The name, suggesting speed, is a nod to the phone’s combination of being both a “4G” phone and having the speedy 1GHz Snapdragon processor and 8GB of RAM. On the local side, it also supports 802.11 b/g AND n, so it’s speedy when you’re at any of the myriad of wi-fi hot spots around. With two cameras, a gigantic screen, and an impressive 32 GB native memory, the phone has some terrific features bursting out of the gate.
With the HTC Sense OS (a derivative of the Android OS), this phone is a natural successor to previous models such as the Droid Incredible, Desire, Inspire, Evo, etc.
But how does it all stack up? Does the phone perform up to the hype and ride the lightning, or is it just a flash in the pan?
UPDATE: I have now been able to use 4g while in Philadelphia, and have added the test results to the list – it is quite fast.
The packaging is slick, which seems to be standard fare for cell phones anymore. The screen is large, the device has smooth contoured edges, and is acceptably light. When it’s turned on, it shows an animated thunderbolt with sound effects.
Before I could turn it on, though, I had to install the 4G SIM card, which required removing the back panel. This was an absolute pain in the butt. My first generation Droid has a back panel that slides off relatively easy (a little too easy, at times) – this phone’s back panel has only a tiny indentation in the top seam of the phone, and I had to use a plastic pen cap to wedge into it in order to get the panel to peel off. I was afraid I was going to crack the case, honestly. Terrible.
Once the back panel was off, I inserted the SIM card, a small piece of plastic with a silicon wafer on it, into the appropriate cradle, re-attached the tedious back panel, and fired it up. The phone took a while locating the network; I actually had to reboot the phone once and try again. This may have been a weather / atmospheric issue though, I don’t know. I was able to get Wi-fi working before cellular connection. At least it’s fully automated, though – no weird phone numbers to dial; you just turn it on and it works.
I was able to easily connect to the campus’s Wi-fi network in a matter of moments.
Overall, getting the phone up and running was painless except for that initial, dreadful, case-opening experience. 10-15 minutes total, but roughly 10 of that was spent opening the case. (It was that bad, seriously!) I am happy to report, though, that the rest of my experience with the phone was very pleasant.
- Phone has a beautifully large screen (similar to the Droid X)
- On-screen keyboard features large buttons, convenient “@” and “.com” shortcut buttons
- Screen animates smoothly and responds quickly
- Making a call automatically indicates the area to which I am calling (presumably based on an internal recordset of area code / exchanges)
- Features “kickstand” swing out arm so that the phone can be propped up as either an alarm clock or convenient movie player. The speaker is housed behind the swing-out arm
- Features 2 cameras, front and rear-facing, decent quality
- 32GB of storage, factory default
- Connecting to USB allows for native Internet tethering and prompts for numerous other connection options (charging only, internet pass-thru, mounting as USB, etc.)
- Music player features “cover flow” when player is turned sideways, and has shortcut “skip/pause” buttons when the phone is locked, which is really convenient
So how fast can a Thunderbolt strike?
When I did my reviews last year, I had only subjective experience about the relative speeds of the phones (they were all pretty comparable), since then, the government, via the FCC, has created a more or less arbitrary objective means of evaluating bandwidth. There is an app in the marketplace that runs these tests as well. A lot of the sales puffery about 4G indicates that it should be substantially faster than traditional 3G network phones (orders of magnitude faster), and the Wikipedia article on 4G indicates speeds as fast as 1Gbps for some implementations of 4G. Based on viewing the list of implementations, and comparing my data to the expected bandwidths, my best guess was that it was either EDGE Evolution or EV-DO, and as it turns out, Verizon Wireless / V Cast is indeed an EV-DO rev 0 provider. Those test results and opinions apply when the phone is used in an area with only 3G coverage. Actual 4G coverage, while still sparse, is much faster.
- Philadelphia, PA – 3.42 Mbps down / 1.68 Mbps up – this was the only 4G result
- Morristown, NJ – 1.61 Mbps down / 0.63 Mbps up
- Ithaca, NY (Cornell Campus) – 0.79 Mbps / 0.85Mbps
- Ithaca, NY (Cornell Campus) – 0.44 Mbps / 0.71 Mbps
- Ithaca, NY (Downtown) – 0.96 Mbps / 0.80 Mbps
- Ithaca, NY (Northeast) – 1.28 Mbps / 0.67 Mbps
For comparison, when I connect via Wi-fi:
- Ithaca, NY (Cornell campus) – 4.24 Mbps down / 2.54 Mbps up
- Ithaca, NY (Northeast) – 5.36 Mbps / 0.93 Mbps
Comparing this to the Rev 0 averages, which at the time of this writing are listed at 2.45 Mbps down / 0.75 Mbps up, it looks like the phone coverage in this area is a little bit less than desired, but hardly slow. Unfortunately, the phone is spec’d to be the slightly better Rev A, which means it’s been under-performing for me. (Due to not being in a 4g area)
My subjective opinion of the speed? It’s fast enough. I don’t feel like I’m wading through swampy mire or having to deal with excessive buffering – YouTube plays fine, taking only a few seconds between selecting a video and starting playing and no buffering issues. Web pages load quickly, etc.
The bottom line is that, while I feel the lightning fast 4G claims of the advertisements may not apply to you if you don’t live in uber-chic metropolitan areas, the phone is still plenty fast. When you are able to get onto a broadband wi-fi network, it’s even faster.
Easy Mobile Tethering, FINALLY!
The HTC thunderbolt features an app called “Mobile Hotspot” that allows you to easily share the phone’s internet connection as an impromptu wireless router. It takes a few touches of the screen and it’s ready to go.
