For a company whose tagline is “quietly brilliant”, it’s
 perhaps no surprise that it’s taken some time for HTC to allow
 anyone behind the scenes of how its phones are designed and
 manufactured. That all changed this week, with two big
 milestones: the launch of the new
 HTC U11 flagship
, and HTC’s 20th anniversary. To mark the
 double-occasion, HTC invited media to Taipei, Taiwan, to see
 where the U11 was born.

HTC as we know it hasn’t always been so forward with its brand.
 The company began as an original design manufacturer (ODM) and
 original equipment manufacturer (OEM), building notebooks,
 phones, and tablets that carriers and other firms would put
 their brand on. It was only in 2006 when the first HTC-branded
 phones were launched, the TyTN and MTeoR.

Since then, HTC carved itself a niche as the de-facto
 choice for early Android devices, then saw that prominence fade
 amid Samsung’s meteoric rise. Although a loyal cohort of fans
 remain, not all of HTC’s gambles have paid off: the Duo Camera
 of 2014’s One M8 pre-empted the dual-cameras popular today, but
 struggled to explain to buyers why they should want it. The
 20-megapixels of the One M9 the subsequent year went completely
 counter to the company’s previous insistence on “quality not
 quantity” without delivering the visual goods in the process.

Sometimes, HTC’s decisions have just seemed plain inscrutable.
 Now, it wants to explain exactly why the U11 is what it is.

Invited out to Taipei, HTC offered to take me around three of
 its previously off-limits facilities. First, the factory where
 the U11 is made; then, to the Design Studio where — in tandem
 with its San Francisco, CA facility — the smartphone was
 designed; and finally, to the Research & Development
 facility where its core competencies in audio and photography
 are developed and then put through their paces. It’s the first
 time in two decades that anybody from the media has been taken
 on such a tour.

In each location, members of the on-site team talked us through
 each stage of the process. Unfortunately, HTC wasn’t quite
 willing to let me loose with my camera: the photos you see here
 were provided by the company. The upshot to that is you don’t
 have to see a picture of me in anti-static booties, coat, and
 hair net.

There’s something hypnotic about a gadget production line. The
 U11 starts its life as a slab of substrate, onto which
 components are fed from reels like a monstrous Dymo
 label-printer. At one end, the smallest chips are fed in from
 rack-loaded spools; at the other, bales of Snapdragon 835
 processors and gleaming SIM trays are among the largest items
 to be fitted.

Through a soldering tunnel, and then out into stacked trays,
 each board gets its turn in a brace of testing machines. Robot
 arms pluck them from their cushioned platters and feed them
 into equipment that assesses things like wireless radio tuning.
 The testing process is repeated periodically along the
 production line, the slowly assembling phone getting reviewed
 after each major stage.

From one robot-heavy floor, the completed boards meet up with
 the U11’s frame, display, and battery on another level of the
 building. There, human workers sit along a creeping conveyor,
 either assembling parts themselves or slotting them into the
 machines that will do the same. It’s a pragmatic process: if a
 human would be quicker, such as fitting in a single screw, then
 a human does the job. As soon as the task tips over a certain
 line, however — like screwing in four screws in a single plane
 — a robot is called upon.

Glue is squirted in, chassis parts come together, and then the
 finished devices are fed into a long tunnel where everything
 from WiFi and Bluetooth, through to LED flash performance, are
 put through their paces. More robot arms pick up handsets and
 drop them into testing boxes, Bluetooth connecting to a custom
 OS to run the U11 through its programs. Assuming they pass, a
 worker stacks them in a bay on a huge easel, where they’re
 loaded with whatever localized version of Android their
 intended market demands.

Not all of the testing is left to the robots, mind. 10-percent
 of each batch of devices gets shunted into the human-staffed
 testing room, where workers replicate the common tasks users
 will attempt. Connecting to a WiFi network, setting up
 accounts, making calls, and using the charger are all put
 through their paces; 99.99-percent of the phones tested pass
 the roughly 40 minute long process. Only when they do, is the
 whole batch cleared for shipment.

It’s a long way from the gleaming white marble of HTC’s
 headquarters, where the company’s Taipei Design Studio is
 found. It’s a thoroughly modern building, too, designed to be
 LEED certified for its green credentials. At the top there’s a
 green roof; underground, a huge water tank which holds
 rainwater from Taipei’s periodic, heavy downpours and recycles
 it for use in the restrooms. A bank of gleaming glass elevators
 promise a third less energy use, thanks to the equivalent of
 regenerative braking when they’re descending through the twenty
 floors.

