HTC Thunderbolt review

The HTC Thunderbolt is available from Verizon Wireless for $569.99 outright or for $249.99 on contract.

Pros: Solid, weighty form-factor; aesthetically beautiful design of hardware and software; customizable software theming; good stills and video with adequate light; still photo effects; Verizon’s LTE 4G; smooth operations and slick UI.

Cons: 1,400mAh battery isn’t nearly enough to make Thunderbolt reliable, possible physical design flaws, camera performs poorly in low light, potential audio/call problems.

Introduction:

The Thunderbolt was Verizon’s first LTE 4G device and was heralded in with an appropriate hype campaign that touted the carrier’s new network as much as the phone. Thunderbolt is a flagship, for sure. It may not have the dual-core processor that hard-core geeks are on the lookout for, but the 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon that is under the hood provides a snappy, satisfying experience. And with a 32GB microSD in the phone when shipped, there’s really not much to complain about in terms of specs. HTC’s Sense has always been an elegant UI, and it really has reached a stage of maturity–not just in terms of refinement and solid code, but in how it appeals to consumers. It is slick and attractive without being flashy or childlike. And it brings all sorts of nifty enhancements to the Android 2.2.1 OS that sits underneath. The physical design is lovely, though there are a couple of practical flaws to be found.

Thunderbolt stacks up nicely against the current competition. And, as is so often the case with tech products, personal taste will be the deciding factor for those who do snatch up a Thunderbolt. A mere spec comparison just won’t cut it.

Software:

Android 2.2.1 is fast. It features all sorts of optimizations and enhancements that allow it to get the most out of your gadget’s horsepower. Sense is also faster than ever, and the cooperation of the two results in an ultra-responsive mobile computing experience. Unlike the Samsung Charge, which I also recently tested, Thunderbolt has given me no trouble with stutters, hanging, or lock-ups. I have seen an occasional force close of HTC services, but the overall experience has been superb. Incidentally, I will have a much harder time returning my Thunderbolt review unit than my Charge.

I’ve always been partial to Sense and the interface has achieved such a polished, unified sheen that I’m starting to identify it as my Android UI. Despite some great progress with TouchWiz on Samsung’s part, Sense is still the best Android UI enhancement out there, in my opinion.

Unfortunately, Thunderbolt is not yet supported for HTCSense.com syncing and downloads, but its time will come. For now, T-Bolt has all of the scene functionality and skinning options available for all recent Sense devices, and the customizability of the device goes a long way in making it feel personalized.

Sense’s Scenes are basically snapshots of widget and icon arrangements. Phones ship with several starter Scenes, such as Work and Play, but all are fully customizable and users can create and delete Scenes as they see fit. Changing skins will alter numerous UI elements, not just the wallpaper or a highlight color. The result is a complete visual refresh within a couple of screen taps.

The themes integrate nicely with HTC’s widgets, and the unified vibe results in a polished, distinguished appeal.

The Sense keyboard is my favorite of all virtual QWERTYs. It has been since the first time I used it. Again, personal taste largely determines one’s satisfaction with a given product, but I haven’t found any virtual keyboard that allows me to type as quickly while looking so good. I do recognize the power of the drag-to-type keyboard, Swype, but variations in reliability and performance caused me to return to ol’ faithful. Auto-correct behavior is good, alternate characters are a breeze, and performance is responsive and smooth.

Hardware:

Thunderbolt’s display is beautiful. And while it might not pop (or scream) like Samsung’s Super AMOLED Plus displays (see a side-by-side comparison with the Droid Charge here), it is sharp and attractive, with wide viewing angles. The touch sensitive buttons at the bottom of the display look great and respond well, but the small lip of glass below seems like a manufacturing flaw to me. Light escapes the gap where the glass curves up and away from the body.

