HTC 10 Review: A Perfect Slice of High-Tech

As the first company to really deliver unibody aluminium smartphones to the mainstream, HTC has got some form in this game, of course. All the HTC One devices have been terrifically built, and the 10 here is no exception.

The One M7 had the big BoomSound stereo speakers and a disappointing 4MP main camera, the One M8 had slightly quieter speakers and a gimmicky depth camera on the back too, while the One M9 had even quieter speakers (this trend isn’t going well) and a more traditional high megapixel sensor – but each was otherwise pretty ‘meh’. But the HTC 10 is a big return to form for the company. True the BoomSound speakers are no more – here there’s just a decent mono loudspeaker on the bottom, iPhone-style, plus some high frequencies piped out through the earpiece, but components all round have otherwise seen a very decent upgrade, all adding up to perhaps the best HTC smartphone ever.

My tiny grouch over the missing speakers aside, the HTC 10 is just about perfect. Where other manufacturers (cough – Huawei) play at producing metal smartphones, with token frames that crumple under stress, HTC have done the job properly. The 10 is incredibly strong, with so much metal than it can’t be bent, even when sat on or run over. The screen is exposed, of course, and remains the most likely point of damage, but being housed in such a strong chassis you’d hope that the glass is more protected than on more fragile devices. The 10 is heavier than most, at 160g, but I’d class it as ‘reassuringly’ heavy.

The straight-edged chamfers in the aluminium are elegant and distinctive, plus they help one’s fingers fit round the phone comfortably. So, even with a 5.2” display, it’s easy to hold and use the phone one handed and, despite the smoothness of the metal, the HTC 10 isn’t too slippery to use without a case. Some of the time, at least – don’t hold me responsible if you do drop it!

The Gorilla Glass 4-protected screen is crisp and clear, HTC’s best display ever, labelled as having ‘Super LCD 5’ tech and with great colours and viewing angles. The resolution probably didn’t need increasing from 1080p on the previous phones, given the RGB pixel layout, but HTC bumped it up anyway – at 1440p, i.e. QHD resolution, there’s no way to see individual pixels at all and 4K videos look unbelievable.



One aspect which should not be overlooked when comparing the current Android flagships is the impact of positioning of the control button cluster. Samsung and HTC have gone for capacitive controls – with the slight downside that you can’t configure the controls, swapping them around, for example, as on recent LG or Huawei devices. But the upside is huge – not having these controls taking up valuable screen real estate means that a 5.2” screen (here)  is genuinely that large all the time, i.e, there’s more room for your apps and content. Given the choice, I’d always go for capacitive controls and the more efficient use of frontal real estate.

Following the iPhone’s placement, HTC has put the obligatory (for 2016) fingerprint sensor below the display – it’s fast and competent, though it’s also wide and often complains if you don’t cover enough of it. Given the width of the average human finger, this means that you’re restricted, practically, to just registering left and right thumbs. I’d have liked to have seen a smaller, perhaps round sensor, Apple-style.

With both my thumbs registered – fingers are too much of a pain, given the width of the sensor! (right) Also, good to see that HTC has put NFC under the hood (not always a given with Android phones), ready for Android Pay – this will work well with the authentication etc.

Also, the similarity in styling and positioning to both Apple’s and Samsung’s designs leads the mind to think that the sensor can be pressed, i.e. that it’s a physical home button that depresses. When, in fact, it’s a capacitive control (as for ‘back’ and ‘recent apps’) with fingerprint sensor and there’s no physical movement at all. As a multi-device reviewer, I found it tough to get used to not needing to apply pressure, but I’m sure this wouldn’t be a problem for a serious buyer.

Along similar lines, the camera island on the back feels at first, under an index finger, like a fingerprint sensor, being in the same place as on recent Huawei and LG devices, and I lost count of the number of times I cursed myself for placing a fingerprint on an otherwise pristine camera glass! But again, not an issue once you get used to it.

The right hand side buttons are precision engineered and I loved the grippy texture on the power button. On each side of the phone are pop-out slots for nano SIM (on the right) and microSD (on the left), the latter supplementing the 32GB of onboard storage, so no capacity worries for the HTC 10.

