4G

HTC ThunderBolt review: The new smartphone king of 2011

The HTC ThunderBolt is Verizon's first smartphone to run on its 4G LTE network. The speed of the ThunderBolt is so fast it's almost ridiculous, but it does come at a price.

The HTC ThunderBolt delivers big, in nearly every sense of the word. It lives up to its sky high expectations (see huge banner below from CES 2011). And it's physically really big and heavy. It's big in hype, big in performance, and big in form factor -- and it has one big caveat.

The ThunderBolt is Verizon's first 4G LTE phone. And, while AT&T and T-Mobile are abusing the term 4G and causing it to lose its meaning, Verizon's LTE is a legitimate next generation experience with uber-fast download/upload speeds and lower latency connections that provide better responsiveness. For the ThunderBolt, all of that connectivity goodness is paired with a phone that has screeching fast hardware to keep up with the wireless speed boost.

That said, while the ThunderBolt gives us a peek at the future, it's also a 1.0 device that has a couple imperfections, which potential buyers need to be aware of before jumping on board.

Photo gallery

HTC ThunderBolt photos: The Ferrari of smartphones

Specifications

  • Carrier: Verizon Wireless
  • OS: Android 2.2 (Froyo) with HTC Sense UI
  • Processor: 1 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon (QSD8255), Adreno 205 GPU, and MDM9600 chipset for 3G/4G
  • RAM: 768MB
  • Storage: 8GB internal, 32GB microSD (pre-installed)
  • Display: 4.3-inch WVGA with 480x800 resolution
  • Battery: Lithium-ion with 1400 mAh capacity
  • Ports: microUSB 2.0, 3.5mm audio jack, SIM slot
  • Weight: 6.23 ounces
  • Dimensions: 4.75 x 2.44 x 0.56 inches
  • Camera: 8MP with auto-focus, dual LED flash, HD video capture, 1.3MP front-facing camera
  • Sensors: Accelerometer, A-GPS, digital compass, proximity sensor, ambient light sensor
  • Keyboard: Virtual QWERTY
  • Networks: CDMA 800/1900Mhz (2G); CDMA2000 EV-DO (3G); 700Mhz LTE (4G)
  • Wireless: Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n; Bluetooth 2.1 with EDR
  • Tethering: USB + mobile Wi-Fi hotspot
  • Price: $249 (with 2-year contract)

Who is it for?

This is a phone for someone who needs all the performance they can get out of a mobile device. I have tested a lot of smartphones -- iPhone, BlackBerry, Android, Windows Phone 7, Palm, and more -- and this is the fastest one I have ever seen. It loads apps, Web pages, videos, and documents at near-desktop speeds. Obviously, the +10Mbps speeds (bursting to up to +30Mbps) of Verizon's LTE network helps a lot, but this device is still really fast on 3G and Wi-Fi. For the road warrior who does a lot of work on the smartphone and needs a workhorse device, a widespread mobile network, and a future-proof phone that will still be relevant in two years, the ThunderBolt fits the bill.

What problems does it solve?

The HTC ThunderBolt is arguably the world's first smartphone to experience true 4G speeds over 30Mbps with hardware than can keep up the pace. Sure, there have been Samsung phones running on WiMAX in South Korea, for example, but those don't have the latency improvements that Verizon has made with LTE and the devices themselves haven't had the kind of horsepower that you get in the ThunderBolt, with its upgraded 1GHz Snapdragon, Adreno 205 GPU, and MDM9600 chip for LTE. With its 4G LTE phones, Verizon has also solved the issue of simultaneous voice and data. In the past, you couldn't make a call and browse a Web page at the same time because of the limitations of Verizon's CDMA network. With 4G, Verizon is sending voice over CDMA and using LTE for data.

