What's hot: Extremely fast 4G LTE speeds, large display, elegant design.
What's not: Short battery life, single core CPU is less future-proof.
Reviewed March 25, 2011 by Lisa Gade, Editor
The HTC Thunderbolt is in some ways Verizon’s answer to Sprint’s HTC EVO 4G that made a huge splash last year. In fact, the EVO is still going strong today, and that’s why other carriers have joined in with similar phones like the HTC Inspire 4G from AT&T and now the Thunderbolt. The HTC Thunderbolt has a trump card that leapfrogs this otherwise “we’ve seen this sort of thing before” smartphone ahead of the pack: LTE 4G. With the power not only of Verizon’s much lauded network behind it, but LTE too, we’ve got an insanely fast phone for all things Internet. LTE 4G is the fastest form of 4G currently available, and it blows away even T-Mobile’s otherwise respectable HSPA+ 4G network in terms of download and upload speeds. It beats WiMAX as well and is more than 4x faster in our tests.
The HTC Thunderbolt is one of the big boys that use HTC’s successful 4.3” display and slim form factor. This pocket-stretching phone packs a second generation single core 1GHz Snapdragon CPU (vs. the first gen CPU in the EVO 4G), plenty of RAM, a 32 gig microSD card and a sharp 8 megapixel shooter. It outdoes the Inspire 4G on AT&T by adding a front-facing video chat camera, and its 4G speeds are currently 4 to 8 times faster than AT&T’s fledgling HSPA+. So is the Thunderbolt the top dog Android phone? For the moment, it and the dual core Motorola Atrix 4G on AT&T are the most impressive and cutting edge, though Sprint will be fighting back with the HTC EVO 3D this summer. The 4.3” EVO 3D (due out summer 2011) will have a glass-less 3D display (a dubious feature) and a dual core Qualcomm CPU as well as 3D video recording.
The Thunderbolt is a good looking phone, as are all HTC phones using this design (HD2, HD7, EVO 4G and Inspire 4G). The casing is made of plastic that might fool you into thinking it’s brushed metal, and it feels great in hand. The Thunderbolt isn’t a super-slim phone but the back curves do have a slimming effect and make it more comfortable to hold.
Controls are logically placed; with the power button and headphone jack up top and the volume controls on the upper right side. The micro USB charging and syncing port is on the lower left side, and thus can’t be used when the kickstand is deployed for landscape viewing. The kickstand is solid with none of the disconcerting wobble we noted in the HD7 and the metal is thicker too. Thanks to the large 4.3” display, the Thunderbolt makes a nice mobile video player with the kickstand deployed.
Deals and Shopping:
The large earpiece has rounded and smooth edges and didn’t dig into our ear when talking on the phone (a complaint we had about the Inspire 4G). The loudspeaker fires from the rear and it lives under the kickstand. Volume and clarity are good even when the kickstand is closed and covers the speaker.
The display is sharp and colorful, though it lacks the wow factor of Samsung’s Super AMOLED displays. It’s nonetheless a good quality display with good color saturation and brightness (and much better than the T-Mobile HTC HD7’s). The bad news is that it fades quite a bit outdoors and we found it nearly impossible to see in direct sunlight.
The single core second generation Qualcomm Snapdragon puts on a good show: it might not touch the Nvidia Tegra 2 dual core CPU used in the Motorola Atrix and recent Android tablets, but it’s much faster than previous Android phones, including those with first gen Snapdragon CPUs. Our review unit scored 1845 on Quadrant benchmark application compared to 2481 on the Atrix, 1714 on the Inspire 4G, 1255 for the EVO 4G running Froyo and 1127 for the Droid X.
With 768 megs of RAM Android and HTC Sense have plenty of room to breathe, and the phone has 8 gigs of internal storage with approximately 2.4 gigs free (HTC’s ROM restore image uses a great deal of internal storage). Verizon includes a 32 gig microSD card as well. So in terms of performance, the Thunderbolt represents a strong evolutionary step forward for 1GHz single core CPU Android phones. It feels responsive, doesn’t lag and is a pleasure to use. Even Adobe Flash 10.2 playback is watchable; something we don’t say about slower Android phones. For those of you who are in love with pure processing power or are looking for a future-proof smartphone, the only thing the Thunderbolt lacks is a dual core CPU.
But the real story here is 4G speed. That’s where the Thunderbolt currently blows all other phones away. It’s like being on WiFi, and very good WiFi at that (not slow public WiFi but your home setup if you have a fast access point and a 10Mbps or better broadband connection). In our tests using Ookla’s Speedtest.net app we saw download speeds ranging from 8 to 15Mbps down. Speedtest couldn’t reliably measure our upload speed since it showed a constant 25Mbps up which isn’t likely. When using the Thunderbolt as a WiFi hotspot (it can serve up to 8 clients), we got speeds ranging from 11 to 14Mbps down and 5-6Mbps up using our Windows 7 Acer TimelineX 1830T and 15” MacBook Pro. Sweet! Another bonus is that Verizon’s LTE network runs on the 700MHz band which means strong building penetration. If you’re not yet in a 4G LTE coverage area, the phone does 3G EV-DO Rev. A just fine, and we got download speeds of 1.5Mbps on Verizon 3G.
