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HTC 10 review - the perfect 10?

Expert Reviews logo Expert Reviews 16-04-2016 Katharine Byrne

HTC 10 display

HTC 10 display
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The HTC One M9 played second fiddle to all its rivals last year. Its camera was dreadful, its battery life was severely sub-par and its nigh-on identical design to its predecessor, the One M8, meant it was left standing in the M8's shadow rather than stealing its own piece of the limelight. In fact, it was only when HTC released its second-tier One A9, last autumn that it felt like this once great smartphone giant was getting back on track.

HTC's clearly taken this to heart for its new HTC 10, as it shares a striking resemblance to its A-series sibling. Both share the same slim antenna lines, which run across the top and bottom of a full metal unibody, and they each have an almost identical fingerprint sensor incorporated into the home button on the front. However, it doesn't take much to see where the HTC 10 breaks away from the A9's school of design, as those huge, chamfered edges look absolutely stunning against the A9's flat, uniform finish, and the way they catch the light immediately draws the eye.

HTC 10 rear edge© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited HTC 10 rear edge

Design and fingerprint sensor

The Glacier Silver model shows it best, revealing at least three different shades of silver when placed face down on a table, but the Topaz Gold and Carbon Grey are both equally handsome in their own way. Regardless of which one you pick, it's definitely more attractive than LG's rather plain-looking G5, and its all-metal exterior looks a damn-sight smarter than the fingerprint-marred glass rears of Samsung's Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge handsets. This is what a flagship smartphone should look like – premium, stylish and not looking like it's been through a hedge backwards.

It's slim, too, measuring just 3mm at its thinnest point. Admittedly, this stretches to a rather chunky 9mm at its centre, but its simultaneously rounded and angular back feels great in the hand. It provides just the right amount of grip without feeling too sharp, and its skightly heftier weight of 161g makes it feel secure to hold and sturdily built.

© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited

The HTC 10 isn't just a better-looking phone than the One A9, though, as it also addresses some of that handset's major shortcomings. For instance, despite having a fingerprint sensor that doubled up as a home button, the One A9 still had onscreen buttons for the Back and Recents keys. The HTC 10, however, finally makes a return to capacitative buttons, freeing up more space on the screen for your apps and video files while also making a lot more sense than the One A9's mixed setup.

That said, I still don't find front-facing fingerprints sensors hugely practical, as they can be a bit of a pain to reach when using the phone one-handed. Indeed, the HTC 10 often didn't recognise my thumb when I placed it on the sensor horizontally, instead demanding that I have the full, central portion of my thumb firmly on the main contact point.

It worked better when placing my thumb on it vertically, but it's still nowhere near as convenient as other rear-facing sensors I've used, such as the one on the LG G5. That said, having one on the front still has its uses. It's much easier to use when the phone's lying flat on a table, for example, and once Android Pay eventually launches in the UK, rear-facing sensors may become quite awkward to authorise payments with when you're also tapping your phone on an NFC reader.

© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited

Performance

One thing the HTC 10 isn't short on is raw processing power, as it's got one of Qualcomm's brand-new quad-core 2.3GHz Snapdragon 820 chips inside it. It's also got 4GB of RAM, putting it neck-and-neck with the LG G5. However, it couldn't quite match the G5 when it came to running our Geekbench 3 benchmarks, as the HTC 10 only scored 2,022 in the single core test and 5,091 in the multicore test, putting it 300 points behind the G5 in each one. This makes it the slowest smartphone out of the big three, as Samsung's Galaxy S7 was even further in front for the multicore test, finishing with a huge score of 6,437.

Not that you'd probably notice the difference in everyday use, however, as the HTC 10 still felt incredibly quick and nippy when browsing the web, scoring an impressive 1,503 in Peacekeeper, and swiping through its Android homescreens was slick and responsive.

Fortunately, the HTC 10 was able to match both of its competitors when it came to graphics performance, producing a huge 2,946 frames (around 48fps) in the offscreen GFX Bench GL Manhattan 3.0 test. This is a fraction faster than the G5, but it's miles out in front of the Galaxy S7, which scored an average of just 38fps.

Battery Life

The HTC 10 also nudges ahead of the G5 when it comes to battery life, too, which is welcome news after the somewhat abysmal stamina of its M9 predecessor. In our continuous video playback test with the screen set to our usual measurement of 170cd/m2, the HTC 10's 3,000mAh battery lasted a respectable 12h 08m, which is just under an hour more than the G5.

It still can't touch the S7's monstrous battery life of 17h 48m, but this should be more than enough to make it through the day. It's also easy to top-up thanks to its USB-C port and Quick Charge 3.0 technology, as it can reach 50% in just half an hour, making it just as fast as the G5. I'm also pleased to see that HTC's included a USB-C to USB-A cable in the box, meaning you can use it with other USB plugs should you forget to take your bundled Quick Charge plug with you on the move.

