The Testbench

REVIEW: HTC Thunderbolt 4GLTE Android Smartphone (Verizon)

Despite the fact that I have been a technology journalist for almost 30 years, I have never been an early adopter of new technologies. When I was growing up, my family did not have a color television set until the late 1960s. I did not own a compact-disc player until 1986. Moreover, I have only had a cell phone – of any description – for about five years now. It is not that I didn’t want to take the plunge for the new thing. I have just been, well, slow about it. I will admit that I’ve been suffering with iPhone envy for a while now.

So when Mrs. Maliniak surprised me by suggesting that we upgrade our phones from non-descript, non-smart sliders, I jumped at the chance to go up-to-the-minute modern for once. Yeah, I knew what I wanted before I set foot in the Verizon store: the HTC Thunderbolt. You’ve seen the commercials by now, with the guy on the roof and the lightning rods and the whole dramatic treatment. We have had the phones for just over a week, and that’s been long enough that I no longer suffer from iPhone envy. iPhone users should envy me. There may not be an all-around better phone on the planet right now than the Thunderbolt.

The Thunderbolt is the first phone on Verizon’s spanking new 4G LTE network, and excuse me for gloating a little, but it shows. Living in northern New Jersey and working in Manhattan gives me the privilege of being in one of Verizon’s early 4G markets, and when I have a 4G connection, this thing is wicked fast. Using the Xtremelabs Speedtest app, I’m seeing 4G download speeds of up to 6511 kb/s with upload speeds of as much as 747 kb/s maximum. Meanwhile, maximum 3G speeds are 1557 kbits/s for downloads and 212 kb/s for uploads. Call quality has been uniformly excellent, with no dropped calls to date.

Did I mention that the phone does simultaneous voice and data on both the 3G and 4G networks? Hey, can your iPhone do that? I didn’t think so. The iPhone 5 is rumored to be dropping this summer; maybe it’ll fill in the gaps for you.

If a large phone is a problem, the Thunderbolt is not for you. It measures 4.75 inches tall by 2.44 inches wide by 0.56 inches deep and weighs 6.23 ozs with its standard 1400-mAh battery (more on that later). But that’s big enough for a 4.3-inch capacitive touch screen that is beautiful and extremely responsive through its Corning Gorilla Glass cladding. Build quality seems very high, with no fit/finish issues.

One, um, interesting design decision is the placement of the kickstand on the rear panel, which causes two issues. The lesser of the two is that the kickstand covers the speaker grille when not extended, although this does not seem to affect sound quality very much. The other, which is more vexing, is that the mini-USB port is unusable when the phone is standing on its kickstand in landscape mode, which is when you would be using it to watch downloaded movies or streaming video, which is when you would want to plug in the power cord.

There are two cameras, an 8-Mpixel lens on the rear (with dual-LED flash) and a 1.3-Mpixel lens on the front for video calling. A nice feature is the phone’s ability to serve as a WiFi hotspot for up to eight clients. There will be no more hotel wireless charges for me. Powering the phone is a Qualcomm 1-GHz chipset. The phone comes with 8 Gbytes of internal memory (although much of that is chewed up by the operating system, etc.) and a preinstalled 32-Gbyte microSD card.

Of course, it carries all of the typical features we expect in phones of this class: Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR (3.0 when available), prox sensor, compass sensor, GPS capability, and other bells and whistles. Social networking is totally integrated; Facebook and Twitter are second nature for it. As one would expect with an Android-based phone, the Thunderbolt speaks Google very well: Google Maps is a joy to use.

This phone represents my first exposure to the Android OS, and I have to say that so far I am enjoying the experience. The phone comes with the Android 2.2 Froyo build, but rumor has it that an over-the-air upgrade to Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) is in the offing in the near term. Overlaid on that is HTC’s Sense UI, which gives the phone an attractive set of skins, scenes, and wallpapers. Meanwhile, Android hackers are busily flashing their new toys with all sorts of software mods, removing Verizon’s standard complement of bloatware, overclocking it to insane speeds, and otherwise voiding their warranties. I briefly considered joining them but I like warranties, at least for the first week.

For me, one of the beauties of the Android platform so far is its flexibility. Certainly, iPhone owners have a lot going for them in the Apple App Store, but Amazon recently opened its own Android App Market, complementing the existing Android Market for applications. I have loaded up my phone with all sorts of games, utilities, fun stuff, all of it free. The selection grows daily on both sites.

Now, there is bad news with this phone, and that brings me back to the battery. Frankly, the stock 1400-mAh battery is a joke. Yes, I am playing with the phone a lot, turning things on and off, surfing around, streaming video and audio, gaming, emailing, texting, Facebooking, making calls and generally having a good time. I haven’t taken serious measurements but I can say that there is no way, no how, that I can get through a day on a single charge. I’ve begun taking measures to reduce battery consumption here and there, like going into airplane mode when underground on a train and forcing 3G mode or going WiFi on the rest of the commute. Even so, it is plugged in much of the day and again overnight.

Verizon does market a 2750-mAh extended battery, but it makes the phone look rather humpbacked and quite a bit heavier still. That battery comes with a deeper rear cover to accommodate its girth. To my knowledge, there is no case on the market yet to fit the phone with the larger battery. So if you are considering the Thunderbolt, a second stock battery might be the way to go for long days away from the wall charger.

Another issue was that out of the box, the phone seemed to struggle with handoffs between the 3G and 4G networks. The ever-enterprising army of Android hackers out on the Net determined that a fix was in order, and an app was published to unhide the phone’s internal menu for switching on and off the 4G radio. After installing that app, and making a programming tweak recommended by one of the Android forums, everything seems to be working quite well.

I’m quite pleased with the Thunderbolt (as is Mrs. Maliniak). For me, it represents a quantum leap into 21st century connectivity. Having my email, my calendar, and snappy Internet access in my pocket wherever I go is an amazing luxury. If you can manage the battery-life issues, the Thunderbolt is a great opportunity to go truly modern – at least until the next new phone ships.

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