In other words, the Thunderbolt has a very real opportunity to be the finest 4.3-inch device HTC has ever made -- for the moment, anyway. Let's see how it fares.
HTC Thunderbolt reviewSee all photos
Pulling the phone out of its cardboard cradle, you instantly recognize that this thing is a beast -- it's just big and heavy. There's no other way to put it. If you're acquainted and comfortable with the EVO 4G, you'll feel right at home -- the EVO's actually a few grams heavier, which took us by surprise when we looked it up -- but if you're coming from pretty much anything else, you'll probably mouth the word "whoa" the first time you take it into your hand. For comparison's sake, it's right around 20 percent heavier than an iPhone 4. We're not necessarily saying that's a bad thing; in general, phones have a tendency to feel higher-quality when they're more substantial and they've got a little more junk in the trunk, and that's certainly the case with the Thunderbolt -- but it's still something to consider. We're fairly certain there will be at least a few potential buyers who are off-put by the weight, so you should swing into a store and spend a little quality time with it before pulling the trigger.
That being said, "last-gen design" doesn't mean "bad design" -- far from it. There are many ways you could screw up the details of a phone this chunky, but the Thunderbolt is a legitimately handsome device. Unlike the EVO, the Thunderbolt's soft touch back cover only extends about three-quarters of the way down from the top, leaving the integrated brushed-metal kickstand permanently attached to the surface of the phone chassis (which is smooth plastic in this bottom area) rather than poking through the cover. Underneath the kickstand (which has "with Google" engraved on it, by the way), you'll find a metal grating that conceals the Thunderbolt's loudspeaker -- which is, in fact, quite loud. The only real problem here is that it's a bit muffled with the kickstand retracted, but we suppose HTC's logic is that you're going to want maximum volume in kickstand-deployed video mode.
The Thunderbolt's thickness and design details save it from a problem both the EVO and Inspire suffer from: the camera's rim is essentially flush with the back and the lens is actually recessed, meaning you're not going to scuff up your 8 megapixel shooter simply by setting the phone rear-down on a few too many hard surfaces. The dual-LED flash is arranged exactly as you find it on HTC's other 4.3-inch devices, and it suffers from an unusual (but now familiar) quirk: you can't use it when the Mobile Hotspot feature is enabled. Presumably, it's just too much simultaneous power draw between the giant display, the beefy processor, and the LTE, CDMA, and WiFi radios to add a pair of ultra-bright LEDs into the mix, though it's interesting that Mobile Hotspot uses no more components than you would in normal phone use -- we suppose the WiFi power output might be at a higher level.
The edges of the Thunderbolt are clean and simple; notably missing, of course, is an HDMI-out -- a big deal for some and a complete non-issue for others. The power button is perfect: correct location and correct level of flushness with the surface of the phone. The volume rocker is also perfectly shaped, sized, and in the best possible location along the right edge, but for some reason, it feels really mushy. Not only that, but it feels mushy in distinctly different ways on the top and bottom -- it's just poorly engineered or assembled, as far as we can tell. While you're on a call, it can be difficult to tell whether you're actuating the rocker without proper detents.
As for the display, it's pretty fantastic -- definitely an upgrade from the EVO's component thanks to a superior viewing angle that never washes out or inverts. Admittedly, WVGA starts to look just a tad pixellated once you get past 4 inches into the 4.3-inch category, but we're spoiled these days -- and if they Pyramid rumors are true, HTC is hard at work on qHD solutions for its next-gen devices anyway. One characteristic that we've noticed on a number of other phones in the past year that we miss here is the gapless display, a display so close to the glass that it appears to be on the surface of the phone itself (in fact, it's so cool that Sony Ericsson actively markets it as a feature of the Xperia Arc). Well, there's definitely a noticeable gap on the Thunderbolt, but it's a purely aesthetic complaint -- there's zero effect on capability or usability whatsoever -- it's just fun to hold your phone at an angle once in a while and say, "wow."
HTC Thunderbolt vs. HTC EVO 4GSee all photos
Audio quality ranges from "good" to "great," with two caveats: one, the aforementioned problem with loudspeaker muffling when the kickstand is closed (not severe, but something to take note of), and two, the earpiece could use another level or two of volume. It's plenty clear, but in noisy environments, we found ourselves wishing we could eke a little more out of it on a couple occasions. Callers told us we sounded a little "staticky" but were still totally audible -- we were never asked to speak up or repeat something we'd said.
Interestingly -- unlike the EVO -- we weren't able to find a way to disable the Thunderbolt's 4G radio and stay on on CDMA / EV-DO alone in an effort to conserve the battery. The phone seems to be doing some intelligent radio management, automatically switching between the two when necessary (and, presumably, staying pegged on LTE whenever it can find an LTE signal). From a pure consumer-friendliness perspective, that makes sense... but from a power-user perspective, it's annoying at best. When using this as a primary device, we'd probably consider carrying a portable battery-powered micro-USB charger or a spare internal battery for peace of mind.
