HTC Thunderbolt Review

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The HTC Thunderbolt is a very important device for Verizon. It’s one of the first phones in the world, and certainly in the US, to take advantage of 4G LTE speeds (check out the coverage map to see if there is LTE where you live). Sprint was first with 4G in the US with the EVO 4G last year, which used a competing 4G technology, WiMax. Both WiMax and LTE can provide speeds of up to around 10Mbps down, with promises of much higher bitrates as the technology evolves and the networks see upgrades. Is the Thunderbolt going to be one of the hottest devices of 2011? Read on for the full review!

BOX CONTENTS



The box for the Thunderbolt is pretty interesting: it’s all black on the outside, but once you open the lid, you’re greeted with a striking red area which presents the phone. Inside the box you’ll get a wall charger and USB cable, plus some manuals, but no headphones or screen protector. You’ll also get a 4G LTE SIM card, which is required to take advantage of the faster 4G speeds.

HARDWARE



Let’s go through the specifications. The Thunderbolt shares nearly the same specs found on all of HTC’s recent devices like the Incredible S and Inspire 4G. The Thunderbolt is running with a Qualcomm 1GHz Snapdragon MSM8655 CPU supported by a plentiful 768MB of RAM and 2.4GB of ROM. Included in the device is a spacious 32GB microSD card, giving you a total of around 34GB to store music, movies, and apps. The Super LCD display is 4.3-inches and WVGA 800×480 resolution. For syncing and charging, you have microUSB, and for audio there is a 3.5mm jack with SRS enhancement when you use the stock music application. It has a proximity and light sensor, plus an accelerometer. For radios you have Wi-Fi (with N support), Bluetooth, FM, and of course CDMA with EVDO Rev A, plus 4G LTE. The camera on the back can take eight-megapixel photos and 720p videos, and it includes a dual LED flash to illuminate dark subjects. On the front there is a 1.3MP camera for video chat. Powering everything is a 1400 mAh battery. The Thunderbolt also has DLNA support.

frontal


The HTC Thunderbolt has a similar design to many past HTC devices like the Desire HD and EVO 4G. The front of the device is defined by the large 4.3-inch Super LCD WVGA display. In the upper right corner, next to the chrome speaker grill (which contains an LED notification light) is the 1.3MP front-facing camera. You’ll have to use a third-party video chat application on the Thunderbolt, because there is no native solution included with the phone software, like FaceTime on the iPhone.

Below the screen are four capacitive buttons; below that, a design element that adds a bit of a “chin” to the facade of the device.

top


On the top we have the power button, placed on the right instead of the left like other HTC phones, plus the 3.5mm headphone jack. Below the headphone jack is a secondary microphone used for noise cancellation. We found the Thunderbolt to have some pretty stellar voice quality, thanks in part to the noise cancellation.

side1


HTC opted to place the volume up/down rocker on the right side of the device instead of the left. Depending on which ear you tend to hold your phone up to, this may or may not make a difference.

side2


On the left side of the device is the microUSB port used for syncing and charging.

rear


Here on the back we can see the dual LED flash next to the 8MP camera. The back battery cover is soft-touch plastic, and not metal like on the Desire HD, giving the Thunderbolt a slightly lower quality feel. Below the battery cover is a kickstand which is useful for watching videos or reading news.

Under the kickstand is the speaker. You’d think that the kickstand would reduce the volume of the speaker when closed, but we didn’t find this to be the case. In fact, the speaker seemed louder and crisper than most other phone we’ve tested.

backopen


Taking off the back battery cover we can see the 1400mAh battery (in our opinion, a bit too small for a device of this type). Behind the battery you’ll find the slots for the LTE SIM card, plus the microSD tray.

kickstand


As mentioned, the kickstand does a great job at keeping the Thunderbolt at an optimum viewing angle for hands-free viewing.

kicnstand2


The big and crisp Super LCD screen, coupled with the kickstand makes for a compelling multimedia experience on the Thunderbolt.

thickness


The Thunderbolt is a pretty thick phone. It’s about 2mm thicker than the Desire HD, which might not sounds like a lot, but in-hand, it’s significant.

SOFTWARE



The HTC Thunderbolt ships with Android 2.2.1, but is likely to get an upgrade to Android 2.3 Gingerbread later this year.

Included on the device is the latest version of Sense, which is starting to show its age. An updated version of Sense was shown at CTIA on the EVO 3D, but we’re not likely to see that new version on the Thunderbolt because the newer version of Sense seems like it was designed for the new qHD display.

But with Sense you get it all: seven homescreens onto which you can add dozens of high quality HTC widgets; Scenes to allow you to preset widget arrangements for different use-case scenarios; Skins to allow you to completely change the look and feel of the Sense interface; improved stock applications like email, SMS, calendar, phone, people, the brwoser, and more; and added applications like Stocks, Weather, News, and others. You also get HTC’s easy-to-use Mobile Hotspot app, which lets you tether up to eight WiFi devices to your phone. You’ll have to pay an extra $20/month to enable this.

What’s missing from this version of Sense is integration with the useful HTCSense.com service, which allows you to remotely manage your device from the web. That’s unfortunate, because HTCSense.com is one of the biggest reasons we like Sense.

