A familiar phone gets faster, thanks to Verizon's LTE network

 HTC ThunderBolt

It isn't very often that a smartphone has the the staying power to remain a best-seller for an entire year, and it's even more rare to see that smartphone still have a major buzz factor when it hits another carrier some 12 months after it was initially announced. That phone, of course, is the HTC EVO 4G on Sprint. And it's been revamped and revitalized as the HTC ThunderBolt -- the first 4G LTE smartphone on Verizon.

Let's just get this out of the way -- yes, the ThunderBolt is nearly a dead ringer for the Sprint EVO 4G, another HTC device. And that's a good thing. The EVO 4G was the first Wimax device, and the first Android smartphone with a 4.3-inch touchscreen, and we'd still have little problem recommending it to someone today. So it was of little surprise that the ThunderBolt caused such a commotion leading up to its announcement at CES in January 2011, and that frustration over the nearly three months it took until release crescendoed to a level never before seen.

But, indeed, the ThunderBolt ushers in a new era -- the LTE era -- and that means a whole new experience. So join us after the break as we break down the ThunderBolt and its place atop of the smartphone mountain.

ThunderBolt SpecsThunderBolt ForumsThunderBolt Accessories

Our initial hands-on


Youtube link for mobile viewing

The hardware

We're going to end up saying this quite a bit -- if you're used to the EVO 4G, you'll be plenty comfortable with the ThunderBolt. They're roughly the same size, with the ThunderBolt measuring in (on paper, anyway) at 4.75 inches tall, 2.44 inches wide and 0.56 inches thick. The EVO 4G, by comparison, is 4.8 inches tall, 2.6 inches wide and 0.5 inches thick.

HTC ThunderBolt and EVO 4G
HTC ThunderBolt, left, and EVO 4G

The front of the phone is dominated by the 4.3-inch (diagonal) touchscreen. It's a TFT LCD screen, with the usual resolution of 800x480. We're really starting to get to the point where we'd like to see at least a qHD touchscreen on new high-end phones. They're coming, but slowly.

At the top of the screen you have a stylish earpiece and the front-facing 1.3MP camera. Below the screen are the usual four Android buttons. They're capacitive and are in the home-menu-back-search configuration. The buttons are backlit. But whereas each button is backlit on the EVO 4G, the four buttons share two backlights on the ThunderBolt. It's likely you'll never notice, but it's an interesting difference to those of us who notice these things for a living.

HTC ThunderBoltHTC ThunderBolt

HTC ThunderBoltHTC ThunderBolt

The right-hand bezel has the silver, single-piece volume rocker. The left-hand bezel is bare, save for the microUSB port. On top is the power button, 3.5mm headphone jack and noise-canceling microphone.

HTC ThunderBolt

Flip the phone over and you've got the 8MP camera with dual flashes, the kickstand (which hides the stylish external speaker) and a little round rubber circle that doesn't really do anything you need to be concerned with. (We've been told it's part of the radio system.)

HTC ThunderBolt

That kickstand's been beefed up, too. Whereas the EVO 4G's kickstand is narrow, thick and more rounded, the ThunderBolt's is thin, wide and flat. The kickstand does a fine job supporting the phone horizontally or vertically. Bad news though: The microUSB port is blocked if you're using the kickstand horizontally. So no charging while you're watching a movie in that position. And worse news: We're seeing a thin coating start to rub off the kickstand, and we're not alone.

HTC ThunderBolt

Underneath the kickstand is the rear speaker, which looks beautifully massive but has the usual so-so quality we've come to know from HTC devices.

The battery cover is on pretty tight. You open it via a notch on the top bezel. A fingernail should do, but make sure it's a strong one. A guitar pick works even better. There are a couple of little holes just above the dual flashes. No, they're not microphones. They're used to attach an antenna contact that's on the inside of the battery cover. And now that the cover's off, it's time to note a pretty cool little design feature. Just below and to the right of the camera lens is the little motor that makes the phone vibrate -- not something you see every day.

HTC ThunderBolt

Pop out the battery and you have access to the microSD card and 4G LTE SIM card.

Battery life/LTE data speeds

So let's talk about that battery. The ThunderBolt comes with a 1400mAh battery. That's pretty much standard in smartphones these days (or close enough, even if it's not enough). And if you're in a standard Verizon 3G area, you'll see fairly normal battery life. Maybe a tad less than what you're used to on a smaller phone, but that's one of the trade-offs for having a 4.3-inch screen.

