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HTC's 10 feels like its best smartphone in years

Engadget Engadget 12/04/2016 Chris Velazco

Hands-on: HTC 10

Hands-on: HTC 10
© Provided by Engadget

After getting a pair of purely-OK hero phones and seeing the company's worth tank, HTC fans haven't had an easy time lately. As it turns out, HTC might have the cure for those woes (and no, I'm not just talking about Vive). Though the surprise was spoiled, the company pulled back the curtain on its new HTC 10 smartphone today, and you know what? It feels like the HTC phone I've wanted for years.

But first, the broad strokes. HTC is going to have 32 and 64GB versions, but both have microSD slots that take cards up to 2TB. While we're waiting on carrier pricing details, the unlocked version HTC will sell directly (pre-orders start today) costs $699/£569. There's a 3,000mAh battery wedged inside, which you'll recharge using the included rapid charger (HTC says it draws heat out of the phone for even safer charging). Flip the phone over and you'll find a 12-ultrapixel rear camera. Yeah, ultrapixels are back, but the sensor we've got here is a big improvement over old-school HTC shooters. And as you might've guessed, the 10 has a quad-core Snapdragon 820 and 4GB of RAM.

We've seen that chipset/RAM combination in a handful of high-end smartphones already, but it's fascinating to see how different companies built around it. While LG used it as the core for the radical (and questionable) G5, HTC put it at the heart of an impressively refined device. The fit and finish here are damned stunning. A chamfered edge runs around the 5.2-inch Super LCD 5 display (running at Quad HD, natch). Meanwhile, a more pronounced angle is cut around the 10's back, helping the phone settle really nicely into my hands. The effect is hard to deny: the HTC 10 is about 9mm at its thickest, and the all-metal frame tapers to a 3mm edge. My favorite little touch: the power button doesn't wobble in its socket. The M9 wasn't that different from the M8 and the A9 felt like an iPhone, so the 10 is HTC design at its best.

HTC has always been a little nutty about audio, but I'm still a little surprised to see BoomSound audio back. The stereo front-facing speakers are gone, though -- the new BoomSound Hi-Fi feature has a woofer in the bottom of the phone and a tweeter up top, so high and low frequencies come from above and below. I loved those silly stereo speakers and this new, mono approach isn't as eye-opening. Still, sound is loud and crisp -- more than I can say about most phone speakers. Beyond that, the M10 up-scales all audio to 24-bit quality, which should sound good on the included hi-res certified earbuds. And since all our ears are different (mine, specifically, are terrible), HTC cooked up a test that defines your "personal audio profile" -- once setup, most phone audio is tuned to your preferences. Oh, and HTC is licensing Airplay from Apple to stream audio to even more hardware. How's that for keeping an open mind?

The 10's software feels remarkably clean, too, particularly its Sense interface. Long story short: it feels closer to stock Android than ever before. HTC's little touches haven't completely vanished: BlinkFeed is still here waiting for you, and the location-based app suggestion widget is around too, though not on by default. And just like on the A9 and M9, you can install custom themes in case HTC's aren't to your liking.

This time, though, there's a "freestyle" theme that breaks away from the traditional app grid. The single freestyle theme available gives you a beach background to play with, and the stickers you add -- think sunglasses, picture frames, boats and so on -- can set to launch apps when tapped. It's very much not for me, but a little cousin sort of squealed when she saw it, so maybe HTC is onto something here. More importantly, HTC also killed some of its homebrew apps in favor of existing Google apps. At last, you're not stuck figuring out which preloaded email app is worth using. In at least one case, this working relationship led to a shift in Google's systems -- Google Photos now supports RAW images since HTC's Photos app got the axe.

Then there are the little things. Like many high-end Android devices, the 10 uses USB Type-C to charge. (JBL is also working with HTC on a pair of hi-res earbuds that connect through that port.) The fingerprint scanner is seriously fast and rarely pesters me about trying again. So far, so good.

I'm trying not to be too hopeful here -- my testing isn't done yet and it's possible the 10 will lose some of its sheen. Still, the fact that I have to actively manage my expectations is a pretty good sign; it's been years since an HTC phone got me this excited. Our full review is coming soon, so hang in there while we find out if this is the One you've been waiting for.

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