HTC Thunderbolt Review: The First Verizon 4G LTE Smartphoneby Brian Klug on April 27, 2011 12:12 AM EST
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So I have a confession to make - I’m late on this one. Way late. I managed to catch strep throat, came down with a high fever, then a sinus infection, and as a result missed my goal of having everything Verizon 4G LTE - including the HTC Thunderbolt - wrapped up and published a few weekends ago. One thing led to the other, and I promised a number of readers both in emails and on Twitter that it would be done a long time before it ended up coming to fruition. I think I’m going to add a week to all time estimations from now on, just to be safe. Apologies if I made you refresh obsessively a few times there.
Clockwise from top left: Samsung SCH-LC11, HTC Thunderbolt, Verizon USB551L, Pantech UML290
That said, it isn’t entirely a loss. Over the past month, I somehow have found myself getting slowly buried in literally every single Verizon 4G LTE device (with the exception of the LG VL600 data card) and that’s a good position to be in. The story of our LTE testing started actually before MWC with the Pantech UML290, and since then each time a new device has shown up, I’ve hopped in my car, driven two hours to Phoenix (the nearest LTE market) and spent a sleepless 48 hours testing battery life, speeds, and stability. It’s been a lot of testing, driving, and collecting data. I’ve recorded 542 speed test runs on 4G LTE as a result, and many more on EVDO for comparison. There’s a ton of stuff to go over, so to keep things manageable, I’ve split the review down the middle. This half is HTC Thunderbolt, the other is everything about Verizon 4G LTE from a cellular perspective including two data cards and a WiFi hotspot.
Without any more rambling, let’s get into this review of the first LTE-enabled smartphone on Verizon.
The first thing to say about the HTC Thunderbolt is that it’s gigantic. It’s big simply by virtue of having two transceivers inside, and four antennas. The fact that it’s huge isn’t a bad thing, rather it seems like a smartphone that unblinkingly stares back at legions of notably more superficial smartphones all battling over who is the thinnest (seriously, during CES and MWC several device categories changed thinness crowns in the span of just a few days). It’s almost as if the HTC designers laughed at the trend and boldly designed something different.
I like to think that each section on the site has some insane product that defies reality by being positively huge or defying physics in some manner. Ryan over in GPUs gets to play with his insane AMD 6990 cards and tri-SLI GTX 580s all day. Anand is buried in a house full of 240+ GB SSDs, Jarred and the notebook team does much the same with piles of notebooks, Ganesh with HTPCs, Johan with servers, and so forth. I like to think that the HTC Thunderbolt is in some way analogous to the most insane product in any of those categories, like the 6990 of smartphones, for reasons I’m going to go over in a moment. It’s an exciting smartphone purely because it’s a notable first.
So how is the HTC Thunderbolt? The story of my impressions of this device go all the way back to a Qualcomm meeting at CES when I had hands on with a working version of the phone that had everything but cellular connectivity. Back then, I think the only comment I could mutter at a crowded table surrounded by Qualcomm employees, Vivek, and Anand was - wow, this thing is huge.
Verizon's 4G LTE Phone Lineup (Left to Right): Samsung Droid Charge, LG Revolution, Motorola Droid Bionic, HTC Thunderbolt
On the last day of CES 2011 I got what would be my last couple of minutes with the Thunderbolt, this time with working cellular connectivity and alongside a crowded lineup of other 4G LTE smartphones launching this year. No speedtests were allowed, just general web browsing. Even at that point, the Thunderbolt was talked about with hushed excitement - this device is furthest along in Verizon’s testing, the rep almost whispered to me. It’ll undoubtedly be the first, if the rest of testing continues as planned. It seemed that everyone knew that the Thunderbolt would be first, and that made it special.
Verizon's 4G LTE Phone Lineup (Top to Bottom): LG Revolution, Samsung Droid Charge, Motorola Droid Bionic, HTC Thunderbolt
Top to Bottom: iPhone 4, Nexus One, HTC EVO, HTC Inspire, HTC Thunderbolt
The handset itself has a dominant full-hand feel, with good ergonomics. Thickness is where the Thunderbolt is really an outlier, at 13.2 mm, it’s considerably thicker than most of what else is launching lately. In the mass department as well, the Thunderbolt is specced at 173 grams with battery, though I measured 183.3 grams on my balance. As an aside, verifying size and mass is going to be another thing we’re doing going forward, especially after some notable specification confusion from back when I tackled the Fascinate.
Whether the Thunderbolt is simply too chunky depends on your hands and pockets, but there’s no denying that it’s large. Toss in the official double capacity battery which adds a square protrusion to the back, and it’s even larger. Again, simply by virtue of having a 4.3 inch screen, two cellular basebands and being stuffed full of antennas, the phone is going to be larger than average.
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Brian Klug - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - linkI've accidentally gone with graphs that lacked that data and updated them with the Thunderbolt results. Numbers from iOS 4.3 will be added shortly!
Thanks for pointing that out!
metafor - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - linkThere's a couple of things here. First is that Verizon's EVDO coverage is already pretty good. And instead of opting to go towards 1x Advanced, they've decided to go with a standardized LTE protocol instead to increase speeds; this is a good thing.