ThunderBolt speed testBut once that 4G LTE data's a-chuggin', well, you're going to burn right through that battery. That's not to say you're not going to get some pretty fast data speeds in the process -- we've been plenty impressed with LTE -- but that radio sucks right through the battery in just a few hours. Your time will vary depending on just how much you're using it. We're heavy e-mail users and ate right through the stock battery in about 5 hours. But we were loving every LTE-minute of the speed.

The good news is that there already are extended battery options. There's a 1600mAh extended battery that's the same size as the one that comes with the ThunderBolt. Or for some serious juice, there's a 2750mAh option. But it's bigger and requires a new battery cover, and weighs about an ounce more. Trade-offs, again. But if you want to use LTE data and get a day's use out of your phone, you're going to need it.

Note that unlike on the EVO 4G, there's no easy way to turn off 4G data -- no toggle switch, anyway. There are a couple of hacks and even an app or two that'll make it easier. But we're pretty sure the reason Verizon left this out is because of the time it takes the phone to hop from 4G to 3G (and vice-versa). Let's just say it's not quick.

The software

HTC ThunderBolt screens

There's not a lot to be said here that hasn't been said about just about every other recent HTC phone with the Sense user interface. Sense is based on seven home screens, with a number of pre-loaded widgets, application shortcuts and a few settings toggle switches.

HTC ThunderBoltIt's pretty much ready to go out of the box -- you can do all the customizing you want, but the ThunderBolt is plenty useable as-is. And that's made even better by HTC's "Scenes" feature, which gives you six pre-customized sets of home screens. The "Verizon Scene" is on by default. There's also "HTC," "Social," "Work," "Play"  and "Travel." The scenes give you different setups, and you can switch between them in a matter of seconds, and save your own customizations as well.

The ThunderBolt runs Sense version 2.0. The biggest noticeable change from previous versions of Sense is that a number of settings and personalization options are accessed straight from the home screen by pressing the little easel button. From there you can change Scenes, wallpapers, skins, add widgets and icons, change ringtones and sounds or set alarms. HTC's done a good job to keep all of those customizations in one place.

Pre-installed software

Some good news here: Verizon has pre-installed a bunch of applications on the ThunderBolt. And the bad news: Verizon has pre-installed a bunch of applications on the ThunderBolt that you might never, ever use. We're not talking the custom HTC apps like Flashlight, FM Radio and the Peep Twitter client.

Here's a list of other apps that either are pre-loaded, or are stub apps (which require further downloads):

  • Bitbop (mobile TV)
  • Blockbuster
  • City ID
  • Amazon Kindle
  • Let's Golf 2
  • Quickoffice
  • Rhapsody
  • Rock Band
  • Slacker (Internet radio)
  • TuneWiki
  • VCAST Apps
  • VCAST Media
  • VZ Navigator

Some of those are more useful than others. And, no, you can't uninstall the ones you don't want. The good news is you still have about 2.5GB of space on the phone to load new apps.

The ThunderBolt has a smooth vertically scrolling launcher. Flick your finger and it goes from beginning to end. (Newer Sense phones have been tweaked a little.)

Location tracking

HTC ThunderBolt location settings

Given the recent fears over location tracking (which we still believe are unfounded), it should be noted that the ThunderBolt doesn't have location tracking turned on by default. You'll have to enable it during the phone's initial setup if you want to use things like GPS, or Wifi or cell tower location services. (Which at some point you'll undoubtedly need.)

You can turn location services on and off at will by going to Settings>Location. No worries.

The camera(s)

The ThunderBolt, like nearly every phone released now, has not one but two cameras. The main shooter maxes out at 8 megapixels (3264x1952) and will record video at 720p. The front-facing camera does 1.3MP and really will only be used for video chatting, if you're into that sort of thing.

HTC's camera software is pretty good. It takes just a single toggle to switch between still frames and video, and you've got a number of special effects you can apply. Our only real gripe is that the on-screen shutter button (remember that there's no physical camera button on the ThunderBolt) feels a tad small.

Images below open in a new window in full resolution

HTC ThunderBolt test picHTC ThunderBolt test pic

HTC ThunderBolt test picHTC ThunderBolt test pic

HTC ThunderBolt test picHTC ThunderBolt test pic

HTC ThunderBolt test picHTC ThunderBolt test pic

Here's the thing about video on the ThunderBolt -- it works just fine and records at a full 720p. But it has issues with noice-cancellation -- and has had them since launch. A fix is coming. But at the time of this writing, it's yet to be released.


