A lot has changed for HTC in the past twelve months, and that's reflected in a radically different flagship for 2016.
This year's HTC flagship, the HTC 10, lands on store shelves a little later than in previous release cycles. As such, we'd already seen high-end offerings from Samsung and LG before HTC had tipped its hand. And owners of the HTC One M9, last year's decent (if unspectacular) flagship will have had ample opportunity to be tempted away from team HTC over the past few months.
But HTC fans can be a notoriously loyal bunch, and many will have been waiting on the next big thing from the Taiwanese firm. And to be sure, there's plenty to like about the new HTC 10. But is it worth the upgrade from an M9 after a year of use?
Read on to find out.
HTC is one of the few smartphone manufacturers able to boast an iconic design language. Metal curves. Polished edges. Big, prominent branding. Front speakers. But the company has changed things up a bit this year. Whereas the HTC One M9 was very much a direct continuation of the metal design HTC had been refining since the M7, the HTC 10 is more of a re-imagining of this design language.
The brushed metal patterns are gone, as is the weird plastic "shelf" around the sides. And the metal actually feels more like metal in the newer handset, as opposed to the coated metal used in the M9. And around the front, HTC has cleaned things up considerably, with no space wasted by front-facing logos and additional real estate freed up by the removal of the dual speaker setup. As an overall design, the HTC 10 strikes us as more of a complete thought.
While both phones feel relatively similar in the hand, they're pretty far apart aesthetically. The M9 featuring an eye-catching brushed metal pattern and a two-tone finish in the silver model, while the HTC 10 mixes things up with an enormous reflective chamfer around the back. Your preference here will largely come down to personal taste.
Whereas the M9 was barely distinguishable from its predecessors, the HTC 10 spins things off in a slightly different direction.
With the move up to a 5.2-inch screen, the HTC 10 is slightly larger than its predecessor, but not excessively. The main difference is in the width of the phone — and in a market dominated by ever bigger handsets, we've been able to one-hand the HTC 10 with comparative ease. The new model also takes a significant stride forwards in display quality, with the jump up to a Quad HD resolution, with a brighter panel and more vibrant colors. It's no match for Samsung's SuperAMOLED in daylight, but it's impressive in its own right.
Audio has historically been a huge area of focus for HTC, and although the HTC 10 discards the M9's front-facing speakers, the new BoomSound Hi-Fi setup, where a front-facing tweeter is combined with a bottom-facing woofer, works well enough. There are absolutely some cases where you'll notice more distortion than earlier HTC speakers — particularly when moving the phone around in one hand.
Overall, however, the move is a positive one, and it's backed up by some serious power behind the HTC 10's headphone jack, which is able to drive high-end cans with more power than the older model. Upgrading to the HTC 10 also bags you 24-bit high-res audio support, if that's your thing.
So what's replacing the second speaker around the front? Well, it's a surprisingly quick fingerprint scanner, which also doubles as a home key. Easier unlock security is a big reason to upgrade, with fingerprint scanners being increasingly common in high-end phones. And as a side benefit, the move away from on-screen keys also frees up valuable screen space for your content.
This year's HTC flagship also gets a customary bump in battery capacity — 3,000mAh, up from 2,800 — which is combined with QuickCharge 3.0 support for even faster charging than the 2.0 standard used in the M9. What's more, you'll benefit from the less frustrating, reversible USB Type-C connector.
The small increase in battery capacity gives a noticeable improvement in longevity, perhaps thanks to the more efficient Snapdragon 820 processor. The HTC 10 isn't the best performer in this area, but you'll get a solid day out of it, and we found it less prone to serious battery drain during heavy use than the M9.
|Category||HTC 10||HTC One M9|
|Operating System||Android 6.0.1||Android 6.0 (with update)|
|CPU||Qualcomm Snapdragon 820
2x1.6GHz + 2x2.1GHz
|Qualcomm Snapdragon 810
4x2GHz + 4x1.5GHz
|Display||5.2-inch QHD Super LCD 5||5-inch 1080p LCD|
|Rear Camera||12MP Ultrapixel + OIS, f/1.8 lens||20MP, f/2.0 lens|
|Front Camera||5MP Ultrapixel + OIS||4MP Ultrapixel|
|Storage||32GB + SD||32GB + SD|
|Audio||HTC BoomSound Hi-Fi Edition||HTC BoomSound (headphones + front speakers)|
|Connectivity||USB-C 3.1 Gen. 1||micro-USB|
The HTC 10 also marks a turning point for HTC's software. The software experience on the M9, even with its Android 6.0 Marshmallow update, was about as highly differentiated as anything from HTC in recent years. Menus, buttons, dropdowns and apps had a unique HTC design language which could be traced back to Sense 5 on the M7. And the Sense 7 user experience was also centered around HTC's suite of apps, including Calendar, Gallery, Scribble and Music.
