The last HTC phone I reviewed for Android Central was the U12+, such a broken embarrassment of a handset that I fully expected it be... well, the last HTC phone I ever reviewed. Between hemorrhaging cash and talent, and being dwarfed by its competition, HTC seemed to be done as a major player in smartphones.
But this week, something funny happened. HTC decided to launch a new phone. Well, two phones, in fact but today I'm going to focus on the higher-specced of the pair, because that's the one attracting the attention of nostalgic Android fans.
Externally, the new HTC U20 5G is a pretty generic looking 2020 smartphone, with its hole-punch display and quad cameras. But what makes this phone more modern is its spec sheet: A Snapdragon 765G processor, 8GB of RAM, 256GB of storage, 5G connectivity and a capacious 5,000mAh battery. For a phone brand that was largely considered dead and buried, that's not a bad spec sheet for just shy of NT$19,000 in Taiwan, or around US$640.
The U20 5G is one of a handful of upcoming phones to use Qualcomm's Snapdragon 765 series processors. Others include the LG Velvet and, reportedly, the Google Pixel 5. The 765 and 765G (confusingly both of which are 5G chips; there's no 765 5G, just a 765 and a 765G) are all about getting 5G in more hands, benchmarking somewhere around the level of a two-year-old Snapdragon 845.
It's also fun to remember that the people creating the U20 5G would've been working out of the very same building as Google's Pixel 5 engineering team — the HTC HQ building in New Taipei City that it now shares with Google engineers. Not that you should necessarily read anything into that, the two teams are very much separate.
HTC's less than dignified exit from the high-end segment a couple of years ago involved a phone with glitchy virtual buttons and stale software, redeemed by one of the best cameras of its generation.
The HTC of today is very different from the company behind fan-favorite Android phones.
The U12+ wasn't a great phone all-round, but it did take phenomenal photos. However, the selling off of HTC's phone research and development division to Google three years ago will surely have affected the company's ability to produce a competitive camera. Camera technology is one of the most expensive, difficult and competitive areas of phone R&D, after all. What I'm getting at is that I'm not expecting much from the new phone's cameras, a major area where we're likely to see the direct results of HTC's smaller scale.
Instead, I'm expecting "decent." Decent, but not outstanding. And that applies to just about everything this phone does — at least judging by the details revealed this week.
There's also the question of software. Even back in 2017, HTC Sense looked absolutely prehistoric compared to the software design of its contemporaries. Little of the U20's software has been shown beside the lock screen, which looks exactly like it did three or four years ago. I would also put money on the same tired loadout of first-party apps being preloaded, including core apps untouched from the HTC One M9, and weather animations that date back to the HTC Sensation a decade ago. Once again, the effects of a smaller HTC with even less money to spend than in 2018.
So why is HTC even making phones in 2020? Well, first it's worth remembering the U20 5G is only launching in Taiwan for now. New company CEO Yves Maitre has at least hinted at a wider launch for future HTC phones, saying in a tweet this week that the company's re-entry into the smartphone business would be "starting" in its home market. That leaves room open for a wider launch should the company decide that's worthwhile.
I'm not entirely sure why it would be worthwhile, though. While Maitre joined the company from Orange, where he was a senior executive, HTC has few, if any carrier partners remaining in the West.
HTC's new CEO has hinted at a broader release for new phones... but why?
The arrival of a new HTC phone with better-than-middling specs and 5G connectivity has, in some circles sparked discussion of a triumphant comeback. But I'm old enough to remember when the HTC U11 was going to be that phone. Or the HTC 10. Or the A9. Or the M9. That ship has long since sailed.
HTC has plenty of brand kudos among smartphone nerds. There's a ton of nostalgia value for those of us who were around for the likes of the Sensation, One X and One M7. But the HTC of today is not the company that made those phones. It's smaller, has less money, and is missing most of the key talent behind those iconic devices.
Instead, what we see this week is HTC dipping its toe back in the smartphone waters using the resources it still has. Right now, with different leadership and humbler ambitions, "success" for an HTC phone means selling a handful of units to customers in its home market.
In order for things to go any further, HTC needs to avoid the pattern of failures — in leadership, marketing and engineering -- that sent it from being one of the world's biggest smartphone brands to a fossil of its former self. Problem is, HTC couldn't fix itself when it had the money, brand value and engineering clout to make proper flagships. And now it's effectively having to start from scratch with very limited resources.
So is HTC back from the dead? Well, really it was more of a hibernation than a death. The HTC VR business is still ticking along, after all. These are the first high-profile HTC phones in years, and clearly there's some vague ambition to maybe sell something overseas again if they catch on.
But that doesn't mean it's a good idea, and the chances of HTC squeezing back into Western smartphone market in any real way remain vanishingly small.