Display

HTC's also made huge leaps forward in improving the quality of its 5.2in display, as the HTC 10 not only has a 2,560x1,440 resolution now (the M9 was only Full HD), but its new Super LCD5 panel is arguably the best LCD screen I've ever seen on an HTC smartphone. While it can't match the rich vibrancy of the One A9's AMOLED display, the HTC 10 still looks stunning thanks to its super-high colour accuracy.

Covering a near-perfect 99.8% of the sRGB colour gamut, images look absolutely superb, exhibiting plenty of deep, natural colours, and its low black level of 0.25cd/m2 also ensures that shadows and darker areas of the screen stay pure and inky. Its contrast ratio of 1,793:1 is also very impressive, so you'll find plenty of detail available on darker shadow areas, too.

HTC 10© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited HTC 10

Its peak brightness of 449.22cd/m2 is also significantly higher than its LG and Samsung rivals, which both top out at about 350cd/m2. However, both the G5 and S7 have a clever trick of being able to boost their brightness way beyond this in bright sunshine – something the HTC 10 is sadly lacking. Still, I found the HTC 10 was more than legible to look at outdoors, so it's not really a huge disadvantage in the grand scheme of things.

Android 6.0 and HTC Sense

Where the HTC 10 really shines, however, is its deep levels of customisation. HTC's Sense UI is by far my favourite Android skin after plain, vanilla Android, and it was one of the few saving graces on the One M9. However, the HTC 10 goes even further, adding in a whole new type of sticker-based home screen called the Freestyle Layout.

You can still have an ordinary home screen and personalise it with one of HTC's many pre-installed or downloadable themes from the HTC Theme Store if you wish, but the Freestyle Layout lets you create even more bespoke home screens thanks to its free-moving stickers. These can be placed anywhere you like, allowing you to break free from Android's traditional grid-based layout to make something a lot more fun and pictorial.

HTC 10 Sense UI© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited HTC 10 Sense UI

^ This is one of my favourite Freestyle themes. It takes a while to wrap your head around the new pictures, but it's definitely a lot more fun than traditional Android

App labels can be toggled on and off, too, allowing you to create secret app shortcuts that friends and family wouldn't necessarily know were there just by quickly glancing at the screen – perfect for those embarrassing apps or games you don't want others finding out about.

Admittedly, the Freestyle Layout takes some getting used to, as trying to dislodge well-known app icons from your brain and re-associate them with, in our case, a series of cat stickers takes time to wrap your head round. I'm sure it will become second nature the more I use it, but it's almost like learning an entirely new language – something that might, in fact, put some users off.

HTC 10 Sense UI traditional© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited HTC 10 Sense UI traditional

^ Alternatively, you can opt for the traditional Sense interface. Whichever one you choose, you'll notice HTC's really cut down on duplicate applications

Luckily, the rest of HTC's Sense Home interface is still present and correct, and its lashings of vanilla Android still persist in the notification tray and main settings menu. However, one thing you will notice is just how streamlined the HTC 10's pre-installed app selection has become. HTC's made a big effort to remove duplicated apps this year, and it's been working with Google to help make sure its Sense UI easier to use and more intuitive than ever before.

For instance, instead of having a separate HTC Gallery app in addition to Google Photos, or the HTC camera as well as the Google Camera app, you'll now just see the HTC Camera and Google Photos app. The only exception is HTC's Mail app, as the company still believes it's better than Google's Gmail app. Still, having fewer apps to deal with is definitely a plus in my book, and it should hopefully make the phone less confusing for those new to the Sense interface. 

© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited

Speaking of customisation, HTC is also releasing brand-new cases for the HTC 10, so say goodbye to DotView and hello to IceView. Instead of opting for a retro, pixellated look, the semi-transparent covers of HTC's IceView cases can now take advantage of the screen's full resolution to show smooth, rounded graphics of the time, date and weather, as well as app notifications, phone call histories and entire text messages. It might not be quite as convenient as the always-on displays of its competitors, but there's no denying it's a welcome upgrade over the old DotView cases.

Camera

Another weakness HTC's hoping to address with the HTC 10 is the rear camera. Despite having a 20-megapixel sensor last year, the M9's wonky exposure algorithm meant it was easily one of the worst parts of the entire phone, putting it at a severe disadvantage compared to the LG G4 and Samsung Galaxy S6. Thankfully, this seems to have been improved for the HTC 10, as its 12-megapixel sensor – dubbed the UltraPixel 2 sensor – produced some very respectable shots in our camera tests.