It seems that the SSID is hidden, so it needs to be chosen manually on the laptop / computer that wants to connect to the phone’s network, but WPA2 (personal) security is enabled by default. I was able to go from start (turning on the phone and opening the “Mobile Hotspot” app) to loading a website (Facebook, in this case) in under 2 minutes. It’s seriously super easy, and this is an absolutely awesome feature of this phone.
I was not able to test how quickly devices are able to communicate with one another on the phone’s intranet (ie. if I had 2 laptops connected to the “Mobile hotspot” simultaneously, would they be able to see each other on the network and how fast can they send/receive data to one another), but based on the speed tests done via wi-fi connection, I would bet that the phone can put through about 5 Mbps of bandwidth (downlink) — in other words, adequate for setting up an ad hoc wireless network for an impromptu LAN gaming session, although there might be some latency issues if that was the case. For what it’s worth, my router does 802.11-n.
By far, this particular feature is the one I was the most excited about, as the first generation Droid devices lacked the ability to easily share the Internet connection with wi-fi enabled devices (a MAJOR bummer when you’re at an airport and the only Internet is fee-based).
The User Interface and Applications
The HTC Thunderbolt uses the HTC Sense user interface, which I previously reviewed in my writeup about the HTC Incredible. It’s very polished, runs well, has some nice widgets and wallpapers, and is overall a good product. No complaints there. They’ve made some improvements to it, such as with the music player, the USB connection options, and other small details.
The device itself is typical of Android phones, for the most part. Power button is in the familiar top-right location, the volume control rocker along the right edge, headphone port (which is a bit snug, I found) at the top, mini-USB port on the lower left side. There is no shutter button for the camera; you must touch the on-screen shutter button to snap a photo. I had mixed feelings about this, but you get used to it.
There was a decent selection of native applications; a Kindle app (for reading eBooks), Facebook, Peep (the HTC twitter app) the camera / camcorder, music player, etc. The photo gallery allows for sharing to numerous social media platforms, as the original HTC Incredible also did. I have used both the “official” Twitter app and HTC’s “Peep” app and find them to be comparable enough that they are interchangeable – I never bothered installing the official Twitter app because Peep was plenty good.
There is a “Friendstream” full-screen widget for one of the panels – In theory, I like this idea, but in practice, it’s pretty useless. A full 1/4 of the total panel space is devoted to the “FriendStream” masthead, which is ridiculous. It does allow for status updates, but that hardly makes up for the lack of screen real estate. The widget is far too small and cumbersome to deal with the firehose of information that shoots from the phone being merely connected to Facebook. Viewing an item (in order to comment or Like(tm) it) opens up a separate window and it takes a few moments for the existing comments to load. Scrolling through the updates feels like looking through the porthole of a submarine. Just use the Facebook app, it’s far better suited for the job.
One thing I did dislike about the phone’s apps was that there seems to be a bit of a bloatware problem — bloatware is software that is “bundled” with a device when it ships. Computers used to do this (and still do, although not as badly), particularly if the computer is a less expensive model; the money recouped from loading bloatware allows them to charge less for the device. That may or may not be the case here, but there are a few demo apps that were a bit annoying and are unable to be removed, even in the “manage applications” area: “Rock Band” (a single song demo that requires a 16MB download, pollutes your music player with sound effect samples, and cannot be deleted from the apps menu), “Blockbuster” (they’re still around???), “Slacker Radio” (I think it’s a knock-off of Pandora?) and a few other utility apps.
I can accept a certain amount of bloatware – it’s a nice way to quickly run through some of the capabilities of the phone to get acclimated to the features; however, I am compulsively bothered by the fact that I can’t purge the stupid Rock Band icon from my apps screen. *twitch*
The “Mobile IM” application only allows for Yahoo, Windows Live, and AIM messenger accounts. It also required me to authenticate with My Verizon first, which was weird. Google Talk was not in the list, nor was a generic “Jabber/XMPP” option, which is strange since AIM uses the Jabber protocol (as does Google Talk). I suppose it’s all moot since I don’t use any of those services anyways, but relics like this always raise an eyebrow.
The HTC Calendar app is very slick, and offers multiple options for displaying the calendar data, including one that color codes the items depending on which calendar they are from. Very handy. It has a widget as well.
A small, but appreciated, feature is that the time-picker UI component (for selecting an alarm clock time, for example) is displayed as a vertically rotating dial that you can flick up or down to quickly flip through the digits; this is contrasted against the first generation Droids that required discrete presses of an up or down arrow (or manual typing) to change the numbers. The flicking gesture is far more intuitive and easy to use. The clock app features a clock, timer (countdown), stopwatch (count up), and alarm clock.
Video Chatting (lack thereof)
I am disappointed in the lack of good video chatting apps – ie. no obvious or easy “Face Time” equivalent for easy video chatting, despite the dual cameras. Some sort of recording app that could record from both cameras simultaneously would be welcome as well. I just heard that Video Chat will be coming to Android, but hasn’t quite been released into the wild yet, so perhaps in the near future. Ideally, I want to be able to use Google video chat or Skype Video chat with this phone. Make it happen, people!
This phone was an absolute pleasure to work with; It did everything I needed it to (and more!), pleasantly surprised me with many of the features, and never gave me problems. The battery lasted for the greater part of the day, although the gauge always seemed to rapidly decline to the halfway point and then just hang there for hours. Reverting back to my own, normal Droid, really underscores the size difference.
While I’m sure that there are other phones out there with better specs (and if not, there will be, rest assured), this phone is definitely a great device. As with the Incredible, the bulk of my nitpicks are relatively minor issues and everyday performance has been terrific. The criticisms above are largely just suggested areas for future improvement, and not deficiencies in the device itself. It’s rock solid, and the majority of users would be very happy with it.
Disclosure notice: Reviewed tech hardware provided indirectly by Verizon; however, I am not compensated and my participation in this program is not affected / determined by the views expressed in my reviews.