Reviews of eagerly-anticipated smartphones are often breathless regurgitations of hardware specifications and benchmark test results. As the first phone to utilize Verizon Wireless’s new 4G network, the HTC ThunderBolt 4G Android Phone boasts jaw-dropping speed, demanding reviewers add more network speed test tables and graphics to their already overly-complex articles.
Travel Tech Review takes a different route, focusing instead on real-world usability concerns. Does the ThunderBolt solve your problems better than other smartphones? Do 4G speeds allow you to accomplish more? How is the device to live with?
Pick up the HTC ThunderBolt and you’re immediately impressed by its size and surprised by its weight. It is a large smartphone, nearly as big as the Dell Streak 5 Android Tablet (we recently reviewed its big brother, the Dell Streak 7). It feels solid and is comfortable to hold, like an old corded telephone handset that could tuck between your shoulder and ear.
This phone is no old handset, though, and you certainly wouldn’t want to carry on a long conversation with it tucked against your shoulder. Bluetooth headsets are much more convenient (we like the Jawbone ICON series), and corded ear buds provide superior sound. Either way, calls are generally clear and free of drops, although the volume through both the earpiece and headsets could be louder, as it can be difficult to hear the other party when you’re in a noisy environment.
High-quality voice calls are, for the most part, a result of Verizon’s networks, and the company is heavily promoting its new 4G (using LTE, or Long-Term Evolution) network with the ThunderBolt, the first of many 4G Verizon smartphones to come. That the LTE network is so new (and underutilized) likely explains the extraordinary data transfer speeds reported by owners in the 39 markets in which Verizon offers LTE (expanding to over 145 by year’s end, according to the company; check here to learn if your market is on the list).
With the network-focused Verizon marketing and speed-centric ThunderBolt reviews, it’s too easy to overlook the other aspects of the device. Most shoppers interested in such a smartphone expect it to do far more than make and receive calls. The ThunderBolt has both front and rear cameras, with the former shooting at a relatively low 1.3 megapixels (it’s intended mostly for video calls), and the latter a much better 8 megapixels. The rear camera benefits from a dual-LED flash, although many owners have complained that the flash is so bright it washes out subjects when shooting at night. The rear camera also records 720P high-definition video.
As a media player the ThunderBolt is immensely aided by its large 4.3″ screen (measured diagonally). HTC labels it “Super LCD,” although more familiar is the term “WVGA.” Although it is larger than the iPhone 4′s 3.5″ screen, its resolution is inferior: 480 x 720 pixels, compared with 640 x 960 for the iPhone 4. This generally translates to shaper, richer images and text on the iPhone.
For a hand-held device the ThunderBolt is quite adept at playing videos and movies and such. HTC thoughtfully integrated a kickstand into the back of the unit, allowing viewers to prop it up in either portrait or landscape orientation. But this kickstand also covers the two external speakers, so sounds are quite muffled without the kickstand extended.
Why would you want to keep the kickstand retracted? To use the USB port for syncing or, more likely, charging. As illustrated in this photo from a disappointed Amazon.com reviewer, the ThunderBolt’s design makes it nearly impossible to use the kickstand while charging the device. And as you’ll soon learn, charging the ThunderBolt is very, very important.
Of course the ThunderBolt offers GPS services, including Google’s handy turn-by-turn directions app. Many users, however, opt to turn off the GPS capabilities in order to reduce the load on the battery, which leads us to the ThunderBolt’s Achilles heel.
Its battery life is abysmal. Not just inconvenient, but horrendous. In his review in The Wall Street Journal, Walt Mossberg claimed to see 7 hours of typical usage before his ThunderBolt ran out of juice. Many, many others, however, squeeze only 4-5 hours out of the standard 1400mAh battery before seeking a recharge. The ThunderBolt cries out for a more powerful battery, but the device is already large and heavy, and a bigger battery might turn off too many shoppers. As it is many owners quickly invest in additional batteries, such as this Seidio Innocell 1600mAh unit that fits in the existing slot, or Verizon’s 2750 mAh battery that is so large it comes with a new back cover for the phone. Another option is a hand-cranked USB charger, like the Etón Scorpion we recently reviewed.
