First impressions of the blazing HTC ThunderBolt LTE smartphone

Summary:The HTC ThunderBolt is the first LTE smartphone in the U.S. and blows past every other "4G" device on the market. If speed is your need, then you need to look at the ThunderBolt.

Regular readers know that I selected the HTC EVO 4G twice as my top smartphone pick in 2010 in articles here and here and I still think it is one of the best Android devices available. The HTC ThunderBolt is an upgraded HTC EVO 4G with newer generation Snapdragon processor, better TFT display, faster LTE wireless radio, and some integrated storage capacity. Thus, as a fan of the EVO 4G, it was natural for me to select the HTC ThunderBolt for my next Android device.

The HTC ThunderBolt arrived on Saturday morning and I have been testing it out ever since. The LTE 4G experience is nearly unbelievable and I grow to like the device more every day. Check out several photos of the HTC ThunderBolt in my image gallery and the short video walk through below. Given that CTIA is being held this week, I am still trying to figure out if the HTC ThunderBolt is staying or going back so check out my thoughts below and maybe you can help me with my decision.


Image Gallery: Check out some product images of the HTC ThunderBolt LTE Android smartphone.
Image Gallery: ThunderBolt retail box
Image Gallery: Back of the ThunderBolt

Purchasing through Wirefly

A couple of days before the retail release on 18 March, I started looking around for a way to get a ThunderBolt shipped to me because I was going to be in Alaska for business. I saw that Wirefly was providing pre-orders for the HTC ThunderBolt at a price of $199.99, $50 less than Verizon Wireless.

Dylan and Robby from Wirefly provided fantastic chat customer service after I realized I ordered the $59.99 450 Talk & Text plan. I have no need for texting on this phone (would actually like to pay per minute of voice usage) and saved $20/month by having them take me to the $39.99 450 Talk plan. Robby also helped me with my order to make sure it arrived on Friday since I am on the road quite a bit lately. I would rather spend the $20 on the WiFi Hotspot feature, but that is free until 15 May so I can try it out and see if it is something I want to use. Actually, for $20 I could use it with my iPad too and save $20 on the fees to AT&T for iPad data.

The ThunderBolt arrived as promised on Friday, but my unreliable FedEx delivery person decided to skip coming to my door (there were four people at home) and entered in the system that no one was available. Thus, I had to make a trip myself to the FedEx office to pick it up Saturday morning.

In the box and first impressions

The HTC ThunderBolt comes in a very small completely black box with a black sleeve on it. HTC ThunderBolt is embossed in the box, but it is quite different than the boxes I have seen lately with lots of glossy images and specs on the outside. When you open up the box you will see everything inside is vibrant Verizon red with the ThunderBolt sitting right there on top.

The ThunderBolt is a large 4.3 inch display device and if you buy it you should already expect to have a large device. I have medium sized hands and this size is just fine for me and my pockets. The ThunderBolt has a nice solid feel to it and is a bit thicker than some other HTC 4.3 inch display devices. It actually feels a bit light to me given the thickness. The TFT display is fantastic and even though it isn't super AMOLED or super LCD I see no concern with the quality, colors, or anything. The soft touch material on the back gives it a nice feel in your hand.

Specifications

Specifications for the HTC ThunderBolt include the following:
  • Android 2.2 (Froyo) operating system with HTC Sense
  • 1 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 2nd generation processor
  • LTE 700 MHz and 800/1900 CDMA EVDO Rev A
  • 4.3 inch WVGA (480x800) TFT capacitive touch display
  • 8 megapixel camera with dual LED flash
  • 1.3 megapixel front facing camera
  • 768 MB RAM
  • 8 GB included flash, but only about 2.5 GB is user accessible
  • Included 32GB microSD card
  • Dedicated, touch-sensitive Home, Menu, Back and Search areas
  • Integrated GPS receiver
  • Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g)
  • Bluetooth 2.1 with 3.0 when available (likely via firmware update)
  • 3.5 mm headset jack
  • 1400 mAh battery
  • Dimensions: 4.8 x 2.6 x 0.52 inches and 5.78 ounces

As I mentioned earlier, the HTC ThunderBolt is similar to other HTC 4.3 inch devices like the HTC EVO 4G. As you will see below, LTE is blazingly fast and the camera takes good photos. I like seeing that Bluetooth 3.0 will be available on the device too. The processor is not dual-core, but from what I have seen on tablets that may not be such a need on smartphones at this time. I don't fully understand why so much of the provided internal flash is consumed by the device, but they really should not be advertising that it has integrated 8GB of memory when only about 2.5GB is available.

