The HTC Thunderbolt, now available on Verizon for $250 with a two-year contract after rebates, is the first phone to run on the carrier's "4G" network, which launched last October and is based on Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology. Verizon promises download speeds of between 5 to 12 megabits per second (mbps) and upload speed of up to 5 mbps on its relatively new network. While I wasn't able to confirm these data speeds on my press sample of the phone (more on that below), I was nevertheless quite impressed with the Thunderbolt's data performance during my informal trials.
The 4G connection, besides enabling faster data performance, allows the Thunderbolt to do one more thing no other Verizon phone can do: make and take phone calls while surfing the Web. I tried this and had great success.
Measuring 4.8 x 2.5 x 0.5 inches, the Thunderbolt bears a strong resemblance to the HTC Evo 4G, a Sprint phone that scored high in our Ratings (available to subscribers). The Thunderbolt has a gigantic 4.3-inch display, the latest 1-GHz Snapdragon processor, and plenty of storage: 8GB of onboard memory plus 32GB more on its pre-installed micro-SD card.
The Thunderbolt has two cameras: an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera with HD video recording as well as a front-facing 1.3-megapixel camera for video chats. And the phone comes preloaded with video Skype, to facilitate those Jetsonian conversations. Unfortunately, Verizon won't let you make Skype calls over its network in the U.S.—only over Wi-Fi, which greatly diminishes the advantages of having a front-facing camera on your phone.
Here are my impressions of the phone after one night of testing.
It's fast, but the speedometer's broken. In my informal tests of 4G phones, I usually confirm data-speed claims with the FCC Mobile Broadband Test app by Ookla. But for an unexplained reason, the app delivered wildly inconsistent and sometimes implausible results, such as upload speeds of 48 mbps.
We’re looking alternatives for measuring data performance on cellular (and especially 4G) networks. In the meantime, however, I can report that the word “Thunderbolt” aptly describes the phone’s data performance. Depending on my location and other circumstances, Web pages downloaded up to 2 times faster than on my Motorola Droid. I was able to upload, to Facebook and Youtube, a 30-second video that I shot at 800 x 480 in a little less than a minute, right off the phone. Videos streamed off the Web also appeared very smooth.
Using the Web browser and other Internet-dependent apps such as Facebook while on a voice call seemed to slow performance slightly.
As a comparison, I wanted to try testing the phone on 3G—but the phone has no controls for shutting off 4G connectivity, and removing the phone's 4G SIM card promptly put the Thunderbolt in 2G mode for emergency calls only.
Daylight-challenged display. One of the main benefits of the Thunderbolt's humongous 4.3-inch, 480-x-800-pixel WVGA screen is that you can read content from just about any source without squinting. The screen is bright enough for indoor use—but nearly impossible to read in daylight. Setting brightness controls to the maximum did little to improve outdoor performance.
The display was quite responsive, to the point where it was easy to launch or cancel applications by accident.
An interface for all seasons. The HTC Sense interface, which sits atop the Android 2.2 operating system, has a few new features for customizing the phone's look and feel. A paintbrush-and-palette icon on the lower-right side of the display takes you to a wide array of personalization options, including half a dozen home-screen templates optimized for travel, work, and social media, and other modes. While I've seen many of these templates and customization options before, having them all under one roof made it very convenient to exploit their benefits.
Data entry. As I expected, the Thunderbolt's virtual keyboard was well spaced and responsive in both portrait and landscape modes. The phone also has a condensed keyboard option (when two letters share one key to save space) for when it is held vertically (portrait mode), but this option seems unnecessary given the display’s generous proportions.
I found one annoying quirk, however, with HTC's predictive-text feature: It doesn't automatically insert a space after you select a word, forcing you to hunt for the space bar after each entry. This extra step diminishes significantly the time-saving benefits of using predictive text.
Bottom line. With its large display, a versatile interface, and the fastest connection on a consistently top-rated carrier, the HTC Thunderbolt is poised to be a top consideration for those who depend on their phones for their virtual lives.
But Verizon is already spoiling the party by blocking video chats over the cellular network, one of the main reasons for having a front-facing camera on your phone. Also, the phone should provide a way for users to manually downshift to 3G service, to help maximize battery life.