The HTC 10 is coming April 12. And after a lackluster showing by its predecessor — the HTC One M9 — we're looking toward "the 10" (as we're taking to calling it internally, anyway) with cautious optimism. HTC has struggled to sell phones the past couple years (while ramping up in other exciting areas), but it's still one of the better smartphone manufacturers around.
And with that, let's take a look back at the HTC One line. All of us at Android Central have used the phones in one respect or another, and hold a certain fondness (or disdain) for them in a way that's sometimes lacking in other manufacturers.
1. The HTC One X (and One S … and One V …)
Actually, let's go all the way back. Back to Mobile World Congress 2012, when HTC launched three phones under the One umbrella. We got the HTC One X, One S and One V. (So much for solidifying things behind a single phone, right?) We also got some love for the Tegra 3 platform. And one of the best-designed phones ever to be ignored in the United States.
What do you recall from this time?
Phil Nickinson: I was at this launch event, atop Centre Comercial Arenas — an old bull ring in Barcelona that's now a mall. (It's a pretty stunning venue.) This also HTC's biggest event to date, putting it nearly on par with the likes of Samsung. I remember the phones being really good by Android standards at the time. The One X was the top dog, but the One S and that "micro arc oxidation" process that made the metal into something special on the black model. Sadly, only T-Mobile carried the One S in the States. It was a beautiful 4.3-inch phone that died before its time. (And we never even got the One V here.)
The One X was pretty great — I used it for a long while. But it also suffered from some issues that didn't show themselves at first. RAM management was a thing, and the Tegra 3 model suffered more than the Snapdragon S4, if memory serves.
All in all, though, it was SOP for HTC — a lot of effort put into three phones that were together but not the same (heh), and were short-lived, at that.
Alex Dobie: I played with the One X for a short while, but it never really excited me the way the One S did. The larger of the two phones was large and bulky (ridiculous as that may now sound for a 4.7-inch device) and, in the UK, plagued by performance and battery issues thanks to that Tegra 3 CPU. That said, the One X's saving grace was its absolutely eye-popping screen. It was among the first mainstream 720p phones, and the jump in pixel density, brightness and color quality was spectacular to behold.
The One S was a better fit for me. The slim, brushed metal unibody — I never used the ceramic "micro-arc oxidation" version — was stunning, the phone itself was easier to palm by 2012 standards, and quicker too thanks to the then-new Snapdragon S4 processor. The only problem was a pretty dismal 960x540-resolution AMOLED display with poor brightness and color quality.
Jerry Hildenbrand: I loved both the One X and the One S. They were my perfect form-factor, and I used both until I inevitably bricked them and turned them into recycle bin fodder.
It goes without saying that I wasn't deeply in love with the software on either. Android wasn't very mature from a software standpoint in 2012, and nothing any of the manufacturers did to it made it better. I used both devices as a platform for my own tinkering and experimentation, and had a blast while doing it. In a time where many of us felt that you needed to void all the warranties, HTC's hardware and design made the One X and One S the phones I wanted to do it with.
Russell Holly: I didn't have enough nice things to say about the build quality One X and One S when they were originally released. The One X was the shining example of a plastic phone that didn't feel like plastic, which was a major sticking point against LG and Samsung at the time. The camera bump made me nervous, and the way it wobbled when you sat it on a table wasn't great, but for its time the design was outstanding.
I was fortunate enough to spend some time with the micro-arc oxidized version of the HTC One S, and to this day have not felt a metal phone quite a nice as that one. That particular version was hard to come by, and it was still a wrapper on an otherwise average phone for its time, but it matched the One S in feeling unique despite being made of fairly common materials.
HTC's biggest hurdle back in the One S and One X days was the software, and everything that can be said about the old Sense days has already been said. We've all moved on, which is good.
Daniel Bader: I have indelible memories of the One X launch. It was my first media trip — not to Barcelona, but New York, where HTC was hosting an admittedly tiny event for those unable to attend Mobile World Congress.
