It's time to revisit the best Android-powered phone of 2016 that nobody wanted to buy, the HTC 10.
The HTC 10 is extremely responsive, has the best touchscreen we've ever used, has acceptable battery life, and comes with a very competitive camera. On top of it all is the best third-party Android offering of them all according to the majority of original reviewers (and obviously biased users) and world-class audio playback through the headphone jack. Yet it hardly made a dent in the market.
Looking back it's not hard to see why — it was priced the same as phones from Samsung most people felt were just better. Unfortunately, making a great phone that is in many ways better than the competition isn't enough, and you need to slash your prices to move phones that don't have one of two company logos on the back in 2016. That's a shame because it means that many of us didn't take the time to look at the HTC 10, and we missed out because of it.
Which brings us back to the HTC 10. If you've been using it you know how nice it is, even today, after many subsequent releases. For everyone else, let's take a look at how it's weathered.
The hardware, six months later
The hardware on the HTC 10 has been proven to be both physically durable and able to hold up well while using it to do normal day-to-day things that can often adversely affect the performance of some phones. You don't really need the quarterly factory reset to keep things running smoothly, and six months of being carried around in a laptop bag with a set of headphones — the HTC 10 is my primary audio player — haven't scratched its metal chassis beyond a few surface abrasions.
The HTC 10 is not thin and it's not light. But it feels great to hold.
To quickly revisit, the HTC 10 has an aluminum unibody with a 5.2-inch display. It's not thin and it's not light. There's also a front-mounted fingerprint sensor, capacitive buttons, and a 12 MP camera that DXOMark rated the same quality as the Galaxy S7 if you're into numbers to describe quality.
Under the hood is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 with 4GB of RAM and the magic needed to provide USB 3.1 and Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 through the USB-C port on the bottom. This means the HTC 10 is not USB-C compliant and contributes to the confusion surrounding a simple set of USB standards that companies have set aside in favor of proprietary methods and the accompanying licensing dollars.
There is also a headphone jack. And it's a shame that we even have to mention that.
What's not there are "waterproofing" and wireless charging. These were once written off as gimmicks when certain phones didn't include them but now are called essential since they appear on popular models. I have no idea if either is important in the overall scheme of things, but I do like wireless charging and wish it was there.
HTC followed the same path they've been on since the HTC One M7.
HTC also changed Boomsound. The two front facing speakers have been replaced with a single speaker around the front and a bottom-ported speaker that plays lower frequency sounds. I like the change, many do not. The raw volume we had with the M7 through the M9 has been replaced by a sound that's clearer and more separated without the distortion that came with the previous models. It's very different, and it's easy to see why fans of one aren't fond of the other.
In general, HTC followed the same plan of building a good smartphone they've used since the HTC One M7: Tough industrial design (HTC is the father (mother?) of the antenna band), larger bezels, and an unapologetic thicker profile with bevels and swelling in the places needed to feel like you have a good grip.
If you want the thinnest and lightest phone you can buy, you just aren't going to like the HTC 10. But if you're OK with something a little more chunky designed to be easier to grip and hold on to, you might. Either way, you can expect it to still look good after six months of normal use.
Six months of HTC software
Here is where things usually aren't quite so shiny and happy. Android phones can do a whole lot of things and they have a whole lot of settings and a whole lot of apps. Combined, this often leads to sluggish performance over time that can only really be fixed with a factory reset. I hate resetting my phone and setting it up all over again, and I assume most of us feel the same way. That's why I'm really happy that the HTC 10 hasn't shown any problems here.
The software is lean and fast, but sparse on the feature side.
I'll go out on a limb and say this is because of the operating system. HTC builds this version of Sense more like a themed version of "vanilla" Android than a complete custom job with overhead cams and dual exhaust. While there are some overlapping apps — HTC uses their own dialer software and contacts app for instance — the basic software feels a lot like what you could get from a Nexus phone with a third-party launcher and a handful of apps from Google Play.
If you're just interested in using your phone for smartphone stuff like messaging or social media with a few phone calls thrown in along with on-the-go web browsing and some simple games, you would probably love it. If you want your phone to be able to do more or if your phone is your primary entertainment and information device, you might not. Including the right amount of the best bells, whistles, and gimmicks is hard because no two people are the same.
What I want may not work for you, and vice-versa. HTC does a good (not great) job here for me, and I'll dare say they do it better than anyone else has so far. That means it is not going to be great for a lot of other people. Think simple, beautiful, and functional all at once and you'll have an idea if what using the HTC 10 is like. Only you know if that sounds like something you want.
There are a couple of misses, though. The Boost+ app pairs a few really good features with the ridiculous notion that killing off background processes for no reason is a good thing. There are undoubtedly a few models of Android-powered phones that need random junk in the background shut down. The HTC 10 is not one of those.
