HTC's made a really good phone this year.
I'm not alone in thinking that HTC needs more than just a good smartphone to regain lost ground in the smartphone market. At this point, it's not even feasible for the company to reach the heights of profitability and market share it had back in 2011 and 2012; instead, one must take a bit more of a sober look at its prospects. Can it get back to the black? Can it leverage its engineering prowess in the smartphone world to push its VR and health wearables business?
I'm the realest
First things first
First things first: the HTC 10 is a really good phone. I mean, objectively speaking, it's got all the specs in all the right places. Best processor currently available? Check. Excellent, high-density display? Check. All-day battery life? Check. Brand-redeeming camera? (Hopefully) check. Excellent build quality? Great speakers? Pared-down but unique software? Check, check, check.
The new button layout is a sensible decision I wish Samsung would mimic.
Picking up the HTC 10, you get glimpses of the One M7, arguably the company's best smartphone to date, as well as vestigial qualities of the One A9, especially on the front. What this phone doesn't resemble, in any way, is the One M9. And that's a good thing.
Like its immediate predecessor, the HTC 10 is machined out of a single block of aluminum, brushed with a variety of textures (the back is ever-so-slightly rougher than the chamfered bezels). It's a big phone, but not overly so; more so, it is extremely solid, the way you want a tool to feel.
At 5.2-inches, the QHD screen — a first for HTC —is vibrant and sharp, with excellent viewing angles and some special Super LCD sauce that, given its troubles over the last few years sourcing the industry's best parts, remain exceptionally high quality. Below the screen, the same fingerprint scanner from the A9 makes for quick device unlocking, though HTC smartly returns to capacitive buttons for the first time since, yes, the M7.
Mirroring Google's own virtual navigation scheme, you'll find "back" to the left of the home button and "multitasking" to the right — a sensible decision I wish Samsung would mimic.
A camera to remember
I'm not going to say that it was the M9's poor camera that alone sunk HTC's last flagship, but it was a serious contributing factor. This year, HTC has returned to its UltraPixel branding, calling the 12MP sensor UltraPixel 2, but let's be honest: this is just another decent smartphone camera.
For the HTC 10 to be successful, HTC has to offer an industry-leading camera experience.
It appears that the HTC 10 uses the same Sony IMX377 sensor as the Nexus 5X and 6P, along with an f/1.8 lens and, thank goodness, optical image stabilization. While we won't have definitive proof of this until the device has been subjected to a rigorous set of tests, initial camera impressions are positive. I'm even more impressed with the revamp of HTC's camera app, which, despite a multitude of modes and settings, is even more sparse and minimal, getting out of its own way.
For the HTC 10 to be successful, HTC has to offer an industry-leading camera experience. That was true in 2013, when the company first experimented with UltraPixel, and it is true today. The difference is that back then most smartphone sensors had 1.1-micron pixels, usually in the 8MP range. HTC went in the opposite direction, offering a 4MP sensor with comparatively huge 2.0-micron pixels. The IMX377 sensor in the HTC 10 has 1.55 micron pixels within its 12MP sensor — and if the similarly spec'd Nexus 6P is any indication, is capable of some stunning photos.
It's probably not useful, though, that the company has returned to using UltraPixel terminology on both the front and back. The rear camera isn't 12 megapixels, but 12 UltraPixels. The optically-stabilized front-facing sensor? A familiar 5 UltraPixels. While these may convince the more marketing-susceptible among us, don't be one of them: other than being immensely competent (a feat unto itself for HTC), these cameras have very little unique about them.
Speeds and feeds
The HTC 10 is a great representative of Bell's performance-focused branding, featuring a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 chip, 4GB of RAM, 32GB of internal storage (and a microSD slot with Marshmallow's Adaptive Storage feature), and Category 9 LTE, with support for downlink speeds up to 450Mbps with tri-carrier aggregation.
On Bell, this means potential speeds of around 290Mbps, which is the fastest possible in North America, and some of the best in the world. Similarly, when the carrier expands its VoLTE service, the HTC 10 is undoubtedly going to be one of the first devices to support it.
Elsewhere, the HTC 10 heralds the return of BoomSound speakers, after they were left out of the A9. But whereas the previous incarnations of the M-series had two front-facing speakers, the latest attempts to save some space by putting one in its regular place at the top of the phone's face, and the other where Samsung and Apple have been pointing their speakers for years.
