At a quick glance, without any background information, your eyes might tell you that the HTC Thunderbolt from Verizon Wireless is little more than a Verizon remake of Sprint's EVO 4G and AT&T's Inspire 4G. After all -- like its contemporaries -- the Thunderbolt features a spacious 4.3-inch WVGA display, 8 megapixel camera, and dual-LED flash. In reality, though, the Thunderbolt is something more: from the Inspire, it borrows a better, crisper display with a wider viewing angle and a newer-generation (though still single-core) Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. From the EVO 4G, meanwhile, it borrows a cool integrated kickstand and the addition of a second "4G" radio, making this a spec Frankenstein of sorts -- the best of both worlds. Of course, instead of Sprint's WiMAX for that 4G radio, the Thunderbolt grants you access to Verizon's LTE network -- a network so fresh, it still has that new-network smell. There's a lot of horsepower here.
In other words, the Thunderbolt has a very real opportunity to be the finest 4.3-inch device HTC has ever made -- for the moment, anyway. Let's see how it fares.
The Thunderbolt doesn't buck the trend of packaging high-end phones in high-end boxes -- put simply, it's an elegant, sturdy, matte black cube encased in a black sleeve. Lots of black here, actually, which means you can't see the name of the phone... but you can feel it. It's embossed! Nice touch, the kind of thing that'll make you want to put the packaging away in a closet or drawer somewhere rather than throwing it away. The black theme is broken in rather spectacular fashion when you crack open the box -- which is split down the middle -- to reveal gobs of bright Verizon red and your shiny, new purchase square in the middle. Underneath, you'll find some literature, a slim, glossy black USB wall charger, and a micro-USB cable -- sorry, no trashy earbuds here. As we've said in the past, that's just fine by us; odds are good that if you're spending $250 on a phone, you're going to be spending a few bucks on a decent headset, anyway -- the units that are bundled with phones are almost universally awful, which ends up unfairly tinting your opinion of the phone's audio quality. In our review unit, both the battery and 32GB microSD card came pre-installed.
Pulling the phone out of its cardboard cradle, you instantly recognize that this thing is a beast -- it's just big and heavy. There's no other way to put it. If you're acquainted and comfortable with the EVO 4G, you'll feel right at home -- the EVO's actually a few grams heavier, which took us by surprise when we looked it up -- but if you're coming from pretty much anything else, you'll probably mouth the word "whoa" the first time you take it into your hand. For comparison's sake, it's right around 20 percent heavier than an iPhone 4. We're not necessarily saying that's a bad thing; in general, phones have a tendency to feel higher-quality when they're more substantial and they've got a little more junk in the trunk, and that's certainly the case with the Thunderbolt -- but it's still something to consider. We're fairly certain there will be at least a few potential buyers who are off-put by the weight, so you should swing into a store and spend a little quality time with it before pulling the trigger.
Once you get past the heft, you start to notice the details of the design. It's typical HTC through and through, though we suspect they started working on it alongside Verizon quite some time ago because the design language feels somewhat last-gen -- more of a remixed EVO than anything else. The most direct, concrete proof of this might be AT&T's Inspire 4G -- also a 4.3-inch HTC device -- which shares a newer "unibody" metal design with the Desire HD. It's thinner, less plasticky, and more solid-feeling (which is really saying something) than the Thunderbolt, and it better represents where HTC has been going with its handset designs in the past six months. Obviously, as one of the first commercial LTE smartphones in the world, HTC has probably had this one baking in the oven for a good, long while.
That being said, "last-gen design" doesn't mean "bad design" -- far from it. There are many ways you could screw up the details of a phone this chunky, but the Thunderbolt is a legitimately handsome device. Unlike the EVO, the Thunderbolt's soft touch back cover only extends about three-quarters of the way down from the top, leaving the integrated brushed-metal kickstand permanently attached to the surface of the phone chassis (which is smooth plastic in this bottom area) rather than poking through the cover. Underneath the kickstand (which has "with Google" engraved on it, by the way), you'll find a metal grating that conceals the Thunderbolt's loudspeaker -- which is, in fact, quite loud. The only real problem here is that it's a bit muffled with the kickstand retracted, but we suppose HTC's logic is that you're going to want maximum volume in kickstand-deployed video mode.
The Thunderbolt's thickness and design details save it from a problem both the EVO and Inspire suffer from: the camera's rim is essentially flush with the back and the lens is actually recessed, meaning you're not going to scuff up your 8 megapixel shooter simply by setting the phone rear-down on a few too many hard surfaces. The dual-LED flash is arranged exactly as you find it on HTC's other 4.3-inch devices, and it suffers from an unusual (but now familiar) quirk: you can't use it when the Mobile Hotspot feature is enabled. Presumably, it's just too much simultaneous power draw between the giant display, the beefy processor, and the LTE, CDMA, and WiFi radios to add a pair of ultra-bright LEDs into the mix, though it's interesting that Mobile Hotspot uses no more components than you would in normal phone use -- we suppose the WiFi power output might be at a higher level.
