From DroidX to Thunderbolt: One Man’s Story

This last week, I upgraded from the Verizon DroidX 3G to the HTC Thunderbolt phone and I’ve been asked to write up a review.
This article will be both a review and an introspective of making the change from one smartphone to another.

Introduction

People “upgrade” their phones because they are unhappy somehow with their current phones (or they are a “keep up with the Jonses” type).  Since I’m not the latter and I really like the DroidX hardware, you’re probably wondering why I chose to upgrade at all.

The HTC Thunderbolt is the first Verizon 4G phone which is what was initially attractive to me.  With 4G boasting double-digit speed multiplication – I figured it would be more than an “incremental” upgrade of speed.

The 1ghz Snapdragon processor also sounded appealing to me.  Sure, there are dual core phones coming, but phones and their battery power are already having issues and I didn’t figure I’d need that sort of gross speed.  I was assured that while my DroidX was overclocked already, the Snapdragon’s optimization would definitely show marked improvement in my day to day usage.

Besides, I have another line eligible to upgrade about the time the Bionic comes around … so worst case scenario, I could always change up.

When it comes to smartphones, I’ve always owned Motorola Droid brand.  Going to HTC was going to be a change for me.  But, I got a good deal on the Thunderbolt, so I figured I’d take the jump.

The Hardware

I’ve always heard that HTC hardware was inferior to Motorola so I was overly critical when I tried the Thunderbolt (TB from now on) at the Verizon store.  They tether those things down, so it’s hard to get a full perspective – but I did use it for a good 15 minutes.  There are always things you can’t test out in the store – you need to be in the wild, but it passed the first muster.  It didn’t feel cheap or flimsy – which is what I was concerned with.

Comparing the TB to the DroidX (simply X from now on) reveals the TB is shorter and wider than the X.  I would call it the 1.85:1 widescreen vice the 2.30:1 widescreen – which I actually prefer.   It costs you some pixels in screen resolution (the X is 480×854, while the TB is 480×800).  The DPI on the TB is lower, so everything looks BIGGER on the TB.  At some point, I’ll try to increase the DPI so it more mirrors my X.

The TB does away with the signature dedicated camera button (everyone hates that button, but I loved it) and has a bigger volume rocker.  The power button on top is off center and smaller – even slightly more recessed – which is proving a challenge for me.

Instead of the real buttons on the front of the X, the TB has the hauppatic ‘touch’ buttons.  I was quite used to pushing the HOME button on the X to wake it up and of course, this isn’t possible on the TB.  Growing pains I assume, but I still miss it.  The button loss itself doesn’t bother me as much as I thought – but I do miss that HOME wake up.

The TB has a dual LED flash 8MP camera just like the X – and picture quality is right on par (which is to say – not great).  The TB goes one step ahead and puts a front-facing VGA camera (read as “low as hell quality”) into the mix.  This is for that silly video chatting thing (I still don’t get it – maybe it’s because I’m 41 – but I really don’t have ANY desire to “face chat” with anyone).  Of course, Verizon doesn’t want you using Skype, so that was pulled off the phone.  I guess there are a couple of apps out there that work with it, but again – I could care less.  Still, for those that want it, here you are.

Rounding out the hardware differences is a little clever kickstand on the back of the TB which allows you to prop up your phone either portrait or landscape.  Both phones use a microUSB for charging and data transfer which is perfect – I would have been pissed if the HTC used something different.  The battery cover on the HTC takes an Act of God to get open – I definitely preferred the X for that.  Although one good thing is that the TB is ready for an induction charger right out of the box (so to speak).  Replace the battery door with a special induction version (about $30) and buy a “power mat” ($70 if you don’t already own one) and you can just drop your phone on the pad to charge it.  Neat, if expensive option.

I was able to try out the headphone jack in my car over the weekend – streaming music via the incredible SubSonic app.  The fit is nice and tight – feels like good quality just like the X.  I also noticed that the sound didn’t play for a moment after I removed the plug like my X did.  Minor, but I appreciate it.

The User Interface

The most common complaint with Android phones is the manufacturer overlaid UI.  The Motorola has it’s BLUR overlay and HTC has it’s SENSE overlay.  Okay, so the generic Google Android OS is lacking in the “frills” department, but at least it is fast and usable.  When you start throwing on these overlay UIs, you start introducing bugs, speed issues and forced usage on the end user.  Seems like EVERYONE has to have social widgets and such designed to suck your battery dry as it grabs tweets and posts on Facebook all day long.  Heaven FORBID you want to do something other than social networking with these phones.

