Can HTC regain its position of strength?
The HTC 10 looks nothing like an iPhone. Let's just get that out of the way.
Its predecessor, or half-sibling — whatever you wish to call the One A9 — resembled the iPhone 6s in more than a few ways, but much was made about nothing. The two phones were made of single blocks of brushed aluminum, with etched speaker ports, front home buttons and, perhaps most egregious on the part of HTC, a small rounded camera bump.
Whatever. That was then, this is now. HTC has returned with its best phone yet, seven months into Apple's latest iPhone flagship life cycle. So why compare the two? Because HTC is gunning directly for Apple's design leadership — and say what you will about Apple, the iPhone, or the latest model, the industry has responded to Apple's guidance in a big way — and many Android users are looking for alternatives to the Samsung behemoth.
The HTC 10 is what would have happened to the iPhone 5s if Apple had decided to broadly expand its use of the chamfer. All single-cut bevel and anodization. But HTC's latest somehow retains that unknowable essence the company lost between the release of the M7 and the A9, which became splotchy after the M9 was too similar (but somehow too different?) to the M8.
In other words, it's been a confusing few years for the Taiwanese once-giant.
In that time, Apple's sales, and its confidence, have soared. The company sold over 200 million iPhones in 2015, buoyed by the release of its now-standard three-size strategy. Though the 4.7-inch iPhone 6s looks identical to its predecessor, Apple thickened and strengthened the shell slightly to prevent the occasional bent chassis.
Both phones are unquestionably well made, but the HTC 10 finds a satisfying compromise in its 5.2-inch screen size compared to the iPhone 6s' considerably lower-resolution 4.7-inch display and its Plus counterpart's 5.5-inch panel. I can happily say using the HTC 10 with one hand is not just possible, but enjoyable. While it takes a dextrous thumb to maneuver between the top notification shade and capacitive home button (that doubles as a fingerprint sensor), I never once felt it a precarious proposition.
It's been a confusing few years for the Taiwanese once-giant.
HTC also managed to out-engineer Apple in terms of external sound, too: the HTC 10 boasts two speakers, one front-facing in next to the earpiece, the other down-facing, placed identically to the iPhone's. Together, the two speakers are loud, clear, and noteworthy. They speak to HTC's commitment to audio in an industry that has erred almost entirely on the visual experience of a smartphone. But there, too, HTC excels.
The HTC 10's QHD display doesn't get quite as bright as the iPhone 6s', but its viewing angles and color accuracy are just as good. While colors don't explode as they do on Samsung's Super AMOLED panels, the HTC 10's SuperLCD5 finds a happy (and, through settings, customizable) medium.
The more I use the HTC 10, the more impressed I am by what the company accomplished, especially in such trying times. Apple has the luxury of two-year design cadences, of near-infinite research and development budgets, of sourcing the best parts from the best component makers. Viewed in such a context, it is even more incredible that HTC pulled off such a device under its heavy constraints.
Software and experience
Let's keep this short(ish). HTC's pared-back Android Marshmallow software is a pleasure to use, and promising compromise for customers looking to pivot from, but not abandon, the Nexus line.
In years past, there used to be whole swaths of features that iOS users coveted from Android and vice versa. Without inciting riots, let's just all admit (yes, it's alright to do so) that both platforms are reaching a point of maturity where all the major checkboxes have been ticked. Robust app ecosystems; scalable notifications; built-in virtual assistants; settings galore (to a fault).
The more I use the HTC 10, the more impressed I am by what the company accomplished
Where Android continues to suffer, though, is how its OEM partners approach modifications, some with a heavy hand, and others, like HTC, with a more forgivable lighter touch. As has been the case in years past, HTC's commitment to expeditious updates, regular bug fixes, and Play Store-pushed core apps have fostered a leanness that, outside of Google itself, very few companies can consistently claim. When HTC promises an update to the latest version of Android within three months of its announcement, we have no reason to doubt. Sure, some of these updates are hampered by carriers' inconsistent quality assurance processes, but for the most part we see HTC out the door first.
By comparison, Apple, by virtue of its closed circle of hardware and software, releases updates to all carriers, across many of its products, at the same time. While this does cause unforeseen problems on occasion, the vast majority of users get to benefit from new features, bug fixes and security updates on the same day. Google has alleviated many security concerns with its monthly patches, but some partners are better than others at pushing them out to users with regularity.
Read the full review
There's a lot more to HTC's software improvements than we have room for here, so read through Alex Dobie's review to get the full scoop.
At its core, the HTC 10 provides a software experience both recognizable as Sense and as stock Android, though with the requisite bloat, such as pre-installs from Facebook and News Republic that remind us we're dealing with a company looking to monetize aspects of its software experience. You see this exemplified in Boost+, the much-derided app that is now available to all Android users in the Play Store.
I think most people want HTC to succeed, and based on its increasingly cozy relationship, especially Google. But it will take more than debloating and simplifying its software to find an audience.
In an area where HTC has floundered in recent years, it's comforting to know it has righted what used to be its devices' biggest liability. That isn't to say that everything is perfect — and we're in a holding pattern of sorts until HTC issues its first of what will likely be many camera-related patches — but it's by far the best camera experience ever seen on an HTC handset.
On the flip side, Apple's apparent camera advantage has been steadily eroded in the months since the iPhone 6s's release. From Samsung's Galaxy S7 to LG's more-than-capable G5, the Android ecosystem has blown the proverbial game wide open. HTC fits somewhere in the middle; its 12MP "UltraPixel" rear shooter isn't quite as reliable as the iPhone 6s for capturing true-to-life daytime shots, but its optical image stabilization is great for evening captures. And while the iPhone 6s, even without OIS, manages to eke consistently better 4K video than the HTC 10, the latter has some of the best audio capture I've ever gleaned from a mobile device. Again, HTC targets a small but important part of the smartphone segment.
HTC 10 (left) / iPhone 6s (right); click images to view larger
In terms of front-facing cameras, the two are relatively evenly matched in good light; it is in poor light where the iPhone forces you to activate its contentious Retina Flash to avoid blurriness from the 5MP sensor. HTC's industry-first optically-stabilized 5MP front shooter manages to grab ahold of more light in darkened environments, but augments such scenes with fine grain caused by a slightly smaller sensor.
HTC has entered the market with a phone I am increasingly enamored with. From its stunning design to its impressive spec sheet and graciously reliable camera, there are few things for which I can fault HTC. Its biggest problem is its environment; it goes up against Samsung's best-ever lineup, and Apple's continued strength in the market.
I honestly haven't been able to say this since the One M7 back in 2013, but HTC's smartphone is as good as anything on the market right now, and shouldn't be dismissed even when placed next to Apple's or Samsung's best.