HTC 10 Review: Its Newest Smartphone Isn’t a Perfect 10, but It’s Close

HTC claims its latest smartphone is a 'perfect 10.' It's close.
May 16, 2016 2:50 PM UTC
HTC flagship smartphone HTC 10.
Photographs by Jason Cipriani

HTC, the Taiwanese smartphone maker, admits that last year’s HTC One (also known as the M9) smartphone was a let down.

The flagship device’s overall design was tired and unimaginative. Customers rightly accused the company—which rose to fame with the rise of Google’s Android mobile operating system but in recent years fell behind rivals like Samsung and LG—of being lazy and taking the easy way out. Others mocked the firm’s attempt to mimic Apple’s (AAPL) “tick-tock” release schedule where internal components are revised each year but aesthetics only every two: HTC’s M9 looked nearly identical to the previous M8, save for slight external changes and, of course, revamped internal components.

The smartphone business has always been extraordinarily competitive—even more so among Android phonemakers, which share much of their software and must differentiate with fresh designs and innovative features. Thanks to stiff competition, the prices of Android handsets have fallen over the last two years, even as their capabilities grow. So when sales of HTC’s M9 last year started slow and grew slower, forcing the company to take a loss for the first time in four quarters and “review its assets,” it became clear that the company needed to rethink its strategy, and fast.

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The HTC 10 is a step in that direction. For nearly a month I have been using the device, which has done away with the “One” brand name as well as last year’s design. In the world of consumer electronics reviews, that’s an unusually large amount of time to spend with a device. (Most reviews are conducted based on trials of one to two weeks.) But I wanted to see if HTC, a company that has fallen so far from grace that some analysts have said its only value is the cash it has on hand, could compete in a world increasingly dominated by Chinese phonemakers, Samsung, and Apple.

What did I learn? For starters, that my first impressions of the HTC 10 still ring true. The HTC 10 offers a refined version of a familiar experience. Is it enough to keep the competition at bay? Read on to find out.

Design

On first glance, there is little doubt that HTC designed this smartphone. Its metal housing now features edges that are chamfered—that is, cut at an angle like the interlocking joint of a chair leg—on both the front and back sides. The company’s designers have removed the black “chin” that was located just below the screen and served to prominently display the HTC logo. Taking its place is a “home” button with embedded fingerprint sensor, flanked on each side with capacitive “back” and multitask buttons. Capacitive buttons, you’ll note, are another departure; HTC previously used on-screen virtual buttons.

For more on HTC, watch:
[fortune-brightcove videoid=4832252655001]

On the right side you’ll find the volume control, sleep/wake button, and a SIM card slot. The left side of the device is home to a microSD card slot. On top of the phone is a 3.5-millimeter headphone jack; on the bottom is a USB-C charging port, microphone, and speaker. On the rear is a protruding camera lens and dual-tone LED flash. Nothing crazy to report here.

It’s subtle, but HTC increased the screen size of the 10. The M9 was five inches from corner to corner; the 10 is 5.2 inches, a welcome change. Still, the device itself isn’t meaningfully larger. It measures 5.74 inches tall by 2.83 inches wide by 0.35 inches deep.

When you pick up the HTC 10, it’s apparent you’re holding a premium model. The phone has heft to it, but it isn’t heavy. Its slightly rounded back fit comfortably in the palm of my hand, while the chamfered edges made the device feel thinner than it actually is. The 10’s physical buttons are easily some of the best buttons I’ve ever felt on a smartphone. There’s an enjoyable click when changing the volume, or pressing the sleep/wake button. After all, in a premium device, it’s the little things that matter.

Software

The HTC 10 runs version 6.0.1. “Marshmallow” of Google’s Android mobile operating system. HTC Sense, the company’s proprietary Android skin, is still present. Here’s the good news: HTC removed redundant applications from the device, doing away with its own alternatives and opting instead for Google-made apps. For example, HTC’s Gallery app has been replaced by Google’s Photos app. HTC’s web browser has been replaced with Google Chrome.

For more, read:
Fortune’s review of the HTC One M9

That decision to streamline the software is a big improvement to the phone’s usability. Instead of purchasing the device and being forced to choose between two text messaging apps, two photo apps, and two web browsers, you can just start using it.

That’s not to say that the HTC 10 offers an unaltered Android experience. HTC’s Sense skin still changes the overall look and feel of the phone’s software from out-of-the-box Android. Using Sense themes, users can change the phone’s fonts, color schemes, app icons, wallpapers, and ringtones.

Interestingly, HTC also developed a new “freestyle” theme type that ditches the familiar grid of apps and icons on the home screen. Instead, users can install free themes from the HTC theme store that consist of a background wallpaper and a series of stickers. These stickers double as a shortcut to launch apps.

