With all the hype and confusion about 4G data service, it’s at least clear that there’s a leader in the field: Verizon Wireless.
When Verizon began rolling out its new LTE (Long Term Evolution) network late last year, it delivered tremendous speeds with a big asterisk: There were few users, and no phones capable of taking advantage of it. The only devices available were a couple of laptop-computer adapters.
Now, amid an enormous marketing campaign, Verizon has delivered the first phone capable of using the new network: the ThunderBolt from Taiwan’s HTC Corp. It confirms the promise of LTE: The network is good, and wicked fast. Yet I encountered enough problems with the ThunderBolt itself that you might want to wait until there’s a bigger selection of 4G phones before making a decision.
First, let’s talk about the network. Verizon’s 4G service is currently available in 39 U.S. metropolitan areas, and more than 60 airports; the company says the network will be in more than 145 markets by the end of 2011. If you’re lucky enough to be in one of them, prepare to be impressed.
In two dozen tests in the San Francisco Bay area using Ookla’s Speedtest app on the ThunderBolt, I averaged download speeds of 12.4 megabits per second. How fast is that? Very fast. The Ookla app itself downloaded in less than five seconds. YouTube videos started quickly and ran stutter-free.
The network was more than 10 times the speed of AT&T Inc.’s 3G network, which it has long touted as the nation’s fastest. And it was almost four times the average speed I got in the same area using Sprint Nextel Corp.’s WiMax 4G network. The fastest speed I registered, 25.5 mbps, would put many a home cable-modem connection to shame. Moreover, at least for now, Verizon is offering an unlimited data plan for $30 a month, the same as it charges for its 3G network.
Any discussion of wireless networks is full of caveats. Speeds may diminish as more users crowd onto the network. Performance can vary by location, time of day and other factors. And competition is coming: AT&T is scheduled to begin rolling out its own LTE network later this year. (AT&T and Deutsche Telekom’s T-Mobile, which AT&T has agreed to buy, both currently market 4G service based on a souped-up version of the older 3G technology.)
Still, Verizon is fastest in the 4G arena right now. The real question is whether its sole 4G current phone is one you want.
From the original Nexus One made for Google Inc. -- which failed for reasons unrelated to the quality of the device -- to the Droid Incredible, HTC is capable of delivering excellent phones. Too bad the ThunderBolt isn’t one of them.
There are some good things about the phone, which runs Google’s Android operating system. The big 4.3-inch screen makes viewing videos a pleasure, and a convenient kickstand lets you prop it up on, say, an airline tray table. There’s an 8-megapixel, dual-flash rear camera for shooting still photos and high-definition video, and a front-facing camera for making video calls; the phone comes with 8 gigabytes of internal storage and a 32 gigabyte microSD card.
The ThunderBolt also comes with an app that turns it into a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot that can be shared with as many as eight devices; the feature, for which Verizon normally charges an extra $20 a month, is free until May 15.
That’s the positive side. On the other hand, I encountered a number of issues with my test ThunderBolt. The on-off switch required an inordinate amount of pressure to operate, and the phone had difficulty holding a charge; a full battery went dead within two days while the phone was turned off. I also kept running into an error message about a failed process called “com.htc.bg.” whose meaning or cause I was unable to decipher. HTC’s public-relations firm says the company is aware of the problem and will push out an over-the-air fix “as soon as possible.”
A second ThunderBolt had fewer such problems. Still, it suffered from only so-so battery life; with its wireless features enabled, the battery usually required a recharge to get through a full day of use, so you might want to invest in a spare.
The Thunderbolt is also chunky, weighing in at 6.2 ounces; by way of comparison, that’s about 29 percent heavier than Apple Inc.’s iPhone 4, which runs on 3G networks. And at $249.99 on a two-year contract, it’s expensive too.
More LTE phones are on the way for Verizon’s new network, including devices from Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc., LG Electronics Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. Given my experiences with the ThunderBolt, I’d recommend taking your time about making a buying decision. It’s the only thing about the Verizon network that flashes a “Go Slow” sign.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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