Although well put together, it’s notable that there’s no dust or waterproofing here – and no easy way to take the ‘10’ apart to dry it out if it does take a dunking. As someone with first hand experience of water damage on a flagship, and noting that Samsung, Motorola, Apple and others are now making at least casual water protection standard, to have no resistance at all here is disappointing.

Imaging

The cameras are interesting, in that for the first time ever, both front and back cameras have OIS, optical image stabilisation, helping avoid camera shake and improving low light shots. The main camera is only 9MP in 16:9 mode, but with 1.5 micron pixels, ‘second generation’ laser auto-focus and a f/1.8 aperture there’s plenty of scope for great photos. Here are some examples, along with 1:1 crops, to show the quality:

1:1 crop, showing good detail right down at pixel level.
1:1 crop, again great detail, with only minimal processing artefacts
1:1 crop, this photo was captured while digitally zoomed in by 2x – the HTC 10’s algorithms for digital zoom are very good.
The crop shows excellent handling of detail and texture at the pixel level, here with extremes of light and shade.
1:1 crop at night, showing the OIS keeping the shot stable (see the detail in the car wheel trim), here at 1/8s exposure. I do feel that HTC could tweak the camera app further though – the OIS should enable longer exposures, up to half a second, which would increase the light input dramatically and mean less digital noise and less noise reduction blurring. Over to you, HTC!

Slightly oddly, tapping on a spot in the viewfinder doesn’t also auto-set exposure, i.e. based on how dark or light that spot is, though there is a slightly fiddly exposure adjustment slider that allows for some arty experimentation – but it needs work, HTC, it’s too slow to respond and too small a control. Plus you tap to set a focus point, reframe slightly for arty effect and find that the auto-focus takes over again if you’re not quick enough and then you’ve lost your main subject. Surely all this can be improved in updates, but at the moment it can be a frustrating experience.

The rest of the time I was impressed by the results from the HTC 10 though, its main camera is right up there in the same ballpark as the Lumia 950, LG G5, Galaxy S7, and so on. It seems that HTC has finally nailed imaging in its flagship. Phew.

Video is captured at up to 4K and in stereo too, again right up where HTC needs this device to be. 1080p is still the sweet spot, of course, offering both OIS and digital stabilisation for super smooth video recording.

Audio matters

Bottom of the phone, showing mono speaker grille – enhanced slightly by some high frequencies coming from the HTC 10’s earpiece – and USB Type C port

The audio side of the HTC 10 is top notch, as we’ve come to expect from the company – leaving aside that the speaker is now mono (though quite loud), there are some serious DAC smarts here under the hood, with loud and clear headphone output – and that’s before you turn on the (and let me get this right) ‘HTC BoomSound with Dolby Audio’ enhancements. These amount to appropriate audio processing (including upsampling to 24-bit resolution) and equaliser settings, even tailored to your age and hearing loss(!), but there’s so much headroom in the electronics here that at no stage did the extra bass and top end seem forced. And there’s a facility to save custom profiles, either for different users of the phone or, more likely, for different headphones with different characteristics.

There are age and taste based profiles or – for better results – tell HTC what you can hear through specific headphones and with your own ears! The end result is a perfect equaliser/enhancement combination.

Good job HTC, the quality over headphones here is right up with that from my audio-centric Marshall London (also 24-bit-capable). HTC also ships a decent (as in £30-ish value) pair of in-ear headphones in the box – and that’s not something we’ve come to expect in 2016, so a nice surprise.

Something you don’t expect is for an Android phone to agree to talk to Apple’s version of DLNA, AirPlay, but HTC Connect seems happy to want to talk to Apple’s kit and there’s been some licensing going on behind the scenes. I couldn’t test this feature because we don’t have any AirPlay servers here, but in theory it should work and will let the HTC 10 play nicely in an otherwise all-Apple household.

In use, applications

Powered with a cutting edge Snapdragon 820 chipset and 4GB of RAM – just let that figure sink in for a moment, this is the same as on many laptops even today – the HTC 10 absolutely flies, with no trace of lag or stuttering. And I’d hope so, given those specs, though also helping is that the software layers are stripped back a bit. In terms of UI, HTC’s Sense skin over stock Android gets lighter with each new release and here it’s not a million miles from what’s found on a Nexus device. Which is wonderful and there’s very little duplication of applications or functions – you don’t even get the traditional HTC Gallery – instead you use Google Photos. The only confusion was the inclusion of HTC’s Mail client still, when most users will be better off just using Gmail, also supplied. But that aside, the application loadout is well thought out and streamlined.

htc-10-home The compact and almost Nexus-ish application set – even HTC’s Gallery has now given way to Google Photos!

