The HTC Thunderbolt has been one of the most anticipated smartphones, as it is the first handset to use Verizon’s powerful 4G LTE network. Given Verizon’s stellar 4G network performance in our previous review, we were anxious to see how this would translate to the user experience of a handset. Design-wise, the HTC Thunderbolt is a distant relative of the acclaimed HTC EVO 4G, and a sibling of the HTC Inspire 4G. It has a big, comfortable, 4.3” LCD TFT display and a rear kickstand to hold the phone while watching movies. But despite using the fastest network in the U.S, the Thunderbolt is not equipped with a dual-core processor nor a high-end display (OLED, IPS). How does it behave in the real world, and is it for you? Let’s take a look.
Usage patterns are different for each of us: we all have our own, and that’s why it is often impractical to write a dogmatic review that simply says “buy/don’t buy” (that’s so 1990). I find it more helpful to tell you what I do with these devices, and how they worked for me (or not!). From there, you can figure out how things might turn out for you.
I typically check my email often with Exchange, and I reply moderately because with the virtual keyboard, typing long emails is a chore. I browse the web several times a day to check news sites, but I rarely watch movies or play music on my phone. I run apps: mainly social networks and a tiny bit of games. I don’t make many phone calls – maybe 10 minutes per day, if at all. This usage pattern affects battery life and my perception of which features are important or not.
Design (classic HTC)
On the outside, the HTC Thunderbolt is built on the same philosophy that led to the HTC EVO 4G. Just like its older cousin, the HTC Thunderbolt feels good in the hand although it is a little heavier than most phones. The 4.3” display is very big and pretty much the largest screen you can get for a handset. You can look at the photo gallery to get a sense of the design in the real world. I like it. It’s classic but it works.
Display (TFT LCD): The TFT LCD large 4.3” display looks good and works well for text, photos or movies. Colors are nice, and the saturation is very decent. However, it is not as good as the best out there: IPS displays (iPhone 4, Optimux 2X) are brighter, offer a higher resolution and have a much better view angle (colors are not distorted at shallow angles). AMOLED (Samsung) has better contrast and saturation. That said, the HTC Thunderbolt still has a much better display than the HTC EVO Shift 4G, and it is good in an “absolute” sense.
Next-Gen Network (read this!): because the main improvement is located at the wireless mobile network level, it’s important to understand that performance is the combination of two things: raw speed and latency.
Raw speed (in Mbps of download/upload) is a common metric that most people with a home Internet connection have heard of. It basically shows you how fast you can retrieve data. The higher, the better.
Latency (in milliseconds, or ms) on the other hand is a less common topic. Latency represents how long you have to wait between a request from your device, and a response from the server. Latency is very important because this is an *incompressible* delay, and wireless networks are usually not great at it (when compared to home networks). When it comes to latency, the lower, the better. A web site can require dozens of requests, each inducing some level of latency. This is important because desktop websites are usually not optimized for latency, at least not to the point of making them mobile-friendly.
The Verizon LTE network has much faster download speed *and* low latency. For the latency we’re talking about 250+ms versus 75+ms. in our tests. That’s about 3X faster.
4G, 4G, 4G (it’s very fast): In our synthetic tests (Speedtest.net app), Verizon’s 4G LTE obliterates AT&T’s HSPA (T-mobile’s 4G should be close to AT&T), and even Sprint’s Wimax can’t match it for now. In the near future, it looks like AT&T will be able to compete this summer, if the company launches its LTE network as planned. Currently, Verizon is untouchable. Note, however, that as Verizon’s network gets more crowded, the performance could change significantly.
The technicalities are nice, but what’s the impact in your daily life? Well, here’s the good news: everything that’s Internet-related is getting a *huge* boost.
Google Maps: The first thing that I tried is Google Maps (I get lost *all the time*). Because the application typically loads maps in “tiles”, it generates a lot of network traffic. With the HTC Thunderbolt and the 4G LTE network, Google Maps is a pleasure to use. As you move around, tiles load very quickly. Every single user should be able to tell the difference right away. Map tiles appear in less than a second – that’s at least twice as fast as non-LTE smartphones.
Facebook: Here again, the 4G wireless network makes a huge difference: with the Android Facebook application, content comes up much more quickly than on non-LTE phones, and therefore, the user experience is more pleasant in general. It’s – almost – like being on a Netbook, rather than a smartphone.
These are only two examples of apps that I use very frequently, but you can expect anything that is network-intensive to be noticeably faster. This is the single most important feature of the Thunderbolt.
