The HTC ThunderBolt, Verizon Wireless' first smartphone to take advantage of its 4G Long-Term Evolution network, is now officially available. With a two-year contract and a data plan, it's priced at $250.
"Immense power. Scorching speed. Now the fastest, most advanced 4G network in America puts lightning in the palm of your hand," Verizon advertises.
Big words, indeed, and at a price higher than its long-awaited Apple iPhone 4. Is the ThunderBolt, not the iPhone 4, now Verizon's most compelling offering?
"It depends. If your focus is on network speed, absolutely. If your focus is on access to apps and media, the ThunderBolt is no slouch, but the iPhone 4 is still much stronger in those areas," Current Analysis analyst Avi Greengart told eWEEK, adding that Apple also has a dramatic lead when it comes to accessories, as everything from docks to cars has been designed to interface with the iPhone.
What will Verizon subscribers get for 250 big ones?
To start, a 4.3-inch capacitive touch-screen (the iPhone 4 has a 3.5-inch multi-touch widescreen). The rear-facing camera is 8-megapixels, to the iPhone 4's 5-megapixels, and it can record video in high-definition. There's a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera for video calls. (The iPhone 4's front camera takes VGA-quality photos.)
As with a number of Android-running phones-and here you'll get Android 2.2 with HTC's Sense 2.0 user interface-the ThunderBolt supports Adobe's Flash Player 10.1, which the iPhone, as has been well-publicized, does not.
The ThunderBolt can also act as a mobile hotspot-a feature for which you'll pay extra, though Verizon is offering it free through May 15-for eight WiFi-enabled devices. And it can wirelessly stream content, such as videos, to other DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) devices, such as an HDTV. Or users can just watch on the ThunderBolt itself, enjoying the combination of its considerable display, 1GHz Snapdragon processor, built-in kickstand and the Verizon 4G network.
As for that 4G network, Verizon says the ThunderBolt will feature applications that are optimized for it, including EA's RockBand, Gameloft's Let's Golf and Tunewiki and BitMop. According to the carrier, users can expect download speeds of 5 to 12M bps and upload speeds of 2 to 5M bps in 4G coverage areas-pretty standard for 4G, and the same speeds T-Mobile promises for its HSPA+ (Evolved High-Speed Packet Access) 4G network.
The first phone to showcase what Greengart calls Verizon's "exceptionally fast (and, for now, relatively empty)" LTE (long-Term Evolution) network, some consumers may pause at a price point above the $199 smartphone norm.
"But it justifies the higher price not only with LTE, but also with 32 GB of storage-equivalent to the $299 iPhone 4," said Greengart. "The user experience is also different. HTC Sense provides widgets and customizability, while the iPhone is deliberately simple."
There's also the matter of their dramatic difference in size: The ThunderBolt measures 4.75 by 2.44 by 0.56 inches and weighs 6.23 ounces, to the iPhone 4's 4.8 ounces and 4.5 by 2.31 by 0.37 inches.
"People with small hands may find [the ThunderBolt] more phone than they want," said Greengart. "HTC has smaller devices for this very reason, but none with LTE. Yet."
Just as Sprint has enjoyed a healthy response to its 4G-enabled smartphones, it seems Verizon could have a hit on its hands, so long as its 4G network can deliver, and consumers know what to expect-or even hope for.
According to a December report from the Yankee Group, most Americans don't really understand what 4G is, and by the end of 2011, the vast majority still won't. Penetration, by the time, said the report, will likely be just 0.33 percent, with consumer awareness remaining "stubbornly low."
"Until customers fully appreciate the link between a new wireless-network technology and the superior user experience it delivers, their interest in upgrading will naturally be muted," said the report.
Verizon, making good on its long-time promise of a live 4G network, and a smartphone to run on it, now faces the challenge of educating consumers about just what that means.