One of the best phones you can buy in 2016 is now my favorite phone of the year.
Anyone can make a phone out of metal. That's not to say it's easy. But at this point there's nothing particularly special about being a metal phone. Or being a metal unibody phone. Or whatever other marketing language we want to throw at it.
What isn't easy is making a good metal phone. Or a compelling one, actually. You've got metal so thin it feels like plastic. Metal covered in so much paint it feels like plastic. Or a metal phone that looks like every other metal phone out there.
Nobody makes metal phones like HTC, though. Of the company's sins the past few years — and there have been sins — unoriginality isn't one of them. Attention to detail in design isn't, either.
I'm inclined to agree. It's not perfect, though, and clad in a bit of marketing wizardry.
This is our second-opinion review of the HTC 10.
About this review
I've been using the HTC 10 for more than a month. Mostly in Pensacola, Fla., but also in New York City, and a little bit on the road in Canada. I've been using an unlocked North America model (with T-Mobile) supplied as a review unit by HTC. It's running Android 6.0.1, software version 1.53.617.5. (Yes, that's the one with the most recent camera update.)
I had the HTC 10 — which I'm going to refer to as the M10 from time to time — connected to an LG G Watch or Huawei Watch for the entirety of my time using it.
HTC 10 hardware
Few companies do industrial design like HTC. From the days of the Touch Diamond (I'm showing my age here) to the first Android phone (the G1) to the early start of the HTC One era. That continues with the HTC 10.
This is a substantial phone. There are metal phones that keep the weight down in any number of ways, and that keep things pretty slim. The HTC 10 has none of that. It's smaller and lighter than, say, the Nexus 6P and LG V10 — two of the biggest available right now. It's smaller and lighter than the Galaxy Note 5. But there's still something that's just beefy about this phone. Being 9mm thick (at the thickest part, that is) and weighing 162 grams will do that.
It's a blunt instrument, almost. Metal. Glass. Solid. But it's beautifully crafted. With the curves we've come to know and love from HTC's "M" line. The M7, M8 and M9 each have distinctive but unique slopes to their backs. That continues with the M10, of course, only with large, chamfered edges. That major change makes this phone the easiest to hold since the much smaller M7. The matte finish on the metal is still a little too smooth to not be a little slippery, but that chamfered edge makes all the difference.
There are metal phones, and then there are metal phones made by HTC.
That, and it just looks beautiful, particularly on the silver models.
Also worth a mention is the way HTC has burned its logo into the back. You can't feel it at all. And unlike past phones, it's not going to fall out. (Does it get any more embarrassing than that?)
The change from front-facing stereo speakers is a big one, but necessary. You can't (and shouldn't) put out a phone these days without it having a fingerprint sensor. And HTC using the combination scanner/home button on the bottom of the front of the phone means something had to give. But instead of just opting for a forgettable single speaker like so many others, we've got treble (higher) sounds coming out the earpiece, and bass (lower sound) firing out the bottom of the phone. It's not really like a true subwoofer — the mids are mixed way too much for that — but it works, and it works pretty well. What you get is a way-above-average mono smartphone speaker. It's great for folks speaking — podcasts and news and the like. It's pretty good for music.
Actually, maybe there are times in which it works too well. There are times when I've been on a call (that's the feature wherein you use your smartphone to actually talk to someone, using 10-digit numbers to determine with whom you want to communicate) and the earpiece is just too damn loud. (The HTC 10 also occasionally gets on my lawn, but that's another story.) The speakerphone feature, however, has been a little quiet for my taste. Go figure.
I'm not all that concerned about having 24-bit sound — HTC including it is better than not, certainly. But I have been very much enjoying the "High-res Audio Earphones" that won't be included with the phone in the U.S. (Elsewhere in the world, it's time to get excited.) They sound great. They feel pretty good. They'd probably be the best in-box earphones I've ever used, if they were actually in the box in my little corner of the world. (HTC has yet to set a price for them, so I can't weigh in on whether they're worth a splurge after you buy the phone.)
Elsewhere on design: I'm digging the look of that bass speaker on the bottom. I'm fine with the slight extension of the camera housing (also known as the z-stack, because it extends on the z axis). I'm loving the look and feel of the power button. That's a small but important thing for making sure you can find it quickly and easily without fumbling — not always something easily done on HTC's phones of the past.
The HTC 10 display is a little disappointing, especially in sunlight. And Florida gets a lot of sun.