It's a good thing that the 32GB microSD card comes pre-installed, because the battery cover is nigh impossible to get off. Actually, that's not fair -- it's nowhere near as difficult as the side-mounted cover on the Desire HD and Inspire 4G, but it's up there. It's difficult enough so that you're thinking "man, I hope I don't break or gouge something" as you're prying, red-faced, at the top-mounted notch. Underneath, you'll find a relatively measly 1400mAh battery (more on that later), the microSD slot underneath (which, again, thanks to the 32GB that comes with the phone, you'll probably never need to touch), an LTE SIM card tray, and an array of gold contacts that have us intrigued. At the top are four connection points in two locations that hook up to matching connections on the cover, which suggest that the cover probably plays an active role in signal reception. What had us more intrigued, though, were four pins near the camera lens that aren't hooked up to the cover, which had us wondering whether there might be NFC capability in the Thunderbolt's future -- or whether it was in the works and got spiked along the way. Hard to tell, but it's a thought.
The edges of the Thunderbolt are clean and simple; notably missing, of course, is an HDMI-out -- a big deal for some and a complete non-issue for others. The power button is perfect: correct location and correct level of flushness with the surface of the phone. The volume rocker is also perfectly shaped, sized, and in the best possible location along the right edge, but for some reason, it feels really mushy. Not only that, but it feels mushy in distinctly different ways on the top and bottom -- it's just poorly engineered or assembled, as far as we can tell. While you're on a call, it can be difficult to tell whether you're actuating the rocker without proper detents.
As for the display, it's pretty fantastic -- definitely an upgrade from the EVO's component thanks to a superior viewing angle that never washes out or inverts. Admittedly, WVGA starts to look just a tad pixellated once you get past 4 inches into the 4.3-inch category, but we're spoiled these days -- and if they Pyramid rumors are true, HTC is hard at work on qHD solutions for its next-gen devices anyway. One characteristic that we've noticed on a number of other phones in the past year that we miss here is the gapless display, a display so close to the glass that it appears to be on the surface of the phone itself (in fact, it's so cool that Sony Ericsson actively markets it as a feature of the Xperia Arc). Well, there's definitely a noticeable gap on the Thunderbolt, but it's a purely aesthetic complaint -- there's zero effect on capability or usability whatsoever -- it's just fun to hold your phone at an angle once in a while and say, "wow."
Audio quality ranges from "good" to "great," with two caveats: one, the aforementioned problem with loudspeaker muffling when the kickstand is closed (not severe, but something to take note of), and two, the earpiece could use another level or two of volume. It's plenty clear, but in noisy environments, we found ourselves wishing we could eke a little more out of it on a couple occasions. Callers told us we sounded a little "staticky" but were still totally audible -- we were never asked to speak up or repeat something we'd said.
In the amount of time since we received the Thunderbolt, we've only had time to run one proper battery test, which consisted of roughly 50 minutes of voice calls and two hours, 25 minutes of heavy LTE data / screen usage (a live Ustream feed). That test yielded five hours, 47 minutes of run time from full to automatic shutdown -- certainly not enough to make it through a full day, but then again, we're talking about some pretty extreme data consumption. Standby seems fine; we let the phone sit for about fourteen hours with a loss of around 20 percent of the battery.
Interestingly -- unlike the EVO -- we weren't able to find a way to disable the Thunderbolt's 4G radio and stay on on CDMA / EV-DO alone in an effort to conserve the battery. The phone seems to be doing some intelligent radio management, automatically switching between the two when necessary (and, presumably, staying pegged on LTE whenever it can find an LTE signal). From a pure consumer-friendliness perspective, that makes sense... but from a power-user perspective, it's annoying at best. When using this as a primary device, we'd probably consider carrying a portable battery-powered micro-USB charger or a spare internal battery for peace of mind.
HTC has a spotty track record of delivering fantastic picture and video quality -- but as 8 megapixel models go, we're happy to report that the Thunderbolt is markedly improved from the EVO 4G. It's unclear whether the changes are in software alone or if HTC has moved to a different combination of sensor and optics, but whatever they're doing, they've moved in the right direction. That said, the system isn't without its flaws. The touch-to-focus works quickly and consistently, though we were a bit disappointed at the lack of a macro mode. It really shows, too -- we couldn't focus extreme closeups at all. We also noticed some problems with light metering -- it seems that HTC has elected to go with a permanent full-frame metering mode, which makes it extremely difficult to get the proper exposure on certain backlit shots (see the gallery below). And of course, we always prefer a physical shutter key -- something the Thunderbolt lacks.
The 720p video was remarkably free of artifacts or distortion -- it doesn't do continuous autofocus, but you can refocus on the fly with a tap on the screen. Likewise, sound quality was quite good; we were surprised at how clearly our voice cut through the ambient noise when narrating.
