HTC Thunderbolt: Early favorite for best smartphone of 2011

The HTC Thunderbolt was one of the most anticipated products of CES 2011 and it didn't disappoint. See why it's the early favorite for the year's most powerful smartphone.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief

The hype swirling around the HTC Thunderbolt has been building since last fall when rumors first emerged of an HTC EVO-like Android device that was coming to Verizon. Then, that developed into the expectation of a high-powered HTC device would be featured at CES as one of Verizon's first LTE 4G smartphones. HTC only fueled the hype with its huge billboard at CES (see below) proclaiming, "It's not your dream phone. It's the one after that. Coming 1/6/11."

Ironically, the official announcement of the HTC Thunderbolt came with a whimper, as just one of the 10 LTE 4G devices that Verizon unveiled on Thursday at its big CES 2011 press conference. However, make no mistake, the Thunderbolt is the jewel of the Verizon LTE crown. This is one of those rare products that lives up to the hype.

After the Verizon keynote on Thursday I went to HTC's private meeting room for the sole purpose of getting my hands on the Thunderbolt. Not only did they have a working model available, but HTC told me that it was a final build and it was live on Verizon's LTE network here in Las Vegas. They graciously allowed me to sit down with one for about 25 minutes and put it through its paces, and I was legitimately impressed.

The first thing I liked is that Thunderbolt is very similar in form factor to the HTC EVO 4G, which I ranked as the best Android smartphone of 2010. But, the Thunderbolt's casing doesn't have the plastic outer rim of the EVO. Instead, it has a unified metal body similar to the Google Nexus One (made by HTC) and the HTC Desire. So, the hardware essentially combines what I consider to be the two best-designed Android phones ever -- the EVO and the Nexus One. Well done.

However, by far the most impressive part of the Thunderbolt is when you start loading Web pages. This thing loads pages so quickly that you suddenly realize that we've become accustomed to waiting 5-10 seconds for pages to load on smartphones, because of the latency of 3G connections (even ones with lots of bandwidth). On the desktop, we have a much lower tolerance for page loads since they typically happen in about 1-3 seconds on the average broadband connection using a modern PC. Because Verizon's 4G LTE network hasn't just improved bandwidth but also reduced latency (the time it takes to make a connection), the Thunderbolt loads Web pages at PC-comparable speeds.

I went to TechRepublic and loaded an article with an embedded YouTube video. The page loaded immediately and when I hit play the video started playing within 1-2 seconds and never paused to buffer. Then I successively flipped through 4-5 of the comments to the article (which each loaded a new page). There was no delay or hiccup and each of the new pages loaded within 1-3 seconds. At that point, I had to close my mouth

Because Android now supports Flash (which itself is still terrible overall, but that's another article), I went to www.speedtest.net on the Thunderbolt's Web browser and ran a test. Here's what it looked like:

As you can see, I got 18 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. That's pretty impressive. Of course, you may say that the network is new and empty, but actually Verizon is doing a ton of demos on LTE here at CES and a lot of the attendees here are early adopters who have the first Verizon LTE modems for their laptops, so I wasn't the only one on the network.

But, the thing you may not have noticed was the Ping (latency) time of 62ms (that's milliseconds). That's a major reason why Verizon's LTE network has given the Thunderbolt such a big speed boost. Smartphones on 3G networks almost never get under 100ms and most of the time they are at 300-500ms, even on good connections with lots of bandwidth. In fact, many smartphones on strong Wi-Fi connections don't even get under 100ms. The best phones on the best connections will get 50-100ms, but more often than not smartphones on Wi-Fi tend to get 100-200ms. The LTE latency times are pushing down toward wired Internet latency rates (typically about 10-40ms). That makes it easy to see why the Thunderbolt feels so responsive when connecting to the Internet.

Of course, the other part of the speed bump is due to the fact that the phone hardware is getting faster as well. While the Thunderbolt does not feature the most popular new mobile speed demon -- the dual core NVIDIA Tegra2 -- it is powered by an upgraded version of the 1 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon (the MSM8655). I was disappointed when first I heard that Thunderbolt didn't have the dual core Tegra2, but I didn't sense a bit of lag in this phone. It was faster than the existing 1GHz Snapdragon devices and at least as fast as the Tegra2 devices that I've been able to try here at CES. Of course, the dual core Tegra2 devices could turn out to be stronger at multitasking and multimedia.

The best thing I can say about the HTC Thunderbolt is that when my time was up, I didn't want to give it back. I would have loved to taken this thing with me and kept using it. Alas, although I was told that I was using a final build of the device, no timeframe has been announced for its release other than "first quarter" (and no pricing yet either).

I have no hesitation in calling the HTC Thunderbolt the best of all the new smartphones announced at CES 2011. I think the Motorola Atrix, which can also serve as a PC replacement, is the most important new product at CES, but I think the Thunderbolt (with a big assist from Verizon LTE) is likely to be the most powerful and useful smartphone on the planet when it's officially released in the months ahead.

For more on the HTC Thunderbolt, check out the photo gallery below and then a quick video clip I shot of the Thunderbolt running its own demo video.

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This article was originally published on TechRepublic.

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