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Lifewire / Brittany Vincent
Solid rear camera
Digital buttons and Edge Sense seem extraneous
HTC Sense UI feels dated
With the competition among Android phones so fierce, the HTC U12 Plus just isn't worth the money.
We purchased the HTC U12 Plus so our expert reviewer could thoroughly test and assess it. Keep reading for our full product review.
Smartphone design has become relatively uniform across manufacturers. Almost all new flagship phones have the same large screen, glass back, and button placement. There are occasional differences in camera placement and software, but for the most part, none of these brands are budging too far from the form factor that has proven successful.
But the HTC U12 Plus is different—it’s one of the few phones released in the last year that has bucked the norm when it comes to how people interact with their phones. It looks like other smartphones at first glance, but HTC has actually removed the physical buttons on the U12 Plus and replaced them with “digital buttons” along with a new “squeeze” gesture.
These innovations don’t really feel like they pay off. But the U12 Plus still compares favorably to 2018's other flagship phones in terms of hardware. It’s just awkward getting used to squeezing your smartphone.
The HTC U12 Plus looks a lot like any smartphone—nothing really sets it apart from the competition in terms of looks. HTC opted to keep the bezel at the top of the phone, which contains the two front cameras and speaker. There's also a sizeable bezel at the bottom of the phone, as well as bezels on the sides that are larger than what most manufacturers are doing these days.
When you have a phone like this with a four-figure price tag, you want it to look at least as slick as the competition. The U12 Plus is a pretty chunky phone and shrinking the bezels would have given it more compact lines and an overall sleeker look.
Like most flagships, the U12 Plus has a glass back, but for some reason, it doesn't support wireless charging. HTC also opted for Gorilla Glass 3 instead of Gorilla Glass 5, so you'll have to be extra cautious as it's more prone to scratches and breaking. The phone does come with a clear plastic case in the box, so you can at least get a little protection on it right from the start.
It’s one of the few phones … that has bucked the norm when it comes to how people interact with their phones.
There's a fingerprint reader on the back, along with a camera module that holds the phone’s two lenses. The flash is located in between the cameras and fingerprint reader, which looks a bit out of place considering most phones now include the flash as part of the camera module.
The U12 Plus has two very distinct features: digital buttons and Edge Sense. When we first took this phone out of the box, we were surprised to feel that the power button doesn't actually click. Instead, there is a row of “digital buttons” running down the right side of the phone. These are touch-sensitive and give haptic feedback that makes them feel like regular buttons (except when you power the phone on). We imagine that digital buttons are HTC’s way of eliminating hardware that might otherwise wear out, but it seems like a pretty drastic solution to an otherwise niche issue.
The Edge Sense function is a bit more innovative but still doesn't make a ton of sense in practice. Briefly squeeze the phone to launch an app, long squeeze, or double squeeze to change the phone to one-hand mode. This mode shrinks the screen to bring everything in range of one hand, a very convenient feature that no other phone offers.
However, we didn’t think Edge Sense offered enough to make it a worthwhile feature. It's an awkward motion to get used to, and it could often be very imprecise. It's great that HTC is looking to innovate, but we think digital buttons and Edge Sense may be dead ends.
The HTC U12 Plus comes in an appealing selection of colors: Translucent Blue, Ceramic Black, and Flame Red.
Setting up the HTC U12 Plus is the same process as for any other Android phone. After the startup screen, we were prompted to connect to Wi-Fi, opt out of any analytics, and sign into Google. That was about it—the phone did the rest. You don't have to make any HTC-specific accounts or any of that nonsense. You just get through the quick and transparent setup and you're good to go.
Like many other flagships from 2018, the HTC U12 Plus is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chipset. It features an octa-core CPU with 4 Kryo 385 Gold cores clocked at 2.8 GHz and 2 Kryo 385 Silver cores running at 1.7 GHz. The phone uses the four slower cores at idle or during low-intensity tasks and switches to the faster ones as the extra processing power is needed. Graphics are provided by an Adeno 630 GPU.
On the PCMark Android Work 2.0 test, which scores a phone’s performance during general computing tasks, the U12 Plus scored an 8,426. This isn't terrible, but it’s about 1,000 points lower than the Samsung Galaxy S10.
For the GFXBench test, which scores a phone’s graphics performance, the U12 Plus averaged 59 fps during the T-Rex HD Onscreen test. Of the other devices we’ve tested with a Snapdragon 845 processor, the U12 Plus was one of the lowest-scoring in this area.
For the GFXBench Car Chase on-screen test, the U12 Plus hit around 20 fps. For comparison, this beat out the Galaxy S9 Plus and the G7 ThinQ in our testing, but scored lower than the iPhone X and the OnePlus 6.
What do all these scores add up to? We’d say the U12 Plus has decidedly average performance. It's not terrible by any means, but it's also not a powerhouse.
The HTC U12 Plus is compatible with GSM, HSPA, and LTE networks and 801.11ac Wi-FI. This means you'll have no issue getting good speeds from the phone using either mobile data or a Wi-Fi connection.
During our testing, the U12 Plus achieved speeds of about 15MB/s down from a 150Mb/s connection while situated 10 feet from the router. LTE speeds averaged about 15 to 20Mbps outside of primetime and 5 to 10Mbps when facing moderate congestion.
One thing to keep in mind is the lack of CDMA compatibility. This affects networks like Verizon—you won't be able to send SMS and MMS messages without first calling in and having your account provisioned correctly. T-Mobile and AT&T customers won't notice any issues, but if you buy this phone and find that your messaging doesn't work, this is the issue.
