HTC Bolt review

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HTC’s not the shining example of Android exceptionalism it once was. The embattled Taoyuan, Taiwan electronics manufacturer, facing crushing competition from heavyweights like Samsung, ZTE, Lenovo, and others, has slowly ceded market ground — in the first quarter of this year, it made up a measly 3 percent of the U.S. market.

But its recent prospects are decidedly more promising. The company’s latest high-end smartphone, the HTC 10, sold briskly, driving revenues up 27 percent. And HTC chief Chialin Chang projected that the company, buoyed by forthcoming “flagship” smartphones, would return to profitability as soon as the end of this year.

One of those bets is the new HTC Bolt. It’s an Android phone launching exclusively on the Sprint network, and one with a few innovative tricks up its sleeve. The Bolt is the first to ship with custom-designed headphones that tune audio to the unique shape of your inner ear. It’s the first to support Sprint’s next-generation Plus network for super-speedy downloads. And it ships with HTC’s signature software suite.

But the Bolt’s positives don’t go quite far enough to mask its blemishes. It packs an aging, sluggish processor. Its display is a disappointment on several fronts. And it is priced incongruously with the competition. All that together makes HTC’s latest effort more flash in the pan than thundering success.

Design

You wouldn’t know that from the outside, though. The Bolt features the aesthetic hallmarks of HTC’s very best phones: a polished, chamfered aluminum body that runs to the edges of its rims, a gorgeously machined metal backplate, and a protruding single camera below a dual-sensor LED flash. That high-end fit and finish extends to its front. Embedded within the Bolt’s white backplate is an oval-shaped fingerprint sensor that doubles as a home button, as well as two capacitive, illuminated navigational buttons that fade from view when idle. Rounding out those accouterments is a front-facing 8MP camera, an earpiece, a multicolor notification LED, and a minimalist row of sensors that measure proximity and ambient light.

On the Bolt’s right side is a textured volume rocker and ribbed power button, and on the left is a SIM slot and MicroSD card slot. On the bottom, you’ll find a USB Type-C port adjacent to a BoomSound-enabled loudspeaker and microphone, and on the top there’s a plastic cutout to accommodate the Bolt’s wireless radios. It’s understated, utilitarian minimalism — a pleasing contrast to the Bolt’s bombastic marketing.

Importantly, the Bolt is sturdy to the touch. The company’s winning combination of glass and aluminum, here on full display, lends solidity, while thick aluminum siding and scratch-resistant glass — Corning Gorilla Glass 5, to be exact — imbue a level of sturdiness. It’s a phone of a rare breed – it feels substantive short of wrist-breaking heaviness, and stands as a definitive counterpoint to Apple’s featherweight iPhone 7.

Noticeably absent is a 3.5mm audio port.

The Bolt’s ergonomics are just as pleasing. Somewhat unintuitively, its sharp angles don’t dig into the skin in the way you might expect. Instead, it rests sturdily and ergonomically against the palm just as comfortably, if not more so, than curved competition like the iPhone 7 and Huawei’s Honor 8.

Noticeably absent is a 3.5mm audio port. It’s not an unprecedented move — Apple’s iPhone 7 is infamously jack-free, as is Lenovo’s Moto Z. But it’s nonetheless an annoyance for folks — much of the Digital Trends staff included — who’ve long carried a pair of analog, jack-of-all-trades headphones that don’t natively support USB Type-C audio.

One good thing about the absence of a 3.5mm jack is that it made the phone a lot easier to waterproof. HTC said the Bolt is the first water-resistant Android phone with a unibody design — specifically of the IP57 variety, which means it’ll handle limited exposure to dust and water. But be warned that it’s not meant to withstand more than a splash or two — HTC recommends you don’t “intentionally submerge it.”

Unique headphones and sound

Headphones, somewhat ironically, are one of the phone’s selling points. The Bolt is the first to ship with HTC’s custom-designed BoomSound Adaptive Audio headphones, and they’ve got a nifty trick up their sleeve: “sonar” capabilities.

Here’s how it works: The earbuds, which look like ordinary, run-of-the-mill models you might find packed with any smartphone, tap dual microphones — one that sits on the inside of your ear canal and one that’s exposed to the open air — to generate a detailed profile of your ear’s anatomy. HTC’s software then applies that profile to audio the Bolt outputs — including music, movies, YouTube videos, and more.

