Go-Go Gadget Review: Verizon’s HTC Thunderbolt Smartphone

Thoughts from a recent extended trial with the Thunderbolt:

Verizon’s HTC Thunderbolt smartphone offers all of the amenities of its first-generation 4G contemporaries while also benefitting from the added speed of Verizon’s burgeoning 4G LTE network. Its emphasis on speed over battery-life is a tradeoff that will preclude adoption by those seeking longevity and the most tech-savy, Horsepower-reliant consumers might opt to wait for slightly flashier (and more expensive) alternatives, but for a a vast swath of smartphone-users simply in search of a solidly engineered product boasting a highly competitive 4G experience, Thunderbolt is a more than viable option.

The Network:

Thunderbolt debuted earlier this year at CES (Consumer Electronics Show) 2011 as Verizon’s first 4G smartphone and it’s precisely that feature which proves to be the gadget’s most impressive. For those yet unsure as to the significance of 4G, the added power means HD streaming video, complex and flash-heavy websites that load in seconds and downloading full ‘apps’ on the go. Recently announced as Louisville’s highest rated wireless network by RootMetrics (an independent company that evaluates wireless products and services), Verizon’s 4G LTE empowers Thunderbolt to out-clock both the HTC EVO 4G on Sprint (ostensibly the same hardware) and the Galaxy S 4G on T-Mobile, and for phone-owners still stuck in the 3G era, the difference is incomparable. Originally limited to select markets, Verizon’s aggressive expansion of LTE brought the service to Louisville at the end of July with coverage of Lexington set for the end of November.

The Hardware:

Network alone cannot make the phone, and thus it’s equally important to note that HTC delivers effectively in the hardware department with very few exceptions. Yes, the phone is bulky (even more so than its cousin the EVO), and has such been labeled a “dude phone”, but the added weight leaves Thunderbolt feeling solid and satisfyingly durable. No one is complaining about the 8MP outward-facing camera (an adequate point-and-shoot solution), and likewise, while the 4.3″ screen may fall short of the iPhone 4 in total resolution, the larger size and impressive brightness make a strong argument for its video-viewing superiority. As previously noted, battery life is by far the product’s largest detractor (you’ll definitely want an extra battery pack) but HTC reduces the inconvenience by making the battery easily swappable (try doing that on your iPhone), and as compared to similarly power-hogging 4G gadgets Thunderbolt is slightly lacking but by no means an outlier. expect between four to six hours with moderate use, three to four with considerable 4G usage and you might just stretch for ten by treating the phone like a paperweight.

The Operating System:

HTC runs Google’s Android OS version 2.2 (dubbed ‘Froyo’), and that’s a bit of a disappointment as it means it’s lacking a number of the bells and whistles of more recently released devices boasting ‘Gingerbread’ (v 2.3), and pales in comparison to the iOS 5-competitive ‘ice-cream sandwich’ (v 4.0), which was announced in October. Previous Android users will know what to expect here, with modest improvements in functionality and usability added to a familiar architecture, but iPhone users and other non-experienced types will find a notable learning curve where accessibility is concerned. Unlike Apple’s iOS, Android does not hold your hand, and this is a fact that is initially daunting but ultimately liberating. Those willing to invest a bit of extra time in discovering all of Android and Thunderbolt’s tricks will find it versatile, stable (it never crashed during my two-week test run) and highly customizable.

The Verdict:

If there’s a final critique to be brought against the Thunderbolt it’s that unlike many other smartphones it doesn’t give its users the ability to opt out of 4G when deemed unnecessary. It’s unclear whether this is a structural limitation of Verizion’s 4G LTE (which is a completely separate network as opposed to an enhancement of 3G like other carriers), but for the purest of speed demons this product will attract it’s no doubt an insignificant oddity. It’s no longer the newest and certainly not the sleekest option out there, but whether you find its hefty disposition a plus or a minus, Thunderbolt combines impressive hardware (full specs here) with undeniable speed, and that means power.

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Chris Ritter <<<<<< twitter.com/CT_Smash <<<<<< ctsmash@gmail.com