Close observers of the Android rumor mill will know that Google made an abrupt change to its Pixel phone plans this summer, shelving its original successor to the Pixel XL, which was codenamed “muskie,” in favor of another device bearing the code title of “taimen.” Taimen went on to become the LG-manufactured Google Pixel 2 XL, while muskie seemed to fade into oblivion — however this week the latter name has resurfaced in the latest Android source code drop. More than that, the code associates the device with HTC as the manufacturer, points to it having the same pixel density as the eventual Pixel 2 XL, and indicates that muskie had a pretty huge battery.
Here’s the cool part: muskie didn’t die, it just became the HTC U11 Plus.
The Verge has confirmed with a source familiar with HTC and Google’s tumultuous recent history that the U11 Plus, the device freshly announced this morning, is indeed the muskie handset that Google rejected in favor of the LG alternative. Not in its original Google-approved form, of course, but the core design and engineering that we see presented under the HTC brand today was essentially done to build the next Google Pixel XL.
It’s not hard to spot the similarities. The U11 Plus is the first HTC phone to feature a fingerprint sensor on the back for a long time, maybe as far back as the HTC One Max in 2013. When I spent some hands-on time with the U11 Plus, that fingerprint reader struck me as being essentially the same as that on Google’s Pixel phones. Now we know why: that’s what it was initially intended and designed to be.
The display size and proportions of HTC’s U11 Plus are a direct match for the LG-made Pixel 2 XL: both have 6-inch screens with 18:9 aspect ratio and a 2880 x 1440 resolution. The major difference, however, is that LG’s display is an OLED panel with a laundry list of problems, whereas HTC’s is a more conventional LCD that just looks very nice. In hindsight, it appears obvious that Google should have stuck with its muskie plans instead of making a last-minute switch to LG; that would have saved the company a ton of headaches and bad press, and probably would have made the Pixel 2 XL the sort of potent iPhone rival we’ve long been waiting for.
The U11 Plus that is coming out now does have a few HTC hallmarks, such as its fancy all-glass rear shell and the same excellent camera system of the U11. It also has a massive 3,930mAh battery, which is more than the Pixel 2 XL has and even bigger than the source code suggests muskie would have had. My first time with this HTC device was encouraging, and I already consider it one of the most complete and compelling Android phones coming to the market this holiday season. But what might a U11 Plus with Google’s unparalleled Pixel camera have looked like? What might the world have been like if the Pixel 2 XL had a screen worthy of its premium price and positioning?