The first 4G LTE cell phone for Verizon Wireless, the HTC Thunderbolt, lands with a bang, scorching the landscape and sending mere 3G phones fleeing for cover. This is the fastest Internet phone ever, and it wins our Editors’ Choice for the top touch-screen smartphone on Verizon Wireless. But that scorching speed has a price: it burns up the phone’s battery, so you’ll need to bring a spare.
The HTC Thunderbolt looks and feels huge. It’s classy looking, though, in all-gray with a glass front and a soft-touch back.
There’s a small 1.3-megapixel camera next to the earpiece, and a larger 8-megapixel shooter on the back, along with a kickstand, so you can prop the phone up on a table or a desk. The 4.3-inch, 800-by-480 screen looks unusually rich. But at 6.4 ounces, the Thunderbolt will weigh down any pocket, and at 4.8 by 2.6 by 0.5 inches (HWD), it won’t fit in some of them. That’s the price you pay for being an early LTE adopter.
Verizon’s LTE network currently runs in about 40 metro areas, give or take a few, and it’s constantly expanding. The carrier doesn’t charge extra for LTE: the $30/month smartphone data plan costs the same as a 3G data plan does. And for now, you get unlimited data. An extra $20/month buys you 2GB of data for a laptop or other device to use via USB or Wi-Fi tethering. The phone’s hotspot mode supports eight devices rather than the usual five (the faster to use up your 2GB allotment with.)
Phone Performance and Battery Life
Hey, remember all those AT&T ads where they complained you can’t talk and surf at the same time on Verizon? No longer. The Thunderbolt allows simultaneous talking and Internet access on both 3G and 4G networks. I tried it, and it worked well.
As a voice phone, the Thunderbolt is just fine. RF reception is on the good side of average. Voice quality is strong; the earpiece is loud and there’s an unusual amount of side-tone, the reflection of your own voice in your ear that prevents you from yelling. I like that, because it makes you talk more quietly into the phone and should help make Thunderbolt users more socially acceptable in public places. The speakerphone isn’t very loud, but it’s just loud enough to be usable outdoors. Voices transmitted through the mic are totally intelligible but sound a bit computerized; the speakerphone lets through a bit more background noise than I’d like, but it isn’t awful. The phone paired easily with my Aliph Jawbone Era Bluetooth headset ($129, 4.5 stars) and activated the voice dialing system.
Battery life here is an interesting issue. On 3G, it’s great. I got nearly eight hours of talk time on the surprisingly small 1400 mAh battery. In another test, I watched a local video file with the phone connected to the LTE network, but not downloading. I got about six hours of video playback.
Heavy LTE use, on the other hand, totally nukes the battery. I tapped out the battery in only two hours and 20 minutes of LTE streaming using Bitbop and YouTube. If you intend to do a lot of 4G surfing, you’ll have trouble lasting a day. Since there’s no way to turn off 4G, use Wi-Fi when you can to save battery life.
Another option is to buy a second battery. Verizon offers a second standard battery for $39.99 and a gigantic 2750 mAh “extended” battery for $49.99. Two batteries, or one extended battery, would probably give this phone a full day of life.
Processor, Android and Apps
The Thunderbolt runs on a 1GHz, second-generation Qualcomm MSM8655 Snapdragon processor and runs Android 2.2 with HTC’s attractive Sense overlay. On our benchmarks, it performed as well as any high-end smartphone that doesn’t have Nvidia’s dual-core Tegra 2 chipset. Unless you’re an avid gamer, there’s no reason to skip this and wait for a for Tegra 2.
HTC and Verizon have baked a ton of extra software into this phone. Much of it is bloatware, stubs for apps that charge you every month. Verizon has actually taken bloatware to a new level, installing an entire alternative app store called “V Cast Apps” that is sluggish and ugly, but has one big advantage: you can charge app purchases to your phone bill. Of course, you also have access to the 100,000-plus apps in the standard Android Market, along with whatever you sideload from other sources.
Verizon LTE Family
Here are three of the new Verizon LTE phones next to each other: the unnamed Samsung phone, the Motorola Droid Bionic and the HTC Thunderbolt.