In the studio, across an open atrium from the executive suites,
 two broad white tables are covered with a smorgasbord of HTC
 devices released and otherwise. There are plenty of One,
 Desire, and other lines in attendance, some recognizable as
 production phones, while others come in a rainbow of colors,
 samples that never got the green light to go into production.
 Teasingly, under each tabletop is a grid of broad, shallow
 drawers, within which hundreds of prototypes and design studies
 are lurking.

Only one is deemed safe enough to open, and inside there’s
 HTC’s never-produced play on the gaming phone concept. What
 looks at first glance like a Legend with a D-pad on its chin is
 actually a portrait-slider, opening out with a satisfying click
 to reveal joypad buttons. Why wasn’t it made? That’s not for
 the designers to say, though given the general failure of any
 attempts to make a gaming phone — Nokia N-Gage, anybody? — I
 can’t really argue that it was a bad decision.

Still, the studio team is more interested in the U11’s “Liquid
 Surface” design language. The product of several stages of
 heating, bending, and milling the Gorilla Glass 5 until complex
 3D curves are created, it also uses Optical Spectrum Hybrid
 Deposition to layer refractive minerals across the back cover.
 As a result, each of the five colors — Amazing Silver, Sapphire
 Blue, Brilliant Black, Ice White, and Solar Red — have a
 shimmering depth depending on how the light catches them. HTC’s
 silver, for instance, takes on ocean-like blue and teal green
 tones; its black borrows iridescent greens the designers say
 were inspired by the Aurora Borealis.

In contrast to the marble and open-plan layout, HTC’s nearby
 Research & Development center feels more like a cube farm.
 Spread across a rented floor in building selected, the company
 tells me, for its proximity to a university, it’s where the
 sound and camera teams ply their trade. Given media and
 photography are now among the top reasons buyers choose a
 device, it’s an important part of the smartphone equation to
 get right.

It’s also a hotbed of negotiation. Audio and camera may target
 different senses, but the one thing they have in common is that
 they each benefit from more space within your phone. That leads
 to a few fierce weeks of bartering between each team and the
 other engineers in the company, as they try to balance the
 “perfect” speaker assembly with whatever space can be liberated
 from circuitboards and battery.

This year, it seems, the audio team has achieved something of a
 coup. The U11’s speaker assembly is comparatively huge, a
 driver roughly half the footprint of a US postage stamp, and
 attached to a large reverberation chamber to give it sufficient
 lungs to warrant the HTC BoomSound HiFi label. An anechoic
 chamber — lined with echo-absorbing foam — sits alongside a
 listening chamber, each with a microphone- and speaker-stuffed
 dummy to test out features like the U11’s active noise
 cancellation. That’s a key justification for why HTC left out
 the 3.5mm headphone jack, since its bundled USB-C headphones
 now promise to make your next flight or coffee shop workday
 more peaceful.

Down the hall, the camera team dwells in a black-walled room
 that would make even the pickiest emo teen happy. There, the
 12-megapixel camera on the U11 was tuned for auto-exposure,
 white balance, and color accuracy, HTC opting to skew the
 results to what the human eye might see rather than the chase
 the saturated hues some rivals prefer. Again, it’s a balancing
 act between available space and the size of your pixels, though
 fans of optical image stabilization will be happy to hear that
 room for that was secured.

None of this is, in the grand scheme of smartphone design,
 particularly unusual. Apple, Samsung, LG, and all the others
 each go through their own testing and experimentation; each
 plays the human-robot hybrid game, attempting to coax out the
 maximum production efficiency by balancing the strengths of
 each worker. If there’s anything new it’s HTC’s willingness to
 draw back the curtain on its process.

That’s important, because the “black box” approach to
 smartphone design has done the company no real favors in recent
 years. Playing your cards close to your corporate chest might
 work if you’re an OEM, building the devices your customers are
 requesting and making little comment on their virtues either
 way, but for a consumer-facing brand today there’s much more of
 a dialog expected. If you take away my headphone jack, for
 instance, you damn well better explain to me why.

NOW READ: HTC U11 hands-on

The HTC U11 is shaping up to be a great phone; the most
 well-rounded the company has produced in some time, indeed. Yet
 what has hurt HTC in the past hasn’t so much been the decisions
 it makes about its devices, per se, but the way it communicates
 those decisions. A modern smartphone can’t exist in isolation,
 it needs to be part of a story, an ecosystem, which a user can
 buy into. At this most precarious point in HTC’s two decades,
 the time for quiet brilliance is past: now it needs to make its
 story heard.

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