It rains a lot in Taipei. The last few metres of the journey to HTC’s glossily efficient, sci-fi white Taipei HQ are a lolloping dash through puddles and driving showers under grey umbrellas – HTC-branded, of course.
Inside, the central atrium (cooled by the natural flow of air rather than aircon, I’m told) is dominated by a huge video screen that is playing a video loop of ketchup being squeezed, a bulging bicep being squeezed, a rubber toy being squeezed, a… well, you get the idea. I’m here to see the new HTC U11, a mobile phone that you can squeeze.
In the next 40 minutes, execs from the Taiwanese manufacturer describe why squeezing the sides of a mobile is a natural gesture that adds innovative functionality to the new handset.
HTC is a company that has delivered a huge number of firsts in its exactly 20-year history, including the first Android phone, a range of Windows Phone handsets when that platform launched, and more.
HTC had twin cameras on its HTC One (M8) in 2014 and now almost every high-end smartphone has them. And the hugely popular Live Photos on the iPhone are really just a (better-communicated) version of Zoe, a three-second photo and video snippet feature which HTC introduced in 2014.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the company is introducing a new interface on the HTC U11.
After all, the company has a lot riding on this phone. HTC sprang seemingly from nowhere to huge commercial success worldwide with its HTC Desire phone in 2010, so popular it made the company the third biggest phone maker after Apple and Samsung. But more recently, though its handsets have been admired and respected, they haven’t flown off the shelves.
The squeeze is just the next step after the touchscreen interface we use all the time and has certain advantages, HTC says.
For instance, when you squeeze the phone’s sides, the pressure sensors hidden underneath the glass edge register your touch and launch the phone’s camera. If you squeeze again, it’ll take a photo. This has a neat and entirely natural feel.
And it has certain advantages. If you’re outside, wearing thick gloves against the cold, a capacitive touchscreen won’t automatically register your touch, but the HTC U11 can feel the squeeze.
Or if you’re planning on taking photographs underwater – the U11 is waterproof – the squeeze interface will work there as well.
I’ve been trying the phone for a few days now and at first you notice a slight lag between squeeze and shoot. That’s deliberate because the squeeze action moves the phone and it needs to settle for a fraction of a second to get the sharpest shot possible.
I’ll be reviewing it in due course but first impressions are that the camera is tremendous. In fact, the independent camera rating organisation DxOMark has just given the phone its highest ever score for a mobile.
There are other innovations which sound interesting, like the built-in Amazon Alexa voice assistant, and the capability to wake the phone with your voice.
The design is also exotic and attractive, with a glass back that has been treated in such a way it gleams in different colours as you move it. Solar Red, out later in the year, turns from sunset red to golden yellow.
I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve finished testing it but the phone is certainly impressive from the moment you pick it up.
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