Standout features

  • Performance sets a high bar - As I've already mentioned, the ThunderBolt is really fast. The combination of the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon processor (single core), a dedicated GPU (Adreno 205), LTE chip (MDM9600), 768MB of RAM, and 8GB of integrated eMMC storage gives the ThunderBolt a lot of horsepower under the hood.
  • Top-of-the-line hardware profile - In addition of the high-end chips, the ThunderBolt also sports a bight, crisp WVGA display, an 8MP camera on the back, a 1.3MP camera on the front, a 32GB SD card (included), a 1400 mAh battery, and all the latest digital sensors. The camera in the ThunderBolt is a nice improvement over last year's HTC EVO. Here's an example of a photo I took using the ThunderBolt's camera.
  • Industrial-strength form factor - As I wrote in my review of the HTC Inspire (which has a nearly identical form factor to the ThunderBolt), this hardware design is appealing with its unibody aluminum frame. It combines the unibody frame of the Google Nexus One and the HTC Desire with the square body of the HTC EVO (which has a shiny plastic bezel). The result is a sturdy, attractive metal body. The battery cover on the back of the ThunderBolt is plastic but has a steely finish that successfully masquerades as metal. The phone is large and a little heavy, but it's one of the best hardware designs on the market.
  • HTC Sense UI adds value - I don't like any of the software skins that the hardware vendors layer on top of Android, with the notable exception of HTC's Sense UI. All of the other Android skins subtract from the Android experience, in my opinion, and would be better off just running the stock OS. HTC is the only vendor that improves on Android with attractive UI elements as well as useful widgets and services.

What's wrong?

  • 4G battery life - If you look at my 4G speedtests with the ThunderBolt, you'll see that it was easily topping 10Mbps downloads and uploads on Verizon LTE. I was regularly seeing bursts of speed that were faster than what I have on my cable modem at home. However, all of that crazy speed comes at a price. Almost immediately after the ThunderBolt was released, reports started surfacing that it only gets about 4 hours of battery life on 4G. After spending a week testing the ThunderBolt on LTE in Orlando (while attending CTIA Wireless), I can confirm that 4G drains the battery in about half the day. On 4G, you have to smartly manage battery power, use the extended battery or a add-on battery pack, or charge the phone at mid-day in order to make it through a full work day with the ThunderBolt. You can turn off 4G so that you can get through a whole day -- I made it through a whole day of normal use on a mix of 3G and Wi-Fi and still had 70% of the battery left. However, turning off 4G on the world's first LTE phone is disappointing. The ThunderBolt is still staggeringly fast on 3G and Wi-Fi, but 4G is its killer feature -- especially when using it as a mobile hotspot -- but if you're going to use it for an extended period of time then you'll need to plug it in. To squeeze out more battery life, check out my companion article, Five battery tips for HTC Thunderbolt.
  • No dual core - As powerful as the ThunderBolt is and as much as it is packed with top-of-the-line hardware, the one area where it comes up a little short in hardware is its single-core Qualcomm processor. All of the other high-end Android smartphones in this category are going to be running dual core processors in 2011 -- usually the NVIDIA Tegra 2. However, HTC has a tight partnership with Qualcomm, which hasn't come to market with its dual core solution yet. The ThunderBolt doesn't appear to suffer from any speed lapses because of this, but dual core can improve battery life and multitasking.

Bottom line for business

At CES 2011, I wrote that the HTC ThunderBolt was the early favorite for the best smartphone of 2011. After testing it for two weeks -- including some extended time on 4G -- I'm ready to officially put the ThunderBolt at the top of my current Android leaderboard. And, with iPhone 5 probably delayed until Fall and other LTE phones on hold until this summer, the ThunderBolt is likely to remain on top for a while.

Despite its 4G battery problems, this phone is a powerhouse. It sets a new standard for how fast we can really go on a smartphone and provides a peek at what the future will look like for nearly all smartphones once the next generation of mobile broadband is fully deployed and the devices are optimized for it. In the short term, this is still a lightening fast device on 3G and Wi-Fi, with the ability for seismic 4G bursts when needed. Plus, it has a great hardware design and HTC's excellent software enhancements for Android.

Competitive products

Where to get more info

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.