The 2880 x 1440, 537 PPI screen on the U12 Plus is great at first glance. However, it uses a Super LCD panel that struggles to compete with the high-end OLED displays on the newest iPhones or the AMOLED displays on the flagship Galaxy phones. The 18:9 screen is pretty much the standard these days and allows for widescreen in landscape mode. It’s also narrow enough in portrait orientation that it’s possible to control it with one hand.
It has a glass back but no wireless charging, which means it’s extra fragile for no reason.
The display on the U12 Plus is perfectly adequate for the vast majority of things you’ll need your screen for. But if we’re comparing it to the competition, it just doesn't have the same vibrant colors and deep blacks that make these other flagship smartphones stand out. The screen also washes out easily in bright sunlight.
The audio quality on the U12 Plus, like the rest of the phone, is pretty average. This phone features HTC's BoomSound system, which combines the bottom-facing and earpiece speakers to deliver stereo sound. This is a perk if you tend to watch videos or play games on your phone without headphones—it’s a slightly higher-quality audio experience through the built-in speakers than you’d expect from a smartphone.
Like many of the latest smartphones, the U12 Plus has gotten rid of the 3.5mm headphone jack. The U12 Plus is a beefy device that has plenty of room for one, but we imagine this was done to improve the waterproof rating (the U12 Plus has an IP68 rating on par with most new flagship phones).
The HTC U12 Plus comes with a pair of USB-C earbuds that are surprisingly high-quality. If you don’t like the USB-C options, you’ll need to invest in a dongle or use wireless headphones.
The dual cameras on the front and back of the U12 Plus do an admirable job. The front cameras were the weakest link, as to be expected. They don't have much of a bokeh effect—even with post-processing—and like most phones, the low-light performance was poor.
Video and photos on the main cameras are a lot better. It matches and even exceeds most of last year's flagships. However, the S10 Galaxy series and Pixel 3 outshine it.
The 3,500 mAh battery in the U12 Plus can power the phone all day with light to moderate use. With a full charge, you should be able to manage at least five hours of moderate to heavy use with the screen constantly on.
The U12 Plus uses a USB-C connection to charge and, despite its glass back, does not support wireless charging. This seems odd considering that most phones designed this way are made from these materials for the specific purpose of making them compatible with wireless charging pads. We aren’t sure why HTC didn't go with a much sturdier metal or even plastic back for the U12 Plus. Without wireless charging, there's no gain in giving your device a breakable glass back, unless it’s purely an aesthetic decision.
The HTC Sense UI is the company's particular flavor of Android, and it's not very impressive. It doesn't add much to the stock Android experience and brings with it a lot of bloatware that most people won’t want.
HTC shouldn't be charging this much money for a phone running an outdated OS.
Many of the preinstalled HTC apps are in dire need of a visual update (that is if anyone is going to use them in the first place). But HTC’s greatest faux pas is including a bundle of third-party apps and not allowing users to uninstall them. Like the system apps, we just had to disable them and imagine how much Under Armor and News Republic paid HTC for this inconvenience.
HTC has also dragged its feet when it comes to providing OS updates for the U12 Plus. As of the time of this writing, the U12 Plus is still running Android Oreo, and there's no firm date for when Pie will be coming to the phone. We think it’s pretty unacceptable for a flagship phone to remain stuck on Oreo when it's been six months since Pie released—HTC shouldn't be charging this much money for a phone running an outdated OS.
The HTC U12 Plus retails at $799 for the 64GB model and $849 for the 128GB model. This puts it on the high end of mid-range phones and the low end of the premium bracket, and there’s a lot of competition in this range. Based on our testing, we don’t think it’s worth this high price tag.
While the U12 Plus boasts many of the same surface features as other premium phones, it sometimes skips the functional features that warrant these design trends. Its innovative gestural controls are awkward to use. It has a glass back but no wireless charging, which means it’s extra fragile for no reason. And it eliminates the “home button” without drastically reducing the bezels or investing in an OLED display, at odds with the all-screen look and extremely good image quality of most premium flagships.
But perhaps the most frustrating shortcoming is the software. If you’re investing in an $800 phone, you shouldn’t have to deal with tons of permanent third-party bloatware or an outdated operating system. Unfortunately, the HTC U12 Plus has both.
To be fair, the phone also has its share of upsides: a high-quality camera, good performance, and solid battery life are all significant benefits. But in our opinion, these still aren’t enough to justify the premium price tag.
As of the time of this writing, the HTC U12+ is being sold on the brand’s website at $649 for the 64GB model and $699 for the 128GB model. It’s unclear if this pricing is temporary or a permanent markdown, but this puts it in a more fitting midrange price bracket.
The flagship phone market is a race to the top, and the HTC U12 Plus has put itself in a high price bracket with especially tough competition. You can find quite a few excellent phones for around $800, and the U12 Plus just doesn't stack up.
For example, the Pixel 3 XL has a better processor, GPU, camera and video capabilities, and has a stock Android UI that is always first to receive updates. It retails for $899, but you can often find it on sale for less than the cost of the U12 Plus. If you’re willing to spend this amount on a smartphone, then there’s no doubt that the Pixel is the better option.
If Apple is more your speed, you can get an iPhone XS—one of the most premium smartphones on the market—for only about $100 more than the U12 Plus. The iPhone XR is slightly pared-down but still a brand new release with the latest in Apple’s smartphone tech, and it retails for $749.
When put in this context, it’s extremely difficult to justify buying the HTC U12 Plus for its full retail price. This phone just can't compete with the other devices in its price bracket. It’s really only worth considering if you can get it for around $500.
Not worth the money—if you’re spending $800, invest in a better phone.
The HTC U12 Plus is a decidedly average smartphone with some unusual features that don't really add anything to the package. It has good performance but is held back by the Sense UI and lack of OS updates by HTC.