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HTC 10 REVIEW: HTC is back with its best phone ever

by Brandon Russell | April 14, 2016April 14, 2016 9:00 am PDT

HTC had always been a promising outlier, earning the respect and admiration of fans for making design a priority long before it became a trend. But not long after its meteoric rise came a disappointing fall. Ever since the One M7’s debut, HTC has been unable to maintain any momentum, finding itself outmuscled and out-innovated by its bigger, more powerful counterparts. Now, with a renewed focus and bizarre marketing tactics in the rearview, the Taiwanese company believes it’s finally on the comeback trail.

Announced earlier this week, the HTC 10 is a carefully considered, obsessively crafted vision that HTC has been so earnestly trying to realize. It takes everything we loved about the One lineup and introduces some bright new ideas. Cutting down on bloat? How novel! That’s just one of many great moves HTC brings to the table with the 10; a number, by the way, that in and of itself carries big significance.

In the Olympics, the number represents the highest possible score; football fans associate it with the sport’s most legendary players: Pele, Maradona, Messi, Zidane. In mathematics, a power of 10 is any of the integer powers of the number 10. It even has some religious connotations. The magnitude is not lost on HTC; “10 is about perfection,” the company said during a briefing ahead of this week’s announcement.

That’s a lot of pressure to place on one’s shoulders, especially when a competitor like Samsung is at the height of its powers. But HTC is confident, and having spent the last few days with the company’s latest flagship, I’m starting to believe, too.

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She’s a beauty

Here’s a shocker: The HTC 10 looks like previous HTC devices, evolving on the design we saw first introduced with the M7. That makes this the fourth year in a row HTC has stuck to a familiar design. Normally, that would be cause for concern, but HTC has refined this year’s handset just enough to keep the 10 feeling fresh. In fact, it’s the nicest design HTC has ever put out.

It’s still a utilitarian slab of metal, but it feels better than previous iterations. Whereas the M8 and M9 felt slippery and unsettlingly smooth, the HTC 10 is more brushed, with a subtle chamfer that flows into flat edges, the easier to grip to the device in your hands. When I say the chamfered back is subtle, I only mean in the way it feels; it sure doesn’t look subtle, something I worried about when images of the device started to leak.

Seeing the phone in person, however, and the chamfer is certainly growing on me. It gives the device a nice curve that feels natural in the hand, and when it catches the light, it shines and glistens like a diamond. For a handset that’s big-ish, having the right amount of contour makes a big difference, and gives off the illusion of being thinner than it actually is. As I mentioned in my hands-on, it’s also easier to snatch off a table, which is more important than you might think.

There are plenty of refinements reminiscent of HTC A9, which came out last year. The power button is now ridged, and HTC made room for a microSD slot, taking cards up to 2TB; by the way, HTC is supporting Android Marshmallow’s adoptable storage feature, meaning it treats whatever card is placed inside of the device like it’s part of the system. So if you buy the HTC 10 with 32GB of storage, you can expand that by 2TB for things like pictures, videos, apps, data, etc.

HTC 10-9

HTC 10-10

HTC 10-15

The screen, meanwhile, now merges into the phone’s metal body, something that wasn’t present in last year’s M9. Instead of feeling like there’s a metal case wrapped around a metal phone, the HTC 10 is seamlessly crafted to feel like a single object, rather than two distinct pieces mashed together. I should mention HTC has bumped the 5.2-inch display into Quad HD territory, too, so anyone unhappy with the M9’s Full HD screen won’t be disappointed.

Along with that jump, HTC says the device features a next generation 2K LCD screen that’s tuned to “cinema studio standards.” That just means movies will look truer to the director’s vision. To me, it looks like just another very, very good display, nothing more, nothing less. More than just a bump in resolution, HTC says the 10’s screen offers 50 percent better responsiveness compared to the M9, so even the tiniest and fastest movements will register. The difference in responsiveness was imperceptible to me, but Jon felt differently in his review.

As for the overall integrity of the device, it certainly feels solid. HTC says it “mercilessly engineered” the HTC 10 to withstand the perils of human clumsiness, subjecting the device to hours of temperature tests, corrosion tests, scratch tests, and even the YouTube favorite: drop tests. I’m not about to start torturing the handset, but I can tell you that the HTC 10 feels like it could go a few rounds with your klutzy uncle and come out unscathed.

