HTC U SQUEEZABLE SMARTPHONE SET TO OUTSHINE SAMSUNG GALAXY S8

The Taiwanese firm needs to pull something special out of the bag to avoid becoming irrelevant

New leaks suggest the upcoming HTC U could be more powerful than the excellent Samsung Galaxy S8.

A purported specs sheet for the unusual handset has been posted online, and points to a smartphone designed to take on the best on the market.

HTC has struggled to compete with Apple, Samsung and Google’s flagships over recent years, but appears to be pulling out all the stops with the Android-running U.

It will feature a Snapdragon 835 processor and a stonking 6GB of RAM, according to Gear India. The S8, meanwhile, comes with 4GB of RAM, making it the less powerful of the two.

That said, the S8 isn’t exactly underpowered.

We’ve experienced no performance issues during our time with it, with apps launching quickly and working perfectly smoothly.

The U is also expected to come with a 5.5-inch Quad HD display, IP57 water- and dust-resistance and expandable storage.

Camera quality has traditionally been one of HTC’s weakest areas, so it will be interesting to see how the U’s 12-megapixel UltraPixel rear camera and 16-megapixel “selfie panorama” camera compare with the Pixel and S8.

If that isn’t up to scratch and HTC gets its pricing wrong, it’s tough to see how the U will compete, especially when you consider that another outstanding phone, the OnePlus 3T, is available for £400.

That said, the HTC U could prove rather different to any other smartphone on the market, as it’s designed to be squeezed.

It appears to have a number of sensors embedded in its metal frame, which will allow users to control the handset by either stroking or applying pressure to its sides.

The phone will be unveiled at an event on 16 May.

 

HTC hoping to put squeeze on competitors with new smartphone

HTC’s new flagship smartphone is expected to feature technology that enables users to squeeze it as a form of interaction.

Reports claim the new phone, allegedly named the HTC U, will contain sensors that enable users to take photos and launch apps just by squeezing the device.

The Taiwanese smartphone giant is holding a live event in Taipei on Tuesday where the new flagship device is expected to be revealed.

Improvements to the camera and battery life are also likely to be discussed during the unveiling.

In the run-up to the event, the tech giant has frequently mentioned its new device’s “squeezable” ability in marketing campaigns, but the full extent of the technology is still not known.

The company has said it plans to introduce “a new way to interact with your smartphone” as part of the launch and has teased the squeezing method in videos on its Twitter account.

 HTC is expected to host an event in Taipei

A mainstream smartphone featuring a “squeezable” interaction has not been attempted previously.

Since its One M8 smartphone picked up multiple phone of the year awards in 2014, HTC has struggled to maintain and replicate that success.

The manufacturer has come under increased pressure from Samsung and Apple, as well as emerging Chinese firms such as OnePlus and Huawei.

HTC remains a popular manufacturer on the Android platform, however the tech firm has enjoyed more notable success in the last year with the launch of its virtual reality headset, Vive.

 

How Starbucks Plans to Fix Its Mobile Ordering Problems

 

At one busy Starbucks at New York City’s Port Authority commuter transportation hub, there is a large chalkboard on the wall behind the hand-off area telling customers how to use mobile ordering, an app-based system that lets customers place orders on their smartphones and avoid the in-store line. A smaller printed sign placed on the hand-off counter tells customers already in the know to pick up their orders there.

This is where over the course of 45 minutes during a weekday after-work rush, several people, almost all wearing headphones and seemingly in a hurry, head over to catch a barista’s attention and grab their orders before rushing off into the sea of commuters heading home. When asked to talk to Eater about why they use the app, all declined, with one woman apparently so bothered by the request she responded with a loud and vehement scold before marching away.

It’s not surprising Starbucks Mobile Order and Payment users have little patience or desire for social interaction — that’s the point of the app, to help them avoid having to wait in line and hang around the store with the likes of teens, wifi moochers, and pesky reporters. But many are not so lucky. While insanely popular, it’s no secret Starbucks’ mobile ordering and payment app has caused many headache-inducing experiences for app users and in-store customers alike.

The service is supposed to let customers skip in-store lines and simply walk in and pick up their orders. But in many busy locations, the increase in order volumes ultimately back up the line for in-store customers and cause confusion for the mobile coffee addicts who don’t have their drinks right away. Some potential shoppers would walk into stores, see the long queues and walk back out, execs admitted in January. But crappy mobile ordering experiences won’t fly — considering the chain has become a huge leader in the quick-service mobile app game.

