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HTC Bolt review: the better data speed might not be worth it

HTC Bolt review: the better data speed might not be worth it

by Bailey SteinJanuary 10, 2017

When we reviewed the HTC 10 in early 2016, we dubbed it the comeback we had been waiting for. HTC managed to address many of our complaints with the previous year’s One M9, while also making major refinements to features like BoomSound. Although it didn’t quite outdo the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, it surely gave consumers an excellent alternative to Samsung’s predictable flagship.

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Appropriately named after famous Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, the HTC Bolt is the first smartphone to support Sprint’s LTE Plus network, which promises unprecedented data speeds. But are faster data speeds enough to make the HTC Bolt worth your pretty penny? Let’s find out in our written HTC Bolt review!

Design

The HTC Bolt shares many of the design cues that were introduced by its cousin, the HTC 10. It features a similar premium metal unibody build, similar large side chamfers, and is available in the same color options. We really like the HTC 10’s design, and that opinion mostly translates to this design as well.

The Bolt feels just as well-built and remarkably solid in the hand as the 10, and the large chamfers provide an expectedly nice transition to the flat sides. The power button features a different tactile design than the volume keys in order to make it more easily discoverable. This actually works quite well in practice, and we have to give HTC credit for continually delivering excellent, clicky-feeling buttons.

Of course, there are a couple of notable differences that distinguish the Bolt from the 10. To our disappointment, the curved back has been flattened, removing a bit of the ergonomic feel from the 10 that we’ve come to love. The surface doesn’t seem as glossy this time around though, making the phone less slippery in the hand. That’s important, too, as the Bolt has received a size bump to 5.5″, from 5.2″ on the 10.

The curved back has been flattened, removing a bit of the ergonomic feel from the 10 that we’ve come to love

In addition to some other minor changes, the Bolt also introduces what many have been asking for a while now: water resistance. The phone’s IP57 certification allows the phone to be submerged in up to one meter of water for up to thirty minutes. Although, HTC explicitly states to avoid intentionally submerging the phone, as liquid damage may not be covered under warranty.

It’s worth noting that the HTC Bolt’s IP57 rating is less than the Samsung Galaxy S7‘s IP68 rating. Since the first number represents protection from dust, and the second number represents protection from water, this indicates that the Bolt is only slightly less resistant to dust and water, and can still withstand a good amount of dust and less than one meter of water, but not beyond one meter like the S7.

The illuminated navigation keys on the bottom of the phone are placed in the standard layout, and the center home button also functions as a fast and accurate fingerprint reader. It may not be the fastest out there, but it seems faster than the Galaxy S7’s reader, which is to say that it works very well. Similar to many other home/fingerprint reader combos, this button is merely capacitive, so it does not physically press down.

Display

The HTC Bolt features a 5.5″ QHD Super LCD 3 display, which is quite frankly wonderful. This display seems to be slightly different than the one used on the HTC 10, but it still exhibits excellent contrast, has very nice colors, and doesn’t appear oversaturated.

The Bolt’s display exhibits excellent contrast, has very nice colors, and doesn’t appear oversaturated

Viewing angles are also pretty good, but are not exceptional. We wish the display was brighter for better sunlight visibility, as it can seem a bit dim while outdoors, especially when in sunny conditions. Thankfully, the Bolt’s display is covered in the latest Corning Gorilla Glass 5, so you shouldn’t have to worry too much about scratching it.

During our testing, we noticed an odd issue where the Bolt would improperly recognize touch screen input system-wide. This was most noticeable while scrolling, when the phone would show some amount of jitter, despite a lack of finger movement. A simple restart temporarily fixed this issue, but it kept coming back a day or two later, occurring on our review unit on four separate occasions. Hopefully this issue is isolated and can be resolved with a future software update.

Performance

Perhaps ironically, the HTC Bolt is being powered by the now two-year-old Qualcomm Snapdragon 810. This is definitely a head scratcher at first, as the Snapdragon 820 and Snapdragon 821 offer better performance, more efficiency, and less heat issues. It’s not a cost issue, as the Bolt is positioning itself clearly in the flagship territory. So, why on earth would they ship a phone with such an old processor?

HTC was presumably forced to settle with the 810 with its X10 LTE modem

Well, it seems that HTC was unable to use more recent processors since were not certified to support Sprint’s LTE Plus network during development, which is ultimately the core purpose of this phone. HTC was presumably forced to settle with the 810 with its X10 LTE modem, but it’s not all doom and gloom.

Real world, day-to-day performance is absolutely fine. That can be partially credited to the many disabled system animations, which make the experience feel a tad snappier than stock Android. As expected from the older 810, synthetic benchmark scores are decent, but not great, as shown below.

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For memory, the Bolt includes 3 GB, which should be enough for most users. We would have liked to see HTC maintain the 4 GB amount from the HTC 10, given the phone’s premium price tag, but sadly it looks like this will have to do.

I did notice the phone getting warm fairly frequently while using the Bolt, but the phone always remained reasonably comfortable to hold. That was unfortunately not the case while charging, however, when the device would often heat up incredibly to the point of some concern. This may be due to the Snapdragon 810, poor internal heat dissipation, or a bit of both, but it’s certainly a turn off.