And there’s one other problem I’ve found with the design. When resting the phone on the kickstand, the USB cable cannot be plugged in. Considering that the phone’s speaker is hidden behind the kickstand, and that closing it muffles audio significantly, it seems reasonable to assume that users will want to utilize the kickstand while watching video and listening to music. It also seems reasonable to assume that people will want to have an external source powering their Thunderbolt while experiencing media, because the 1,400mAh battery doesn’t do the job of keeping Thunderbolt alive all day. At least it hasn’t for me. So yes, I consider this a mistake:

In terms of the materials used to build Thunderbolt, I have zero complaints. I love the weightiness of the phone, the soft touch battery cover, and smooth edges. The physical buttons–power and a volume rocker–could stand a bit more travel, and perhaps, “clickiness,” but the general impression given off by this gadget’s sexy body is that you’ve got a high end, quality device in your hand.

Camera:

Thunderbolt features an 8MP primary cam with dual LED flash, capable of 1280 X 720 HD video capture, as well as a 1.3MP front-facing cam. The main shooter performs well when light is abundant (ambient or as a focal point), but fails in dim environments, returning dark shots bathed in orange. The situation is the same with video as it is with stills: if you’ve got a lot of light, you’ve got a clean, sharp image. The audio recording for video is disappointing. Every clip begins with a clicking sound, and mic sensitivity is an issue. All samples were taken at the highest resolution with all other settings left at their defaults.

Stills (all photos scaled down from 3264 X 1952):

Sunny (vibrant, but perhaps a bit over-saturated):

Overcast:

Inside, Low Light:

Inside, High Light (Artificial):

Sense includes some built-in photo effects that can be fun and functional.

Video:

Day, Outside:

Day, Inside:

Night, Outside. While potentially suitable for David Lynch’s next project, I woud consider this unacceptable.:

Night, Outside, More Light:

Night, Inside:

Daily Use:

Thunderbolt is a joy to use. I’ve been playing with it as my primary device for the past week, and I’ll be sorry to see it go. The software is beautiful and performs admirably. The phone feels great in the hand and has enough power for my daily tasks. What I won’t miss is the gadget’s horrible battery life. Even when avoiding video and music, I found it near impossible to get through the day without a charge. It’s easy enough to find an extended battery that will double the stock juice for roughly $50, but those chunky replacements come with a new, deeper battery door for accommodating the larger battery, and thicken the device significantly. When I wanted to watch video or listen to music, I had it plugged in. It just wasn’t worth the risk of missing an important call or potentially getting stranded somewhere. Battery life is a serious issue for the Thunderbolt, and I’ve heard from more than a few people who exchanged for that very reason.

As great as T-Bolt is for mobile computing and text messages, it actually hasn’t been too impressive when it comes to phone calls. Incoming audio is fine; outgoing may be a problem. I’ve listened to recordings of my voice where the beginnings and ends of sentences are chopped off (even in quiet environments) and audio is frequently distorted. These tests were performed with a good signal. It’s worth mentioning that I have had others report both clear and unintelligible calls while talking with me. A lot of factors go into a clear call, so I’m not ready to fault the T-Bolt for my results. I will simply present you what I have.

Conclusion:

HTC’s Thunderbolt was designed to impress, and that it does. The body feels great in the hand. Not good, but great. The display is crisp and bright, though it may pale in comparison with Samsung’s latest. The software, however, runs much more smoothly than that of the Droid Charge, and for that reason alone delivers a better experience. LTE 4G access and software refinement make the Thunderbolt a fast device that doesn’t disappoint in any performance category. Unless, that is, you include battery life. If I were to order a Thunderbolt for myself, an extended battery order would be processed within five minutes. I simply couldn’t get by without one. The camera is able to produce some very good shots in the right circumstances, but is only so-so overall. Audio recording problems are evident in videos, and the phone call quality I experienced left a lot to be desired. These issues could be circumstantial or solvable via software updates, so weigh them accordingly. Two physical design issues detract from the value and appeal of Thunderbolt, but as with all consumer products, making a decision is a matter of give and take. There is simply no such thing as the perfect phone.

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