 

Mobile ordering is spreading like fire in the fast-food industry. McDonald’s recently announced plans to release its mobile ordering nationwide by the end of the year. Subway added Facebook bots to its mobile order service in April. But Starbucks remains the leader. According to a 2016 report by app research company App Annie, Starbucks has the most monthly active users (MAU) on Android and Apple platforms compared to other QSR food brands. The report called Starbucks’ app “a best-in-class QSR app, which has been at the forefront of mobile payments leads on MAU on both devices by a wide margin.”

But McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts, and pizza chains are close behind in app popularity, and as more fast-food and restaurant chains start adopting mobile ordering into their businesses, eyes are fixed on how the cafe franchise will remedy its app’s congestion problem.

Starbucks thinks it has a solution. In its earnings call last week, CEO and president Kevin Johnson admitted that the old mobile order and payment process was hurting business, and announced how the company is trying to fix the issues.

Their technical solution includes new “digital order managers” (DOMs), tablet-based systems that let baristas track and manage all incoming orders. But Starbucks reps did not specify with Eater how this system is different than the current one, only that the new system allows them to track data to improve workflow (The company would also not specify what kind of data would be collected.) What is new for users is that customers will start getting notifications through the app when their orders are in fact ready, instead of an estimate that may bring them into the line too early, making them wait.

This comes about a month after Starbucks unveiled a new cashier-less design concept, centered completely around mobile users — another attempt to improve the smartphone ordering experience. The store, which debuted in Seattle, has a pick-up station for customers and no ordering line or seating. Johnson said the company is working on incorporating similar mobile ordering into designs of its future stores. Meanwhile, the store is also re-allocating labor during peak times to make filling orders less discombobulated.

But is this enough to win back customers? Eden Gillott Bowe, crisis PR expert and president of Gillott Communications, thinks so. “Starbucks is one of those special brands that has such a cult following that I think there’s quite a bit more give and leeway that their customers give them,” Bowe said. New features like the app order ready alert systems will be the biggest help, she argued, because the core of these problems is communication. Fixes like that adjust the process enough so that customer “don’t just show up immediately thinking the red carpet has been rolled out for them simply because they ordered online,” she said.

Despite its mobile ordering woes, the Starbucks app continues to grow in popularity. About 1,800 stores in the U.S. were seeing at least 20 percent of transactions handled through mobile devices, Starbucks said. The mobile ordering system accounted for 8 percent of transactions, while overall mobile payment (including in-store mobile payments) accounted for 29 percent of transactions.

It seems Starbucks is banking on it to keep them alive in a technological world. Throughout the earnings call, Starbucks execs referred to the impending “disruption” of brick and mortar retail spaces, predicting more overlap between the two, hence a push for mobile ordering to work.

“Looking to the future, this is all about how our digital relationships with customers intersect with experiential retail in our stores,” Johnson said in the call. “We’re confident we’re well on our way to further increasing overall store capacity while delivering an enhanced Starbucks experience to our customers.”

Starbucks is testing the DOMs in select stores and has plans to release them in its highest volume stores in the next few months. Bowe believes this will keep loyal customers on board, because at the end of the day, despite issues customers are seeing in stores due to the app, their need for coffee outweighs the small pains.

“(Starbucks) customers are much more willing to forgive them for this,” Bowe said. “Because when people need their fix, they need their fix.”

 

Weekly poll: HTC U11, hot or not?

HTC likes to try new things – like a little thing called Android. And while it’s no longer in the lead of that market, it still managed to put out one of the most interesting devices of 2017. Yes, we’re talking about the HTC U11.

The design is an HTC classic that harkens back to the original One. The unique “liquid glass” used for the back creates a constantly shifting spectrum of colors that changes as you move the phone. We also appreciate that the body is IP67 waterproof, it makes it an honorary Butterfly.

Like the Butterfly, the HTC U11 offers a sharp screen (5.5” QHD) and a powerful chipset (Snapdragon 835). Unlike the Butterfly, the U11 is widely available and does not have a dual camera – that didn’t stop HTC from offering one of the best cameras we’ve seen this year.Image result for Weekly poll: HTC U11, hot or not?

The image quality and the speed of the autofocus of the 16MP camera easily stood up to the Galaxy S8.

Edge Sense enables a unique interaction – squeeze the phone to launch the camera or perhaps your digital assistant of choice. The U11 is the first phone to offer Amazon’s Alexa in addition to the Google Assistant.

Much praise and no criticism. Has HTC done it, has it made a certain winner? Well, the lack of a 3.5mm headphone jack ruffled some feathers. However, HTC is selling the U11 at sub-S8 prices (in the US at least, in Europe it is closer to the S8+).

