The narrative of HTC over the past half-decade has been a tale of upheaval, misfortune and constant reinvention. Compared to its heyday in the beginnings of Android's ascension, the Taiwanese phone maker now seems a diminished presence in a market increasingly cornered by Samsung, Apple and nimbler Chinese upstarts.
A tough 2015 didn't help matters. A tepid high-end offering, the One M9, set the tone for a dismal year at HTC, even as its fledgeling efforts in virtual reality started to show promise. Once a colossus of smartphone design, the firm seemed to be losing its way.
But HTC is still hungry, and it isn't going away anytime soon. Today, almost 14 months removed from its last flagship announcement, HTC unveils the product upon which its hopes for the next year are pinned.
This is the HTC 10. In it are contained the biggest changes to HTC's design language, software experience and branding since 2013's One M7. And it might just be the return to form that this company so badly needs.
HTC 10: In video
HTC 10: The brand
Throughout its almost 20-year history, HTC has produced many good phones — and really great phones on occasion. But the manufacturer has struggled to nail every aspect of the smartphone equation — something Apple and Samsung have all but perfected in recent years.
That's a problem in the high-end marketplace of 2016, where brilliance is increasingly expected to come as standard. Many phone makers now deliver more-than-capable cameras, stunning displays and impressive, premium build quality. The mark of a truly great device is that it excels across the board.
The mark of a great phone in 2016 is that it excels across the board.
This promise is embodied by a bold yet straightforward new brand name, Darren Sng, HTC's Head of Global Product Marketing, told Android Central ahead of the HTC 10 announcement — the idea of a "perfect 10." Universal brilliance, not just flickers of greatness here and there.
Promising perfection is one thing. Reaching such dizzying heights is an enormous challenge of engineering, design and logistics, which is why so few phones ever hit this mark. Nevertheless, with HTC 10, the company is upfront with its lofty ambitions.
So what of the HTC One brand, the cornerstone of HTC's high-end portfolio since 2012? Sng says this isn't going away entirely, but that "HTC 10" is the focus for this year's flagship.
(And as for 2017 and beyond, we'd expect to be talking about an HTC 11, not a return to the "One M" series.)
Aluminum and silicon
At the most basic physical level, the HTC 10 takes many of the best HTC design traits and mixes them into a new and eye-catching package. After flirting with a perilously iPhone-esque design in the One A9, the company's standard-bearer for 2016 sports a far more HTC-like aesthetic.
The gentle curve of the back, paired with sharp chamfered edges, reminds us of the fan-favorite M7, while the new, deep chamfers add an ostentatious twist, particularly in the silver and gold models. And the contrast between sandblasted matte aluminum and highly polished angular accents give HTC's new phone an eye-catching edge in a world of increasingly interchangeable metallic slabs. Protruding through the metal is a pronounced but fairly inoffensive camera bump.
Deep, lustrous chamfers give HTC's new phone an eye-catching edge.
It's also apparent that HTC has finally settled on how a metal phone should feel. The curve of its back makes the HTC 10 more ergonomic than most flat aluminum rivals. After experimenting with slippery curved sides in the One M8 and weird plastic shelves in the M9, the side walls of the HTC 10 are all part of the metal unibody.
Measuring a mere 3mm at its thinnest point, the phone's outer edges don't give you much to grip onto, but this is offset by its curved back and angular joins.
Even with such slim sides, there's plenty of room for a the textured power key, volume rocker and SIM tray on the right edge. It's also pretty easy to hold onto — when picking up the phone and manhandling it, even for the first time, I didn't feel in any danger of dropping it.
That metal unibody comes in three main color options — silver, gold and gray. If you buy silver in North America it'll come with a black front; in other territories you'll get white. Meanwhile the gold model features a white front, and the gray version's extremely dark gray metal merges into a pitch-black glass face. The in-hand feel of the gray model also differs dramatically from the other two. As is often the case with darker anodized colors, it's a bit more plasticky, and attracts fingerprints far more easily than either gold or silver.
(There's also a red-plus-black model — Camellia Red — that's exclusive to Japan's KDDI for now.)
Around the front, the HTC 10's chamfered sides blend into subtly tapered "2.5D" Gorilla Glass, with no awkward, unsightly joints. The manufacturing tolerances in the pre-production units we used were impressive, particularly since early production runs of metal phones sometimes show manufacturing anomalies. Everything lines up just as it should.
In stark contrast to previous HTC flagships, there's really not a lot going on with the HTC 10's glass front. In fact, even the maligned front-mounted HTC logo has (finally) been banished. Darren Sng told us this is because there's no need to remind customers which handset they bought: "You know you bought an HTC phone."
