HTC Thunderbolt Review

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$249
Editors' rating:
The Pros

Amazingly fast 4G speeds; Sharp camera and 720p camcorder; Elegant, customizable Sense interface; Loud speaker; Clear call quality

The Cons

Short battery life; No HDMI ; Skype video calling not yet enabled

Verdict

Verizon's first 4G phone shatters speed records and looks good doing it. We just wish the HTC Thunderbolt lasted longer on a charge.

The HTC Thunderbolt is the first 4G smart phone that doesn't have 4G in the name. Want to know why? Because the speeds speak for themselves. As the first 4G LTE phone for Verizon, this handset promises crazy-fast downloads (5 to 12 Mbps) and uploads (2 to 5 Mbps). We're talking the kind of performance that makes some home Internet connections look downright pokey. Even better, you can share this phone's broadband goodness with up to eight other devices, including laptops. With its 1-GHz processor, mammoth 4.3-inch display, and dual cameras, the Thunderbolt is a lot like the EVO 4G, but it costs 50 bucks more, at $249. So how much faster is this phone in the real world, and how long can you enjoy those thrilling speeds before you have to find an outlet?

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Design

While it has the same size display as the all-black EVO 4G, the Thunderbolt has a slicker, more modern look. The front of the handset is mostly black with a strip of gray up top, while the back has a two-tone gray color scheme (the battery cover is darker with a nice soft-touch finish). You still get a metal kickstand, but this time around it hides the speaker; it's also wider, and engraved with "with Google." HTC wisely got rid of the lame circles around the capacitive buttons beneath the screen and added an angular cutout beneath that strip to add a little flair. Overall, the design feels solid and looks great.

On the other hand, the Thunderbolt is even heftier than the already-heavy EVO 4G (6.2 vs. 6 ounces) and is slightly thicker (0.56 inches vs. 0.5 inches). By comparison, the Verizon iPhone 4 weights just 4.8 ounces. The Thunderbolt is also missing something the EVO has: an HDMI port, so you can't stream video and other content to your TV. The phone does support DLNA for wireless streaming.

The rest of the design is pretty straightforward. An easily accessible power button and headphone jack sit up top, the right side houses a volume rocker, and the microUSB port is on the left. The right side houses a narrow volume rocker. Around back is an 8-megapixel camera with dual LED flash, and up front is a 1.3-MP camera for video chat (though Skype video calling is coming later).

Display and Audio

The Thunderbolt doesn't push the envelope in the sceen department, sticking with the same 800 x 480 resolution found on the 4.3-inch EVO 4G. Still, we found the picture to be bright and crisp, and easily legible outdoors on a sunny day.

We were impressed by the Thunderbolt's audio quality. When we streamed The Kooks on Pandora, the back-mounted speaker provided plenty of punch to fill a kitchen at three-quarter volume. And, thanks to the built-in kickstand, we could easily skip tracks without having to pick up the device.

Software and Interface

Running Android 2.2, the Thunderbolt leverages HTC's Sense software. Users get seven home screens to customize, as well as HTC widgets such as FriendStream for keeping tabs on your Facebook and Twitter buddies. As with all HTC Android phones, the Sense software lets you see all of the home screens with a pinch gesture. Sense also surfaces social-networking info right within the Contacts app, including a person's last Facebook update.

A Personalize button on the bottom right of the screen lets you choose among multiple wallpapers and widgets but also Scenes, which basically adds themes your phone like Sprint's ID packs. The Social option, for example, puts a Friend Stream widget front and center for quickly posting updates, while Work places your next appointment on the first screen, and your e-mail is just a swipe to the left.

Specs and Performance

These specs should sound familiar: 1-GHz Snapdragon processor and 768 MB of RAM. They're the same components you'll find inside the EVO 4G and the Inspire 4G, but at least Verizon Wireless includes more memory. You get 8GB internal memory and a whopping 32GB SD Card, so you should have plenty of room to store HD video, photos, music, and apps. (Just keep in mind that the card is located behind the battery.)

When we ran various benchmarks, the Thunderbolt delivered performance on a par with the similarly equipped Inspire 4G. In the CPU portion of the benchmark test, for example, the Thunderbolt scored 2,103. That's slightly lower than the Inspire 4G's 2,230, but the dual-core-powered Atrix 4G beats both of these phones (2,369). On the graphics benchmark An3DBench, the Thunderbolt notched 6,290, compared to 6,280 for the Inspire and 6,305 for the Atrix.