With that in mind, are you buying what HTC is selling?

 

An ode to my $7 HTC pack-in headphones

 

Headphones are an interesting slice of the technology market, where companies build products that are as much gadget as they are art. Design, style, and personal taste in sound quality and tuning are just as important as the more technical aspects of a pair of headphones. And there have never been more choices: from cheap, sweat-proof headphones for working out, to $300 pairs of cans for blocking out the sounds of your delayed commute, to $55,000 headphones that can probably re-create the voice of god with some accuracy.

Despite this, I’ve proven through long years of history, that I’m definitely not responsible enough for “real” headphones. So instead, my go-to headphone of choice have been these: the HTC Stereo Headphones, Part Number 39H00014-00M, more commonly known as “the headphones that came in the box with the original HTC One (M7).” I found the first pair lying around the house when I was in a rush and needed some headphones, and I’ve been hooked ever since.

To be clear: objectively speaking, these are not traditionally “good” headphones. They are free pack-ins from a smartphone that was released in 2013. They have a fairly major design flaw where the left earbud tends to just arbitrarily fail anywhere between a few weeks to a few months into use. The build quality is poor, the mic / play-pause button is extremely hesitant to work with iOS for answering calls or pausing music, and I’m almost certain that they’re not waterproof.

But that’s exactly the point. Because I can (and do) buy them in bulk off eBay for around $7 a pair, I can (and do) go through about four or five pairs a year. So it’s not as big a deal if I lose a pair on a bus or a plane (done that), forget them in my jeans pocket when doing laundry (also yes, although those still kind of work), or tear them in half because they got caught on a door (again, this is a thing I have done). I can wear them when it rains without fear, or worry about losing them in a snowdrift when I’m shoveling out my driveway in the winter. And at $7, it’s no real loss if I accidentally drop them on a crowded subway car to work and get them crushed by someone walking, since they’re practically disposable.

Plus, for headphones that cost the price of a fancy Starbucks drink, there are a few nice features. Sound quality isn’t awful, although having used plenty of nicer headphones, they certainly aren’t winning any awards either.

Most importantly, they have a flat cord made out of what seems to be the perfect matte rubber material, so they (almost) never, ever tangle. That means that I can casually crumple them up into a ball, stuff them in a sweatshirt pocket or bag, and watch as they magically tumble out knot-free when I need them. Unlike Apple’s EarPods, which tend to fall out of my ears in seconds, the HTC headphones actually stay in my ears relatively well. Additionally, having used the HTC headphones for years, I’ve gone through enough pairs that I have a nice supply of spare earbuds lying around for when I inevitably manage to lose those as well.

Maybe one day I’ll be able to upgrade to some lambskin-cushioned Master and Dynamic cansor a perfectly-tuned pair of B&O Play headphones without worrying about losing, destroying, or breaking them within seconds. Until then, I’ll be sticking with (and destroying) my red HTC earbuds until I run out of random eBay storefronts to buy them off.

 

Review: HTC U11

HTC seems to have finally turned the corner with the U11. It has a glass and metal design, and HTC describes the glass layer on the back as “liquid”. The phone has a refractive layer, and you’ll see different shades of light reflecting off it. The glass on the front and back cascades into the side spines. The shiny finish catches fingerprints and dust easily.

This is a phone that likes to be “squeezed”. This one-of-its-kind feature, known as Edge Sense, relies on pressure sensors embedded into the sides of the phone (you cannot see them). You can, for instance, set the camera to start with a squeeze. You can even configure the phone for long-squeeze and short-squeeze gestures— this feature can open any app installed on your phone, activate Google Assistant, turn on the flashlight, even enable audio recording.

The U11 has a 5.5-inch display (2,560 x 1,440 resolution). The Super LCD 5 display offers bright colours and great contrast. The only niggle is that this display cannot match the LG G6 or the Samsung Galaxy S8 for brightness—this means that in sunlight, viewing will be slightly hampered by reflections.HTC U11 is priced at Rs51,990.

HTC hasn’t settled for anything less than Qualcomm’s top-of-the-line Snapdragon 835 processor, paired with 6 GB RAM. You get excellent multitasking and gaming performance. In fact, it is faster in general than the Exynos 8895 powered Samsung Galaxy S8. The HTC Sense interface is slicker and lighter. The Artificial Intelligence powered Sense Companion tool will, for instance, send you information on traffic, weather and locations once it understands your travel habits, phone usage and app preferences.

