It’s time to review the very first smartphone on Verizon’s new LTE 4G network, and we haven’t seen this much hype for a phone (outside the iPhone, that is) for a very long time. We’ve been waiting for this phone to come out for a good 4 years; we are, of course, talking about the HTC Thunderbolt, the brand-new hero device for the Big Red network.
The Thunderbolt isn’t the very first smartphone with 4G ever made; not by a long shot. It’s not even the first 4G phone to use LTE specifically, as MetroPCS won the crown for that with the Samsung Craft. But it is the first on Verizon’s LTE, which is cause to rejoice.
The idea of having unlimited access to some of the best internet speeds around for an affordable price and on a rock-solid network is very tantalizing for novice and tech geek alike, which is the main reason behind the large amount of hype on the Thunderbolt.
Sure, the 4G network is the biggest part of the Thunderbolt experience without a doubt, but it’s easy to forget that the HTC Thunderbolt is still a phone, and can actually make calls, send texts and do everything else a smartphone is supposed to do. In this review I will cover the LTE data, the phone, the Android with Sense UI, the large and bright 4.3” Super LCD display, and everything in between. Join me!
Unboxing and First Impressions
My very first impressions of the HTC Thunderbolt was rather focused on the size of the device. It is not a small phone by any stretch of the imagination, and it may be slightly out of many peoples’ comfort zones. It’s got a huge screen and is packed to the max with powerful specs inside, not to mention a LTE radio, which means it has quite a bit of heft to it.
Beyond that, in looking and playing with the Thunderbolt at first, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the HTC Inspire 4G or EVO 4G, similar phones with the same screen size and similar build, and both have Android Froyo with HTC Sense UI pre-installed. Heck, the design is strikingly familiar as the stereotypical HTC flare (or lack thereof). There are very few differences between the Thunderbolt and other phones made by HTC, but the Thunderbolt does have some things to help it stand out of the crowd.
Notable Features and Specs: This may be a crazy idea, but I think the inclusion of a true 4G, LTE radio inside the Thunderbolt is the most notable feature in the device. Otherwise it would be nothing special. But throwing in 4G alongside a high-end camera and Super LCD display make a difference.
Hardware and Design
You have to give it up to the HTC design team: each phone in the lineup has an element of the same universal look across the board. With few exceptions (such as the Incredible), we always see a minimalist look that consists of some of the following: brushed metal, aluminum, soft rubber, and non-glossy, non-fingerprint plastic. And sometimes they include all 4 types of materials. They stick to a universal look and theme, which I am certain this is part of the grander design that HTC has in mind.
No, the Thunderbolt is not the sexiest phone on the planet. Perhaps its super-fast data speeds could be considered gorgeous (it is the inside that counts, after all…), but it’s a tank. The Thunderbolt is as thick as a phone with full slide-out keyboard, and weighs about the same too. Even though the back is made of plastic, having such a large and heavy phone at least makes you feel like the Thunderbolt is more durable, even if it really is not.
The HTC Thunderbolt is packing a massive 4.3” Super LCD display that, much like the Inspire 4G, is almost too big. There is no way I would feel comfortable using any phone larger than this, unless it’s treated as a tablet. The Super LCD display is pretty good, but is not stellar enough to blow me away. I have a hard time seeing the Super LCD technology being up to par with the Retina Display, Super AMOLED or even qHD. The colors are still deep and easy to distinguish, but the display was by no means heavensent. In using the Thunderbolt outside in direct sunlight, the entire display was washed out rather thoroughly; I could not read the display at all when outside on a sunny day.
HTC is becoming the master of the kickstand. Introduced on the EVO 4G, the company has tried the kickstand on a few other phones since, such as the Surround, HD7, and Inspire 4G/Desire HD with high praise. The kickstand is another area of strength in the phone’s design: the outside of the kickstand is the same chrome color so as to blend with the rest of the phone’s bottom half, and lifting the kickstand reveals a hidden surround sound speaker.
One of my favorite parts of the Thunderbolt is the 40 GB of total storage space made available right out of the box, with a rare 32 GB MicroSD card already loaded into the phone right next to 8 GB internal storage. This is plenty of space to store audiobooks, apps, movies and music for the Thunderbolt.
The Thunderbolt has a few other top-of-the-line specs: 8 MP rear camera with dual LED flash and 720p HD video recording, 1.3 MP front-facing camera for video chat (third-party apps; Skype video calling is not yet available on the Thunderbolt), single core 1 GHz CPU with 768 MB RAM, and of course, LTE.