On the near-top floor of the Rockefeller Plaza, I fondled what would instantly become my favourite phone of 2012: the HTC One X. It was beautiful in its curves and white plastic and gently protruding camera. It was fast, with what turned out to be one of the most versatile SoCs of the early Snapdragon era, and it had a killer camera.
I was also quite taken with the lithe, metal One S, which (ironically) due to its smaller size I ended up spending much more time with as my main phone. I didn't mind the qHD display, though in retrospect it was pretty terrible, especially compared to the gorgeous Super LCD panel on the One X. But what the One S lacked in specs (it also forwent LTE, which was very battery-heavy at the time) it made up for in holistic usability. In short, the One S was a pleasure to use, since the qHD panel was much less taxing on the Snapdragon S4's two Krait cores.
As for the One V, it was a cute little sequel to the Legend, and did quite well in Canada as the de facto $0 Android phone, until Samsung began beating up HTC and stealing its lunch money with the launch of the Galaxy S3 and S3 mini later in 2012. Despite the relative success of the One M7, the One X/S/V represented the height of HTC's bravuro, and exposed the hubris that would eventually doom it.
Andrew Martonik: Branding issues of having "one" phone that was actually three very different phones — and with the One X later bifurcated into two branches — aside, I thought 2012 marked a serious period of strength for HTC.
The One X, in particular, was a fantastic piece of hardware, with its solid piece of milled polycarbonate separating it from the field. It also had a really great display and powerful camera for the time. Unfortunately there were some general performance issues, for the most part caused by the Tegra processor choice, and the Sense software of the day was pretty heavy and overbearing.
HTC obviously stepped up its game the next year with the One (M7), but I still look back fondly on the One X as one of HTC's best designs and a phone that was best pitted against competitors to be a leading device in its category.
2. The HTC One (M7)
The parenthetical is intentional. When we first were introduced to what's now referred to as "M7," it was just "HTC One." And it was a pretty big departure from the previous HTC Ones (or at least the One X), moving from polycarbonate to a single piece of milled aluminum. And any number of us would still argue that the 4.7-inch screen and dual stereo "Boomsound" speakers — along with the sleek curves — made this the perfect Android specimen.
But it also came with a new idea for the camera. Enter the "UltraPixel" — HTC's early take on a lower resolution camera sensor with larger individual pixels, allowing more light to hit things. (It's what Samsung's employing this year on the Galaxy S7.) The "Zoe" moving pictures were part gif/part video — and years ahead of Apple doing "Live Photos" on the iPhone. And Video Highlights would put together a 30-second mashup of your pics and video from an event — automatically — long before it was standard operating procedure. Plus an Infrared port for controlling your TV, and the new BlinkFeed reader — there was a lot going on here.
Phil: I loved this phone. I loved so much about it. I loved the size. I loved the shape. I still can't pick it up without wondering if maybe I could get away with using it again for a little while. I loved the Zoe photos — moving pictures! — and themed video highlights. (Have a great one of my eldest daughter getting her ears pierced before we'd even left the store.) I loved front-facing stereo speakers.
And I hated that HTC had no idea what to do with it. It struggled to explain Zoe, and struggled even more once it started changing what Zoes were. Video highlights never got the recognition they deserved, but they were quickly matched other devices, and by server-side services that took care of things off the device. HTC's attempt to make all this into some sort of social network wasn't ever going to get off the ground.
Still, though. I miss this phone.
Alex: I don't think I've ever awaited a review phone with as much excitement as I did the M7. I'd seen the phone at its launch event in London and come away relatively impressed, and it was obvious to me just how much better the "new HTC One" was than any previous Android phone. HTC set new standards in Android build quality (with that aluminum unibody), display fidelity (with an amazing 1080p Super LCD3 panel), sound (hey there BoomSound) and performance (apparently thanks to touchscreen tech licensed from Apple.)
