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Monday, June 6, 2016

HTC 10

HTC 10



What's Hot: Clean Android experience, great camera, pleasing high res display, fantastic audio, metal build.
What's Not: Rear camera sometimes overexposes a little. Battery life is just OK.

There's nothing like a comeback story to warm the heart and even net you a new phone. After floundering for a few years, HTC's on their game again, and the HTC 10 is assuredly their best Android phone to date. Sure, it's easy to say that since most manufacturers' new models show improvement year over year, but in HTC's case with the HTC One M8 and One M9, this wasn't so much the case. Their design was repetitive (though still really attractive), their low resolution cameras and image processing were lacking and key competitive specs like screen resolution lagged behind the competition. That's all changed with the HTC 10-- it has a pleasing high resolution QHD display, a very good 12MP rear camera with much improved image processing and a refreshed design. In fact, the front camera is no slouch, being the only camera phone with an optically stabilized front shooter. Those selfies at the bar in the dark after a few too many drinks? They'll be sharper than expected thanks to OIS.

Specs at a Glance
The HTC 10 is a unibody metal phone with a 5.2" QHD Super LCD 5 display in Gorilla Glass with subtly curved edges. It runs Android 6.0 Marshmallow with HTC's tasteful Sense UI on the top dog Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 CPU. It has 4 gigs of RAM, 32 gigs of internal storage and a micro SD card slot that supports Android 6's Adoptive Storage to turn that card into an extension of internal storage rather than a separate device (handy since not all apps support installation to a microSD card under the standard scheme).
The phone has a 5MP front camera, 12MP rear camera, dual band WiFi 802.11ac, Bluetooth, NFC, GPS, LTE 4G and a USB-C 3.1 port. It supports Quick Charge 3.0 that can charge the phone from zero to full in around an hour. HTC loves good quality sound so we get a new take on their BoomSound speakers and a high res 24 bit audio DAC (digital to analog converter) and a separate headphone amp.
Traditionally HTC's flagship phones have been available on all major US carriers and some smaller carriers. This time Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless have announced that they'll carry the HTC 10, but AT&T hasn't said they will. Should AT&T not carry the phone (shocking though that would be), you can buy the GSM unlocked version direct from HTC's website--it supports both AT&T and T-Mobile, including their LTE 4G bands. We have that unlocked model and are using it on AT&T, and data speeds and voice quality are comparable to top phones that the carrier offers.


Design and Ergonomics
The HTC 10 resembles the One M9, but it's been modernized with new finishes (available in silver or carbon gray) and a bold bevel or chamfer that makes it easier to grip. It's still thicker than the competition like the Samsung Galaxy S7and iPhone 6s/ 6s Plus, but the edges are thin so it doesn't feel chunky. Those thin edges rise to a thicker center area, much like previous HTC phones and the LG G4. That curve feels good in hand, and I don't mind the extra girth, but I do have large hands for a woman. Build quality is excellent, and the unibody aluminum alloy phone has no rough edges or unnecessary flourishes. It has a clean look that we like. The carbon is particularly striking, and both have what I'd call a masculine design with bold lines.
The 10's controls are improved too, with a much more tactile power button on the right that has a more deeply ridged surface compared to the M9. The volume controls are above, and are more distinctly separate compared to the power button on the One M9 since they're a single piece rocker (you're no longer choosing from three right side buttons when trying to feel for the power button). The front home button is capacitive rather than a clicky, physical button and we prefer that since it's also the fingerprint scanner. There's no need to press a stiff button to wake up and unlock the device, just lay your registered finger on it to unlock the phone. Haptic feedback lets you know if your fingerprint wasn't recognized, but that's a rare problem since this fingerprint scanner is one of the best we've used on an Android phone (yes, it rivals the iPhone 6s). We like front fingerprint scanners, also found on the Samsung Galaxy S7 and iPhone 6s/iPhone 6s Plus since you don't have to lift the smartphone off the desk to wake it and take a glance at notifications and time on the sleep screen. Speaking of the sleep screen, you can see it by double-tapping on the screen to catch up with notifications and see the time and date (no need to unlock the phone).
Though the screen has enhanced response times, it's not overly sensitive (no accidentally launched apps), thanks to good design. There is a gloves mode for winter use.



