Smartphones

HTC Thunderbolt: Early favorite for best smartphone of 2011

The HTC Thunderbolt was one of the most anticipated products of CES 2011 and it didn't disappoint. See why it's the early favorite for the year's most powerful smartphone.

The hype swirling around the HTC Thunderbolt has been building since last fall when rumors first emerged of an HTC EVO-like Android device that was coming to Verizon. Then, that developed into the expectation of a high-powered HTC device would be featured at CES as one of Verizon's first LTE 4G smartphones. HTC only fueled the hype with its huge billboard at CES (see below) proclaiming, "It's not your dream phone. It's the one after that. Coming 1/6/11."

Ironically, the official announcement of the HTC Thunderbolt came with a whimper, as just one of the 10 LTE 4G devices that Verizon unveiled on Thursday at its big CES 2011 press conference. However, make no mistake, the Thunderbolt is the jewel of the Verizon LTE crown. This is one of those rare products that lives up to the hype.

After the Verizon keynote on Thursday I went to HTC's private meeting room for the sole purpose of getting my hands on the Thunderbolt. Not only did they have a working model available, but HTC told me that it was a final build and it was live on Verizon's LTE network here in Las Vegas. They graciously allowed me to sit down with one for about 25 minutes and put it through its paces, and I was legitimately impressed.

The first thing I liked is that Thunderbolt is very similar in form factor to the HTC EVO 4G, which I ranked as the best Android smartphone of 2010. But, the Thunderbolt's casing doesn't have the plastic outer rim of the EVO. Instead, it has a unified metal body similar to the Google Nexus One (made by HTC) and the HTC Desire. So, the hardware essentially combines what I consider to be the two best-designed Android phones ever -- the EVO and the Nexus One. Well done.

However, by far the most impressive part of the Thunderbolt is when you start loading Web pages. This thing loads pages so quickly that you suddenly realize that we've become accustomed to waiting 5-10 seconds for pages to load on smartphones, because of the latency of 3G connections (even ones with lots of bandwidth). On the desktop, we have a much lower tolerance for page loads since they typically happen in about 1-3 seconds on the average broadband connection using a modern PC. Because Verizon's 4G LTE network hasn't just improved bandwidth but also reduced latency (the time it takes to make a connection), the Thunderbolt loads Web pages at PC-comparable speeds.

I went to TechRepublic and loaded an article with an embedded YouTube video. The page loaded immediately and when I hit play the video started playing within 1-2 seconds and never paused to buffer. Then I successively flipped through 4-5 of the comments to the article (which each loaded a new page). There was no delay or hiccup and each of the new pages loaded within 1-3 seconds. At that point, I had to close my mouth

Because Android now supports Flash (which itself is still terrible overall, but that's another article), I went to www.speedtest.net on the Thunderbolt's Web browser and ran a test. Here's what it looked like:

As you can see, I got 18 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. That's pretty impressive. Of course, you may say that the network is new and empty, but actually Verizon is doing a ton of demos on LTE here at CES and a lot of the attendees here are early adopters who have the first Verizon LTE modems for their laptops, so I wasn't the only one on the network.

But, the thing you may not have noticed was the Ping (latency) time of 62ms (that's milliseconds). That's a major reason why Verizon's LTE network has given the Thunderbolt such a big speed boost. Smartphones on 3G networks almost never get under 100ms and most of the time they are at 300-500ms, even on good connections with lots of bandwidth. In fact, many smartphones on strong Wi-Fi connections don't even get under 100ms. The best phones on the best connections will get 50-100ms, but more often than not smartphones on Wi-Fi tend to get 100-200ms. The LTE latency times are pushing down toward wired Internet latency rates (typically about 10-40ms). That makes it easy to see why the Thunderbolt feels so responsive when connecting to the Internet.

Of course, the other part of the speed bump is due to the fact that the phone hardware is getting faster as well. While the Thunderbolt does not feature the most popular new mobile speed demon -- the dual core NVIDIA Tegra2 -- it is powered by an upgraded version of the 1 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon (the MSM8655). I was disappointed when first I heard that Thunderbolt didn't have the dual core Tegra2, but I didn't sense a bit of lag in this phone. It was faster than the existing 1GHz Snapdragon devices and at least as fast as the Tegra2 devices that I've been able to try here at CES. Of course, the dual core Tegra2 devices could turn out to be stronger at multitasking and multimedia.

The best thing I can say about the HTC Thunderbolt is that when my time was up, I didn't want to give it back. I would have loved to taken this thing with me and kept using it. Alas, although I was told that I was using a final build of the device, no timeframe has been announced for its release other than "first quarter" (and no pricing yet either).

I have no hesitation in calling the HTC Thunderbolt the best of all the new smartphones announced at CES 2011. I think the Motorola Atrix, which can also serve as a PC replacement, is the most important new product at CES, but I think the Thunderbolt (with a big assist from Verizon LTE) is likely to be the most powerful and useful smartphone on the planet when it's officially released in the months ahead.

For more on the HTC Thunderbolt, check out the photo gallery below and then a quick video clip I shot of the Thunderbolt running its own demo video.

Also see

About

Jason Hiner is the Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He is an award-winning journalist who writes about the people, products, and ideas that are revolutionizing the ways we live and work in the 21st century.

