HTC ThunderBolt review: America's next top Android phone

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.

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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

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Talkback

21 comments
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  • Speed up---battery life down

    Fact of life, folks. There ain't no free lunch.
    Userama
    • What I don't get is...

      @Userama

      10 Mbs? Is this speed for speed sakes for a mobile platform where resources like battery and memory are seriously limited? I get a consistent 3-4 Mbs on my current 3G and I really do not find it wanting. The real downside is ping rates are 250-350 ms and not the 60 ms I get on my home network.

      I would be very happy with a 3Mbs if they could get the ping rates to 50-80 ms.
      Bruizer
      • RE: HTC ThunderBolt review: America's next top Android phone

        @Bruizer
        Check this out, a cool combination of Android, Iphone and wp7... youtube.com/watch?v=vnKvQo3ao6o
        t3chenthusiast
  • Saw this thing at CTIA, not that special

    Its definitely not worth upgrading from the incredible. While it would be nice to have a larger screen size and slightly more power as well as take advantage of LTE(which has limited deployment here in orlando).

    I also found the interface to be no faster than the incredible.

    Think i will keep my 18 hours of battery and wait for a better phone.
    Been_Done_Before
    • RE: HTC ThunderBolt review: America's next top Android phone

      @Been_Done_Before

      And no Honeycomb.
      WarhavenSC
      • RE: HTC ThunderBolt review: America's next top Android phone

        @WarhavenSC

        Honeycomb is for tablets, not smart phones. I think you meant Gingerbread (Android 2.3.4) which will eventually make it to the Thunderbolt.
        jfrykman@...
    • RE: HTC ThunderBolt review: America's next top Android phone

      @Been_Done_Before I upgraded from the Incredible yesterday and I can turn the 4G into 3G which helps extend battery life plus I get the ability to surf and talk at the same time! As soon as Seidio releases the extended Battery I am jumping on the ship!
      slickjim
  • RE: HTC ThunderBolt review: America's next top Android phone

    "America's next top Android phone"

    For about 4 hours before it becomes a very expensive brick.

    P.S. And it still runs the 2.2....
    kitko
    • RE: HTC ThunderBolt review: America's next top Android phone

      @kitko

      HTC is better-than-average when it comes to OS updates on Android phones.
      DonRupertBitByte
  • RE: HTC ThunderBolt review: America's next top Android phone

    Not with 4 hours of battery life. I would not buy a phone that could not last through the day on a single charge.
    CowLauncher
    • RE: HTC ThunderBolt review: America's next top Android phone

      @CowLauncher The phone is not the issue... The issue is that HTC thinks they can put the same battery in everyone of their phones.
      slickjim
  • RE: HTC ThunderBolt review: America's next top Android phone

    Bought this when it hit shelves, using for business and phone was dead like three hours using only for phone/email stuff in 4G areas. Took back two days later. In 3G area at home it was fine just like my Droid has always been. Now I am using a non-smart phone and carry my Xoom with me for $20/month data plan. Much better work around for business person. Tablets are the future, smartphones are for kids now and gaming. Who needs the 10 mbps download speed? Never had a problem with the 3G yet. We are at the cusp of technology overload on smartphones. Give me a big screen desktop, a Xoom, and a phone without a touch screen. It's like a 600hp Corvette for $100k, you can't drive over 70 mph so why bother?
    onlineternal8877
  • Except the 3G/4G thing which doesn't exit in my area...

    It's exactly the same phone with my Desire HD!<sarcasm>What a surprise!</sarcasm>
    cym104
    • ZDNet has eaten my sarscasm tag....

      NT
      cym104
  • Poor battery life

    Since the current generation of phones has to support LTE and the legacy network(CDMA or GSM) simultaneously, battery life will be poor...that is, until LTE is ubiquitous and VoLTE is being used for voice...then you will see 4G only phones that will have better battery life.
    otaddy
  • Seriously do you guys in the USA not have the Desire HD?...

    ...because this is the Desire HD with 4G!

    I love my Desire HD, it's a massive jump from HTC Magic, and the battery live is improved as well. But batterly life is always going to be the kicker with any smartphone due to what they have to do.

    I run all day with 2G, and 3G if I'm doing heavy browsing as I just don't need the speed all the time, and my battery thanks me for it!

    The speed of 4G is awesome, but for me I think I'd only every use it for tethering / Wireless hotspotting. Probably more tethering because then I could keep the phone on charge at the same time.
    DevJonny
  • RE: HTC ThunderBolt review: America's next top Android phone

    I think that Verizon forgets that many of their business clients, the ones who want this kind of functionality, also want the phone to work globally! I am disappointed that there will be no 4G phones for Verizon with global connectivity. I'm still stuck with my Blackberry Storm2 for now...
    irishsaxman
  • RE: HTC ThunderBolt review: America's next top Android phone

    Since the TB doesn't have an HDMI out - are there any alternatives other than the DLNA?
    baytech10
  • RE: HTC ThunderBolt review: America's next top Android phone

    I bought the Thunderbolt on lauch day. Prior to that I had a 3g iphone for two years. I mainly wanted to switch from ATT to Verizon. But I didn't want to get the Verizon iphone 4 only to have it outdated in 5 months. learning the Android platform has been a hassle. I would estimate that downloads are 5 times faster while in 4g on the verizon LTE relative to my 3g Att experiences. I would estimate that battery life is 20% shorter than the iphone using the factory settings, however, I have experienced problems with the phone switching from 3g to 4g when traveling, often it gets stuck in 3g mode. Verizon customer service recommened that changing the wireless networks/Mobile Networks settings to activate data roaming. This seemed to solve the switching problem, but the battery life dropped in half, a complete disaster, and I have deactivated the data roaming function. The GPS, which I use a lot, is constantly giving me a 'location not available' message the first time I activate it, but it seems to usually work the second time I activate it, very annoying. The default voice mail index sucks, I have tried youmail which is better, but it does not seem to work seemlessly with the phone. I preferred the way text messages were displayed on the iphone. I am still learning the download and sync processes.

    I agree with the guy that said Zoom like Tablets are the future, but I only want to carry one device. If the Zoom tablet could make phone calls I would have bought that in a heart beat. A 7.0 sqin screen with a phone would have been bad a$$.
    Rooster11
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