Review It’s only two years since HTC was the darling of the fanDroids. Distinctive, thoughtfully made and a cut above the rest in style, the HTC One M8 gathered the kind of plaudits an obscure band gets.
A few things have changed since then – and I don’t realise how much until I opened the box.
Erstwhile market leader Samsung, which had grown smug and complacent by 2014 (offering the "elastoplast" Galaxy), now leads the market again. Google has imposed its toylike Montessori-inspired Material Design language on the market, bring uniformity to the anarchy of Android user interfaces.
It has been a success, but it has obliterated diversity; you now look odd if you don’t follow the design language. And thirdly, Shenzhen happened. Xiaomi and OnePlus offer top quality components in a device that’s half the price – and their design isn’t bad either. My first reaction on unboxing my review sample was that the 10 is as well made as the OnePlus 2, the device it most strongly resembles.
There’s arguably a fourth factor. When you choose a phone brand you buy into the promise of an ecosystem ranging from wearables to contactless payments to funky cases. Few can match Samsung and Apple here. This promise may be less than the sum of its parts, but it’s increasingly a factor for the smaller challenger brands. That's a lot to contend with.
The HTC design team did a nice job of retaining some of the character of the One Mx series, while ditching its most distinctive feature. Like its predecessors, the 10 is a unibody aluminium case, well balanced, and less slippery than before. The larger area means it doesn’t have the dense mass of the S7. The distinctive feature I miss from the M7 to M9 is the disappearance of the dual front-facing stereo speakers. This time around there’s a tweeter at the top and a woofer at the bottom. There was something miraculous about such a unlikely, slim device producing such an unearthly room-filling sound, like one of the objects retrieved from the Zone in Roadside Picnic. The device lived up to the hype-drenched BoomSound™
The 10’s sound quality is very good. But it’s just not the same. A real life litmus test for the M8 was being able to use it as a kitchen radio, with speech clearly audible above the noise of the cooking. The M8 was one of very few phones that could do this. The 10 struggled, to be honest. In addition, speakerphone audio is piped through the bottom speaker only.
It isn’t a disaster, more of an oh well. Despite the leaks, I’d hoped the dual speaker design would endure, just as Thinkpad designs haven’t really changed too much, becoming a design classic as the years passed. I guess the disaster of the M9 put paid to that. Bloggers got bored (they get bored easily) and howled for change. The reason for the design decision is the positioning of the fingerprint sensor on the front. Again, mounting this on the side (like Sony) or rear (like Huawei/Honor/Nexus 6) would have retained the distinctive design.
At least the sensor is super responsive and rarely complained. But then you do wonder how just how fastidious these permissive biometrics really are. Perhaps it’s like a bored nightclub bouncer letting anyone in, because it’s late and the club’s empty. The 10’s FHD display is super responsive too, giving rich but not too saturated colours but not so great in direct sunlight when the screen has picked up fingerprint smudges. HTC needs to tweak the coating and give up the luminance in bright conditions.
As it’s bleeding red ink, HTC has had to choose its battles more carefully, and where the 10 has differentiated is in media capabilities, particularly audio output. HTC has pushed its way into the hifi mags before, but here the idea is to drive an existing audio system. It’s HiRes certified (192 kHz/24-bit sampling) and the first mainstream phone to use USB-C audio, and you can pick up a pair of JBL noise-cancelling headphones, Reflect Aware C. The USB port provides the power for the active noise cancelling, as well as the digital audio path. The pricing hasn’t been announced but the specs can be found here.
Alas there’s no serious waterproofing (it promises to guard against very light water ingress, eg raindrops) and no wireless charging. HTC told me that rapid charging is all people want (and no doubt, it’s very useful), but to be brutal about it, this is where the 10’s competitors are more Shenzhen rather than Samsung or Sony). Samsung has managed to squeeze Qi and Powermat support into a smaller package.