72 comments
rAllcorn
rAllcorn

In your review of the HTC Thunderbolt, take it from someone who spent the time researching it and eventually bought it, only to find out that many of the "features" it is supposed to have, DO NOT WORK!! NO FULLY FUNCTIONAL FRONT-LOOKING CAMERA: j The HTC Thunderbolt ALSO does not have a fully functional front-looking camera, even though they advertise it as having one! It is still waiting for the now WAY OVERDUE release of the "Ice Cream" truck (new OS). And every time a new release of the OS is released, there is a disclaimer at the bottom, with a list of the few phones that it will NOT work with. HTC Thunderbolt is always in that listing!! BAD HEADPHONES JACK: The headphones jack doesn't work properly. I've tried it with several phones - NUTHIN! Oh, you can hear music, but if someone calls while you're enjoying your tunes, you have to unplug the headphones and talk on the phone normally, without the benefit of the built-in mic on your headphones, 'cause the HTC Thunderbolt will not recognize it! It also will not recognize the volume adjustments on the headphones! Funny thing is (though I'm not laughing about it) they work just fine on the DROID BIONIC! So, HTC Thunderbolts headphones jack is just plain "not working"! I'd list more problems, such as extremely poor battery life, but I'm getting angry just typing this, as I'm now "STUCK" with my new piece of junk for the next 2 years!!

formule1
formule1

Ce t??l??phone est vraiment le meilleur ! Thank for the video achat guitare

dapengfei
dapengfei

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'techy'
'techy'

Sorry Jason, I think you spoke too soon. Verison has LTE, Sprint has everything else. The HTC EVO 3D is going to blow the thunderbolt out of the water.

The Management consultant
The Management consultant

Great the evo looks good..... but what about the new HTC sensational the ultimate smart phone?

RechTepublic
RechTepublic

It better be fast if you have to lug that brick around.

The Management consultant
The Management consultant

The Desire HD S is out in Europe which The Thunderbolt is.This sports updated Gingerbread and HTC sense.The size really put me off.However if you put a gel case on the desire its the same size as the Thunderbolt.So this is just a perception not real. Is it ready for business? Almost there with apps now available for exchange server at last.Expect this phone to be future proofed with all the lasted technology and likely updates to Gingerbread soon.Gingerbread is said to be much better in the battery stakes.I am worried that all the video conferencing smart phones are going to drain the battery life a great deal.I would love to see video conferencing for this phone via my TV at home,this sounds impressive!

sauerbach
sauerbach

My ideal, which seems so obvious yet is lacking is for the largest size screen that will fit in a pocket. Also, physical keyboard like Droid2. Also, front facing (as well as back) video for video calls/conferencing.

Vulpinemac
Vulpinemac

It does sound like the Thunderbolt is a good device--after you tweak the settings and/or root it. Personally, I have to consider this a drawback as well since the average consumer won't have any knowledge or understanding of how to do that up front. I remember how many people argued that they wanted a phone that gave them three to five days of usable battery life and that a certain consumer smart phone couldn't offer even one full day's worth of battery under heavy use. They were proven wrong, but the argument ran for over a year, especially after a 3G network model was released. Now it seems that these same people are trying to say a half-day's battery is fine, as long as you use an 'extender' or carry spare batteries; if you ask me, that's hypocritical. I won't argue that the Thunderbolt has superior capabilities in the short term, but will it survive the long term? Here's the point: The average consumer does not know what we do about going 'under the hood' of their electronics. They simply want it to work right out of the box. What I expect to hear a lot of very soon is these same consumers complaining about the short battery life and that HTC or Verizon is going to have to cripple or 'hog-tie' a lot of the phone's capabilities to get the kind of battery life those consumers want. It's nice to be cutting-edge, but if it comes with a step backwards in some standard performance factor, there will be complaints.