Hardware

In the United States, the HTC Bolt is exclusive to Sprint, so you will be not able to use it with any other carrier. However, if you are on Sprint, the main selling point of the Bolt is its support for Sprint’s new LTE Plus Network, which uses 3×20 MHz Carrier Aggregation to provide faster cellular data speeds, at least in theory.

Although the new network is an improvement over Sprint’s traditional LTE, our speed tests while connected to LTE Plus showed less than 20 megabits per second during non-peak times and less than 10 megabits per second during peak times. These speeds are relatively unimpressive, and not even available everywhere (check the coverage map here).

In our experience, Sprint’s general network is still very bad; for our testing, we didn’t receive any LTE Plus coverage in a city of around fifteen thousand people and instead received a very weak LTE signal that frequently dropped to 3G or dropped completely, even in some urban areas. Even after finding a full normal LTE signal, speeds capped at around two and a half megabits per second, which is worse than what we would expect from 3G.

The experience is still very much a compromise for consumers

Sprint is marketing LTE Plus as sort of a panacea, but it needs to be much faster and more accessible. That means more LTE Plus coverage, as well as more and better LTE Plus compatible smartphones, both of which will likely come with time. The current coverage as well as the Bolt are fair starts, but the experience is still very much a compromise for consumers. It’s generally difficult to justify that compromise, too, given the oftentimes superior competing carriers and the high price tag of getting access to what is largely a half-baked network.

Network issues are not HTC’s fault, but since this phone is exclusive to Sprint, we feel that these issues are important to discuss in this review. Obviously, if you’re outside of the United States and are looking to purchase the very similar HTC 10 evo, you can disregard our complaints with Sprint.

In addition to the nano SIM card slot, the Bolt includes another slot for a microSD card, if you’d like to add to the 32 GB of internal storage. We appreciate that HTC has kept this as an option for the Bolt.

Although the HTC Bolt does not have HTC’s premium BoomSound, its side-firing speaker performs well. It gets fairly loud while maintaining low distortion levels, and still sounds leaps and bounds better then the Galaxy S7‘s speaker. It’s more than good enough for most scenarios, but if you want the louder, higher-quality BoomSound, you’ll want to instead consider the HTC 10.

Following in Apple’s footsteps, the HTC Bolt does not include a 3.5mm headphone jack and instead relies on the charging port for wired audio. In this case, you’ll need either USB Type-C headphones for external audio or Bluetooth headphones to listen to music externally. It appears that the Bolt is using the same 24-bit DAC as the HTC 10, as audio output is similarly excellent.

The HTC Bolt also includes BoomSound Adaptive Audio, which allows you to setup a profile to customize the audio output. This is best demonstrated when using the bundled pair of USB Type-C headphones. These headphones are able to scan your ear structure and the surrounding area and then communicate back with the software to adjust to the best profile possible.

It’s very neat, and we found the adjustments to be noticeably better. You can manually re-scan by tapping the persistent notification when the headphones are plugged in, which we feel worked well enough.

We don’t take issue with the inherent lack of a headphone jack, as it seems to be the future path, but we are disappointed with HTC’s accommodations for customers making the quite early transition from 3.5mm to USB Type-C. The manner in which they have presented this change is very anti-consumer for more than a few reasons.

Out of the box, you cannot use 3.5mm headphones

HTC doesn’t include a 3.5mm to USB Type-C adapter in the box, and the reviews for every third-party adapter we looked at explicitly stated that they did not work with the HTC Bolt. So, out of the box, you cannot use 3.5mm headphones, which is like throwing ice in an already cold bucket of water.

Thankfully, HTC is now offering a free headphone adapter for HTC Bolt buyers. However, the offer is only valid for customers who purchase the phone before January 31st, and cannot be purchased as an accessory.

So, as of the time of writing, if you miss the deadline or your adapter wears out, you will not be able to use 3.5mm headphones with the Bolt. Even Apple, of all companies, includes an adapter in the box with the iPhone 7, and sells extras for just $9. HTC is blatantly ignoring the needs of consumers, and for a phone that costs so much, not including an adapter is quite plainly inexcusable.

Battery Life

Despite a small bump in battery capacity to 3200mAh from 3000mAh with the 10, our real world battery tests delivered disappointing results. While using the HTC Bolt, we could barely make it through a full day of use while averaging just two hours and forty minutes of screen on time, as shown below.

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While these tests were conducted with a relatively poor cellular connection, which may have negatively impacted our results, they are still quite concerning. Even if you do live in an area where you can receive a good connection, we wouldn’t expect anything over a full day of use with three and a half hours of screen on time.

Although the device does support Quick Charge 2.0, HTC does not specify how quickly the Bolt should charge. That may be because, in our testing, the phone is only capable of going from zero to twenty-five percent in thirty minutes. While that may sound good for some who have yet to experience Quick Charge, much cheaper phones have been able to charge upwards of fifty percent in the same time period, while also offering significantly better battery life.

Camera

Starting with the rear camera, we’re looking at a 16 MP f/2.0 shooter with Optical Image Stabilization, which delivers images similar in quality to those produced by the HTC 10. That is to say, the camera is very good, despite not quite delivering the best results out there.

HTC Bolt camera samples: