HTC ThunderBolt review: America's next top Android phone

Summary:The HTC ThunderBolt is Verizon's first smartphone to run on its 4G LTE network. The speed of the ThunderBolt is so fast it's almost ridiculous, but it does come at a price.

The HTC ThunderBolt delivers big, in nearly every sense of the word. It lives up to its sky high expectations (see huge banner below from CES 2011). And it's physically really big and heavy. It's big in hype, big in performance, and big in form factor -- and it has one big caveat.

The ThunderBolt is Verizon's first 4G LTE phone. And, while AT&T and T-Mobile are abusing the term 4G and causing it to lose its meaning, Verizon's LTE is a legitimate next generation experience with uber-fast download/upload speeds and lower latency connections that provide better responsiveness. For the ThunderBolt, all of that connectivity goodness is paired with a phone that has screeching fast hardware to keep up with the wireless speed boost.

That said, while the ThunderBolt gives us a peek at the future, it's also a 1.0 device that has a couple imperfections, which potential buyers need to be aware of before jumping on board.

Photo gallery

HTC ThunderBolt photos: The Ferrari of smartphones

Specifications

  • Carrier: Verizon Wireless
  • OS: Android 2.2 (Froyo) with HTC Sense UI
  • Processor: 1 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon (QSD8255), Adreno 205 GPU, and MDM9600 chipset for 3G/4G
  • RAM: 768MB
  • Storage: 8GB internal, 32GB microSD (pre-installed)
  • Display: 4.3-inch WVGA with 480x800 resolution
  • Battery: Lithium-ion with 1400 mAh capacity
  • Ports: microUSB 2.0, 3.5mm audio jack, SIM slot
  • Weight: 6.23 ounces
  • Dimensions: 4.75 x 2.44 x 0.56 inches
  • Camera: 8MP with auto-focus, dual LED flash, HD video capture, 1.3MP front-facing camera
  • Sensors: Accelerometer, A-GPS, digital compass, proximity sensor, ambient light sensor
  • Keyboard: Virtual QWERTY
  • Networks: CDMA 800/1900Mhz (2G); CDMA2000 EV-DO (3G); 700Mhz LTE (4G)
  • Wireless: Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n; Bluetooth 2.1 with EDR
  • Tethering: USB + mobile Wi-Fi hotspot
  • Price: $249 (with 2-year contract)

Who is it for?

This is a phone for someone who needs all the performance they can get out of a mobile device. I have tested a lot of smartphones -- iPhone, BlackBerry, Android, Windows Phone 7, Palm, and more -- and this is the fastest one I have ever seen. It loads apps, Web pages, videos, and documents at near-desktop speeds. Obviously, the +10Mbps speeds (bursting to up to +30Mbps) of Verizon's LTE network helps a lot, but this device is still really fast on 3G and Wi-Fi. For the road warrior who does a lot of work on the smartphone and needs a workhorse device, a widespread mobile network, and a future-proof phone that will still be relevant in two years, the ThunderBolt fits the bill.

What problems does it solve?

The HTC ThunderBolt is arguably the world's first smartphone to experience true 4G speeds over 30Mbps with hardware than can keep up the pace. Sure, there have been Samsung phones running on WiMAX in South Korea, for example, but those don't have the latency improvements that Verizon has made with LTE and the devices themselves haven't had the kind of horsepower that you get in the ThunderBolt, with its upgraded 1GHz Snapdragon, Adreno 205 GPU, and MDM9600 chip for LTE. With its 4G LTE phones, Verizon has also solved the issue of simultaneous voice and data. In the past, you couldn't make a call and browse a Web page at the same time because of the limitations of Verizon's CDMA network. With 4G, Verizon is sending voice over CDMA and using LTE for data.