Youtube link for mobile viewing

Hackability

If you've been anywhere near our ThunderBolt forums (all the cool kids are hanging out there), you should know full well by now that the ThunderBolt has been rooted and custom ROMs are available. And we highly suggest checking it out.

Other odds and ends

  • The ThunderBolt is still a phone. And the phone works just fine. There have been reports of echoing in the speakerphone, but we've yet to experience that.
  • Browsing? If you've browsed the web on an Android phone before, you're good to go here.
  • Wireless hotspot: Worked just fine for us. Others have reported periodic disconnects.
  • For the love of all things holy -- please stop including City ID on phones. Let that contract die.

The wrap-up

For being a new phone, the ThunderBolt is a pretty familiar device. And we have the EVO 4G to thank for that. You've got the familiar HTC lines, the familiar HTC Sense user interface, a familiar camera, and so on and so forth.

What sets the ThunderBolt apart from the numerous other Android devices on Verizon is, of course, the inclusion of 4G LTE data, which we're very much in love with. Yeah, it chews through a battery. So did the EVO 4G at first. And until we see a radical shift in battery technology, we're just going to have to live with it. And we expect that as the phone ages, software updates will help mitigate that a little.

At this point, if you're looking to buy a 4G phone on Verizon, it's either the ThunderBolt or the Droid Chage (whenever it actually goes on sale). And after spending some quality time with the ThunderBolt, we can easily say it's a testament to the quality of HTC's manufacturing, Verizon's network, and the Android platform as a whole.

 

Reader comments

HTC ThunderBolt Review

43 Comments

Still gonna wait on this. There are just too many Android phones in the pipeline right now for me to decide on a specific one. I'm all over the LTE data speeds (though my weekly trips to Charlotte are the only time I'll enjoy them for now). And who knows some 3G only phone could be a better fit for my needs. But none the less I can see what all the buzz is about. Nice review. :)

I've loved every minute of owning my Thunderbolt. I was very pleased with it, and then I got in to hacking, and now I'm hopelessly in love. Best phone i've ever owned!

Are you on crack! How can you make the following statement when the phone has only been out a few months: "It isn't very often that a smart phone has the staying power to remain a best seller for an entire year". The jury is still out on the success of this phone!

Nonetheless Phil, thank you for stating clearly one of the reasons why HTC is doubling or tripling it's sales year over year. There are in fact, virtually no phones EVER to enjoy the long term success the EVO has rightly deserved. Only the dang RAZR had that crazy staying power.

Phil is making the obvious comparison between the evo and thunder bolt. Don't be such a douche bag.

Not sure how different each individuals experience might be but I'm getting really tired of people crapping on the evo and wimax. I live in Orlando and get a solid 3-6 down. I don't understand why everyone thinks lte is so much better. The indoor thing I get but still. Your getting barely over 2 down and I get right at 1 on 3g. Usually 5 on wimax. Why do ppl think lte is so much better?

Nice to see pics of SPExperts Elite! :) Nice review. The video was hilarious... it made me laugh! Thanks

Well I can't speak for Orlando but in Harrisburg I've gotten 12.54 Mbps down and 2.21 upload so suck it wimax. And that's Harrisburg pa.

Stop making up reasons to be happy with wimax. Just admit lte is better. Get over it, Lte is the future, wimax isn't. And who cares, its like saying my car has 400 horsepower while your car(same car) has only 300. Be happy with what u got.

Because here in St. Louis I get a solid 12-16 mbps (speeds reaching up to 33 mbps, not the norm though) on LTE. So whoever said 2 mbps down must be in a bad lte market, or a fringe location?

Phil saying Note that unlike on the EVO 4G, there's no easy way to turn off 4G data.. Am wondering what did he mean, I do have an EVO and it`s easy to switch the 4G data on and off just in one step. I believe Phil he is a VZW customer.

Well this is a review of the Thunderbolt, so what he is saying is "...unlike the EVO 4G, there's no easy way to turn off 4G data [on the Thunderbolt]." The Thunderbolt lacks the setting option that allows you to turn the 4G data connection off.

Where did you come up with "barely get 2 down" number? Did you forget the "1" that goes in front of the "2". I average around 16 and I've had entire days where I've been above 25. It takes me less than 5 seconds to download a 5 minute song. Go play with somebody's Thunderbolt, in an area with LTE, and you'll immediately notice the difference. My buddy has an Evo and wanted to see the difference in speeds, so we both downloaded the same song, using the same app, and started at the exact same time, and I was done before he got to 30%.

