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Along with the new squeeze functionality, one of the main areas HTC worked to improve was the camera. For starters, we're seeing new hardware: a 12-megapixel Sony IMX362 1/2.6" CMOS sensor on the rear with 1.40µm pixels and an f/1.7 lens. This sensor comes with dual focus pixels, which makes the U11 extremely fast at focusing, plus HTC has equipped the camera with OIS for improved low light capture. On the front, it's a 16-megapixel sensor with an f/2.0 lens.
For years and years I've criticized HTC smartphone cameras for promising improvements and failing to deliver. The HTC 10's camera last year was okay, but it couldn't match the Galaxy S7 and later the Pixel XL. This year, the company has worked hard to improve the software side of their camera solution, and it's paid off.
I was fully expecting the HTC U11 camera to be weak, even though HTC was praising its high DxOMark score. But it's absolutely the opposite, delivering what might be the best camera of the year.
The main issue I had with HTC cameras in the past was they struggled in weak lighting conditions, particularly indoors. The best smartphone cameras - the Pixel, the Galaxy S8, the LG G6 and the iPhone 7 Plus - are all capable of great photography no matter the conditions. You'll be glad to hear the HTC U11 falls into this category, thanks to strong processing, great metering and effectively always-on and fast HDR.
Whether the U11 is outdoors or indoors, the camera is capable of vibrant, well exposed and accurate imagery that looks great without oversaturation. Some other cameras, like the Pixel and Galaxy S8, tend to push colors beyond what would be considered accurate at times. The U11, though, strikes a near-perfect balance between true-to-life images and vibrancy that provides that top-notch 'shareable' shot.
Most of this is down to the auto-HDR implementation, which almost always ends up combining several shots and many tweaks to construct the perfect image. It's probably the most similar software implementation to the Google Pixel yet, and I have to wonder whether HTC's collaboration with Google on the Pixel has paid off for HTC's own-branded devices. Like the Pixel, dynamic range is excellent in most cases.
The combination of large pixels and optical image stabilization makes the U11 a fantastic low light camera. Like the original HTC One back in the day, the U11 has the capability to make a dark environment brighter than life, which can lead to spectacular results. At times, the way HTC smartly uses matrix metering can come back to bite, as some photos are perhaps a bit too bright and end up having blown out highlights. In general, though, the U11 delivers strongly at night.
I was also very impressed with the detail of the U11's photos. You are only getting a 12-megapixel sensor, but fine detail is preserved as HTC has decided not to aggressively apply noise reduction to the point of introducing the oil painting effect. There's also not much grain indoors or in low light, so HTC is working some serious magic here.
I still think the Pixel comes in slightly ahead of the U11 in terms of overall image quality, but the U11 is a firm second. Yep, ahead of the Galaxy S8 and the iPhone 7 Plus.
As for the front camera, not as good as the rear but you still get the benefits of the image processing HTC is using here, like auto HDR. The 16-megapixel sensor and the f/2.0 lens isn't as well suited to low light photography, though the results are still respectable in dark conditions.