The display on the HTC 10 is good. Maybe even great. But I'm not in love with it. I've been spoiled by AMOLED panels in Samsung's phone. And not just because of their ridiculously black blacks (none more blacks) or that I think they just look better than backlit screens at this point. No, the problem is I'm on a polarization kick of late. LCD screens need polarizers to work. That means color shifts — and it means that too often my polarized sunglasses mean I can't actually see the screen as well as I'd like. (And occasionally not at all.) Somehow Huawei managed to avoid all this with the LCD panel on the P9.
If that's not a problem for you, awesome. Me? I like sun. I see a lot of it in Florida. For me that's a thing.
The HTC 10 is the third phone I've used with Snapdragon 820. Heat hasn't been an issue in any of them, and it's not in the HTC 10. Occasionally it'll get warm, but not hot. Raw performance has been fine, too. I don't play games on my phones, though. So, yes, I hope the latest processor can push a UI without issue.
This is a solid one-day phone. Most of the time. And that's enough for me.
Battery life has been the big question with Snapdragon 820, if only because of all the promises Qualcomm has made about "2x" gains in power consumption. Add to that HTC's claim that you can get two days of use out of the M10, and we've got some pretty lofty expectations set.
My take on the battery life has changed a little bit. I've gone from "Two days? Where did HTC get that idea?" to something I think is more realistic. This is the first "all-day" phone I've seen from this current generation of devices. Better for my use than the Galaxy S7. Better than the LG G5. From the time I wake up and unplug, to the time I go to bed. We need to have realistic expectations of a 3,000 mAh capacity — two days is pretty generous, and does it really count if the phone is all but shut down while you're sleeping? And if I'm on the run and not on Wi-Fi, I can burn through the HTC 10 battery a good bit faster and need to top up at some point.
But if I'm on Wi-Fi most of the day, and get a little bit of charge back on the commute home, I'm easily getting 15 hours of actual use, with 30 percent or 40 percent of a charge remaining.
And that doesn't even take into consideration what I still think is the differentiator in phones today — quick charge. Whether it's Qualcomm's branded version or a manufacturer's implementation of faster USB charging (and I don't really care which, so long as it works), being able to get 30 percentage points back in 20 minutes or so is huge. Two-day battery life is moot at this point and is a superfluous marketing message.
The more I think about it the more I'm OK with Quick Charge balancing out not-quite all day battery life in phones.— Phil Nickinson ✘ (@philnickinson) April 14, 2016
Just 20 minutes on a QC3.0 charger in the car on the way home from the office can get me about 30 percentage points back. A good half-hour or so can get damned near double that.
These phones are doing more and more every day. These processors do more and more behind the scenes. We tend to forget that, and we tend to have unrealistic (and, let's face it, uneducated) expectations. Toss in the fact that HTC has already switched to the reversible USB-C standard, and I'm OK with how long the phone is lasting, and how quick and easy it is to charge.
I don't need "two days." I need one day — or at least most of the day, with a 20-minute top-off.
Best of both worlds
HTC 10 software
When I called for a Sense revamp, this wasn't what I expected. But it works.
Another big change for HTC here in the software department. It's scaled back Sense a good bit — to the point where Sense no longer even gets a version number. (But if it did, it'd be Sense 8.) That's not to say you won't find changes. The default launcher still has HTC-style folders and a custom app drawer. But it's all completely usable, and it's no longer trying too hard. (The ability to put folders within the app drawer is still great.)
I used HTC's UI for more than a week. It's just fine. I'm no longer using it though because I prefer a different launcher. In any event, the single most important thing you can do to do your phone is make it yours. Rearrange icons. Change things up. Don't just use what they give you. What HTC has is fine, but it's HTC's. (And Google's, I guess.) Make it yours.
The biggest improvement, I think, is in the notifications. HTC has gone full Google on that front, which gives the most room for notifications without taking up room with quick settings. If you've yet to experience this particular bliss, a single pull down shows your waiting notifications. Keep pulling and you get quick settings. Or just pull with two fingers to get straight to the quick settings.
That's the only scheme that works. Anyone who does anything different is wrong.
HTC still has a bunch of software gimmicks this year, though — which is odd considering if you do a Google search for "HTC 10 gimmicks" you'll find a number of entries from folks about how the HTC 10 doesn't have gimmicks.
If a company tells you its product has no gimmicks — guess what. There are gimmicks.
Sure, it's got HTC "BoomSound" with Dolby Audio. And it's got a whole (excellent) themes ecosystem. And new "freestyle" themes that break free of the home screen grid. (The kids are gonna love it.) And this ridiculous "Boost+" app that promises to manage your memory and storage and stuff better than Android does. Or the "Lock apps" feature inside Boost+, which will password protect any app of your choosing, which is a great idea. (But is still an additional gimmick.) Or the fact that HTC pushes a "simple" four-digit PIN for security instead of something longer and more secure for security. Or the useful HTC Connect feature that makes it easy to stream music to other sources — and now including Apple's AirPlay. And there's the BlinkFeed news reader that's still in the launcher. And then there's Sense itself.