Display
The HTC 10 has a QHD 2560 x 1440 resolution display (564 PPI) like the top Android competition. Previous HTC phones stuck with 1920 x 1080, which is actually fine until you take into account folks' obsession with specs. This is an IPS equivalent LCD with wide viewing angles and good brightness, though it doesn't get as bright as the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 edge running on max brightness or auto-brightness when the extreme brightness outdoor mode kicks in. Colors are rich, especially on the default Vivid mode (sRGB is the other available setting). It's not AMOLED zingy with color like the Samsung Galaxy S7 family, but it looks pretty darned colorful and enjoyable.

High Quality Audio
As always, audio quality is a selling point for HTC phones. The HTC 10 has a high quality 24 bit audio DAC and a separate headphone amplifier. Sound through good quality wired headphones is truly inspired--if you stopped listening to music on your phone because the quality didn't impress, the HTC 10 will change your mind. It makes the iPhone 6s and Samsung Galaxy S7 sound pedestrian. Each instrument has a clearly distinct voice, and the timbre of those instruments sounds much more like the real thing. The phone can even record 4K video with 24 bit high res audio.
We tested the phone with 24 bit FLAC files using BlackPlayer and a set of high-end over the ear headphones made by Master & Dynamic--the MW60 using the wired option rather than wireless. High quality earbuds likewise sounded very good and noticeably better with the HTC 10 vs. other phone brands. The phone can up-sample standard 16 bit audio files, and we noted a little bit of improvement in terms of clarity and slightly stronger bass when listening to up-sampled audio. The HTC 10 also has customizable output for each set of wired headphones you plug in, and you can create separate profiles for different listeners. This only works with wired headphones, not Bluetooth headphones or the built-in woofer/tweeter combo speakers.
The front stereo BoomSound speakers are gone, replaced by BoomSound HiFi Edition with a tweeter in the earpiece and a woofer on the bottom edge where most phones' mono speaker resides. Sound is indeed relatively full for a phone, but I still have a soft spot for the old stereo BoomSound speakers for their channel separation.

Horsepower and Performance
Like the US Samsung Galaxy S7, Galaxy S7 edge and LG G5, the HTC 10 has the current top of the line Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 CPU with Adreno 530 graphics (quad core CPU, base clock rate 1.6 GHz with burst up to 2.2 GHz). Like those phones, it has 4 gigs of RAM and 32 gigs of storage. It has a microSD card slot (again, like its two main competitors), but differentiates itself with support for Android 6.0's support for Adoptive Storage that turns an SD card (up to 2TB) into an extension of internal storage. That means you don't have to look in two places for your files and that any program can be installed on a microSD card.
As you might expect, the HTC 10 benchmarks similarly to the competition running on the same platform. It does a little better in the CPU intensive benchmarks (a higher burst clock rate helps) but it's a little bit behind on graphics benchmarks. The numbers are close enough that the variance isn't significant.

Benchmarks


Software
I confess I prefer a clean Android build without lots of UI customizations and flourishes. The Nexus 6P is my cup of tea, and Samsung's TouchWiz is improving, but still a bit overdone. The HTC 10 runs Android 6 with HTC Sense UI, which is an extremely light customization of Android that doesn't veer far from what you'd see on a Nexus phone. One of the few significant departures from stock Android is HTC's BlinkFeed, which is by default the rightmost home screen. BlinkFeed is a customized version of News Republic plus social feeds from the likes of Twitter and Facebook. It was HTC's counter to Samsung's Flipboard option and has stuck around and matured to something that's an enjoyable way to kill time when waiting for the bus.
HTC is the first Android phone to support Apple AirPlay, which is handy should some family members own iOS AirPlay speakers or Apple TV. As per the norm, the phone also supports Chromecast, Miracast and DLNA. The USB-C 3.1 port supports display out, and we plugged in a USB-C to HDMI adapter that worked perfectly and we even tested the HTC 10 with Microsoft's Display Dock for Lumia phones and that worked as well--display, USB ports and all.

