HTC ThunderBolt 4G smartphone: Hefty, nifty and very fast

Verizon's first 4G LTE phone may actually live up to its hype

Even by the new standards of cell phone advertising, the run-up to the HTC ThunderBolt -- Verizon's first 4G LTE smartphone -- was elaborate and expensive. Gatefold ads in mass-market magazines and high-profile TV spots on the Oscars, NASCAR and college basketball all proclaimed that there was a new 4G phone coming from Verizon, but not much else. Inquiries made of HTC and Verizon were met with official shrugs. The company spent many millions of dollars advertising a phone and didn't tell anyone when it would be on the shelves.

HTC ThunderBolt
HTC ThunderBolt 4G

The ThunderBolt finally dropped onto the market on March 17, with only a day or so warning, just as Verizon's iPhone hubbub was subsiding. When a movie gets this much hype but is snuck out into the market, it's usually a very bad sign. Not so with the ThunderBolt, which is a hefty but nifty piece of technology.

Big but fast

The first impression of the ThunderBolt is that of weight. It's 6.23 oz. -- 2 oz. heavier than a Samsung Galaxy S phone, 1.5 oz. more than an iPhone 4 and .75 oz. more than a Droid X. It's even .25 oz. heavier than HTC's own Evo 4G, the previous heavyweight champ.

The ThunderBolt is also big: 4.75 x 2.44 x 0.56 in. That's only a quarter-inch shorter and narrower than the Droid X, and a tenth of an inch thicker. The 4.3-in. screen, with a 480 x 800 WVGA display, is the same size as the Droid X's. I found screen quality to be respectable, if not as superb as Samsung's Super AMOLEDs.

What do you get for all that size? Network speed. The thing is a rocket.

The Ookla Speedtest measured download speed on Verizon's 4G LTE network at a breathtaking 16.1Mbit/sec. download, and 19.1Mbit/sec. upload. A 3G test performed at the same time at the same spot with an iPhone 3GS on AT&T's network, also using Speedtest, measured 0.52Mbit/sec. down and 0.11Mbit/sec. up. Your mileage, of course, will vary. But a factor of 20 is a pretty compelling speed difference between 4G and 3G.

Other features

The ThunderBolt's other specs are mostly at the high end of the current market. The OS is Android 2.2 (Froyo), not the most up-to-the-second version, Android 2.3 (Gingerbread), and comes with the appealing HTC Sense user interface.

The device has an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera that does video at 720p, as well as a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera for videoconferencing. The processor is a 1GHz Snapdragon chip; the phone comes with 768MB RAM, 8GB of onboard memory and a 32GB microSD card. There's a kickstand for viewing and teleconferencing, but no HDMI output.

Claimed battery life is 6 hours talk and 330 hours standby. In practice, I got more than a full day's light to moderate use out of it, even while using the 4G service. In fact, with the 4G radio turned on and the phone idle, I saw no abnormal battery drain. In my experience, Android phones do tend to run through batteries more quickly than other phones (though this has gotten better over the last year); the ThunderBolt's performance was typical, and was better than some. (Keep in mind that you have to make sure your phone is fully charged if you're going to expect a full day of use -- my unit took a good few hours before the charging light turned green.)

Mobile hotspot service for up to eight devices is available for free until May 15, after which it will cost $20 per month for 2GB of data. An otherwise unlimited data plan is $30/month. The phone itself is $250 with a two-year contract. Unfortunately, the ThunderBolt comes with a wide array of bloatware, including CityID, bitbop, Rock Band and VCast, among others. Unless you actually use any of these services, you'll have to ignore them -- they can't be uninstalled.

Bottom line

You couldn't avoid the ThunderBolt before it came out. Now that it's here, you probably won't want to. The size may be a drawback -- you won't be able to ignore it in your pocket -- but the speed will compel your attention.

Dan Rosenbaum, by day a search strategist and content maven, has been reviewing mobile technology since the 1990s. His MicroTAC and StarTAC phones are still in a box somewhere.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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