In terms of pricing, the Thunderbolt is being sold at Verizon for $250 with new contract. Looking at the specs, it’s easy to realize that you’re ultimately paying a premium for the 4G service. None of the other specs are mind-blowing or groundbreaking; besides the 4G, there is little difference between this and the Droid Incredible or Droid X. Even the $99 Inspire 4G on AT&T has the same specs (sans front-facing camera and third-party app sideloading). Obviously this is a huge difference in price for the privilege of using Verizon 4G.
HTC’s Sense UI is all over the Thunderbolt, which runs on Android 2.2.1 Froyo. We will likely witness an update to 2.3 Gingerbread coming sometime in the Summer, but at least for now we still get to enjoy Flash Player and enhanced web browsing. There’s nothing unique about the Sense UI on the Thunderbolt; it’s the same as we saw on the Inspire 4G.
Verizon LTE Network
Check out my full review of Verizon’s 4G LTE service as I experienced it in Orlando.
Spoiler: it’s incredibly fast, though it’s still in the baby stages and not completely rock-solid in terms of reliability yet
Mobile Hotspot: What good would the very first LTE 4G smartphone be without an accompanying mobile hotspot to tether the aforementioned LTE 4G? Much like many of Verizon’s 3G devices, the Thunderbolt has the ability to broadcast out to as many as 8 devices simultaneously, and Verizon has even offered no additional cost to tether your Thunderbolt up until May. This is another great reason to be an early adopter of Verizon’s new 4G network.
In reference to my review of Verizon LTE, I had incredible amounts of difficulty getting my Thunderbolt to properly broadcast a true 4G signal while in Orlando. I was not the only person at CTIA complaining about the same problem. We were experiencing inconsistent signals coming from the phone, which led to either a cycle of dropping and re-connecting the data connection, or sessions of terrible data speeds. The consensus was that there is some type of bug in the Thunderbolt causing the inconsistencies, but there has been no official word from Verizon on it as of yet.
I do not mean to scare you or keep you from purchasing the phone. It has been a point of concern for me in using the Thunderbolt in real-world 4G tests, and it’s my job to make sure you are as educated as possible when making the decision to purchase the phone. It’s quite possible it was an issue with my review unit, or with LTE service in Orlando, or perhaps a combination of the two; it doesn’t guarantee you will have the same problems.
Overall Performance of the HTC Thunderbolt
Right now the HTC Thunderbolt could be considered the most advanced device on Verizon’s network because of its inclusion of 4G LTE. But looking past the 4G radio inside the phone, it is easily exposed as a blase handset. The specs inside are nothing to squawk about, but there’s nothing else to differentiate the Thunderbolt from any other HTC Android 2.2 phone with Sense UI. It’s just more of the same.
The Thunderbolt was delayed for roughly a month, apparently due to concerns of terrible battery life when running off of 4G. And yes, battery life is not the best I’ve seen on an Android. Rated talk time was 6.3 hours, and we’re pretty sure this was supposed to be for 3G; on 3G that was about average battery life for me, but 4G drained the battery significantly faster. I never made it past 4.5 hours when running solely on the 4G signal.
The 1 GHz CPU and 768 MB RAM was plenty to keep everything smooth and running super fast , and the Sense keeps the interface clean which means there are fewer bumps in the road to get over. The audio quality in the calls was loud enough, but there was a little bit of fuzziness in some of the calls I made.
However, don’t even get me started on all the bloatware included with the Thunderbolt out of the box. I stopped counting the number of apps at 40. This amount of pre-loaded software is ridiculous and gets in the way of having a true “open” experience with Android.
Overall, the HTC Thunderbolt performs pretty well. There’s just nothing that makes the phone stand apart besides the 4G and kickstand with the stereo underneath.
This means you are faced with a hard decision: shell out the extra money to pay a premium price for a brand new 4G smartphone, or wait a couple months to see what else comes out, what prices those new items will be, and if it’s worth waiting to have more options. Hopefully the price will come down with some other smartphones coming out at a lower price point and the LTE landscape will become much more competitive.
I don’t envy the decision you’ll need to make. Just remember – you’re buying a standard top-class Android phone that just so happens to have LTE thrown in the mix for good measure. Perfect phone? Nah, not even close. But if you need 4G access as soon as possible, I definitely recommend going with the Thunderbolt. It will get the job done well, and have some cool features to boot.
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