HTC springs back from the mat and swings harder than ever with the 10

HTC has a lot on the line. Its last two high-end smartphones – the One M9 and the One A9 – failed to excite smartphone buyers, and the once-great company is now suffering from serious quarterly losses. To make matters worse, HTC is trying to claw its way back to the top of the smartphone food chain at a time when competition between flagship smartphones is at an all-time high.

With Samsung’s Galaxy S7 Edge, LG’s G5, and Apple’s iPhone 6S leading the pack, the HTC 10 faces a very tough crowd — but HTC is not afraid. It’s gone as far as to call the device a “Perfect 10.”

We’ve been using the HTC 10 as our daily driver for the past week to see if it can take on the competition and regain its position as one of the best flagship smartphones.

If the iPhone 6S and the HTC One M8 had an affair, the resulting love child would look something like the HTC 10. The sleek aluminum back with its perfectly centered camera, subtle HTC logo, and slim antenna lines recalls the glory days of HTC design. A slim silver ring protects the camera bulge, and the back edges of the 10 are machined at a 45-degree angle to add some grip to the slippery metal phone. The curved back and striking edges make it very comfortable to hold.

The 10 looks beautiful when the light strikes the edges at just the right angle, and it’s one of the nicest looking Android phones from 2016 so far. It’s more stylish than LG’s bland G5, and it doesn’t attract fingerprints like Samsung’s otherwise gorgeous Galaxy S7 Edge. The silver version is flashier for those who want to stand out, and the matte black model looks subtler.

Meanwhile, the smooth glass front flows without interruption from top to bottom – just like it does on the One A9, which is best known for looking exactly like an iPhone. We love the way it looks. It’s much more attractive looking than the One M9 with its metal speaker inserts on the front. Of course, that monolithic glass front eliminates the possibility of placing BoomSound speakers on the front of the 10, which will surely anger HTC fans who loved those front-facing speakers. Have no fear, BoomSound fans. HTC popped the speaker on the bottom edge of the device. It’s supposed to be just as good as previous BoomSound speakers, too (more on that later).

Right next to it is the USB Type C port for juicing up your HTC 10. The volume rocker sits above the textured power button on the right side of the device, along with the SIM card slot. The power button is easy to find and the texture helps differentiate it from the volume key.

On the left side, you’ve got a MicroSD card slot for expanded storage. HTC chose to place the headphone jack up on the top of the device, which feels very outdated. It’s an odd choice, especially for a modern phone with a 5.2-inch screen. The headphone jack may be centered on the top of the phone, but it cuts through the sleek edge, leaving a strange little nick in an otherwise sleek design.

There’s also an oval-shaped fingerprint sensor on the front that’s slightly recessed. It’s not a button, so you don’t have to press it to unlock your phone like you do on the Galaxy S7. The fingerprint sensor is wickedly fast and accurate, though we did run into trouble when our fingers were a bit wet after washing the dishes. However, most fingerprint sensors have trouble with moisture, so that’s no surprise. Overall, it’s one of the best fingerprint sensors around, and we love that you don’t have to press a button to unlock the phone.

The screen itself is bright and rich. The 5.2-inch Quad HD screen sports a 2,560 x 1,440 pixel resolution and density of 564ppi (pixels per inch), which is the standard for an Android flagship these days. It’s a Super LCD 5 display made out of Gorilla Glass, so it’s not quite as rich as the Super AMOLED panel you’ll find on the Galaxy S7, but certainly still ridiculously beautiful. HTC also decided to shun the always-on display trend set by LG and Samsung. You’ll have to touch your HTC 10 to check the time, but luckily, a couple taps will bring up the time and notifications.

After living with the Galaxy S7 Edge’s always-on display for a time, we missed having that feature on the HTC 10. However, the fingerprint sensor on the HTC 10 makes unlocking the phone to check the time and notifications a breeze, so it’s not too much of a problem. Also, if you’ve never had an always-on screen, you won’t miss it.

