HTC Thunderbolt Cell Phone Review
By Sandy Berger on June 6, 2011
The HTC Thunderbolt is the highly anticipated first 4G phone that runs on the new Verizon LTE network. With promised download speeds of 5 Mbps to 12 Mbps and upload speeds of 2 Mbps to 5 Mbps, we were anxious to take a look.
One look at the HTC Thunderbolt box lets you know that this is a classy phone. The sturdy black box looks like a slightly-oversized watch box. As shown in Figure 1, it has the Verizon name embossed on the top. The sides are embossed with the HTC name.
The box splits in half to reveal the phone in a cradle of bright red cardboard, as shown in Figure 2. The contents of the box are shown in Figure 3. These include the phone itself, a USB cable, a power adapter, a “Master Your Device” instruction booklet, several product safety and warranty brochures, and a small cardboard casing with the 4G SIM card.
While previous Verizon phones didn’t require a SIM card, their 4G LTE service has a SIM card that must be installed for the phone to work properly. A standard lithium ion battery and a 32 GB microSD card came pre-installed on our review unit.
As you can see in Figure 3, the HTC Thunderbolt is a typical black candy bar, touchscreen phone. Like the Motorola Droid X, the HTC Thunderbolt sports a 4.3-inch display. At 4.75 x 2.44 x 0.56 inches (121 x 62 x 14 mm), it is similar in size, but slightly thicker than the Motorola Droid X, as shown in Figure 4.
The HTC Thunderbolt, however, is quite a bit heftier. Weighing in at 6.23 ounces (177 grams), it is almost a full ounce heavier than the Droid X, which weighs 5.47 ounces (155 grams). Although this may not seem like much, there is a noticeable difference. The HTC Thunderbolt has a nice sturdy feel and is comfortable to hold in the hand, but it is no featherweight. If you compare it to a phone with a smaller screen, it will be considerably heavier. For instance, the iPhone 4 weighs in at 4.8 ounces (137 grams).
When using the HTC Thunderbolt, you will notice its weight in both your hand and your pocket. This is not necessarily a bad thing. We thoroughly enjoyed using the HTC Thunderbolt, and didn’t find its heft to be a detriment, but it is something of which every purchaser should be aware.
The HTC Thunderbolt has three removable parts: the battery, SIM card, and memory card. These may or may not come preinstalled. If they are not preinstalled, you must remove the back of the device to install them. As shown in Figure 5, the top of this phone has a power button on the left, a 3.5 mm headphone jack, and a microphone opening on the right. In between these is a notch that can be used to pry open the back cover. Although the instructions say, “With your thumb or finger, lift the back cover off from the notch on the top of your phone,” unless you have superhuman strength, you will have to use some hard object like a coin to pry off the cover.
Once the cover is removed, you insert the memory card into the upper portion of the battery compartment and the SIM card into the lower portion. Each is clearly marked. Then the battery is inserted and the cover replaced.
Setting up email is easy. The HTC Thunderbolt lets you setup AOL, Gmail, Microsoft Exchange, Windows Live Hotmail, and Yahoo accounts quite easily. You can also manually enter your own POP3 or IMAP accounts. Once the setup is complete, if you have more than one email account, you can view your email separately by account in a combined inbox. If you use a combined inbox, each account is marked with a different color bar, which is quite useful.
Your contacts and calendar can both be aggregated from a variety of accounts, so your calendar can show pictures and birthdays from Facebook right along with their email contact information. It all works pretty seamlessly. Every time you make or receive a call, if the contact that you are connecting with is one of your Twitter or Facebook contacts, you will see your friend’s latest status update on the screen. This integration is a function of the HTC Sense overlay that the HTC Thunderbolt uses. We’ll talk about that later in this review.
The HTC Thunderbolt runs the Android 2.2.1 operating system. The main screen is shown in Figure 7. In this Figure, you can see the ear piece strip and the 1.3 megapixel front-facing camera above the screen. This area also has a notification LED that flashes a green light when you have a pending notification and flashes red when the battery level becomes critical.
At the bottom of this screen, you can see the four standard Android touch icons: Home, Menu, Back, and Search. Just above that are three icons that have been customized by the HTC Sense interface. These are: All Apps, Phone, and Personalize. As usual, the Android operating system is very customizable. There are seven home screens that can be personalized with wallpaper, apps, widgets, shortcuts, and folders.
The large 4.3-inch TFT LCD is not as detailed as the Retina display on the iPhone or the AMOLED screens on Samsung’s phone, but it looks good and works well for text, photos or movies. The touch screen is nicely responsive.
Our only complaint about the screen was that often, if an app had a long name, the last letter of the name was not entirely visible. For instance, “Voice Search” looks like “Voice Searcl” and “VZ Navigator” becomes “VC Navigato.” Although this is a minor complaint, it is consistently aggravating.
We were expecting the HTC Thunderbolt on the Verizon 4G LTE network to be fast, but were still blown away by its speed. Everything that is Internet-related is faster than any other phone we’ve tested. It brings up web pages as quickly as a fast computer. Google Maps redraws quickly. Google searches are speedier than ever. Videos play smoothly and quickly.
In side by side testing, the HTC Thunderbolt accessed web pages two to three times faster than the Verizon Droid X on the older Verizon network. When tested next to the AT&T’s 4G Atrix, the HTC Thunderbolt was noticeably faster.
