HTC ThunderBolt vs Apple iPhone 4

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Introduction and Design
Introduction:

Two of the newest smartphones to hit Verizon Wireless this year are the HTC ThunderBolt and Apple iPhone 4. Both have a lot to offer customers, as the ThunderBolt is the first 4G LTE smartphone for the carrier, which also takes advantage of Android's highly-customizable nature, while the iPhone 4 features a world of quality apps and a deeply polished software experience. We’ve used both devices for quite a while now, so we'd like to show you how they stack-up next to each other in some key areas. So, let’s get it on!

Design:

In terms of their overall design and appearance, the HTC ThunderBolt and Apple iPhone 4 are literally comparing apples to oranges. The ThunderBolt looks like a “big boy’s phone” as its size is on the large side, as is its weight at 6.23 oz. Even though it is constructed out of plastic, it feels solid and firm overall. Meanwhile, the iPhone 4 is more compact, easier to hold, and doesn’t feel quite as heavy. It also has a more high-end look and feel to it, with the solid-piece glass on the front and back, and the metal trim around the sides. But the one thing that we do like about the ThunderBolt is the use of the soft-touch coating on the back, as it doesn’t show fingerprints like the glass back of the iPhone 4 – as this is a trade off. Between the two, the iPhone 4 does look and feel better overall, but the ThunderBolt is still made well, as long as it’s not too big for your hands.


The main reason the ThunderBolt is on the beefier side is due to the large 4.3” 480x800 pixel resolution touchscreen display, while the iPhone 4 is using a smaller 3.5” display, but it’s pixel density is much higher due to its 640x960 pixel resolution. We love both…really. The larger screen on the ThunderBolt is quite good, images and text look sharp and videos also look great. When we viewed the same content on the iPhone 4, it did look a bit clearer (due to the higher pixel count) and colors did look more natural, but you are limited to a much smaller screen. One thing that we did notice when using the phones outside on a sunny day was that the screen on the ThunderBolt looks almost blacked-out (even though we turned the backlight brightness all the way up), while the screen on the iPhone 4 is somewhat viewable.


As you probably already know, the iPhone 4 just has the one solitary physical button on the front that takes you back to the home screen, while the ThunderBolt has 4 touch-sensitive buttons at the bottom for home, menu, back, and search. These do come in handy, as you could be in your email’s inbox and just click the search button and type in a search for it to perform. However, the side buttons on the ThunderBolt could have been designed better, since the power/lock button is rather small and flush with the surrounding plastic, and the volume rocker is one piece and you’re not sure where to press. By comparison, the iPhone 4 has separate volume buttons that have nice feel and “click” to them when pressed, as does the top power/lock button. Both devices come with a standard 3.5mm headset jack on the top, but for charging and PC connectivity, the iPhone 4 uses Apple’s proprietary 30-pin plug, while ThunderBolt uses the more common microUSB connection, which is a plus.



HTC ThunderBolt 360-degrees View:



Apple iPhone 4 360-degrees View:





Interface:

Once again, we’re shown that the HTC ThunderBolt and Apple iPhone 4 could not look more different with their user interface. But here’s the interesting thing – both interfaces work really well and are quite easy to use. If you’ve never owned or used a smartphone before in your life, the iOS platform on the iPhone 4 would probably be quickest to learn, but the HTC Sense layered over Android on the ThunderBolt is also quite simple and takes the guess-work out of using Android. Both devices have multiple home screens, but the ThunderBolt has a world of desktop widgets, scenes and skins, all of which make it highly-customizable.



Since both feature fast processors, moving between the homescreens and opening programs are fast, though there does seem to be a bit more fluidity with the iPhone 4.

Messaging is also quick and painless on both devices, as they can be set-up to use pretty much any email account out there. We used both with our POP3 and IMAP accounts, and had no problems with them. The same thing goes for text messaging. The only real differences is that the ThunderBolt is easier to type on, due to the larger on-screen QWERTY keyboard, and that it integrates all of your contacts better (phone, Google, Facebook, Twitter) in one area called “people”.