In everyday use, the Thunderbolt was responsive for the most part. However, we did notice some lag from time to time, especially with multiple apps open. We also encountered a few Force Close error messages. You'll want to download Advanced Task Killer to manage resources.

4G and Web Surfing

This is the reason you want this phone. The Thunderbolt is the first handset to tap into Verizon Wireless' 4G LTE network, offering blazing speeds in 38 cities and counting. The Thunderbolt made quick work of popular websites, downloading the mobile versions of ESPN, NYTimes.com, and Yahoo in 3 to 5 seconds each. The full NYTimes site loaded in just 13 seconds, but it took an additional 23 seconds with Flash enabled. A high-quality HD trailer of the movie Limitless started playing in 3 seconds and never stuttered; when we tried streaming the same clip at low quality over 3G on the Verizon iPhone 4G, it took 9 seconds to start playing and skipped multiple times.

How much faster is the Thunderbolt than other 4G phones? In New York City, download rates ranged from a low of 3.9 Mbps all the way up to 17 Mbps. The average was 8.3 Mbps, which is nearly 4 times the average speed turned in by T-Mobile's fastest 4G phone, the Galaxy S 4G (2.4 Mbps). Sprint's fastest 4G phone, the EVO Shift 4G, maxed out at 9.4 Mbps, but generally offers speeds in the 3 to 4 Mbps range. So the Thunderbolt is about 3.5 times faster than anything on T-Mobile's network and at least twice as fast as Sprint's 4G phones.

The Thunderbolt's upload speeds were literally off the charts in the Speedtest.net app, so we don't trust those numbers. However, in hotspot mode the device delivered rates in the 4 to 7 Mbps range. That beats the pants off of Sprint's phones (typically about 1 Mbps up) and T-Mobile's (1.7 max). That means you'll be able to share photos and videos much faster on the Thunderbolt than you can on other networks.

We're also happy to report that hand-offs from 4G to 3G (and back again) didn't take very long. When emerging from the Lincoln Tunnel into New York City, the Thunderbolt switched from 3G to 4G in less than a minute.

Mobile Hotspot

One of the best things about the Thunderbolt is that its lightning-fast speeds aren't limited to the phone itself. You can share that 4G connection with up to eight devices, and through May 15th you get unlimited data for no extra charge. After that, you'll pay $20 per month for 2GB, which isn't a lot of data when you have this kind of performance.

When we connected a laptop to the Thunderbolt via the Mobile Hotspot app, we consistently saw download rates in the 14 Mbps range and uploads from 4 to 7 Mbps (as mentioned above). Complex sites such as CNN.com, ESPN.com, and NYTimes.com loaded in just 5 to 7 seconds. We even loaded Yahoo in 4 seconds--while streaming Hulu in another tab in Firefox. By the way, the video started playing almost instantly.

The Thunderbolt delivered even faster results when we connected via USB, reaching a high of 19.3 Mbps on the downlink. Going this route isn't a bad idea, since hotspot mode chews up a lot of power.

Apps, Music, and Video

While the Android Market certainly offers plenty of compelling options (more than 200,000 apps and counting), Verizon and HTC bundle a few fun and useful apps to get you started. On the video front there's the Blockbuster app for downloading movies but also Bitbop for downloading TV shows (and some flicks). We pulled down an episode of the Colbert Report in six minutes over Wi-Fi. The selection is sparse, but the video quality is top-notch. You'll pay $9.99 per month after the seven-day free trial.

Verizon also throws in Rock Band and Let's Golf 2. We found the latter more compelling, even if the load times were sluggish. We could make out fine details such as the grid pattern in the freshly cut fairway. Other highlights include a Kindle app for reading eBooks, QuickOffice, and TuneWiki (which displays lyrics for your music collection).

Camera and Camcorder

The Thunderbolt's 8-MP camera makes a good first impression. It started in less than three seconds, and it snapped a pretty detailed shot of a fruit stand. The lemons looked a little blown out, but overall this is pretty darn good. You can also add all sorts of PhotoBooth-style filters to the camera, from Distortion to Vintage. Indoor shots showed considerable grain, but you can always engage the flash.

