Monday, May 2, 2011

HTC ThunderBolt 4G Android Phone Verizon Wireless

HTC ThunderBolt 4G Android Phone (Verizon Wireless)HTC ThunderBolt 4G Android Phone Verizon WirelessIf you're looking for an honest review of the Thunderbolt (mind you, I've only had it a little less than 2 weeks at this point), please read on.

First, a little background: I've been a Verizon customer for years. I previously had an LG Env2 for 3 years before buying the Thunderbolt. Like a lot of you, I'm sure, I waited and waited and skipped over several releases of the iPhone (on AT&T), desperately hoping for something equal or better on Verizon. For better or worse, I stood my ground and kept on waiting for something on Verizon. I was eligible for an upgrade about this time last year, but I never pulled the trigger on it for one reason or another. I guess I just never found a phone that really made me want to spend the extra money for the data plan (although the Droid Incredible came close). As soon as I heard that the LTE phones would start to roll out in early 2011, I knew I was waiting until that point to use my upgrade.

That brings us to the present. Dismayed a little by the continuous delays that plagued the release of the Thunderbolt, I waited patiently until the weekend following the release. I told myself I was going to wait a little longer to see if there were any major problems. I was a bit nervous on this purchase, just based on the rumors I'd been hearing about (and reading about) that delayed the Thunderbolt's release. In the end, though, I decided I just couldn't wait any longer and I made the purchase. My $50 upgrade credit (incidentally, the last time I'll be able to use one of those on Verizon, since they're doing away with the program) brought the price of the phone from $250 down to $200. Initial set-up at the Verizon store was minimal and I was out the door fairly quickly.

A few caveats here, before I dive into the guts of the review:
1) I live on the East Coast, in Arlington, VA. I frequently travel up/down the I-95 corridor to NJ/NYC/CT/etc, where Verizon's 4G LTE signal is very strong.
2) Even though this is my first Android phone, I'm quite familiar with the operating system (OS) since my fiancee has one (Droid Incredible) and my father has one (Droid X). I've spent extensive time with both of those phones, so I have a pretty good reference point.

So, the first thing everyone wants to know is, of course, about 4G. (This is certainly the start of the "Pros" category, by the way.) As I mentioned above, I spend most of my time on the East Coast in the mid-Atlantic region. I've found the 4G signal to be excellent so far. During a recent trip from Philly down to Arlington, VA, I had 4G signal a good majority of the time. There were definitely spots in Northern Maryland and Delaware that didn't have 4G, but once I hit the outskirts of Baltimore, I had 4G signal pretty much the rest of the way south to Washington, DC. Keep in mind, too, that the 4G LTE network (on this phone, anyway) is for DATA only. It won't be until later this year or next year that Verizon starts to release phones that actually make phone calls over the 4G network.

The 4G LTE network that Verizon has up and running is BLAZING fast. I can't possibly overstate that in any way, shape, or form. I have a Comcast cable modem at home that provides Wifi to my apartment. The 4G speeds that I'm getting with LTE right now are FASTER than my home network. And not even really that close, to be honest. Verizon's 4G network is considerably faster than the Comcast cable modem. How much faster you ask? Take these numbers for instance (generated using the app from the Android app store):

On my home Wifi: 2941 kbps DOWNLOAD, 1390 kbps UPLOAD
On Verizon's LTE network: 5102 kbps DOWNLOAD, 21214 kbps UPLOAD

In case your math is a little rusty, download speeds are almost twice as fast on the LTE network. Upload speeds are 15+ times faster! That's compared to a CABLE MODEM! That's insanely fast, folks!!! The big question, of course, is will those speeds continue to hold up as more folks jump on the LTE network? I can't answer that question since I'm not a Verizon engineer. I certainly hope so, that's for sure. Verizon's network is their reputation, so I'm willing to bet that the speeds hold up fairly well. And let's face it -- even if there is a *slight* downgrade in speed once more folks are on, it's still insanely fast for a cell phone.

To go along with the network speeds, lets discuss the Mobile Hotspot on the phone. You can connect up to 5 devices to the hotspot. My understanding is that the mobile hotspot option is free on this phone through mid-May (roughly, don't quote me on this). I tested it out this weekend, and it performed flawlessly using my MacBook. Speeds were, again, outstanding. I didn't run any numbers, but just browsing the Internet seemed considerably faster when connected to my phone (vs. the Cable Modem Wifi). Definitely an awesome feature to be able to turn the phone into a mobile 4G LTE hotspot. Am I going to use that feature after May when I have to pay extra? I'm not sure, but it's certainly a great option to have for some folks. I guess the answer will also depend on Verizon's pricing structure, whenever that fully emerges.

The phone itself feels well put together. Make no mistake about it: it's LARGE. But it's not too large. Personally, I think it's the perfect size for cell phone. Screen size is the same as the Droid X at 4.3 inches, although the phone itself is smaller in profile and feels a lot nicer to hold than the Droid X. It's great for any type of video, Google Nav, etc etc. The list goes on, but the screen is big, bright, and beautiful. Is it the latest and greatest screen technology out there? I doubt it, but it certainly looks really good, I can tell you that much.