(And besides, as far as brand awareness goes, there's always that big old HTC logo around the back.)
The removal of oversized speakers and front-facing HTC logo makes for a much cleaner looking phone.
There's also a new button setup, which sees HTC returning to capacitive keys to maximize the amount of screen space that's used showing you — well, things that aren't buttons. Instead, you've got illuminated, touch-sensitive Back and Recents keys flanking the fingerprint reader, which also doubles as your home key. Like the One A9, a single touch wakes and securely unlocks the phone. HTC quotes fingerprint unlock times of 0.2 seconds — and based on our experience with the A9's excellent fingerprint scanner, that's probably no exaggeration.
The result of all this is a phone with a significantly cleaner profile than previous HTC offerings. It's much less visually busy than the M9 or even the A9, taking all the assorted clutter out of the way and leaving little to distract you from that all-important display.
HTC's new 5.2-inch, Quad HD (2560x1440) SuperLCD 5 panel is a thing of beauty. It's still early days, but even now we can say it matches the best from rivals like Samsung and LG in terms of brightness and clarity. For its part, HTC boasts that the screen can display 30 percent more color than previous generation LCDs. We'll have to wait to test it some more out in daylight, but our first impressions are universally positive.
Audio has been a huge differentiator for HTC in years past, and that's where the HTC 10's new BoomSound Hi-Fi system comes in. There's a single front-facing speaker inside the earpiece, along with a dedicated bottom-facing subwoofer down below. While you'll miss out on the stereo audio offered by earlier HTC phones, the new Hi-Fi setup is impressive, and we'll take a closer look in our full review in the near future.
Beyond the speaker system, the HTC 10 builds on a strong track record in wired audio performance, with 24-bit high-definition audio support, including the ability to upscale content to high-def. According to the manufacturer's own stats, the 10's impressive built-in amp matches the iPhone's output level of 1V, with less noise and distortion.
To take advantage of that beefy audio hardware, HTC will bundle new high-res audio earphones with its latest phone. And on the software side, in addition to preset modes for headphones and earbuds, the "Personal Audio Profile" feature will let you tweak playback to suit the characteristics of your own hearing. For example, certain frequencies that you hear less clearly might be boosted.
So the front-facing stereo speakers may be gone, but HTC's enthusiasm for audio doesn't appear to have wavered.
The same goes for computational horsepower. Powering the HTC 10 is an expectedly high-end assortment of smartphone components. It's running Qualcomm's latest Snapdragon 820 processor, along with a roomy 4GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, expandable via microSD slot. (A scant few regions may get lucky and see a 64GB option.) Unlike some high-end rivals, HTC's new flagship includes support for Android 6.0's Adoptive Storage feature, which lets you directly top-up the internal space using an SD card, as opposed to keeping it as a separate removable bucket of storage.
HTC's secret sauce — low-level performance tuning — promises to make its new flagship faster than rivals where it really matters.
As we've seen in phones like the LG G5 and Samsung Galaxy S7, Qualcomm's new chip packs more than enough power for a smooth Android experience. HTC's own low-level performance tuning aims to go beyond this impressive baseline performance level, however. The manufacturer's own tweaks make the HTC 10 faster than rivals at app launches and task-switching, it's claimed, while giving it an iPhone-beating score for touch response.
There's no doubt that the HTC 10 feels fast — responsiveness has long been a hallmark feature of HTC's phones — but then all phones are pretty fast these days. It's going to take more long-term use to see whether precious milliseconds shaved off here and there add up to a tangibly quicker experience.
Even then, the real test will come after a month or two of use, with a whole bunch of apps installed and background services chomping at the bit.
For this, HTC claims to have another trick up its sleeve to counter the junk that can accumulate in smartphones over time. The new Boost+ application — HTC's own app, not a skinned version of someone else's utility — includes features for clearing out unneeded data from internal storage and RAM. There also are features for managing the battery cost of gaming on your phone, not unlike Samsung's Game Launcher on the Galaxy S7. And the new App Lock capability can lock away sensitive apps behind a passcode or fingerprint authentication. Most interestingly, the app also can monitor background tasks and highlight "unusual" activity from apps that might be using too much juice.
Sure, some of these functions — particularly those relating to memory management — probably should be handled by the OS itself and not a standalone app. Nevertheless, it's there, and the company's even releasing Boost+ in the Google Play Store for other Android phones to give owners of rival devices' a taste of what's waiting for them on the HTC 10. Whether the app will actually catch on with users remains to be seen.