Internet and Connectivity:

Here’s where things start to get interesting. The iPhone 4 is a 3G device and uses Verizon’s EVDO Rev A network for all data, while the ThunderBolt is 4G and will use Verizon’s new LTE network if you are in a 4G area, otherwise it defaults back to 3G. Because of this, and since we are in a 4G area of south FL, web pages load much faster on the ThunderBolt  - hands down. For example, it only takes 22 seconds to fully load the PhoneArena.com web site on the ThunderBolt (including all Flash content and ads); while the iPhone 4 takes 40 seconds (keeping in mind that it doesn’t support Flash). One clear advantage with the ThunderBolt is that it is only smartphone on Verizon that allows you to use their 4G/3G data service (web, email, etc) while also using the voice call service. Keep in mind the iPhone 4 for AT&T also has this functionality, but it is not on the Verizon version.

Even though both devices show web pages pretty much how they would appear on your home PC, the winner here is the ThunderBolt, as it loads quicker (due to the 4G network), has full support for the latest Flash Player, and when you factor in that 4.3” screen, it just adds to an overall more enjoyable web browsing.



Using the SpeedTest.net app on both devices, we were able to get download speeds between 8-12 Mbps on the ThunderBolt, while the iPhone 4 was limited to downloads of only 0.4-1.0 Mbps


Both devices come with Verizon’s Mobile HotSpot app, though using it on the ThunderBolt is a more pleasurable experience due to the faster connection speed. In fact, we linked the iPhone 4 to the ThunderBolt via Wi-Fi and used the 4G connection on it. In doing so, the iPhone 4 was also achieving the same 8-10 Mbps speeds that we saw on the ThunderBolt. But when we reversed the HotSpot, where the ThunderBolt was connected to the iPhone 4 and using its 3G connection, the downloads crawled at only 0.3 Mbps. Hopefully there will be a 4G LTE version of the iPhone in the future.

Another advantage with the ThunderBolt is that it has an Internet Connection Mode, where you can tether the phone to your PC via USB cable, and have your PC use the phone’s 4G internet connection.



Camera and Multimedia:

The HTC ThunderBolt comes equipped with a 1.3MP camera on the front and 8MP autofocus camera with dual LED Flash on the back, while the iPhone 4 has a 0.3MP VGA camera on the front and a 5MP autofocus camera with a single LED flash on the back. The camera program’s features are different on each, as the iPhone 4 just allows you to turn the Flash on and off, as well as using the HDR (high dynamic range) option, while the ThunderBolt allows you to change the resolution, white balance, ISO, self timer, and also has some cool camera effects to change the look of the image.



Taking an image with both devices is pretty straight forward, as you tap on the screen where you want it to focus on, and then tap the camera icon on the right side to capture the image. Focusing on both is done in under a second, as well as capturing the image.

Pictures that we took outside with the ThunderBolt have pretty good fine detail and the color is accurate most of the time, though we did notice that sometimes the color was a bit over-saturated, and bright areas (such as the sky) tend to be completely washed out (white). The iPhone 4’s images were softer and not as sharp, but bright areas (such as the sky) look blue and not washed out. For inside pictures, the iPhone 4 was better, as images were brighter and not as grainy, and even the single flash seemed to provide a better looking image than the dual-flash on the ThunderBolt.






Both devices can record videos at 1280x720 resolution, but the ThunderBolt uses the .3gp format and records at 28 fps, while the iPhone 4 uses the .mov format and records at 30 fps. When viewing both videos on the PC, the one from the ThunderBolt has better color and maintains good exposure throughout, but does look a bit jerky at times, while the video shot with the iPhone 4 has dull color and the exposure keeps changing as you move the camera around, though it plays a tad bit smoother.