The tech is more outlandish in theory than in practice. The Bolt’s built-in audio app guides you through the process: First, you plug the proprietary headphones into the Bolt’s USB Type-C connector. Then, you initiate a scan within the phone’s BoomSound settings menu. The speakers within the headphones emit a brief, two-second tone, and the aforementioned microphones record the result. Once the testing process is finished, you’re presented with a bar graph that shows the difference between “enhanced” audio levels — i.e., those tuned by the Bolt’s custom software — and untouched levels.

HTC Bolt review

Kyle Wiggers/Digital Trends

The difference between the two is striking. With the equalization disabled, audio sounded muddy and muted, almost as if underwater. Switched on, the stream was perceptibly clearer and louder, especially around the middle range of the frequency spectrum. But it wasn’t clear how much HTC’s sonar technology was to thank. When we ran the calibration process with the headphones sitting on a table, the equalization had close to, if not exactly, the same effect.

It doesn’t help that the headphones themselves offer suboptimal sound. They support Hi-Res, 24-bit audio, but bass reproduction is boomy and indistinctive. High frequencies also lack detail.

The Bolt’s BoomSound audio extends beyond headphones. It sports a single loudspeaker that is Hi-Res Audio certified, and a three-microphone array that records stereo sound and minimizes ambient noise. The speaker, in practice, wasn’t noticeably louder or clearer than average, but the microphones were a different story. In the course of our testing, they captured crisp two-person conversations with impressive consistency.

High-speed network

The Bolt’s other highlight is support for Sprint’s high-speed, next-generation LTE Plus network, which taps Qualcomm’s X10 LTE modem to deliver 3 x 20MHz carrier aggregation. That’s a lot of jargon, but basically, the Bolt is the first Sprint phone capable of combining bandwidth from multiple wireless channels — three, to be exact — into a single, high-speed one. That lets it achieve a theoretical maximum upload speed of 50Mbps and download speed of 450Mbps — fast enough to download a 3GB movie in a little less than a minute.

More: Everything you need to know about the HTC 10

That’s under pristine conditions, of course. HTC said that users in the real world can expect download speeds around the 250Mbps mark, and we’re going to have to take the company’s word for it: Sprint’s LTE Plus network is rolling out across the country slowly, first in Chicago, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Dallas, Kansas City, Missouri, and Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio.

Performance

You’d expect a phone like the Bolt to sport a processor as swift as its wireless chip, but oddly, that isn’t the case. Instead, the phone sports Qualcomm’s anachronistic Snapdragon 810 processor, the same featured in Huawei’s Nexus 6P. HTC said opting for aging silicon over newer, in-demand chips afforded it greater “freedom in design,” but it’s an odd choice to say the least. Rumors last year emerged of Snapdragon 810 devices experiencing overheating. It’s a problem we noted in our review of the Xperia Z3+, which tended to throttle — i.e., ramp down to slower speeds as a result of excessive heat — after snapping a few photos and multitasking with more than a few apps.

Qualcomm has repeatedly — and vehemently — denied that the Snapdragon 810 is prone to overheating, but it nonetheless addressed some of the processor’s shortcomings in a revision dubbed version 2.1. It’s the model that the Bolt contains, and one that publications including Anandtech say is dramatically improved.

At the HTC’s unveiling in New York City, Qualcomm said it would adhere to its policy of providing software updates for Snapdragon processors for a minimum of two years following their release. And a Qualcomm representative said that the Snapdragon 810’s age actually works in its favor — its software is more mature, the representative said, and highly optimized.

We’ll have to put the Bolt through its paces before we make that determination ourselves, but one thing’s for certain: The Snapdragon 810 doesn’t compare favorably to its successor, the Snapdragon 820, on paper. The Snapdragon 820, which powers LG’s G5 and the Samsung Galaxy S7, among other phones, boasts an entirely new architecture that delivers 40 percent better graphics performance than the 810 and as high as 54 percent faster processing, according to benchmarks by Anandtech. Pitted against Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 821, which powers the Google Pixel, the contrast is likely even more stark.

Anecdotally, the Bolt performed well enough in light processing and web browsing, and we noted only minor hiccups while switching between tabs in Chrome, swiping through Instagram and Facebook pictures, and opening e-mail attachments. But we also noticed that the Bolt tended to become sluggish over time. After snapping a few photos, the transition animations between homescreens completed a little more slowly, and apps took longer to launch.

HTC Bolt review

Kyle Wiggers/Digital Trends

The Bolt’s Snapdragon 810 comes paired with 3GB of RAM — less than the Pixel is packing, but the same amount of memory as the iPhone 7 Plus. And HTC’s packed software, Boost+, optimizes it further by cleaning up old files and dynamically allocating resources. In our experience, it didn’t have a noticeable effect on performance.