Verizon’s LTE network currently handles data only, and phone calls will route over their legacy 1x network. The good news is that you can now make phone calls and use data when you’re in a 4G coverage area. Take that, iPhone 4. Call quality and volume were better than average on the Thunderbolt, with clear voice on both ends. We did occasionally notice digitized sounding voice when using the (loud!) speakerphone, but voice was natural through the earpiece and Bluetooth headsets.
Here's our 13 minute HTC Thunderbolt video review complete with comparisons and application demos.
Multimedia is a pleasure on the Thunderbolt thanks to its fast CPU with Adreno 205 GPU and large display. We had no problem playing 800 x 480 high bitrate MPEG4 video when we kicked back with the kickstand deployed. Mobile YouTube at HQ looked very good (that’s not hard to manage these days) and Flash video played with very watchable frame rates and reasonable responsiveness to controls. It’s not quite as fluid as dual core Tegra 2 phones and tablets, but it’s a decent experience.
The 8 megapixel main rear camera takes very pleasing photos that have good color accuracy, pleasing but not over-done sharpness and decent exposure. It’s worlds better than the Motorola Atrix 4G’s 5 megapixel camera for both still shots and video. The camera can shoot 720p video at 30fps via the main camera, and it’s good enough for YouTube upload. The Thunderbolt has a front video chat camera but unfortunately doesn’t ship with a video chat application. Skype Mobile with video chat is supposedly coming, and the existing voice-only client won’t run on the Thunderbolt.
Now to the bad news: the HTC Thunderbolt doesn’t have stellar battery life. If you’re a phone junky who reads all the news and leaks, you’ve likely heard about the Thunderbolt’s bumpy road to acceptable battery life and the delays that journey caused. The phone now has bearable battery life (hey, folks manage to live with the EVO 4G), but it won’t run hard all day on 4G without a daytime top-up. If you access email frequently, visit websites often and stream YouTube and Pandora as part of your daily regime, you’ll need to keep a charger handy, get a spare battery or purchase the ungainly extended battery that doubles battery life while giving the smartphone a Quasimodo hump. If you’re in a 3G-only area, the Thunderbolt’s 1400 mAh battery will easily last a full day. The phone doesn’t ship with a way to turn off 4G for those who wish to conserve battery power, but there are utilities and hacks on the Net that can do it.
The HTC has a GPS with aGPS and a digital compass. It worked well with both Google Maps and VZ Navigator X in our tests, though we did note that as with the HTC Inspire, it had trouble getting a fix indoors unless WiFi was turned on (it need not be connected to an access point). The large screen makes for excellent map viewing as long as you keep it out of direct sunlight where it glares and fades.
The HTC Thunderbolt is one of the best smartphones on the market right now. Its incredible 4G LTE speeds and WiFi hotspot sharing feature set it apart, at least for a few months until Verizon releases further 4G smartphones. It's hard to beat HTC's Sense UI for a tasteful and restrained customization of Android that packs a lot of utility; especially for those of you who dislike Samsung's TouchWiz UI and find vanilla Android dull or unfriendly. The Thunderbolt's 4.3" display sets the standard for big screen viewing, even if it's not hyper-saturated like Samsung's Super AMOLED displays, and the 1GHz second gen Snapdragon CPU is more than capable for video playback. As the cliche goes, nothing is perfect, and the Thunderbolt's weak battery life on 4G and single core CPU hurt. Not that the Thunderbolt isn't a very fast and capable phone, but specs still sell products as do promises of future-proof technology and a dual core CPU would have made the Thunderbolt an out of the park home run.
Pro: Extremely fast 4G LTE speeds, large display, elegant design.
Con: Poor battery life on 4G, a dual core CPU would make this phone a clear leader.
Display:4.3" multi-touch capacitive display. Resolution:
800 x 480, supports both portrait and landscape modes. Sensors: proximity, ambient light sensor and g-sensor.
Ion rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable.
1400 mAh. 2750 mA extended battery available for purchase.
Performance:1GHz Qualcomm MSM8655 CPU with Adreno 205 graphics. 768 megs RAM. 8 gigs flash ROM with 2.4 gigs available.
x 2.78 x 0.53 inches. Weight: 4.67 ounces.
Phone:CDMA dual band digital with EV-DO Rev. A and LTE 4G on the Verizon's 700MHz band.
Camera:1.3MP front camera and 8 megapixel rear main camera with dual LED flash that can shoot 720p video.
GPS:GPS with aGPS and digital compass.
in speaker, dual noise-canceling mics, surround sound software and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
jack. Has FM radio.
WiFi 802.11b/g/n and Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR.
Software:Android OS 2.2 Froyo with HTC Sense UI and software. Standard Google apps including Google Search, Android Market, Maps and Navigation, Gallery, Gmail, email, YouTube player, Mobile Hotspot and more. Verizon, HTC and third party software: VZ Navigator, Bitbop, VCast Apps, Blockbuster video, Adobe Reader, City ID, Connected Media (DLNA), Flashlight, HTC Friendstream, Let's Golf 2, Quickoffice, Rhapsody, Slacker, TuneWiki, V Cast Media and Kindle.