HTC 10 Smartphone Review
HTC tries to tilt the smartphone game in its favor
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Last year, the HTC One M9 impressed us with its powerful performance and handsome exterior, but something was missing. The M9 looked and felt like a premium smartphone, but it seemed a little too safe, a little too familiar. Rather than push the envelope, HTC opted for incremental progress. The One M9 was basically 2014's One M8, and the One M8 was basically 2013's HTC One.
But 2016 is a new year, and it’s a big one for HTC; sales aren’t doing too hot, the Apple iPhone 6s and the Samsung Galaxy S7 are flying off shelves, and HTC seems to lack a bit of confidence outside of its VR headset, the Vive.
Enter the HTC 10 (MSRP $699), the company’s answer to its fierce flagship competition. In many ways, it’s the bottom of the ninth for HTC, and it needs a big hit to get back in the game.
The HTC 10 delivers that, even if it's not quite the home run that many people have been hoping for. This may not be the phone that saves HTC, but it should be more than enough to keep it alive.
About the HTC 10
As you might have guessed from its hefty price tag, the HTC 10 is stuffed to the gills with some of the best available smartphone hardware.
Display: 5.2-inch LCD (1440x2560)
Memory: 32GB/64GB, 4GB of RAM, microSD slot for up to 200GB of expanded storage
Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 820
Primary Camera: 12MP, f/1.8, with optical image stabilization (OIS), laser autofocus, 4K video, and dual-tone flash
Charging cable: Reversible USB Type-C
What We Like
Three words: Performance, performance, performance.
The HTC 10 is built like someone maxed out all of the specs in the character-creation portion of an RPG. Between the top-of-the-line Snapdragon 820 processor and the 4GB of memory backing it up, there's not a whole lot that can be thrown at the HTC 10 that it can't handle.
There's also way less bloatware compared to previous HTC flagships, which makes the company's software suite, HTC Sense, feel lighter and more accommodating than it did before. Rather than have multiple stock apps that serve the same purpose living alongside of one another, HTC ditched a good amount of its first-party apps in favor of Google's.
The result is a clean, speedy phone. Dedicated mobile gamers and people who use their phones a lot are not going to be slowed down by the HTC 10. When I say it's equipped with top-of-the-line hardware, I mean that quite literally. Other than the Samsung Galaxy S7 and the S7 Edge, you're not going to find very many smartphones that rival the HTC 10 in a head-to-head hardware match-up.
The physical design sticks to what HTC does best.
The HTC 10's posh, all-aluminum exterior hearkens back to the HTC One M9 and the HTC One M8, and although it's a tad disappointing to see HTC go back to the same well this year, the basic design elements haven't changed for a reason—they work.
The most attractive aspect of the design its uniformity; aside from a couple of antenna lines, the HTC 10 is more or less a slab of metal with no seams to be found. The primary camera module protrudes slightly from the backside of the device (but not enough to be an nuisance) and the phone's physical buttons are easily reached on the right-hand side.
Whereas the HTC One M9 had a smooth, rounded back, the HTC 10 features a chamfered edge deeper than just about any I've seen on a smartphone. This detail not only provides some textural flavor, but also distinguishes the HTC 10 from smartphones cut from a similar cloth.
There is, however, something disappointing about the HTC 10's physical makeup (which I'll touch on shortly), but it's not so much a practical shortcoming as much as it is a philosophical one.
An exceptional low-light camera with more features and settings than you can shake a stick at.
I have some qualms about the HTC 10's camera, but for the most part, it excels where most phones struggle—in low-light settings.
Thanks to the camera sensor's extra large pixels, the HTC 10 is capable of squeezing a fantastic amount of detail out of each one of its 12-megapixel photos, particularly in environments with a limited amount of light. Twelve megapixels might seem slight when compared to, say, the 23-megapixel camera found in the Sony Xperia Z5, but those large-sized pixels go a long way in taking in light.
The HTC 10 is also capable of shooting RAW photos and 4K video, the latter of which produced some of the sharpest video quality I've seen from a smartphone to date.
And with a fully-stocked toolbox of extensive camera controls, avid photographers will feel right at home making finely-tuned adjustments in HTC's reliable stock camera app.
What We Don't Like
HTC played it too safe with the 10.
Okay, okay—I know what you're thinking, and yes, I've already praised the HTC for sticking to a successful formula when it came to the physical design of the HTC 10. And for all intents and purposes, the HTC 10 looks and feels better than the vast majority of its contemporaries.
But I can't help but shake the notion that this was a pivotal moment for HTC; an opportunity to break away from what people had come to expect after two slightly-modified variations on the M7. Once upon a time it made sense for HTC to rest on its laurels, but that time seems further and further in the rearview mirror with each passing day.
And it's not that the HTC 10's design elements are bad—the entire experience just doesn't feel new or exciting. The freshest aspect of the phone is the simplification of HTC Sense, and at the risk of underselling how much of an improvement it is, it's not enough on its own to carry the HTC 10 into the promised land.
The camera, though impressive at times, still has some warts.
Despite solid low-light performance, RAW capabilities, and 4K video capture, the HTC 10's camera still falls short of those found in the iPhone 6s and the Galaxy S7. Even after updating the HTC 10's camera software, most of the photos I snapped came back looking like it was covered in a thin layer of off-colored grime.
The issue isn't with the phone's excellent hardware, but with its iffy image processing. The software consistently processes images with off-putting color balance, minimal contrast, and little-to-no sharpening. Even in outdoor settings drenched in sunlight, the HTC 10's photos end up looking murky and lacking in detail.
In the comparison above, the image on the left was taken on a Samsung Galaxy S7, and the image on the right was taken on an HTC 10. The warm temperature of the HTC 10's photo is probably the first thing you notice, but the HTC 10 also severely under-sharpens its picture, crushing detail in the process.
Should You Buy It?
As good as the HTC 10 is, there's a problem: The Samsung Galaxy S7 is just a better-performing, better-looking phone. For roughly the same price, the S7's got a better screen, better battery life, and a camera that shoots faster and more reliably than the HTC 10's. Once you arrive at the S7's water-resistance, comparing the two phones starts to feel a little unfair. And while we should judge each phone on its own merits, buying a phone is a zero-sum game.
The HTC 10 often feels like less than the sum of its separate parts. You could argue that its maxed-out specs are enough of a justification for the phone's premium price tag, but by pricing it this high, HTC is inviting direct comparisons to better, similarly-priced flagships like the Samsung Galaxy S7. If you're looking to have the best phone with the best camera, the Galaxy S7 is the way to go.
But there are still plenty of people who love HTC flagships, and for them, I imagine the familiarity of the HTC 10 will feel like a warm blanket. These are the people who likely purchased the M8 because it was an improved version of the M7, and who purchased the M9 because it was an improved version of the M8.
If you can't see yourself breaking away from the HTC hardware and software that you know and love, I've got some great news: You can stop worrying about the HTC 10, because it's exactly what you want it to be, and chances are, you'll love it. And if you're new to the HTC line but you're leaning towards the HTC 10 and don't mind its less-than-ideal camera, you're almost sure to love the HTC 10.
Outside of the its finicky image processing software, the HTC 10 is more or less a better, more-powerful version of the One M9. For a select few, this might not be enough to entice, but for the rest of the world—especially long-time HTC fans—the HTC 10 is a winner.