Tested: The HTC 10 Android Smartphone

By Ryan Whitwam

HTC's last shot at staying in the top tier of Android OEMs.

There was a time when HTC was the top Android OEM -- in fact, it was the first Android OEM too. Its fortunes changed after several disappointing release cycles, and now the future of HTC is uncertain. The company needed a hit in 2016, a device that proves it deserves to remain in the top tier of Android OEMs. Its best shot is the HTC 10. This phone is make or break for HTC, so let's find out which it is.

Design and Display

Aluminum unibody designs have been HTC's hallmark for several generations, but if you ask fans of the One series, they'll often say that the M7 was HTC's best chassis. It was a little more rough around the edges, but the design was sleek, angular, and clean. The more rounded body of the M8 and M9 were a step backward in my eyes, but the HTC 10 returns HTC's aluminum design to greatness.

The HTC 10 body is milled from a solid piece of aluminum with a glass front that blends smoothly into the metal edges. I was admittedly worried about the giant chamfer that encircles the rear panel of this phone. However, it gives the frame a distinctive shape and actually makes it very comfortable in the hand. It's a heavy, dense phone, but only a little more so than the Samsung Galaxy S7. The HTC 10 looks and feels like an expensive piece of technology.

You will probably notice that HTC's obsession with front-facing speakers appears to be over. The A9 didn't have them, and neither does the HTC 10. There are actually two speakers, though. One is in the earpiece and the other is on the bottom edge of the phone. The stereo sound this phone produces isn't as good as older HTC phones (tinnier and less power in the lows), but it's better than phones that only have one bottom-firing speaker.

Like the One A9, the HTC 10 has a fingerprint sensor on the front beneath the screen. Unlike that phone, there are no on-screen buttons. Instead, HTC has added capacitive back and multitasking buttons to the bezel on either side of the sensor, which acts as the home button. I personally prefer on-screen buttons, but I don't hate these buttons. They respond well and HTC put them in the right order with proper Android iconography. As for the quality of the fingerprint sensor, it's really impressive. Recognition happens very fast and works at all angles. The only one I've used that's faster is Nexus Imprint on the Nexus 6P and 5X. I rather prefer the rear-facing position on those phones too.

The HTC 10 has a 5.2-inch 1440p LCD display. This is the first time HTC has stepped up to 1440p on its flagship phone, which it really had to do to stay competitive. The results are okay. When you're looking directly at the screen in normal lighting, it has good colors and crisp lines. However, the max brightness of this display looks low compared to a lot of phones. It's actually quite difficult to use outside in even moderately bright light. Viewing angles are also not what I'd expect out of a $700 phone. There's a very clear warm shift in light colors when viewed even slightly off-axis. You can mitigate this a little by tweaking the color calibration in settings, but the HTC 10's screen just can't touch the GS7, and even the G5 LCD is better my most metrics.

Internals and battery

HTC was bitten last year by the Snapdragon 810 bug worse than most. The HTC One M9 had serious overheating issues, leading to lagging performance. This year, Qualcomm has improved matters with the Snapdragon 820. This chip doesn't run as hot, and it's slightly faster with just four custom cores instead of eight. HTC isn't the only OEM to use this chip (far from it in fact), but it's getting good results. The HTC 10 is a fast phone that doesn't get too hot.

The Snapdragon 820 is paired with 4GB of RAM, 32GB of storage with a microSD card slot, and a 3000mAh battery. It hits all the high points for a flagship-level smartphone in the spec department. On the bottom is a USB Type-C port with quick charge 3.0 support. You'll need new cables, but this port is the future. The only negative I can cite compared to other flagship phones when it comes to raw specs is that it seems like HTC chose a slightly slower type of internal storage. It's slower in benchmarks than the G5 or GS7 for read/writes. This doesn't come into play too often unless you're moving a lot of files or installing large apps.

The battery life question is always a big one these days. Phones can regularly fall on either side of acceptable, and very few have removable batteries anymore. The HTC 10 does admirably with its 3000mAh cell, though. I can hit about 5 hours of screen-on time with this device under heavy usage. That's just in a single day of 16-ish hours total usage. With lighter usage, you can make it almost two days on a charge with this phone, but just a few hours of screen time. It's not a disaster if you forget to charge it overnight, but you'll probably be toggling battery saver in the afternoon of day two.

