Everyone loves a comeback. Whether it’s the story of Leicester City or Star Wars after George Lucas, there’s something undeniable about a triumph against adversity.
Apply this theory to HTC and, on first glance, it’s not quite so rousing. For starters, this is a multibillion pound company we’re talking about. More importantly, the smartphone manufacturer is in a hole of entirely its own making. Last year’s One M9 fell some way behind the flagship pace thanks to a shonky camera, while its One A9 cousin came across as a cynical attempt to ape the iPhone 6’s design.
It’s at this point in any self-respecting blockbuster that a hero arrives to save the day. So here it is: the HTC 10. Far from being draped in Lycra, bulging muscles and a bleach-white grin, this handset is as unassuming as you could expect for something priced at a super-competitive US$650.
You see the HTC 10 is a phone without a central innovation – or gimmick, depending on your point of view. That means it lacks waterproofing, an always-on display, a wide-angle camera, 3D Touch-like screen technology and any kind of concessions to modular build. Name a recent trick from the Samsung Galaxy S7, LG G5 or iPhone 6s and the chances are this competing device doesn’t offer an equivalent.
Nevertheless, it’s still a great smartphone. Combining thoughtful design with a top all-round performance, the HTC 10 shows what’s possible when you polish your tech fundamentals until they gleam. Don’t call it a comeb… Oh, go on then.
Everything that’s good about the HTC 10 starts with its design. Blending the single laudable feature of last year’s One A9 - namely a ridiculously quick fingerprint scanner - with a refined iteration of the aluminium unibody design HTC been pedalling since the original HTC One, this phone is genuinely enjoyable to hold. Weighing 161g and with a max thickness of 9mm, it’s noticeably more chunky than most flagship smartphones, but this added heft really plays to its advantage.
The HTC 10’s chamfered edges neatly glide between your fingers, making it easy to get a firm grip on the handset, while its heaviness next to a device such as the iPhone 6s means you never feel as though it’s about to be blown out of your hand by a stray gust of wind. Few manufacturers have managed to create a big, desirable blower, so the HTC 10 ranks as a welcome alternative to the usual super-thin fare from Apple, Huawei and the like.
As for that fingerprint scanner, it really is slick. Lay a digit on it and you’ll unlock the 10 in an instant. Unlike Apple’s Touch ID and the majority of phones with fingerprint tech, the scanner doesn’t require you to press down a button to activate your phone.
Nope, HTC’s effort is slapped right beneath the 10’s touchscreen for maximum utility and it works straight off the bat. That’s the kind of phone we’re dealing with here. One that prizes practicality above all else.
To that end, its battery life is absolutely monstrous. Certainly as good as what’s offered by the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge and its 3600mAh capacity. Considering this HTC has a considerably smaller 3000mAh cell inside it, that is some achievement.
So, how much stamina does the HTC 10 have? In my experience, up to two days. True story, I woke up feeling rather delicate at 11am one morning with the phone fully charged and managed to go until midnight the next day without plugging it back in again. If ever there was a phone that can withstand your impromptu hang sesh, this is it.
Allow me to add a few qualifications to that story though, both in the interests of fairness and so that I may avoid being harangued by Samsung. That first day’s use of the HTC 10 was pretty lightweight; I’m talking emails, WhatsApp and the odd bit of YouTube. The second was much more full-on, including plenty of photo-taking. That means the 10 will last most power users through one whole day and a bit more, likely until lunchtime.
Still, this HTC is being sold on a ‘two-day battery life’ claim and that proved true for me. To be honest, I wasn’t trying particularly hard to meet that magic marker. I still had 8% charge at the end of my weeknight shenanigans and that was without engaging the phone’s authoritarian Extreme Saver mode, which strips back its functionality to the core apps such as Phone and Messages.
Apparently, this stellar battery life has been achieved by making software tweaks to the refresh rate of apps such as Google Maps, but all you really need to know is that it works. Smartphone endurance still falls some way short of your old Nokia, but the HTC 10 and both Samsung’s Galaxy S7s at least ensure you can go a full day without fumbling through your bag for a charging cable. When that fate does eventually befall you, the 10’s USB-C fast-charging support will have you back up to 50% within 30 minutes.
If there’s a word that sums up the HTC 10, it’s ‘dependable’. Android phones have come a long way since the scatty ‘kitchen sink’ approach that defined their youth, and HTC’s own Sense user interface is the perfect example of this. While it was never quite as overbearing as Samsung’s TouchWiz setup, there was still a lot of software preloaded on to old One handsets that you never wanted or grew to care for. Sorry, Zoe, it’s nothing personal.
That’s all changed with the HTC 10, which is as free of bloat as you could hope for in an Android Marshmallow phone. It even ditches a lot of HTC’s own apps in favour of Google’s alternatives, so that means (unlike both the LG G5 and Galaxy S7) you’re not handed two apps for texts, contacts and viewing your photos. The wonderful Google Photos is actually the HTC 10’s default gallery app, a first for a third-party handset and one that required collaboration between the two companies.
