab of glass. That’s what shows like Black Mirror, The Expanse, and even (yes) Parks & Recreation like to tell us. I’ve always thought that future was a ways off, but HTC is apparently ready to get the ball rolling.
HTC’s new U12 Plus (styled U12+ by HTC themselves) has completely eliminated physical buttons. It has spots on its sides that resemble volume and power buttons, but they’re really just pressure-sensitive bumps that make a clicky vibration when you push ‘em. If the lack of buttons sounds strange, you should know that HTC made the sides of its phone pressure sensitive, too. You can squeeze it to open apps or perform actions like zooming on a map.
It’s fun to see a phone maker experiment with new concepts, and it’s hard not to root for HTC, one of the smartphone pioneers. But, sometimes change for the sake of change turns ugly—this time, the price of said change was my sanity.
The U12 Plus never behaves. It’s tricksy like those hobbitses—always up to something. Sometimes the screen shuts off when I pick it up, or the camera app springs to life on its own. Other times I’ll actually unlock it and accidentally shut the screen off again.
It gets up to the most mischief when it’s in my pocket. Without fail, if I’m walking around it will somehow unlock itself and start doing something nefarious. I’ve gotten used to feeling that annoying vibration, telling me that I need to turn my phone’s screen off again. For a while I had convinced myself that it has changed its ways. What I didn’t realize was that the phone had yet again gone rogue, slipping into its silent mode.
After a week, I shut off the touch-able edges (called Edge Sense) altogether, which hasn’t alleviated the problem. It’s just not particularly fun to use fake buttons—in use they’re overly sensitive when you don’t want them to be, and infuriatingly difficult to press when they shouldn’t be. Ratcheting up the volume, is also slower, making it a chore. Sometimes it takes more pressure than it should, but mostly it’s just so silly to have to have to think about how I’m pressing the volume buttons on my phone.
The Show Must Go On
Eventually I’ve grown to accept (but dislike) those touchy buttons, and if you pretend they aren’t there, the U12 Plus is a good Android phone.
My U12 Plus had a black metal frame and translucent blue finish on the back, which lets you peek through parts of the glass. It’s gorgeous, but not particularly durable. Since it’s covered in Gorilla Glass 3 (not 5), it’s a little less tough than some newer phones—not that any of them are particularly crack resistant under the right conditions. To its credit, HTC included a cheap, but usable plastic case in the box. The case wasn’t my favorite, but I do recommend keeping it on.
The one time I took the case off, it slipped off a counter within minutes. It survived, but picked up a noticeable nick on its edge, which also hurt my gadget-caring soul just a little every time it caught my eye.
HTC’s 6-inch 2,880 x 1,440 pixel Super LCD screen is notchless and beautiful, like always, though it does run a little dim by default. What you see on the screen is mostly Google’s new Android 8 Oreo operating system, though HTC still included some of its customary visual touches and apps. It’s mostly harmless stuff, but HTC’s apps aren’t particularly pretty to look at, and some are overly aggressive about demanding privileges. It’s also odd that I can’t make the grid of homescreen icons more dense on such a big screen, and the interface seems to hiccup whenever I open the app drawer, which hasn’t regularly happened on an expensive phone for a few years now.
The hiccup is especially worrying because this is a very powerful phone—about as fast as any Android phone out there in our benchmark tests, including the Samsung Galaxy S9. It runs on the prized new Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor and packs 6 GB of RAM and 64GB of file storage (with a MicroSD slot if you need more).
Battery life is only so-so. It always lasted until midnight at least, but many days, my battery meter dropped below 20 percent by the evening. One late night it did die on me. Some phones can regularly stretch their juice to a full day and a half. The HTC U12 isn’t one of them, and that’s disappointing.
Crazy Little Thing Called Bokeh
All four of the cameras work well. Unlike a lot of competitors, HTC decided to put two 8-megapixel selfie cams on the U12 Plus, along with dueling 12-megapixel and 16-megapixel rear cameras. The rear camera has optical image stabilization and uses its extra cam to perform a 2x optical zooming and nice portrait shots with an artifically blurred background.
The phone can take some beautiful shots. Photos snap incredibly quickly thanks to its fast f/1.75 aperture and responsive camera software. It had a little trouble with some macro shots of flowers, but even on a cloudy day, many of the outdoor shots I took looked lovely. Even some low light selfies turned out better than I expected.
The Auto HDR contrast enhancement was a little more hit or miss. I ended up turning it off because it added too much contrast, darkening areas of a photo more than needed. But while shooting the setting sun over a pond, HDR effectively blacked out the grass. It may have looked stylish, but it wasn’t accurate. HTC’s camera does enhance color and will even add funny effects, smooth your wrinkles, or help your face lose a few pounds if you’re having that kind of day. I prefer reality. Luckily, HTC lets you choose.
The fake bokeh portrait effect isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough you might use it in real life. On the other hand, the selfie portrait mode felt a little less refined and seemed to kind of blur the edges of my head more than, well it just shouldn’t blur my head at all. But it’s still works better than many other high-end phones.
Another One Bites the Dust
You can buy the HTC U12 Plus unlocked for $800 ($850 for 128GB), and it will work on every major wireless network except Sprint. It’s as powerful as any 2018 phone, and comes with a great camera, case, waterproof build, and some solid earbuds.
But for every positive, there’s a negative. It has no audio jack, HTC’s included software is either ‘meh’ or outright annoying, and the battery life is behind the pack, not nearly as long as the OnePlus 6 or Galaxy S9.
And then there are the touch buttons. You can get used to having no volume or power buttons, but if you’re like me, it’s a sacrifice that will routinely annoy you. The lack of actual buttons made it difficult (sometimes impossible) to even take a screenshot, something you usually do by holding Volume Down + Power.
As much as I like aspects of the U12, I just can’t recommend a modern phone that falls flat on its face when you’re trying to crank up the volume on a podcast. Minimalism for the sake of it, no matter if it’s in the pursuit of futuristic design, has badly harmed the poor HTC U12 Plus.