Hands-on with the HTC 10: A focused, gimmick-free premium phone

The HTC One M9 was a bit of a letdown. It was “only” a very good phone, when we expect top-tier, high-priced flagship phones to be groundbreaking hits. Standing next to the Galaxy S6, there was almost no reason for anyone to pick HTC’s offering.

Enter the HTC 10. The “One” branding and the “M” letter are gone, but the new phone announced today is definitely a continuation of HTC’s flagship series. At a pricey $699, this is a premium flagship phone. My initial impressions are, by focusing on getting the basics right, HTC has made a device far more deserving of that premium price. It’s got the right specs, the right design, and the right software. But if your'e looking for a phone with lots of extra frills, you'll want to look elsewhere.

We expect expensive premium phones to offer premium specs, and the HTC 10 fulfills those obligations. It’s got a Snapdragon 820 processor with 4 gigs of RAM and 32GB of storage (with microSD support). The 3,000 mAh battery should provide excellent longevity. There’s a 5.2-inch quad HD display (Super LCD3, not AMOLED), making this the first time HTC has gone beyond 1080p in the U.S. It’s got USB-C, with support for Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0. You can’t bring a phone to market without a fast fingerprint scanner, and the HTC 10 uses the same one that impressed us in the One A9

The camera, in particular, sounds like a winner. Backing off from the 20 megapixel shooter in the One M9, HTC is back to “quality over megapixels,” a trend you might argue it pioneered. The company calls its rear-facing camera sensor technology “UltraPixel 2.” It’s a 12 megapixel sensor with big 1.55-micron pixels. This sounds to me like it’s packing the same Sony IMX377 sensor found in the Nexus 6P (and that's nothing to complain about). HTC pairs that great sensor with a f/1.8 aperture, laser autofocus, and optical image stabilization. Hell, it even throws in OIS on the 5 megapixel f/1.8 front-facing camera. Yes, the camera module slightly protrudes from the back, but the displacement is minor.

All the ingredients are there for a camera experience on par with the very best phones on the market. In my quick tests, the camera launched quickly, focused fast, and took impressive shots. We'll look at it much more closely in our full review. For what it's worth, HTC claims that DxOMark has rated the camera among the best mobile cameras yet released.

The design of the 10 is unmistakably HTC-like, but refined and modernized in very welcome ways. It's got a familiar curve to the corners and the back, but a very large 45-degree bezel around the edge really improves ergonomics. While the One M9 was so smooth it felt like it would slip out of your hand, the 10 is easier to grip and feels thinner than it really is. Still, that metal unibody construction feels tight, rigid, and dense, with no visible seams and a very clean back.

The front of the phone is now covered by edge-to-edge glass that gives the phone a sleeker look and smoother feel. The metal “forehead and chin” are gone, and so is the big black “HTC” bar at the bottom of the display that frustrated us so much on the last few HTC M-series phones. Capacitive buttons for recents and back sit on either side of the lightning-fast fingerprint scanner and home button.

The result is a phone just barely bigger than the One M9, even though it incorporates a larger, higher-resolution display. The volume and power buttons are distinct and clicky, with better placement and feel than those on the One M9. It feels great to hold and use.

Of course, an all-metal unibody design, while rigid and scratch-resistant, has its drawbacks. You won’t find wireless charging, for example, and the battery can’t be removed.

HTC has been pushing audio quality on phones for years now, and the 10 continues the tradition. The top speaker (the earpiece) and bottom speaker (down-firing next to the USB port) each have their own separate amplifiers and profiles. The idea is to provide sort of a “woofer/tweeter” setup where one focuses on the low end (as much as you can in a phone), while the other sticks to the high end.

But Boomsound isn’t just about speakers. HTC’s got a 24-bit audio DSP and 24-bit DAC to support high resolution audio and up-sample low-res audio, along with a very powerful headphone jack to drive those big studio cans you’ve got at home. There’s full Dolby support, including a nice sound profiling tool to adjust audio output to match your hearing and headphones.

As for colors: You can get it in any color you like, as long as it's silver or charcoal grey.

In today’s Android software market, less is more. Several years ago, you could legitimately say that Google’s default Android interface was bad and that a good custom interface design was a big improvement. Today, Android Marshmallow looks and feels great, and those heavily-skinned custom interfaces are seen as an annoyance.

Credit to HTC, then, for Sense 8. No, it’s not stock Android. It’s still got Blinkfeed on the left-of-home screen. It’s still got the ability to load themes (and in fact, the theming capabilities are further improved). And it’s still got a few custom apps, like HTC's own dialer, clock, and SMS messaging app.

But it no longer looks like an Android KitKat overhaul. Where the current Marshmallow design makes sense, HTC has stuck with it, simply offering more options where necessary. It’s fast and fluid at every turn, and it feels like “Android” and not “HTC’s Android-based operating system.”

The HTC 10 strikes me as a carefully-considered fresh start for HTC. The disappointing sales and critical reception of the One M9 last year seems to have caused some real introspection, and this year HTC is back with a flagship phone that is, in a word, restrained.

HTC avoided the temptation to chase gimmicks and unasked-for “enhancements” with the 10. For example, despite the company's partnership with UnderArmor, you don’t find the UA fitness apps pre-installed. There’s no HTC store—the company's apps are simply in the Google Play store. The HTC 10 strives to get the basics right: high performance, long battery life, great industrial design, and a top-notch camera. 

Some customers might find this disappointing. Where’s the always-on display Where’s the VR headset Why not include an IR blaster and remote control software

I find it refreshing. The HTC 10 seems to say that more is not always better, and that it’s okay, even desirable, to focus on polishing the things people care about most. We’ll have a full review in the coming days.


Jason Cross

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