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Hands-on Review: HTC Thunderbolt 4G Android Smartphone

Overall Rating

Senior Friendly Features

Cool Factor

9

Wireless Interface :

Bluetooth

Speakerphone :

Yes

Accessability Features :

Audible battery alert

Accessability Features :

Hearing aid compatible

Accessability Features :

Vibrating alert

Accessability Features :

Voice control capability

Quick Specs

OS Provided: 
Android
Style: 
Candy bar phone
Service Provider: 
Verizon
+ See more specifications

Senior Friendly Features: Large LCD Screen: [rating:5] Easy to Feel Controls: [rating:4] Easy to See Controls: [rating:4.5] Simplicity: [rating:3.5] Durable Design [rating:4]

I’ve spent the past week with the new Thunderbolt from HTC. It may well be the best Android phone on the market.

The HTC Thunderbolt is HTC’s newest 4G phone and the first 4G/LTE phone on Verizon. You can’t miss this phone, it’s not small in any way. It’s all plastic on the outside, in a large form factor to handle the screen and all the other great features. It’s a little on the heavy side, but that heft feels good when you hold it. It feels solid and actually harder to drop because of this. It borrows from the designs of HTC’s other phones, e.g. the EVO.

It’s a big phone, but for a good reason. The 4.3-inch screen is the biggest you can get on the market today, and it’s stunning. Easy to see, easy to read everything on it. The Kindle app is actually useful on the Thunderbolt, you can easily read on it. Pictures are very big, clear and crisp. The WVGA resolution of 480×800 looks great.

Movies and YouTube content are fantastic on this phone. Crisp and clear. The kickstand on the back pops out to hold up your phone to make watching easy. The speaker is behind the kickstand, and with the stand out, it’s quite loud and clear.

There are two cameras on the Thunderbolt. The rear-facing camera has an 8 megapixel sensor and two LED lights beside it. I won’t call them a “Flash”, because they don’t really flash, they light up briefly when needed. It also shoots 720p video. Currently there’s a problem with shooting video on this camera. The video itself is clean and nice, but the audio is VERY quiet. The problem is in the noise cancellation feature, it cancels ALL of the sound. There is supposedly a fix on the way.

The front-facing camera can be used for video chatting. Verizon, Skype and HTC are working on this, so far I haven’t found anything that works with that camera, making it now only useful for self-portraits for the web. Verizon hyped this feature when the phone was announced, but Skype wasn’t bundled with the phone so perhaps it isn’t quite ready yet.

There are a few physical buttons on the outside of the phone. The on/off switch at the top is fairly recessed but is where you’d expect it. Volume controls are a rocker on the side, which is almost flush and very mushy and don’t give you much response, so you often have to look at the screen while you actuate the rocker to see what it’s doing.

The phone part of the Thunderbolt works well. The buttons on screen are big and easy to read, sound quality with the regular handset or via speaker phone is good and loud. It works well with wired or Bluetooth headsets for hands-free talking. There are some good antennas in this phone, as I have yet to drop a call (knock on wood) even in some areas of Los Angeles where I’ve dropped calls before.

Texting works well, the keyboard is larger than most because of the big screen. I love voice texting, it’s fast and pretty accurate. The one complaint I have is that it doesn’t automatically capitalize the first letter of sentences this way, yet it does when you type. Auto Correct is aggressive so you have to keep your eye on what you’re typing, lest you end up having your text featured on DamnYouAutoCorrect.com (a site which largely features iPhone’s over-aggressive auto corrections and is definitely not safe for work). There are arrow keys along the bottom to assist you in your own corrections if you need to go back.

If you use your phone for a watch/clock, the stock home screen is great for this.

HTC has their “Sense” user interface skinned over the underlying Android operating system. Currently, the HTC is running Froyo, or Android 2.2, with Android 2.3 coming out sometime soon (aka Gingerbread). As with most others, this will happen over the air when available.

Startup time is around a minute from when you first power it on. There is a setting that allows for an instant boot, which actually doesn’t ever shut the phone all the way down, it just puts it to sleep. HTC warns that this can cause problems with some software, but doesn’t go into detail on which apps it might affect.

Unlike some of the newer, high-end phones, this phone doesn’t have a dual-core processor. But the 1GHz Snapdragon processor in the Thunderbolt is no slouch, I didn’t find myself waiting for anything, the phone is very responsive, even with all kinds of things going on at once.

The Thunderbolt comes preloaded with apps. A lot of them, all of Verizon’s choosing. Some are useful, like the Kindle App, the flashlight app that makes use of the LEDs on the back of the camera, FM Radio receiver, the typical ones like Clock, Calendar and Calculator. But then there are trial versions of things to get you to sign up for services. There’s one for Blockbuster Video, one for Bitbop (similar to Hulu Plus), a trial game called “Let’s Golf 2” that lets you play two holes before requiring you to buy, and a shortcut icon to order Rock Band. These are a scant few of the many installed on the Thunderbolt that you cannot remove. Really annoying.

Then there are the apps that I had to install to make this phone useful. I installed Edwin for even more voice control of my phone (I use voice control and voice typing for a lot of my phone, including text and email), PF Voicemail Plus (which is cheaper than Visual Voicemail and alerts me via email if I miss a call when my phone is off/restarting/out of area), Skype (more on this in a minute), Talking Tom to amuse my daughter, Xpert Timer to time my writing projects, Tone Picker so I can use MP3 ringtones and alerts and a friend suggested WhatsApp, a social app. I also added Twitter’s official app and TweetCaster to manage a couple of twitter accounts and Battery Doctor to manage battery use and charging. I have the Facebook app, but I use the browser more often since it offers more features. It’s really nice to have a phone that will view the NON-mobile versions of websites, even ones with Flash content.

There are a couple of features in the Thunderbolt that are temporary. One is an app called City ID, which puts up the city and state where a call originates from. I’ve found that surprisingly useful when I have a call come in from somewhere I don’t recognize, sometimes just the city name gives me an idea of who is calling. There is mobile hotspot capability built in. It’s free until March 15, 2011, after which time it will require a $20 a month subscription. I think this is excessive to charge to someone who already has an unlimited plan. They’re probably hedging their bets against people sharing the hotspot with friends, and since you can use up to 5 devices at a time with that mobile hot spot, I’m sure that will happen some.

Some people will want to use the hot spot feature no matter what, however. The 4G speeds are truly incredible. In a couple of tests in 4G coverage areas, I’ve gotten 13 Mbps downloads, and that’s testing with my MacBook Pro using the Thunderbolt for my internet connection. I’ve heard of people getting even better speeds, upwards of 20 Mbps. That’s better than some people have at home.

So far 4G is only available in major metropolitan areas, but Verizon is adding more 4G/LTE towers and coverage all the time. If you have an iPad or other tablet that uses Wi-Fi (whether it has 3G or not), it can be just as fast as if it had 4G without having to buy a new device for that.

The phone is blazing fast and has a big screen. If it has one true Achilles heel it has to be the battery life. Because of the performance and HTC’s choice to only put in a 1400 mAH battery, in normal to heavy use you’ll get around 4-5 hours max with a battery. And as hard as the back is to pry off, swapping for a charged spare batter isn’t a good option. Turning off 4G isn’t possible, or at least that I could find. Turning off other features, like GPS and Wi-Fi, when you’re not using them does help a bit. Keep chargers near.

Overall the features, speed and large screen make this a great phone for power users. If you want one device to do almost everything, this may just be it. This is now my personal smartphone.

 

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