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Gadgets & Gizmos

From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

For me and the HTC Thunderbolt, lightning didn't strike until a firmware update

29

July

screen_shot_2011-07-29_at_1.09.06_pm.pngSo many new smartphones come to the market these days that it's hard to keep track of them all. After a couple of months the latest and greatest "Stupendous Phone" becomes obsolete and it's time to move on. So you're probably wondering why I'm just now blogging about the HTC Thunderbolt. It was back in April that I first received the phone for review and at the time the Thunderbolt was taking the industry by storm. It was the first 4G LTE phone to come out on the Verizon network and many of the early reviews were glowing. My experience, unfortunately, was not a positive one at first but it's much better now, after a recent firmware update. Here's my experience with the Thunderbolt over the last several months.

The first Thunderbolt I received from Verizon worked fine and included all the bells and whistles you'd expect from HTC. The screen is big and beautiful and the phone's performance is very snappy. The cameras are excellent and I love the HTC Sense widgets and other enhancements. I'm not going to go through all the features and specs because you can easily get them here. Let's fast-forward to the main selling point of the Thunderbolt - speed.

At first the blistering speeds I kept reading about were not a reality for me with the Thunderbolt, at least not consistently. It was rare for me to make a 4G connection and when I did, the slightest phone movement throttled me back to 3G speeds. I test a lot of equipment at my home and the signal is weak there, so ro be fair I took the Thunderbolt to locations in Tampa where I knew the signal was strong. The 4G speed was better, but still not stellar. Using the phone in WiFi hotspot mode was even worse. The phone kept dumping the connection to my MacBook and when it stayed connected the battery drained so fast it was pretty much unusable.

Convinced I had a defective phone, I contacted Verizon and they met me with a new one. We did some tests in the same spot I had tested before, a Panera on Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa, and the new phone seemed a little more stable so I kept it and began testing again. Data connections still were very spotty and slow. It was like the Thunderbolt was a race car that needed a certain high-octane fuel to run properly. When I couldn't give it the 4G fuel it needed, it sputtered and had to head back to the pits.

screen_shot_2011-07-29_at_1.11.43_pm.pngI wondered if Verizon's 4G LTE network to blame. The Thunderbolt had been tested and reviewed by bloggers in other major cities and everyone was raving about the phone. Could it be the 4G network in Tampa Bay isn't as robust as some of the other test cities? The answer to that question is a resounding no. Verizon's 4G LTE network absolutely smokes in Tampa and it's getting better all the time. How do I know that? I also received a 4G LTE MiFi portable hotspot to test and took it to all the same places where I'd tested the Thunderbolt. Tests using the Speedtest.net site showed connections through the MiFi on my MacBook were a lot faster than the open WiFi connections I often use. Below is a test from a Starbucks in Tampa. On top is the result using Starbucks WiFi, on the bottom is the result with the 4G LTE MiFi on Verizon.

starbucks.png

mifi.png

To me it seemed like the problem was an antenna or radio issue, because the Thunderbolt just couldn't hold a reliable 4G signal. Without 4G, the phone seemed slower than my iPhone 4 on 3G. I was ready to write a pretty negative review and knew it would be contrary to many of the ones that gushed about this phone. But hey, I'm in this to tell it like it is, good or bad.

Then just after Fourth of July weekend, Verizon pushed out a firmware update that was supposed to fix a number of issues. At the top of the list was "improved data connectivity." I downloaded it immediately and tada! Problem solved. The connectivity issues are gone, the speed issues are gone and the Thunderbolt now performs with a clap and boom as originally promised. The speed test below was made using the Thunderbolt in hotspot mode with my MacBook at the same Starbucks as the tests above. You can see the speed is comparable to the MiFi Hotspot test done just minutes before.

thunderbolt.png

So while my friends at Verizon are probably not pleased that I kept the demo phone so long, I'm glad I did. With the new firmware installed I can give you a more accurate review of the Thunderbolt. It's a good phone with a beautiful display, excellent features and blistering speed when on 4G. It still has some battery issues, however, that make it difficult for heavy data users to survive when away from power. Based on my tests in Tampa Bay, the Verizon 4G LTE network is crazy fast so other 4G phones and devices with longer battery life might be a better choice, depending on the features you need. Too bad the Thunderbolt can't draw some extra power from the animated lightning strike it displays when the phone boots.

[Last modified: Friday, July 29, 2011 1:22pm]

    

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