There are some drawbacks to the design, however, ranging from bad to worse. One, there’s no wireless charging. Two, it’s only IP53 rated, which means you can forget about bringing it on your next whitewater rafting trip. I point these out because a device like the Galaxy S7 offers wireless charging and an IP68 rating. Three, there are no longer front-facing BoomSound speakers.

Rather than a dual front-facing arrangement, there’s now one speaker on the front and another on the bottom next to the phone’s USB-C port. According to HTC, the new system, dubbed BoomSound Hi-Fi, provides the richest mono sound of any phone on the market by using the same design as “leading acoustic systems around the world,” separating the tweeter from the bass. Be that as it may, it still doesn’t quite match the stereo front-facing speakers found in previous HTC flagships. And, anyway, you’ll want to use headphones to really hear the HTC 10’s audio chops.

HTC says the device supports Hi-Res audio, promising an unprecedented experience when used in conjunction with a high-performance headset. HTC actually includes its “best inbox headset yet” with every HTC 10 purchase (not in the U.S.), which is good news because they sound phenomenal. Crank up the audio, and the 10’s 24-bit sound processing, built-in DAC, and headset amplifier all combine in perfect harmony to play music artists meant for it to be heard.

HTC also included a Personal Audio Profile system, which allows users to tune the experience exactly to their liking. The feature is capable of measuring a user’s hearing, and will dynamically adjust sound frequencies, so they hear music the way artists intended. Usually, this kind of marketing speak is just a bunch of fluff, but having listened to music through the included Hi-Res headset, I could hear a difference in quality. For me, it’s not a major selling point, but for audiophiles who use public transportation, I can see why it would be important.

Finally, HTC included a fingerprint sensor and home button combo that’s recessed into the device, which means you can’t press it. Coming from the S7, it was a little jarring not having a physical button, but I adjusted pretty quickly. The sensor itself is snappy, and HTC says the 10’s smart algorithms will improve speed and accuracy over time—something I’ll have to keep an eye on in the coming weeks.

And if accessories are your thing, HTC now offers an Ice View case, which comes equipped with a semi-transparent cover. As a result, users can peer at notifications, weather, time, music, and there’s even a gesture to open the camera while the case is closed. I wasn’t huge on it, mainly because the front cover felt a bit flimsy, but it was a nice change up from the Dot View case.

The software is lean

Sense has always been one of the lesser evils among Android skins, and it’s even better in the HTC 10. Running atop Android 6.0.1, HTC keeps its skin light, stepping in only when it feels it can improve upon Marshmallow’s foundations. That means users aren’t stuck dealing with numerous duplicate apps. Rather than offering a web browser, a fitness app, and notes, HTC highlights Google’s services that people already know and love. That’s the way it should be.

HTC still does offer some apps, including a dialer app, messaging app, and weather replacement. I would have preferred HTC’s apps not be included at all, but kudos to the company for showing some level of restraint. Samsung has taken a similar approach in recent years, but HTC does one better.

To be clear, buyers aren’t getting the Google Now launcher out of the box, but it looks pretty darn close. The notification shade and quick settings panel remain untouched, allowing the clean ethos of Material Design to shine through. This helps maintain a consistent UI throughout, which is a nice change of pace from the industry’s obfuscation of Android—a problem, to be fair, that’s not as prevalent as it once was. The nice thing is HTC doesn’t cram anything down our throats.

But don’t call the HTC 10 a complete win for Android purists. While I applaud HTC for attempting something new, the company’s Freestyle home screen doesn’t quite work in the mobile space. The feature, which eschews Android’s on-screen grid for a more free-flowing experience, tries to mimic the look and feel of a desktop, allowing users to place apps, widgets, and stickers wherever they want. I didn’t personally find it very useful or effective, but maybe with more work it can blossom into something great.

HTC 10-5

HTC’s biggest contribution to the software is Boost+, an app that provides tools designed to improve how apps are managed and launched. The smart boost function, for example, can clear memory in the background to optimize performance; or, if you prefer, there’s a button to manually clear your phone’s “junk,” essentially referring to apps the system says are bogging down resources. Apps can even be locked on an app by app basis, and if Boost+ finds out an app is misbehaving, it’ll provide options for how to deal with it.