Apps aside, the HTC 10's hardware tuning also extends to battery longevity, where the manufacturer says its "PowerBotics" tweaks — combining hardware and software to boost overall efficiency — can help eke up to two days of use from the fixed 3,000mAh battery. Cringeworthy name aside, PowerBotics' quoted 30 percent improvement in efficiency is a big deal, should it turn out to be accurate.
HTC 10 brings a new, smarter QuickCharge 3.0 charger, USB Type-C and USB 3.1 out of the box.
If it does run out of juice, however, the phone supports Qualcomm QuickCharge 3.0 through its USB Type-C port, with the promise of up to a 50 percent charge in 30 minutes. Unlike some USB-C phones, that connector is fully enabled for the latest USB 3.1 standard, meaning faster file transfers should be supported between the HTC 10 and a compatible PC or Mac.
In fact, the bundled Rapid Charger also includes some proprietary HTC charging technology designed to keep the phone and charger cool, along with built-in surge protection. HTC achieves the former by integrating power management circuitry into the charging brick itself, ensuring the power doesn't step up or down too quickly. In essence, it's a smart charger for your smartphone.
That's a huge focus on optimization and efficiency — something HTC will be hoping can differentiate the 10 despite the increasing homogeneity of smartphone hardware. If everyone has more or less equally capable hardware, HTC's going to push the message that it's squeezing more performance — more power, more battery life — out of it.
HTC Sense with more Google
The other big differentiator for HTC is software. The firm has long revamped its Sense user interface every 12 months or so, and this year there've been some significant changes. The short version is this: HTC is working a lot more closely with Google, and the HTC 10's new version of Sense is the most minimalist and uncluttered to date.
It's a continuation of the re-tooled, Googlified version of Sense 7 we saw last year on the One A9. Only this time, the Sense of 2016 feels like it was designed from the ground up with the Google stuff in mind, as opposed to layering it on top of an existing HTC UI.
Google and HTC are working more closely than ever before. The result is a pared back Sense with fewer duplicative apps — and a whole lot of Google.
Visually, Sense is as close to vanilla Android as it's ever been, with UI elements like the notification pulldown brought over wholesale, and HTC's own apps adopting more of a Material-like look and feel.
"We want to [apply] Material Design throughout our system," marketing head Darren Sng told us.
The partnership with Google also has cut down some of the duplicative apps found on most other Android phones. Many HTC apps, like the BlinkFeed launcher, HTC dialer, messages, clock and weather remain. However elsewhere there's a whole lot of Google going on: Google Calendar replaces the HTC calendar app, Google Photos replaces HTC Gallery and Google Play Music takes over music playback duties.
Of the very small number of preloaded apps, it's about a 50/50 split between HTC and Google. The major exceptions are News Republic — part of BlinkFeed — as well as Facebook, Instagram and Facebook Messenger. HTC tells us it's moving away from agreements with app providers for preloaded content, so if you're buying an HTC 10 unlocked directly from the manufacturer, you won't have any bloatware to worry about. (Unless your definition of bloatware includes Facebook, of course.)
As for what happens to the HTC 10 once the U.S. carriers get hold of it, well, that's anyone's guess.
Sng admits that paring back on some of its own apps wasn't an easy step for HTC, but a necessary one. "Are we giving up something? Yeah, sure. It's really hard to do," he said. But the company believes that in the end HTC customers — and the entire Android ecosystem — will benefit.
Are we giving up something? Yeah, sure. It's really hard to do.
After all, HTC may be one of the first Android phone makers to work this closely with Google on applications and design, but the company expects rivals to follow suit. "Our relationship with Google isn't exclusive," Sng told us.
You might think splitting the app loadout between HTC and Google might lead to a disjointed experience, but the partnership with Google extends beyond simply taking apps from Mountain View and loading them onto the HTC 10. HTC has a "direct line" to the people in charge of each of the Google applications it uses, Sng told us, with proper escalation procedures for any issues that arise.
Case in point: Google Photos on the HTC 10 integrates seamlessly with the HTC Camera app, and supports all HTC's photo features.
It's not all Google, though. Aside from the newly minimalist Sense UI, HTC's extensive theming system from the M9 makes a return, along with a crazy new "Freestyle" mode that lets you break free from the grid-based layout and use big, cartoonish graphics to represent your apps. Anything can go anywhere.
HTC's new, closer partnership with Google is about more than just apps on a phone.
The new, closer relationship with Google is reflective of HTC's new partner-centric strategy across all its major product areas — for example Valve with VR and Under Armour with connected fitness devices. This strategy was hinted at by HTC's Jason Mackenzie — now Global Executive VP — in an interview with Android Central late last year Mackenzie, then HTC America President, told us: "What we'll do is look for partnerships like [Under Armour] where we can really add value, and partner with somebody [in other product categories] similar to what we did in the early days of smartphones."
