Review

HTC 10 review: the HTC redemption

There was a time when HTC devices were highly revered. For some time, the firm had a very dedicated user base. Most of those users have abandoned the firm at this point. I know this, because every time I get an HTC device to review, friends want to check it out, because deep down, they're rooting for the struggling firm.

So what went wrong? What led those loyal users astray? It's actually a fairly interesting story and to fully grasp what HTC is hoping for the 10 to do, we'll need to recap a bit.

Backstory

It started with the HTC One, a device that was praised by many, oddly enough. It was a beautiful device and the Beats speakers on the front made it very compelling. Unfortunately, the 4 MP camera was sub-par.

This was the birth of the firm's UltraPixel camera. HTC said that a larger sensor and a lower resolution would lead to larger pixels (2 µm to be exact), which would lead to less noisy photos, at least in theory. As it turns out, the images would rapidly degrade as soon as the user tried to zoom or crop them.

The One M8 followed it, also using a 4 MP camera; however, this time they added a second camera to the rear, allowing the user to refocus images after they had been taken. Despite continuing to be acclaimed by reviewers, shortcomings - such as the camera - kept it from being a well-rounded device.

Next, HTC decided to go all-in on front cameras because everyone only cares about selfies now, right? This sparked devices like the Desire Eye, a phone with a massive 13 MP front camera and a front-facing LED flash. Few others adopted the idea of an LED flash in the front, because OEMs soon realized that you could simply light up the display.

Then came the HTC One M9. It would seem that this is where they hit their rock bottom. Ditching UltraPixels, the camera was 20 MP with an f/2 aperture. This would be fine if other companies weren't using phase detect autofocus (PDAF) and f/1.8 apertures. This device also had a terrible display. The white balance was so off that everything that should have been white was slightly tinted green.

Finally, we have the One A9. The One A9 was an upper mid-range device, but HTC had finally added PDAF to the camera and used an AMOLED instead of its trademark Super LCD. The white balance was great, as was the camera (for a mid-ranger, at least).

After reviewing the One A9, I finally had high hopes for its new flagship, which was then referred to as the One M10. It was the struggling company's first step toward redemption.

Day one

My first day with the HTC 10 was an absolute delight. While they hadn't stuck with the AMOLED/PDAF combination that was a recipe for success in the One A9, the 10's Super LCD5 seemed to be fantastic.

Specs

CPU Snapdragon 820, 2.15 GHz dual core Kryo, 1.6 GHz dual core Kryo
GPU Adreno 530
Display 5.2", 1440p, 565 ppi, Super LCD5
Body 145.9 x 71.9 x 9 mm, 161 g
Camera 12 MP, Front 5 MP
Video 4K - 30 fps, Front 1080p - 30 fps
Aperture f/1.8, Front f/1.8
Sensor size 1/2.3"
Camera features OIS, laser focus, dual LED flash, 1.55µm pixel size, Front OIS, LCD flash, 1.34 µm pixel size
Storage 32/64 GB, expandable to 200 GB
RAM 4 GB
Battery 3000 mAh
Price $699

Display and design

The design of the 10 is exactly what we've come to expect from HTC's line of flagships. In fact, this is the fourth model in a row that has used a similar design, which includes a metal unibody with a rounded back.

That being said, it's still an awesome design. Of course, it's worth noting that different people care about different things. Some prefer the rounded back (as I do), as it's more comfortable to hold; however, some prefer a device that will sit flat on a table.

While it looks strikingly similar at first glance, there are a number of differences. The obvious front speakers are gone, the bottom one being replaced with a home button that doubles as a fingerprint reader. There's also chamfered edges going around the front of the device.

The display was one of the highlights of this device for me, as it was one of the things that I was most skeptical about, before I first got my hands on it. The 1440p Super LCD5 is one of the best LCDs that I've ever seen, if not the best.

To put it simply, the colors are vibrant enough that if you didn't know any better, you'd believe that it was AMOLED. In fact, I had to double-check.

Fingerprint reader and navigation

The bottom speaker wasn't just replaced with a fingerprint reader, but also two physical navigation buttons, which have their pros and cons. Having physical buttons helps for those that don't like to have to swipe up in a full-screen app to get to them, but at the same time, there's a reason that onscreen buttons go away in those apps. They get in the way.

It's worth noting that the back and multitasking buttons have two settings. They can light up only when you use them, or any time the device is awake. I found it better to have them lit up all the time, as not all Android devices have their buttons in the same places. The back button is on the left and multitasking button is on the right, but Samsung, for example, does the opposite.