Standout features

  • Performance sets a high bar - As I've already mentioned, the ThunderBolt is really fast. The combination of the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon processor (single core), a dedicated GPU (Adreno 205), LTE chip (MDM9600), 768MB of RAM, and 8GB of integrated eMMC storage gives the ThunderBolt a lot of horsepower under the hood.
  • Top-of-the-line hardware profile - In addition of the high-end chips, the ThunderBolt also sports a bight, crisp WVGA display, an 8MP camera on the back, a 1.3MP camera on the front, a 32GB SD card (included), a 1400 mAh battery, and all the latest digital sensors. The camera in the ThunderBolt is a nice improvement over last year's HTC EVO. Here's an example of a photo I took using the ThunderBolt's camera.
  • Industrial-strength form factor - As I wrote in my review of the HTC Inspire (which has a nearly identical form factor to the ThunderBolt), this hardware design is appealing with its unibody aluminum frame. It combines the unibody frame of the Google Nexus One and the HTC Desire with the square body of the HTC EVO (which has a shiny plastic bezel). The result is a sturdy, attractive metal body. The battery cover on the back of the ThunderBolt is plastic but has a steely finish that successfully masquerades as metal. The phone is large and a little heavy, but it's one of the best hardware designs on the market.
  • HTC Sense UI adds value - I don't like any of the software skins that the hardware vendors layer on top of Android, with the notable exception of HTC's Sense UI. All of the other Android skins subtract from the Android experience, in my opinion, and would be better off just running the stock OS. HTC is the only vendor that improves on Android with attractive UI elements as well as useful widgets and services.

What's wrong?

  • 4G battery life - If you look at my 4G speedtests with the ThunderBolt, you'll see that it was easily topping 10Mbps downloads and uploads on Verizon LTE. I was regularly seeing bursts of speed that were faster than what I have on my cable modem at home. However, all of that crazy speed comes at a price. Almost immediately after the ThunderBolt was released, reports started surfacing that it only gets about 4 hours of battery life on 4G. After spending a week testing the ThunderBolt on LTE in Orlando (while attending CTIA Wireless), I can confirm that 4G drains the battery in about half the day. On 4G, you have to smartly manage battery power, use the extended battery or a add-on battery pack, or charge the phone at mid-day in order to make it through a full work day with the ThunderBolt. You can turn off 4G so that you can get through a whole day -- I made it through a whole day of normal use on a mix of 3G and Wi-Fi and still had 70% of the battery left. However, turning off 4G on the world's first LTE phone is disappointing. The ThunderBolt is still staggeringly fast on 3G and Wi-Fi, but 4G is its killer feature -- especially when using it as a mobile hotspot -- but if you're going to use it for an extended period of time then you'll need to plug it in. To squeeze out more battery life, check out my companion article, Five battery tips for HTC Thunderbolt.
  • No dual core - As powerful as the ThunderBolt is and as much as it is packed with top-of-the-line hardware, the one area where it comes up a little short in hardware is its single-core Qualcomm processor. All of the other high-end Android smartphones in this category are going to be running dual core processors in 2011 -- usually the NVIDIA Tegra 2. However, HTC has a tight partnership with Qualcomm, which hasn't come to market with its dual core solution yet. The ThunderBolt doesn't appear to suffer from any speed lapses because of this, but dual core can improve battery life and multitasking.

Bottom line for business

At CES 2011, I wrote that the HTC ThunderBolt was the early favorite for the best smartphone of 2011. After testing it for two weeks -- including some extended time on 4G -- I'm ready to officially put the ThunderBolt at the top of my current Android leaderboard. And, with iPhone 5 probably delayed until Fall and other LTE phones on hold until this summer, the ThunderBolt is likely to remain on top for a while.

Despite its 4G battery problems, this phone is a powerhouse. It sets a new standard for how fast we can really go on a smartphone and provides a peek at what the future will look like for nearly all smartphones once the next generation of mobile broadband is fully deployed and the devices are optimized for it. In the short term, this is still a lightening fast device on 3G and Wi-Fi, with the ability for seismic 4G bursts when needed. Plus, it has a great hardware design and HTC's excellent software enhancements for Android.

Competitive products

Where to get more info

This was originally published on TechRepublic.

Topics: Android, Google, Hardware, HTC, Mobility, Smartphones, Verizon, Wi-Fi

About

Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks (bit.ly/ftgeeks).

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