Not so long ago, HTC was dominant in the mobile phone market, before crashing to a low of 2% market share in 2015. Since then, the Taiwanese company has been working hard to regain their position. Today in Singapore, HTC showed off their new line of phones. The emphasis here is on making the phone designed around the user. Everything from machine learning to the new audio system is designed around being personalised to the user. Does HTC stand a chance of making an impact on the market?

HTC made it very clear throughout the presentation that they want to own the notion of you, or ‘U.’ A huge shiny U stood in the corner of the conference hall. Our press release was littered with the letter. Every marketing video drove that point home. HTC are making it very clear that personalisation is the main point they want to come across with this new line of phones. So how are they achieving this?

All about U

Chialin Chang, President for smartphones and connected devices at HTC, spent most of his speech talking about how HTC wants to “connect through uniqueness.” What this translates to is allowing the phones to be tailored towards the individual users. Not by designing the phone, but through the phone learning who the user is. Yes, HTC is including machine learning and AI in a heavy way with both the HTC Ultra and the U Play.

Chang promises that both phones will start to learn about the user and change its behaviour to meet their requirements. With the Ultra, for example, the phone learns which notifications you ignore and which you read, and begins to filter appropriately. Beyond this, both phones are supposed to approach notifications and alarms in a smarter way. If for example, you have an appointment, but it begins to rain, you’ll receive a notification earlier on in case of traffic concerns. If you have a long evening planned in your calendar, your phone will recommend charging to make sure you don’t run out at night. Of course, this only works if you use the calendar your phone.

Another feature that HTC are pushing is specialised audio. Using proprietary software and hardware, HTC’s headphones can effectively read your ears and modify the mix on your phone to best suit your ability to hear. Sound’s far fetched, but this actually works really well. The only downside is that this software needs to use the USB type-c connector to utilise this. That means two things: there is no audio jack, just like the iPhone 7, and only HTC headphones can utilise this. Third party headsets will not be able to use the technology.

A feel for U

After the unveiling, the media had a chance to try out the phones for ourselves. They feel pretty good in the hand and are very responsive. The Ultra especially benefits from the 821 Snapdragon processor. However, at first glance, these phones don’t stray too much from the modern smartphone formula. The Ultra has a special second screen at the top for notifications, but that is the main thing. Otherwise, the cover designs are quite beautiful, which the colour was shifting subtly with a change of light. Unfortunately, the shine might not last too long if you don’t regularly clean the cover.

Speaking with Chang after the showcase, we talked more about who the phone is for. Chang explains that while the core user base is technology-savvy phone users, they want to expand the user base wider. They have reflected this in many ways. The AI is referred to as a ‘sense companion.’ Chang says that the terms ‘machine learning’ and ‘AI’ are too cold and don’t reflect what they want the phone to be. “Machine learning means nothing for many users,” Chang says and argues that referring to the phone as a companion makes more sense for what it’s targeted to be.

How well the machine learning works in a day to day setting will have to wait until the phone’s launch. The Ultra will be available from 25 February, starting at S$898. The U play will be released a bit later after that. Those who already own an HTC 10 with the Sense UI can download the AI at the end of February to try it out yourself. If the thought of the Sense companion doesn’t still well with you don’t worry, it’s a purely opt-in program.