The Thunderbolt is, of course, running HTC Sense. In this case, it's on top of Android 2.2.1, but it's a bit of a hybrid -- it lacks support for the cloud features introduced with the launch of the Desire HD / Desire Z and HTCSense.com last year, but does include support for HTC's unusual "Fast Boot" option (which was introduced at the same time). It comes disabled by default, but can be found in the Power menu in Settings with the ominous warning, "Turn off to use some Market apps." Which ones? Well, that's for you to guess, and HTC to know, apparently. The feature basically puts the phone into an ultra-low power mode (akin to standby or sleep on a laptop) rather than turning it off altogether, and we'll admit, the results speak for themselves: with Fast Boot on, we were seeing boot times of roughly 9 seconds, as opposed to 58 seconds with it off. If you frequently turn your phone off (say, on airplanes, when they tell you to power down your gadgets rather than simply using airplane mode), that's a notable difference.
From a UI perspective, Sense looks exactly the same here as it has on any other Sense device from the past year or so: same colorful menus, custom soft keyboard, home screen elements, and so on, so we won't spend much time talking about it. We're not huge fans -- we prefer almost everything about the stock experience -- but we know that it's largely a matter of personal opinion (and Sense certainly has its share of fans). So instead, let's take a look at the non-standard apps that HTC and Verizon have included, along with descriptions of the less-obvious ones:
Notably absent, though, are Skype and Netflix. Skype video calling on Android was introduced by Verizon at CES (alongside the Thunderbolt) to great fanfare, but recent rumors prior to the Thunderbolt's release had suggested that the carrier elected late in the game to pull the app from ROM. What we don't know, though, is why that happened; we've heard rumors that Skype's partnership with Verizon is souring (there have been AT&T talks, after all), but it could just be a bout of last-minute bugs that Verizon didn't want to hold up the phone's release. Video calling aside, you'd think Verizon would've at least put its standard Skype build on here that allows calling outside WiFi networks, but no dice -- you're stuck with the standard Android app in the Market that locks you out on 3G.
Netflix was more of a wildcard, but we thought it might be loaded -- it's got a Qualcomm processor that can handle Netflix's DRM scheme, after all, and that 4.3-inch display and kickstand would be a solid way to get the Watch Instantly functionality off on the right foot. Alas, we gave the leaked APK a whirl, and it wasn't working, either. That's not to say it definitely won't work by the time it's released, but it's a no-go so far.
End to end, the phone feels quite fast. Actually, "quite fast" isn't doing the LTE radio justice: it's by farthe fastest data in a handset that we've ever experienced. In downtown Chicago, Ookla's Speedtest app for Android was clocking downlink speeds ranging from 5Mbps to roughly 20Mbps,
[Update: We've been told by Ookla that the Thunderbolt's massive send buffer is responsible for the erroneously high uplink speeds -- they've got a fix in the works and it'll be available as an update to the Speedtest.net app soon.]
Using the Thunderbolt with its mobile hotspot mode enabled was a breeze, too, and yielded blazing cable modem-like speeds (the first time we used it, the phone started acting erratically and kept switching between EV-DO and LTE, rendering the connection basically useless, but we haven't been able to reproduce it since). Interestingly, upstream speeds are far more down-to-earth when using the hotspot, but we're not sure why. As Verizon has said in the past, low latency makes a big difference in your perception of how fast a connection really is -- and with multiplayer gaming, it becomes even more critical. For comparison, the Thunderbolt yielded ping times consistently south of 100ms, while our Inspire 4G -- in an HSPA+ area with four to five bars of reception -- was getting ping times typically ranging from 120ms to 280ms (and throughput was lower by an order of magnitude).
Turning our attention to processor speed and the user experience, the phone feels smooth and fast out of the box, a testament to the 1GHz MSM8655 core and, presumably, Verizon's testing and HTC's careful tuning of Sense atop Android 2.2.1. That said, it's not going to outperform a Tegra 2 device. In our full Quadrant tests, we got scores ranging from the high 1600s (pictured above) up to about 1900, considerably lower than the mid-2000s seen on stock Optimus 2Xs, Droid Bionics, and Atrix 4Gs. Of course, the Thunderbolt has one thing going for it: it'll probably be a lot more hackable than Motorolas tend to be, and we're sure we'll see some absolutely blazing custom kernels eventually.
Here are a few other benchmarks we ran on our Thunderbolt that you might be interested in:
First-generation devices are often, if not usually, a little rickety -- proofs of concept that are more about the manufacturer (or carrier) being able to say that they're first to launch a particular feature than they are about delivering a solid, all-around winner. Fortunately, that's not the case with the Thunderbolt: HTC's managed to put together a handset here that we can honestly recommend with a straight face, owing in no small part to the fact that it borrows heavily from the company's existing parts bin. If you're looking for the sexiest 4.3-inch phone of the bunch, the Inspire still beats it -- you can't go wrong with the thinner, metal, unibody shell -- but the Thunderbolt is easily one of the best Android devices in Verizon's expansive lineup even before you take the LTE capability into account. And if you're lucky enough to live or work in an LTE market (or one that's going live this year), it's the best choice by a country mile.
Additional reporting by Myriam Joire