HTC through the ages: A brief history of HTC’s Android handsets
HTC, above and beyond any other manufacturer, has done more than its fair share of popularising Android.
HTC was there at the beginning, producing some of the first Android handsets, the first Nexus handset, and launching the first handset that really added refinement to Google’s new mobile operating system.
It’s a company that’s known for two things: design and its Sense user interface that is layered over the top of Android. The company hit it big, moving from OEM (i.e., making phones to order for other people) into a global mobile brand.
- HTC U 11 ‘Ocean’: Release date, specs and rumours
That meteoric rise was followed by fall, bringing us to today’s position where HTC stands as a warning to ambitious rising stars: the tide can turn quickly and when it does, the fall will be a hard one.
But along the way, HTC has delivered some outstanding handsets. Not all fully appreciated in the face of rising competition and wider exposure by other brands like Samsung, this is a brief history of some of HTC’s most significant Android handsets, from the HTC Magic though to the anticipated HTC U 11.
Having made the first Android handset in 2008 – the T-Mobile G1 – it wasn’t until the HTC Magic appeared in 2009 that HTC had its logo on the back. It took second place to Vodafone on the front and “with Google” on the back, but this is where HTC’s identity as a power in Android really started.
The HTC Magic launched on Android 1.5 Cupcake, while many of us were still trying to get to grips with the sweet treat names, and saw its unveiling at Mobile World Congress 2009. It offered a 3.2-inch display and had a 3.2-megapixel camera. Many of its rival devices weren’t smartphones and those that were mostly offered physical keyboards.
It was a raw Android experience, a slightly bumpy introduction to a full touch world for the Google OS.
With the Magic out in the wild, HTC made its big move, launching the most significant handset for both HTC and Android. The HTC Hero took the raw Android experience and added HTC Sense over the top. HTC Sense was loosely derived from much of the work that HTC had been putting into its Windows Phone experience, but in Android it found a natural home.
Sense introduced things like customisation and personality, adding polish to Android that was missing from an OS that still felt rough and experimental. The HTC Hero also reinforced HTC’s passion for design, with a pronounced chin and tactile back, resulting in a lovely handset.
The Hero was essentially just a repackaged HTC Magic, but bumped the camera to 5-megapixels. The HTC Hero launched in London in a fashion that revealed that HTC knew how to have fun.
Google Nexus One
With the calendar rolling forward to 2010, Google made a significant move: it launched the Nexus programme. The Nexus One was built by HTC and it saw Google creating a handset to run on stock Android where all other manufacturers were skinning its operating system.
HTC managed to keep its logo on the back however, and there was a lot of HTC design in the Nexus One. The trackball was lifted from the Hero and the design shows hallmarks of HTC phones that followed, particularly the metal band reaching around the rear, reflected later in the Sensation.
The Nexus One launched on Android 2.1 Eclair and had a 3.7-inch display, and featured capacitive controls rather than physical buttons for navigation. There was a 5-megapixel camera and it came with a microSD card slot.
The Nexus One caught the eye of Philip K Dick’s estate who claimed the name infringed on its intellectual property, while Apple also took HTC to court over the design. Something of a hot potato, but important both for HTC and Android.
HTC worked with Google again on the Nexus 9 tablet, but the Nexus One remains HTC’s only Nexus smartphone so far. Fittingly, it was followed by the Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus, as Samsung began its mighty Android rise.
While HTC was enjoying the Nexus limelight, it trumped the Google phone with the launch of the HTC Desire. This swapped the trackball for an optical system instead, leading to a sleeker phone.
The HTC Desire was the flagship at launch, but also saw HTC fragmenting its smartphones into many different lines and models. It was launched alongside the HTC Legend (and next in our gallery), but there was already a hint that HTC was launching too many phones.
Arriving with Android 2.1 Eclair with Sense over the top, the HTC Desire offered power and refinement, with a 3.7-inch display and 5-megapixel camera. It borrowed from the Nexus One design in some areas, but returned to physical navigation keys underneath the display.
The HTC Desire HD followed later in the year, with a larger 4.3-inch display, as well as the Desire Z, which offered a slide-out physical keyboard. The Desire name still survives today as a mid-range category of devices.
The HTC Legend was launched alongside the HTC Desire, but was something of an oddity. It was lower powered with a smaller 3.2-inch display, but offered a far more important design. This was the first time that HTC really went to town with metal bodywork.
The results were stunning. The HTC Legend retained an insert in the rear and a removable bottom section, but essentially took the HTC Hero design, slimmed it down and made it a metal unibody. Some saw this as the company trying to design a phone to appeal more to the female market (and we’re not including the HTC Rhyme on this list), but the Legend made its mark, a mark that still ripples through HTC’s handset design today.
HTC Evo 4G and HTC ThunderBolt
The ascent of 4G sees two handsets sharing this section of HTC’s history. The HTC Evo 4G was launched onto Sprint’s network in the US in 2010. It was close to the Desire HD which launched a few months later globally. Importantly, however, the Evo 4G is credited as being one of the first 4G handsets, sitting on Sprint’s WiMax network.
However, there are those who will argue that that credit should go to 2011’s HTC ThunderBolt, the first LTE handset launched onto Verizon and again a reworking of the Desire HD. At this time, sticking 4G or LTE on the name was an important factor as next-gen networks pushed faster speeds and the entertainment or business benefits that came with them.
But these two devices serve as an illustration of the sort of approach that HTC was taking: it was building smartphones for individual networks, resulting in an explosion of different hardware configurations and ever expanding software offerings.
HTC Sensation XE
Meanwhile, HTC was looking for adjectives to push its handsets on and Sensation was the flagship for 2011. The regular model launched in Spring, but towards the end of the year HTC launched a more significant version: the Sensation XE. It was this model that saw the first integration of Beats Audio.