It's certainly got the right tools at its disposal, as it not only has built-in optical image stabilisation, but it also has a wide f/1.8 aperture lens, laser autofocus, the ability to shoot in RAW as well as JPG and huge 1.55um pixels. That's even bigger than the S7's 1.4um pixels, so the HTC 10 should theoretically produce better photos when it comes to challenging low-light photography.

HTC 10 back© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited HTC 10 back

Outdoors, the HTC 10 did a great job. Colours were bright and accurate and, more importantly, the exposure levels were just right, as they didn't come out overly dark or oversaturated. It did have a tendency to blow out very bright objects, creating a bit of a misty sheen in the process, but it's still a vast improvement over last year's camera.

HTC 10 camera test© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited HTC 10 camera test

^ The HTC 10 produced excellent shots outdoors, although lighter parts of the frame were a little hazy and blown out at times

HTC 10 camera test HDR mode© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited HTC 10 camera test HDR mode

^ Thankfully, you can easily correct this by switching on HDR mode

Its indoor performance was good, too, as it captured an excellent level of detail even in low lighting conditions. However, compared to the shots I took on the G5 and S7, the HTC 10 had a noticeable lack of contrast regardless of lighting arrangement, which meant colours looked rather flat as a result. While some might say the G5 and S7 produce overly warm shots, it's certainly preferable to the cooler, greener colour palette of the HTC 10. This is a shame, as its 1/25 sec shutter speeds make it just as fast and reliable as its rivals in low light, but that's not much consolation when its shots are significantly darker and less eye-catching.

HTC 10 camera test indoors© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited HTC 10 camera test indoors

^ The HTC 10 performed well indoors as well, but the resulting images just don't have as much contrast as its rivals, leaving photos looking a bit flat and lifeless as a result

HTC 10 camera test indoors with lamp© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited HTC 10 camera test indoors with lamp

^ Even with our external lamp turned on, images looked a bit dark and dingy - a world away from the bright, punchy images I took on the G5 and S7

Still, at least you have plenty of space for your photos, as the HTC 10 comes with 32GB of storage as standard, which can then be expanded via microSD up to 2TB – not that you can buy 2TB microSD cards just yet, but at least it has a bit of futureproofing for when they do finally arrive.

Boomsound Hi-Fi Edition

Of course, a new HTC phone wouldn't be complete without new Boomsound speakers, and the HTC 10 is the first smartphone to come with the company's new Boomsound Hi-Fi Edition speakers. Comprised of a miniature tweeter at the top of the phone and a tiny subwoofer at the bottom, it's been specifically designed to mimic a traditional speaker set-up. There's even a separate amplifier for each driver.

It certainly has plenty of volume for such a tiny setup, but it can still sound rather tinny depending on what type of music you play. Instrumental tracks, for instance, didn't do it many favours, particularly when played at high volume, but vocal tracks, such as George Ezra's Blame It on Me, sounded perfectly fine. They're certainly better than a pair of laptop speakers, but you'll probably want to plug in its pair of bundled Hi-Res headphone to get the best experience.

With support for 24-bit Hi-Res audio tracks and Dolby Audio, these comfy earbuds can really add a significant amount of bass to your music. Drum rolls can, admittedly, sound a touch muddy at times, but on the whole it strikes a pleasant balance with the mids and treble. It's easy to turn off if you don't like it, too, as a card automatically appears in the notification tray when you plug in a pair of headphones.

© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited

If that wasn't enough, HTC's also upgrading its HTC Connect streaming service with full native Apple Airplay support, making it even easier to share your music around your home.

Conclusion

There's no denying that the HTC 10 is a huge improvement on last year's M9. Not only has it improved on all the M9's weaknesses, such as its screen quality, battery life and camera performance, but it's also got all the right looks to go head to head with the Samsung Galaxy S7 and LG G5.

That said, the competition for best flagship smartphone this year has never been higher, and the fact that contract prices are all pretty level across the board right now means we really have to split hairs on which smartphone comes out on top. For the first time in years, the HTC 10 is the most expensive handset when buying SIM-free, with current prices sitting at £569, but you're still looking at around £40-per-month for all three phones when buying them on contract. As a result, the HTC 10's flaws, such as its inferior low light photography and mildly slower CPU performance, are just enough to knock it into third place overall.

HTC 10© Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited HTC 10

Of course, if you want a phone you can customise down to the nth degree, then the HTC 10 certainly won't disappoint. It definitely has the best version of Android out of all of this year's top-end phones, and its new sticker-based Freestyle Layout gives it a lot more personality than any other smartphone currently available. It's also the best-looking handset out of the 'big three', and the bundled Hi-Res headphones are a great added bonus, too - although it's worth noting that most retailers are still bundling in a pair of B&O H3 headphones with the G5 as well.

The HTC 10 is still a great smartphone that gets a lot of things right, but for those after the very best Android can offer, the Galaxy S7 and LG G5 still come out on top.  

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