I also absolutely hate the TouchPal keyboard and the seemingly endless things it needs updating from Google Play. That's easy enough to fix, but I find it odd that the lightest factory software is paired with the most bloated keyboard you can imagine. And I think HTC should have included a stand-alone gallery app in tandem with Google Photos for people who would rather not use it. The latter two of my gripes are minor and likely not the popular opinion, but I think everyone can agree that Boost+ needs to die.
Six months later, the HTC 10 feels the same when I'm using it as it did when it was new. Granted I'm not the type of person who wants (or needs) their phone to act as a phone, a tablet, a portable PC, a game console, and a movie player. I think I could do all those things on the phone, but I have no idea how well it would fare after a few months of it. Hopefully, someone can chime in down below in the comments here.
Six months of great music
One thing I do most all day every day is listening to music. When I'm not in front of my messy stereo setup I have at my office desk I'm doing it through my HTC 10.
There's a very short list of phones that deliver really good audio with a set of quality headphones. The HTC 10 is on that list, I can't rank which phone is better when it comes to the sound (the LG V10, ZTE Axon 7, Xiaomi Mi Note and the HTC 10 are all great) but when it comes down to which one I want to use there is no contest. Like everything else you can do on the HTC 10, the software gets out of your way while you're listening to your music and is quietly there when you need it. I had been using the LG V10 as my music player and pocket camera previously and was able to tolerate LG's heavy-handed approach to Android whenever I needed to do anything else. With the HTC 10, I don't feel like I have to fight the software.
You'll love the way your music sounds through a pair of good headphones.
Since Android's beginnings, I've always felt that it would be perfect for a fully connected high-end music player. I've never had the pleasure of using a top of the line Sony Walkman with Android on it (Dan, buy me a Sony Walkman please) but if I were to remove the phone abilities from the HTC 10 it would be very close to what I've envisioned. That's basically how I use it every day — with my Project Fi data-only SIM. I have used it when traveling (the 10 and an unlimited T-Mobile account are my go-to when far from home) because I can have my great sounding music, my calendar, my address book, Google Maps and everything else all in one unit.
Six months of heavy use here and I still love the way the HTC 10 sounds. I'm sure things have burned in a little and it sounds different than it did when it was new, but not in any way I can notice. I'm listening to some Parliament Funkadelic right now while I'm writing this on my porch with my Chromebook Flip, and P-Funk sounds as good as it ever did.
Other stuff that's important
There are some other things we need to talk about that just don't fill out their own section. Important things, though.
The display is a great LCD. That means it's not as bright, it's not as saturated, and not as poppy as an AMOLED display. I seriously think this is the single biggest thing that held the HTC 10 back — sitting on the shelf at the AT&T store beside a Galaxy S7 that's the same price makes the screen look bad. Nobody wants to spend money on a bad screen, even if it's not really bad. LCDs just don't look as appealing as AMOLED to most of us (myself included). All that aside, the display is clear, has great viewing angles and is very close to being color-correct on the couple of HTC 10s I've seen. They just don't have that punch and look washed out compared to the amazing screens from Samsung.
The HTC 10 is a great phone for folks who want a clean, elegant, and simple experience. People who want more should look elsewhere.
Nothing stands out when it comes to battery life. It's not terrible nor does it make me want to say it's amazing. It lasts as long as most other phones I have here, give or take an hour or two. If you're going to be depending on it during a long day, bring a charger or a battery pack. You might not need it, but better safe than sorry.
Phone calls and network connection are great everywhere I've been except where I live when using T-Mobile. On AT&T, (I'm using the unlocked model) it's great. From what I gather from various sources, network features on T-Mobile are in a bit of a limbo, especially in areas where they are repurposing the older 2G network — like where I live. I don't know all the details but have gathered enough to say this is why T-Mobile quietly stopped selling it. Since I'm not using it as a phone when I'm home, I can deal with it. You might not have that luxury so be on the lookout if you pick one up and use T-Mobile. I just wish whoever needs to fix it will sort it out.
I like the camera. The automatic mode does great in low-light, and the manual modes are topped only by the LG V10. Samsung's GS7 is superior when things are well lit, but any of these three cameras can take great pictures that are more than good enough to share on social media or with family and friends, and absolutely acceptable to be ready to grab a once-in-a-lifetime moment and do it well enough that you'll want to keep it.
Some final thoughts
I think the HTC 10 is the best phone made in 2016. Everything there is done the way I like it, and other than wireless charging I really don't care about the things that may be missing. On the software front, the phone is super responsive and sits with the LG G5 at the top of the pile when it comes to how fast apps will open and switch to the foreground. The audio is better than most anything else you'll be able to buy and the camera matches well against all the competition.
But I'm not the only person buying phones. It's easy to see why it was outclassed in the minds of many, and why it didn't seem to be worth the asking price. You have to decide what kind of smartphone user you are to know if the HTC 10 could be right for you. If you enjoy a simple experience that does what it was designed to do very well, it might be worth a look when the inevitable price drop after CES and MWC happens next spring. But if you're looking for more and don't mind an experience that's a bit more complicated and cluttered (because it has to be) while filled with many more features, the HTC 10 will never be for you.