That about does it for the PROS. Now for the CONS. Some of them are nitpicky, and some are not. Some may be mixed with future updates, and others probably won't.

First thing I noticed when I got the phone home: Verizon loads this thing with bloatware CRAP. I don't know about you, but that really, REALLY annoys me. Not so much that they put it on there, I understand that Verizon probably has marketing agreements with other companies (Blockbuster, for example). I can live with that. That's if they made the apps removable - they are not. And that's what drives me absolutely crazy with this phone. The only program that can be deleted from the device is CityID. The others are baked into the ROM - meaning that even if you go though the procedures to delete them, guess what -- they're still there! They don't go away!! And there's nothing you can do to get rid of them, short of rooting the phone (which I'm not recommending). To name a few: Blockbuster, Bitbop, Amazon Kindle, Lets Golf 2, Peep, Rhapsody, Rock Band, Slacker, VCast Apps, VCast Media, and VZ Navigator. Keep in mind that some of these apps run AUTOMATICALLY in the background (draining battery! which I'll get to in a minute). If you didn't just read that list and say "Are you kidding me?!?!" then you're nuts. I have a demo of Lets Golf 2 on my phone that I CAN'T DELETE because Verizon says so. That is total crap, in my opinion, and a huge downside to this phone. I'm okay with them pre-loading it on their phones - just don't put it in the ROM. I literally hate that Verizon thinks you should have no choice on deleting some apps. Huge minus for this phone.

That leads me nicely into battery life. Believe (most of) what you read. It's more or less a disaster. I'd like to tell you otherwise, believe me! And it's even more annoying when you realize there are Verizon apps running in the background that you can't get rid of (or stop with a Task Killer program -- they pop right back up!). If you run this phone on the 4G LTE network all day long, I'm here to tell you that it's HIGHLY unlikely you're even getting through the day without having to recharge. I found that I average (so far) about 4-6 hours between charges. And that is NOT with heavy use (streaming video, etc.). That's with light-to-moderate use during the day (1 or 2 quick phone calls, checking Gmail and Facebook, etc). If you read the reviews on here (and elsewhere - check on Verizon's own forums), you'll see people complaining of the same thing. I really hope that Verizon will put out a software update to address this issue, as it's most certainly one of the phone's major problems. Having said that, there are ways around the issue. Using different apps from the app store (Phone Info is the one I use), you can force the phone to operate in 3G mode only. That definitely helps batter life tremendously. You can also download/purchase a "task killer" app to close out apps running (draining battery) in the background. That also helps, but the biggest saver of the battery is forcing the phone into 3G only mode. Which, for me, is quite frustrating. Yeah, I'm saving on the battery life, but one of the MAIN REASONS I bought this phone to begin with is to access the 4G network. So it doesn't do me much good to run it in 3G only mode, although I'm forced to do it right now because of the battery life. It's frustrating, to say the least. Is it something Verizon will fix in the near future? Let's hope so. Just be aware of this issue before you buy this phone (many of the rumors surrounding the delayed release of this phone centered on the problems with its battery life).

Phone call quality is mediocre, at best. When I think of a word to describe the call quality, what comes to mind is "meh". That's really all I can say. For a device this technologically superior, it's call quality should be fantastic. It's NOT - it's just OK. Both the Droid Incredible and the Droid X are *FAR* superior than this phone in that regard. Why? I don't really know. If you read up on some of the newest Android phones (the Motorola Atrix on AT&T for example), a lot of them are having problems with call quality. Put the HTC Thunderbolt in that category too. I haven't really had anyone complain, per se, but it's just not that great. People sound very "tinny" on my end. I agree with others: the uppermost volume setting is definitely not loud enough, either. If you're in a really quiet room, it's fine, but good luck being able to hear anyone on a crowded city street. Again, I hope we'll see a fix for this sooner than later through a software update.

The camera on the phone is also just "OK". It's really nothing great. Yeah it's 8 megapixels, and yeah, it takes decent shots for a cell phone, but that's about all. It's been covered in great detail by reviews elsewhere, and I haven't really used it too much yet, so I'm not going into great detail here. I haven't been that impressed by it, at least not yet, but it's not awful either. I haven't used the front camera for any video calls or anything like that yet, so I can't comment on it much. It's 1.3 megapixels, that's about all I know. I'm sure it's also mediocre.

I think that about covers it, at least the main aspects of the phone, anyway. I will edit/update this initial review as I spend more time with the phone. Believe me, I *really* wanted this to be a 5-star phone, but it's honestly not. It's probably more like a 3.5 star phone, but due to the sheer speed of Verizon's LTE network, I'll be generous and give it a half-star bump to 4-stars. If Verizon can figure out the battery life problems and the call quality problems, it's definitely a 4.5 star phone (I'm keeping that other half-star reserved until Verizon decides not to kill the phone with bloatware!).

It's definitely a good (but not great) entrance into the 4G/LTE arena for Verizon. If you're going to buy the phone, temper your expectations a little. That's the best advice I can give. If you can stand to wait a few more months, I'd probably do so to see what's coming from Motorola, Samsung, LG, etc.

I hope this review helped you make a reasonable decision on the phone. READ MORE.

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