LTE speed tests

Before I take you on a walk around the hardware and software, I think it is only fair to come right out and talk about the extreme speeds on the HTC ThunderBolt and other wireless experiences. It is SO FAST that it may appear rather unbelievable at first.

I tested the HTC ThunderBolt in both the Tacoma and Seattle areas and found LTE coverage to be more extensive than I last experienced it. I saw regular download speeds of 13 to 20 Mbps on the HTC ThunderBolt that compares to the extreme speed I saw on Sprint WiMAX of nearly 5 Mbps (on a very good day). T-Mobile's HSPA+ is the closest I have seen on a smartphone with the Samsung Galaxy S 4G rocking download speeds of nearly 7 Mbps.

It looks like the Ookla Speedtest app on Android has issues testing upload speed on LTE with false reports in the area of 36 Mbps upload so I connected via WiFi hotspot and measured 7 to 9 Mbps consistently with the HTC ThunderBolt.

You will NOT find a faster smartphone available today and if speed is your need then the ThunderBolt is the device for you. I did see a rather fast consumption of the battery with LTE going full bore, as expected and seen previously with WiMAX too. Other reviewers who have had the device for some time note about a 2.5 hour battery life at full LTE download speed. While this seems low, if you are tethering for that long of a period of time you should be prepared to have another battery or capability to charge up your ThunderBolt.

I brought the ThunderBolt to Alaska and am finding download speeds over over 1 Mbps with a battery that is lasting me the full day. I have made about 20 minutes of calls, checked email and Twitter throughout the day, and have been using it at a moderate level with acceptable battery life. This experience within a 3G only zone shows me LTE is a battery hog, but the ThunderBolt does just fine with the battery with 3G. The problem at this time is that there is no included 3G/4G toggle on the ThunderBolt and HTC needs to get something out there ASAP.

Chris Zeigler from Engadget tested YouTube streaming via LTE and ran for 2 hours 15 minutes straight with about 50% of the battery remaining and that was in a LTE zone with minimal coverage.

Hardware, software, pricing, final thoughts, and other reviews »

Walk around the hardware

The front of the HTC ThunderBolt is dominated by the 4.3 inch TFT display. I understand this a newer version of their TFT display and honestly it looks fantastic to me. I find the fonts crops and the colors to be rich and really have no complaints at all with the display.

There are the four traditional touch sensitive buttons for Home, Menu, Back, and Search on the bottom with a large headset speaker and 1.3 megapixel front facing camera above the display. Unfortunately, the Skype video client was not ready for launch and even 3rd party apps like Qik and Fring cannot access the front facing camera.

You will find a 2nd mic, 3.5mm headset jack, and the power button on the top of the HTC ThunderBolt. The power button is small and level with the top so you do have to make a conscious effort to push it in, which is what I personally like so I don't accidentally activate it.

The other microphone sits alone on the bottom. The two microphones help give the HTC ThunderBolt excellent voice quality during calls and it may be one of the best voice phones, in addition to the fastest data phone.

There is a large volume control button on the right side that doesn't feel to have much tactile feedback at all so you may find yourself bumping it up or down at times. The only thing on the left side is the microUSB port and as I mentioned earlier HTC should have placed this on the bottom so you could charge it up and watch videos with the kickstand extended at the same time.

The back of the HTC ThunderBolt has a non-removable lower part with the wide metal kickstand and some kind of rubber covered circle (not sure what this is for). The upper part of the back is removable and reveals the SIM card, microSD card slot, and battery. The 8 megapixel camera and dual LED flash are up near the top left side (offcenter) of the device. The kickstand is the best one I have seen on an HTC device and even lets you prop up the ThunderBolt in portrait orientation. I am a fan of kickstands since it lets me have the device serve as a photo viewer and a mobile listening or viewing device with ease.

The fit and finish of the HTC ThunderBolt is great and if the microUSB port was on the bottom then I really would have nothing to complain about, in terms of the hardware. They should not advertise the 8GB included memory though since that is deceiving when only about 25% of that is actually usable by the consumer.

Thoughts on the software

The HTC ThunderBolt ships with Android 2.2, which is a bit disappointing since 2.3 Gingerbread is available on the Nexus S and soon on the Nexus S 4G. Hopefully, HTC will update the ThunderBolt to Gingerbread in the near future (would be great to advertise that this is coming eventually), but to be honest I don't think there is that much in Gingerbread that HTC hasn't taken care of with HTC Sense and other customizations.

