Sunday, March 27, 2011

HTC Thunderbolt Review

The HTC Thunderbolt is the first 4G smartphone on Verizon using their LTE technology.  It runs Android 2.2 and Sense 2.0 (HTC's skin over Android) and features a 1ghz SnapDragon processor and a 4.3" (480x800) display.
Thunderbolt with one of the Skins provied

Thunderbolt with another Skin provided

The box for the Thunderbolt was stylish and compact.  It was black on the outside and red inside which was reminiscent of the Droid Incredible.  Anyway inside the box you find the usual Verizon booklets, the most interesting of which was the 'Master Your Device' one.  You won't find anything else besides a micro-usb cable and a wall charger.

Look & Feel
The back of the Thunderbolt is a very smooth plastic.  It has a matte finish and will slide easily if there's movement on the surface.  The device has some heft to it and it's not small either with its 4.3" screen.  The weight of the device is not that bothersome for me coming from the DroidX, but for someone coming from a smaller phone such as the Droid Incredible, it's worth feeling in person before buying.  The device looks very smart and feels expensive.  I would definitely make the power button a little more prominent.  It blends into the top of the phone a little too well and is hard to find in a pinch.  The volume rockers on the right of the phone are a bit too long and also blend in too well.  On many occasions I've pushed them accidentally when just holding the phone to press the power button.  These issues are fairly minor though and definitely ones I can live with.

Activation is not as simple as sticking the battery in and dialing *228 as one would do a normal Verizon phone.  If you do that, you will prompted to put the sim card in as soon as the phone boots up.  If you put the sim card in and turn the phone on and then dial *228, you can fry your sim card.  Certainly this is not acceptable and detailed instructions need to be included on the correct procedure.  The correct procedure is:
  1. Make sure the SIM card and battery are out of the phone.
  2. Go to the Verizon My Account page, log in and click 'Activate a Device'.
  3. Enter the phone's IMEI number from the box or the back of the phone inside the battery compartment.
  4. You will be prompted for your SIM card number, enter it.
  5. You will then be taken to the page that provisions the phone for 4G and has you select the appropriate data plan.
  6. You the put the SIM card in, put the battery in, put the battery cover back on and turn the phone on.
  7. Once the phone starts up, you will be guided through setup, but you will not need to do any further activation process
It's an involved process that needs detailed instructions and I'm disappointed that these weren't included.

Build quality

Build quality seems very good. The only build quality issue I have is that the earpience speaker vibrates when volume is over 50%. Also beneath the search button on the bottom right, I can see under the screen inside the phone a little. Not sure if this is normal.  The earpiece buzzing is bothersome as it makes you feel like you're using a lower quality device, but it's something I can live with.  The rest of the phone is fantastic however.

Phone Software

The new Sense 2.0 is very nice, it's faster and the new skins/themes are really neat. The widgets also seem to be upgraded and have some animation which is a nice touch. Everything on the phone seems very fast, faster than the Droid X and Droid Incredible. No complaints about the software except that in the area of battery charging, but more on that later.


Really, really fast!!! Both on the phone itself and when connected to it through the wifi hotspot or usb cable, I'm very impressed with the speeds. Speeds do vary a bit based on signal strength and even the city you're in.  In Princeton, NJ I was getting around 20mbps down and 5mbps up.  In Hillsborough, NJ however it was around 10mbps down and 1-3mbps down.  There's a down side to being the first 4g smartphone however as it does seem to go from 4G to 3G and occasionally 1X for reasons that don't make sense to me, meaning you're in a 4G area with good coverage. When this happens, I lose complete connectivity between 4g and 3g. I sometimes have to cycle mobile data on/off to get things back to normal. Normal handoffs or switching seem to be a bit glitchy here as well because data connectivity between 4g and 3g drops during them. Not sure if it is the phone or Verizon's LTE network.  Obviously this can get annoying if you're in the middle of doing something that is using data and it also seems to affect the battery.

The device has a rear 8mp camera and front facing 1.3mp camera which mainly for video chatting.  See the sample shots below.  I'm no camera expert, but the rear camera is pretty good for stills unless you're in low light.  The front camera is not very good because it is primarily for video chatting through google talk (which I haven't tried yet).  You can click on each image below to see the full size.
Rear camera - good light

Rear Camear - low light + flash

Front Camera - low light

Front camera - good light

Battery Life

Not to be too dramatic, but HORRENDOUS!!! Whether LTE is killing the battery or whether it is the phone not being able to charge the battery fully doesn't matter. This phone's battery is not capable of powering it through a day of normal use. I am in a 4G area both at work and at home and I'm sure this is making it worse, but this is a 4G phone, it needs to be okay with that and not drain fast. This is the biggest downside of the phone for me. Not even being able to make it through the end of the work day is not acceptable. Unless you don't mind leaving your phone plugged in all day, this is an absolute deal breaker.  Sure you can get an extended battery, but it adds a lot of bulk to a phone that is already at the limit of what I'd tolerate in bulk.  When I went to North Jersey for the weekend, it was all 3G there with not even a hint of LTE and I noticed that my battery lasted longer.  As someone who firmly believes that a smartphone's battery should get you through the day with moderate use, I am deeply disappointed with the Thunderbolt.  On my first day with it, I barely made it past 3pm.  If you're familiar with the 'battery dance' that can be done on the Droid Incredible, you can do that here as well.  However it's a real pain and I do not do it or recommend it.


Overall this is a very nice phone.  It is running Android 2.2 (Froyo) which although isn't the latest version of Android for a smartphone, is very smooth and stable.  HTC's Sense on top of this is also very smooth and adds a lot of useful functionality and doesn't bog the phone down one bit (unlike the DroidX's Motoblur).  Even the modifications HTC has made to the web browser that provide additional settings such as disabling mobile viewing of sites, are a nice touch.  Verizon's 4G network is blazingly fast and rivals home broadband speeds.  Despite not being a dual core processor, I never felt like this phone needed to be faster.  In fact, it many ways I felt like this phone was much faster than the Droid Incredible which is running an older version of this processor with the same clock speed.  The deal breaker for me is the battery.  The battery is underpowered and with the phone's large 4.3" screen, 4g radio and handoff issues, is just not good enough.  It's hard to believe that this phone made it through Verizon's Quality Assurance department with this batter life.  While it's possible that future software updates may improve battery life, I have a bad feeling that the issue lies with the hardware itself.  I just cannot recommend a phone that can't even come close to lasting a day with normal usage.

Update (October 2011)
I eventually gave up on the Thunderbolt, but not because of the battery life.  The going back and forth between 4G and 3G and 2G mixed with no data connection in between, really drove me crazy.  It got to the point where I couldn't stream Pandora without getting extremely frustrated because of the loss of data connectivity.  Also, the bulk of the phone wore me out.  As fast as 4G LTE is, I went back to my trust old Droid X and enjoyed, its thiness, good battery life and network connection stability.

Disclaimer: This device was provided to me by Verizon Wireless as I am a member of one of their focus groups.  The device is provided free of charge in exchange for honest feedback.