The HTC Thunderbolt is aptly named. It really is lightning fast. Verizon’s 4G LTE network is inherently faster than the HSPA+ network that AT&T and T-Mobile label as 4G. Although as more traffic is added, the Verizon network may slow slightly, right now it is excellent, and we expect it to remain so.
Another nice feature is that Verizon has already implemented 4G in more areas than we expected. Their 4G map is being constantly updated. You can check it at http://network4g.verizonwireless.com/#/coverage to see if they have implemented 4G in your local area.
The HTC Thunderbolt has only a 1 GHz single-core Snapdragon processor (Qualcomm MSM8655) and 768 MB of RAM, but it performs beautifully in all areas. Programs open with no delay, moving between screens is seamless, and games perform well.
Audio quality was also excellent with no dropped calls or glitches. The speakers were loud and clear. The volume control, shown in Figure 8, is a simple rocker on the side of the device.
In Figure 9, you can see that besides the microphone on the top, the HTC Thunderbolt has another microphone on the bottom. These dual mics have noise cancellation that works very well in noisy environments.
The HTC Thunderbolt has all the features that we have come to expect in a smartphone including text messaging, speed dial, accelerometer, GPS, compass, proximity sensor, and a light sensor.
The built-in DLNA connectivity lets you send the music, movies, and photos on your phone wirelessly to a DLNA compliant device like a television, but the HTC Thunderbolt lacks the HDMI jack that is found in the Droid X.
The HTC Thunderbolt, however, has WiFi Hotspot capabilities to run up to eight other devices (with additional monthly charges from Verizon).
One thing that we liked on this phone was the Smart Dial feature. This lets you find a person’s telephone number by simply entering the phone number or the first few letters of the person’s name. The Smart Dial searches through the contacts and call history to come up with the proper number.
We also loved the fact that this phone allows for simultaneous voice and data over 4G. So you can talk and surf at the same time.
The HTC Thunderbolt has an eight-megapixel camera with dual-LED flash, as shown in Figure 10.
You will notice that the camera lens and flash are both recessed. If the lenses are flush with the back, they can become easily scratched, so this is a very nice feature. In this Figure, you can also see that the top three-quarters of the back is covered in a soft-touch black finish. Just under that is a brushed metal kickstand that can be used to keep the phone upright. The open kickstand with the Google name engraved on it is shown in Figure 11.
Under the kickstand is the phone speaker. It is quite loud and more than adequate for normal use, but it sounds even better when the kickstand is open. Also, unlike the HTC Surround that we recently reviewed, the videos and music display properly on the screen when in the horizontal position.
The only design flaw we found with the HTC Thunderbolt was that setting the phone on the kickstand made it impossible to plug in the charger at the same time. As you can see in Figure 12, the charging port is directly in line with the kickstand.
Although others have reported poor battery life on the HTC Thunderbolt, we found it to be adequate for a day’s worth of average use with the brightness at midrange and Bluetooth turned off. If you want to keep Bluetooth turned on and/or you are a very heavy user, you want to get a car charger, carry a portable battery-powered micro-USB charger, and/or a spare battery.
The HTC Thunderbolt captures very good photos with good color representation. While there is no macro mode, there is an added feature that lets you tap the area of the screen that you want to focus on. The camera then accommodates you with its autofocus, which is quite speedy. The dual LED flash is good for average conditions, but, as with most cameras of this type, not bright enough for low light conditions.
Videos can be taken at resolutions up to 1280 x 720 with 28 frames-per-second, but you cannot record in stereo like you can on the Motorola Droid X. However, the HTC Thunderbolt did a good job of sound quality while capturing video. The noise cancellation for background noise was much better than most other cell phones.
There is also a 1.3-megapixel camera on the front of the HTC Thunderbolt. Yet, currently, neither Google Talk nor Skype support video calling on this phone. We expect, however, that they will in the near future. In the meantime, we tried an app called Tango that worked pretty well.
The Android 2.21 operating system on this phone is augmented with an overlay provided by HTC. Although most of the time we prefer the vanilla Android experience, this overlay, called HTC Sense, offers some useful software enhancements.
This includes a very good copy and paste function, a good task manager, and email search capabilities. The Sense overlay also has an excellent keyboard layout and many useful HTC widgets. The Sense interface also has plenty of social networking apps and customizations that work with Facebook, Twitter, and others.
The thing that we like most about the HTC Sense overlay is the HTC Music player, which is a cut above the stock Android player and gives you a much more iTunes-like music experience. The Thunderbolt also has an FM Radio with one of the best interfaces that we’ve seen for the radio. You can create presets with station names and pretty much use this as you would a regular radio. Like most cell phone FM Radios, you have to play the radio though a pair of wired headphones since the cable acts as the antenna. With the usefulness of the kickstand to listen to music, we found ourselves wishing that we could play the radio through the phone’s speakers.
The main specifications for the HTC Thunderbolt include:
If you like a big phone with a large screen, the HTC Thunderbolt is the best device of this type in Verizon's current lineup. The clear and responsive screen, good storage capabilities, useful email interface, excellent music player, and FM radio make it hard to beat. The kickstand adds even more functionality. It is blazingly fast on Verizon’s new 4G LTE network and has the ability to perform voice and data tasks simultaneously.
Although battery life could be better, most average users will find it adequate. Verizon will be releasing several new 4G phones in the near future, so you may want to see what these phones will offer, but our guess is that the HTC Thunderbolt will be able to hold its own against upcoming competition. If the Verizon 4G service is available in your area, this is a great phone.