For the most part I really like HTC Sense due to the Home screen interface and widgets, fantastic Exchange user interface, and cool customization options. The HTC keyboard is also pretty good, but I do like using others like Swiftkey and Swype too. Thanks to Android you have the flexibility to use whatever you like for text input.

I think HTC does confuse consumers a bit though when you see two available Facebook and Twitter options in the account setup. One option is for the native apps and the other for HTC Sense apps. I am not a fan of the HTC Sense clients for these social networks, but maybe I just need to give them more of a chance. Are you supposed to setup your account for all options though? See these things even confuse me.

You probably know I am not a fan at all of carrier bloatware, but am willing to accept it on devices if the consumer has the ability to remove it or choose whether or not to install it in the first place. Sprint and HTC did a great job with the HTC Arrive where there is a Sprint Zone where you can download and install what YOU want. The ThunderBolt includes V CAST Apps, VZ Navigator, Blockbuster, Bitbop (subscription video service), City ID ($1.99 to buy), Lets Golf 2 (just a trial, $4.99 to buy), Rhapsody ($10/month subscription service), Rock Band, and V CAST Media. Rock Band is simply a link to download it and when I (and other reviewers) click on it then it simply goes to a black screen and does nothing so this is a major failure.

The V CAST Apps utility is the Verizon application store, which seems a bit confusing to me with the Android Market also on the device. I am not sure how app installations are handled when you select to buy or get free applications from either software store and will have to check out why anyone would use V CAST Apps instead of the Android Market.

You will also find some useful apps like Adobe Reader, Kindle, FM Radio, Quickoffice, Slacker, and TuneWiki.

Pricing and availability

The HTC ThunderBolt is available now from Verizon for $249.99 with a 2-year contract. You can also buy it from places like Wirefly or Amazon for a lower price with a new contract. As I said, LTE is just now rolling out so buying the ThunderBolt is a safe bet for the wireless radio usage for the next couple years.

You need a voice plan with a new contract too, so I went for the lowest priced $39.99 plan that does not include any text messaging. Data is $29.99 per month and Verizon stated that data on the ThunderBolt is unlimited. I am not sure if we will be grandfathered into this unlimited plan when Verizon eventually starts metering their data.

The only current measured data comes in the WiFi hotspot functionality that is $20 for 2GB of data. Thankfully, Verizon includes the WiFi hotspot service for FREE until 15 May so eat all you can now while it is free and also conduct some typical usage scenarios so you can determine how much you should plan on using when they start charging for the service.

Final first thoughts

The HTC EVO 4G had a rather short battery life with WiMAX and HTC hasn't been able to solve this on the HTC ThunderBolt with LTE fully enabled. I would like to have seen a battery higher than 1400 mAh and if I keep the ThunderBolt I will definitely be buying the 1600 mAh slim extended life battery from Seidio or even the larger one they will have soon. With 3G enabled, battery life has been great and HTC needs to get a toggle utility out there for the device soon.

The placement of the microUSB port with the kickstand up concerns me, but then again I don't plan to watch a ton of video with the device since I have an iPad 2 for that. The Verizon bloatware is annoying, but you can keep it off of your Home screens and ignore it. If I do decide to keep the ThunderBolt, then I will likely root it and install custom ROMs that take out the garbage and improve the device.

LTE is blazing fast and is still in early stages of rollout so buying the HTC ThunderBolt for LTE is something you can safely say will be supported, from a network perspective, for years to come. Most devices today use older 3G technologies so it is great to see HTC jumping on the LTE network so quickly with a solid device.

With CTIA going on this week, I will be able to get a glimpse of smartphones coming for the next several months to make an even more informed decision regarding the ThunderBolt. I need to evaluate my needs to see if a LTE MiFi might serve my needs better or if I should stick with the ThunderBolt.

Feel free to leave me your thoughts on the ThunderBolt in the comments to help me with my purchase decision. If I do keep the ThunderBolt then expect to see more in-depth thoughts in the future.

Other reviews around the Internet

There are several folks I trust that have had the HTC ThunderBolt longer than myself so check out these other reviews too before making your purchase decision.

Back to the HTC ThunderBolt image gallery.

Topics: Hardware, HTC, Mobility, Smartphones, Wi-Fi

About

Matthew Miller started using a mobile devices in 1997 and has been writing news, reviews, and opinion pieces ever since. He is a co-host with GigaOM's Kevin Tofel on the MobileTechRoundup podcast and an author of three Wiley Companion series books. Matthew started using mobile devices with a US Robotics Pilot 1000 and has owned over 200 d... Full Bio

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