24 comments
rAllcorn
rAllcorn

The HTC Thunderbolt was out in early 2011 ... There were lightening and fireworks on the roof of a building, indicating that this phone was leading edge technology! What you didn't see backstage was the "short" that takes place when you try and USE some of these wonderful features!! (1) front facing camera - you cannot use it in most apps because the newer release supporting this has not yet been released! Now, keep in mind that this is now OCTOBER!! What? Yah, and "STILL NO UPDATED OS"!!! (2) 4G with Verizon - It only came available in Austin Texas in September, and that's not all over the city yet. You will NOT be able to get 4G in many places for a few years yet! (3) When it comes time to view movies on your Thunderbolt, or Podcasts, or maybe read an eBook, you've got to be another Indiana Jones and start a "quest" in order to FIND SOMETHING that will work! And then there comes the sync'ing up and ... well, you get my drift. The HTC Thunderbolt, almost as fast as it was possibly an "early favorite for 2011", has fallen from grace! Why? The OS update has never happened! The "Ice Cream" truck is lost somewhere!! Make way for the Droid Bionic ... it has taken the Thunderbolt's place. It didn't have to be that way, but somebody put the product out "BEFORE" it was ready for the customers ... Me? I left an iPhone and an unlimited data plan to go to this phone. Do I feel like I got screwed? YOU BET!! Did I mention that my headphones don't work on it either? I can hear music, but no mic, or volume controls, etc. They work find on the Droid Bionic!! C'mon guys ... was this a "pre-meditated" product, or did you just stumble on it and throw it out there!!

alofters
alofters

how does this phone compare to the iphone for verizon?

a_brugs
a_brugs

Where is it already?!

glen
glen

Now the big question is: How does it work as a telephone??

daniel.breston
daniel.breston

so what if you are in the EU where 4g is not the norm, would it still be a good phone?

youzer
youzer

Are you certain that wasn't a wifi connection? I thought LTE average download was 5-12 Mb/s.

jpk
jpk

On January 7th you're making the call for best smartphone of 2011? Hype much?

appuhdc
appuhdc

I personally have not tried one. But the photos and videos are looking impressive. However, they are just photos and videos. At a quick glance, this smartphone must be pretty and smart.

michealroy
michealroy

i really thanks to you for sharing you views with us. doctoral Degree | diploma Program

hans-goran.puke
hans-goran.puke

Telia Sonera in Sweden (EU) was the world's first 4G (LTE) operator. They launched their service in December 2009 already. Now we have three 4G operators here, with Tele2 and Telenor catching up on Telia. In many places you will get 40-50 Mb/s downstream and I have seen latency figures as low as 10 ms in real life. So Verizon - come on! You can do better than this!

ralphclark
ralphclark

That's what I want to know too. What will it be like on T-Mobile UK & Orange.

michealroy
michealroy

That great to making the call for best smartphone. i really appropriate to this one. Online Education | online degrees | MBA Degree

kburrows
kburrows

Droid has 2 main flaws that keep me from buying. They do not have smart dial, which means it dials everything in the phone number field (unless you want to a pause to every contact and hope there isn't an intermediate step in the queue like "press 1 to dial an extension"). The second is not showing unread messages in emails folders when you use rules. I know there are apps that fix that, but they don't use the default mail program and you lose other functionality. Seems like manufacturers have lost focus of what smartphones were made to do: email and make phone calls. Until Google gets these issues fixed, I refuse to have to apply "workarounds" to make the phone work. I shouldn't have to change my life to adjust for a phone, I should be able to adjust it to me.

cbader
cbader

Cant wait to ditch my Blackberry Storm for one of these.

stuigi
stuigi

In the video that you showed in your article it said Data and voice at the same time. I thought that was an issue with CDMA phones. You cannot have both. What has changed?

Justin James
Justin James

... is still Android. I wonder how fast it will be after three months of ownership when the bit rot sets in, or one of the apps sits in the background guzzling CPU, RAM, and network like no one's business. And yeah, you're going to love that LTE network with it's bandwidth caps, when an app sits in the background, unbeknownst to you, chewing up your cap. Sorry, but the multitasking on Android is its #1 problem, and until Google wakes up and dumps it, Android phones will be subject to needing periodic reboots to clear errors and app uninstalls to sort out battery and speed issues. J.Ja

adornoe
adornoe

I thought the article would talk about the features of the HTC Thunderbolt but, most of the article dealt with how great it was because of the speed of 4G from Verizon. I suppose that if any other phone were to run using 4G it could also be classified as a speed demon and a great phone because of the speed. I'm still left wondering what makes the HTC Thunderbolt the best, because, the speed of the network is not part of the phone's features, although the phone has to be able to support 4G, but then, all new phones that come out this year will support 4g.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

Data now goes over LTE and voice goes over CDMA. In the future, voice will eventually switch to VoIP over LTE, when VoIP and LTE evolve and CDMA goes away.

cbader
cbader

...Is not CDMA. LTE apparently can support it.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

Android reminds me of Windows in respect to bit rot. It's a serious issue and leads to resource problems and eventually performance issues. It needs to be dealt with by Google. Android 2.3 took a few baby steps but needs to go farther.

adamina
adamina

I definitely not a CDMA. But the LTE Apparently can support it. not sure. Belford University

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