It was always going to be a tough job to match the optics performance of some current flagships, but all doubts have been put to rest. The U11’s 12-megapixel camera, called UltraPixel 3, has an f1.7 aperture and quick focus speeds. What you get across landscape shots, HDR photographs, macro photos and low-light photos are pristine colours and sharpness. There is an adequate amount of noise reduction, and it doesn’t wipe out the finer details.

The 3,000 mAh battery, paired with the new chip improvement, lasts a day with ease through medium usage, and a few hours into the next day with the power-saver mode active.

This is a complete phone with top-notch performance, a great design and an excellent camera. It is priced right too for the 128 GB storage variant, which is perhaps the biggest positive.

 

HTC U11 review: Sense and sensibility

 

The U Ultra was HTC’s first attempt to stand out from the crowd this year. The company may go to great lengths to say the U Ultra did just fine, but, bottom-line is half-baked software — and inadequate hardware — and prohibitive pricing saw the last of it. The U Ultra did not fly. It did not fly at all. But, if you know a thing or two about HTC, well, you’d know the company never stops trying. Every time you write it off, it bounces back; for better or for worse.

The U11 is HTC’s second attempt to stand out from the crowd this year. It may look a lot like the U Ultra — the two phones even share some key features — but the new phone from HTC is a whole new ball-game altogether. Not to forget, the U11 is also HTC’s top-tier phone for 2017. The U Ultra, it now seems like, was just the teaser trailer, for things to come. It’s like a second coming, the HTC U11, and with what’s in store inside (and out); the new phone from HTC might just be what the doctor ordered for this 20 year old ailing giant. It was about time.

Design and build quality

The U11 carries forward the U Ultra’s liquid surface design language, adding subtle refinements to it to improve ergonomics. In hindsight, the U11 looks just like the U Ultra, but minus the secondary ticker screen. While the U Ultra was a 5.9-inch (5.7 primary + 2.05 secondary) phone, the U11 maxes out at 5.5-inch. The U11 may have the same physical dimensions — weight and thickness — but somehow, it feels lighter and slimmer. It feels more user-friendly. The U Ultra was just too big, and just too bulky in comparison.

While its One-series — that HTC bid adieu with last year’s 10 — was probably designed for one (and all) the U-series from HTC is apparently designed for a more personalized experience. It is supposedly an expression of you, the person who will be using the smartphone, the flagship U11 in this case. In typical HTC U fashion, then, the U11 is (also) carved out of highly polished glass — Corning’s Gorilla Glass 5 — that reflects light differently when viewed from different angles. The outer frame is, meanwhile, carved out of solid metal. So are the power button and the volume rocker.

 The U11 is the first HTC phone in years to carry a sensible price tag. The phone, for 6GB RAM and 128GB storage, costs Rs 51,990. It really makes you wonder, what in the world was HTC thinking, pricing the U Ultra at Rs 59,990 

The U11, just like the U Ultra, is one trippy smartphone. The phone will be available in two colours: Amazing Silver and Brilliant Black. Although the company did show off the breathtakingly gorgeous Solar Red version of the U11 at its launch event in the national capital, it has now been announced that it won’t be coming to India anytime soon, much to my disappointment. The Solar Red, just to give you some backgrounder for my sheer fascination, can look anything ranging from a fiery red to a mouth-watering orange, depending on how you look at it. That’s not to say the Amazing Silver and Brilliant Black versions, can’t bend light at will. They can. While the Amazing Silver version — the version that HTC gave me for review — can magically change into a mesmerizing blue, the Brilliant Black version can look a certain distinct shade of green from some angles.

The fact of the matter is, whatever colour you chose, remember, you will be the center of attention when you’re out and about with the U11. The U11, just like the U Ultra, is after all so beautiful, it hurts. It’s not a phone that everybody can handle. It’s like taking sides. You’d either love it, or you’d absolutely hate it. There’s no middle ground.

The U11, just like the U Ultra, is a whole new level of shiny. Needless to say, it inherits most of its shortcomings — for that matter, shortcomings that are part and parcel of a majority of phones made out of glass — as well. For one, it’s super glossy and accumulates fingerprints and smudge by the millisecond. Secondly, it’s super slippery. Last but not the least; it doesn’t look like it could take a beating. The phone, thankfully, ships with a transparent back cover in the box as well as a wiping cloth for you to make it shine, for good. It doesn’t ship with a one-year insurance cover though like the U Ultra did, which, is a little disappointing.