ITOdeed
ITOdeed

with a one gallon capacity gas tank. Hopefully, battery life will be improved so that 4g speeds can be used all day.

boothby
boothby

Does it sync wirelessly with my laptop yet? Does it allow me full comments in my Outlook Contacts (or does it still truncate to 256 characters)? Does it sync Outlook tasks? Outlook Notes? Or do I STILL have to wander around the marketplace, looking for a halfway-there third party solution? Oh, and does it still force V-Cast to fire up in a web browser every time I attach it to my laptop with a USB cable (unless I disable disk features)?

rsbhatia16
rsbhatia16

With most of the corporate wi-fi networks with proxy servers, for the HTC Androids to become full fledged business ready devices, the wifi proxy settings needs to be made visible. So far, I have not been to find a way to do it w/o rooting the device (suggestions are welcome!).

wahupa
wahupa

I posted this in the battery tips blog. I think it should go here instead: I like the phone except for two things. The battery life is too short. I don't currently have 4G in my area and with 3G my battery lasted less than 12 hr although I basically did not use the internet and only had a couple of short phone calls. The battery went completely dead and after it charged a little, I had to reset things like Bluetooth that I would have expected to be in nonvolatile memory. Also, since you need to plug it in to do anything heavy, setting the phone up with the included stand puts the plug on the bottom which is awkward. Looks like HTC didn't have many design reviews or "common sense" reviews before going into production.

nepper
nepper

I look forward to your smartphone articles every time - you need to write more! :) My three year contract on my HTC Touch (w6.1), is coming up, and I have its replacement narrowed down to the Atrix first, then the Incredible S, then the Nexus S. Unfortunately, I don't think there is a carrier in my geography that will be offering the Atrix, so that then moves to the Incredible S in my list. I don't see that in your competitors list? Have i missed something? (I can't get the Thunderbolt either). And I don't have the cash to buy one outright. Front facing camera requirement knocks a lot of the HTC out of the running.

Ckilgore
Ckilgore

I've had the Thunderbolt since it came out. It's a great phone in every aspect but one. The battery life is poor. Even with the extended battery it is still not that good. I still have to charge the it to make it through a normal work day. If you depend on your phone for work this may be a big issue.

Hazydave
Hazydave

Believe it or not, LTE will eventuall lead to longer battery life. In a first generation product, its typical that thee cellular modem, a new design(and probably using a significant software component on the baseband processor) takes too much power. But in a few chip generations, this will be as low power as anything else. The thing you can't optimize out is the actual radio protocol. The most power hungry thing on a phone is usually the radio upink... the output power can be 1/2 watt or more. But they way the modern OFDM radios work, peak power. Can actually crest to 4W or more... and the phone's amplifier has be built to handle that, making it very inefficient. LTE solves this with a new modulation that avoids those high peaks. So unlike WiMax, the power consumption of LTE will be lower than 3G in 2-3 years.

Nsaf
Nsaf

Could not find an option in any settings to do that?????

gcoates
gcoates

Jason, what are some of the other 4G phones that we can look forward to on Verizon's network. I heard that Motorola has a new phone that is coming out soon on Verizon's network but I cannot find anything online about the phone

mvecchi
mvecchi

HTC has always been my first selection for mobile devices and they have never let me down. The ThunderBolt even without the dual core would be a very capable device but... yes but... it should have a dual core and because it does not, I'll wait.

colin
colin

Useless article for me because the one info I sought weight is given in that USA only measure ounces, so I have no idea if the phone is heavier or lighter than my Nexus S 97% of the world population live somewhere outside the USA called "the world" and nearly allof them use the the International Standard for Weights and Measures metres and grams. Also for your info, your article is in the "internet" and it may surprise you to know the wild majority of it's users live beyond that water at your beach. None of them measure in ounces. Microsoft, Google, Apple etc. all sell the most of their product internationalised to the languages and standards of that "world" place because they needed to be relevant beyond their street corner. Your article and you yourself face the same decision . How relevant do you want to be. At the moment your score is 3% i..e the population of USA fraction of the "world" (whatever that thing is ??)

ctsrajan
ctsrajan

This year will be a series of skirmishes between different manufacturers to produce the best device. I think the specs look quite decent.

