Verizon Thunderbolt

Twelve megabits per second of download speed on a well-appointed HTC smartphone might be mobile nirvana

The HTC Thunderbolt, which went on sale March 17, is the first phone available in the US that can connect to Verizon’s lightning fast 4G LTE network. That alone makes the Thunderbolt ($250 with new 2-year contract) a considerable piece of hardware, especially for users who routinely run high-bandwidth apps like video chat, online gaming and high-def video streaming. Network speed aside, I found the phone itself to be another solid addition to the HTC’s mostly-impressive family of smartphones, albeit one with a few shortcomings.

Handsome Design

The Thunderbolt definitely feels well-built and sturdy in your hand. However, for someone coming from a smaller phone, the 5.78-ounce Thunderbolt, with its 4.8 by 2.6 by .52-inch frame, can feel like a monster in comparison.

But the phone makes good use of its size. The Thunderbolt’s 4.3-inch WVGA screen gives you ample room to maneuver your fingers while touch typing and navigating websites while you’re on the go. My one complaint about the screen is that it was difficult to see outside under direct sunlight.

The phone design is quite simple: power button and headphone jack up top, volume rocker on the right spine, and the standard Home, Menu, Back, Search buttons on the face of the device. On the back, you’ll find an 8-megapixel camera with dual LED flash and a kickstand--much like we saw on the HTC EVO 4G. There’s also a 1.3-megapixel camera on the front of the device for video chatting (more on that further down).

Lightning Fast Broadband Speeds

The Thunderbolt’s main draw is its broadband speeds, which in my tests were simply stunning. Running the Ookla FCC Mobile Broadband Test I saw consistent download speeds of between 8 megabits per second (mbps) and 12 mbps. With full bars and in an area that supports Verizon’s 4G LTE network, I managed to load the PCWorld mobile site in about 4 seconds. Image-heavy sites like Escapistmagazine.com loaded in under 10 seconds.

The Thunderbolt can share its 4G connection with eight devices using its mobile hotspot function (though it can cost extra depending on your plan). To test the limits of the 4G connection I set up such a hotspot, and connected an iPod Touch and another smartphone with it. I was able to stream live TV to the iPod Touch, download apps and watch high-quality YouTube videos on the phone, while at the same time browsing the web and downloading apps on the Thunderbolt. All of these tasks ran quickly and smoothly with Verizon’s LTE service, and I got the feeling I could have connected a few more devices to the hotspot with little performance loss.

Call quality on the Thunderbolt was not crystal clear, but it was close. The people I called said they could hear minor wind noise from my end, but no other interference.

HTC Sense Gets a Facelift

The Thunderbolt comes pre-loaded with a new and improved version of Sense UI, HTC’s custom software that overlays the Android OS. While most of the Sense UI improvements seem merely cosmetic, a few nifty new features have been thrown in as well.

For instance, dragging down the notification bar at the top of the screen now reveals a list of previously opened apps. This extremely useful function may have been inspired by a similar feature in Apple’s iOS.

Turning on the fast boot option will allow you to start your phone almost immediately, though you will have to turn it off to use certain Android Market apps.

The “+” icon on the right side of the dock (at the bottom of the home screen) has been replaced with a brush and palette. Tapping it brings you to the personalization menu where you can set your wallpaper, add items to the home screen, and change your sound settings. You can also change the skin of the Sense UI to one of the 5 available options.

Android Add-Ons

Unfortunately the Thunderbolt also comes loaded with too much unwanted software. Along with the Blockbuster app we saw on the Droid X, Verizon has also loaded the Thunderbolt with a demo of Let’s Golf 2 and videos advertising Bitbop, Rhapsody, and Rock Band for Android. The usual Verizon suite of apps (Navigator, V Cast Media, Slacker, and the V Cast App Store) also makes an appearance. And guess what? You can’t remove these apps. This is not a major negative, but the extra apps do clutter up your app drawer, making it hard to quickly locate the app you want.

Cameras a Mixed Bag

The Thunderbolt features two cameras: a 1.3-megapixel on the front and an 8-megapixel in the rear. Pictures taken with the 8-megapixel camera came out well (click thumbnails at left to see full-sized images). The images were surprisingly sharp. Even when I zoomed in, the resolution was reasonably good. Colors looked robust and true to the subject of my photos. Pictures taken in extremely low lighting were clear and easy to see, thanks in part to the dual LED flash. The HTC EVO 4G also has an 8-megapixel camera on the back, but the Thunderbolt’s camera is clearly superior.

The Thunderbolt’s front-facing 1.3-megapixel camera is another story. The pictures I took came out dark and a little murky. The front-facing camera is meant for video chatting services, but I couldn’t find such an app that would work on the phone. Skype for Android does not yet support video chat and Fring doesn’t recognize the camera at all. Qik could be another option, but it does not yet have a video calling app for the Thunderbolt. While it’s nice to see more Android phones with front facing cameras, without any software to use them they’re not much good.

The video I shot with the phone was reasonably clear, but certainly not as clear as the still images I shot. When shooting a moving image the video seemed a bit fuzzy; only when I held the camera still in front of an object did the sharpness of the video improve. A more serious problem has to do with the audio. In video mode the phone records sound at such a low level that you have to turn the volume all the way up to hear it on playback, and even then you can hear only the loudest sounds.

Plays Nice with Other Devices

A DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) certified device, the Thunderbolt can stream photos, music, and video to and from DLNA-supporting devices on your home wireless network. For instance, you can stream video to your DLNA-certified TV for playback. The music player can also stream from any media servers you have on your network.

If you aren’t at home and like to listen to your music on the go (like most of us do), you’ll be quite happy to learn that the Thunderbolt ships with a 32GB MicroSD card onboard so you can carry several thousand songs or movies with you.

Bottom Line

The Thunderbolt looks, feels, and handles like a solid piece of hardware. While its specs aren’t anything we haven’t already seen in the Droid X or the Droid 2, the Thunderbolt’s ability to utilize the unprecedented speed of Verizon’s LTE network makes it a special phone indeed. For users who like to run high-bandwidth apps on the go--like streaming high-def video or playing online games--there’s just no faster phone on the market right now.

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