21
Mar
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Last Updated: February 8th, 2012

Well, it's finally here - after almost as many rumored (and subsequently unmet) release dates as the Notion Ink Adam, the HTC ThunderBolt has finally gone on sale. But with a sky-high $250 price tag and essentially the same hardware as the rapidly aging Desire HD, can it still impress?

That's not an easy question to answer - while the ThunderBolt is a great all-around device on an incredibly zippy network, it doesn't exactly have the most future-proof hardware in the business, and it comes armed to the teeth with bloatware. But after putting it through its paces, I must say that I walked away much more impressed than I was going in. Why? That - and, of course, much more - will be addressed in our comprehensive ThunderBolt review, so just sit back, relax, and keep reading!

At a Glance

The ThunderBolt's spec sheet isn't quite as mind-blowing as it might have been a year (or even a few months) ago, but it still isn't anything to scoff at:

  • 4.3" WVGA (800x480) SLCD display
  • LTE connectivity
  • 1GHz Qualcomm MSM8655 Scorpion CPU
  • Adreno 205 GPU
  • 768MB of RAM
  • 8GB of internal storage
  • 32GB microSD card included (29.71GB available)
  • 1400mAh battery
  • 1.3MP front-facing camera
  • 8MP rear camera with dual-LED flash
  • DLNA compatible

Of course, there's more to a phone than its specifications - therefore, I've thrown together two handy lists, one containing the ThunderBolt's strengths, and the other exposing its flaws:

The Good

  • 4G speeds are unbelievably fast - LTE is a game changer
  • Big, beautiful SLCD display
  • Outstanding build quality
  • 40GB of storage out of the box (8GB internal storage + 32GB microSD card)
  • Snappy performance all around

The Bad

  • Single-core processor that will likely be rendered obsolete very quickly
  • Rather chunky design
  • No fewer than 11 non-removable bloatware apps
  • Costs a rather pricey $250 upfront
  • Still running Froyo

In a sentence: The ThunderBolt's specs aren't industry-leaders, and its price might turn away some would-be buyers, but LTE is nothing if not revolutionary - not to mention the handset's extremely polished hardware and software.

You should buy it if: You want a great all-around phone and don't care about having the latest and greatest processor, OS, or design. 

Still hungry for more? Read on for Android Police's full review of the HTC ThunderBolt!

LTE Speeds, Smartphone Performance, and Battery Life

There's no question that LTE is really the star of the ThunderBolt show - without it, the device would be nothing more than another iteration of the Desire HD. And what a star it is!

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Note: Testing was conducted with Xtremelabs' Speedtest app since Ookla's SpeedTest.net, which is usually used for testing network performance, doesn't work properly on the ThunderBolt.

Indeed, in my testing (as well as other reviewers' testing), Verizon's 4G LTE network was nothing short of stunning. Throughout Boston, the ThunderBolt got three full bars of 4G, and I saw consistent speeds of 14-15Mbps down and 2-3Mbps up. What's more, even when I drove a few miles away from Boston (where the LTE tower is located) and the 4G signal strength dropped down to one bar, performance remained excellent - the full New York Times website loaded in under 5 seconds. Of course, LTE may not be quite as fast once it becomes more widely adopted, but even when that happens, I can't see the speeds dipping too much given the consistency and reliability for which Verizon's network is famous.  

Tethering speeds were a similar story: the ThunderBolt's Mobile Hotspot app provided lightning fast Internet access, and the handoff between 3G and 4G was seamless - not something that can be said of every carrier.

Additionally, LTE's latency is lower than that of any other currently available 4G network, which basically means that every Internet-utilizing thing you do, from browsing the web to playing heavy-duty multiplayer games, will be faster. A lot faster.

So how does LTE compare to Sprint's WiMAX network, the other real "4G" technology out there right now (sorry, AT&T and T-Mobile)? Let's just say Verizon's offering ate Sprint's for breakfast - in fact, LTE's download speeds were almost thrice as fast as those of WiMAX. The difference in upload speeds wasn't as large - 2-3Mbps vs. 1-2Mbps - but it was still noticeable enough to make Big Red the undisputed winner.

Speaking of fast, the ThunderBolt's Qualcomm MSM8655 Scorpion CPU is no slouch. Granted, the chip is essentially a CDMA version of the MSM8255 - which has been around since October of last year - but in terms of day-to-day performance, the ThunderBolt can go head-to-head with the likes of Motorola's dual-core Atrix 4G. I tried bogging the system down by opening all of its apps simultaneously (I even threw in a few third-party titles), but no matter what I did, I couldn't get the phone to lag. Both Quadrant and Linpack scores (1687 and 39.581, respectively) reflected this accurately.