HTC may not have given up on its sheer fascination for chunky bezels just yet — at a time when rivals Samsung and LG are out to pull them off completely — but at least, it has got most of the other things right this time. The U11 comes with well-built and well-positioned power and volume buttons that offer excellent feedback. The left side of the phone is clean, while the dual-SIM card/micro-SD hybrid slot rests at the top. The bottom end is meanwhile home to a USB Type-C port for charging and data syncing and one speaker out (the other speaker rests underneath the earpiece) encapsulated by a white border that would remind you of the Google Pixel, a phone that HTC made as well. The fingerprint scanner on the front works like a charm and HTC has also been able to reduce the camera bump significantly in the U11 as opposed to the U Ultra that had some minor discrepancies in this regard.

Also Read: HTC’s squeezable U11 launching in India today: Key specs, features and more

The USP of the U11 however — in addition to its exceptional build quality — is its outer frame, or rather, the lower ends of it. The outer frame, in the case of the U11, can respond to stimuli. The lower ends of the phone pack sensors that respond differently to different levels of pressure, giving the U11 its ‘squeezable’ moniker. By squeezing — or rather by applying pressure — the phone, users can carry out specific functions such as opening the camera (and clicking photos), activating a virtual assistant, taking a screen-shot and more. The feature, that HTC calls Edge Sense, works under water — the HTC U11 is also IP67-certified — as well and doesn’t require users to first power up the phone. It works directly from the lock screen and can be accessed even while wearing gloves.

The Edge Sense on-board the U11 — besides being a gimmick that could have done with a simple button like the Bixby button on-board the Samsung Galaxy S8 — comes with limited functionality for now, like short squeeze and squeeze and hold to operate one app at a time. The company is however, looking to add more features to Edge Sense in the days to come. It is, in the days to come, also looking to open source its SDK so developers can build apps around the new platform. Question is how many developers would get on-board to make apps for one phone?

Display

The U11 comes with a 5.5-inch screen with a Quad-HD (1440×2560 pixels) resolution. The panel, a Super LCD 5, is the same that HTC used in the U Ultra and also in last year’s 10 and it’s still as gorgeous as ever. HTC says its LCD 5 panel is 30 per cent more colourful and 50 per cent more responsive to touch than its predecessor. The difference will be indiscernible to most users, but there is, a difference nonetheless.

HTC seems to have gotten things right as far as colours are concerned and I liked that it’s more neutral in comparison to say the Galaxy S8. Colours look every bit as rich and vibrant, if not as over-saturated and eye-popping. The phone has excellent viewing angles and outdoor legibility is also spot on — the panel on-board can be a little reflective on occasions — most of the time. There’s an option to manually correct colour temperature and a night-mode that turns them to the warmer end of the spectrum when enabled.

Performance and battery life

The U11 is powered by a 2.45GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor clubbed with 6GB RAM and 128GB of internal storage which is further expandable via a hybrid micro-SD card slot. This is as high end as high end can be at this point of time. And when clubbed with HTC’s slick, bloat-free Sense UI — atop Android 7.1.1 Nougat — the U11 literally is a power-house of a phone that feels faster and smoother than even the Samsung Galaxy S8.

A combination of high-end hardware and well-optimized software ensures the U11 runs smooth as butter, and has absolutely no trouble whatsoever in dealing with tasks, both basic and hard-grinding. Graphical games are handled well, with no lag at all, even at maxed out settings. There would be instances when the phone would get hot while say playing games, or video-recording, but it is also very quick to cool down which is nice.

It’s nice to see HTC continuing its war against bloat and not giving in to the temptation of unnecessary apps in the U11. The phone, like all recent HTC flagship phones, has almost zero duplicate apps and instead ships with only stock Android solutions. For instance, Google Photos is your basic gallery app on-board the U Ultra. By minimizing bloat and omitting duplicate apps, HTC has made an already smooth UI, smoother. And it’s every bit as customizable. Sense gives you many options to tinker around with the user interface. You get to change themes, icons, tones and more.

Just like Google’s Pixel phone, HTC’s U11 banks heavily on artificial intelligence and machine learning. The HTC U11 supports not one, but, as many as three virtual assistants: Google Assistant, HTC’s own Sense Companion and Amazon’s Alexa. Alexa is only available in the US, UK and Germany for now though.

As in the case of the U Ultra, the Sense Companion “can suggest that you dress warmer and leave a little earlier for work if snow is forecast; remind you to take a power bank on longer trips; and even recommend a restaurant when you’re away for the weekend and then book seats for you2. Best of all, it’s made to evolve and get to know you better over time,” according to HTC. The U11 comes pre-loaded with Sense Companion, unlike the U Ultra wherein the feature was pushed out later via a software update.