Andy
Andy

Sprint has had this for a while

erik.martens
erik.martens

Wouldn't the addition of a dual core cpu make the battery life worse?

richard.stroud
richard.stroud

I'll never leave my unlimited AT&T data plan for that Evil Empire Verizon which nickel and dime charges for everything like downloading and stupid stuff like ringtones. Verizon = ripoff and the Most restrictions.

jongram
jongram

I have and really like my HTC Touch, I have all the accessories I need, xtra batts, desktop cradle, on Sprint unlimited. The only thing that would get me away from HTC is an iPhone. I like the Inspire, but not to happy with ATT's 4G/3G and all the extra charges, wife has I-Phone. Verizon would require a new contract more expensive than Sprint, and Sprint will soon get the HTC EVO 3D. Who can make a decision? - AAARRRGGGHHHH :-) JUMP or keep waiting.

batonrouge
batonrouge

My way of thinking is 100% what you wrote here...the good and bad (battery life). I've owned the EVO since it's release date, and I'm finally dropping Sprint for Vzw (because of Sprint's network, not the hardware). What I did learn here were the specific improvements from EVO to Tb besides the RAM, speaker & kickstand size. Although I activated w/Vzw today, I'm waiting for the Droid Bionic's release to enter in contract and it's mostly about battery-life. Whether it's through conservation or mere battery size (1930mah), I believe a true mobile phone should be tethered to a wall as littls as possible. It's the one thing Motorola clearly understands better than HTC. I will make a final decision when I can hold both in my hand, but I already have a good idea which it will be. Thanks again for the best Thunderbolt review I've seen so far.

rsmastersjr
rsmastersjr

Okay, Jason. I just ordered that bad boy based on your article. You're as good a source as anybody to base a purchase decision. My wife will go insane because she is prone to jealousy--Any suggestions there?

gatorgal615
gatorgal615

I've downloaded free apps that have DOUBLED my battery life - I can now go a whole day without a charge!! ABSOLUTELY LOVE this phone - the display makes the iPhone4 look like the poor relative. And, it's large enough to tempt me from buying a tablet!!

btapp
btapp

Good and accurate review of the phone. I just want to say that after rooting the phone and installing a custom ROM the phone has MUCH improved battery life. Conventional wisdom is that the HTC ROM has significant bloatwear dragging it down in the background and I would have to agree with my experience. I can now easily make it 8 hours with the stock battery on 4G, which to me is completely acceptable for a phone with this power. It is crazy fast and a great upgrade from my iPhone 4 and Droid Incredible. Now that HTC has released the kernel source, there should be even further improvements over the stock OS.

jessedegenerate
jessedegenerate

I always thought the king smartphone of 2011 would use a processor that was less 2009.

richard
richard

The differences between smartphones are slim. I wouldn't buy it. Not convinced.

philyew
philyew

Hmmm...I think that ITU revised its definition of 4G back in December and it now embraces several technologies that are less capable than the original candidate definition of 4G. The new definition embraces T-Mobile and AT&T implementations of HSPA+, Sprint's current deployment of WiMax and...Verizon's current deployment of LTE, which also falls short of the original draft standard. As long as the HSPA+ implementations continue to match or beat what Verizon is offering, there can be no real argument about who has the "true" 4G solution. For the present, the answer remains: no one. To show how meaningless this distinction is right now, the T-Mobile HSPA+ 42 networks which are currently rolling out in several markets have been tested with 20-25mbps download speeds. Until LTE-Advanced rolls out with the ability to truly separate itself from the upper reaches of UMTS capabilities, this kind of comment just looks like a partisan argument.