HTC went with high-end specs on the 10. Every aspect of this device is top notch, from the gorgeous 5.2-inch Quad HD screen, to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor and 4GB of RAM. The processor is the exact same chip you’ll find in the Galaxy S7, S7 Edge, and the LG G5. During our testing, the HTC 10 was lightning fast and we never experienced lag on the device.

Just like most Android flagships, the HTC 10 comes with either 32 or 64GB of storage, which is expandable via a MicroSD card up to 1TB. HTC also supports Flex, or adoptable storage, which lets you use external storage as your internal one. It’s a feature that Google enabled in Android 6.0 Marshmallow, but not everyone adopted the new standard. For example, Samsung opted out of Flex storage on the Galaxy S7 lineup.

We’re glad HTC accepted Flex storage, because now you won’t get those annoying prompts asking if you want to store that app or photo on your MicroSD card every time you save something. It makes having expandable storage less of a hassle.

The HTC 10 has just about everything you could possibly want on a high-end Android phone, except one thing: water resistance. It’s a real bummer, especially if you’re accident prone, but the durable metal back should be some consolation. At least you know the HTC 10 won’t crack front and back when it hits the sidewalk. Just beware of toilets and glasses of water.

Just because you don’t see two front-facing speakers on the HTC 10 doesn’t mean the company has forgotten about audio. HTC says its “re-engineered” BoomSound Hi-Fi edition speakers separate the woofer and the tweeter, so that the sound output of the woofer comes from the bottom speakers, and the tweeter through the top speakers. That means you’ll be hearing higher notes coming out of the top, and the mid-to-lower notes coming out of the bottom speaker.

HTC says that the 10 sounds just as good as the One M9, even though the sound is coming out of the bottom – not the front of the device. However, the new speaker position does mean that you have to be careful how you hold the 10 when you listen to music. If you cover that speaker up, the sound gets muffled. In our tests, the HTC 10’s speakers sounded better than most smartphones, but not as strong as previous devices with BoomSound.

We compared the 10 to the iPhone 6S Plus, which is hardly known as a paragon for audio quality, and the difference wasn’t obvious. In fact, the iPhone 6S Plus sounded clearer, even though the HTC 10 had more depth. The 10 occasionally sounded muddy and less crisp. That’s not to say the speakers are bad – They do offer a more surround sound style of audio and they blast out music nice and loud.

Additionally, the headphone amp offers the ability to upscale 16-bit to 24-bit audio, and each speaker has its own dedicated amp as well. HTC’s offering a Personal Audio Profile that essentially lets you personalize the sound you hear from the 10 to your own tastes. You can choose between five different frequencies, sort of like a hearing test, to best optimize the sound output.

It was a fun experience, setting up my own audio profile, and I’m sure audiophiles will love it. The test was easy to do, but you should really do it in a silent place – not a busy office. Once you’re done, you can toggle it on and off to hear the difference. Although I’m definitely not an audio expert by any means, the sound profile did sound better than the canned track.

The HTC 10’s ability to upscale tracks and cater to audiophiles’ desire for personalized high-res audio is unique. LG’s G5 makes you buy a special module for nearly $100 to get the same experience, and it looks like you can’t even buy that module in the United States. This makes HTC the clear winner on the audio front. If high-res audio matters to you, the HTC 10 is the phone you’re looking for. It’s the only device on the market that prioritizes audio above all else.

Previously, HTC’s UltraPixel camera tech has fallen flat. Although you could produce cool focusing effects, it didn’t have the resolution to make it worth it. With the 10, HTC upgraded the UltraPixel rear camera to a 12-megapixel sensor with Optical Image Stabilization (OIS), and laser autofocus. The device also boasts an f/1.8 aperture,1.55μm pixel size, and 26mm focal length to let more light into the sensor and produce better low-light pictures. There’s also a dual-tone LED flash, and the camera can shoot 4K video with 4K audio.

