Review: HTC Thunderbolt, Verizon's First 4G Android Phone
The 4G war is heating up among smartphone providers, and Verizon's first salvo has hit store shelves in the form of the HTC Thunderbolt, a beast of a phone that is as speedy as it is beefy.
The HTC Thunderbolt is the first of many phones that will use Verizon's 4G LTE network, which currently is available in only a handful of metropolitan areas but will expand to over 100 areas by the end of the year.
Even setting aside its 4G capabilities, the Thunderbolt is worth consideration.
The overall design of the Thunderbolt is very familiar to anyone who has seen a smartphone from HTC Corp. It's a bit thicker than recent smartphones but can still slip into a pocket easily. The back is a soft touch material that feels nice in the hand, with a (blessedly) large volume rocker on one side, power button on top and micro-USB port on the other side.
This phone is also a bit heavy, even compared with HTC phones of the same size. The additional 4G hardware inside is likely to account for that (and the slightly thicker profile), but we actually like the heft of the Thunderbolt. It feels like a tool instead of a toy, and the weight — 5.78 ounces (164 grams), only an ounce heavier than Verizon's iPhone 4 — is by no means unbearable.
The front of the HTC Thunderbolt is dominated by a 4.3-inch WVGA display that's quite magnificent. The 800x480 pixel resolution isn't exactly groundbreaking, but it looks great on the Thunderbolt, and the colors are vibrant. In addition, the touch functionality is accurate and responsive, but the average user will most likely be attracted to the sheer size of the display . The extra display area might seem trivial at first, but it makes a difference. There's more room for onscreen keyboards, and even reading Kindle books is better because the screen can pack a few extra words on each line. Given the frequent page-turning required when reading e-books on a smartphone screen, every extra word counts.
HTC has included its iconic earpiece speaker grille at the top of the device, along with a 1.3-megapixel camera for making video calls. Skype video calling wasn't available at launch, contrary to early reports, but might make it into the device in a future update.
Like the touch screen, the buttons at the bottom of the screen (home, menu, back and search) are capacitive rather than physical hardware. While this is hardly unique to the Thunderbolt, many people prefer the physical buttons because the capacitive buttons are too easily bumped with a finger.
While there are many phones scheduled to launch with dual-core processors, the HTC Thunderbolt is not one of them. However, it does employ the latest generation of 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processors, and it feels zippy. 4G data speeds aside, just using apps and swiping through menus feels fast and responsive.
Another big reason why the Thunderbolt feels so snappy is the 768MB of RAM, which is more than the average Android phone has now. More RAM means the processor can do more and do it faster. There will be phones on the market soon with 1GB or more of RAM, but for now the Thunderbolt feels about as fast as they come.
One of the most unexpected and useful features of the HTC Thunderbolt is the 32GB microSD card that resides under the battery. Between the card and 8GB of internal storage, the HTC Thunderbolt comes with more storage than the priciest iPhone 4 or nearly any other smartphone, for that matter. You'll have to pry off the ridiculously hard-to-open battery cover to get to the card. Fortunately, users shouldn't need to do that very often.
For those who are willing to pay $20 extra per month, the mobile hotspot feature is quite useful. It can broadcast a Wi-Fi signal to eight other devices and provide Internet access to all of them. It's particularly useful for people who are constantly on the go and need a Wi-Fi hotspot in unusual places. However, the hotspot functionality eats through the battery quickly. If you only need Wi-Fi for a laptop or netbook, we'd recommend tethering through the charge cable. That way the phone can charge off the laptop battery.
The 8-megapixel camera on the back is capable, but not spectacular. It comes with an LED flash and a myriad of features for adjusting how the picture is taken (outdoor, indoor, portrait, etc.) and even adding effects. The identical camera and camcorder interface is quite easy to use. The camera can record 720p video, and we found fewer blurring problems than the average smartphone camera has when the picture is in motion. The camera sensor still picks up a lot of noise in low light, though. Again, capable, even good, but not great.
Normally we would talk about the battery in the hardware section, but it's an important enough topic here that we've called it out separately. The HTC Thunderbolt has a 1400mAh battery, which is a bit smaller than many other smartphones, including other HTC phones. The smaller battery, coupled with the power needs of the 4G antenna, leads to pretty dismal battery life for the Thunderbolt.
