Three years after flogging a sizeable chunk of its phones biz to Google and going all-in on VR headsets, HTC is back with two new mid-ranger blowers, including its first 5G handset.
The latter effort, the HTC U20 5G, packs some decent specs, with few of the cut corners typically found on mid-rangers. Powering the device is Qualcomm's Snapdragon 765G platform, paired with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage.
On the optics front, you get a four-lens camera setup, headlined (predictably) by a 48MP primary sensor. HTC also crams in an 8MP wide-angle lens, as well as a 2MP depth sensor for bokeh-filled portrait shots, and a 2MP macro lens for closeups. Sadly, there's no telephoto lens to be found, suggesting that it'll struggle with long-distance photography.
For the Instagram gang, there's a 32MP front-facing camera in a hole-punch located within the top left of the 6.8-inch FHD+ display.
HTC has endowed the U20 5G with a 5,000mAh battery, which is fairly generous, considering most manufacturers tend to hover around the 4,000 mark. Underwhelmingly, only 18W fast charging is available, when many manufacturers in the category are hitting 30W or greater.
Accompanying the HTC U20 5G is the cheaper HTC Desire 20 Pro, which packs a slightly smaller screen, and ditches the 5G radio for bog-standard 4G. Powering the blower is Qualcomm's Snapdragon 665 platform, paired with 6GB RAM and 128GB storage. The front-facing camera also sees a downgrade to 25MP. Still, it wins points for including a 3.5mm headphone jack.
HTC intends to launch the U20 5G and Desire 20 Pro in its home nation of Taiwan first and maybe exclusively. Pricing and international availability are yet to be confirmed.
And that's important. On paper, these phones are well-rounded mid-rangers. If HTC can position the U20 5G in the £400 mark, and the Desire 20 Pro in the £250 region, there might be reason for its rivals across the Formosa Strait (looking at you, Xiaomi and OPPO) to be concerned.
HTC, we barely knew you
The story of HTC is somewhat of a Greek tragedy. Like Icarus, it soared to the stratosphere, winning industry firsts along the way. It built the first 4G mobile, as well as the first Android phone (the HTC Dream, known as the T-Mobile G1 in the US). It was in a position to assert itself as one of the dominant players in the smartphone industry, taking its rightful place alongside Samsung, Apple, and Huawei.
But by the end of the decade, HTC's market share sat below 1 per cent. The biggest humiliation came in 2018, when it sold much of its R&D operation to Google for $1.1bn.
So what went wrong? There are a lot of factors that influenced HTC's decline during the 2010s. Initially, its product lineup was vast and confused, with little differentiation between devices. It also didn't help that HTC had split its efforts across Android and Windows Phone, when most people knew we were heading into a Google and Apple OS duopoly, and even considered buying its own in-house operating system.
Product quality suffered. HTC phones got a reputation for being bloatware-filled and sluggish, with crap software. HTC also adopted a strategy of carrier exclusivity in the US, at a point when Samsung and Apple were selling their phones across all networks.
Marketing was another major problem, with HTC spending comparatively less than its regional competition, e.g. Samsung. The campaigns it did run were poorly received, with its "Quietly Brilliant" tagline widely mocked by industry pundits for being vapid and meaningless.
In 2013, with HTC haemorrhaging market share (and money), the firm invested $1bn on a splashy ad campaign fronted by Iron Man star Robert Downey Jr (although it's reported Downey's fee was "just" $12m).
Celebrity endorsements always feel quite desperate, and the campaign, dubbed "Change", failed to convince anyone. Critics said the adverts were "weird" and "cringeworthy". Meanwhile, HTC continued to shed customers. It later pivoted into the niche of virtual-reality headsets, where it had some success. The biz also got into the blockchain space, with its Exodus line of phones, which tells its own tale.
Now HTC has gone back to basics: normal phones for normal people. The HTC U20 5G and Desire 20 Pro both appear to be solid mid-range handsets.
But we can't help but think that HTC will have other struggles. It'll have to convince consumers that it's still a viable contender in the smartphone space, and won't go gracefully into the night leaving millions of mobes unsupported and unpatched.
The numbers do not look good. For its first quarter of 2020 ending 31 March, HTC reported revenue of NT$1.33bn (£35m) – down 54.8 per cent on the same period last year – and a quarterly net loss after tax of NT$1.69bn (£45m). 2019 was yet another bloodbath for the brand. As one Bloomberg analyst put it after HTC revenue fell to just £261m last year: "That's an 84 per cent drop in 2 years... Apple now gets more from selling AirPods in a fortnight than HTC gets from selling *everything* in a year." ®