Battery life wasn't anything groundbreaking, but it was more than acceptable for an Android phone - I got about eight hours of moderate use on a single charge, enough to make it through an average workday.

Finally, call quality was exactly what you'd expect from a Verizon phone - that is, excellent. One item of note here is that you can use either 3G or 4G data while on a phone call - a first for a CDMA handset, though I didn't find the feature particularly useful.

Hardware

Design and Build Quality

Let's face it: there's absolutely nothing new about the ThunderBolt's design. Of course, that's not to say it's bad; quite the contrary - the device feels great in the hand, and it looks great as well, despite its minor obesity issue.

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The sides are relatively standard fare - volume rocker on the right; microphone on the bottom; power button and headphone jack on the top. The left edge, however, is an exception to this "standard fare" rule - unlike most other phones, that's where the ThunderBolt's microUSB port is located. Unfortunately, the left side is also what the ThunderBolt rests on when its kickstand is unfolded, meaning you won't be able to sync your data or charge your phone while it's being propped up by the kickstand.

Sides aside (bad pun, I know), the ThunderBolt is one extremely lust-worthy piece of hardware. It's a bit chunky, likely due to the LTE radio contained within, but that doesn't ruin the appeal of the oh-so-smooth soft-touch battery cover and ever-so-seductive faux metal front.

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Something about the front of the device makes it seem a lot larger than it actually is - and believe me, it's already gargantuan. Perhaps it's the completely purposeless black bar at the bottom, or maybe it's something about the bezel which surrounds the display; but whatever the reason may be, it most definitely ensures that no one will mistake the ThunderBolt for an HTC Aria.

The front is also where you'll find the four standard Android buttons - home, menu, back, and search - as well as the speaker grille, 4.3" SLCD, 1.3MP front-facing camera, and Verizon logo. Also notable is the fact that the frame rises slightly above the bezel, providing a ridge your fingers could accidentally bump against - a minor inconvenience, but a noteworthy one nonetheless.       

While the ThunderBolt trades the aluminum casing of the Desire HD for soft-touch plastic, its back is, again, super smooth to the touch. However, I disliked the mechanism by which you take off the battery cover; sure, it's a huge improvement over the Inspire 4G/DHD, but I still came very close to cracking my fingernail in the process of opening it - twice.

wm_IMG_4048 wm_IMG_4037

There's also the solidly built brushed-metal kickstand, which is wide enough to sport a "with Google" engraving and sturdy enough to hold the (rather heavy) device up, even in the portrait orientation. In a unique and somewhat quirky design move, HTC decided to hide the speakers below the kickstand - it's a great concept, and in my experience, its execution was just as awesome. Despite my natural premonitions that the speakers would be muffled by the kickstand when it was closed, I discovered that the speakers' volume remained consistent - or at least appeared to remain consistent - regardless of the kickstand's position. Cool beans.

Display

When I began reviewing the ThunderBolt, I expected its SLCD display to be nothing more than a marginal improvement over my EVO's standard LCD. Boy, was I ever mistaken!

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The pictures don't really do it justice; frankly, the SLCD display on the ThunderBolt runs circles around the EVO's LCD counterpart. Blacks are much deeper, viewing angles markedly wider, and brightness noticeably improved. WVGA (800x480) is an acceptable resolution for a 4.3-inch screen, but given the amazing pixel density on retina and qHD displays, I couldn't help but wonder how much it would have cost HTC to include a panel with more tightly-packed pixels. Oh well, I suppose there's always the Pyramid.

Cameras

The 8MP shooter on the ThunderBolt is virtually identical to that of the Desire HD/Inspire 4G but is also a big step up from the EVO 4G's camera. That's a good thing - just take a look at the following sample shots:

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We've said it before and we'll say it again: HTC's camera app is awesome, both in terms of UI and in terms of options. I also like how despite the precedent set by HTC's other 4.3-inch handsets, the ThunderBolt's camera doesn't protrude from its battery cover - likely a luxury afforded by the thickness of the device.

A few oddities, however: you can't use the LED flash while tethering, and pressing the "View photos" button in the camera app takes you to a screen from which you can't delete images.

The camera's 720p video recording capabilities were equally impressive - my EVO was put to shame.

Software

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The ThunderBolt's software is also no spring chicken - it runs essentially the same Froyo-based HTC Sense UI that we first saw on the Desire HD, with only a few minor modifications (and feature removals) here and there.

For example, the nifty Fast Boot feature (which will be covered in further detail shortly) is alive and kickin' on the ThunderBolt, but HTC's seemingly awesome cloud service, HTCSense.com, has, for some reason unbeknownst to us mortals, stayed on European shores. Additionally, Verizon has seen fit to pre-install a crapton of bloatware - Bitbop, Blockbuster, Lets Golf 2, etc. - you name it, it's on the ThunderBolt.