Rounding out the Bolt’s silicon are myriad sensors managed by a Sensor Hub, a co-processor running custom algorithms optimized to save battery. In addition to the aforementioned ambient light sensor and proximity sensor, the Bolt has a gyroscope, compass, gravity sensor, and magnetic sensor for all manner of apps and games.

Battery

That level of efficiency should, in theory, stretch the Bolt’s battery. It has 3,200mAh in capacity, which HTC said should provide 23 hours of talk time and 20 days of standby time. And it packs software optimizations that boost it further, like a power-saving mode that disables services like location and mobile data when they aren’t being used.

More: HTC One M8 review

HTC’s estimates appear to be accurate. After a day and a half of light web browsing and music listening with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cellular enabled, the battery dipped to about 28 percent. An intense session of Brothers in Arms 3 drained it a little faster — about 10 percent in fifteen minutes — but short of especially taxing scenarios like gaming and heavy data usage, the Bolt easily lasted a workday.

When the battery does die, it juices up relatively quickly. That’s thanks to support for Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 2.0 standard. HTC said that with one of its Rapid Charge 2.0 adapters, which ships in the Bolt’s box, it’ll charge up to 60 percent in 30 minutes. That’s not as fast as the Quick Charge 3.0 technology found on the ZTE Axon 7, Asus Zenfone 3, and HTC’s own HTC 10, which can deliver about 8 hours in 15 minutes, but the Bolt’s processor is to blame. The Snapdragon 810 isn’t capable of meeting the newer quick charging standards’ minimum spec.

Camera and display

In the camera department, the Bolt isn’t quite as underwhelming. Its rear shooter is a 16MP sensor with phase detection autofocus, optical image stabilization, a dual-LED flash, high dynamic range, and support for 4K video capture and slow motion video recording at 720p/120fps.

In our limited testing, it performed well in most conditions. The camera launched and focused quickly, automatically settling on subjects within a few milliseconds. And for the most part, the photos it produced were exceptional in the areas of lighting and color accuracy. But they weren’t perfect. Overly aggressive post-processing effects cast a pastel-like film over zoomed-in images — faces in particular appeared blocky and washed out. And thanks to a capricious automatic white balance, pictures taken in indoor environments had an overwhelmingly cold tone.

HTC Bolt review

Kyle Wiggers/Digital Trends

Luckily, those problems don’t extend to the Bolt’s front-facing 8MP camera. The sensor, which shoots high dynamic range selfies and 1080p video, measures up to its paper specifications. It launches and focuses just as quickly as the rear-facing camera, and better still doesn’t exhibit the rear camera’s blurriness and post-processing issues. Simply put, the Bolt doesn’t disappoint in the selfie department.

The Bolt’s camera software, appropriately dubbed HTC Camera, offers additional filters and settings. “Zoe” mode lets you capture a single photo, or a sequence of burst shots and three-second video clip, or a longer video and a series of burst shots during the first three seconds. There’s a panorama mode and hyperlapse mode, and a Pro mode lets you customize parameters to an even greater degree. You can manually set white balance, ISO, contrast, and exposure, and you can capture in RAW, a file format that gives you greater control over a pic’s color and contrast.

Display

The Bolt’s display doesn’t do those photos justice, unfortunately. It’s a 5.5-inch screen with a Quad HD resolution (2,560 x 1,440 pixels), which puts it in the same league as pricey flagships like the Pixel XL, Lenovo’s Moto Z Force, and ZTE’s Axon 7. But while it’s just as sharp as a few of those screens, it falls short in other areas.

First of all, it’s not particularly vivid. Even with brightness cranked up to maximum, the Bolt’s display was noticeably dimmer than that of the Moto G4 Plus and the Pixel XL. Colors on the Bolt are generally understated in comparison. And the Bolt suffers from incredibly narrow viewing angles — tilting the phone side to side consistently results in distortion.

Software

The HTC Bolt runs Sense, an overlay atop Android 7.0 Nougat. It contains little in the way of customizations, and that’s generally a good thing: the Bolt comes close to the pure, unencumbered Android as Google intended. Short of a few Sprint self-service apps and a sponsored placement or two, it isn’t littered with duplicate software or unwanted games. It doesn’t come quite as close to stock Android as, say, Lenovo’s Moto G4, but it’s a pretty darn good effort.

