When I last looked at Android phones in January, Verizon didn’t have a 4G phone. That’s since changed. Indeed, Verizon has three now. In this review, how I found two of them — the HTC ThunderBolt released in March and the Samsung Droid Charge released in May — measured up against each other.
Before I get into the specifics, a refresher on how I approach phones. I’m interested in how they work for real life activities that I tend to do, rather than a head-to-head spec faceoff that often isn’t that important.
Can I check email with them easily? Snap a photo and make simple adjustments? Can I type on them with one hand quickly? How well can I tweet from them, or check-in on Foursquare? How well does the browser work?
For a real torture test, I typically do all these activities while I’m also inline skating at the end of my workday. Alternatively, it’s when I’m on the move, walking on or off an airplane. The phone has to work well when I’m using it with one hand.
I’m also interested in Verizon, because in my experience, it has by far the best network of any of the US carriers. I’d been wanting to get a permanent Android phone on Verizon (as opposed to various review units I’ve had), and I’d been waiting for the 4G phones to arrive, before making that purchase. When the ThunderBolt finally came out, I bought one. Samsung, at my request, sent me a Charge to review against it.
Specs: Thunderbolt Versus Charge
Let’s do the specs first. The ThunderBolt is a big, heavy brick. It’s 122 mm long, 67 mm wide and 13.2 mm thick. In contrast, the iPhone 4 (which I also own and use) is 115 mm long (a bit shorter), 59 mm wide (not as wide) and 9.3mm thick (much thinner). Weight, the ThunderBolt is 173 grams to the iPhone’s 137 grams.
All that size does give you a bigger screen, though the 800×480 resolution is less than the iPhone’s 960×640 resolution. Then again, I’ve found that resolution and screen size can mean little when different apps use different sized fonts and layouts.
As for the Droid Charge, it’s slightly bigger than the ThunderBolt yet oddly lighter. It’s 130mm long (versus the ThunderBolt’s 122mm); 67.5mm wide (vs. 67mm) and 11.7mm thick (vs 13.2mm). Weight is only 143 grams, only a bit more than the iPhone 4′s 137 grams and much less than the ThunderBolt’s 173 grams.
The screen resolution and size (4.3″) is the same as the ThunderBolt. Both also have 8 MP cameras plus 1.3 MP secondary front cameras. Both are Android 2.2 “Froyo.”
What’s different? Officially, the Thunderbolt has 8GB of internal storage to the Charge’s 2GB. But the specs you see everywhere are wrong. The ThunderBolt actually has 4GB of storage (see HTC support thread here). Unless you load a ton of apps that can’t use the SD card, the 2GB on the Charge probably isn’t a big issue.
Need more specs?
Battery: The Charge Stays Charged
Battery life. Now there’s a difference!
The Samsung has a 1600 mAh battery to the ThunderBolt’s 1400, but the official usage time is a more dramatic difference, 11 hours to 6.3 hours. Not bad for the $50 more that the Charge costs ($300 vs $250, on 2 year contracts).
More than anything else, I’d say the short battery life lets the ThunderBolt down. I could get over it being so heavy, so big, but I can’t get over it wanting to die at the end of several hours of use that wouldn’t make my iPhone blink.
Let’s talk apps. I’m a native email app user, rather than a Gmail app user. Maybe I’ll finally change, if only because the Gmail app gives a consistent experience.
By default, both apps will show you about the same number of emails in your inbox (Thunderbolt on the left below shows 7; Charge shows 8):
The ThunderBolt has a nice conversation view button (second from left in the screenshot above) that I’ve not seen on other Android phones I’ve used (and which is awesome on the iPhone). The Charge can show you things in conversation view, but you have to dig into the settings to enable this. There’s no easy toggle on and off.
Where the ThunderBolt loses in the email faceoff is in what happens when you’re done reading an email. Hitting “Delete” on most phones I’ve used will archive your email (if you use Gmail) and bring up the next oldest item. But to get the Delete button on the Thunderbolt, you have to push the Menu button, which brings up Delete among other options, then you push Delete and have to confirm that. That extra step is a pain, if you read a lot of email on your phone — and I do.
The Charge doesn’t have this problem. Hurray! But it has another problem. When you delete, you move “up” to a newer item, not “down” to an older one. There’s no way to change this, and it causes me to go crazy when I delete and get sent back to some other email I’ve already viewed.
Other inconsistencies. Want to see pictures in your emails? The ThunderBolt shows them automatically; the Charge makes you hit Menu to reveal them (and the Nexus S has a “Show Pictures” button).