Such poor battery life forces owners to make ridiculous compromises, like disabling GPS, reducing screen brightness, drastically limiting email and calendar syncing, and turning off UI animations and vibration notifications. Each of these measures reduces the ThunderBolt’s functionality. One obvious step is to disable LTE, using only 3G or the integated 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi. But it’s exceptionally difficult to do so, requiring owners to dig through hidden system settings or installing a 3rd-party app. Neither HTC nor Verizon saw fit to include a simple airplane-mode-like 3G/4G toggle.
Granted, disabling 4G on Verizon’s first 4G phone in order to conserve precious battery life might not make a lot of sense, but that’s the type of choice the power-hungry device forces owners to make. Verizon’s advertising is all about speed, but this speed comes at a price.
Make no mistake — the ThunderBolt is lightning fast. No other smartphone comes close to its network speeds. Heck, many home broadband connections aren’t as fast as Verizon’s LTE network (for now). Even Amazon.com’s product description promises that “Enhanced security lets you tap into most VPN networks with less waiting, and faster responsiveness enables you to upload 10 MB presentations back to your team in less than 25 seconds.” Digging beyond the marketing hype reveals another real-world gotcha: the version of Quickoffice included with the ThunderBolt doesn’t allow for editing of PowerPoint documents, so it’s unclear how many 10 MB presentations you’ll need to send to your team.
Speaking of applications, HTC and Verizon loaded up the ThunderBolt with 15 additional apps that you can’t remove. Some are of dubious value: Let’s Golf 2 and City ID are trials, Blockbuster might not exist as a company much longer, and Rock Band isn’t even an app — it’s just a shortcut to a website from which you download the trial. All of these eat up valuable screen real estate.
HTC further modified the standard Google Android 2.2 user interface with its own Sense UI. Some owners like the HTC layer on top of Android, while others believe HTC’s enhancements just get in the way of Android’s way of doing things. Those who prefer Android devices over, say, iPhones and Blackberries due to the former’s typical tight integration with Google applications might be frustrated by Sense UI. This is yet another reason to use the ThunderBolt at a retail store before purchasing it.
While putting the ThunderBolt through its paces you may also notice:
- Fastest data network connectivity available on a U.S. mobile phone
- Large 4.3″ WVGA display
- Four easy-access capacitive touch buttons below the display (home, menu, back, search; iPhone 4 has only a home button)
- Standard $30/month unlimited data plan… for now
- Support for Adobe Flash, allowing users to view much more Web video than iPhone owners
- MicroUSB port for chargers and external storage (unlike the iPhone’s proprietary 30-pin connector)
- 8GB of internal memory, and 32GB more on the included microSD card
- FM receiver (although you’ll need attached earbuds, as the wire acts as an antenna; earbuds are surprisingly not included)
- Size and weight (30% heavier than iPhone 4); many businessmen may find it too heavy to comfortably keep in dress shirt pocket
- Shockingly bad battery life
- 25% higher price (with a contract) than other comparable smartphones (although a 16GB iPhone 4 is $2oo, a 32GB one will set you back $300)
- No HDMI port, meaning you can’t easily show the screen on a TV
As with any first-generation device, early adopters will feel the most pain, but they’ll have bragging rights until the next/better/faster one comes along. And one always does. Be sure to understand how you’ll use the ThunderBolt. Make a few calls, type an email, surf the Web, look up contacts, take and share photos, input an address for turn-by-turn directions, etc.
Unless you have a compelling need for speed and you live in a Verizon 4G market, TTR suggests you wait a bit. More Android devices are hitting the market each month, and the iPhone 5 is expected around September. Other devices will have better battery capacity and management. What good is a screamin’ fast smartphone if you’re so worried about making it through the day on one charge you disable all the cool features?
Road warriors who need super-fast network access may wish to consider laptop-connected 4G USB modems such as the Sprint 3G/4G USB Device U301, Verizon Wireless Pantech UML290 4G USB Modem, and AT&T Sierra Wireless Lightning USB Aircard Modem.
Reviewed by: TravelTechReview.com on
Summary: The HTC ThunderBolt 4G LTE, the fastest smartphone in the U.S., is hobbled by its size, heft, and woefully inadequate battery.
Description: Verizon’s first 4G LTE smartphone, the HTC ThunderBolt, is by far the fastest phone on the market. Its huge 4.3″ screen, speedy processor, and flexible Android operating system make it a top choice for power users.
Rating: 3 stars