The result is a rather diluted version of BoomSound, despite having separate amplifiers for each speaker. The top port, a tweeter, is tuned for higher frequencies, while the bottom is meant to pump out the proverbial bass. We'll have to do more extensive testing to ensure they live up their predecessors' superlative standards, but early impressions are positive.
HTC has also seen fit to include a new Personal Audio Profile feature, which attempts to match your ears' frequency response with that of your headphones using a custom tuning sequence. It's quite an amazing process to behold, exposing the limitations of my own ears and the subtle differences between them. More of this, please, HTC.
Software as a solution
When the A9 premiered, one of its main selling features was its considerably pared-down software, eschewing much of Sense's excess in favour of Google's own first-party services. That has been taken to another level here, with HTC removing its own Gallery app and a number of other preloads.
Small improvements make this Android 6.0.1-based version of Sense feel like one of the fastest Android experiences I've ever had.
The move is encouraging, since it means fewer duplicate apps, faster performance and, hopefully, shorter waits for updates.
Small changes to the default theme, plus low-level speed upgrades, makes this Android 6.0.1-based version of Sense feel like one of the fastest Android experiences I've ever had. HTC has always been good at optimizing its software for touch responsiveness, and the HTC 10 is no exception. This thing flies.
HTC has also introduced a new set of themes to its store, which allow users to replace traditional icons on grids with something a bit more ... freestyle.
Freestyle themes, as they're referred to, are as interesting as they are impractical, but they'll probably be a huge hit with the teens. We'll dive more into them as they become available.
Then there was one
The carrier conundrum
Why did Bell latch on to the HTC 10? Canadians will have to buy the company's newest flagship from what PCMag calls "Canada's fastest network," or unlocked and at full price through HTC's online store.
Typically, when an OEM like HTC shops around its newest devices, it tries to get on as many carriers as possible; the more possible sales funnels, the more higher the potential in-market revenue. When the A9 was unveiled last year, no carriers picked it up. Shortly after, nearly every HTC smartphone, barring second-gen products like the M8 and entry-level devices like the Desire 626, were eliminated from carrier shelves. Goodbye, M9. Goodbye, HTC.
Most HTC owners I talk to have had overwhelmingly positive experiences with the brand.
It's unclear what made carriers like Rogers and Telus sour to the HTC brand, but it's safe to assume it was the same thing that has been afflicting the company worldwide: poor sales, and an abundance of cheaper competitors. Most carriers are happy to resign the majority of their high-margin sales to Apple and Samsung, and let the Chinese OEMs like ZTE, Huawei and Alcatel fight for the remaining pot. Companies that have typically been given carrier exclusives, such as Motorola, HTC and Sony, fit somewhere in the middle.
Where that leaves HTC remains to be seen. Don't get me wrong: it's a good thing that Bell is giving the HTC 10 the chance it deserves. This is a great phone with some fantastic potential. But at $1000 outright, it's also incredibly expensive, and may not last long without heavy discounts by the only carrier that agreed to stock it. How does it stack up against the similarly-priced Galaxy S7 edge? That remains to be seen.
All in the family
One thing HTC has going for it in Canada is customer loyalty. I still see dozens of M7s and M8s floating around the streets of Toronto, and most owners I talk to have had overwhelmingly positive experiences with the brand.
Many of those customers will be looking to upgrade in the next few months, and the HTC 10 is going to be there — in Bell stores, at least — to entice them to stay in the HTC ecosystem. It's a loose bond, for certain, but it may be HTC's best opportunity to retain a sizeable portion of existing smartphone users.
Check out the full preview
We're just touching the surface in our Canada-specific overview of the HTC. It's a powerful, attractive device that, in many respects, levels the playing field with other Android OEMs like Samsung, LG and Sony.
An open question
The best in years
There is no doubt that the HTC 10 is the company's best phone ever, and its most confident volley into the smartphone market in years.
But Canadians will have to meet a pretty stringent set of criteria to justify purchasing one, and that could pose a problem for the struggling handset manufacturer in the long run. Bell, HTC's exclusive carrier partner, on the other hand, merely needs to sell a handful of the devices next to the cheaper LG G5 and more-popular Galaxy S7 to prove it a success, and that shouldn't be too hard.