The Bolt tends to become sluggish over time.

Those who prefer a little more pizazz aren’t left in the cold, though. HTC’s Themes app provides a storefront of aesthetic tweaks to choose from: you can change the background picture, the navigation bar color, and even the appearance of the Bolt’s iconography. Rather have a sticker instead of an app shortcut? That’s well within the realm of possibility.

By far the most obvious of HTC’s Android tweaks is BlinkFeed, a social media aggregator that lives to the left of the Bolt’s homescreen. Grant it access to your Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Yelp, and Twitter accounts, and you’ll see content from friends you follow. Add sources like ESPN, MTV, The Huffington Post, and Fitbit and you’ll see news and updates populate the spaces between your social media shares. BlinkFeed is convenient, but has an annoying component: sponsored content. Non-dismissible advertisements for apps and services clutter the stream with regularity.

Among the Bolt’s other software features is Motion Launch, an app that lets you interact with the phone via gestures while the screen is off. By default, a double tap wakes up the screen; a swipe down activates voice dialing; a swipe up unlocks your phone; a swipe to the left navigates to the homescreen; a swipe to the right launches BlinkFeed; and the volume button launches the camera.

That’s not all the Bolt can do. There’s “flip to mute,” a setting that silences the phone when you place it face down on a table. There’s pocket mode, which makes the Bolt recognize when it’s in your pocket or bag and then automatically raise the volume to an audible level. And there’s support for HTC’s Ice View case, a smartphone cover with a cut-out through which HTC’s software serves up social media updates, texts, clocks, photos, volume adjustment, music playback controls, and more.

HTC Bolt review

Kyle Wiggers/Digital Trends

Despite those custom features, HTC said the Bolt will receive Android updates with some frequency. A representative told Digital Trends that it’ll receive regular security updates in the coming months, and if history’s any indication, that’s likely true

Warranty

HTC offers one of the best warranties among Android phone makers. When you buy an HTC Bolt, you get 12 months of Uh-Oh protection for free. The service includes a screen replacement if you break your screen, and even protects against water damage.

It’s really easy to get repairs or replacements, too. With Uh-Oh protection, you simply call customer support or chat with a representative online, and once you’ve discussed your problem, you can get a replacement within one business day — before you even send back your damaged phone. HTC will put a $600 hold on your credit card until it gets the damaged phone, though, so don’t get any ideas. Alternatively, you can send in your damaged phone with a prepaid label and get a replacement device 2 days after HTC gets your broken one.

Availability and pricing

The Bolt is launching exclusively for Sprint’s online and brick-and-mortar stores Friday. It’s available in two colors, Gunmetal and Glacier Silver, and retails for $600 outright or $25 per month over 24 months with installment billing.

That’s only slightly less expensive than the Pixel and iPhone 7, both of which start at $650. And it’s significantly more expensive than the Axon 7, OnePlus 3, and LeMax Le Pro 3, which all have more impressive specs. No matter how you slice it, the HTC Bolt is an expensive proposition.

Our take

The HTC Bolt’s headlining features don’t justify its sky-high asking price. Quite simply, you can get away with paying less for better.

Is there a better alternative?

While the HTC Bolt is unique in its ability to optimize audio to the shape of your inner ear and tap Sprint’s speedy LTE Plus network, it packs hardware inferior to its closest competition. For a little more than $600, both the iPhone 7 and Pixel offer objectively better performance than the Bolt – albeit with touchscreens a tad lower in resolution. And at the $400 price point, an even broader swatch of competitors offer packages just as good. The Axon 7 has a better processor and superior speakers. The OnePlus has more memory. And the LeMax Le Pro 3 has dual cameras.

The HTC Bolt may have the benefit of a spiffy ad campaign and beautiful design, but it’s priced confoundingly, inexcusably high.

How long will it last?

Qualcomm said the HTC Bolt’s processor will receive updates for the duration of its lifetime. And HTC said it’ll issue security updates as Google releases them — subject, of course, to Sprint’s approval. The company declined to commit to major Android updates like Nougat, but we’d be surprised if the Bolt didn’t receive at least one upgrade. HTC typically supports its devices for a minimum of two years.

Should you buy it?

No. The HTC Bolt is priced far too high for the experience it ultimately delivers. There are better options at slightly higher price points, and even better options at far lower prices. Unless you live in a market where Sprint’s deployed LTE Plus or have a hankering for “sonic” audio, you’d be better off spending your $600 elsewhere.

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