The HTC Thunderbolt lacks the dual-core power found in recent phones, but makes up for it with blazing fast Internet speeds on Verizon’s LTE network, mostly great build quality, outstanding call clarity, and a smoother version of Google Android thanks to HTC Sense. As long as you’re not looking for cutting edge performance and you don’t mind carrying a spare battery, the Thunderbolt will serve you well. It’s a great phone with a few minor flaws and one major one. Cue the D-Generation X music as I “break it down!!!”
Build Quality — In many ways, the Thunderbolt looks like the HTC Evo 4G or any number of high-end phones HTC has released in the last year. The front of the phone is mostly glass, with a nice metal border and very little bezel. The back of the phone is around 80 percent plastic (with a nice rubberized coating) and 20 percent metal.
I loved the phone’s heft and found it to be comfortable. However, I can understand that some people will find the Thunderbolt too heavy and too large for one-hand operation. As I illustrated in this video, this is definitely not a small phone, but most people should find its size easily manageable.
The one issue I had with the build quality is the way the back cover comes off. Even after a month with the phone, it takes me several seconds to remove the cover and it always feels like it’s going to break. For users that keep a battery or two on deck — and I can’t recommend this phone without a spare battery — this is annoying.
Also, kickstands on phones completely rule.
Screen — The Thunderbolt sports a 4.3-inch LCD screen with a resolution of 400 x 800. Although it’s the same size and resolution as the Evo’s screen, I found it to be much brighter with better viewing angles. Having a large screen is great for usability and watching videos, but I wish the Thunderbolt packed a higher resolution for better readability. For general use, the Thunderbolt’s screen will be eclipsed by the HTC Sensation’s qHD display. For readability, the iPhone 4 is still the best phone for reading text.
User Interface — Some people love Android skins and some people hate them. I generally dislike them…except for HTC Sense. I believe it’s the only Android skin that adds usability and smoothness to the Android experience.
The Thunderbolt offers the same usability enhancements found in other Sense 2.0 phones, with a few Sense 3.0 features thrown in. The interface is smoother and snappier than vanilla Android. The web browser is smoother than the stock browser. Sense features that were new to me include pocket mode (the phone rings louder when in a pocket or purse), flip for speaker phone, and quiet ring on pickup (ring tone gets softer as you bring your phone to your head). They’re just clever features that are examples of why HTC is ahead of everyone else when it comes to Android customizations.
While I’ve been hearing nice things about TouchWhiz 4.0 on the Samsung Galaxy S II, that phone is not yet available on an American carrier. For now I believe that HTC Sense is the only Android skin worth having.
Call Quality — Call quality was outstanding on the Thunderbolt. For phone calls, it was easily the best phone I’ve used since the Droid X. The ear piece produces clear sound and the speaker is very loud. Voice transmission is aided by a second microphone for noise cancellation. The people I called said that I sounded much more natural on the Thunderbolt than on the iPhone 4. Making a few test calls from a farmer’s market, the Thunderbolt blocked out more noise than the iPhone 4.
LTE Speeds — The big hook on the Thunderbolt is its LTE speeds. As I pointed out in this 4G shootout article, Verizon LTE slaughters the competition in 4G. The data rates are wonderful for web browsing, tethering, streaming, etc. After getting used to Verizon LTE, it was tough using a phone on T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network, which is fast but not nearly as zippy as LTE.
Camera — While I was satisfied with the cameras on HTC’s Evo 4G and T-Mobile G2, neither were as good as the eight-megapixel camera on the Thunderbolt. The camera on this phone is fast, focuses quickly, and takes great stills. The dual-LED flash can be too strong for indoor close-ups, but with proper distance can light up a space nicely. Video quality was also very good, producing nice 720p video (for a phone). The phone’s camera can produce great images, but falls short of the outstanding shooters on the iPhone 4 and Nokia N8.
The 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera can be used to snap vanity shots and for video chat. Unfortunately, all the video chat software on Android produced poor quality or wasn’t (yet) compatible with the Thunderbolt. A video-enabled version of Skype will be released for the Thunderbolt soon.
Battery Life — I knew this phone would be a battery hog. It has a large screen, a fast processor, a CDMA radio, a WiFi radio, and an LTE radio. The good news is that the phone’s power management is aggressive and the battery can last a long time as long as you’re not using LTE much. The bad news is that this phone is all about LTE and using the super-fast network requires a lot of battery.
Following my normal usage patterns, I averaged 8.5 hours on a charge. That’s the worst battery life of any Android phone I’ve ever used. There were a few times where I was using the phone constantly and downloading a lot of programs; in those cases, the battery lasted a little over four hours.
As wonderful as the Thunderbolt is, I can’t recommend it unless you’re always by an outlet or willing to invest in extra batteries. For road warriors or situations like trade shows, extra batteries are necessary.
Conclusion — Aside from the battery life, I was super impressed by the Thunderbolt. It offers a smooth Android experience and the best wireless speeds in America. While the $249 price seems high, keep in mind that the Thunderbolt comes with a 32MB MicroSD card on top of the 8GB of internal storage. If you’re down with picking up an extra battery or two and don’t need dual-core performance, the HTC Thunderbolt will take care of you nicely. It’s not perfect, but the ungodly LTE speeds will help you forget about the phone’s shortcomings.