Home Mobile devices HTC 10 – its return to greatness (review)

HTC’s flagship 10 has been in the wild for half of 2016 – so why is iTWire reviewing it now? Simple – iTWire fell off HTC's radar for a while.

I have been a big fan of HTC going back to its Windows Phones in the early noughties to One M8 for Windows in 2014. Build quality, price and good design are its hallmarks.

But a review of the HTC One M9 in mid-2015 left me underwhelmed. One observation made was: “The M9 delivers quality and distinct looks but without the Samsung’s or Apple’s marketing resources it has become a niche player that needs to concentrate on offering the best – not a me-too product.” It also had early firmware issues.

So, on with the review of the HTC 10 and a spoiler alert – it is a fine phone and you should consider buying one, but the flagship market is very crowded and it may be a case of no one remembering who comes second, or third etc.

Out of the box

HTC made a design statement with its One M8 and M9 – the interesting speaker grill/bezel top and bottom, curved back, and a very solid metal finish.

The 10 goes back to smartphone basics — a bland glass slab, still with curved metal sides and back — that looks like many other Android glass slabs. It has a “Samsungesque” home key (capacitive fingerprint reader), rather prominent front camera, and a camera bump on the back. However, 10 points to HTC for also incorporating capacitive back and recent app buttons into the bottom bezel (like Samsung). It provides maximum use of the 5.2’ QUAD HD screen.

HTC 10 bottom

HTC 10 top

The HTC 10 is pleasant enough to look at and has a slight “industrial feel” but it lacks that “je ne sais quoi”, a certain style element for which it was famous.

Setup is easy, you can avoid Google if you need to, and with the benefit of more than 1GB of software updates (most reviewers did not have the benefit of this hindsight) this is one very sweet device that does exactly as it is told, no issues at all (contrary to some earlier reviews that said it was plagued by firmware/software issues).

HTC 10 in the box

Specifications – remember, this is a mid-2016 device and there are later flagships like the Google Pixel with slightly better specs.

  • Screen: 5.2”, QHD, 2560 x 1440, 565ppi, 71.1% screen to body ratio, 99.9% sRGB, and covered in Gorilla Glass 4.
  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 820, 2.2GHz.
  • 4GB RAM, 32GB storage, up to 2TB microSD in a dedicated slot, OTG support for external hard disk etc.
  • Camera rear: 12MP, f/1.8, 26mm, 80° wide angle, “UltraPixel” 1.55µm pixel, 1/2.3” sensor, auto HDR, Laser autofocus, dual tone flash, 4K record with OIS (no still OIS).
  • Camera Front: 5MP, f/1.8, 23mm. 1.34µm pixel, HDR, OIS, autofocus.
  • HTC Boom Sound: Dolby audio, Hi-Res audio, Dual speakers, ANC mic, 3.5mm audio jack, hi-res ear buds supplied.
  • Wi-Fi AC, dual band, Bluetooth 4.2 aptX, GPS, NFC.
  • Battery: 3000mAh non-removable, USB-C charger, Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 (50% in 30 minutes) supplied, 66-hour endurance rating.
  • 145.9 x 71.9 x 9.0 mm x 161g.
  • Cat 9 LTE (450/50Mbps): 1, 3, 5, 7, 8, 20, 28, 32 38, 40, 41, Single Nano SIM.
  • OS: Android 6.0.1 shipped with HTC Sense UI 8.x – Nougat 7.x still coming.

This is the phone HTC needed to make – its technical specifications are spot on for its time, its camera is a nice compromise between raw megapixels and better low-light performance, and it is well-made. I know a few HTC enthusiasts and they updated very soon after release, showing the value of its “brand”.

HTC, however, could listen a little more to its fans – it is missing any IP rating, the IR-blaster is gone, it is a little chunkier than competitors, and it offers no real added value at recommended prices which are similar to the Samsung S7/Edge.

Maybe version 11 will be its lucky number – I hope so as the company’s fortunes have flagged considerably until it was selected to make the Google Pixel smartphone last year.