Once you have the pictures, the ThunderBolt will let you pinch to make them larger but not smaller to fit the entire screen, as the Charge (or the iPhone) allows. The Nexus S won’t let you pinch to get bigger or smaller. The Charge, like the iPhone, also allows you to pinch to enlarge a purely textual message, like the iPhone. This is nice.
If you don’t want to use the Gmail client, these types of inconsistencies are super important, if you spend a lot of time in email. Sadly, if you do use the Gmail client, there’s no pinch to zoom in or out on the Charge.
When it comes to the browser, perhaps the most annoying thing about the ThunderBolt is that when you click in the address bar of an existing window, it doesn’t clear what’s already there (as does the Charge) or provide a delete button (as does the iPhone), which makes it easy to enter a fresh URL. Instead, it deletes everything other that http://www — which just feels weird.
But by default, the ThunderBolt (on the left) shows more of a web page:
That’s even more than the iPhone 4 shows, despite its slightly higher resolutions.
Oddly, in that mobile view above, I could pinch and zoom in the ThunderBolt but not in the Charge (or Nexus S). There are, however, ways to see more or less text on a page by going into the view settings for either phone (five zoom levels for the ThunderBolt and three for the Charge).
Shifting from mobile to regular view, both displayed the full home page, with the Samsung (on the right below) maybe slightly easier to read:
But really, the text is just too small on either. You need to pinch and zoom. At first, I was impressed that the ThunderBolt seemed to pinch and zoom better, auto-fitting sections of pages unlike the Charge. But that’s because the Charge’s “auto-fit” setting wasn’t enabled by default. Once I ticked that on, all was good.
Both phones can do the tap-and-zoom thing where you tap on the main body copy of an article and the text zooms in and auto-fits, as does the iPhone 4. But the iPhone, for me, does show a bit more when you do this despite its smaller screen. That higher resolution helps!
Oddly, neither phone can have more than four open browser windows. Are you kidding me? All that 4G fast loading power, and only four windows? The iPhone can do 8 and the Nexus S can do 7. If Google’s future is that we’ll run apps in browser windows, it might be nice if we could have more windows open. As for flipping through the windows, the Samsung feels a little, just slightly, more polished.
Twitter & Pictures
What’s there to say about Twitter, when the official app works exactly the same on any Android phone? Well, it actually doesn’t, not when it comes to uploading pictures.
See, if you take a picture and want to tweet it later, then your phone’s native photo gallery management system takes over. Here, the Samsung is much better.
The ThunderBolt will take you to your camera pictures showing the oldest picture first. If you have a lot of photos, then you’ve got to start flicking downward or use the scroll bar to get to the end. On the Samsung, your most recent photo (which is probably want you want) is listed first. If not, going to others feels easier when you swipe horizontally across the screen.
Text Entry & Keyboard
How well can you enter text? The iPhone remains the gold standard to me. But then, I’ve used the iPhone so long that it’s what feels natural.
I like the look of the Samsung’s keyboard better, but looks don’t equal performance. I found both keyboards worked about the same.
Instead, it’s thing like auto-correct that are probably more important . By default, the Samsung does much more prediction. When it got that right, it was great. When it didn’t, it sucked. But you can turn it off.
I like that the ThunderBolt (shown on the left below) gives me a comma and a period on the main keyboard, unlike the Samsung or even the iPhone. Oh, to have an apostrophe!
I also like that the $ symbol is on the main number keyboard for the ThunderBolt:
The Samsung puts this on the second of its three different number keyboards. I don’t use the $ symbol that often, but it’s handy to have within easy reach. And wouldn’t it be nice if we could just remap the keyboards the way we wanted?
I’m less worried about picture quality (you’re shooting with a phone; how much quality do you want?) than ease of using certain features.
I’m not a big digital zoom fan, but occasionally it’s nice. Both cameras make it easy to do with the volume buttons as well as screen menus. The Nexus S remains without a digital zoom.
You can tap to shift between video and still shots, or to view your photo gallery, easily on both. Both will auto-focus and allow to tapping to refocus. Neither has a hard button for snapping a picture.
On the Samsung’s side, there’s a slightly larger soft button for taking a picture. It’s very easy to pop open a side menu to adjust things like the exposure, which I want to use all the time when shooting into bright light. Many other options are also available.
But the Samsung is horrible in how the power button locks the screen rather than turns it off. When shooting, I’m often turning my screen on and off between shots, to save the battery. On the Samsung, I’m constantly locking it up by doing this. I pray for this to be fixed.