While there are pros and cons to such a setup, there is a simple solution that could be solved with a software update. Allow users to turn off those buttons in favor of onscreen buttons. This is a feature that we've seen in other devices, such as the OnePlus One.

The fingerprint reader - like most sensors - doubles as a home button. The sensor itself is pretty good, and when I say that I mean that it's not in the same class as the Nexus 5X/6P or iPhone 6s/6s Plus, but it's not nearly as bad as the Samsung Galaxy S7.

To put it in simple terms, you'll be satisfied with the fingerprint reader on this device, but there are better ones out there. It seems to be the same sensor found in the One A9, as it's similar in terms of speed and accuracy. Like the A9, the sensor is capacitive, rather than a push-down home button. Of course, there is a difference in navigation buttons, as the A9 used onscreen buttons instead of the capacitive navigation buttons on the 10.

Sense 8

OK, so it's not actually called Sense 8. If you look in the Software information on the 10 for the version number, it's not there, as it has been in previous versions. That's because HTC isn't using version numbers anymore. When we reached out to HTC about this, a spokesperson told us that most of Sense now gets updated through apps. Still, it's the latest version of Sense, and it followed Sense 7, so we're going to call it Sense 8.

HTC 10 One A9

Sense is HTC's skin of Android. Just about every OEM has its own, such as Samsung's TouchWiz, LG's Optimus, and Motorola's Moto. Some are closer to stock than others. Personally, I'm not a fan of stock Android. As a Windows phone user, I know all about wanting a different experience, but the beauty of Android is that you can move from one device to another, gain that new experience, all without losing the power of the Google Play Store.

I believe that Sense is one of the good skins, or at least it has been since Sense 6, which introduced BlinkFeed. It also brings lots of useful features, such as Themes and Sense Home, both of which were introduced in Sense 7.

Themes

Themes are probably my favorite feature of Sense; however, there are other skins that have a Themes store, such as Cyanogen OS. This allows you to change up your wallpaper, sounds, icons, and fonts.

Sadly, there is no Doctor Who theme, and personally, I'd like to see someone go to jail for that because it's certainly a crime.

HTC devices with on-screen buttons can have those customized with themes as well. Also, Dot View displays can be customized this way, but the 10 supports neither of these. It does add Freestyle Layout themes, as users of the device now have the option to place icons anywhere on the home screens.

Sense Home

This is another feature that I enjoy about Sense. As you can see from the screenshots, there's a box in the middle of the screen that says "Work". Based on where I am, it can show me a different selection of icons.

The one limitation of this is that you can only set three locations: Home, Work, and Out. Two of them are preset addresses, and the other is anywhere else. It doesn't compensate for if you have two jobs or even two homes. I'd say this is something that may get fixed one day in a software update, but I've been calling for this since Sense 7 shipped with the One M9.

Interestingly, the 10 doesn't come with Sense Home by default. If you want it, you have to add it as a widget.

BlinkFeed

Introduced in Sense 6 with the One M8, BlinkFeed is your customizable news feed. You can plug in various news sources and social networks.

Unlike Sense Home, this one does show up by default. Swiping to the right from your home screen will bring you right to the feature, something that I've done about five times since I got the 10.

I'm honestly not a big fan of the feature, which has changed very little since its introduction. Luckily, it's easily removable.

A cleaner UI


One of my biggest complaints about Android devices is that there's two of everything. There's Mail and Gmail, Internet and Chrome, Gallery and Photos, etc.

Of course, this is because OEMs are forced to bundle Google apps on the device if they wish to have Google Play Services, and they also want to provide their own apps. Many companies won't even let you remove them, or at least they don't make it easy.

The HTC 10 no longer has this, although like many of the fixes in the 10, the One A9 was the first step toward it. The only area where this is still an issue is that there is still two email apps (Mail and Gmail), but in fairness, Gmail didn't support Exchange email on non-Nexus devices until recently.

Audio, video, and...AirPlay?

That's right. The HTC 10 supports AirPlay, with HTC claiming to be the first to actually license the technology from Apple. Sadly, this feature only supports casting audio, although it's worth noting that the HTC Connect app has been updated to include this feature for all devices that support it.

If you hadn't already guessed, the audio is awesome. This is something that HTC has been consistently at the top of its game with.

With the trademark speakers now gone, BoomSound now consists of the ear speaker and one on the bottom of the device. The one on the bottom serves as a subwoofer.

The headphones
Throughout the videos and comparisons that I've written about this device, one question has been asked more than any other: what about the headphones?

