Rating: ★★★½☆

One thing about HTC is that they build thick phones. This is a purely aesthetic deduction. Some people want a heavy handset while others always want smaller, thinner and lighter. Yet with the Thunderbolt, thickness doesn’t only come in its girth and weight. It’s heavy on features, like being the first 4G handset for Verizon, and all these things add on the pounds. Maybe that’s how you like it.

That’s not how I like a phone. As more and more handsets make their way into my palms, in all shapes and sizes, I’ve found that there are better and worse designs, that it isn’t all personal preference. With the Thunderbolt, that’s a 4.3” screen with 6.2 oz. to boot. Let’s just say it’s a big phone.

Running on Android 2.2, the Thunderbolt gives off an air of vanity and pride. Boot the handset to see the same thunderbolt in the commercials, along with roaring thunder booming from the stand-hidden speaker. Verizon isn’t kidding around with the Thunderbolt, and if HTC’s handset is any indication, this heavyweight is meant to show aggression. That it certainly does, with its large screen, 8MP still and 720p video capture and a 1.3MP front-facing camera, 8GB of built-in memory, 768MB of RAM and even an FM radio tuner. Add onto all of those top-of-the-line features 4G connectivity, on Verizon’s claim of the fastest nationwide 4G network, and guess who the 800 pound gorilla in the room is.

Daunting as the phone is, the design is simple to a fault. An elegant receiver sits atop the front of the Thunderbolt, and beside it is the tacky front-facing camera. The 4.3” screen attracts fingerprints all too well, and as I noted in my first impressions, it’s hard to see the screen in bright conditions even though it is an LCD display. The power/standby button falls prey to the same problem as HTC’s HD7 by being too mushy and too difficult to press. On the back is the camera and dual LED flash, and further down the pull-out stand that reveals the speakerphone. I don’t know what HTC was thinking with the charging port. It’s on the wrong side and blocks users from charging the phone while using the stand. If your battery runs low and you’re watching a movie or just letting the poor thing sit quietly, sorry, no juicing it up for the night. This horse only sleeps lying down.

This wouldn’t be a big deal if the battery lasted a long time, but as I’ve noted in past handsets, 4G devices are notorious for having poor battery life. This is for two reasons: first, if there is no 4G connection nearby, the radio will search for one. It’s like roaming. Second, if 4G is being used, it accosts the phone heavily. More data going through requires more power. Past phones like the Epic 4G and Evo 4G have managed because users either accept that faster phone speeds cost battery life, or know that they can’t get 4G connectivity and turn the feature off entirely. For my testing I left 4G on at all times, because of Verizon’s claim and because that’s what most users would realistically do.

From left: the HTC Thunderbolt, Samsung Galaxy S 4G, and HTC Surround.

And, as expected, battery life on the Thunderbolt zaps away all too quickly. On 4G, the device can stay idle for about a day. That is to say, under minimal use. Off of 4G that time increases, but if you’re traveling a lot or go between areas with poor coverage, battery life will barely hit a full day. Even with just checking email and the occasional web page, I charge the Thunderbolt nightly. Heavy features like GPS are certainly faster over 4G, and in the Los Angeles area finding places with 4G wasn’t difficult, but the cost in battery life almost isn’t worth it. Half of my days testing the Thunderbolt required a mid-day charge. That is to say, if you rely heavily on downloading lots of data and making a ton of phone calls, or if you travel constantly (or both), then the Thunderbolt practically requires a spare battery and charger.

Considering 4G is the big deal feature on the Thunderbolt, just how fast is 4G on Verizon?  Stunningly fast and slow, at least on this phone. Using Ookla’s Speedtest.net app, I took tests of download and upload rates around the greater Los Angeles Area, including downtown, Westlake, Pasadena, Santa Monica, and in between. All of these tests were done specifically with a 4G connection. The results are interesting, to say the least.

As great as the kickstand is, blocking the USB connector is a serious crutch for the handset.

Upload rates varied from 700-34,000kbps. You read that right. This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise since upload rates really don’t matter and with bandwidth freely available on the new 4G network, having such high numbers doesn’t mean all that much. What it does mean is that if you want to upload HD video over 4G, they can upload just as fast as if you were on Wi-Fi. Download speeds are a bit more troubling, ranging from 0-19,000kbps. It’s troubling for two main reasons: first, these rates may seem high, but actually getting and maintaining a strong connection was next to impossible. Note that most of these tests were performed while standing in place, not while in the car driving. Out of ten speed tests, only two hit 10+mbps, and only one was over 1mbps. What this indicates is that even though download speeds can be very, very fast, the 4G network isn’t really in place as well as it can be. Connectivity is still an issue, which may be due to the phone or to the current network. The score of 19mbps took two tries at UCLA’s campus, where I expected a fast transfer rate. The first test only had 108kbps down. Upload rates, however, tended to stay over 20mbps, even with limited to no download speed.

As a comparison, I ran the same speedtest over my home network, and managed 17mbps down and 10mbps up. The fastest over 4G I’ve had was 19mbps down and 34mbps up. Running an identical test on my desktop – a wired connection – I had 31mbps down and 25.5mbps up. As a final note, all of these scores only indicate network speeds, not actual transfer rates on the phone. Even considering that, these are by far the fastest speeds of any 4G network I’ve yet to test. Update: up speeds, after further investigation, were inaccurate and displayed incorrectly. In various secondary tests (original tests could not be recreated exactly), I averaged 1.5-3.5mbps up speeds, which is much more consistent with actual data transfers. Once again, that is available network bandwidth, not actual user bandwidth.

The 8MP is mediocre, and I think gunning up to 8MP instead of 5MP or even 3MP was a mistake. Images are noisy at full-size, and Images are noisy at full-size, and shots tend to be very vibrant, which may or may not be a good thing depending on the types of stills you want. As expected the dual LED flash is blindingly bright and washes out colors tremendously. Video quality is fine, though considering how much has gone into the Thunderbolt and the 8MP lens, there really is no reason for 1080p to be left out. That said, if the video quality would have suffered, then it is better that full-HD was left out of the mix.

With lightning fast download and upload speeds, assuming a good and stable connection is available, the Thunderbolt is a very quick phone. Running the latest hardware and software available for Android devices and a ton of RAM, it’ll zip through anything you need it to do. The big dealbreaker is battery life, which suffers tremendously because the phone under heavy use cannot last a full day. If you enjoy the hefty, solid feel of a smartphone and can survive the onslaught of power-draining speed, HTC’s Thunderbolt is a solid handset that will serve its users well. Just make sure to put down extra for a car charger and spare battery.

(Top photo from Captured Lightning)



James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.