The cynical way to look at this would be to say HTC's weakened position in the smartphone world makes relying on its major partner in that space inevitable. At the same time it's easy to see an HTC phone with fewer HTC apps as a diluted and less-differentiated experience. Nevertheless, HTC has a long history of partnering with bigger firms, including Google. And, arguably, there's more room to innovate in areas outside of basic bundled apps in the modern smartphone market.
The shape of HTC Sense in 2016 reflects the reality of a highly competitive phone market. For a smaller player like HTC, offloading some of the work for basic apps onto Google lets it differentiate in other areas. For instance, Darren Sng says that with engineering resources freed up, and a leaner UI to begin with, it's going to be quicker and easier for the firm to push out future Android versions to the HTC 10.
HTC 10 Cameras
UltraPixel, Take 2
With the exception of the HTC One A9's surprisingly decent 13-megapixel shooter, it's been a long time since HTC has shipped a high-end camera that wasn't considered a disappointment.
On paper, the HTC 10 has everything you could want from a smartphone camera in 2016.
The HTC 10 could be the phone to reverse that trend. And it's bringing back the "UltraPixel" branding for a new, all-singing, all-dancing 12-megapixel rear camera. Like the previous generation UltraPixel, this new "UltraPixel 2" camera prioritizes pixel size over pixel count, to allow for brighter low-light photos.
This time we're dealing with 1.55-micron pixels, compared to the original UltraPixel's 2.0-micron dots, though now at a larger 12 megapixel resolution behind an f/1.8 lens. The camera also packs optical image stabilization (OIS), along with dual-tone LED flash and a laser autofocus unit, the effective range of which has been doubled to 1.5 meters compared to first-gen laser AF.
In terms of pixel size, the HTC 10 matches the Nexus 6P (in fact, it may even be the same physical sensor — HTC's not saying), and goes slightly bigger than the Samsung Galaxy S7, with its 1.4-micron pixels — although Samsung uses a brighter f/1.7 lens.
HTC's camera app has received a much-needed tune-up in the HTC 10, with a new, cleaner UI and a slide-out menu from the left allowing you to switch between modes. And on the right, quick controls for features like flash and HDR. (Speaking of which, HTC finally has included an Auto HDR mode, which is enabled by default.) Pro mode, first introduced in the M9, makes a return, complete with the option to shoot in RAW if you prefer.
Prepare for optically-stabilized UltraSelfies!
The rear camera, however, is only half of the story. The selfie camera has also received a lot of attention, being the first front-facer to include OIS for extra-stable selfies and Snapchat videos. The camera itself — dubbed, with an entirely straight face, the "UltraSelfie" camera — is a 5-megapixel unit behind an f/1.8 lens, with 1.34-micron pixels. Again, that's smaller than the One M9's UltraPixel front-facer, but the brighter lens and optical stabilization should make up for that.
On paper, then, both HTC 10 cameras have plenty going for them — indeed, it's got just about everything you could want from a pair of smartphone cameras in 2016. Real-world performance remains unclear at this early stage, but what we can say is the camera is fast to launch (HTC quotes start times as low as 0.6 seconds), and faster to take photos.
Image quality, at a glance, seems decent when viewed on the phone's screen. HTC's boast of hitting the number-one spot on photographic benchmarking site DXOMark, with a Galaxy S7-matching score of 88, is also impressive — although the outlet's scores often don't entirely reflect real-world performance. Naturally we'll have much more to say on the performance of both cameras in our full review.
Meet the Ice View case
The HTC One M8 in 2014 brought us the Dot View case, the neat dot-matrix flip cover that showed you the time, missed calls, weather and other info through a low-res grid of dots on the front cover.
With the HTC 10, we're introduced to the successor to Dot View — a higher-res interpretation of the same idea, dubbed Ice View.
The return of the king
HTC 10 first impressions
Even at this early stage, it's pretty clear that the HTC 10 is the best HTC phone in years. It's a more complete thought than the M9, and a better all-round device than the A9.
There are even signs that HTC may have finally addressed its longstanding weakness in the area of digital imaging, which is no small deal.
All in all, we're eager to spend more time with the HTC 10, and we think it's shaping up to be one of the most notable Android phones of the year.
If HTC is to reverse the fortunes of its smartphone business, however, then a spectacular new flagship is just the start. But the HTC 10 is one hell of a start. And Darren Sng is quietly confident in the latest — and yes, greatest — in a long line of HTC flagships:
"We hope that we nailed it this time."