To make the phone more AI-friendly, HTC has also incorporated four always-on low-power microphones inside, so it can respond to every command. The U11, because of these microphones, is always on and always listening.

On to audio, the U11 is capable of churning out fabulous audio, over headphones. The phone comes with a sonar-based audio system, called U-Sonic — much like it was in the case of the U Ultra — over headphones, that is claimed to deliver true(r) sound that is also capable of adapting to the user. There is, however, a catch. The phone does not have a standard 3.5mm audio jack and instead has (only) a single USB Type-C out for charging, data syncing and high-res audio out. The technology, also, works only with compatible USB-C headphones. No strike that. The technology, also, works only with compatible USB-C headphones that HTC ships in the box.

On paper, U-Sonic creates a profile for you and then scans both your ears. There’s a difference in frequency between both the ears. The technology sends sonar waves into the listener’s eardrum and based on that it then normalizes the frequency.

So ideally you hear the music the way it’s supposed to sound. Moreover, a mic on-board the ear-buds constantly listens to the ambient noise available and then increases or decreases the output volume accordingly. U-Sonic seemed more like a gimmick in the U Ultra. With the U11, the technology seems to have (already) come of age. There is no other flagship smartphone in the market right now that gives you such outstanding audio out via headphones. For your reference, the AKG earphones that Samsung ships with the Galaxy S8, sound terrible in comparison. The U-Sonic headphones, that HTC ships in the box with the U11, also support active noise cancellation. If that wasn’t enough, the USB Type-C to 3.5 mm dongle, that HTC ships in the box with the U11 to connect your regular headphones, also comes with an in-built DAC.

The U11, in addition, also supports BoomSound Hi-Fi sound technology. The setup that includes a separate tweeter and sub-woofer each with their own dedicated amplifier, is the best thing to have happened to a smartphone in a long, long time.

Phone calls made with the phone are of excellent quality and we did not encounter any odd call drop issues with our review unit.

The U11 is further backed by a 3,000mAh battery. Battery life is good, if not best in-class. For your reference, battery life of the HTC U11 is somewhere in the middle of the Galaxy S8 (max) and the LG G6 (min). While extreme usage got us close to 13 hours, moderate to light usage got us close to one full day, without breaking a sweat. Most users, with more generalised usage will be able to squeeze one full day of usage out of the phone. Also, Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0 means the phone charges like a bullet.

Camera

The U11 ships with a 12-megapixel rear camera with what HTC calls UltraPixel 3 technology and UltraSpeed Autofocus. It uses a very bright lens at f/1.7 aperture, and the sensor is also a little bigger than the usual, 1/2.55-inch that apparently boosts low-light performance. HTC’s UltraPixel sensor is notorious for allowing more light into the lens, technically resulting in brighter photos. The rear camera is further assisted with phase detection autofocus, OIS and dual-LED (dual tone) flash.

 The U11 looks great, has a great screen, metes out great performance, comes with great camera credentials and a camera that performs quite well while at it, and outstanding audio credentials that put Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus’ stereo setup to shame 

While last year’s 10, and this year’s U Ultra, were a mixed bag as far as cameras were concerned, the U11 — without beating around the bush — is without a doubt a top contender for the best flagship camera phone of the year. It’s as good as the Samsung Galaxy S8, if not better, in more or less every situation. In fact, those who prefer true-to-life — and not over-saturated eye-popping — photos would greatly appreciate the HTC U11’s rear camera. Both the Galaxy S8 and the LG G6, although fantastic camera phones, on 9 out of 10 times tend to produce over-saturated and over-sharpened photos that may look artificial in the grand scheme of things. The HTC U11, on the other hand, tends to produce more neutral and soothing photos.

Photos clicked with the U11 in good light have excellent detail, good dynamic range and no metering issues. HDR works really well, and the camera is lightening quick to focus on to a subject. The phone also uses HDR boost — ala the Google Pixel — to bring out the best results in photos by springing into action the minute you fire up the camera app and have HDR enabled.

The camera app is pretty well-equipped — replete with 4K (with Hi-Res Audio), RAW support and full-on Pro modes — and boasts of one of the best navigation schemes I’ve seen in a flagship smartphone. Also, it’s up and running in a jiffy. In fact, the whole thing (including autofocus and shutter speed) works like a speeding bullet. Additionally, the U11 also ships with what HTC calls Acoustic Focus that allows users to “zoom in on the video to target your subject and amplify their specific sounds.” The technology makes good use of the phone’s four always-on low-power microphones to bump up the audio of farther subjects when you zoom into them, but, it’s certainly not perfect.