Secondly, while HSPA networks can provide theoretical speeds compared to LTE, the real-world performance is far from the reality of that. OFDM is a far better modulation scheme compared to QAM when it comes to not just realistic peak bandwidth but also range and versatility that there really is no question that it should be the next generation of cellular.
name99 - Saturday, May 7, 2011 - link"OFDM is a far better modulation scheme compared to QAM when it comes to not just realistic peak bandwidth but also range and versatility that there really is no question that it should be the next generation of cellular."
OFDM and QAM are orthogonal issues.
OFDM is about how spectrum is allocated. Old school is to give each user one of a few dedicated fairly wide frequency bands while they are in a cell. This frequency may or may not work well for them and be appropriate to their needs.
OFDM splits the entire spectral range into lots of small frequency bands, and dynamically decides which user gets to use which of these bands, based on issues like both the user needs and how good transmission/reception to that user is at that particular time. In addition, it's easier for the receiver for apply a different equalization to each of these small frequency bands to undo the effects of echos on the received signal.
QAM is about the shape of the pulse that carries the information within each frequency band. The very specific details of this change from one spec to another, but to first order this is the same as its always been --- the same idea that was in use in 1980s modem, and I assume even earlier in things like microwave and satellite transmission.
As for ltcommanderdata's point, it is a mistake to assume that 4G is about higher peak speeds. Rather it is about
(a) a more consistent experience, so that data rates are less likely to fall off a cliff in bad conditions, like at the edge of a cell
(b) it is about better OVERALL use of the limited spectrum available. Under some conditions this will allow a few users to see very high speeds, but the more likely scenario in urban conditions is that it will allow more users in a cell to get acceptable speeds.
In other words, it's a way to achieve the goal you want --- better data coverage for more people --- but using technology that ultimately does a better job. Better in terms of spectral usage, and better in terms of more data throughput/dollar spent by the carrier.
alent1234 - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - linklucky for you verizon's LTE is 3G and not 4G. I think it's something like 3.9G. there is a new 3GPP spec almost every year. HSPA+ is 3.6 or 3.7G.
real 4G is still a few years away
cmdrdredd - Thursday, April 28, 2011 - linkso? What's the problem? You get massive speed boosts anyhow which is what the consumer cares about. Nitpicking the little details of the network means jack.
Omid.M - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - linkBrian,
How much of the battery drain would you say is due to the first gen LTE antenna? I mean, I assume at this point we can call it first gen, right?
The Thunderbolt is in an odd spot in the VZW lineup. I feel it was rushed to showcase LTE---which it has done a great job of---but the phone itself isn't impressive in any specific way. It's not necessarily faster than other phones, the screen tech isn't amazing, and it's just really thick.
I agree with you on the qHD point: why can't manufacturers put out qHD with non-pentile matrix? Manufacturing-wise, is there a hold up? Is it an issue of contracts with vendors that need to end? I don't get it.
I keep seeing these smart phones that really just fall short in a way you think they could easily deliver.
Oh, and I didn't see you mention HTC's infamous "bump charging." I hear it's an issue with the Thunderbolt, too. Thanks for the awesome review. Super in depth!
Brian Klug - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - link@moids,
It's hard to say for certain really how much of that battery life hit is the second cellular modem. I originally intended to measure current on both of the MDM9600 modems with an in-line ammeter, but didn't get a chance last time I was in a 4G market. That'll come in the next couple of weeks though. Obviously having two modems is going to affect battery life. The thing gets warm, which to me always is a good indicator that it's using lots of power.
I don't believe there's any reason why we can't have a qHD screen without Pentile. Keep in mind though that Pentile lets you emulate a higher resolution without needing to have 3 subpixels per pixel.
I've definitely seen the bump charging situation show up on the Thunderbolt. The first couple initial charges definitely showed that bump charge behavior, later on it got better, but Smart Panel showed a similar trend to that infamous XDA devs thread. I haven't really messed around enough to speak too intelligently about that issue than to say that yes, it does seem to still be kicking around. Maybe the Pyramid/Sensation will change things. I hope!
yibrushn - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - linkI am in a wimax market and they mean 3G data in that quote. 4G and calls are definitely a go
Brian Klug - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - linkInteresting! I pinged Qualcomm and was going to wait for them, but updated the article already. Thanks for pointing that out!
Omid.M - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - linkGot it!
By the way, if you guys implement a perm link feature that's per comment, I can reference certain..."issues"...for vendors to check out ;)
I want the Bolt because 4G in the Bay Area is STUPID FAST but it just feels like a sidegrade from my Fascinate. I'm pulling 10-12 hours with HEAVY use, 14-17 with moderate use, and well over 24 hours if I barely use it (hah). But, it took me many tweaks and still room for more tweaks.
I'm almost making pre-loaded Gingerbread a requirement of my next phone; I don't trust carriers/vendors anymore with promises of timetables. Yes, it has come to that: the OS version should be considered a marquee "feature." Sad.
The day that vendors stop caring about being first to market and care more about putting out a POLISHED experience is when we'll start to see others follow suit. There's no reason to rush products other than to meet a deadline by the higher ups.
I think it's fair to say that the negative impact of an unpolished product is far more damaging to credibility than the positive impact of being first to market (novelty).
Hear me, Verizon & HTC?