You see, the HTC 10 comes with a pair of Hi-Res Audio Earphones, except in the United States, so naturally, I wasn't able to test them. I pleaded with HTC to send a pair to me, explaining that our readers aren't US-only, but they didn't have a pair to send me.

Rear camera

12 MP seems to be the standard for many flagship smartphone cameras these days, with firms such as Samsung, Apple, and Google all adopting it in their flagships, HTC being no exception. With a 1/2.3" sensor, f/1.8 aperture, and laser focus, the hardware is definitely the best that the firm has put together to date.

The camera was the one thing that I found to be a bit disappointing in the HTC 10. The photos tend to be very overexposed, resulting in an oversaturated image. This is something that tends to be true over and over again in cameras that come from HTC, but only from the UltraPixel cameras.

Luckily, you can adjust exposure before taking an image with a simple slider. Unfortunately, you have to do it every time you take a picture.

Changing up the exposure generally makes the image darker, so if getting the color to actually be accurate makes the image too dim, there's also a Pro mode that allows you to manually change some settings. For example, you could lower the exposure but change the ISO sensitivity.

Here are some blue flowers, which with automatic settings, look purple:

Unfortunately, you have to turn the exposure all the way down to get the right colors. This trick also works when taking pictures at night, as lights tend to look blown out.

Of course, changing up the exposure also works when an image is too dark.

While it's great that you can adjust exposure (as you can with most smartphone cameras), you really shouldn't have to. You're compensating for what's a sub-par algorithm to begin with. Most users want to be able to take their phone out of their pocket, launch the camera, and quickly take a picture. This gets in the way of that.

Front camera

HTC has long been an innovator where front cameras are concerned. The firm was among the first to use a 5 MP front camera with the One M8, to use a 13 MP front camera and an LCD flash with the Desire Eye, and now to have a front camera with optical image stabilization (OIS).

The company has also left behind that idea of an LCD flash, adopting the idea that's now used by companies like Apple, Samsung, LG, and Motorola: lighting up the screen to be used as one.

Benchmarks and battery life

This is the part where I warn you not to put too much stock into benchmarks, as they rarely reflect on real world usage.

First up is AnTuTu Benchmark and Geekbench 3, both of which show better scores than any handset we've reviewed to date.

It's worth noting that while the 10 rocks better scores (with the exception of the single-core score) than the iPhone 6s Plus, the Galaxy S7 did not. This is interesting because both devices use Qualcomm's latest Snapdragon 820 SoC (system on a chip).

Next up is a stress test, done in AnTuTu. This is a test that lasts for 15 minutes, designed to see how the device performs under heavy usage.

Next up are tests from GFXBench, an app that's renowned for testing graphics performance. I used both GFXBench 4 and 3.1, as having the results from both helps to compare it to other devices, which might not support GFXBench 4 (such as an iPhone).

If you're not familiar with these tests, each one has a regular test and a "1080p Offscreen". The regular one tests the performance of the device with the resolution display that it has. 1080p Offscreen tests it for if the device had a 1080p display (the HTC 10 is 1440p).

This helps to put all devices on a level playing field and it helps to tell how powerful the GPU actually is. For example, when we compared the 10 to the iPhone 6s Plus, the iPhone got better scores in the regular test, but the 10 did better in the 1080p tests. This means that the Adreno 530 GPU that's in the 10 is more powerful, but the iPhone performs better, as it's not weighed down by the 3.7 million pixels of a 1440p display.

Finally, we have battery life. This is something that I didn't have any problems with at all. From a real user perspective, the device never had a single problem getting me through the day, but to be thorough, I also did a battery test.

Conclusion

The main drawback to the HTC 10 is the camera, I'm sad to say. Yes, you can mess around with manual controls to get it straight, but you shouldn't have to, and many smartphone photographers don't know what it means to change exposure, ISO, and so on.

The rest of the device is just a dream to use. HTC has refined its Sense UI to where it's lacking the junk that we're so familiar with from third-party Android skins. The Super LCD5 display makes that UI look incredible.

The old design feels new again, probably because it has been so long since we were all talking about the device's predecessor, the One M9. I would say that the 10 is a 'buy', as long as you know what you're doing with the camera, or you just don't care about it.

I had to ask myself if I would continue to carry the HTC 10 around with me after finishing this review. Sadly, the answer is that I would not. The phone is such a delight in almost every way, but the truth is that when there comes a moment that I want to capture, this is not the camera that I want to do it with.

 

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