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
Interestingly, as far as we can tell, none of these can be uninstalled, which is an unfortunate decision on Verizon's part -- especially considering the fact that we found most of the crapware on AT&T's Atrix 4G can
be removed without any hacking or trickery. Sure, some of these -- Reader, Kindle, and Slacker, for example -- are Android staples that you'll probably want installed anyway, but it should always be your choice, not Verizon's.
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.
End to end, the phone feels quite fast. Actually, "quite fast" isn't doing the LTE radio justice: it's by far
the fastest data in a handset that we've ever experienced. In downtown Chicago, Ookla's Speedtest app for Android was clocking downlink speeds ranging from 5Mbps to roughly 20Mbps,
while uplinks went from about 15Mbps up to a positively face-melting 40Mbps -- a rare situation where uplink speeds consistently outpace the downlink
. Of course, you have to assume these speeds aren't here to stay: up until the release of the Thunderbolt, the only commercial devices using Verizon's LTE network were a pair of USB modems, so the cells are far from saturated -- we'd expect this all to descend from the stratosphere a bit over the course of 2011 as more and more LTE phones (and mobile hotspots) come online. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the effects of signal strength on throughput are far more pronounced and predictable here than on any other device we've ever seen: with a single bar of LTE strength, we'd typically get 5 to 7Mbps down; with two, 10 to 12; and with three, 15 and up. In any event, you're in good shape compared to competing technologies.[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.]
Using the Thunderbolt with its mobile hotspot mode enabled was a breeze, too, and yielded blazing cable modem-like speeds (the first time we used it, the phone started acting erratically and kept switching between EV-DO and LTE, rendering the connection basically useless, but we haven't been able to reproduce it since). Interestingly, upstream speeds are far more down-to-earth when using the hotspot, but we're not sure why. As Verizon has said in the past, low latency makes a big difference in your perception of how fast a connection really is -- and with multiplayer gaming, it becomes even more critical. For comparison, the Thunderbolt yielded ping times consistently south of 100ms, while our Inspire 4G -- in an HSPA+ area with four to five bars of reception -- was getting ping times typically ranging from 120ms to 280ms (and throughput was lower by an order of magnitude).
Turning our attention to processor speed and the user experience, the phone feels smooth and fast out of the box, a testament to the 1GHz MSM8655 core and, presumably, Verizon's testing and HTC's careful tuning of Sense atop Android 2.2.1. That said, it's not going to outperform a Tegra 2 device. In our full Quadrant tests, we got scores ranging from the high 1600s (pictured above) up to about 1900, considerably lower than the mid-2000s seen on stock Optimus 2Xs, Droid Bionics, and Atrix 4Gs. Of course, the Thunderbolt has one thing going for it: it'll probably be a lot more hackable than Motorolas tend to be, and we're sure we'll see some absolutely blazing custom kernels eventually.
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
First-generation devices are often, if not usually, a little rickety -- proofs of concept that are more about the manufacturer (or carrier) being able to say that they're first to launch a particular feature than they are about delivering a solid, all-around winner. Fortunately, that's not the case with the Thunderbolt: HTC's managed to put together a handset here that we can honestly recommend with a straight face, owing in no small part to the fact that it borrows heavily from the company's existing parts bin. If you're looking for the sexiest 4.3-inch phone of the bunch, the Inspire still beats it -- you can't go wrong with the thinner, metal, unibody shell -- but the Thunderbolt is easily one of the best Android devices in Verizon's expansive lineup even before you take the LTE capability into account. And if you're lucky enough to live or work in an LTE market (or one that's going live this year), it's the best choice by a country mile.Additional reporting by Myriam Joire