The U11 also comes with a 16-megapixel front-camera that takes well-detailed selfies in ideal lighting but low/tricky light situation photos can be a hit or a miss.

Should you buy it?

HTC makes some amazing phones. There’s no denying that. HTC’s premium One and mid-level Desire phones have always managed to stand out from the crowd on the back of their pleasing looks and polished user interface. But then, rivals — Samsung, Apple and even LG — started to catch up. They started to catch up really fast. HTC, it seemed, was frozen in time. The 10 was a little too late to the party. The U Ultra, well, it was meh!

The U11 is no plain-Jane however. Even though it doesn’t have an edge-to-edge screen like the Samsung Galaxy S8, or a dual-camera system like the LG G6, HTC’s new U11, has enough gimmicks and fire-power under the hood to stand toe-to-toe with them. And give them quite a run for their money while at it.

It looks great, has a great screen, metes out great performance, comes with great camera credentials and a camera that performs quite well while at it, and outstanding audio credentials that put Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus’ stereo setup to shame. It is water-resistant and crams in three virtual assistants. As for Edge Sense, well, let’s just say it wouldn’t hurt anybody. But, more importantly, the U11 is the first HTC phone in years to carry a sensible price tag. The phone, for 6GB RAM and 128GB storage, costs Rs 51,990. It really makes you wonder, what in the world was HTC thinking, pricing the U Ultra at Rs 59,990.

Long story short: if you’ve ever been searching for the complete package, vis-a-vis HTC, the U11 is that smartphone.

HTC U11 Review8/10

  • GOOD STUFF
  • Looks gorgeous
  • Outstanding camera credentials
  • Outstanding audio credentials
  • Outstanding performance
  • BAD STUFF
  • Glass body feels fragile
  • Reflective display
  • Edge Sense is unnecessary gimmick
  • Battery life could be better

 

Razer’s Stargazer is a webcam aimed at YouTubers, Twitch streamers, and other professionals

Razer Stargazer

If you want to see Twitch/YouTube’s influence on the games industry, look no further than this: Here in 2016, Razer—of neon-green-and-black gaming peripherals fame—is putting out a webcam. “The world’s first webcam designed for streamers,” says this press release.

The real surprise is that it didn’t happen sooner. The humble webcam has received little attention in recent years, which is surprising given the amount of video content on the Internet nowadays. The gold standard, the Logitech C920, is pretty ubiquitous in Twitch/YouTube circles and it’s four years old. In peripherals, that’s ancient.

But a flurry of new tech is slowly proliferating through the channels now—Intel’s RealSense 3D camera tech and Windows 10’s “Hello,” which lets you use facial recognition to log into your computer. And, of course, Twitch/YouTube. Suddenly there’s a need for a better webcam.

It’s perhaps deceptive of Razer to say they’ve made a gaming-centric webcam. Or maybe not deceptive—just good marketing. What Razer’s done is adapted Intel’s RealSense camera for desktop use. Until now, RealSense was always built into a computer, embedded into laptops or all-in-one PCs. Razer’s Stargazer functions like the C920, meaning you can set it on top of your existing monitor.

And voila—now you have a webcam “designed for streamers.” I’m serious.

Razer Stargazer

Regardless of the marketing, Intel’s RealSense tech does seem like a smart bet. Professional Twitch/YouTube streamers often have unwieldy green screen setups behind them to isolate their face from the background. This requires a large green piece of fabric, something to hang it on, and usually one or two lights. RealSense, with its depth-sensing tech, can automatically remove whatever’s behind a streamer. Pretty nifty.

A partnership with Razer simply makes sure this tech gets in front of people who play video games—people who might hear “Intel RealSense 3D webcam” and tune out.

The other gaming-centric feature Razer’s pushing is the ability to stream/capture 720p, 60 frames per second from Stargazer—something you’d only care about if you were using it alongside PC games running at that frame rate. For corporate meetings/Skyping with grandma/et cetera, Stargazer can still do 1080p, 30 frames per second.

Stargazer’s remaining features are a grab-bag of oddities. Facial and gesture recognition? 3D scanning? FaceRig support? While welcome, these features belie Stargazer’s RealSense origins. They’re certainly not features the average Twitch user will explore.

Last but not and least, Stargazer sports a noise-canceling, dual-array microphone. I’m sure it’s a decent microphone for a webcam, but anyone using this for Razer’s intended purposes (Twitch/YouTube) undoubtedly owns something better.