I'll give you my review. Phone looks great, phone is lightening fast, screen looks damn good! LTE is legit, I won't even argue about that. What I absolutely hate and why I had to go back to my POS blackberry bold. As I was on the phone with the Employee from VZW to transfer back to my BB, I am on employee plan so its a little different, at least I think it is, he said the patch may not come back until mid next month before it rolls out. That is unbelievable for me. I have had the OG Droid, Droid X and now the Thunderbolt and the functionality of this phone is the worst for me. I am in Los Angeles so 4G is widespread here. My phone constantly jumps from 4G to 3G to 1X and back to 4G. Text messages get delayed and fail all the time due to this. Most of the time I have to restart my phone to get my connection solid again. Secondly, when text messaging, I feel like I am on a BB Storm again. I finish typing and its still typing with up to a 2 second delay. If you make a mistake, gotta go back and correct it all and it likes to add random letters into the mix as well. This is my 3rd device and it has been the same on all. I don't have any other programs on my phone besides BofA, Discovercard and Tapatalk. I even ran the phone for two days with nothing except the factory things and it still produced the same problems. Battery life is eh but Im guessing its because its shuffling between 4G, 3G, and 1x all the time that eats it up. I'm also tired of my text messages randomly getting deleted. I had this problem on my OG Droid over TWO YEARS AGO and it still hasn't been fixed, now that's just pathetic. To me, the phone is not worth the 270 bucks that I paid for it after taxes. I am back on my BB because I have to have a phone that works all the time, even if it's slower. My suggestion, wait til the patch comes out for this phone or look for one of the new/upcoming phones with 4G.

Wow! It's unfortunate that your Thunderbolt had those problems, but mine and my friends have both worked flawlessly. Other than the battery (I bought 3 extra batteries and a charger on ebay for $8 in case I ever need them. I keep 1 in my car, 1 at my gf's, and 1 in my backpack.

I absolutely love my thunderbolt, only downside is the battery life. Task killers help but really doesnt do to much when 4G is on all the time. I recently downloaded Juice Defender and it seems to be working wonders on my battery life.

I think it would be pretty great though if android central would do an article on the absolute best way to get life out of your battery .. best apps, how to configure them, what syncs should be on and off and all that stuff. I mean come on my BB tour lasted 2-3 days.

everything i read in the forums says task killer does not improve battery life but kills your battery faster

I love my Thunderbolt. This review was insightful and entertaining. Phil, your kids are adorable.

My unprofessional review focusing on battery life:

I live in NYC (where 4GLTE is live for Verizon). I have to say I am quite pleased with the network performance and the battery life. I have a fully charged battery by the time I get into work. So my phone charges over night, when I get up in the morning, I turn off my phone and charge it till green as I shower and get dressed. By the time I leave, it's charged so I boot it up and charge it again while it's on in my car. The phone is unplugged at 6AM.

Throughout my day, I have three email accounts that are 'push' (2 Gmail accounts and 1 exchange account) that I constantly read mail coming in. I Facebook, Twitter (Seesmic), Foursquare, Google Voice, browse the web and make and receive phone calls of course. I would say I am a moderate user of this phone. By the end of the work day (2:30PM), I get in my car to charge my phone for the trip home. As soon as I plug it in, on average it says 55% battery left. As you can see, I am quite pleased with the life.

I'm ashamed at saying this, but I am a smoker. I go down for a cigarette 6-times a day (10 min intervals and no lunch). Every time I am on a smoke break, I am on my phone doing one of the mentioned things above. The only other time I use my phone during work is when a phone call, text message or email is received.

Full disclosure: My phone is always on 4GLTE. My exchange account is setup for push mail between the hours of 5AM to 5PM. My WiFi is turned off, GPS is turned off, screen brightness set to automatic and in the browser, plugins are set to on demand. The phone is rooted with the latest VZW 'OTA leak'. No special kernels or ROMs installed.

The majority of the VZW crap/bloat is removed and AutoKiller Memory is set in the background to the Ultimate Preset. Autostarts is also installed disabling a lot of apps from ever booting up during startup (no system apps (yellow color) are disabled only a majority of downloaded apps (white color).

I am getting a better battery life than my Droid Incredible which had a similar setup. I love my Thunderbolt.

