The HTC U11 is the best phone the company has made in years. It’s stunning to look at, very well made, fast as any other phone you can buy, and has a top-tier camera. Even its gimmicky “Edge Sense” feature doesn’t tarnish the U11’s shine.
But the U11 also has another trick up it’s sleeve: starting today, it’s the first smartphone with an integrated, hands-free Amazon Alexa assistant. Other phones and apps have let you access Alexa on the go already, but they required opening an app and pushing a button before issuing your voice command.
That’s not necessary with the U11 — you can just say “Alexa” and Amazon’s popular assistant will spring to life, ready to hear your request. It’s the first phone that provides a similar hands-free Alexa experience to you get with an Echo or Echo Dot in your home.
That might sound appealing, but as I’ve tested the U11’s Alexa assistant over the past week, the practical use of it doesn’t live up to its promises. In addition, with Alexa in the mix, the U11 now has two voice control assistants and three virtual assistants (there’s the Google Assistant that comes with every Android phone and HTC also adds it own assistant called Sense Companion) on this one phone. If you think that might lead to confusion as to which one is the right one to use at any given time, you’d be correct.
Further, while the U11 can mimic an Echo’s always listening capabilities, it can’t do everything Amazon’s device can. It also can’t do everything that that Google’s bot can do, and many of the things it can do are already well handled by the Google Assistant.
The U11’s Alexa integration is a good start — it mostly works as you’d expect it to — but it still needs some tuning to be great. Here’s what I’ve learned over the past week:
- Saying Alexa will open the assistant, but it’s clumsy: The big differentiator for HTC’s Alexa is its ability to hear you say “Alexa” and wake up, ready to lend a hand. This works about as well as “OK Google” to launch Google’s Assistant or “Hey Siri” on an iPhone (read: you’ll probably have to repeat the command half the time to get it to respond), but saying “Alexa” doesn’t unlock the phone. So if the U11 is sitting on a table and you say “Alexa,” it will hear you and its screen will wake up, but you’ll have to manually unlock the phone before you say the rest of your request. Google’s Assistant is able to authenticate with my voice and provide answers or perform actions without ever requiring me to touch the phone, providing a true hands-free experience. If you have the U11 already unlocked, saying Alexa will open the app just as you’d expect, or you can launch the HTC Alexa app manually from the app tray.
- Alexa can’t do a lot of the things I want an assistant on my phone for: It’s obvious to me that Alexa is still thought of by Amazon as an in-home assistant, not an on-the-go one. It can’t send text messages or place phone calls; it can’t open apps; and it can’t provide navigation to a destination. For all of these common smartphone things, you have to use Google’s Assistant, which does every single one of them well.
- Alexa on the U11 can’t do everything Alexa on an Echo can do: The Alexa assistant on the U11 can play music from Amazon, add things to my Alexa shopping and to-do lists, play my flash briefing, tell a joke, provide weather information, control smart home gadgets, use third-party “skills”, add events to my calendar, give me sports scores, or answer a host of other questions. But it can’t play music from any other services (I tried Spotify, iHeartRadio, Pandora, and TuneIn, all of which are supported on the Echo), cannot call other Echo devices, cannot send Alexa messages, cannot set alarms, cannot set timers, and cannot set reminders.
- Alexa doesn’t know it has a whole screen to use: Unlike the new Echo Show, Alexa on the U11 doesn’t take advantage of the fact that the U11 has a screen that can display information. All of the Alexa interactions are audio-based: you say a command and Alexa’s generic female voice will respond. The only visual cues are the app that pops up in the bottom of the screen that displays a blue glowing ring whenever the U11 is listening or processing a command and a notification that provides suggestions on things to ask Alexa. It’d be a lot more useful if Alexa displayed information, such as the weather or my calendar appointments, on the U11’s very nice screen, instead of pretending it doesn’t exist. HTC says that it expects people to go to Amazon’s Alexa management app to view more information when they want, but I don’t think that should be necessary.
- You can squeeze the phone to launch Alexa instead of using a voice command: If you want to combine the U11’s two unique features, you can: it’s possible to launch Alexa by squeezing the sides of the phone through the U11’s Edge Sense feature. It’s a more convenient way to launch the assistant if the phone is already in your hand and you don’t want to say “Alexa” a bunch of times in public.
- Voice shopping works, but why? Amazon has long touted the Echo’s ability to let you shop by voice, so you can reorder batteries or paper towels with a simple command. The Alexa assistant on the U11 supports this, but I don’t know why you’d use it instead of the Amazon Android app, which provides a much easier way to browse and select items to buy.
If you’ve been wanting to have Alexa with you at all times, just a voice command away, the U11 is the best way to get that experience right now. I’m a big fan of Alexa inside my house — I bark commands at my Echo devices to turn on lights, add things to my shopping list, or wake me up in the morning all the time. But on a phone, my needs are very different: when I’m out and about, I want to be able to send a quick message to my wife, set a reminder for later, or look up directions using my voice, not order paper towels. Until HTC and Amazon figure out a way to make Alexa more useful on the go, I’ll be sticking with Google Assistant.
The U11’s Alexa feature is available from the Google Play Store for devices in the US starting today and will come to the UK and Germany later this summer.