Software (Android 2.2+HTC Sense)
The Thunderbolt, just like many other recent Android phones, is powered by Android 2.2. Google has added a number of improvements in 2.3, but the Nexus S is the only handset that currently ships with 2.3, and who knows when the Thunderbolt will be upgraded.
That said, the HTC Thunderbolt has arguably a better software offering than many Android 2.2 competitors, thanks to HTC Sense. This is HTC’s own software layer on top of Android which “fixes” many issues common with Android, including: a better task manager, a functional copy/paste and, most importantly, email search (!). HTC Sense also has a different keyboard, and plenty of other widgets/features, but it would deserve its own review if we were to go into the details.
Photo and Video Capture (very good)
The Thunderbolt captures very good photos and videos. I have to give extra credits to HTC for allowing users to tap the screen to tell the camera app what area of the image to use for focus and automatic image settings. This is much better than the common Android 2.2 camera experience.
The photos are nice and detailed, and the lag between tapping the screen and the photo actually being taken is fairly short. There’s no continuous focus similar to what you can find on the iPhone 4. Still, this is one of the better camera apps that I have encountered on Android. The lack of a macro mode is the only bit that annoys me, but I can live without it.
Videos show the same optical properties: the image quality is very good. I found both the 800 x 480 and the 640 x 480 formats smooth and sharp, while the 720p videos are rather blocky (compression artifacts) and can’t sustain 30FPS. That’s what happens when the bitrate is too low. Frankly, while the specs may look good on paper I seriously recommend sticking to lower video resolutions. I uploaded some samples to our Flickr account so that you can see for yourself: Thunderbolt photo & video samples.
The front camera is used for video chat. Unfortunately Skype doesn’t work with it yet. You can try falling back on Fring or Tango, both of which are multi-platform. I personally think that the latter is much better. Eventually, Google should step in and provide a video chat application with a PC/Mac client that would give FaceTime a run for its money. Until then, iOS devices remain the platform of choice for easy video chat.
Videos: The HTC Thunderbolt has surpassed YouTube’s capabilities by far. Because YouTube identifies the HTC as a mobile device it sends relatively low-resolution files, even in “HQ” (high quality) mode (it’s hard to tell on the video below). The Thunderbolt could do much better if YouTube were actually sending a DVD-quality stream. Right now, YouTube HQ is OK, but you don’t need 4G LTE to get this kind of quality. 4G LTE could stream 1080p in all its glory.
If you play a movie from a local file, things should get better. However, the Thunderbolt is outgunned by phones that use dual-core processors with better video hardware, like the Motorola Atrix and the LG Optimus 2X. In short, the superior network has yet to be matched by a mobile video service.
Media files management: Talking about playing local files: upon connecting to your USB port, the HTC Thunderbolt will appear as a USB drive. Managing files over USB can be good or bad, depending on your situation. If you are familiar with copying and moving files around, this can make life very simple and put you in control of your content.
But if you are not comfortable with the many file types and file drives/locations/folders, or if you have a humongous media collection, managing the files “by hand” instead of having a utility like iTunes can be daunting. I personally have very few files to synchronize, so I’m absolutely fine with the idea of doing all this manually. There are also Android apps like WinAmp that can help you with this task, but you’ll have to install WinAmp on your computer too.
Basics (very good)
Audio call quality: the audio quality on the Thunderbolt is OK, but not great. The Nexus S remains my reference for that particular field. But fret not, this is certainly good enough.
Copy/paste: As I said above, HTC’s copy/paste is much better than Google’s in Android 2.2. The upcoming Android 2.3 (Nexus S) is a clear improvement, but so far, most handsets are still on 2.2. In the meantime, HTC Sense is the way to go if you need good copy/paste support.
Web browsing (excellent): on all high-end Android phones, web browsing is very good, but the 4G speed makes web browsing truly snappy, that’s why I call it “excellent”. It really is noticeably faster than everything else on the market. It’s too bad that the Thunderbolt does not have a dual-core processor to accelerate web page rendering and parsing… I can’t wait for the next-generation devices.
Flash support: I’ve installed Flash 10.2 and it works a little better than Flash 10.1. The performance is slightly higher, but don’t expect to watch a 720p video. In fact, watching a small video on a DYI site already consumes most of the processing resources. Even zooming or scrolling is very slow.
Casual games should work as well, but keep in mind that many of them have been designed for PCs, so they rely on a mouse+keyboard and sometime require a lot of processing power.
Email: Email works great, and the Microsoft Exchange support lets me use my work email without any trouble. If you use a personal email from a popular service (Yahoo, GMail, MSN, AOL…) the setup should be very easy, too: just enter your email and password. If you have GMail, you will get first class treatment with the GMail app. Note that HTC Sense has “email search” – this is a big deal for everyone who gets a lot of emails, as you might need to search for key information hidden somewhere in the past 200 emails. It’s hard to believe but most Android 2.2 phones don’t have this feature.
