|HTC Thunderbolt (Verizon Wireless)|
REVIEW DATE: 03.18.11
The HTC Thunderbolt, the first 4G LTE smartphone for Verizon Wireless, has the fastest Web speeds we've ever seen, but be prepared to carry an extra battery.
Incredible Internet speeds. Big, gorgeous screen. Elegant interface. Simultaneous voice and data. Lots of storage.
Heavy. Poor battery life when surfing or streaming on 4G. Occasional bugs.
High Tech Computer Corp. (HTC)
Price: $179.99 Direct
Operating System: Android OS
Screen Size: 4.3 inches
Screen Details: 480-by-800, 16.7m-color TFT LCD screen
Megapixels: 8 MP
Camera Flash: Yes
Flash Memory Type: Micro SD
Web Browser: Yes
Form Factor: Candy Bar
Bands: 850, 1900, 700
High-Speed Data: 1xRTT, EVDO Rev A, LTE
Storage Capacity (as Tested): 2.46 MB
Processor Speed: 1 GHz
By Sascha Segan
The first 4G LTE cell phone, the HTC Thunderbolt, lands with a bang, scorching the landscape and sending mere 3G phones fleeing for cover. This is the fastest Internet phone ever, and it wins our Editors' Choice for the top touch-screen smartphone on Verizon Wireless. But that scorching speed has a price: it burns up the phone's battery, so you'll need to bring a spare.
The HTC Thunderbolt looks and feels huge. It's classy looking, though, in all-gray with a glass front and a soft-touch back. There's a small 1.3-megapixel camera next to the earpiece, and a larger 8-megapixel shooter on the back, along with a kickstand, so you can prop the phone up on a table or a desk. The 4.3-inch, 800-by-480 screen looks unusually rich. But at 6.4 ounces, the Thunderbolt will weigh down any pocket, and at 4.8 by 2.6 by 0.5 inches (HWD), it won't fit in some of them. That's the price you pay for being an early LTE adopter.
LTE Internet Access and Speeds
Let's get to the most important thing first: this smartphone has the fastest Internet access, ever. It sets the Web on fire.
Verizon's LTE network currently runs in about 40 metro areas, give or take a few, and it's constantly expanding. The carrier doesn't charge extra for LTE: the $30/month smartphone data plan costs the same as a 3G data plan does. And for now, you get unlimited data. An extra $20/month buys you 2GB of data for a laptop or other device to use via USB or Wi-Fi tethering. The phone's hotspot mode supports eight devices rather than the usual five (the faster to use up your 2GB allotment with.)
I ran Ookla's industry-standard speed test on the phone itself, on a PC connected via USB cable, and on a PC connected via Wi-Fi hotspot. Speeds were awesome. As expected, tethering is the fastest— you're using the phone's modem, but a fast PC processor—followed by the on-phone speed test and then the Wi-Fi hotspot, because Wi-Fi bleeds speed.
On average, I got 11.8Mbps down tethered, 9.6Mbps on the phone and 6.3Mbps with the hotspot. Upload speeds were also fast; about 2Mbps with the hotspot and 4Mbps tethered. (The upload part of the Ookla speed test app isn't compatible with this phone.) Latency was generally around 85ms.
These numbers translate into super-fast file downloads; I grabbed a 99MB episode of The Colbert Report from Bitbop in four minutes. Most smaller files, like anything from the Android Market, just zip along. With unlimited data, I downloaded huge video files without fear or concern, and that felt great.
To test Web page loads, I compared the Thunderbolt against an HTC EVO 4G ($199, 4 stars) for Sprint. Around here, I can get between 3-5Mbps on Sprint's 4G WiMAX network. Complex Web pages loaded about 1.5 times as fast on the Thunderbolt as on the EVO, with many pages coming in under 10 seconds.
That's all compared to Sprint's 4G. Compared to Verizon's 3G, the LTE network is even faster. In last year's 18-city tests, we got average speeds around 1Mbps down on Verizon's 3G, with latency of about 100ms compared to LTE's 85ms.