Boost+, which is also launching for other Android devices not built by HTC, could have easily been a disaster, but it’s so straightforward and beautifully created that it helps enhance the experience. I didn’t feel the urge to use it, but Android devices have a tendency to slow down over time, so I could see this coming in handy down the road.

If Boost+ can be considered the biggest addition to Android, then you know HTC is doing something right. By taking a leaner and “from the ground up” approach, HTC promises the device runs faster, and it certainly feels that way. Apps seem to launch more quickly, and every decision—both inside and out—has been carefully assessed to ensure battery doesn’t nose-dive after lunch. It’s all part of something HTC refers to as PowerBotics (ugh), an initiative designed to “enhance efficiency” for improved battery.

And an improved battery is what you get.

At the end of a busy—about 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.—the device would typically have about 45 percent left in the tank. Push it further into the night and you can still expect the HTC 10 to be in the 20-30 percent range. And although it doesn’t support wireless charging, the device supports Quick Charge 3.0, which can provide a 50 percent boost in just 30 minutes.

How’s the camera?

HTC tried hard not to get caught up in the megapixel race a few years back, instead pushing forward with “UltraPixel” technology. It was a gamble that didn’t quite pan out and, as a result, caused HTC to jump right back in the arms race with the M9, a device that offered a decent 20-megapixel camera.

Even before getting my hands on the HTC 10, the company made sure to point out it received a score of 88 from DxOMark, making it tied for the top spot alongside the Galaxy S7. That puts the 10 among elite company and in a position HTC has been striving for years now.

The 10 sports a 12-megapixel sensor with f/1.8 aperture, laser autofocus, and optical image stabilization—a combination that provides an all-around terrific experience. Is it perfect? No, far from it. But it’s better than anything we’ve seen from HTC to date, and that’s a start.

As far as it stacking up to Samsung’s Galaxy S7, I think that’s fair to say HTC is very, very close. I noticed the HTC 10 doesn’t feel quite as fast to focus or snap pictures, but regarding overall quality, HTC’s device can more than hold its own. In fact, I found myself liking it more because of its sharpness and how it handles white balance.

You can see for yourself in the gallery below. Images are nice and sharp, with accurate color reproduction and excellent exposure. There were some instances when exposure would be blown out but overall I was very pleased. We’ve pretty much reached a point where all mobile cameras are good enough, and HTC’s latest flagship is right there in the conversation. Oh, and for you selfie-holics, the 10 comes equipped with a 5-megapixel front-facing shooter—and it sports OIS.

Like so many other phones, low-light performance is decent, but not amazing. There were times when the laser autofocus would hunt and hunt before I had to intervene by tapping on the screen, and the shutter seemed a tick too slow for an uncooperative cat. Overall, however, you can rest assured that the HTC 10’s camera is as good as you’ve heard, finally leaving its early UltraPixel struggles in the past. (Here are the full resolution pictures taken with the HTC 10.)

HTC 10-31

HTC 10-30

HTC 10-16

The HTC 10 does a lot of things really well, and it’s beautiful to boot. But that may no longer be enough.

When I reviewed the M9 last year, I complained the device felt like more of the same. While HTC’s philosophy may have changed since then, you can’t help but feel like the HTC 10 suffers a similar fate. In a market full of aluminum powerhouses, it’s hard to see how Hi-Res audio and a screen that’s slightly more responsive is going to help the HTC 10 stand out.

I have nothing bad to say about the HTC 10, but it’s also a little disappointing HTC didn’t try anything we haven’t seen before. This is a comfortable, safe release—a very good one at that—but it doesn’t further HTC’s cause. It’s there, and it’s great, but aside from the software, I wouldn’t say it’s better than the Galaxy S7—a device it’s directly competing against considering its price.

The HTC 10 nails all the fundamentals: design, screen, software, battery, camera. But you can say that about dozens of phones today. Now, the question becomes, what ingredient can HTC add that no other company has?

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Disclaimer: HTC sent TechnoBuffalo a unit for review. Jon used the device for four days before filming his review and Brandon used the device for three days before writing his review.


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...

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