A turning point for HTC Sense — for better or worse.
The HTC Sense of 2016 is a different beast entirely. For starters, there's no version number anymore, at least officially. And the UI as a whole has been significantly pared back from, and now channels a Material Design look and feel as part of an interface that closely matches Google's vision of Android.
What's more, many of HTC's own apps have been cut, including Calendar, Gallery and Music, and replaced with Google's versions as part of a closer collaboration between the two companies.
Certain UI elements like the notification shade and Settings app are pretty much carbon copies of their vanilla Android counterparts. Elsewhere, the default HTC theme is packed with the dark greys, whites and teal accents that dominate stock Marshmallow.
But several tentpole HTC features remain, including the BlinkFeed home screen reader — now with prominent News Republic branding — and the Sense home screen launcher, with its lightning-quick animations and trademark clock widgets.
The other big change on the home screen is the addition of Freestyle mode, a new option accessible through the HTC Themes store that lets you replace the standard grid of icons with cartoonish backgrounds and stickers representing your favorite apps. (And aside from this, you've also got a multitude of themes to choose from in the Themes store if you're looking for a slightly different visual style without going completely nuts.)
If it sounds like there's not a lot to see in the HTC 10's software setup, it's because there really isn't. It's streamlined, fast and a bit more Googley than what you'll have come to know on the M9.
3. Camera quality
Let's just say this up front: The leap from M9 to HTC 10 gives the biggest improvement in photo quality of any generational jump in HTC phones. If camera quality is important to you, you're absolutely going to want to upgrade.
tl;dr: You're going to want to upgrade if image quality is important to you.
The star of the show is the new 12-megapixel "Ultrapixel 2" camera, which sees HTC returning to the idea of larger pixels on the sensor itself for better low-light performance. It's a lower overall resolution than the M9's 20-megapixel shooter, but don't let that fool you. The HTC 10's camera is backed up by optical image stabilization, a brighter f/1.8 lens and laser autofocus, making it one of the best Android cameras for low-light photos.
HTC's software processing has come on in leaps and bounds too. Whereas the M9 struggled in certain lighting conditions, with generally poor dynamic range, the HTC 10 handles just about all daylight scenes with ease. The new Auto HDR mode kicks in when needed to provide more detail where there's too much light, or not enough.
You'll also benefit from HTC's completely redesigned camera app, with quick controls for toggling frequently-used features like HDR and flash, and other controls consolidated into a new slide-out menu over on the left.
And when it comes to video, the 10's camera benefits from 4K capture, with smoother footage than the M9 thanks to its optical stabilization. The ability to capture high-resolution audio at 4K also sets the HTC 10 apart from competitors — and of course last year's model.
With its Ultrapixel-equipped front camera, the HTC One M9 was an above-average selfie-taker, however the manufacturer has been able to improve upon this further with the addition of OIS in its new "UltraSelfie" camera. It's a 5-megapixel resolution sensor behind an f/1.8 lens, and it's able to capture about as much detail as any front-facer we've used on an Android phone.
On the whole, there's no real contest here: The HTC 10 is light years ahead of its predecessor when it comes to photography.
4. Bottom line
With the predictable regularity of yearly upgrades, smartphones don't always move on significantly from generation to generation. As we saw last year with the move from the HTC One M8 to M9, the overall experience hadn't changed all that much, historical issues with camera quality remained and battery life had actually regressed.
The HTC 10 is a big, important, meaningful upgrade.
This year it's a different story. The HTC 10 is a big, important meaningful upgrade from the M9 in just about every area. The physical hardware is a more modern interpretation of HTC's classic design language. The company's focus on audio remains, although it's expressed in a different way. The software experience is significantly pared back, with a default visual style in keeping with modern Android. And the overhauled camera setup has seriously impressed us.
If you're on the fence, you can take our word that the upgrade is absolutely worth it. The bigger question might be whether you should opt for the HTC 10 or one of its equally competent rivals. Nevertheless, if you're in the HTC camp, the company's latest is a solid upgrade, and comes highly recommended.