On the software side, you can choose between Auto, HDR, Panorama, and Pro modes. The pro mode lets you tweak everything from ISO to white balance, just like you would with a DSLR in manual mode. We prefer the simplicity of HTC’s manual mode to the manual mode on the LG G5, and you can take some great photos with the 10’s camera.

We were especially impressed with the level of detail in a macro shot of broccoli. As you zoom all the way in on the photo, you’ll keep finding more detail. The HTC 10 also produces photos with realistic colors that aren’t oversaturated. A common criticism that’s leveled at Samsung phones is that the colors are exaggerated. The 10 takes realistic photos, though the colors can appear too “cool” in some shots. In ideal lighting, the HTC 10’s camera excels, taking gorgeous shots. Photos of city scenery turned out fantastic, as did the handful of close ups we shot.

The camera wasn’t without fault, however. Occasionally, the laser autofocus misses or takes too long to home in on the subject. The reason why people love the iPhone’s camera so much is because you literally just point and shoot. You rarely have to select a subject to focus on in the frame. It just takes the picture. Samsung’s Galaxy S7 Edge and LG’s G5 offer the same experience as the iPhone, and occasionally best the iPhone. HTC’s 10 sometimes struggled to focus on the correct subject.

In low light, the HTC 10 had a hard time focusing and snapping a picture quickly. At night, the shutter took so long to snap a picture that I would’ve needed a tripod to prevent any blur. The resulting picture was decent, but not the best we’ve seen. The Galaxy S7 Edge seems to do better in low light, but only slightly.

We took a shot of a rubber duck in a dark studio with no light to see which phone took the best shot. The Galaxy S7 Edge defeated the HTC 10 with a shot that was in focus, albeit grainy. The 10’s shot was out of focus and grainy to boot. To be fair, that was a particularly tough test to put a smartphone camera through, and other nighttime shots of the city turned out just fine. HTC says a software update is coming soon with some tweaks to the camera software, so that may fix some of our quibbles.

As for the 5-megapixel front camera, it boats OIS, a f/1.8 aperture, and a 23mm focal length. The camera records in Full HD, and the resulting video was rock steady, which isn’t something you can say about most selfie cameras. HTC’s addition of OIS to its selfie camera proves that it’s ready for the self-obsessed generation of Periscopers, Facebook Live Video users, and Snapchaters who love taking videos of themselves. If you’re into that kind of thing, the HTC 10’s selfie camera is the best you can get.

The selfie camera also has several modes, including auto selfie, Auto HDR, Voice Selfie, and Live Makeup. Every selfie I took looked extra perfect and polished, which pleased the Kim Kardashian in me.

HTC really talked up the 10’s battery, and the 3,000mAh pack is certainly large enough to keep the device running after a busy day at work. HTC says that people who aren’t power users may get up to 48 hours of battery life. As a power user, I typically had about 40 percent battery left around 9 p.m. after a busy workday, which isn’t too shabby, but it’s not great, either. You won’t be getting a day and a half out of the 10 if you use your phone a lot. I was hoping for more, but the HTC 10’s battery life is just average. It’s about the same as the Galaxy S7, iPhone 6S, and LG G5.

If you’re like me, you get uncomfortable when your phone goes below 40 percent, and you’d never leave the house with that little battery left. Luckily, the HTC 10 charges up rapidly with Quick Charge 3.0 via its USB Type C port. Specs say Quick Charge 3.0 juices your phone up to a 50 percent charge in 30 minutes, and based on our experience, that number is accurate.

The phone was down to 15 percent in the morning, so I plugged it in while I got ready for work. By the time I sat down to breakfast, it was already around 80 percent. Quick Charge is great, and it’s a feature that every single phone should have.