HTC ThunderBolt Sample Video:



Apple iPhone 4 Sample Video:



Based on the pictures and videos that we captured with both devices, we believe the ThunderBolt has a slight edge, due to the fact that most of the outside images look better, as does the video, but the iPhone 4’s pictures don’t suffer from the bright area wash-out, so keep that in mind.

One thing that should be noted is that the iPhone 4 does offer FaceTime video chat with the use of its front camera, while the ThunderBolt currently doesn’t have Skype video chat, though this is expected to be available at some point. You can still use the front camera on both phones to take self portraits.

Playing back your own videos on both devices is pretty easy to do, but viewing them on the Thunderbolt’s large 4.3” display is a more appealing. Add to that the built-in kickstand on the back, and you’re ready to go.

For the music lover, both devices are pretty equal here, as they offer a good interface, and the ThunderBolt even has cover-flow when you view it in landscape mode. Music quality played through the speaker on the iPhone 4 is good, but can get a bit “tinny” at high volumes. The ThunderBolt actually sounds better here, but you need to flip open the rear kickstand, as that will tend to muffle the sound some. Of course purists can use wired earbuds or a Bluetooth headset for even higher quality sound.




Software:

The iPhone 4 is still king with access to the largest selection of programs available for download from the App Store, but the Android Market is catching up nicely, and most apps there are free.

One of these is Google Maps, which provides you with GPS guided directions on your phone. The difference is that with it installed on the ThunderBolt, you get turn-by-turn directions with a satellite view and voice prompts, but on the iPhone 4 it doesn’t go to the next turn automatically (you have to press the next arrow on the screen) and there are no voice prompts. But what can you expect, as Google makes the Android OS, so it comes to reason that they would have Google Maps favor their own OS.



Performance:

As we mentioned in our full review of the HTC ThunderBolt, we were not pleased by its call quality. The first unit we received had a buzzing sound in the earpiece whenever someone would talk. The replacement did sound better, but we could still hear it a bit. But regardless, both ThunderBolts had a slight “hiss” in the background. By contrast, the call quality on the iPhone 4 is much better; there is no “buzzing” when someone talks and it doesn’t have the background “hiss”. Signal reception on both phones is good, but we have noticed that occasionally the ThunderBolt will lose its 4G signal and drop down to 3G or 1x for what appears to be no reason at all, then go back to 4G. We’ve read in other on-line forums that other people have also been experiencing this issue, yet it is unclear at this time if it is a problem with the ThunderBolt or some type of network issue.

Battery life should not be overlooked, at it is key to having a device that is usable. The ThunderBolt was able to provide us with 7 hours of talk time on a full charge, but under normal mixed usage, which includes some talk time, web browsing, social networking, and using other applications, we could only get about 6 hours total before the battery died and required charging. So it appears to us that the combination of the 4G data, large display, and 1GHz processor will eat through battery life. The iPhone 4 was able to get 7.5 hours of talk time, but under mixed-usage, it still had 50% of battery after using the device most of the day, and we didn’t have to charge it until the following evening after another day’s use.

Conclusion:

So here comes the tough part…is there a clear winner between these two smartphones? If you go by specs alone, the winner would be the HTC ThunderBolt, due to its larger display, higher resolution camera, and 4G data connectivity. We agree that there is a lot to like about the ThunderBolt, but its downfall is the not-so-hot battery life, occasional 4G dropping, and lower than expected call quality. On the other hand, the iPhone 4 seems to be better made, call quality is very good, and battery life is better, but at the cost of using a smaller screen and 3G data. So with all things being considered, we’d suggest the iPhone 4 if you are in a 3G area and use the phone a lot to talk on, but if you are in a 4G area and want the faster data speeds, then the ThunderBolt is the only way to go – or wait for more 4G smartphones to come out.

Software versions of the reviewed units:

HTC ThunderBolt: Android 2.2.1, Build 1.12.605.6, Kernel 2.6.32.21 Sat Feb 19 2011

iPhone 4: Version 4.2.6 (8E200), Firmware 1.0.005

HTC ThunderBolt vs Apple iPhone 4 Video Comparison:





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