Then, Verizon has added is own software, unfortunately. It’s unfortunate becuase these pieces of software, most of which are trials, cannot be removed. They include apps like Bitbop, Blockbuster, City ID, Lets Golf 2, Mobile IM, Rhapsody, Rock Band, Slacker, and more. This isn’t to say that these apps aren’t desirable, because some are, we just think that the average Thunderbolt consumer is tech-savvy enough to be able to choose which apps to download on his or her own.

CAMERA

img1img2

img3



The Thunderbolt has a fantastic 8MP camera. Close up shots came out crisp, bright shots were evenly-balanced, and even dim shots were pretty clear. At times, as you can see in the second image of the yellow flower, the dual LED flash would overpower the subject. It’s probably not a good idea to take close ups with the flash on.



The rear camera is also capable of full 720p HD video, and as you can see in the sample above, the quality is quite good. We wish the dual microphones could be utilized while filming video to cut down on wind noise.



The front-facing camera, which records video at VGA resolution, is also quite good.

PERFORMANCE

The HTC Thunderbolt is a fast device. In Quadrant, it scored a fantastic 1800.

In day-to-day operation, the Thunderbolt instantly opens almost every application. The large amount of RAM allows the device to keep most your commonly used applications in memory, so that they don’t need to reload when you open them, unless you closed it completely. We compared the Thunderbolt with the iPhone, Inspire 4G, and Focus, and in each case, the Thunderbolt exchibited the best performance on the web.

CALL QUALITY/NETWORK SPEED

Call quality on the HTC Thunderbolt was especially stellar. Thanks to the dual microphone configuration, we were able to talk in noisy environments and have the other party hear us clearly. Also, the Thunderbolt seems to feed a bit of your own voice back into the earpiece, allowing you to hear yourself in real time. We’re not sure if this is on purpose, but if it is, it helps to make for a better calling experience.

Verizon’s 4G LTE network is still young, but it’s already available in most major markets around the US. Testing the 4G LTE service in Philadelphia, I was able to achieve download speeds on average of 6-7Mbps, with bursts to 13Mbps. These are similar speeds that can be had on Sprint’s 4G network. Over time, with improvements to the network, you can expand these speeds to crawl upwards, perhaps to as high as 20Mbps in some places.

We were a bit unsure about the upload speed because our benchmark applications don’t seem to work with Verizon’s 4G network. Since upload speeds are usually half the download, you can expect up speeds of around 3-4Mbps over LTE.

Another issue is latency, which is the time it takes a server to respond to the Thunderbolt after a ping. We found our ping times to very low when compared to 3G, meaning there’s less of a lag when you hit that “go” button in the browser and have your device fetch the page. That’s a good thing.

BATTERY LIFE

You could probably guess that with such a big screen, plus 4G connectively, the battery life on the Thunderbolt isn’t going to be stellar. In our tests in a 4G environment under a heavy use case scenario, the Thunderbolt made it through one day of use (barely). With moderate use, you’ll get through a day and a quarter.

PURCHASING AND AVAILABILITY

You can buy the HTC Thunderbolt now directly from Verizon for $249. You’ll need a data plan for the device, and the $30 unlimited option is pretty attractive. For tethering, you’ll need to add $20 per month to your bill.

PROS

+ 4G LTE is fast!

+ Can do simultaneous voice and data over LTE

+ Terrific performance

+ Excellent camera

+ Comes with a 32GB microSD card

+ Kickstand is handy when watching video

+ HTC Sense makes Android better

+ Can tether with eight wireless devices

+ Great call quality; offers noise cancellation with second microphone

+ LED notification light is useful

CONS

– Thick and heavy

– Battery life isn’t great

– Specs are a bit last-generation

– No HDMI output

– Doesn’t work with HTCSense.com

CONCLUSION

The HTC Thunderbolt on Verizon is phone that many have been eagerly anticipating, and it doesn’t disappoint. It’s an example of a mature and time-tested hardware configuration (that’s the 1GHz Snapdragon CPU with 768MB of RAM) coupled with software that is stable, pleasing to use, and very fast. Add to that access to Verizon’s speedy 4G network, and you’ve got a really compelling device on your hands.

We were a bit underwhelmed by the spec sheet of the Thunderbolt, especially after recent announcements of upcoming phones with 3D qHD displays, dual core processors, and even more RAM. But then again, those next-generation devices, like the EVO 3D and Galaxy S II, aren’t due out until the middle of the year.

And, those that desire great battery life or a device that is small and light might want to look elsewhere. If you fall under the category and are on Verizon, consider the Samsung Fascinate or Droid Incredible.

We rate the HTC Thunderbolt at 4/5.

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About The Author
Brandon Miniman
Brandon is a graduate from the Villanova School of Business, located near Philadelphia, PA. He's been a technology writer since 2002, and, in 2005, became Editor-in-Chief of Pocketnow, a then Windows Mobile-focused website. He has since helped to transition Pocketnow into a top-tier smartphone and tablet publication. He's so obsessed with technology that he once entered a candle store and asked if they had a "new electronics" scent. They didn't.