Display

In marketing terms, it is a “Super LCD 5”, but in simple terms, it is a QHD, 2560 x 1440, RGB, LED side-lit LCD screen made by S-LCD Corporation for HTC. It is not overly bright, vivid or clear – it is just a nice screen.

As far as screens go, the gold standard is AMOLED (cd/m2 = 0 and infinite contrast – just like the Galaxy S7/Edge). AMOLED also enables Always On Display (AOD) although LG G5 with its IPS display also achieves that. The HTC does not.

This screen has a .39cd/m2 and 1543 contrast ratio that puts it just ahead of an iPhone 6S, but well behind the IPS screen on the LG G5.

Sunlight readability at high noon was OK – again AMOLED screens really shine here and the 10 was well below the LG G5 readability. This is more of an issue when taking photos – otherwise, it is easy to shade the display with your palm in bright light.

Colour selection included Vivid and sRGB – Vivid produces the best “saturated” colours and sRGB is truer to life (99.8% sRGB), but neither mode gives the vibrancy of the LG G5 or AMOLED S7.

Auto-brightness was over-aggressive – turn it to manual and set and forget.

Summary: A good screen but not as good as other flagships. However phone selection is seldom made solely on this criterion.

Performance

The Snapdragon 820 was the 2016 powerhouse and another version, the 821, was released later (in the Google Pixel) that performed similarly, but had slightly better battery life. Paired with 4GB of RAM the HTC 10 is lag free, almost identical to the LG G5 that uses the same CPU.

The 820 is a four-core and it shows a little when the device is loaded up with multiple open apps. Where the Samsung Galaxy can manage, say 10 open apps without lag, the HTC 10 maxed out at six. RAW image post processing was slower than expected.

I copied some files over and found it much slower than the LG G5. The root issue is that its 32GB is eMMC based and LG G5 uses faster UFS 2.1 flash.

Cat 9 LTE could not be tested in Sydney, but data download speeds were commensurate with other flagship devices.

Summary: Copying is not a usual purchase driver and is more an issue if you are doing lots of USB copying from the phone – pictures will take about twice as long.

Battery

It received an endurance rating of 66 hours but the reality is, like most flagship phones, that it is a daily charge phone. But using Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0 to top up is very good. I tested the 50% in 30-minute claim – very accurate, and a full charge takes a little under two hours. It lacks wireless charging.

The phone got a little hot during testing – GPS and video recording are battery suckers.

Camera

Based on specs alone this should be one of the better cameras in 2016 flagship smartphones.

Let’s start with the DxOMark – it is 88, just behind Google’s Pixel at 89 and the same as Samsung’s Galaxy S7 Edge and Sony Xperia X Performance. DxOMark cites autofocus and texture preservation, making it a great choice for shooting moving subjects or capturing detailed landscape and architectural shots.

The camera app defaults to 16:9, 9MP landscape mode. It needs to be set to 4:3, 12MP to get the best results. HDR can be set to auto, off, or always on. There are plenty of settings to play with in PRO mode and one can save as RAW (or JPEG) if desired. There is a ZOE mode that records three seconds of video to produce an animated still shot like Apple and Samsung.

Despite the good PRO mode, all tests are done in “idiot” mode – full auto, auto HDR, and auto flash. Note that I use “perceptual analysis” — what I think looks best using the same monitor, compared to other reference shots collected over dozens of reviews — to rate cameras.

Outdoors, bright sunlight: Excellent colour, details and shadow definition – only beaten in detail by cameras with higher MP counts.

Outdoors, low light: Excellent colour, HDR tries to get details and mostly succeeds at the expense of longer exposure time.

Indoors, bright light (good ambient room level): Excellent colour, good shadow definition, but a slight loss of detail or focus – I suspect PRO/RAW mode would help here. The use of a tripod improved detail.