The ThunderBolt doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that the Samsung has, in terms of picture settings. Maybe you won’t need them. But if you’re wanting a phone that doubles as a smart pocket camera, the Samsung’s probably the better option.
What else? I like that the Samsung shows all the apps you’ve downloaded at the end of your application list. The last thing you’ve downloaded will be there, which makes it easy if you’re wanting to find that and put it on a main screen.
The Samsung’s got HDMI out, which I’ll probably never use. But it’s there for those who might.
Both phones can do the mobile hotspot thing, which I believe Verizon is still tossing in for free (how about making that permanent, Verizon?). I’ve found this can be flaky on both phones, turning off for no apparent reason.
The Samsung has real physical mnu buttons. I haven’t decided if I think this is better or not.
The Android Edge
In the end, I still find myself feeling a sense of relief when I go back to using my iPhone. The interface of native apps feels better. The overall experience feels better. The phone is more compact. It just seems to work better.
I sometimes wonder why I’m wanting to use an Android phone at all. But then I remember my three key reasons which are now joined by a fourth:
- Google Voice Actions
- GPS Navigation
- Google Voice
- 4G speed
Google Voice Actions
Being able to speak into an Android phone to send a text, an email, to do a search or to fire up GPS navigation using Google Voice Actions continues to be great. I was doing this last weekend, and a non-smartphone friend immediately declared she wanted my phone.
I still thought the iPhone would be better for her for various reasons, so I looked to see if there was an easy way to make the iPhone do what Google Voice Actions can. I didn’t find a way (and yes, I looked at Siri). Google Voice Search for the iPhone isn’t the same thing, either.
Time and again, I’m glad to have had a pocket GPS built into Android that’s worked very well, giving me turn-by-turn directions.
For instance, I was on a small island in Australia, driving a golf cart (the common mode of transportation on this island), and wasn’t sure which of one of the only two roads to take.
I spoke into my Android phone, telling it the pizza place I was trying to find. Within a minute, my golf cart was absurdly being navigated with its own GPS. But it was that easy and fast.
Months ago, I ported my phone over to Google Voice. For more about this, see:
While the iPhone supports Google Voice, Android still provides much better native support (as you’d expect). If you’re a big Google Voice user, then Android still has the edge here.
Unlike other carriers, where 4G is just a buzzword that seems to mean 3G in a new phone, Verizon’s 4G really is a step up. It’s stunningly fast.
The big drawback to the iPhone over Android had been, for me and many others, AT&T’s crappy 3G network. Now that the iPhone is on Verizon, many are enjoying better connectivity with the iPhone. But, they’re not getting 4G speed — and it really is a dramatic increase.
In addition, few seem to be using the 4G network, so I can often get a signal and connectivity at big events. For example, at the recent Google I/O event, full of Android enthusiasts all using their 3G phones, I was one of the few 4G users around. And my 4G rocked along.
Android Versus iPhone
For me, because I have several phones for work and testing purposes, I have the luxury of picking a phone for the right occasion.
If I know bandwidth isn’t going to be that big of an issue, or if I won’t need a GPS, I’ll grab my iPhone say for my evening inline skate, knowing I can easily and comfortably do everything. It’s also my phone of choice if I head to the gym, because it’s still better for dealing with music.
If I’m heading out to cover an event, to go on a trip or really anything where I’m not certain how I might need my phone exactly, then Android is what I’m reaching for.
If you’re looking for a smooth, intuitive solution, the iPhone is probably still the safer bet. Then again, if my mother can use Android (and she surprised me by getting one a few months ago on her own — I’d have suggested the iPhone), then believe me, anyone can.
If you don’t want to wait perhaps another year for 4G speed in a phone, then definitely look at the Verizon models.
ThunderBolt Versus Charge
Which of the two 4G phones in this review win with me? In a way, neither. Both are too damn big and full of oddities that leave me unhappy.
But there must be a winner, because I do want an Android phone with that 4G speed — and in my testing, the Charge won. The longer battery life, coupled with being lighter and better camera options made it my pick.
Indeed, Verizon has a trade-in program that I took advantage of. Back went my ThunderBolt, and I purchased a new Charge for my permanent phone, putting my trade-in credit toward that.
Since I first started working on this review, the LG Revolution is another Verizon 4G Android phone that’s come out. I’ve not used it, but maybe I’ll try it in the future.
The Motorola Bionic remains in oblivion, which is sad, because I’ve liked Motorola’s take on Android perhaps the most.
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