Surprisingly, this austere approach to smartphone bloat doesn’t translate into significant storage savings. Of this smartphone’s 32GB internal storage, 8.60GB is initially taken up when you turn it on, leaving you with 23.40GB of free space fill up as you please with apps, photos and that dreck Walking Dead Season 6 finale. That’s almost exactly on par with the LG G5’s 23.12GB stat, while Samsung’s Galaxy S7 offers an even more thrifty 24.55GB.
As with both those phones, you can also add up to 2TB of microSD storage, which is handy if you’re planning a BitTorrent splurge. Not that we’d condone such scurrilous behaviour of course.
So that’s the technical bit of the HTC’s Android performance, and it’s just as capable in practical terms too. This is the first Android handset I’ve used this year where I haven’t felt compelled to download Google’s Now launcher for a more Nexus-like user experience. Simply put, Sense oozes with competency. In anthropomorphised form, it could probably host Radio 4’s Today Show or Top Gear - whichever is the more stressful gig.
Apps are presented neatly on your home screen without a load of unnecessary widgets cluttering up the place, while those downloads you use once in a blue moon are tucked away in an apps drawer as standard. But unlike on the LG G5.
As you’d expect, the HTC 10 zips between Gmail and Citymapper like a Japanese bullet train, while its soft keys really aid your multitasking. Sense allows these to be customised in its settings menu too, so you can toggle their back-lighting on and off, or press down on the ‘recent apps’ key to skip to the phone’s menu.
In its one major concession to old habits, Blinkfeed remains a right swipe away with Sense. HTC’s Flipboard-like content aggregator remains as welcome as ever though, and does a decent job of collating interesting tweets and news stories into one place. Even though Facebook integration is lacking, Blinkfeed remains a surprisingly tempting time sink.
Of course, a large part of the HTC 10’s slick conduct is down to the Snapdragon 820 processor and 4GB RAM it’s been blessed with. That’s the same combination you’ll find in LG’s G5 and it’s almost as speedy here. Throw a game like the sumptuous Asphalt 8 its way and the 10 will breeze through the neon streets of Tokyo while offering a steady framerate and no hint of slowdown.
That said, this pre-production sample of the HTC 10 took 10 seconds longer to load a race than a retail version of the LG G5. This isn’t a particularly big deal, especially if you mostly use your phone for diving across messaging apps such as Slack and WhatsApp. Anyone who’s big on mobile gaming, though, may want to wait and see the whether a retail HTC 10 bridges this speed gap. We’ll update this review accordingly.
There’s good reason to assume it will as well, given both phones rank almost identically in the ethereal realm of Geekbench 3 stats. The HTC 10’s multi-core scores a sterling 5217, whereas the LG G5 manages 5218. Given the two handsets rock the exactly the same processor, this is no great surprise. They even share the tendency to spread a warm tinge across your fingers when burning rubber with Asphalt or leaping in and out of signal hotspots on a train. Not to the extent that the phone is ever uncomfortable to hold, but you will notice the sensation.
Blue sky tinkering
If you’ve watched the second act of literally any Rocky movie, then you’ll know no legendary tale of redemption is complete without a second act rush of existential self-doubt. And a training montage. That’s the best bit, obviously.
In the case of the HTC 10, you could understandably be concerned about its camera. The One M9 developed quite the reputation for its excitable approach to exposure. The thing was like a week-old puppy, chasing after the perfect foreground imagery while washing out any clouds in the rear of the shot.
A change was needed, so the M9’s 20-megapixel snapper has been dropped in favour of a 12-megapixel effort with an f/1.8 aperture, optical image stabilisation to avoid camera blur and quicksharp laser focusing. These megapixels rock HTC’s UltraPixel tech as well, which means they’re bigger than usual and so can supposedly capture a lot of light and detail, especially in dim conditions. Sounds promising, right? And the results are a definite step up from those of the M9.
I got a fantastic shot of Southampton’s annihilation of Newcastle last weekend with the pitch, players and blue sky above all looking as resplendent as Graziano Pellè’s quiff. Likewise, outdoor photos in Twickenham high street were bright, punchy and untroubled by a bit of sunlight, while the jars of sherbert lemons and flying saucers in a retro sweet shop really popped off their shelf.
As a point-and-shoot camera, the HTC 10 won’t give you a winner every time. Intricate close-ups are plenty detailed, but they can appear overly light or saturated. One tray of flowers looked as though they’d been made in a Haribo factory. To avoid these photos you’ll want to get familiar with this camera’s Pro mode, so you can tweak the ISO, white balance, aperture and even more settings.