The HTC Sensation launched with a 4.3-inch display and introduced a wonderful design with a wide metal band reaching diagonally across the back. It also had a concave edge to the display. HTC’s design panache was unquestionable in the Sensation, but it was the XE that really pushed things forward.
The Sensation XE carried Beats branding and came with iBeats headphones in the box, as well as boosting the hardware slightly over the original version. The Beats integration ran across a number of subsequent handsets before the companies parted ways.
Beats Audio is now a part of Apple.
HTC One X
In 2012 and towing a very fragmented collection of handsets along behind it, HTC redesigned its flagship positioning. It launched the HTC One branding saying that this was one way of thinking about phones, but then launched the One X, One S and One V in three different positions and confused that message.
The One X was the flagship and offered a polycarbonate unibody design. It launched on Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, with Sense 4.0, and came with a 4.7-inch display. To further confuse things, the One X was powered by a quad-core Nvidia chipset, but a separate version known as the One XL carried a Qualcomm dual core chipset and offered LTE connectivity.
The One X was a great handset, again pushing design, but the One branding wasn’t very clear: HTC was telling us what the message was, but was doing something else, namely launching lots of handsets.
With HTC’s One branding getting lost in 2012, it repeated the process in 2013, launching a phone that was actually called the HTC One. This phone, above anything else, showcased a precision of manufacturing and skill in design that’s still aped elsewhere.
Using a metal body, and aiming for a zero-gap construction, the One came with a 4.7-inch full HD display, a quad-core processor and included 4G/LTE as standard. It pushed the latest methods in a number of areas, offering sophistication in build, clarity in naming and bags of power.
The biggest hit was BoomSound. Giving over space for two front-facing speakers, BoomSound universally impressed everyone, out-performing the sound quality of all smartphones at the time and many since. The One also offered Beats tuning for the headphones.
It then introduced the UltraPixel camera. As HTC looked to differentiate, it opted for a 4-megapixel camera, stepping down from the 8-megapixels of previous handsets, and jumping out of the megapixel race against companies like Samsung. It was a gamble that didn’t pay off, with many saying that the camera changes were a mistake.
The HTC One also leaked heavily prior to launch, where the M7 working name fell into common usage, with then CEO Peter Chow filmed chanting “M7” on stage at a company party. The name stuck and is now retrospectively applied.
HTC One (M8)
With a HTC One handset on the market, HTC moved to officially accept that it couldn’t avoid the M names. It launched the HTC One (M8) throwing the model number into brackets, following heavy leaks where the phone had been identified as the M8, or “mate” adding to confusion.
The One (M8) offered staggering design. It progressed HTC’s unibody to be entirely metal and offered a finish that was unrivalled in its quality, at least until the launch of the iPhone 6 6-months later in 2014. It launched on Android Lollipop with Sense 5.0.
But the One (M8) didn’t stand still on the camera and its most talked about feature was the dual camera on the back. Rather than addressing the criticisms of the M7, it added a second sensor to the UltraPixel camera and offered a range of novelty effects, which didn’t really help the camera’s fight against the Samsung Galaxy S5.
It did step the display up to 5-inches, however, and stuck to a full HD resolution.
HTC One M9
HTC officially dropped the brackets and launched the One M9 with a flourish, proclaiming a jewellery grade finish for its 2015 handset. It undoubtedly poured more attention into the details than any previous handset, but by this time it felt like the third iteration of the same phone, but progressively losing the impact of the M7 and M8.
In many cases it felt like an incremental update of the One (M8), sticking to a 5-inch full HD display and presenting itself visually in much the same way as the previous handset, so there wasn’t anything hugely noteworthy aside from the refinement in design, which for many went too far.
To make matters worse, the M9 dropped UltraPixel and Duo Camera for a straight 20-megapixel camera as the company jumped back into the megapixel race. But that camera failed to impress critics, seeing HTC stumble.
The M9 no longer felt competitive against rivals, like Samsung’s redesigned S6 edge launched at the same time, that stole headlines for its refreshing design and excellent camera performance. The M9’s position was then questioned with the launch of the One A9, a lower-tier handset with a radically different design, making the M9 feel like the last of a line.
HTC 10 is a return to form for HTC, with a serious, bold, design that harks back to the M7, but fuses in the modern looks of the One A9. But it drops the One and M branding, for something of a reboot.
There’s a 5.2-inch Quad HD display, Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 chipset with 4GB RAM and 3000mAh battery. There’s a 12-megapixel rear camera with optical image stabilisation, which the front 5MP camera also offers. BoomSound has evolved to BoomSound Hi-Fi, with Hi-Res support across the handset.
The HTC 10 makes a departure from old HTC Sense, with a new lighter version that’s closer to the Android foundation that it sits on. The aim is optimisation, efficiency and reducing bloat. It’s been well received by reviewers, but standing in the face of fierce competition, feel like it’s lost out to Samsung innovation and cheaper rivals like OnePlus.
The future: HTC U 11 ‘Ocean’
HTC’s next flagship handset is thought to be launching on 16 May and it’s thought to be called HTC U 11. It’s been codenamed HTC Ocean and has appeared in a number of high profile leaks, so we already have a good idea about what it might feature.
The standout feature is something called Edge Sense, but this isn’t a copycat Samsung feature, it appears as though the device will be pressure sensitive. This fits with HTC’s social media campaign showing lots of squeezing, suggesting that this will be a phone that offers a new method of interaction.
It’s thought to offer a 5.5-inch Quad HD display, carry the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chipset for plenty of power, but not feature a 3.5mm headphone socket.
Soon all with be revealed.