HTC Thunderbolt camera samplesSee all photos
The 720p video was remarkably free of artifacts or distortion -- it doesn't do continuous autofocus, but you can refocus on the fly with a tap on the screen. Likewise, sound quality was quite good; we were surprised at how clearly our voice cut through the ambient noise when narrating.
The Thunderbolt is, of course, running HTC Sense. In this case, it's on top of Android 2.2.1, but it's a bit of a hybrid -- it lacks support for the cloud features introduced with the launch of the Desire HD / Desire Z and HTCSense.com last year, but does include support for HTC's unusual "Fast Boot" option (which was introduced at the same time). It comes disabled by default, but can be found in the Power menu in Settings with the ominous warning, "Turn off to use some Market apps." Which ones? Well, that's for you to guess, and HTC to know, apparently. The feature basically puts the phone into an ultra-low power mode (akin to standby or sleep on a laptop) rather than turning it off altogether, and we'll admit, the results speak for themselves: with Fast Boot on, we were seeing boot times of roughly 9 seconds, as opposed to 58 seconds with it off. If you frequently turn your phone off (say, on airplanes, when they tell you to power down your gadgets rather than simply using airplane mode), that's a notable difference.
From a UI perspective, Sense looks exactly the same here as it has on any other Sense device from the past year or so: same colorful menus, custom soft keyboard, home screen elements, and so on, so we won't spend much time talking about it. We're not huge fans -- we prefer almost everything about the stock experience -- but we know that it's largely a matter of personal opinion (and Sense certainly has its share of fans). So instead, let's take a look at the non-standard apps that HTC and Verizon have included, along with descriptions of the less-obvious ones:
- Adobe Reader
- Bitbop: A subscription service that offers a variety of movies and television shows streamed to your phone, along the lines of Hulu Plus.
- City ID: A service that displays the city and state of incoming calls -- handy, admittedly, but probably not for the $1.99 they charge after your 15-day free trial expires. Too bad you can't uninstall it if you don't want to subscribe!
- FM Radio: Yes, that's right -- the Thunderbolt's got an FM radio tuner. Nothing fancy in the app, which -- like most phones -- requires a headset be plugged in to use (it doubles as the antenna).
- Let's Golf 2: A trial of a 3D golf game with a silly name. $4.99 to buy the full version.
- Quickoffice: Many Android phones have one version or another of Quickoffice in ROM, but the Thunderbolt's got full Word and Excel editing capabilities at no extra charge -- a nice touch.
- Rock Band: This is actually nothing more than a shortcut to download a trial version of Rock Band from EA. That's already uncool, but what's even more uncool is that when we tried, it just went to a black screen and hung. The only thing worse than crapware is broken crapware.
- V CAST Apps
- V CAST Media
- VZ Navigator
Notably absent, though, are Skype and Netflix. Skype video calling on Android was introduced by Verizon at CES (alongside the Thunderbolt) to great fanfare, but recent rumors prior to the Thunderbolt's release had suggested that the carrier elected late in the game to pull the app from ROM. What we don't know, though, is why that happened; we've heard rumors that Skype's partnership with Verizon is souring (there have been AT&T talks, after all), but it could just be a bout of last-minute bugs that Verizon didn't want to hold up the phone's release. Video calling aside, you'd think Verizon would've at least put its standard Skype build on here that allows calling outside WiFi networks, but no dice -- you're stuck with the standard Android app in the Market that locks you out on 3G.
Netflix was more of a wildcard, but we thought it might be loaded -- it's got a Qualcomm processor that can handle Netflix's DRM scheme, after all, and that 4.3-inch display and kickstand would be a solid way to get the Watch Instantly functionality off on the right foot. Alas, we gave the leaked APK a whirl, and it wasn't working, either. That's not to say it definitely won't work by the time it's released, but it's a no-go so far.
[Update: We've been told by Ookla that the Thunderbolt's massive send buffer is responsible for the erroneously high uplink speeds -- they've got a fix in the works and it'll be available as an update to the Speedtest.net app soon.]
Here are a few other benchmarks we ran on our Thunderbolt that you might be interested in:
- Nenamark: 33.9fps
- Linpack: 38.263 MFLOPS
- Sunspider 0.9.1: 6213ms (+/- 1.2 percent)
- GLBenchmark Egypt FSAA: 15.4fps
- GLBenchmark Egypt non-FSAA: 17.9fps
- GLBenchmark Pro FSAA: 14.6fps
- GLBenchmark Pro non-FSAA: 18.9fps
Additional reporting by Myriam Joire