The HTC Thunderbolt is the first 4G phone on Verizon’s new 4G LTE network – the same next-gen technology Vodafone, Orange, T-Mobile and O2 are aiming to bring to the UK later this year.
And if the Thunderbolt is anything to go by, start getting your upgrade paperwork in order now. The shift to 4G is nothing short of electric: web pages load in the blink of an eye, High Def YouTube videos begin streaming in seconds and media files upload in a flash.
We know you’ve heard all this before, we know you’re sick and tired of being promised lightning fast this and instant that. But here are the numbers. The Thunderbolt averaged 10Mbps download speeds in suburban Seattle – that’s nearly 20 times the typical speed of an iPhone 4 on AT&T’s 3G network here.
Firing up the mobile hotspot feature, the Thunderbolt happily served several gadgets at once with multi-megabit Wi-Fi, even with one in the next room. An iPad 2 regularly saw faster speeds than over a normal home wireless network.
10Mbps is fast enough that if Verizon was a country, it would have the second fastest broadband speeds in the world (damn those fibre optic'd South Koreans). Upload speeds were even more boggling – averaging 32Mbps and topping out at a monstrous 44Mbps.
Struggling to keep up
In practice, this means surfing and downloading speeds are dependent on the Thunderbolt’s ability to render pages or load interactivity. And here’s where things get stormy. The HTC can feel laggy scrolling and zooming complex websites, and stutters when ploughing through the most demanding Flash sites. You can almost feel the 1GHz Snapdragon chip complaining about the torrent of data pouring in.
Away from data-intensive tasks, the Thunderbolt is much happier. It may only sport Android 2.2 but the HTC Sense skin feels up to date. You get seven home screens to festoon with widgets, although one is taken up completely by a large FriendStream feed that aggregates updates from Facebook, Twitter and Flickr.
The 4.3-inch display is well up to HTC’s usual standards, handling HD video with buckets of colours and just enough brightness. Flipping out the tough metal kick-stand on the back reveals the Thunderbolt’s on-board stereo speakers and makes for a surprisingly good lean-back experience with vids.
The on-board cameras are a mixed bunch. Thumbs up for Photo Booth-style live filters, little shutter lag and good twin LED flashes. Thumbs down for wobbly autofocus in camcorder mode and misleading resolution figures: HTC claims the main camera shoots 8MP snaps but 3264x1952 pixels comes out closer to 6MP. Photos are generally well exposed but look over-sharpened and rather noisy in low light.
There’s 8GB of storage on board and a (barely) removable 32GB microSD card. Build quality is first class – if on the chunky side at 177g and 14mm thick. As you’d expect, 4G use hammers the battery and setting up a mobile hotspot is even worse, but we still got nearly a full day from a single charge.
The real test with 4G, of course, will be data tariffs. Downloading at 10Mbps will run through a 2GB limit in under half an hour. Verizon is launching the Thunderbolt in the US with the mobile hotspot feature enabled for free and, shockingly, an unlimited data plan. Something tells us British networks might find that kind of Thunderbolt and lightning very, very frightening indeed.