One example of a freestyle theme starts with a cartoonish, industrial city landscape as the wallpaper. Once installed, the theme places stickers across the landscape, each one already assigned to launch specific apps. Tapping on a wooden crate sticker will open the messaging app; tap on the factory to open the phone app; a series of floating bubbles opens Chrome. Users can add, remove, and reassign functionally to stickers across a series of home screens.

Sounds fun, right? Yet after many weeks of using the HTC 10, I’ve decided that freestyle themes just aren’t for me. I like to have a home screen that’s organized and easy to navigate. Still, I see how others would enjoy using a completely customizable home screen that breaks from the industry standard and makes the device look different on store shelves.

Camera

HTC’s previous attempts at releasing a smartphone camera (and corresponding software) capable of competing with Samsung’s (SSNLF) Galaxy line and Apple’s iPhone have failed. Before the HTC 10, I’d found the company’s UltraPixel cameras (so named because the individual pixels are larger to capture more light, allowing it to better function in dark places) to be worthy of snapping and sharing photos across social media. When editing or cropping those same photos, things started to go downhill.

With the HTC 10, however, things are changing. Branded as UltraPixel 2, the HTC 10 carries the same output as the Galaxy S7 and iPhone 6S: 12 megapixels for its primary rear camera. (But, as HTC notes, those pixels are larger.) The rear camera also has optical image stabilization and laser autofocus. Video capture in 4K resolution is staple of all 2016 smartphones, and the HTC 10 is no exception. The front camera is five megapixels, with added optical image stabilization.

So how do all those numbers add up, you ask? Here’s the skinny: The HTC 10’s camera is a vast improvement from the M9. Picture quality, color replication, white balance—it’s all there. Despite those larger pixels, low-light performance still isn’t on par with Samsung’s Galaxy S7. But it does a good enough job such that you should be happy with the results. (I know I was.)

Performance

Qualcomm’s (QCOM) Snapdragon 820 processor powers the HTC 10. It’s paired with four gigabytes of memory. Performance on the HTC 10 was quick and responsive. I don’t recall ever waiting for applications to load. I experienced no sudden stutters or stops.

The HTC 10 comes with 32 gigabytes of storage, though its actual available space is only 23 gigabytes after taking system files into account. This remains a frustrating part of smartphone buying today: What is advertised on the box is not quite reality. Thankfully, it’s less of a problem on the HTC 10 thanks to microSD support, which allows you to add additional space, and a new feature introduced in Android Marshmallow.

It’s called “flex storage.” The feature combines a device’s internal storage with a microSD card. When a user places a microSD card into the HTC 10, he or she has the option to format the card, forcing the the operating system to treat the additional room as internal storage. With a 64-gigabyte card properly formatted, a user goes from having a 32-gigabyte device to a 96-gigabyte one, easing concerns about managing where applications or photos are stored.

I installed a 32-gigabyte card a few days after I received the device and have yet to notice a difference in speed when saving photos or videos, which is usually a concern when a device is writing data to external storage.

A 3,000 milliamp-hour battery provides enough power to get through a very heavy day’s worth of use. By that, I mean streaming YouTube videos and using the phone’s speakers to stream music in my office while answering text messages, emails, and refreshing Twitter.

After a typical 16-hour day, it was common to go to bed with the HTC 10’s battery at 30% to 40%. Often I would skip charging the battery overnight, opting to recharge in the middle of the day. Because HTC included the Quick Charge 3.0 feature on the device, I could top off the battery in as little as 20 minutes and have enough of a charge to get me through the rest of the day. HTC states that the feature can supply 50% charge in 30 minutes; I found that to be more or less accurate in my use.

Availability

HTC is selling an “unlocked” model—that is, without contract—of the HTC 10 for $699 on its website. AT&T wireless customers should note that this channel is the only option they have, as the carrier has opted not to carry the device in its stores.

On the other hand Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless will carry the HTC 10. Verizon customers will begin receiving preorders on May 5, Sprint customers can get the phone starting May 10, and T-Mobile customers can get it on May 18.

Final verdict

HTC 10

In talking to HTC leading up to the 10’s announcement, the company naturally touted the device’s name as a reference to it being a “perfect 10.” I appreciate the company’s enthusiasm, but I’d stop short of calling it a perfect 10. Yes, it’s the best device HTC has ever made. In that regard, I suppose one could consider it a perfect 10 in a land where only HTC phones exist.

But the real world is filled with phones made by Apple, Xiaomi, Samsung, and others. Is the HTC 10 better than Samsung’s Galaxy S7, the reigning king of Android smartphones? It’s a close comparison—but ultimately the S7’s camera, waterproof housing, and Samsung Pay tip the scales in the Galaxy’s favor.

Nonetheless, the HTC 10 shows that HTC has much to be proud of. It’s a fine device, a worthy competitor to devices made by Samsung and Apple, and a step in the right direction for a company that desperately needs it. I recommend it.

Jason Cipriani is a contributing writer for Fortune. In April, he reviewed the Apple iPhone SE. Read his review here.