HTC LAUNCHED two phones at the beginning of the year: HTC the U Ultra and U Play. The Ultra is the higher-end of the two, while the HTC U Play is a solid mid-range phone that seems intended to be a good-looking all-rounder without reaching flagship price tags.
Ooh, this is a slippery fish. The back panel of the HTC U Play has been given a ‘liquid surface,’ a new process that gives the glass a multi-layered, super-reflective finish. It looks lovely, no doubt about that, and our black review unit has a pleasingly petrol-esque blue sheen (much like Samsung’s old Sapphire Black) – but as well as being the world’s most reflective phone, it’s also a) disgustingly fingerprinty and b) impossible to keep hold of.
Like the similarly-slippy OnePlus X, the HTC U Play comes with a free clear case which feels like an admission of defeat. If you’ve designed something so impractical that it literally won’t stay on a smooth table (the U Play has thrown itself on the floor several times today alone) without a case, you’ve done something wrong.
All of that said, it does look and feel like a beautiful, premium device. All four colours (blue-black, a pearlescent white, opal-ish pink and HTC’s current favourite, electric blue) look good, and the black edition reminds us a fair bit of the Samsung Galaxy A5 (2017), which is better than looking like an iPhone (remember the One A9? Apple does).
The aluminium sides of the phone merge nicely into the super-glossy front, which has no branding but more noticeable black bezels than we’d like (mind you, everything looks bezel-y since the S8). There’s no HTC branding on this side, just a recessed oval fingerprint sensor below the screen and capacitive Back and Apps buttons that light up when in use. The fingerprint scanner isn’t a button, just a fixed pad, but it does unlock speedily, and offers haptic feedback in the process.
It’s overall a lighter and smaller phone than many of its competitors, meaning it’s that bit more portable and really easy to use with one hand, even if you’ve got tiny hands like me.
Taking a quick tour around the sides of the phone, you’ll find the combined SIM and microSD tray on the right of the top edge, the volume rocker and textured power key on the right, and a single speaker and USB-C charging port on the bottom edge. There’s nothing at all on the left edge, which means – you guessed it – no headphone port.
Indeed, HTC has done an Apple (again) and done away with the standard 3.5mm jack, because screw tradition and screw you. You get a set of USB-C earphones with the U Play, and they’re perfectly good, but unlike Apple, HTC has opted not to include a dongle to convert your existing headphones to fit the phone. So you’ll have to buy one, use the free earphones, or use Bluetooth. Which you’re pretty much stuck doing anyway if you’d like to charge the phone and listen to music at the same time. Clearly, HTC’s design vision is more important than your convenience.
(A more generous reading is that HTC assumed Apple ditching the headphone jack meant everyone would follow suit and wanted to get in early. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened, and 3.5mm headphones are definitely still a thing. For now.)
Sound from the solo speaker on the bottom is fine. It’s directional, gets noisy at higher volumes and it definitely doesn’t meet the standards of the front-facing BoomSounds on other HTC handsets, but it’s fine. This is good because you might have to use it if you can’t find your special earphones.
Hardware, storage and performance
Performance on the HTC U Play is fine for a mid-range phone, but the problem with that is that a lot of mid-range phones now perform like flagships (see the identically-priced OnePlus 3T, for instance). That makes the occasional issues we’ve had with slowness on this phone a bit disappointing.
You get 3GB of RAM, which is about right for the price, and it’s good to see 32GB of storage rather than cheaping out with 16GB. They could probably have got away with it, too, given that the phone offers microSD expansion “up to 2TB” (no, 2TB microSD cards don’t exist, but when they theoretically do, the phone can theoretically support them).
The phone’s multi-core CPU benchmark score came out at 2894 in Geekbench 4, which puts the U Play in between the OnePlus 2 and the Nexus 6P. For reference, the HTC 10 is at 3389.
Performance is fine, then – but is fine enough to make you spend your £399 on this model?
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