Early Verizon modems had trouble switching between 3G and 4G. I got the Thunderbolt to successfully trade from 4G down to 3G, and back up to 4G, depending on coverage. Switching up does take longer than dropping down; while the phone can drop to 3G in a instant, it takes about two minutes to get back to 4G.
The Internet access here is so fast that it becomes critically important that Verizon offers an unlimited data plan. Even without tethering, you can eat a lot of data very quickly.
If you don't have LTE, the phone also offers 3G data and 802.11n WiFi. Speeds on 3G were comparable with other top-of-the-line Verizon smartphones like the Motorola Droid X ($199, 4.5 stars)
Phone Performance and Battery Life
Hey, remember all those AT&T ads where they complained you can't talk and surf at the same time on Verizon? No longer. The Thunderbolt allows simultaneous talking and Internet access on both 3G and 4G networks. I tried it, and it worked well.
As a voice phone, the Thunderbolt is just fine. RF reception is on the good side of average. Voice quality is strong; the earpiece is loud and there's an unusual amount of side-tone, the reflection of your own voice in your ear that prevents you from yelling. I like that, because it makes you talk more quietly into the phone and should help make Thunderbolt users more socially acceptable in public places. The speakerphone isn't very loud, but it's just loud enough to be usable outdoors. Voices transmitted through the mic are totally intelligible but sound a bit computerized; the speakerphone lets through a bit more background noise than I'd like, but it isn't awful. The phone paired easily with my Aliph Jawbone Era Bluetooth headset ($129, 4.5 stars) and activated the voice dialing system.
Battery life here is an interesting issue. On 3G, it's great. I got nearly eight hours of talk time on the surprisingly small 1400 mAh battery. In another test, I watched a local video file with the phone connected to the LTE network, but not downloading. I got about six hours of video playback.
Heavy LTE use, on the other hand, totally nukes the battery. I tapped out the battery in only two hours and 20 minutes of LTE streaming using Bitbop and YouTube. If you intend to do a lot of 4G surfing, you'll have trouble lasting a day. Since there's no way to turn off 4G, use Wi-Fi when you can to save battery life.
Another option is to buy a second battery. Verizon offers a second standard battery for $39.99 and a gigantic 2750 mAh "extended" battery for $49.99. Two batteries, or one extended battery, would probably give this phone a full day of life.
Processor, Android and Apps
The Thunderbolt runs on a 1GHz, second-generation Qualcomm MSM8655 Snapdragon processor and runs Android 2.2 with HTC's attractive Sense overlay. On our benchmarks, it performed as well as any high-end smartphone that doesn't have Nvidia's dual-core Tegra 2 chipset. Unless you're an avid gamer, there's no reason to skip this and wait for a for Tegra 2.
HTC and Verizon have baked a ton of extra software into this phone. Much of it is bloatware, stubs for apps that charge you every month. Verizon has actually taken bloatware to a new level, installing an entire alternative app store called "V Cast Apps" that is sluggish and ugly, but has one big advantage: you can charge app purchases to your phone bill. Of course, you also have access to the 100,000-plus apps in the standard Android Market, along with whatever you sideload from other sources.
The most intriguing app here is Bitbop, Fox's downloadable TV store. The phone includes a two-week teaser; after that, it costs $9.99 per month. Right now, the app has a lot of Fox content and stuff from a few other cable networks, such as Comedy Central and TLC, but none of the other major broadcast networks. But Bitbop kept throwing errors when I tried to browse or see my queue. Repeated clicking let me get past the errors, but it was irksome.
Other Verizon bloatware includes the Blockbuster Movie Store, a golf game, Kindle, Rhapsody, Rock Band, and VZ Navigator. You can also download visual voicemail, a cloud storage app and a music syncing app. HTC adds its standard Sense apps, including the Twitter client Peep, Quickoffice for mobile document editing, and TuneWiki, a great alternative music player which adds lyrics to your songs.
