Introduced at CES 2011, the HTC ThunderBolt is Verizon's first 4G LTE, and it's finally available for $249.99 with a two-year contract. The Android 2.2 smartphone might not offer the latest and greatest (e.g., dual-core processor), but with the carrier promising average download speeds of 5Mbps to 12Mbps and upload speeds of 2Mbps to 5Mbps, it's no surprise why many are clamoring to get their hands on this device. This includes us, which is why we were so excited to take the HTC ThunderBolt out for a test-drive. The lightning-fast smartphone delivers on many fronts, but it also comes at a cost.
The HTC ThunderBolt is cut from the same cloth as the HTC Evo 4G and the HTC Desire HD, so if you've ever handled those devices, then you have a fairly good idea of what to expect from the ThunderBolt.
At 4.75 inches tall by 2.44 inches wide by 0.56 inch thick and 6.23 ounces, the ThunderBolt isn't for those who prefer dainty devices. The smartphone is large and actually slightly thicker and heavier than the Evo, but it's manageable and the tapered back and soft-touch finish make it comfortable to hold in the hand. As we've come to expect from HTC, the phone is solidly built and has a nice, premium feel to it.
On front, you've got the same 4.3-inch WVGA (800x480 pixels) touch screen as the Evo. There are higher-resolution displays out there, like those on the Motorola Atrix 4G or iPhone 4, but the ThunderBolt's screen still holds up, with clear and bright picture quality. Text was easy to read, and Web pages and video looked lovely on the large screen.
The touch screen is also responsive. Apps launched as we tapped them, and we were able to smoothly navigate through the home screens and menus. The display also features a proximity sensor and built-in accelerometer, which was quick to change screen orientation when we rotated the phone.
The front-facing camera sits right above the screen on the right; below the display are the home, menu, back, and search navigation buttons. Meanwhile, the 8-megapixel camera and flash are located on back, but we really wish there was a dedicated camera button on the phone. Instead, you'll have to use the touch screen to snap photos.
On the bright side, the ThunderBolt has a sturdy kickstand so you can prop the phone on a desk to watch videos, conduct speakerphone calls, and the like. There's a Micro-USB port on the left side, and a volume rocker occupies the right side. Finally, on top of the device, you'll find a power/lock button and 3.5mm headphone jack.
The HTC ThunderBolt comes packaged with an AC adapter, a USB cable, a preinstalled 32GB microSD card, and reference material.
4G features and performance
Before we get to the phone's more-basic features, we thought we'd address the HTC ThunderBolt's whole raison d'etre, and that's 4G support. As mentioned earlier, the ThunderBolt is the first smartphone to work on Verizon's LTE 4G network, which promises average download speeds of 5Mbps to 12Mbps and upload speeds of 2Mbps to 5Mbps.
Given the impressive results we got using Verizon's LG VL600 LTE USB modem, you'd think we'd be a little more prepared for what we experienced on the ThunderBolt, but we were still blown away by what we saw. It's fast. Real fast.
Running Ookla's Speedtest.net app on the handset yielded some erratic and suspicious results (upload speeds were registering up to 39.79Mbps), so we also measured speeds using the phone as a mobile hot spot and as a tethered modem. With the ThunderBolt connected to our MacBook Pro as a mobile hot spot here in New York, we were able to get average download speeds of 7.41Mbps and upload speeds of 6.56Mbps.
By comparison, the HTC Evo 4G from Sprint averaged 3.42Mbps down and 0.93Mpbs up; the Samsung Galaxy S 4G on T-Mobile averaged 4.17Mbps down and 1.68Mbps up; and the HTC Inspire 4G on AT&T averaged 1.75Mbps down and 0.31Mbps up.
We got even better results when we had the ThunderBolt tethered to our Lenovo T61 ThinkPad. We averaged download speeds of 15.58Mbps and upload speeds of 3.44Mbps. (See example speed test below.)
All these numbers translate into great real-world usage. Over a mobile hot-spot connection, we were able to download a 5.1MB MP3 file in 20 seconds and upload a 16.4MB photo album in just 47 seconds. On the ThunderBolt itself, the mobile sites for CNN and ESPN loaded in 3.6 seconds and 4 seconds, respectively, and CNET's full site came up in 12 seconds--one of the fastest times we've seen from a smartphone. Apps downloaded and installed almost instantaneously, and YouTube videos loaded within a couple of seconds and played back without interruption. We were also able to easily stream media from such services as TuneWiki and Bitbop.
Currently, Verizon's 4G network covers 39 markets and more than 60 major airports, and the carrier says it plans to blanket the county with LTE service over the next year and continue to roll out coverage over the next three years, with the hopes of 285 million customers by the end 2013.