The red U11 is HTC’s phoenix phone

There was once a time, before Samsung’s meteoric rise to the top of the smartphone sales charts, when HTC was the leading innovator among Android phone makers. The Taiwanese company was first to have a 4.3-inch screen, first to have an aluminum unibody phone, and was simply the best when it came to design and refinement. The HTC Hero, Legend, Droid Incredible, and Sensation were standard-setting devices even before we got the timeless HTC One X. HTC was the Apple of the Android world, or at least the closest analog we had.

But the past few years have not been as fruitful for HTC, which has produced a series of beautiful disappointments. This year’s U Ultra was another compendium of bad ideas, and I was just about ready to admit to myself that HTC would never again return to its glorious position of leadership. And then this fiery red U11 landed on my desk.

I call it red, but this particular variant of the HTC U11 — officially branded as Solar Red — is better described as having the color of fire. It’s never one single tint of anything: there are yellows, pinks, various tones of orange, all dancing across the rear glass cover in response to the light. The metal frame is a darker shade of red that contrasts fantastically well with the lighter glass, making for a sophisticated, deeply intriguing appearance.

Looking at the rear of the U11 straight on, it appears mostly pink. Turn it on its side, and the rear glass taken on a golden hue. But because that glass has a gentle curve to its sides, you never see a flat color, and the sloping edges appear as if they’ve been burnished into a lighter tint. I love this look for its playfulness and absolute uniqueness among smartphones — it reminds me very much of the color-shifting paint job on the Mercedes AMG-GT Concept I saw at the Geneva Motor Show this year.

I thought the smartphone design race was mostly…

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