When the news hit that Google was to purchase part of HTC, I wondered if the move would herald the end of one of the longest, most illustrious tales in the smartphone industry. But the $1.1billion buyout turned out not to be the whole company, but part of the mobile division – the team responsible for the development of the Google Pixel.
So, the HTC brand lives on and now there’s a pair of new smartphones in town: a plus-sized version of the HTC U11 and a budget choice as well. You can read our hands-on review of the HTC U11 Plus here; in this review, I’m going to concentrate on the smaller, cheaper version – the rather oddly named HTC U11 Life; and, no, that’s not a typo.
HTC U11 vs HTC U11 Life: What’s the difference?
The good news is that, at first glance, the HTC U11 Life doesn’t look all that different to the regular U11. It has the trademark coloured “liquid glass” rear that catches the light in all the right ways. The material it’s constructed from is different – it’s acrylic glass this time, available in blue and black – but this doesn’t feel much cheaper or nastier than the proper glass on its larger siblings. It picks up fingerprints just as readily, though.
The biggest visual difference between the two phones is that the U11 Life is smaller. It has a standard size 16:9 5.2in display and the resolution is lower as well, although 1080p on a phone this small is perfectly fine by me.
From the front, it’s fairly unremarkable. There’s no bezel-free design, befitting its lower-mid range status, and the fingerprint reader is built into the bottom bezel on the front, flanked by offscreen touch-based recent apps and back buttons. But the HTC U11 Life does retain the IP67 dust- and water-resistant rating of the regular U11 and it has its edge sensors as well, so you can squeeze it to launch various functions. The default action is Google Assistant, but a recent update to the system means you can now remap it to all sort of other context-sensitive features, such as turning the page in a Kindle ebook. Another nice touch is that you get HTC’s Usonic active noise cancelling headphones included in the box.
The U11 Life’s other differences relate to the internal specifications and the camera. The phone has a mid-range octa-core Snapdragon 630 processor instead of the flagship 835 of the U11, with either 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage or 4GB of RAM and 64Gb of storage. If that’s not enough space for you, there’s a microSD expansion slot that will take cards up to 1TB in capacity.
The camera isn’t the same either, although HTC says it’s tuned the same as the snapper on the HTC U11. For your money you’re getting a 16-megapixel camera on the rear with an f/2.0 aperture, phase-detect autofocus, “zero-lag” HDR capture and 4K video recording. The front camera is another 16-megapixel f/2.0 effort.
HTC U11 Life review: Android One
The big headline for the HTC U11 Life, though, is that it’s is the first phone we’ve seen to feature Android One. Confusingly, this isn’t some new version of Android – the HTC U11 Life actually runs Android 8.0 Oreo – instead, it’s a certification that limits manufacturer customisations and guarantees both security and software updates for a certain amount of time; for three and two years respectively.
And, importantly, because it’s Google managing the rollout of those updates, they ought to be delivered with a touch more regularity and reliability than might otherwise be the case.
That explains the final difference between the HTC U11 Life and the U11: there’s only integration with Google Assistant, not Alexa as well as with the regular U11. Since Google is taking more control over the OS with Android One, it’s hardly surprising to find it doing away with a rival digital assistant.
HTC U11 Life review: Early verdict
The one thing I haven’t covered so far is the price. It’s a highly reasonable £349 but, at that price, there is some pretty strong competition. Phones like the Honor 9, the Motorola Moto Z2 Play and the Samsung Galaxy A5 (2017) all offer strong alternative choices.
Whether it’s better than any of these phones remains to be seen. They’re all pretty close in core specification, so it’ll be stuff like battery life and camera quality. Neither has Android One, though, which could prove to be the decisive factor. Either way, we’ll have a full review in advance of the official launch of the phone, which should be soon after pre-orders start on the 20th of November.