HTC fumbled last year’s flagship One M9 so badly it almost ruined the company. If not for a bunch of midrange phones and hype for HTC Vive virtual reality headset to prop it up, the company would be dead.
But things are looking up. HTC’s new flagship HTC 10 has all of the cutting-edge tech you could want from a premium phone. Most notably, the HTC 10 has a camera that doesn’t suck.
The HTC 10’s solid aluminum unibody design is bold and flashy. It’s not the thinnest phone, but the curves and thick beveled chamfer that runs around the backside give it a svelte appearance.
The metal body feels really firm in the hand. It’s not slippery like the iPhone 6S or the Galaxy S7. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more solid-feeling metal phone. The proof is in the details, too. Compared to the One M9’s mushy power and volume buttons, the HTC 10’s power button is ridged and the volume buttons are very clicky.
The HTC 10 has a 5.2-inch Quad HD (2,560 x 1,440) resolution display with 564 pixels per inch. It’s big, bright and sharp. Below the screen is a home button/fingerprint sensor — the same one from the One A9. The fingerprint sensor unlocks immediately with a light touch and I prefer it over the iPhone 6S’s Touch ID and Galaxy S7’s sensors that require a button press first.
The fingerprint sensor can also be used to lock specific apps, preventing nosy spouses or friends from snooping through your Facebook, email or photos.
You may have also noticed the two front-facing BoomSound stereo speakers that made HTC’s One M7, M8, M9 iconic are gone. Not to worry: BoomSound remains, and it’s as loud and clear as ever, pumping audio out from the single front speaker/earpiece and second speaker located on the bottom of the device. And like the One M9, it supports 24-bit high-res audio, if you’re into that.
Internally, all of the best Android smartphones this year are packing pretty much the same specs, and the HTC 10 is no different. The phone’s powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor and 4GB of RAM — it’s such a common pairing that even my video producer who doesn’t keep up with the latest phone tech has already memorized the combo.
To be fair, it’s an excellent combo. The 820 chip really is the best one Qualcomm’s ever made; it’s 50% faster and 50% more power efficient than the previous 810 processor. The HTC 10 is a very fast and snappy phone. Like the Galaxy S7 and LG G5, you can throw hard-hitting apps like 3D games at the HTC 10 and it still blazes. Battery life is fantastic — I easily got a day and a half from its 3,000 milliamp-hour battery.
The phone comes with 32GB or 64GB of onboard storage to stash your apps and media. But if you need more, you can pick up a cheap microSD card to expand that. The prices keep plummeting on microSD cards — a 128GB is only $30 and a 256GB is $80.
As always, the biggest differentiator between Android phones is the software. The HTC 10 comes with Android 6.0 Marshmallow, which means you get new features like Android Pay, Now on Tap and Doze. But the UI that sits on top is HTC’s own Sense 8 skin. Out of all the custom Android skins, Sense has always been one of my favorites. It’s lightweight and doesn’t overhaul the UI with too many visual gimmicks. It’s a sensible, fast and modern looking interface — prettier than Samsung’s TouchWiz and LG’s UX, that’s for sure.
HTC has even removed many of its own duplicate apps that are better offered by Google. Moreover, Google apps are better integrated into HTC’s apps. For instance, in the camera app, tapping the gallery goes right to Google Photos.
he Themes app isn’t new, and many phones now have their own version for easy customization. But there is, however, a new kind of theme HTC’s calling “freestyle.” Normally, phone apps and widgets are laid down on a grid. With a freestyle theme there’s no grid. Instead, you assign apps to “stickers” and place them wherever you want on the screen. Journey, the only freestyle theme available right now is shown in the Vine above. It’s a fun idea, but it’s not the most practical, especially if you decide to hide the app names.
In my ultimate camera shootout last year, I didn’t even consider the One M9. Its camera was, bluntly speaking, hot garbage.
The 12-megapixel camera on the HTC 10 is the complete opposite. The “Ultra Pixel 2” camera has an f/1.8 lens with larger 1.55 micron pixels, which lets in 135% more light. Optical image stabilization (OIS) helps to reduce blurry photos and the laser autofocus sensor below the dual LED flash helps to lock onto subjects quickly. The camera app’s been overhauled with a cleaner, neater look.
Image quality is much better this time around. Whereas pics from the One M9 suffered from lots
of image noise,pics from the HTC 10 look excellent. Colorreproduction is solid — not nearly as saturated as the Galaxy S7, though not quite as accurate as the iPhone 6S, but a good in-between. Low-light performance is miles better than last year’s phone.
Pictures are crisp when viewed on the HTC 10’s screen. But if you enlarge them and compare them with the same shots from the Galaxy S7, the latter is sharper. Still, HTC’s done a fantastic job remedying one of the biggest flaws of the One M9.
The laser autofocus could be faster, though. Despite being a second-gen version, the autofocus sensor is nowhere near as quick as the dual-pixel autofocus on the Galaxy S7. I missed a lot of street shots because the camera failed to focus fast enough. And, of course, no phone beats the quick draw of the Galaxy S7’s double-tap-of-the-home-button-to-launch-camera feature.
The HTC 10 is the world’s first smartphone with OIS for its front-facing camera. It’s a nice boasting point, but it’s not really a game-changer in practice. OIS is great for combatting shaky hands and helping freeze fast-moving subjects like cars and kids. For selfies, not so much. It’s not like your face is running anywhere.
Even without the “beauty” effect turned on, 5-megapixel selfies looked liked they were mildly airbrushed. I prefer the rawer skin-imperfections-and-all selfies that the iPhone 6S takes, but if you don’t mind the airbrushing, the selfies aren’t terrible. I’d say they’re roughly on par with the selfies from the Galaxy S7. Taking selfies in low-light is also better than many other phones because the lens is also f/1.8, and there’s the built-in software flash (screen flashes white before the shot), popularized by the iPhone 6S’s Retina flash.
The HTC 10 is a terrific smartphone — HTC’s best ever. HTC took a look at all of the One M9’s shortcomings and fixed every single one of them. I’m wholly impressed by the turnaround.
The stakes are high for phone makers building premium devices. Samsung and Apple have all but locked down the high-end market to the point LG and Sony are struggling to hang on. Xiaomi, OnePlus and Motorola have gobbled up the low and mid-range. Where does that leave the HTC 10 to fit in?
I honestly don’t know. The 32GB HTC 10 will cost $699 (unlocked) when it’s available in early May, which is as much as a Galaxy S7. It’s a noble effort to challenge the current champ head-on, but it’s almost suicide. Not only does Samsung have a great phone, it’s got the marketing might to outspend everyone else and maintain its lead. A lower price would have put serious heat on Samsung.
Whether the HTC 10 is a financial success or a failure isn’t really my concern, it’s HTC CEO Cher Wang’s. But as a product, the HTC 10 gives her a lot to work with.