HTC 10 review rebuttal: What’s in a 10?

As efforts like After The Buzz, the Pocketnow U-Review, and Empty Nest demonstrate, we’re constantly searching for fresh ways to review mobile technology. The newest product of those efforts is Pocketnow’s “Review Rebuttal” series, in which a member of our team is assigned to test a smartphone or tablet that’s already gone through our standard review process. While the resulting video or editorial doesn’t affect the “official” Pocketnow review score, we hope it provides added context by showcasing an editor’s personal opinion, rather than a team-wide consensus.

We call it the “rebuttal” because the new opinion sometimes differs significantly from the thrust of the original review. Rather than reject or bury that, we think the dissenting opinion is valuable – and we present it for your evaluation alongside select product reviews.

There are two reasons why we at Pocketnow wanted to give the HTC 10 a second look. First, and most importantly, some of our reviewers have never used an HTC smartphone before, and this is a great opportunity to do so. Second, Jaime Rivera did our initial review of the HTC 10 and came away very impressed. So impressed that Jaime awarded the hardware of the HTC 10 a perfect 10. That is a pretty heady number to assign the hardware of a phone. A “10” score is not something that can be taken lightly, and while our entire team is positive that Jaime did his due diligence with the HTC 10, you can’t just drop a bomb like that, and not revisit it. So here we are.

We have been testing the unlocked version of the HTC 10 for three weeks, first on AT&T’s network, and also on an MVNO called Krew Mobile – more on that network in another review. In that time, it’s fair to say we have come away impressed with the HTC 10 in just about every way. But is the experience a perfect 10? That’s what we’re here to find out.

HTC10_softwareSoftware

Right now, you’re thinking, “Software? What about the hardware?” We’re going to save the 10 evaluation for the very end. So, skip ahead if you want, but this phone is not just about hardware.

The HTC 10 runs on Android 6.0.1 with HTC Sense. One of the most distinguishing features of HTC Sense comes in the form of BlinkFeed. BlinkFeed is HTC’s Flipboard-esque news curator that brings you what’s hot based on your interests. It’s an attractive feature in an area that we are interested in – news. But when compared to something like Google Now, which seems to be a bit more intelligent in what is serves, it’s prettier, to be sure, but less useful. For example, when it’s hockey season, and a lot of our searches are for hockey-related stories, those tend to be at the top of the list in Google Now. In the midst of baseball season, there sure are some stories about baseball, but not a whole lot about the Cubs, which is wrong on several different levels. Bottom line, BlinkFeed is very attractive, but it seems to try to serve too much content, rather than content based on individual interests. That being said, there certainly is potential there.

Overall, HTC Sense is attractive, but there are a couple of peccadillos for which we’re not sure right choices were made. If you install an app and there is no room left on any of your home screens, a shortcut isn’t created (on an appended home screen). Depending on your view, that might actually be a positive. The camera can be launched with a double down swipe – this works about 60% of the time. After the first swipe, the screen will encourage you to perform a second swipe even if you were simply pulling the phone from your pocket and just want to power on the screen. That still needs a bit of work as well.

On the good side, you can launch any app or folder in your dock by dragging them up on the lock screen. The app drawer has a few different organization choices such as most recent and custom layouts. The themer allows for a wide variety of styles on your home screen including elements that aren’t locked to a grid. If you want to make this phone yours, you most certainly can.

HTC made it a point to play nicely with stock Android apps, including just one per service, rather than two – one camera app (HTC’s), one gallery (Google Photos), etc. Overall the software experience is a positive one as HTC and Google are playing nicely together. HTC is doing a lot right in this department.

HTC10_cameraCamera

One of the main missing components on an exceptional HTC experience has long been the camera, and if this camera is on the HTC One M8 and M9, HTC is probably in a better place today. The 12 million Ultrapixel camera on this phone is very, very good. Put into perspective against competitors though, and suddenly HTC is competing with arguably “great” cameras. Don’t misunderstand, HTC’s camera is not a failure, not by any stretch of the imagination. It is a wonderful step in the right direction, but it still has some ways to go.

When lighting is optimal – outside during the day, not in shadows, this camera will stand toe-to-toe with anything Apple, Samsung, or LG cares to throw at it. But that is the minimal standard by which smartphone cameras should be judged. When lighting conditions start to get worse, so too does the quality on the HTC 10’s camera. It’s important to make a point here – the quality is not necessarily bad. But it’s not great either. In the shadows, in close-ups, in low-light conditions, a photographer starts to see some graininess – at full resolution.

Please recognize that caveat – at full resolution. In this day and age, photos you take with your phone are rarely going to be viewed at full resolution, so is this a deal-breaker? When the photos are compressed, viewed on a screen the size of your phone, or even at 33% zoom, they look great. The one caveat is that when you blow these photos up to full res, you start to see some pixels. That being said, when we head out on vacation, we will have no problem taking this phone with us and our memories will be preserved very well, thank you very much.