Motorola’s BLUR was a nightmare.  Slow, bulky – and not overly useful.  Sure it added some great features to the X like panoramic photo shooting, etc. but once you realized what a big ugly anchor it was, all you could do was think about getting it off your phone or using a replacement launcher like Zeam or Launcher Pro.

I went into the TB expecting the Sense UI to make me crazy, but even after 4 days of use, I’m still not ready to move to a third-party launcher – and that is huge.  The UI is snappy as hell on this Snapdragon processor and after removing all the pointless social widgets, it doesn’t appear to be vampire sucking the blood out of my battery.  The Sense UI is filled with useful widgets and screens as well as many options to personalize that will appeal to “those” sort of people (you know, that care how it looks, not how it works).  Overall, after a bit of culling, the Sense UI suits me fine.  I might hate it in a week, but right now – I’m still using it.  If anyone is interested in more of a Sense UI breakdown, I’d be willing to talk about it in another article.

Performance

As mentioned previously, this is the fastest phone I’ve ever seen.  No stuttering around, no hiccups.  Everything opens and moves at the speed of lightning (haha, I’m funny).  Coupled with the unbelievable speeds of 4G and you’re REALLY talking about having a desktop PC wired to broadband in your hand.  No kidding.

It is brutally apparently when you are using heavy apps with heavy internet requirements – like say, Google Maps.  The maps scale in and out smoothly with little or no latency in redrawing.  Updating a half a dozen apps with the Market is a speedy experience now instead of a chore.  Watching long list views populate slowly with images and/or data is gone – it’s like being on a PC now.  Stuff is just .. there.

This all comes at a price – especially 4G.  If you leave 4G on, you can enjoy your powerhouse phone for about 3.5 hours with light usage.  THAAAT’S right … 3.5 hours.  Less if you are a heavy user.

Verizon in their infinite wisdom (or HTC – whomever you want to blame) forgot to include a 4G toggle switch.  A quick trip to the market and a tool called PHONE INFO will allow you to change your phone to 3G – which will save your battery big time.

The 4G is really like being on broadband … GOOD broadband, not that low end DSL crap.  With the SpeedTest app, I was able to see 22000+ kpbs downloads!  Compare that to my 600-700 kpbs on the X with 3G – and you’re talking about a serious upgrade.  My friends on the X in their 3G markets see up to 2200 kpbs which was quite the slap in the face to me.

Here is something even more odd.  I’m finally starting to get “real” 3G speeds now – anywhere from 1600-2200 kpbs, just like my friends in other markets.  I’d blame it on the X, but my friends are on the X too.  Whatever – I get good battery on 3G and I’m still seeing 3-4x increases in speed from my X on 3G.  Plus, when I need the power, 4G is available.

Call Quality

Funny how this category typically shows up LAST in most reviews .. “Oh, yes and by the way – it makes good calls too”.

Truth be told, I’ve only had about 4 phone calls total to evaluate the performance of the TB.  Overall, the quality of calls on my X was good – except in my “signal black hole” home where I always had fairly poor call quality.

I’m pleased to report that call quality is at least slightly better on the TB over my X – especially at home.  Maybe the TB has a better antenna – I don’t know.  All I’m saying is that the quality is as good or better than the X.

Most of my calls are short in duration, so I can’t comment on “lost” or dropped calls.  If I find anything more, I’ll put it in the comments below.

The Final Verdict

I can honestly say that evaluating this phone has been very … bi-polar. I started off peeing my pants at how great it was … then dropped to a low when I realized the battery died so fast … then I was ecstatic again when I figured out how to turn it down to 3G and spare my battery … then I was down again, when I started using it more in a “day to day” scenario; being so used to the way my X worked … Now as I write this, I’m happy again – realizing this phone is indeed and truly more than a “minor upgrade” to the X – and it’s still so much in it’s infancy that there are going to be great things ahead (hey, it’s already rooted and custom roms are starting to flow).  I totally remember my issues with the DroidX early on – so I have to keep in mind this phone will have some growing pains as well.

As always, keep an eye on the comments – and I will expand on my findings (good and bad) as I get more hands on time with this neat phone.

About Shane Monroe

Shane R. Monroe has been doing technical and social commentary writing for over 20 years. Google+