CharlesB
CharlesB

I got the HTC EVO last year. Great phone, but the 1500 mAh battery wasn't enough. I got the 3500 mAn after market battery (with the replacement back cover) and it really made the phone perfect - I even use it to wifi tether my iPad. Should be the same for this smart phone.

mike.price
mike.price

Gawd, he said "Road Warrior". ugh, we still use that cliche'?

tim.rice
tim.rice

I'm not much of a first generation adopter on anything but the Droid Bionic has me interested to say the least. Went into a Verizon store and played with the Thunderbolt a bit and didn't care for it. Yeah it's fast but the user experience felt different for me. Guess we will see.

konstantph
konstantph

To set 3G only: 1. Go to Phone 2. Enter the following: *#*#4636#*#* 3. Click Phone Information 4. Scroll down to "Set preferred network type" 5. Select "CDMA only" I don't remember where else I saw it, but I'm just passing the info along since this thread got linked by another review.

Nsaf
Nsaf

I think it is a bit of exaggeration to name it the king of all cellphones. It does have an LTE radio, but other than that, it is an old looking/design HTC phone.

rdr2004
rdr2004

Is there any comment on multitasking? Have to see.

boothby
boothby

If you're so smart that you don't have a problem telling us off, then do the conversion, genius. "I have no idea if..." = "I'm too pompous and lazy to do the math"

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

If you care about battery life, waiting to try the Motorola Bionic side-by-side with the HTC ThunderBolt is a wise choice. I tried the Bionic at CES and the form factor is a little plasticy and not quite as nice as the ThunderBolt (and no HTC Sense UI), but it does have a dual core Tegra 2 so performance is great and battery life should definitely be better than the T-Bolt.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

Thanks for the info on your rooting experience with the T-Bolt.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

But, the ThunderBolt uses a new iteration of the Qualcomm Snapdragon that includes a GPU (Adreno 205) and a dedicated chip for handling LTE. To my surprise, the ThunderBolt's single core Snapdragon actually runs as fast or faster than some of the dual core Tegra 2 devices that I've tested. However, where we probably see single core being a problem is in battery life. As I recently wrote, multiple cores can actually use less power and battery than fewer cores in many cases: http://www.techrepublic.com/blog/hiner/nvidia-quad-core-can-actually-use-less-power-than-dual-core/7976

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

HSPA+ is essentially just retrofitting a 3G voice network for data. Sure, they keep squeezing as much performance out of it as they can, but it doesn't change that fact. By contrast, LTE and WiMAX are designed from the ground up to be mobile data networks. That's why they have lower latency (which means things start loading sooner), can handle a higher density of users, etc. It's not just about download/upload speeds, it's about the overall quality of the connection. HSPA+ is a suped-up 3G connection. LTE and WiMAX are truly a step forward in terms of being architected to be mobile data networks. That's why I think it's fair to call them 4G.

batonrouge
batonrouge

Yea, I considered an extended (size) battery for my EVO. But that would have made it's already big pocket size even bigger. I resorted to a battery wall charger and a couple of after market oem-size 1800mAh batteries as well as chargers and cords planted everywhere, and that worked for me. But all that is so much work for a "mobile" phone. The EVO was everything I expected it to be and more, but it made me realize battery life is a priority on my smartphone feature checklist.

Gadget Gurus
Gadget Gurus

WiMAX is not even a mobile network so it cannot be considered 4G. It's a wireless network that's definitely does not function while mobile. Average speed tests around 1.5mbps to 3.5mbps. Clearwire/Sprint appear to be the ones falsely advertising their service as 4G.

nepper
nepper

Battery priority - agreed. The Atrix has the largest I've seen so far - 1900mAh, but how do you really compare when shopping? Battery size is a good start, but one phone can obviously use power at a greater rate than another make. Is talktime spec to be believed as a comparison measure?

Nsaf
Nsaf

Performance wise, I think Nexus S is awesome and it is pure Google which I love. Yeah, it doesn't have a microsd slot, but thunderbolt only has 2gig of usable on board + 32 to add. Atrix is really fast and nice, it has 16gig on board plus what you can add to it but it is a Motorola. Also look at all the other promissing phones due to come out this year. Inspire 4G is another one, so I think it is just too early to declare a phone a winner.