It's time to start getting excited about HTC again. Not only did the company just start shipping the best VR headset money can buy, but it also has a legit Smartphone of the Year candidate in the gorgeous, powerful and smooth-handling new HTC 10. After a slump that had some questioning its relevance, HTC has gone full Frank Costanza: "I'm back, baby!"

HTC's best phones have always been as much about hard-to-define intangibles as anything else; a whole that's greater than the sum of the parts. While Samsung routinely goes big, swinging for the fence (and often hitting) with money-shot features, HTC's phones are more like Android's version of the iPhone: making their own case based on subtler and refined details that just feel good to use. It's design, specs and Google's core software (with a few key HTC tweaks) coming together for a high-end experience that respects the user's taste and intelligence.

Hiring Gary Oldman as a pitchman a couple years ago made perfect sense. Neither HTC nor Oldman is the biggest box office draw, but once you see their work, discerning eyes will know they're getting the highest of quality.

The HTC 10 epitomizes this better than any HTC flagship since 2013's One M7. Like its predecessors, the 10 has a beautiful aluminum unibody design, but there are enough changes that it no longer feels like the same basic exterior recycled for yet another year. Part of that is the chamfered edge running around its backside (a new detail that looks better in person than in pictures), but it's also the cleaner front-side that loses the old forward-facing speakers in exchange for capacitive buttons (including fingerprint sensor).

The HTC 10 also has one of the best cameras you can find in a smartphone today. One of the first areas we look at is in low-lit settings, where smartphone shooters most often differentiate themselves from one another. Here's how the HTC 10 compares to the Galaxy S7 and iPhone 6s under very low lighting:

The Galaxy lights up the dark scene a bit more, but it also looks a little artificially saturated. The HTC shot captures highlights about as well as the S7, only with more realistic-looking color, and darker shadows. Depending on your taste, you could go with either one. The iPhone, meanwhile, clearly comes in behind.

In even more extreme poorly-lit settings (we're talking lighting where you can barely see anything with your own eyes), the S7 lit the scene noticeably better than both the 10 and the iPhone, but in those settings you'll probably want to use a flash anyway.

The HTC 10 also has excellent hi-res audio support. We streamed the same Tidal HiFi tracks on the same three phones we used for the camera test. With all three flagships, we used the same two pairs of headphones: the audiophile-friendly PSB M4U 2 and noise-cancelling champ Bose QC20 earbuds. In both cases, the HTC 10's bass had the fullest, deepest presence, with slightly better separation and more clarity in the mids and highs than the iPhone or Galaxy.

The differences were subtle enough that your average listener probably won't notice a huge difference – the other two also sounded very good – so you may not want to base your buying decision solely on this. But if you have a discerning ear, the HTC 10's warm, rich and just ... right-sounding audio could help tilt the balance in its favor.

... and while HTC axed the front-facing speakers this time around, the phone's speaker audio still sounds very loud and full. It's just coming out of the bottom and the top earpiece now, instead of the old front speaker grilles from previous flagships that limited HTC's ability to add things like fingerprint sensors.

Another subtlety that could easily go unnoticed is the HTC 10's support for Android's new adoptable storage. While the Galaxy S7 and LG G5 also have microSD slots, only the 10 gives you the option of formatting the card so the phone doesn't differentiate between it and internal storage. Get a fast microSD with, say, 200 GB of storage and you basically have a 232 GB phone. It supports cards up to 2 TB (which would effectively give you a phone with 127 times the storage of the entry-level iPhones).

Battery life is very good, though short of being the best among current flagships. In our benchmark, where we stream video with screen brightness measured at a consistent luminance, the HTC 10 came in second to the Galaxy S7 (the HTC 10 dropped 11 percent per hour, to 9 percent per hour for the S7). It still beat the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, which each dropped 13 percent per hour under the same conditions.

Smartphones have gotten a little boring these days, with the tidal wave of innovation that we saw from 2007 up to a few years ago turning into more of a gentle trickle today. New phones will always be faster, with better cameras and a few new features, but they no longer make last year's phones look obsolete. Genuinely innovative new features are harder to come by, with off-the-mark gimmicks from increasingly desperate smartphone-makers usually outnumbering the meaningful new stuff – often by a wide margin.

The HTC 10 doesn't buck that innovation slowdown trend, nor does it try to reinvent the smartphone. But it is still significant in that it marks the comeback of one of the pioneering, most detail-driven and sophisticated smartphone companies around. For the first time in two or three years, HTC has a phone that could easily be considered the best of the year. In a market that's too often dominated by two brands – both commercially and critically – we're all better off when HTC is making top-notch, world-beating handsets. It gives discerning smartphone shoppers more/better choice.

... and besides, who doesn't love a good underdog comeback story?

If you're shopping for a new smartphone, you should give the stellar HTC 10 a long and hard look. It skips a few of the headline features of the Galaxy S7 (like water resistance, wireless charging and an always-on display), but in their place adds HTC's attention to detail and subtler intangibles – like audio quality, excellent display brightness and white balance, near-stock Marshmallow software and a design focus that takes no shortcuts – that combine to transcend its features or specs sheet alone.

If we had to pick a Best Smartphone of 2016 right now, we'd probably call it a draw between it and the Galaxy S7 (which also includes the larger S7 edge). As for which phone I would rather have in my pocket, though, I'm going with the HTC 10. It's premium from head to toe – with a genuine respect for customer taste, and a bullheaded determination to make refined quality win out over gimmicks – making it an absolute pleasure to use.

The HTC 10 is available for pre-order now, with shipments set to go out in May. It rings up for US$699 full retail, which is slightly higher than the iPhone 6s and Galaxy S7.

For more on HTC's other killer 2016 product, you can hit up our Vive VR headset review.

Product page: HTC

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