Look I'm a big fan of the Evo 4G and I was pretty envious when Sprint customers got such a cool phone that was 12 steps ahead of the competition. Now a year later, the Thunderbolt comes out for Verizon and I immediately and happily do my early upgrade from my Eris. The Thunderbolt has been great so far.
I'm hearing current owners of the TB say they are having a bunch of problems and the only thing I have noticed is the audio in video capture and the peeling of the kickstand. My battery life is insanely amazing, it lasted me 17 hours (10pm fully charged then stop use around 2am start use around 7am then died around noon) today. On my days off work it last me about 6 to 8 hours but that's because I'm a phone addict which I'm sure most of us here are. I have the WiFi, gps, autosync etc all on except for Bluetooth.
Also, I do have some complaints that HTC and Verizon should have avoided from the start and that is NO GINGERBREAD AS FIRST OS, NO HTCSENSE.COM SUPPORT AND SUPPOSEDLY "NOT ABLE TO SUPPORT SENSE 3.0. These things disappointed me but clearly not deal breakers for me.
Phil, great review on a great phone. Thank you!

I had the TB on launch day and it is a solid phone in terms of build quality but it seems (as it always does) that things are just skimped on by HTC and Verizon. Put lots of memory in it but not a good display, lot of internal storage but it disappeared they claim 8GB and you only get 2.3GB.

The problems I had were the display is just too washed out when outdoors, battery life was horrible and most importantly the BT won't pair with my 2010 Subaru (nice HTC).

I am certainly NOT a Samsung fan, but if the device can perform then its worth checking out. I do share the concern about the materials chosen and the plastic feel was a turn on for me with the Fascinate but so was the crap GPS, BING and so on.

I could be happy with the DX2, or Droid 3 or the Charge. I might just end up getting the ThunderBolt again and ride the storm out.

I am upgrading from a Blackberry Tour so Android will be a completely new experience for me. Like the Verizon's new Samsung Droid Charge (or Stealth or whatever they decide to call it), the Thunderbolt also has alot of apps that I will not need or use. Let's Golf 2? Give me a break! If I want to golf, I go to a golf course! But at least with the Thunderbolt, you have the option of an extended battery.

Many reviews (pardon if I missed it in this one) neglect to mention the extra radios in the Thunderbolt that allow talk and data at the same time in a 3G network area. To my knowledge no other Verizon phone allows this. Since I live in an area not likely to get 4G until next year at the earliest this is the only CDMA phone I found I could use as a hotspot without having my calls go to voicemail. On local jobsites I can talk, surf on the phone, have my notebook downloading utility files, and update my iPad project planning and accounting files. Yes, I have the extended battery and can go all day without charging.

On a recent trip to Houston speedtest.net was throwing 13-19Mb/s down and 3-6 up. Did have to connect the charger at 4:30pm, but worth the performance. We'll see what the coming months bring as far as extra hotspot and data consumption charges go.

My friend has a Thunderbolt and I've had the opportunity to use it for a while. This phone is great!

- Browsing speeds on 4G are incredible!
- Using the phone as a speaker phone is crystal clear. My buddy called me and had the phone on speaker. I had no idea until one of his employees walked in his office and started talking.
- The phone feels good in my hand

Everything about it is good!

E X C E P T ! The battery!

The performance failure of the battery IS destroying phone's ability to be the best phone on Verizon. It's a killer!

This phone, stock (without any mods), with an extended battery, can't even last the whole day with moderate use.

terrible phone!....sure its fast, (thanx to Verizon's network),but the phone took 10 steps backwards....camcorder sound sucks...4g drops all the time....they lied & didn't deliver Skype mobile...does not recognize addresses or phone numbers in Google for one-touch transfers (like the droid X)...& (lmfao) wont play .wav files!!! idiot developers!

Worst smart phone I've ever had. I bought into the hype over the thunderbolt. I've been into the Verizon store multiple times for several fixes. The phone started rebooting every once in a while and now it reboots continuously. I took it to Verizon and they said "sorry - its the operating system". So I paid $300 for a nice brick -- thanks Verizon and HTC your products suck. There is supposedly a "fix" coming in two weeks - but in the mean time I'm without a phone. Also, the battery life on this phone makes it basically unusable. If I text and check email every so often the battery maybe lasts 3 hours at most. Do yourself a favor and don't buy the thunderbolt. And after waiting to switch to Verizon after all these years my experience has been nothing less than sorry that I switched from AT&T. What kind of answer is "its the software?" They sold me a phone that doesn't work!

DO NOT GET THIS PHONE! Terrible phone! I havent even had it for a whole year yet and i have already had 6 differnt replacements for it. My messages never send,i can never use my internet and it never connects to my wifi at home. Please please please save your money and do not get this phone. Its terrible i wish i never bought it!