Best Verizon Phone: HTC ThunderBolt
The HTC ThunderBolt is the first phone available in the United States that can connect to Verizon's lightning-fast 4G LTE network. That fact alone makes the ThunderBolt (priced at $250 with a new two-year contract) a great piece of hardware, especially for users who routinely run various high-bandwidth applications such as video chat, online gaming, and high-definition video streaming. Network speed aside, the phone is another solid addition to HTC's mostly impressive family of smartphones, though inevitably it does have a few shortcomings--most notably with regard to battery life.
When you pick up the ThunderBolt, it feels well built and sturdy. For users accustomed to a smaller phone, though, the 5.78-ounce ThunderBolt, with its 4.8-by-2.6-by-0.52-inch frame, can feel like a monster. To its credit, the phone makes good use of its size. When you're on the go, the ThunderBolt's 4.3-inch WVGA screen gives you ample room to maneuver your fingers while touch-typing and navigating Websites. The one complaint we had about the screen is that we found its display difficult to view in direct sunlight.
The phone's design is quite simple. It features a power button and a headphone jack at the top, a volume rocker on the right spine, and the standard Home, Menu, Back, and Search buttons on the face of the device. On the back of the ThunderBolt are an 8-megapixel camera (with a dual-LED flash) and a kickstand. A 1.3-megapixel camera situated on the front of the smartphone supports video chatting.
The ThunderBolt's biggest draw is its broadband speeds, which in our tests were simply stunning. Using the Ookla FCC Mobile Broadband Test, we saw consistent download speeds of between 8 megabits per second and 12 mbps. Testing with full bars showing and in an area that supports Verizon's 4G LTE network, we managed to load the PCWorld.com mobile site in about 4 seconds. Unusually image-heavy sites like Escapistmagazine.com loaded in under 10 seconds.
The ThunderBolt comes preloaded with an improved version of Sense UI, HTC's custom software that overlies the Android OS. Most of the Sense UI changes are cosmetic, but HTC has thrown in a few nifty new features as well. For instance, dragging down the notification bar at the top of the screen reveals a list of applications that you've previously opened, providing another avenue for managing your open apps. Turning on the ThunderBolt's fast-boot option lets you start the phone almost immediately, though you will have to turn the function off to use certain apps.
The ThunderBolt has gained a reputation for having a weak battery. This is an unfortunately common problem among 4G smartphones--including the first 4G phone, Sprint's HTC EVO 4G. The radios in 4G devices demand far more power than the ones in 3G phones do, simply because they pull and push so much more data from and to the network. Also, if you leave your device's 4G setting on, the phone will constantly look for a 4G network to connect to. The best way to alleviate the problem is to use 4G only when you're in an area that supports it.
Though its specs are nothing we haven't already seen in earlier smartphones such as Motorola's Droid X and Droid 2, the ThunderBolt's ability to take advantage of the unprecedented speed of Verizon's LTE network makes it a special phone indeed. Users who need high bandwidth to stream high-definition video or to play online games while they're on the road will find no faster phone on the market today.
Best Sprint Phone: Samsung Epic 4G
The Samsung Epic 4G ($150 with a two-year contract from Sprint) stands out from its Galaxy S siblings for several reasons. Unlike any of the others, it has a physical keyboard and a front-facing camera--and it runs on Sprint's 4G network.
Among the many QWERTY keyboard phones that we have reviewed, the Epic is one of the best. The keys are properly spaced and have a pleasant clickiness to them. If you don't want to use the physical keyboard, the touchscreen offers even more options: the TouchWiz keyboard, the Swype keyboard, or the native Android keyboard. The display is quite responsive, and it's big enough to type on comfortably.
Like the other Galaxy S phones, the Epic 4G sports a 4-inch Super AMOLED display. Samsung's Super AMOLED technology puts touch sensors on the display itself--instead of on a separate layer, as in Samsung's older AMOLED displays--making it the thinnest display technology on the market. The Super AMOLED screen looks fantastic; you really have to see it in person. Colors burst from the screen, and animations look lively and smooth. The display also works remarkably well in bright outdoor light, though the phone's glossy chassis sometimes projects a killer glare.
The Epic 4G, which has finally been updated to Android 2.2 ("Froyo") from 2.1 ("Éclair"), carries Samsung's own TouchWiz 3.0 user interface. Overall, this version of TouchWiz is a lot better than the previous iteration, which we saw on phones such as the Samsung Behold II for T-Mobile (a handset that was disappointingly slow and difficult to navigate).
Although this version of the overlay is an improvement on its predecessors, we continued to encounter some familiar issues with TouchWiz 3.0. Despite the 1GHz Hummingbird processor, the phone lagged slightly when we used it to flip through menus or to scroll down contact lists or Web pages.
One of the big benefits of the Epic 4G is evident in its name: It's only the second phone that connects to Sprint's 4G network. In our speed tests, Sprint's 4G WiMax service was indeed fast, but it didn't provide reliable service. This suggests that Sprint and its WiMax partner Clearwire don't have a sufficient density of WiMax base stations on the ground.
We've tested all of the Galaxy phones, and the Epic 4G is definitely the best--as well as being one of the top Android phones available. Its nicely designed physical keyboard, 4G goodness, and front-facing camera make it hard to beat.