HTC used to modify Android a whole lot more with its Sense user interface. Now, the company is sticking closer than ever to pure Android, as Google intended it to be. The 10 runs Android 6.0 with Sense on top, though you can barely tell HTC’s UI is there at all. There aren’t dozens of duplicate apps, and everything runs smoothly. The app icons, notifications menu, settings, and other elements look like they would on a Google-made Nexus phone. Android purists will love it.

However, if you want to customize your Android experience, HTC has an entire theme store set up where its designers and HTC fans can create their own themes. You can choose everything from the background and color scheme of your phone to the icons you use.

HTC introduced a new set of themes that let you use stickers instead of app icons. You simply pop a sticker on your homescreen, drag it up to the corner until you see the option to link an app to it. Then, you can choose to make that cool hot air balloon sticker into a shortcut to Slack, WhatsApp, or any other app on your phone.

It’s a lot of fun to customize your phone, and I’ve personally been a fan of the theme store since it appeared on HTC phones last year. Your phone is just about the most personal thing you own, so why shouldn’t you be able to alter its appearance every now and then? The best thing about HTC’s themes (besides the near endless variety) is that the choice is yours. Like pure Android? Keep it that way. Like cute cats and stickers? You can have them.

Since it’s your choice and HTC’s Sense is toned down so much, updates to the latest version of Android shouldn’t take too long to hit your device. We say, “shouldn’t,” because there’s no way of knowing how quickly HTC will move to update your phone. The company informed us that the latest Google security update will hit the phone before customers get it in their hands. That’s a good sign, and it seems that HTC is taking updates more seriously than other smartphone manufacturers. The company claims it’s the fastest Android manufacturer to update its phones, so hopefully it tries to maintain that reputation.

Serious hacks and malware pose real and imminent danger to Android users whose devices don’t get timely updates. If Stagefright and Heartbleed taught us anything, it should be that security is important and updates must arrive on all devices in a timely fashion.

HTC offers one of the best warranties in town. When you buy an HTC 10, you get 12 months of Uh-Oh protection for free. The service includes a screen replacement, if you break your screen, and it even protects against water damage.

It’s really easy to get repairs or replacements, too. With Uh-Oh protection, you simply call customer support or chat with a representative online, and once you’ve discussed your problem, you can get a replacement in 1 business day before you even send back your damaged phone. HTC will put a $600 hold in your credit card until it gets the damaged phone, though, so don’t get any ideas. Alternatively, you can send in your damaged phone with a pre-paid label and get a replacement device 2 days after HTC gets your broken one.

The HTC 10 is an excellent phone, and it ticks off all the boxes for features you’d want on a flagship smartphone in 2016. It’s a return to form for HTC, and we’re happy to see the company back on track. It’s a difficult time for smartphone makers, because almost every high-end phone that’s released is excellent and there’s not much room for differentiation beyond design, software, and a handful of other features.

For HTC, the challenge was even tougher. It’s fallen from grace in recent years, and the HTC 10 has to be a perfect 10. When you’re going up against the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, the LG G5, or the iPhone 6S Plus; you need to give buyers a convincing reason why they should buy your $700 phone instead of the competition’s $700 phone.

HTC offers a handful of reasons, which will be more convincing to some than others. Its commitment to high-res audio shows on the 10, and audiophiles will be able to appreciate the difference in audio quality. For them, the 10 is a great buy.

The design is another element that will motivate some buyers to spring for the 10. After all, it’s the perfect mix of elements from HTC’s two best-looking phones: the One M8 and the One A9. If you find the LG G5 bland and the Galaxy S7 Edge too flashy, you’ll probably love the 10’s looks as much as we do.

The clean software, which looks close to Stock Android, also holds appeal for Android fans who’d normally buy a Nexus. At the same time, the optional themes offer a fun way to customize your device.

If any of these three features pique your interest, take a look at the HTC 10. Overall, the Galaxy S7 Edge is still our top high-end phone and Nexus 6P is our top overall Android phone, but no one will walk away disappointed they purchased an HTC 10.

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