Let’s face it. Phones cost too much money. Yes, the $1,000 iPhone X is awesome, but for those who don’t need to keep a status symbol in their pocket, $350 feels much more reasonable, and that’s what the HTC U11 Life offers. You can buy two or three of these for the price of a top-tier Android phone, like the Pixel 2, and that’s the point. It’s an unabashed value version of HTC’s fancier U11. They probably call it Life because for many of us life does demand a cheaper phone.
Like the original U11, the Life may turn some heads. It comes with the same striking ‘sapphire’ blue mirror finish as its bougie sibling, only this time it’s made out of plastic instead of 3D liquid glass. Other modernities that made their way to Life include a USB-C charger and Edge Sense, an HTC feature that lets you squeeze the sides of the phone to launch an app of your choosing. If you get good enough at it, you can even add an app to open when you “squeeze and hold.” After using the phone for a several weeks, it didn’t add much to my experience and ended up being more of a nuisance than help. Luckily, you can turn it off.
When I did snap a pic on the single 16-megapixel rear camera it usually turned out decent enough, but rarely was I blown away. Outdoor shots were best, but indoor and low-light photos struggled. Despite its f/2.0 aperture, the software struggled to focus at times. Were it not for my habit of spamming the shutter button, I would have lost many precious holiday memories to the sluggishness of the camera. On the other hand, selfie shots benefitted from the 16-megapixel front-facing camera, which will automatically take a photo if everyone is still or smiles.
That’s kind of how life was with the U11 Life. It got the job done and has some nice perks, like IP67 waterproofing, but the sacrifices add up.
The Ups and Downs of Life
Though I wear wireless headphones most of the time, my wife and I did get a nasty reminder when we rented a car over the holidays and couldn’t connect. The car only had an aux jack and the U11 Life (and my wife’s iPhone) aren’t compatible without a dongle. HTC does include a pair of USB-C earbuds in the box, but no all-purpose adapter. It’s annoying when a high-priced phone like the iPhone X doesn’t have an audio jack, but someone on a budget may have particular trouble ditching their current audio accessories.
The single speaker on the bottom of the U11 Life is also tinny and is perfectly centered, exactly where my pinky tends to rest to prop a phone up. Accidentally covering the speaker hole is easy, and if you do, the audio is nearly silenced, which could cause you to miss calls or alarms if you’re unlucky.
Finally, the shiny blue mirrored back may be pretty, but it’s made of cheap plastic that’s prone to scratching and attracts fingerprints like a vacuum. Scratching most phones is easy, but seeing a knick on such a shiny device hurts. This Spigen case is my pick if you want to enjoy the blue luster with some mild protection.
On the inside, the Life’s specs are pretty standard for a phone of its type. It has a 5.2-inch 1080p HD LCD screen, 32GB of internal storage, 3GB of RAM, and runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 630 processor. It can lag behind, and rarely feels speedy, but holds its own most of the time, especially when it comes to updates and security patches. I was delighted to find that HTC has already rolled out an Android 8.0 Oreo update to the U11 Life. You won’t find Google’s latest version of Android on almost any other phone right now, especially a cheaper one like this.
I just wish the battery could last a whole day. There were many days when I had to top up the HTC U11 before going out in the evening, and it rarely had more than a 10 percent charge by bedtime. I absolutely hate that feeling of dread when I know I might run out of juice before arriving back home. It’s horrible. There are some battery saving modes on the phone, but at 2,600mAh, it just doesn’t have the battery capacity other devices do.
For the price, you’re getting a decent phone, but there are a lot of tradeoffs. If those sacrifices bother you, the Moto X4 has a nicer metal and glass finish, better battery life, a proper headphone jack, works on all four major carriers unlocked, and costs about the same. And if you can stretch your wallet to $500, the OnePlus 5T is the phone I keep going back to in between reviews. The HTC U11 Life is certainly livable, but those devices may make you happier.