The only piece of the puzzle that wasn't there was the camera. The "UltraPixel" shooter improved night-time photography at great cost to daylight shots — a real shame, since the Zoe video highlights feature first introduced in the M7 was a lot of fun. For me, to this day, the M7 stands out as the very best of HTC.
Jerry: Easily the best smartphone HTC ever released, the One M7 was also, in my opinion, one of the best smartphones anyone ever released — from a design standpoint. If you have any doubts, look at what Apple is doing today. The aluminum unibody wasn't exactly a new idea for HTC (see the HTC Legend) but the M7 did it in a way that nobody had thought of before.
It was also the first Android phone that I didn't strip the shipping software off of as soon as I was able. The "new" Sense was smooth and was able to do all the things I wanted it to do. More importantly, the things I didn't want or need it to do weren't in my way, and had little impact on anything else. My Developer Edition is still in the drawer labeled "phones that work", and it still has HTC Sense on it.
I also was one of the few that saw the value of HTC's camera. I was happy to have features like "moving" still pictures and being able to create my own documentaries about the things I saw or participated in with the touch of a button. For me, the software innovations and ability to take pictures in places so dark no other phone could have handled it were a fine trade-off for the low quality of 1:1 images. While it can't stand against today's phone cameras that can get those "no-light" images and have awesome content-creation software, it was the first and I appreciate it.
Russell: While the HTC One (M7) on its own was a fairly capable phone, what really pulled me in with this release was the Google Play Edition of the phone. A sleek metal body the likes of which HTC has never again replicated, with no Sense UI on top. It was heaven for me, right until my camera started doing that weird blue thing that so many early Ultrapixel sensors did after a while.
Part of me misses the Google Play Edition concept. Part of my misses the texture of the HTC One (M7) body. All of me is glad Ultrapixel is dead.
Daniel: There's still a reason I see people using the OG One. It was, and is, a great smartphone, from its compact aluminum frame to its incredible BoomSound speakers and underrated (if limited) UltraPixel camera.
For me, the One was so close to a perfect Android phone for the time that I wonder whether, in a parallel universe where HTC didn't include an UltraPixel sensor, the company would still dominate the Android market. While there were issues elsewhere with the device, it was the inclusion of the UltraPixel that doomed HTC to failure — not in 2013, when the One (M7) was released, but the following year, with the One (M8), when the company insisted on doubling down on its gimmick, with disastrous results.
Andrew: I'm obviously not alone in thinking that the One (M7) was an absolutely fantastic design for HTC — especially in the black color variant — and in my opinion it was the best of its metal "One" phones (not being sure at this point what the 10 is going to offer). The One (M7) ushered in the "unibody aluminum" revolution that some manufacturers are just now getting to the point of perfecting the way HTC did in 2013. It was a great size, felt wonderful and had a really awesome display to look at.
The newest version of Sense was scaled back a bit from the One X, and the entire interface was quick and smooth. The only real downside of using the phone at the time was the completely nonstandard capacitive navigation keys, which dropped the third key (menu or recents, take your pick) for an awkward setup of just "back" and "home" that I just couldn't get used to.
3. The HTC One (M8)
Still tucked inside parenthesis by HTC, though actively referred to in marketing materials as well as by those of us who write about such things for a living, the M8 (pronounced em-eight) scaled things up in size and rounded off some edges, but still kept the sleek, metal design. This was one of the first phones to move to a dual-rear camera design, though the second lens was for depth perception — a lot of hardware to throw at bokeh and pseudo-3D pictures. (Cool as they were.)
The Sense user interface iterated some more, but mostly kept the same look and feel. UltraPixel was still around, but better, and the camera software gained a bunch of new post-processing features. This was HTC hitting its stride, right?