On the front side of the phone, you’ll find a second Ultrapixel camera which, like its brother on the back, also carries Optical Image Stabilization. That is a treat because selfies on this camera are as good or better than any other phone we’ve used, even in low-light. HTC did very well in this category.

Speed and performance

The HTC 10 is an absolute beast of a phone in the power department. We whole heartedly agree with Jaime’s assessment in this category. One surprising aspect of the phone is the memory management – holding an app like PocketCasts in memory for an entire workday, for example. Regardless of what app we threw at this phone, we couldn’t slow it down. There is virtually no lag nor stuttering performance to be found.

The battery life on this phone is in the average-to-good range. We scarcely have to charge before the end of the day. These days often include some streaming video, podcast playing, and normal traffic from several email accounts. Our screen-on time ranges from 3.5 to 4.5 hours in a given day.

Our review unit seems to get hot and trigger a warning to cool down. Three times, out battery icon displayed a scary exclamation point over the battery. This was always on a hot summer day with the phone sitting in direct sunlight. The phone itself never got too hot to hold, and moving the phone out of the sun quickly caused the warning to go away. We reached out to HTC about this and they suspect this may be a defective unit. So never fear, you HTC 10 will not fry its hardware. And speaking of hardware…

HTC10_speaker

Hardware

Finally, we get to it. And yes, we did save this for the end because it’s pretty much the point of this rebuttal. Our findings with the HTC 10 so far have been on par with our initial review – mostly. But Jaime Rivera gave the hardware of this phone a perfect ten, and we need to ask ourselves if that’s warranted.

From a specification standpoint, this phone stands up to all of the competition. Processor (Snapdragon 820), battery (3,000 mAh), RAM (4 GB) are all on par with other top-tier phones.
So that’s not the 10.

The new look of BoomSound with the split-audio experience between the top earpiece and the bassy bottom firing speaker is on par with other performers out there, even our iPhone 6. We were honestly never really blown away with the BoomSound experience in previous generations, so this one is a push, and certainly doesn’t make it a 10.

But the build of the phone is great. Its all-aluminum chassis feels great in the hand – almost powerful. The chamfered edges of the phone give it an air of distinction and make the phone not only comfortable to hold, but beautiful to look at. Does that make it a 10? The screen and headphone audio on this phone are incredible. Watching a music video, or even a baseball highlight is an awesome experience. Can that make it a 10? Possibly.

But a perfect score requires…perfection. Now, we don’t mean to pick nits here, the phone is fabulous from a hardware standpoint. But, there is a camera bump. Despite the fact that the back of the phone is already curved which means it already doesn’t sit flat on a table, there is even more of a bump for the camera. So that’s one thing.

The model we tested was the carbon model, which really is a slick looking phone. Silver undoubtedly photographs better, but nothing says dark awesome like a carbon HTC 10. After three weeks of our admittedly indelicate handling, there are silver marks all around the bezel. The marks come from normal every day handling, which is a bit disappointing. If this bothers you, go with silver. Or carry around a black Sharpie marker. Simple fix.

So there are minor and extremely subjective concerns. But are they enough to knock down the score of the phone? That’s an interesting question, and one that you will have to answer for yourself. Don’t worry, we’re not trying to wriggle off the hook here. We’re going to answer the question for ourselves. But you, the reader, need to judge these concerns before you walk into a store and throw down $700 for this phone. So now, our answer.

Conclusion

No, it’s not enough to knock down the phone from a perfect 10. This phone is a model of craftsmanship. You might think that’s the wrong word, since phones are engineered, but it’s not. This phone is as much designed as it was engineered. It was designed to bring out the best qualities of today’s smartphones and put HTC ahead of all others. It does an admirable job at this. Considering the context and all that HTC has done to lead up to this point, the HTC 10 deserves a 10. Sure, we’re not exactly sticking out necks out there with that explanation, but it’s how we feel about this phone.

Bottom line, this is the best phone we have handled in 2016, and probably ever. This is also the first HTC phone we would be willing to hand over hard-earned cash for without reservation. If you’re looking for a phone recommendation, this will be at the top of the list (depending on your situation of course). If that sounds like a serious statement, that’s because this is a serious phone. If HTC can fix a few minor things here and there, it will be a force to be reackoned with in the years to come.

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About The Author
Adam Doud
Adam joined the tech world after watching Jon Rubenstein demo the most epic phone ever at CES 2009. He is webOS enthusiast, Windows Phone fan, and Android skeptic. He loves the outdoors, is an avid Geocacher, Cubs/Blackhawks fan, and family man living in Sweet Home Chicago, where he STILL hosts monthly webOS meetups (Don’t call it a comeback!). He can be found tweeting all things tech as @DeadTechnology, or chi-town sports at @oneminutecubs. Read more about Adam Doud!