Additions to the stock Android set include preloads of Facebook, Facebook Messenger and Instagram, though not Twitter, curiously. There’s HTC’s familiar Flashlight – duplicating the same function on the settings shade, but that’s a nitpick from me – plus Boost+, another of these cache and app cleaners that are becoming so popular these days despite Google proclaiming to the world that they’re not needed. I’m with Google here, best leave the internals to the operating system, but hey. Boost+ does also offer a way to restrict named games to 1080p, which makes sense, rather than the screen trying to upsample them all to 1440p with no actual benefit. Finally, there’s Zoe Video Editor – not quite what you think from the name – it just assembles videos from media you’ve snapped, in a similar manner to Google Photos, so I think the Zoe ‘brand’ is probably on its last legs now.

The homescreen layout is kept simple, with just a couple of example pages of widgets and icons and HTC’s revamped Blinkfeed system off to the left. This now integrates News Republic stories, Google+ and Twitter though not, again curiously, Facebook – there are a few inconsistencies here! Blinkfeed is still a fun system to browse in a bored moment, though customising the News Republic content wasn’t trivial, you have to ‘Add topics’ in order to get through to the underlying app in order to err… remove topics. Go figure!

And then there’s ‘Freestyle layout’, implemented as custom semi-interactive themes. The idea is that you can let your imagination run wild, with your apps and widgets placed anywhere you like and with hyperlinked cartoon graphics available to add atmosphere, as shown in the screenshots here. Scurry down a ladder to get to the calculator? Tap on the windmill to go into YouTube? You get the idea. It’s a wonderfully bonkers piece of lateral thinking from HTC that probably came out of the same stable as the wacky Robert Downey Jr ads from a year or two ago.

 

It’s fun for the first day and then you think “Oh, sod it, I want my old Android homescreens back!” Or maybe that’s just me, I’m definitely ‘old school’ here – though I always appreciate the ability to customise the appearance of a smartphone UI with themes and the freestyle layout isn’t forced out of the box, so why not have it on board?

If there’s a small flaw in HTC’s perfect ‘10’ it’s that battery life isn’t stellar at the moment. That 820 processor, QHD screen and 4GB of RAM are perhaps the culprit, but using it as my main smartphone (i.e. for everything), I was below 10% capacity by bed time, and this is even with Android 6.0.1 onboard, with Doze helping out, and a 3000mAh battery inside. Admittedly I was running the display at maximum (auto-)brightness, in order to get the ‘pop’ that I’ve been used to with AMOLED phones and I dare say that a more frugal setting would help here. If you’re happy at ‘50%’ (auto-)brightness then you’ll have no problems whatsoever.

Charging is via USB Type C, in common with most 2016 competitors (Samsung excepted), plus there’s an implementation of Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0. Put the two together and you’re looking at getting the HTC 10 up from completely flat to about 80% in under an hour, which means that even ten minute emergency top-ups will each give another couple of hours of real world use. Back in the bad old days, battery life was critical because charging was so slow – you couldn’t put your life on hold for an hour while your phone sucked in electrons. But with 2016 solutions like this, charging is up to ten times faster than it used to be and a tea-time top-up before a heavy evening out really will get you back close to 100% and with capacity to spare.

At £570, the HTC 10 is relatively expensive, but those preordering from HTC with the promo code HTC10 get 10% off and resellers already have it under £500 – I’d expect the price to settle in the high £400s in the UK.

Verdict

You know the drill with my reviews by now – I scream through all a device’s highlights and then deliver the killer blow of all the gotchas, the showstoppers. And it’s here I run into a writing problem – the HTC 10 doesn’t really have any gotchas. You can point to work needed in the camera interface or to the lack of waterproofing but that’s being pretty picky.

The HTC 10, from its super audio to snappy performance to sensational camera, is the flagship competitor that the company badly needed to deliver. And it has, in spades. It may not necessarily be better than the Galaxy S7 or iPhone 6s or similar, but it’s right up there with the best. Well done, that ‘10’ moniker really is deserved.

Thanks to Mobile Fun for the review loan of the HTC 10.