HTC’s newest smartphone only costs $349, but packs a surprisingly great camera

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Avery Hartmans/Business Insider

If the only thing you knew about the new HTC U11 Life was its price – $349 – you probably wouldn’t expect much from its camera.

You’d be wrong.

The U11 Life, HTC’s newest smartphone that arrives Thursday, boasts a surprisingly competent camera, despite its bargain price.

I spent some time using the phone over the last few days. I didn’t put the phone through its full paces, but I tested a few of the features that are most important to me in the phone – the camera being one them.

And while I can’t recommend its camera over, say, the iPhone 8, Pixel 2, or any other top-tier smartphone, I can confidently say you get much more than you pay for.

Take a look:


While I didn’t do a complete camera test or a side-by-side comparison with flagship phones from Apple, Samsung, or Google, I was surprised and impressed with my early results.

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Avery Hartmans/Business Insider

I’m not going to win any awards for this landscape photo, but it’s a good measure of what the U11 Life is capable of. The colors look true-to-life, it’s sharp enough to share with friends or post on social media, and the camera modulated for the amount of light present (it was a pretty overcast day, so not a lot).

One thing to note about the camera: In mixed light or low-light situations, you may want to fiddle with the exposure a bit before taking a photo – the camera seemed to get confused sometimes and underexpose some shots. This happens on almost every smartphone camera from time to time, though, which is why you can adjust the exposure by sliding your finger up and down next to the tiny sun on the screen.


What impressed me most about the U11 Life’s camera was how it handled color.

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Avery Hartmans/Business Insider

While I find that many smartphone cameras make colors look washed out, the U11 Life doesn’t do that – quite the opposite, in fact.

For the most part, the colors were vibrant and true. Sometimes, the phone’s camera would look almost too vibrant – this seemed to happen mostly with pinks and reds, like the cranberries above or the radishes at the top of the page.

Oddly enough, though, I sort of liked it. When editing my photos for social media, I almost always bump up the vibrancy and contrast, since I like photos that look bright and crisp. In the end, the camera’s tendency to over-saturate some colors actually saved me a few steps.


It’s really sharp, too.

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Avery Hartmans/Business Insider

Off the top of my head, I’m willing to bet the Pixel 2 and the Galaxy Note 8 are still sharper, but the U11 Life puts up a fair fight.

While I could nitpick, what really matters is how the photos look to the naked eye. The truth is, they look great. The photos are sharp and detailed, and would look great on your Instagram feed or as your phone’s background.

I’m willing to bet most people will have zero issues with the U11’s sharpness.


The U11 Life doesn’t have any sort of “portrait mode,” but it’s able to create a natural background blur.

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Avery Hartmans/Business Insider

Close-up photos are a breeze for the U11 Life. I was able to capture several nice shots that kept the foreground in sharp focus while blurring out the background – known as bokeh.

If you look at the string lights in the photo on the right, you can see that they blurred out nicely, along with the person on the sidewalk and the other plants in the background. The photo on the left kept the red leaves in focus while softly blurring the rest of the bush.

If there’s one complaint I have about the camera’s macro capabilities, its that there could be more separation between the foreground and the background. The photo on the left is a great example of how there’s not a ton of differentiation between what’s in focus and what’s not.

Still, the photo looks nice as is – and you probably wouldn’t notice this just by looking at the photos on your phone screen anyway.


It takes great selfies.

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A normal selfie (left), and a selfie with HTC’s “live makeup” filter.
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Avery Hartmans/Business Insider

There were two things I tested when it came to the front-facing camera: The overall sharpness of the selfie, and how HTC’s “pretty filter” looked.

The photo on the left is a standard, run-of-the-mill selfie, and I think it looks pretty good! If I were someone who posted selfies on social media, I would absolutely post it. It looks just as good – if not better – than an iPhone or Samsung selfie, though I did have the benefit of being well-lit by my glowing computer screen.

The photo on the right uses HTC’s version of the “pretty filter” – HTC calls this “live makeup.” Every Android phone I’ve tried has this feature – which you can toggle on or off before taking a photo – and I’ve always hated it on every other phone because it’s so heavy-handed. My skin has always looked too airbrushed and my features too soft.

On the U11 Life, though, I didn’t mind it at all. I have it turned all the way up on this photo, and it still looks fairly natural. If I owned the U11 Life, I think I’d use the filter on every selfie.


One other nifty feature: the U11 Life has built-in hyperlapse, so you can record time-lapse videos in a few easy steps.

I don’t often find myself needing to record time-lapse videos on my iPhone, and Instagram makes a free app that does a perfectly fine job. Still, having built-in hyperlapse is a great feature to have tucked in your back pocket.


The verdict: HTC’s U11 Life has an astonishingly good camera, especially when you consider the price of the phone.

While I still don’t think it’s better than any of the top-dollar flagship phone, the U11 Life impressed me time and time again.

While it’s a great camera in its own right, the best thing about it is that you’re not paying Apple or Samsung prices for it. At $349, it’s the same price as an iPhone SE, and a fraction of the cost of the current lineup of high-end phones.

Plus, chances are, only an expert will be able to tell the difference between photos taken on this phone and those taken on a fancier smartphone.

If you’re curious about the specs of the camera, like megapixels and aperture, you can find that on HTC’s website. But frankly, the specs don’t really matter here – it’s clear that the camera takes great photos. If you’re in the market for a great, reliable smartphone camera at an affordable price point, you can’t go wrong with the U11 Life.