Phil: Fast forward a year, and this one struck me as a space-age M7. If the Silver Surfer had a phone, this might be it. I was never sold on the Duo Camera thing for defocus effects. It's fine every now and then, I guess, but that's a lot of hardware to throw at something that single-lens cameras could do with software just months later. Plus there were a number of production issues that led to poor image quality — or some serious effects, I guess. The phone itself was maybe just too thin — hard to hold.
It stayed in my pocket for a good long while, though. But I don't really miss it.
Alex: HTC didn't go back to the drawing board with the One M8, but it did change more about its established design language than you'd first expect. The M8 got rid of the plastic trim and instead gave us a curvy (and yes, pretty darn slippery) metal body. The phone got bigger, but also lost some visual real estate to its on-screen buttons. The metal curves of the M8 quickly aged its more angular predecessor, but there was something about the smaller, more industrial feel of the M7 that its successor failed to capture.
Beyond the superficial external stuff, here was another great HTC phone let down by a crappy camera. And the much hyped Zoe social network feature, since abandoned altogether, wasn't ready to go at launch either.
Jerry: All I had to do was hold the M8 in one hand and hold the M7 in the other to know that this wasn't the phone for me. Gone was the excellent anodized aluminum construction, and instead we got something tall and slippery. I literally dropped the M8 the very first time I held it, because it slipped right out of my hand while reaching for the power button. And the tighter you gripped it, the more prone to pop out your hand it was.
Russell: I dropped my M8 review unit three days after I got it, permanently damaging the soft metal body that HTC swore was an upgrade from the M7 that I could have worn like body armor. The glossy texture of the back didn't sit well with me at all, and the weird rubber Dot View case on top of it felt gross. Such a cool idea for a case, but the execution was awful.
The color of the body was nice, the camera was a bad joke, and the whole phone felt like an unfinished project to me. I moved on from this phone way faster than I had most other HTC phones.
Daniel: Slippery. That's the primary memory I have of the HTC One (M8). Not a bad phone by any means, but a regression where it needed to soar: the camera. Because HTC removed the optical image stabilization module from the M7 in favour of a second sensor in the One M8, HTC's 2014 flagship could barely take a daylight picture worth sharing. And the gimmicky bokeh and 3D effects? What a waste of engineering time.
Elsewhere, the One M8 was a competent smartphone, and actually showed up Samsung's Galaxy S4 in a number of ways, but by then the Korean giant's marketing train was at full speed, and others, like LG, were making significant inroads in the Android space.
But HTC still made some of the best phones out there, and by the time it released the M8, it had significantly improved its software game. Sense went from bloat to best, and I continue to admire HTC for its restraint as it tries to maintain a unique design language for its Android skin. Kudos.
Andrew: I actually quite liked the looks of the One (M8), but unfortunately the ridiculous smoothness of it — plus the larger overall size — made it a hassle to use. The One (M8) was just too darn slick to hold onto, and that made you worried to pull it out of your pocket gripping it too lightly — or even too tightly. I actually appreciated the new BoomSound speakers and the move to on-screen navigation buttons after the super-awkward buttons on the One (M7), but that wasn't enough to overcome the poor choice in finishes that made it a slippery fish.
Of course HTC kept up with what it was really good at — offering a super slick, smooth and intuitive user interface in Sense, and at this point it was still the only non-stock UI that I could handle.
Unfortunately this was another year in which HTC completely whiffed on the camera. There just isn't much good to say here — another "UltraPixel" affair that missed the mark entirely.
4. The HTC One M9
Announced in Barcelona at Mobile World Congress 2015, the M9 iterated on things some more. The phone became a little more blocky, and arguably easier to hold, addressing a chief complaint of the M8.
But the promise of an improved camera fell flat, even as HTC increased the megapixels and went back to a single lens. Sense was starting to feel stale, especially as "stock" Android really matured. And for all intents and purposes, the M9 was a nonstarter not just for those of us in the press, but for consumers as well, buried under the sheer marketing hype (and exciting new direction) for the Galaxy S6, which was unveiled just hours after the M9.
