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TECH LAB

Thunderbolt phone is fast but flawed

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / March 31, 2011

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I see where scientists at Georgia Tech are working on a technology that could capture energy from our bodies to recharge our cellphones. Perhaps they should start with the newest cellphone from Verizon Wireless. The Thunderbolt, from Taiwanese phone maker HTC Corp., is an impressive chunk of technology, but its digital firepower comes at a heavy cost in battery life.

Priced at $249.99 with a two-year service agreement, the Thunderbolt is $50 more than most other high-end smartphones, like Apple Inc.’s iPhone 4. Luckily, you can save money by shopping around. Amazon.com, for instance, is selling the Thunderbolt for $174.99. It’s a decent deal for online data junkies, at least for now. While other carriers are putting monthly limits on data downloads, Thunderbolt users can get an unlimited data plan for $29.99 a month. Too bad Verizon plans to set limits on data downloads later this year.

At first glance, the Thunderbolt is a dead ringer for the EVO, Sprint Nextel Corp.’s superphone, also made by HTC. They share the same bulky, slablike shape and expansive touchscreen. But the Thunderbolt’s innards are different. It’s the first phone designed for Verizon’s LTE, or Long-Term Evolution, a system for delivering faster, “4G’’ data speeds to wireless devices. Sprint’s EVO uses a different 4G system called WiMAX, and it’s not bad. But even Sprint plans to migrate to LTE eventually, along with nearly every other phone company on earth.

I tested a Verizon LTE modem for laptop computers late last year, with stunning results. Data poured across the network at up to 15 million bits per second, comparable to a good cable-modem broadband connection. Even the data uploads were fast — 5 million bits or so.

Who needs that kind of broadband speed from a phone? Anybody who’d like to transmit video of his daughter’s basketball game, or download an episode of “Dancing with the Stars.’’

Did the Thunderbolt deliver superior LTE performance? It took a while to find out. The standard speed-testing app, Ookla’s Speedtest, is incompatible with the Verizon phone. But I managed a workaround, thanks to the Thunderbolt’s handy “mobile hotspot’’ feature. You can connect the phone to the Verizon network, then share the data stream with up to eight nearby laptops or smartphones via Wi-Fi wireless connections. So I ran the test on an Apple laptop attached to the Thunderbolt’s LTE service.

Download speeds were outstanding, at about 10.5 million bits per second. But uploads were a big letdown, averaging just 1.5 million bits per second. That was far slower than I’d gotten last year. Perhaps it’s a problem with the mobile hotspot system, but you’d need better speeds to do decent video transmissions.

This might explain why the Thunderbolt’s video-calling performance was so shabby. A colleague and I used a pair of Thunderbolts to chat via Tango, a popular video-calling app for Android phones. The video images were jagged and smeary-looking, the voices frequently inaudible.

But when you’re simply downloading video or music, the Thunderbolt performs superbly. I spent hours listening to the Slacker streaming music service with barely a hitch. And my favorite “Three Stooges’’ video clips looked splendid on the phone’s YouTube app. Even ordinary Web pages practically leap onto the screen. And the Thunderbolt, unlike other Verizon smartphones, will let you talk and visit websites at the same time.

Still, the phone froze up now and then. Perhaps HTC engineers should have swapped its single-core processor with a beefier dual-core chip.

But using a faster processor might have worsened the Thunderbolt’s dismal battery life. I put it through a fairly active afternoon, downloading apps, viewing websites, listening to Internet music streams. I even phoned my wife. I didn’t switch on the mobile hotspot feature or run videos. Still, less than four hours later, the battery was drained.

HTC addressed a similar problem in the EVO by letting users deactivate 4G when the extra speed isn’t needed. There’s no such option on the Thunderbolt. It’s 4G all the time, and users will love every minute of it, right up until the battery gives out. Maybe those Georgia Tech scientists will turn us all into human battery chargers in a few years. Until then, enjoy the Thunderbolt, but don’t stray too far from a wall socket.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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