Indoors, low light: HDR seeks as much detail as possible, UltraPixels extract as much light as possible, but colours can be washed out and results are often blurry due to lack of OIS for stills. If better results are needed a tripod can be used for stability. I suspect that the combination of Auto HDR and Flash work against each other in low light and, depending on the subject, better results were achieved with HDR off and flash on and vice versa. The dual tone flash is effective up to about three metres, but not outstanding, with a marked fall-off in the corners of the image.

Panorama: good quality stitching but post processing time is slowed by the quad-core CPU.

Video: Maximum 4K@30fps – good colour and video OIS works well. The star output is 1080@30fps where EIS kicks in as well.

Selfie: OIS really helps jitter and colours are accurate. There is no fill flash or LCD backlight – a firmware update could address this.

Gallery: Uses Google Photos, a cloud-based service. It is OK but HTC’s previous gallery viewer efforts were better.

Summary: HTC’s rear camera meets or exceeds normal expectations but the S7 Edge is a better all-round performer. Let’s just say that one needs to be much more careful, work harder, and hold it very still to get a better shot than the S7. RAW post image enhancement is good but too slow.

User Interface UI

The HTC 10 uses a mix of HTC icons/apps and Android ones, so some are square, some have rounded corners, some are die cut etc. HTC says it is the lightest UI yet. It does away with overlapping apps. It is either HTC or Google, not both that are preloaded.

I like the Boost+ app to clean up the phone – it works well. Uber and other apps were offered at initial load – ignore them and load what is wanted from the Google Play Store.

I don’t like two things about the UI – both are purely a matter of personal preference. First, the screen icon layout is 4 x 4 – most others will now allow 5 x 5. This is not a deal breaker. Second, the default dark background for “apps” screens is dull – yes, you can play with themes to fix this. I suspect that with HTC now making the Google Pixel we will see it move to stock Android UI with minimal productivity changes when Android 7 finally arrives.

Boom Sound – not really

A nice marketing term and all it means is that the front-facing “earpiece” speaker is matched to a down-facing mate at the bottom next to the USB-C slot. This gives a reasonable coverage of bass (from the bottom) to higher range (from the top), but it is not really good for music or movie listening and stereo separation is poor.

I tested the Qualcomm aptX and Hi-Res audio on Sennheiser PXC-550 headphones and it was clear that HTC has put work into the electronics to produce great sound via the audio jack, USB, and Bluetooth. It has a dedicated headphone AMP and 24-bit DAC and if you use this sound is excellent. It comes with a pair of hi-res buds.

In hands-free phone use, callers said it was clear and I had no volume issues.

Some minor irritants

  • No quick camera access button or dedicated shutter key.
  • The fingerprint/home key is capacitive – good, but overly sensitive and can take you out of a screen e.g. camera if you accidentally brush it. Perhaps a real button with some resistance would have been better.
  • Screen is good, not great, no AOD.
  • No IP water resistance.
  • No wireless charging.
  • Android 7 still not here.
  • 1GB of updates (and that still only gets to an August 2016 Android security level).
  • No front facing speakers – loved the M9.

Excellent

  • Build quality and slightly, solid chunky feel that is good in the hand.
  • Sound “electronics” for Bluetooth and external amplifier use.
  • Fast charge is fast.
  • The camera is a good all-round performer – good details and colour. In auto-mode, it is below par with Samsung S7, Google Pixel, Sony XZ etc, but in PRO mode could match them.
  • HTC is back!

Conclusion

It is the best HTC yet and one that will get lots of accolade from HTC fans – it is worthy of their support. It is a strong performer all round.

But it is not the best phone of the year and it is not as good as Samsung’s S7 Edge or later technology devices like the Google Pixel.

But it is pretty good for a mid-2016 flagship that will likely have a new model in May/June this year. JB Hi-Fi has it for $799, unlocked and outright (usual RRP is $999) and online merchants are under $700. At that price that it gets a strong recommendation – unless you want to spend a few hundred more on a Galaxy S7 Edge.

I give it a 7.5 out of 10 – perhaps more if/when the Android Nougat update is delivered.

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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw ray@im.com.au  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!

 

 

 

 

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