To test out the 720p camcorder we shot footage of a fountain in Bryant Park. On our desktop the video looked sharp, and the Thunderbolt handled transitions from lighter to darker areas fairly well. However, we did notice a couple of skips in the stream.

While the Thunderbolt has a front-facing camera, there's not much you can do with it. Skype told us it is working with Verizon to integrate video calling, but couldn't give us a timetable. The front-facing camera also doesn't support video chat apps such as Oovoo and Qik (or at least not yet).

Voice Quality

You'll probably be too busy enjoying blistering speeds to make calls on the Thunderbolt, but when you get around to it you'll enjoy clear call quality on both ends of the line. When we called a landline from this phone, the other caller said it sounded as if we were calling from a landline. On our end we found that voices sounded more natural than on the iPhone 4.

Battery Life

There were rumors that the Thunderbolt might have short battery life, and we're sad to report that they were true. On our battery test, which involves surfing the most popular sites continuously on 40 percent brightness, this handset lasted only 3 hours and 56 minutes over its 4G LTE connection. That's one of the shortest runtimes we've seen from an Android phone and about 1.5 hours below the Android average. Over 3G the Thunderbolt's endurance was nearly 4:57. However, you can't turn 4G on and off as you can on the EVO 4G. (Our second test on the Thunderbolt was in another location where 4G LTE service isn't available.)

By comparison, the EVO 4G lasted about 5.5 hours using its Mobile WiMax 4G connection on the same test. The Thunderbolt does have a smaller battery than the EVO (1400 vs 1500 mAh), but its 4G LTE radio shares at least some of the blame. Over 3G, the Motorola Droid X lasted 7:42. 

Pricing and Value

The Thunderbolt costs $250 on a two-year contract. Verizon charges $30 for the monthly data plan and a minimum of $40 for voice for the HTC Thunderbolt. For now, the data plan is unlimited, but Verizon has said it will introduce metered data in the future. Until May 15th, you can get unlimited mobile hotspot use for free; after that, it goes up to $20 per month for 2GB of additional data.

Verdict

The Thunderbolt lives up to its name by being the fastest 4G phone on any network--by far. Provided you're in an area with LTE coverage, you'll be able to load sites, download apps, and start streaming videos in the blink of any eye. This smart phone can also easily replace a USB modem or MiFi. Unfortunately, the Thunderbolt runs out of gas too fast. Overall, we prefer the slimmer and lighter iPhone 4, which has a better display, higher-quality apps, and longer battery life. As for Android fans, they may want to wait for the dual-core Motorola Droid Bionic to come to Verizon (complete with beefier 1930mAH battery). Still, if you have a need for serious speed right now, the Thunderbolt will satisfy.

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Author Bio
Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer, Editor-in-Chief
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptopmag.com, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.
Mark Spoonauer, Editor-in-Chief on
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Laptop Mag & Tom's Hardware
Carrier Verizon
Form Factor Candybar Touchscreen
Operating System Android 2.2
Networks
Data LTE
Data EV-DO Rev. A
CPU 1GHz Qualcomm MSM8655 Snapdragon
RAM 768MB
Internal Memory 32GB
Memory Expansion Type microSDHC
Display (main) 4.3 inches/ 800 x 480
Display (secondary)
GPS Yes
Bluetooth Type Bluetooth 2.1 EDR
Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n
Camera Resolution 8 MP
Audio formats supported eAAC+
Audio formats supported AMR-NB
Audio formats supported AAC+
Audio formats supported WAV
Audio formats supported AAC
Audio formats supported MP3
Audio formats supported MIDI
Audio formats supported M4A
Video formats supported MPEG-4
Video formats supported H.264
Video formats supported H.263
Video formats supported WMV
Photo formats supported PNG
Photo formats supported JPEG
Photo formats supported GIF89a
Photo formats supported GIF87a
Talk / Standby Time 6:18/ 330 hours
Ports microUSB
Ports 3.5mm headphone
Size 4.8 x 2.4 x 0.6 inches
Weight 6.23 ounces
SAR Rating (Head) 1.2
SAR Rating (Body) 1.46
Company Website http://www.verizonwireless.com