Cameras
Finally, an HTC rear camera that doesn't leave us wanting. The 12MP rear camera matches the resolution of the Galaxy S7 and iPhone 6s (no more silly 4MP Ultrapixel cameras). However, the name Ultrapixel does return since the camera has enlarged pixel sensor sites (1.55u) for better low light performance. The phone has a relatively large 1/2.3 sensor that's the same size as basic point and shoot cameras. There's more than good hardware here, HTC's image processing has greatly improved with better overall exposure (no more severely blown out highlights) and image sharpening that's much more restrained. In fact, it's a bit on the overly restrained side compared to the Galaxy S7 that increases contrast and sharpness more noticeably. Doubtless, the Galaxy S7's high contrast and cooler (toward the blue) tones will please many, especially because that look is currently in fashion. The HTC 10 has a warm bias with hues that favor skin tones, and a very three dimensional and natural look that's reminiscent of dSLRs. I found it easy to take sharp looking landscapes as well as "artistic" shots with a bit of shallow depth of field (see the wet rose petal shot in our HTC 10 vs. Samsung Galaxy S7 smackdown video).


The laser autofocus makes for extremely fast and accurate focusing even when taking macro shots, and exposure is correct most of the time. It does occasionally slightly overexpose images (but not video). We're not talking terribly blown out highlights, but rather the entire image being slightly overexposed. This is so minor that HTC should likely be able to fix this with a software update (no promises, though). Low light photography is excellent and competes well against the iPhone 6s Plus and does a bit better than the Samsung Galaxy S7 family--images have richer and more natural colors and organic detail compared to the Samsung. That said, I suspect many will favor the Samsung for landscape shots since it deepens blue skies and adds more contrast. Honestly, it's a very close race between these cameras, and DxOMark.com has rated them similarly.
Video quality is likewise very good, and the camera can shoot 4K video @30fps with high res audio and 720p slow motion video @120 fps. Optical image stabilization helps smooth out handheld jitters, and likewise it improves photos and videos on the front 5MP selfie camera.

Battery Life
In recent years, HTC phones have had decent but not stellar battery life. The trend seems to continue with the HTC 10. Our review unit is running what may be pre-release firmware, so there's some chance things will improve. I'll update this article after the phone's official launch in early May 2016 to note any changes. The 3,000 mAh capacity is both ample and competitive, and the phone supports Qualcomm's Quick Charge 3.0 for extremely fast charge times. Alas, being a metal-backed phone, it doesn't support wireless charging. The battery is sealed inside. Finally, HTC has included the quick charger in the box, rather than selling it as a separate accessory.


Battery life varied between very good and not so great, with no rhyme or reason. Standby times are generally good with Android 6.0 Marshmallow phones thanks to Android Doze that deep sleeps apps to prevent serious battery drain overnight. The HTC's standby times were generally in line with what we've seen with other Marshmallow phones. Gaming of course eats the battery fast--a half hour of Asphalt 8 racing used 15% of the battery, which isn't unusual. But low demand tasks like email, web, Twitter and taking a few photos sometimes used little juice while on other days it ate through enough battery to not make it past 5pm. I expect the release phone to last morning to bedtime with 10% power remaining with light-moderate use, which is what we averaged on most days.

Conclusion
This may well have been HTC's last chance to stage a comeback, and I'd say they've succeeded. Right now, no phone offers an amazing and unique new feature that puts it ahead of the pack--it's been evolution rather than revolution...refinement over shock and awe. You could rightly say that LG went for something wildly new with their LG G5 Friends modules, but so far that's worked out more like shock than awe. HTC has finally mastered the sorts of improvements and refinements we were looking for: the styling is great, the camera is very pleasing and the audio quality is leagues ahead. The phone is durable for those who are leery of all-glass smartphones and it will readily be available unlocked for those who don't want to be tied to one carrier (albeit GSM only). There's no earthshattering feature here, rather we have most everything done right. I think an AMOLED display would have sealed the deal for those thinking of migrating from a Samsung Galaxy, but it holds up well against the LG G5 and the LG V10 in terms of display quality. The software is elegant and clean, ergonomics are excellent, storage is expandable and our only hope is that HTC can find some way to improve battery life to match the LG G5 and Galaxy S7.

Website: www.htc.com
Price: $699 (may vary by carrier, $699 is HTC's unlocked price)

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