Razer Stargazer

The main concern is one of cost. Stargazer’s tech might be perfect for streamers, but its price certainly isn’t. I opened this by discussing the ubiquity of Logitech’s C920, a 1080p30 webcam that’s become a Twitch and YouTube icon. On any given day you can go to Amazon and find the C920 for $60-70. That’s already expensive for a webcam, but Stargazer? Razer’s tagged it with a Razer-size price tag of $200. That certainly prices it out of range of some teenager streaming in his or her bedroom, and maybe even prices it out of range of that teenager’s parents.

Razer’s counterpoint is that RealSense negates the need for a costly green screen setup, which is absolutely true. But a green screen setup can be cobbled together over the span of months, jury-rigged from a garage sale lamp and a half-broken curtain rod and some twine. Stargazer is just flat-out expensive. There’s a risk people look at the C920, look at Stargazer, and decide Logitech’s antiquated approach is still “Good enough.”

The Razer Blade Stealth strips out the gaming bits for an affordable, attractive ultrabook

Razer Blade Stealth

At CES, companies are fond of throwing out “World’s First!” claims, e.g., “World’s first microwave you can program from your phone!”, “World’s first TV that turns off when you fall asleep!”, “World’s first toilet with Twitter integration!”

How’s this one? “World’s first affordable Razer laptop!”

Razer Stealth

Okay, so it’s affordable because Razer stripped out all the Razer-y bits. Don’t be fooled by the fact that the Razer Blade Stealth looks like its older Razer Blade sibling. This is not a gaming laptop.

In fact, it’s an ultrabook—a first from Razer. Like the standard Blade, the Stealth features an aluminum chassis measuring half an inch thick and weighing in at 2.75 pounds. Inside is a 12.5-inch touch display, sporting either a 3840-by-2160 (4K) or 2560-by-1440 resolution, an Intel i7 processor, 8 GB of RAM, and a PCIe SSD.

 

Razer Blade Stealth

Missing from the equation? A graphics card. The Stealth only ships with the i7’s integrated graphics. That’s an oddity for Razer, a company that’s built itself off gaming peripherals and gaming hardware. Razer has a secret weapon, though: an external GPU dock.

I go into more detail about Razer’s external GPU dock, the Razer Core, in this article. But suffice it to say, it’s Razer’s way of selling a “gaming laptop” without all the gaming bits inside. The Stealth features a USB-C Thunderbolt 3 port that connects to the Core at 40 Gbps transfer speeds and—according to Razer—provides “desktop-level graphics.” Without running our own benchmarks on the Core I’m not ready to call it a success, but it’s certainly an interesting proposition. One of the biggest problems with gaming laptops is they’re expensive and rapidly become obsolete.

The Stealth? Well, I wouldn’t necessarily call it cheap but given Razer’s history it’s surprisingly affordable. Razer’s selling the baseline Stealth for only $1,000, which is much lower than I expected. The top-of-the-line version goes for $1,600.

Razer Blade Stealth plus Razer Core
 

Will it be a success? I don’t know, but it’s an interesting move for Razer, a company that—up until now—I considered synonymous with gaming products. It’s weird to think we might see people carrying around Razer Blade Stealth ultrabooks just because they like the design and need something for college/work/what have you.

Perhaps it’ll even woo some people who would’ve opted for a gaming laptop, which has always been a risky purchase, given the high price and rapid obsolescence. A Razer Blade Stealth plus a Razer Core and spare graphics card could, in the long run, save you a lot of money if you don’t mind losing a bit of portability.

If you’re interested, pre-orders for the Razer Blade Stealth are open now through Razer’s website, to ship later this month. Stay tuned to PCWorld for more from CES 2016, all week long.

Digital Storm brings the latest custom-cooling tech to its PCs

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Still proud you moved from a CLC cooler to custom loops with hoses on your gaming rig? We have some bad news for you, Timmy: The cool kids are already two steps ahead of you.

On Tuesday at CES, boutique PC manufacturer Digital Storm announced that it’s taken custom cooling to the “final frontier,” adopting compression fittings and quick releases for all of the bends in its custom machines.

High-end custom loops originally featured soft tubing, and then later hard acrylic tubing. But according to Digital Storm’s chief marketing officer Harjit Chana, those hard acrylic tubes—which are heated up and then bent—can be fragile.

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While we don’t know if that’s true, these tubes can certainly be unsightly. The elbows usually don’t always form Mario-perfect bends—they can flatten out slightly and look simply ghastly (said in a Thurston Howell voice).

Digital Storm’s Aventum 3 features compression metallic elbows, and is just one PC in the company’s lineup that will get this new treatment.

Digital Storm’s Bolt 3 and Velox will also get the shiny elbows and new plumbing treatment, too.

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