Oh, and "PowerBotics."
So you can't say the HTC 10 doesn't have gimmicks — even if more than a few of them are genuinely useful features. (I guess you can say it — but I want to know why.) Where the line really comes from, I think, is that HTC and Google worked together to cut back on the number of duplicated apps, which is great. There's no separate Gallery app anymore (though it will be made available in Google Play if you want to use it). Instead, Google Photos is integrated into the camera application. Some folks are fine with that. Some aren't. So in some instances you get HTC apps. In others you get Google apps. It's not a bad mix at all.
And, finally, a big (yet niche) reason why the HTC 10 is staying in my pocket for the foreseeable future — it works great with Android Auto. (Somehow Samsung screwed that up with Marshmallow.)
Better than before
HTC 10 camera
The camera app (and the camera itself) is the area that's gotten the most attention with the HTC 10. This is a completely new camera app for HTC. And for the most part I'm digging it. There's nothing specifically difficult about it or anything. It's got all the modes you'd expect, and they're easy to flip though. (Though I've found that the "auto" mode — just called "Photo" is sort of annoyingly far away when I want to switch back to it from another mode.) Having the HDR option on top of the UI instead of buried behind a menu or two is a big improvement. I'd probably like to have the ability to swipe the screen to flip between the front and rear cameras, like other apps do, but that's not a huge deal.
The bigger change is in how the HTC 10 focuses and sets the exposure level. Most phones let you top on the screen to do both at once. The HTC 10, however, takes into account what's in the entire frame when setting exposure. That can be difficult when subjects are backlit. And the focus (laser-powered as it may be) is a little hit and miss. Sometimes it nails it. Sometimes it takes a few tries to get things right. (HTC's addressing that, it's told us, and also will tone down the annoying "there's something in front of the laser" message, which was extremely sensitive at first.)
I'm mostly getting some pretty good pictures from the HTC 10. (I'm keeping a running album of them here.) Not all of them are perfect. The phone is pretty aggressive on ratcheting up the ISO in low light, which leads to noisier pictures. But if I'm really worried about that I can hop into manual mode.
All in all I think HTC has a really good camera here. It doesn't saturate as much or sharpen as far as Samsung's camera does. I think the LG G5 is better about handling low light. But the HTC 10 certainly is a vast improvement over the M9. It doesn't make me want to carry a second phone. And the camera app itself is greatly improved. It's maybe not quite the best camera app we've used, but it's definitely among the top, and a vast improvement from HTC's past efforts. I do take a little issue with that DXOMark thing rating the HTC 10's camera the same as the Galaxy S7. I don't think the end result is as good, nor is the camera app quite as easy to use (it's not far behind, though) or as full-featured. The two swipes down to launch the app is clever, but not as quick as I'd like it to be. (It's definitely not as fast as Samsung's home button method, or LG's volume rocker.)
The HTC 10 has a really good camera. Maybe No. 3 in my list, behind the GS7 and the LG G5 — and that's a really good position to be in these days.
My favorite phone for now
The bottom line
HTC is back. Period. This is a very good smartphone, and worthy of your attention, and your money. But also true is the refrain we've sung year after year. Having a really good device is one thing. Selling it is another. (With the added complication of its flagship phone not always being HTC's revenue driver.)
I don't think the HTC 10 is as good a complete product as the Samsung Galaxy S7. (Water resistance and Samsung Pay are a big reason for that thought, in addition to the camera.) But the best phone doesn't always have to be your favorite. And as far as Samsung phones come in my mind the past year or so (I've been very happy with the Note 5 and GS7), it's good to have an HTC phone in my pocket again.
A couple other considerations: HTC's done pretty well with its Android updates. That it's available unlocked is another plus — and is something Samsung doesn't do in the U.S. And unlike the GS7 (and Samsung's other Marshmallow-running offerings) it works with Android Auto. That's a small but important factor for me.
So there's a whole lot done right here. And I hope HTC is able to build and then ride that wave.
I'd buy it
Where to buy the HTC 10
The HTC 10 will be available direct from HTC, and from independent retailers in the United States, Canada and the UK. In the U.S., it's available on T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint, in Canada it'll only be offered on Bell, and in the UK it's been picked up by EE and Three, as well Carphone Warehouse as the usual unlocked sellers.