But first, let's discuss the additional features brought about by HTC's Sense UI. Obviously, the first things you'll notice are the homescreens and their contents - and they don't disappoint. Not only are they (the homescreen transitions, the widgets, etc.) really sexy, but they all serve a purpose - take the "Leap" feature, which can be summoned with a pinch of one of the seven homescreens: sure, it's wonderful eye candy, but it also provides a quick and easy way to rearrange said homescreens. As I mentioned previously, HTC's widgets are gorgeous, but I also feel that some of them (i.e. the full-screen calendar widget, the full-screen clock, and the full-screen radio) waste a lot of space. But hey - the manufacturer includes 66 widgets to choose from, so it's hardly as if you don't have more space-saving alternatives.

Unfortunately, HTC's apps aren't nearly as nice as their widgets. Take the Gallery app - seriously, who in their right mind would pick HTC's ugly 2D imitation over the much more elegant 3D original? Then there's the weather app, whose complete destruction of screen real-estate nearly drove me insane. There are, of course, a few exceptions - HTC's Music app is light years ahead of stock Android's, the Connected Media DLNA manager is quite nice, and FM Radio is a welcome addition - but on the whole, I really wish HTC had let Google handle the app front.

Obviously, no ThunderBolt review would be complete without a discussion of its pre-installed bloatware - and man, is there ever a lot to discuss here. Out of the box, the ThunderBolt includes:

  • Bitbop: By default, clicking on this app's icon leads to a video promo for the service, and if you actually want to download the application, you'll have to take a trip to Verizon's V CAST app store. Once you do install it, you'll be met by an ugly but functional video app, complete with free (and legal!) downloads of TV shows and movies. Nice, but Verizon, next time you decide to pre-install apps like this, take the liberty of actually pre-installing them; don't make users watch an ad and then manually download it from your second-rate app market. Or, you know, just let said users decide whether they want to download Bitbop for themselves.   
  • Blockbuster: Lets you rent or buy movies/TV shows from Blockbuster. Note that you'll still have to get a physical disc either in the mail or from a store - no instant streaming here.
  • City ID: Shows the city and state of your incoming calls - nifty, but like most other bloatware apps on the ThunderBolt, you don't get the full version out of the box. Instead, you'll have to pay $1.99 every month to continue using it after your free 15-day trial is up.
  • Lets Golf 2: Demo ('lite') version of the full Lets Golf 2 - a so-so golfing game with a grammatically incorrect title (sorry, I had to).
  • Rhapsody: Another shortcut to a video promo; another app you have to download manually from the V CAST app store. While I'm not a Rhapsody member, I can tell you from the little I saw that, well, it's a pretty standard Rhapsody app - it includes everything you'd expect: a music guide, Rhapsody TV, Rhapsody radio, your playlists, and your personal library. Plus, the $9.99 monthly fee is added to your Verizon bill - nice integration.
  • Rock Band: This app has the potential to be seriously exciting stuff - it promises to bring the full Rock Band experience to your phone. Unfortunately, what you get when you tap on the app's icon is a "downloading" message; worse yet, it took three restarts of the phone before Rock Band finally installed itself. And even then, the version Verizon gives you is a demo with just one track on offer; if you want to download the real deal, you'll need to cough up $9.99. Super lame.
  • Slacker: Slacker personal radio. I didn't have a chance to put it through its paces since I don't have an account, but from what I've seen and heard, it's pretty nice.
  • TuneWiki:  The "most advanced Social Media Player," which allows you to tune in to internet radio, watch music videos with synched lyrics, and see your music. Again, nice, but I'd much rather download it from the Market on my own.
  • V CAST Apps: Verizon's ugly, slow, and generally crappy app store.
  • V CAST Media: Like V CAST Apps, except for media.
  • VZ Navigator: Verizon's official navigation app - surprisingly good, but still not on par with Google Maps.

Now the problem with all this bloatware isn't that it's there; it's fairly unobtrusive and doesn't detract from the general user experience at all (well, it does make the list of installed apps quite a bit longer, but that's not a big deal). My issue is that there's no way to remove the bloat apps, and since most of them are demos, the whole thing becomes painfully reminiscent of a Sony laptop. 

Also noteworthy on the apps front is that some third-party applications wouldn't work properly - namely, I had problems loading and logging in to reddit is fun, and my favorite keyboard, Swiftkey, lagged unbearably. Not sure what the source of these issues is, but I hope they get addressed soon.