Low light fumbles
Of course, it’s in low-light conditions where a camera really earns its salt and we’ve had mixed results here with the 10. Close-ups in a dingy pub are excellent, with warm skin tones and none of the glossy wash the S7 and LG G5 can produce in a pinch.
When confronted by a lot of bright indoor light, this HTC can get in quite the tizz. Performers at a gig bore a remarkably close resemblance to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters. The white balance of our snaps really was all over the place. Elsewhere, when confronted by a row of artful hanging lightbulbs in a west London jazz pub, our photos took on a soft hue. That said, these shots were taken before a software update HTC sent me. I’ll be further testing this over the next couple of days to see how it affects the phone’s low light performance.
So while the HTC 10’s rear camera isn’t on par with the Samsung Galaxy S7’s, it’s capable of some pretty good imagery and we’d expect its consistency to improve before you can walk into a shop later this month and own one for yourself.
If the HTC 10 has one ‘get out jail free’ card, it’s truly fantastic selfies. Thanks to the inclusion of optical image stabilisation on its 5-megapixel front-facing camera, Snapchat obsessives will really love the HTC 10. This smartphone has captured some of my very best duck face.
Combined with HTC’s easy-to-use camera app, the 10 has enough photographic chops to chalk up a win. Even if it’s not quite on par with the Galaxy S7 and iPhone 6s Plus.
Screen and not heard
In terms of its display, the HTC 10 is broadly in line with its competition. In fact, we’ve left it so long to mention its 5.2-inch touchscreen because there’s not all that much to say. It’s got a 1440x2560 pixels resolution, like every Android flagship this year. It’s an LCD affair, like pretty much every flagship bar the Galaxy S7. And it looks great, like… you get the drift.
To elaborate a little, there’s a pleasing balance to the HTC 10’s display, with colours appearing crisp and bright without veering towards oversaturation. If you do like a bit more oomph so that pictures and video really pop, then Sense gives you the option to fine-tune your colour profile between ‘Vivid’ and ‘sRGB’ modes, with sliding scales for temperature offered too. Fans of screen fidelity will appreciate this as neither the Samsung S7 or LG G5’s cater for this level of customisation.
Anyone who sticks with the ‘Vivid’ default will do just fine though. Star Wars: Rogue One’s trailer was brimming with deep intergalactic blacks, while footage from Ratchet & Clank was appropriately radiant. As I mentioned earlier, the HTC 10 doesn’t feature an always-on display, but that’s to be preferred in an LCD phone. Notifications are too dim to read on the equivalent LG G5, proving that you really need an OLED screen such as the one on the Galaxy S7 to do this tech justice.
Caught by the fuzz?
Job done for the HTC 10, then? Well, if battery life is your smartphone's standout feature, you can forgive a manufacturer for trying to magic up a more sexy one. There’s a good reason why Apple has has consistently prized suave, ultra-thin design over sheer endurance; it gives the iPhone an obvious ‘wow factor’.
That’s why HTC is pushing the sound quality of its flagship once more, even though the 10 no longer features two front-facing speakers. Now your favourite tunes and podcasts blast out through both the phone’s ear-piece and the bottom of the handset, with separate drivers used for bass and mid-range. The HTC 10 also has a custom bit of software that adjusts its sound according to your hearing, and comes with Hi-Res certified buds.
So let’s start with the headphones and, to be blunt, we won’t need long. They made Canadian noiseniks White Lung sound as though they were performing inside a baked beans can. Tegan and Sara’s ‘Closer’ was more tolerable, but these things lean far too hard on a bassy resonance to be pleasant. For a free add-on they’re alright, but a £30 pair of in-ears such as the SoundMagic E10S are infinitely more agreeable.
In terms, of speaker performance there’s no doubting the 10’s prowess. The phone leant a grandiose warmth and crunch to Kanye West’s ‘Father Stretch My Hands’, while the sweeping strings of Randy Newman’s ‘Sail Away’ were fittingly orchestral.
Even though HTC 10 has the best smartphone speaker performance, this is an achievement that's almost equivalent to being world tiddlywinks champion. Unless you really care about blaring out Skepta on the 177 bus to Peckham, that is. Still, it’s heartening to see HTC take care over the small details. That’s what makes it such a well-polished handset.
HTC 10 verdict
If you want a smartphone for the future, then don’t get the HTC 10. If you want a smartphone for right now, there are few better alternatives.
Yes, this flagship is no box of tricks. Instead, it excels in the art of the familiar, with a pristine screen, ultra-powerful processor, a faultless take on Android and an elegant yet sturdy design. This stuff may be a marketer’s nightmare, but it’s really important when you’re stuck with a handset for two years or more. Especially now HTC’s flagship camera is broadly up to scratch again.
So let’s go back to those headline innovations. Would you trade a two-day battery life for 3D Touch? Of course not. What about waterproofing? Nope. Maybe a wide-angle camera? Once more, no.
And that, friends, is why the HTC 10 is a comeback story with a happy ending.