Very notably missing is Skype, Qik, or any way to use the phone's front camera. Your only downloadable video chat option is Fring (Free, 2.5 stars), which we've had generally poor experiences with. You don't even get Verizon's voice-only Skype solution—you have to download the generic Skype, which only works over Wi-Fi and not 3G. Boo.
HTC's Sense is all free and all useful, including a really good-looking alarm clock, social networking widgets, enhanced calendar and address book apps, and lots of other attractive touches. It really takes the geeky edges off of Android's UI.
I found some bugs; many of them have to do with half-baked Verizon bloatware. HTC's Sense UI popped up occasional error messages, but none of them crashed the phone, so I'm not going to worry too much about them. Trying to sign up for Rhapsody gave me an error. V CAST Videos threw an error, and as I said before, I ran into several errors with Bitbop. My Thunderbolt never froze or crashed during testing, though.
You get about 2.5GB of free memory and a preloaded 32GB MicroSD card, so there's plenty of room for media. If you want to remove the memory card, you must remove the battery first. To get media onto the phone, you can drag and drop with the included USB cable or use the free doubleTwist syncing software.
The Thunderbolt's 8-megapixel camera is pretty good, for a cameraphone. The shutter is acceptably fast at 0.6 seconds. Exposure is a mixed bag depending on what part of an image you aim the camera at, but I like that, as it gives you control over dark and light areas. Low-light images are sharp but show a lot of color noise.
The video camera mode records 720p videos, but it works far better outdoors than indoors. Outdoors, both 720p and 800-by-480 videos were sharp and smooth enough. But indoors in lower light, videos looked wobbly and somewhat jerky, with frame rates around 20-22 frames per second. The autofocus also sometimes took a few seconds to lock in. The 1.3-megapixel front camera is fine if you like taking pictures of your own face, but there aren't many other uses for it.
I love the kickstands—it makes it easy to watch video on your phone. It flips out from the back, although you can't use it when the phone is also plugged into its AC adapter.
The Thunderbolt plays most media formats, but you need to be just a little thoughtful about what you load onto it. MPEG4 and H.264 files up to the screen resolution looked great. 720P HD files were a bit jerky, but watchable. DivX was okay, but some Xvid files lost their sound, and WMV was out. AAC, MP3, and WMA music, as well as the sound from videos, sounded fine over both wired and Bluetooth headsets. And if you're looking for free, high-quality video, YouTube HQ streams beautifully over LTE. There's also an FM radio that works when a wired headset is plugged in.
The HTC Thunderbolt is the most powerful smartphone for Verizon Wireless right now, so it gets our Editors' Choice for touch-screen smartphones. Just make sure to buy a second battery.
Verizon has a bunch of new LTE phones coming out soon. The Motorola Droid Bionic looks intriguing because of its Nvidia Tegra 2 processor, which should make it terrific for games. Maybe the LG Revolution or Samsung Stealth will solve the Thunderbolt's battery issue. We don't know, though, so for now we're recommending the Thunderbolt.
We'd recommend the Thunderbolt for 3G users as well. It's a bit better than the Motorola Droid X because HTC Sense is smoother than Motorola's Blur software, and you get the benefit of 4G when it comes to you. Until then, enjoy the better battery life on 3G.
The unlimited 4G data plan is another reason to buy this phone now—after all, you don't know if that plan will be offered with any future phones.
The Thunderbolt is still a big, heavy, expensive phone ($249 with a two-year contract), so it's not for everyone. On Verizon, the iPhone 4 ($199, 4 stars) is very easy to use and has an even better selection of apps, and the HTC Droid Incredible ($99, 4.5 stars) is an Android phone which fits better in smaller hands than this device does. But neither of those phones come anywhere near the HTC Thunderbolt's Internet speeds in LTE areas. While we're concerned about the Thunderbolt's short surfing time on 4G, we think the incredible speed of LTE is worth it.