So, about Fast Boot: in short, it's an ultra low-power hibernation mode the handset enters when you turn it off by long pressing the sleep button. What's the advantage of this? Well, as implied by Fast Boot's namesake, when you power the ThunderBolt on once more, you won't have to wait long before your device is ready to go - in fact, HTC (accurately) claims boot-up times of roughly 5 seconds.

Note that I said "when you turn it off by long pressing the sleep button" for a reason - if you yank the battery out of the device (aka perform a cold boot), you'll still have to wait a full 40-50 seconds before it is fully loaded. For a more detailed explanation, be sure to hit up our dedicated Fast Boot post.

Finally, there are minor additions like the smaller font sizes of menu items and support for "Skins," which allow you to customize the colors of various UI elements, mainly the notification bar and the lockscreen. Unlike the European version of the feature, however, you can't compile your own skins or download additional ones from the HTC Hub. Moreover, the pre-installed skins felt a bit half-hearted - for example, most skins change the color of selected text, but a few - like the Black skin - don't. Bummer.   

All in all, the ThunderBolt's software is the very definition of a mixed bag - its widgets are pretty, and I love Fast Boot, but the amount of crapware pre-installed is just unacceptable, and some of HTC's modifications are questionable. Still, there's nothing here that couldn't be fixed with a good custom ROM or two - and I have no doubt that such firmware is already in development now that the floodgates have been opened.

The Verdict

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I won't lie; the ThunderBolt is tempting. Technically speaking, it's little more than Verizon's version of the Desire HD. But when you dig deeper (i.e. past the spec sheet), you'll discover one of the most polished handsets on the market, with one incredibly sweet treat - LTE - in tow. The rest of its hardware - and software - is mostly just a remix of elements seen in phones past, but it's a well-done remix; you'd be hard-pressed to find a better all-around smartphone. Sure, devices like the Atrix pack better CPUs, better displays, and generally better specs, but the ThunderBolt has proven, once again, that a good phone is made of more than just raw horsepower.

If you're a Verizon customer and you live in an LTE market, you'd be a schmo if you didn't pick up the ThunderBolt. If you're a Verizon customer living outside LTE coverage, the TB is still a very strong option. If you're not a Verizon customer, I wouldn't blame you if you switched now - in fact, it's something I'm considering myself. Yes, the ThunderBolt and LTE are that good.          

Our Rating: 8/10

Jaroslav Stekl
Jaroslav Stekl is a tech enthusiast whose favorite gadgets almost always happen to be the latest Android devices. When he's not writing for Android Police, he's probably hiking, camping, or canoeing. He is also an aspiring coffee aficionado and an avid moviegoer.

  • James

    If single-core processor phones will likely be considered obsolete very shortly, shouldn't people just wait for a 4G VZ phone with a dual-core processor?

    If so, how long of a wait can we expect? If not, why not?

    Thanks

  • ari-free

    "One item of note here is that you can use either 3G or 4G data while on a phone call – a first for a CDMA handset, though I didn’t find the feature particularly useful."

    It shuts up at&t's talking points and that's good.

  • Mesmorino

    As a Desire HD owner, I read this article and can't help thinking the Thunderbolt is Speed Racer to my phone's Rex Racer, and being ridiculously proud of it

  • Jmalone1187

    The first dual core 4g is the motorola phone. I was told at the verizon store that it would be out around april. However verizon is also changing their data plans for 4g so the people who got the tbolt early are grandfathered in and keep their old plan and price.

  • commentguy2010

    i bought one with a one year contract and next year I will get another new phone and sell this one for about what I paid for it in my opinion the best way to do it

  • Glen

    My Thunderbolt is the fastest smartphone available today. The Bionic will not be faster because. The software will not be able to address the dual core for some time.

  • Jesus

    I am ready to get my HCT Thunderbolt and cannot wait to get my hands on it. Definitely after this article I feel good about my decision to go ahead and make the switch. I am also excited to try out my Sling adapter with it. I have and work at DISH Network and with the Sling adapter, I can stream live and recorded TV to my android phone. The really cool part is that I only need 3G coverage or WiFi to use it.

  • andre
  • http://www.benniegirl.com Benita

    disappointed that the Thunderbolt does not offer memopad/notes or tasks features. I have migrated from Palm to Blackberry to Thunderbolt(droid) and I am perplexed that will have to give up the ability to synch my notes/memopad and tasks data to my outlook. :(

  • Jay

    After "growing up" with Android on a G1 and Droid, I absolutely could not stand HTC Sense - in particular the disfunctional car mode, contact manager, and gallery. I thought several times about returning it during the first two weeks, but I didn't see a good alternative on Verizon. So, I spent a day learning to root my phone, install ROM Manager, and find a good ROM. With CM 7.1.1 installed, the Thunderbolt rocks!

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