What the hell happened?
Phil: The M9 didn't do much for me. The design was better than the M8, I guess — not quite as skinny. But I was burned by the early results of the camera. (And by having to explain that the review unit I had already contained the software "fixes" long before it pushed to the public.) And by the time any real improvements were seen, I'd moved on.
Android matured a lot during this period, too, particularly with the notifications and quick settings and how one doesn't get in the way of the other. Sense very much was lagging behind in this respect, and the M9 quickly fell by the wayside.
Alex: Right after getting some face time with both the One M9 and Samsung's Galaxy S6 series at Mobile World Congress 2015, it was clear to me who had won. "If you see these two next to each other on the store shelf," I remember saying to Mobile Nations' Managing Editor Derek Kessler, "you're walking out with the GS6 every time."
That year's Samsung phone was new, sexy and exciting. HTC, it seemed, was content re-treading over familiar territory. Worse still, the M9's display and battery life was inferior to that of the M8, token changes to HTC Sense (including a useless app suggestion engine) did little to improve the user experience, and the camera was still crap, just a different kind of crap.
The M9 was a perfectly serviceable phone, but clearly lacked the magic that made the M7 and M8 special.
Jerry: I really only ever used the M9 when I had to, which wasn't very often. I didn't care for the design, and plenty of other phones were able to take up my time. I like to think of 2014 and 2015 and HTC's "dark" years where their products weren't bad, but not compelling enough to grab my attention. Other companies were pushing the boundaries of the price/performance ratio, and another good (but not great) yet still expensive offering from HTC just wasn't on my radar when set against other top-tier phones with heftier price tags.
Russell: More than anything I appreciated the way it felt like HTC was working with Google to make Sense UI feel more like an integration than an overlay in the M9. The whole UI felt polished in a way that HTC had never really pulled off before, and I deeply appreciated that.
Unfortunately, the hardware accentuated all of the things I didn't like about the One M8 and the camera was underwhelming compared to the other experiences that were available at the time.
This was a phone I wanted to love because it felt like HTC finally got software, but couldn't deal with the hardware. It was a weird flip flop from my previous HTC experiences.
Daniel: I loved the way the M9 felt in the hand, especially when compared to the pebble-like smoothness of the M8. But by 2015 HTC had no excuse for giving its flagship smartphone an underwhelming camera, and by all accounts the M9's 20MP sensor was an unmitigated disaster.
The One M9 was not released in a bubble, either: 2015 was the year everyone stepped up their game in the Android space, from Samsung and LG to Huawei, OnePlus and Xiaomi. HTC needed to match the progress, but once again it regressed in the worst way.
Andrew: After the relatively disappointing One (M8) I had high hopes for the One M9, and unfortunately I just wasn't impressed by it. It wasn't that I was disappointed, per se, as much as it just didn't feel like a fantastic phone in the way that the Galaxy S6 did by comparison.
Though the design improved a bit in terms of usability compared to the One (M8), the One M9 was still very tall and slippery. And though it brought back the BoomSound speakers, the display arguably wasn't as good as its predecessor and certainly wasn't as good as what Samsung was offering in the GS6. And though HTC finally gave up on UltraPixels and went the other direction to get extra resolution for better photos, the One M9 still wasn't anywhere near the competition in terms of imaging — even though the camera was fast and the interface was good, the resulting photos just lacked quality.
The software was good, like it had been the past two years, but that wasn't enough to save HTC's hopes for having a hit on its hands — the One M9 just didn't do enough.
5. You tell us
The extensive HTC One line — from the One X to the One M9 —were in a lot of hands. We know that there are plenty of thoughts and stories from the community about them. We want to hear from you!
Share what you remember — good or bad — about the One, whichever one you used. And join me as I pour one on the curb for my lost Super-CID micro-arc One S.