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 was 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 just shy of £600.
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.
HTC 10 review: Heavyweight champion
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.
The Android competition › Samsung Galaxy S7 review
HTC 10 review: Two-day stamina
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 boozing, 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.
The best VR headset › HTC Vive review
HTC 10 review: Makes Sense
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.
Modular innovation › LG G5 review
HTC 10 review: Clutter-free UI
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.
HTC 10 review: Burning rubber
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.
HTC 10 review: 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.