WiFi Hotspot: Creating a hotspot is easy. Head to Settings>Wireless&Networks>Tethering and Portable Hotspot and check “Portable WiFi Hotspot”. It worked with my laptop, and this is a common feature on Android, so I don’t expect any particular issues.
You should know that the WiFi hotspot is battery intensive, so keep an eye on the battery life if you are sharing a connection with your laptop. Or better yet, keep the phone plugged over USB. That will alleviate some of the battery problems – or at least hand them over to your laptop.
4G Modem: you can use your smartphone as a 4G modem over USB. This can be convenient as the computer charges the phone at the same time. You need to install drivers located in your phone: upon plugging it to a Windows PC, the system will ask you if you want to install the drivers. From there, it’s easy: just choose the “Internet Connection Mode” in the USB connectivity options and your computer should use the Thunderbolt’s zippy Internet.
Computer as a Modem: This is a less common scenario worth mentioning: the phone can use a computer’s Internet connection. This could be useful if you are traveling to a place where you don’t have coverage and where Wi-Fi is not available. Using this method, you can download apps and do other things directly on your phone.
Contact and Calendar Sync: Android is built with the idea that you will synchronize everything over the Internet. HTC realizes that you might want to do some over USB as well, so HTC Sync – a small utility – lets you do just that, but only for Calendar and Contact items. There are no email synchronization capabilities.
Battery Life (poor)
After 1h38mn of usage (I took 3 photos, shot a 30sec video and let it sleep), the battery went from 97% down to 69%: a 28% decrease! And because you can’t turn 4G off like you could on the original (Sprint) EVO, you pretty much have to accept that power drain, unless you want to cut the data access completely, which defies the purpose of having a zippy 4G phone in the first place.
And it seems that this is no “software fluke”. HTC is officially going to “fix” this by releasing a humongous 2,750 mAh battery, which is about 2X the original battery capacity. The extended battery will sell for $50 or so, and should come with a back cover to replace the original one. Yes, it will make the phone significantly bulkier.With the extended battery on, the phone will weigh 7.5oz (212g). For reference, the iPhone 4 weighs 4.8 oz (136g) and the Samsung Galaxy S 2 is 4.09ox (116g).
At the moment, everything seems to indicate that the 4G LTE components used in this phone simply drain too much power. This should get better in the future, as it did for 3G phones back in the days.
Technical Highlights (plain)
- 4.3” LCD TFT display (800×480)
- Qualcomm MSM8655 1GHz (single core)
- 768MB of RAM
- 8GB of Internal Storage, 32GB microSD (included)
- WiFi B/G/N, Mobile Hotspot, 4G USB Modem
- 8Megapixel camera (rear), 1.3Megapixel camera (front)
There are always two aspects of performance: perceived and measured. Although you might think that both should be in tune, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, two phones have a difference in performance of 5% or 10%. While this is a relatively big number on paper, it is often not perceived by users. And if you can’t perceive it… why should you care?
Perceived: For most of the basic things like user interface, scrolling etc., the HTC Thunderbolt does well. Scrolling is always fluid, even when many apps are running in the background. Google Maps and web pages are snappy – thanks to the 4G LTE network. The perceived performance is very good for Internet-based applications.
Conclusion (the battery life kills it)
The HTC Thunderbolt is a very interesting smartphone, and it makes history by being the first 4G LTE phone to run on the Verizon network. (I’m not sure if there is another 4G LTE handset on the market, worldwide.) By using a 4G LTE network, select apps running on the Thunderbolt can reach a speed and a level of comfort never seen before on a smartphone. However, all this network performance and user comfort are overshadowed by the short battery life.
As it stands, and with my moderate use, I don’t think that the phone can stay alive for more than 5 or 6 hours. This is insufficient. With that in mind, I can’t recommend using this phone as long as the included battery cannot sustain even a relatively mild usage pattern. If you really want to go for it, you will *have to* buy the extended battery that will make this phone twice has heavy as a Samsung Galaxy S 2. If network speed is of the essence, and if you can’t wait, take a good look at the pros and cons. In the end, it’s probably more reasonable to wait for other, upcoming 4G LTE phones.
Even more reviews:
Apple: iPhone 4 Review, iPad Review, iPad 2 Review, MacBook Air Review, Macook Pro Review
BlackBerry: BlackBerry Torch Review, Blackberry 9700 Review
Windows Phone 7: HTC HD7 Review, Samsung Focus Review, HTC Surround Review