The phone is rated at around six to seven hours of talk time, but let's face it: You don't buy this phone primarily for making calls. When using apps and browsing the Web, the battery can run out pretty quickly. Under heavy usage tests (browsing, apps and video playback), we found the Thunderbolt battery giving out in as little as five hours. Light or moderate users will have few problems; the phone will easily make it through an entire day. But heavy users will want to keep a charge cable or an extra battery on them at all times.
Unfortunately, there is no built-in way to disable the 4G radio (a standard feature on other HTC 4G phones, such as the EVO 4G on Sprint). This is a huge problem for people living in 3G-only areas because the 4G radio is constantly searching for a signal and eating up the battery in the process.
We discovered a few ways to maximize battery life so that even heavy users might be able to make it through a full day on a single charge. First, download the "Phone Info" app from the Android Market. In the "Phone information" menu, change the drop-down box to "CDMA auto (PRL)". This will force the phone to stop looking for a 4G signal and use only 3G or lower. Even if you live in a 4G area, it's a good idea to run in this mode, then simply switch back when you need 4G data speeds.
The other important battery-saving tactic is to use a task-killer app that will allow you to close down unused apps. Many apps run in the background needlessly. A task killer (for example, Advanced Task Killer or Advanced Task Manager) is great for stopping them and preserving battery life. It also has the added benefit of freeing up RAM and processing power for the apps you are actually using.
The HTC Thunderbolt comes with Android 2.2 (Froyo) installed, with HTC's Sense interface over the top. We're fans of the HTC Sense interface, especially compared with Samsung and Motorola alternatives. However, some users prefer the stock Android interface; they will be disappointed here.
HTC Sense includes a bunch of useful widgets and shortcuts that allow for full customization of the home screens. The onscreen keyboard is also preferable to those from other manufacturers, and predictive text, though not perfect, is remarkably accurate.
One of the biggest problems with the HTC Thunderbolt is the same problem with nearly every Android phone on every network: bloatware. As is to be expected, the Thunderbolt comes with many pre-installed apps with debatable levels of usefulness. "Rock Band" is actually a shortcut to an offer to download a trial, which is just an offensive waste of space, and "Let's Golf 2" is quickly becoming the very symbol of unwanted apps on many Android phones. On the other hand, Slacker and Rhapsody apps are likely to be a boon to music lovers, and Bitbop might excite those who want to stream TV shows on their phone.
The real crime isn't the bloatware itself as much as the fact that they cannot be removed, especially Verizon's own V CAST apps. It's fine if you must include them on my phone, but at least let me get rid of them if I want to.
Surprisingly, some of the most common apps, including Skype and Netflix, are absent on the Thunderbolt, though that will likely change.
Trying out 4G
The thing everyone ultimately wants to know about the HTC Thunderbolt is whether it's really as fast as advertised. Let's cut to the chase: On 4G networks, the HTC Thunderbolt is blazing fast. Ridiculously fast.
We doubt many people have experienced an app taking longer to install than it did to download, but it's a transcendental experience for those accustomed to 3G networks.
In fact, if you live in Verizon 4G coverage, the 4G speeds would be reason enough to buy the Thunderbolt, even if the hardware was junk.
Verizon 4G is designed to provide download speeds somewhere between 5 and 12 megabits per second. Our tests in a 4G area (Orlando, Fla., with two or three bars of signal strength) consistently scored toward the top of that scale. Other tests we've seen exceeded it handily. In fact, in Chicago some people have reported 20 megabits or more per second on the HTC Thunderbolt.
This means Web pages are loading almost as fast as you can navigate to them. A colleague using a Thunderbolt on 4G in Phoenix reported pages loading two and three times faster than his Droid 2 on 3G. It's so enjoyable to watch that browser progress bar sprint across the top of the screen. Images load instantly; animations and video play smoothly; and zooming and scrolling is effortless.
Verizon also promised upload speeds between 1 and 5 megabits per second. The Thunderbolt easily gets 5Mbps and more.
We'll say it again, for emphasis: The 4G speeds alone are reason enough to buy the HTC Thunderbolt. This thing zooms. Fortunately, the phone has many other features to commend itself, including solid design and construction, beautiful display, responsive processor and passable camera. Despite the battery life problems and the inescapable bloatware, this feels like one of the best phones HTC has made, one of the best Android phones Verizon has carried, and one of the best 4G phones, period.