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HTC Thunderbolt review: Verizon strikes at 4G speed

Verizon's first 4G Android phone arrives. And the HTC Thunderbolt is a zippy masterpiece.

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For those who are willing to pay $20 extra per month, the mobile hotspot feature is quite useful. It can broadcast a Wi-Fi signal to eight other devices and provide Internet access to all of them. It's particularly useful for people who are constantly on the go and need a Wi-Fi hotspot in unusual places. However, the hotspot functionality eats through the battery quickly. If you only need Wi-Fi for a laptop or netbook, we'd recommend tethering through the charge cable. That way the phone can charge off the laptop battery.

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The 8-megapixel camera on the back is capable, but not spectacular. It comes with an LED flash and a myriad of features for adjusting how the picture is taken (outdoor, indoor, portrait, etc.) and even adding effects. The identical camera and camcorder interface is quite easy to use. The camera can record 720p video, and we found fewer blurring problems than the average smartphone camera has when the picture is in motion. The camera sensor still picks up a lot of noise in low light, though. Again, capable, even good, but not great.

Battery

Normally we would talk about the battery in the hardware section, but it's an important enough topic here that we've called it out separately. The HTC Thunderbolt has a 1400mAh battery, which is a bit smaller than many other smartphones, including other HTC phones. The smaller battery, coupled with the power needs of the 4G antenna, leads to pretty dismal battery life for the Thunderbolt.

The phone is rated at around six to seven hours of talk time, but let's face it: You don't buy this phone primarily for making calls. When using apps and browsing the Web, the battery can run out pretty quickly. Under heavy usage tests (browsing, apps and video playback), we found the Thunderbolt battery giving out in as little as five hours. Light or moderate users will have few problems; the phone will easily make it through an entire day. But heavy users will want to keep a charge cable or an extra battery on them at all times.

Unfortunately, there is no built-in way to disable the 4G radio (a standard feature on other HTC 4G phones, such as the EVO 4G on Sprint). This is a huge problem for people living in 3G-only areas because the 4G radio is constantly searching for a signal and eating up the battery in the process.

We discovered a few ways to maximize battery life so that even heavy users might be able to make it through a full day on a single charge. First, download the "Phone Info" app from the Android Market. In the "Phone information" menu, change the drop-down box to "CDMA auto (PRL)". This will force the phone to stop looking for a 4G signal and use only 3G or lower. Even if you live in a 4G area, it's a good idea to run in this mode, then simply switch back when you need 4G data speeds.

The other important battery-saving tactic is to use a task-killer app that will allow you to close down unused apps. Many apps run in the background needlessly. A task killer (for example, Advanced Task Killer or Advanced Task Manager) is great for stopping them and preserving battery life. It also has the added benefit of freeing up RAM and processing power for the apps you are actually using.

Software

The HTC Thunderbolt comes with Android 2.2 (Froyo) installed, with HTC's Sense interface over the top. We're fans of the HTC Sense interface, especially compared with Samsung and Motorola alternatives. However, some users prefer the stock Android interface; they will be disappointed here.