Camera

This is yet another area the One M9 failed miserably. It had a 21MP sensor, but the performance was simply abysmal compared to other flagship phones. Even mid-range phones could best it. HTC did an about face this year and went with a 12MP camera sensor, virtually the same module used in the new Nexus phones. It has a big f/1.8 aperture and 1.55µm pixels to pick up more light. It also adds optical stabilization

The improvement in image quality HTC has shown with the 10 is substantial. In bright light the photos show a good amount of detail and the colors are accurate. Exposure and HDR are above average (see the shaded areas in the above image), though I think Samsung's camera does a little better. Capture times are good, but slightly slower than the GS7. The HTC 10 has laser autofocus, which is usually very solid. However, it gets wonky on occasion (even after updates) and I'm not sure why. Samsung's new AF system is faster and more accurate.

In less than ideal light, the HTC 10 can still take some solid photos. I mean, the M9 would be completely useless in anything but very bright light, so this is a win for HTC regardless. However, this phone just isn't a match for the GS7 with moderate indoor light, and the difference is noticeable. There's a little more noise than I'd like, and the camera has a tendency to produce soft edges (probably a post-processing foible). In very low light, these issues are more obvious, of course. When the light gets dim, the HTC 10's photos come out warmer than real life, almost pink-ish.

I don't want to give the impression that this phone takes bad photos -- it doesn't. It's just that the Galaxy S7 is so good that I wouldn't recommend this phone to someone who was very concerned with photo quality. In most lighting conditions, the HTC 10 will take photos you'd be happy to share. It's nothing like the M9 in that respect.

Software

The HTC 10 ships with Android 6.0 Marshmallow, but there's none of that update guarantee nonsense this year. HTC learned its lesson last time, and you'll just have to cross your fingers that that HTC 10 gets Android N in short order. That said, the Sense build of Marshmallow on the 10 is probably my favorite non-Nexus Android build.

The Sense home screen is a bit more streamlined this year without those weird suggestion widgets all over the place. Blinkfeed is still there, and I still find it more useful than Samsung's terrible Briefing panel. Blinkfeed is actually a good glanceable news reader if you connect it to your social accounts and make some tweaks to the news categories.

I'm not smitten with the paginated app drawer, but I can live with it. The overall responsiveness of the home screen panels is great, though. HTC also cleaned up the status bar iconography as well so it takes up much less space, leaving room for notification icons.

HTC has a new home screen layout option called Freestyle. I was skeptical of this, but I can actually see some people really liking it. Rather than regular icons, a Freestyle layout uses larger stickers (they still link to apps) that are not bound to the same old 4x4 grid. You can move them anyplace so they fit in with the background, and place Widgets where they won't obscure your masterpiece. There are pre-made Freestyle layouts in the theme store, but you can always add more stickers and change the apps they link to as you like. The theme engine in general is solid. Only Cyanogen OS has a more comprehensive and powerful one. Samsung's theme store is far behind.

The quick settings take on a much more Nexus-like appearance on the HTC 10. I like this look, certainly, but you can no longer customize the toggles. Weirdly, there's no NFC toggle and the 10 is one of those phones that wastes space with a status bar icon when NFC is on. This situation is mildly annoying. The settings UI and order are also close to stock Android. If you've used a Nexus phone, it should be easy to find your way around on the 10.

Conclusion

Everyone was rightly feeling very down on HTC's prospects last year. The M9 was a sales disaster and the company has been hemorrhaging money. The CEO even had to step down following the downturn. The company's 2016 flagship had to be great to save HTC from collapse. That could mean a buyout or a return to making anonymous white-label electronics -- either would have meant the end of HTC as a top-tier OEM. Is the HTC 10 the phone they needed to make? I think it very well may be.

The build quality is undeniably fantastic, even compared to past HTC phones and the current lineup from Samsung. Holding the HTC 10 in your hand, you can tell this is a serious piece of electronic gear. It feels sturdy and exquisitely designed. Even if it does prove less than durable, HTC includes "Uh-Oh" protection with one free device replacement should you break the screen or drop it in water.

HTC's restraint in designing the software is also very welcome. There's less to be done when you first boot up this phone to make it ready for use -- fewer features to be turned off, fewer apps to be disabled. The UI is also somewhat closer to stock Android, making it easier to navigate (in my opinion).

The hardware of this phone fixes most of the problems with the M9 with a cooler ARM SoC, higher resolution screen, and a solid camera. On those last two counts, HTC has clearly improved, but it's not market-leading. This may be a problem for HTC as it seeks to come back from the brink. The Galaxy S7 packs a considerably better screen and camera, and the price is very similar.

HTC is asking $700 for the HTC 10 unlocked, and a bit less from carriers. I suppose we should be happy there's even an unlocked option -- that's not something Samsung offers in the US. I don't think the HTC 10 is overall as good for most people as the GS7, but it's very close. Certainly close enough that you would not be crazy to buy one. This phone might turn it around for HTC.