HTC Bolt hands-on preview: A solid phone that struggles to move the needle
The Bolt is a fine phone, but it isn’t going to move the needle for HTC or Sprint.
HTC has had a rough couple of years in terms of smartphone releases. Though it has put out a few compelling products, its high-end phones seem to come up just short while its mid-range phones are often too expensive for what they offer. Now with a partnership that tapped it to build the Pixel phones for Google, HTC is leaning back toward its roots as an ODM making phones in tight concert with other companies.
Just like the good old days, HTC has struck an exclusive deal with Sprint to make the Bolt — a one-off phone that has ties to the HTC 10, while differing in a few was and integrating tightly with Sprint’s network technology and software. Even though Sprint carries both the HTC 10 and One A9, the Bolt is the new top-end device for the carrier to be pushed through the holidays and hopefully give a little bump to the HTC brand. After a couple days with the phone, here’s an early look at what you can expect from the HTC Bolt.
HTC continues to just nail the hardware on its phones, and even though the Bolt is definitely a derivative work of the HTC 10 it’s still impressive. The solid metal build is perfect, the buttons are clicky and the vibration for haptics and notifications is strong. The Bolt is big and a bit on the bulky side, particuarly in how wide it is for a 5.5-inch phone, but it looks handsome and feels great. In typical HTC fashion, I’m not worried about this phone being fragile. That continues onto the front where Gorilla Glass 5 covers the display.
HTC always nails the hardware and design.
The display itself is a 5.5-inch Super LCD 3 at 2560×1440 resolution. The screen is bright and super crisp with great viewing angles, though I have to note that it isn’t quite as saturated and striking as the AMOLED panels we’ve started to grow accustomed to. That could be a good thing for you, though, and if you like the more accurate colors the Bolt has you covered. Below the display you get a great one-touch fingerprint sensor that can wake the phone from sleep without turning the screen on first — and it’s flanked by capacitive navigation buttons, which always seems to be a divisive design decision.
Though it doesn’t have any advanced features or “UltraPixel” branding, the Bolt does have a pretty capable set of camera specs. The 16MP sensor pairs with an f/2.0 lens, OIS, phase-detect autofocus and dual-LED flash. It has an auto HDR mode, and shoots 4K and 120fps slow-mo video.
The Bolt is HTC’s first water resistant phone as well, with an IP57 rating. That may seem like it’s well behind the IP68 rating of other phones, but it really isn’t — IP57 means the Bolt is resistant to dust ingress, and can also survive 30 minutes in up to three feet of water. Nobody would ever purposefully leave their phone in liquid that long, and the Bolt will handle every splash and dunk you’re likely to put it through.
A couple decisions put dark marks on an otherwise interesting phone.
Though HTC wouldn’t draw a direct correlation between the two features, you’ll also have to note that the Bolt doens’t have a 3.5 mm headphone jack. Audio is handled by the USB-C port, and HTC includes a really nice pair of USB-C headphones in the box — but doesn’t go so far as to include a USB-C to headphone jack adapter. Because the headphones have a digital connection it lets the Bolt recognize them and offer automatic software tuning for better sound, including analyzing ambient noise to tweak levels. (Interestingly enough, though, the included headphones didn’t work on either my Pixel or LG V20.)
Everything up to this point sounds good, right? Now, let’s talk about the … odd decisions made in the HTC Bolt. HTC and Sprint decided to saddle this otherwise high-end phone with an old Snapdragon 810 processor and pair it up with just 3GB of RAM, falling well behind the current-level 821 or even the 820 found in the HTC 10 from April. The processor (mostly undeservedly) gets a bad rap for overheating and having other issues, but no matter your feelings on the chip itself, you’ll feel a bit hard done by spending $600 on a phone that doesn’t have anything near the latest processor inside and skimps a bit on the RAM.
And then software
So with that older chip inside, how is performance? Well, thanks to HTC’s great software tuning it’s actually pretty good. This is the first phone from the company running Android 7.0 Nougat, and HTC’s generally light Sense customizations feel just fine when incorporated with the latest Android software. Scrolling and opening apps is expectedly fast and smooth, but slightly more advanced things like launching Multi Window and switching between apps or using the camera heavily points out shortcomings in the hardware.
Sense works in concert with Nougat, and then Sprint gets involved.
Android 7.0 Nougat works here much like you’d find on other phones with the software, but with the addition of familiar HTC interface paradigms in the lock screen, launcher and keyboard. Outside of those areas the only changes are subtle ones to icons. HTC does a great job of sparing you from duplicate apps between its own offerings and Google’s, leaving you with a single app for each function. I appreciate that.
Because this is a Sprint-exclusive phone you’re going to be faced with some deeper-than-usual Sprint software customizations as well. The Bolt is pre-loaded with a Sprint-themed icon pack, a Sprint wallpaper and about 20 or so pre-installed apps. Thankfully the visual changes are all just part of the deep HTC Themes app and can be tweaked to your liking. Sprint continues to be pretty liberal when it comes to letting you uninstall about half of its pre-installed apps, but many — like the seven (7!) Amazon apps — can’t be removed.
More to come
The HTC Bolt is coming to Sprint for $599 — or, as will be heavily advertised, $25 per month. That slots it $50 under the HTC 10, and much further under the Galaxy S7 edge and Pixel XL. But the Bolt is very clearly a lesser phone in many ways as well. It gets so much right in the hardware and many of the specs and features, but misses the mark with a couple of odd internal spec decisions that don’t necessarily hurt the experience but will be considered before someone can drop $600 on a phone today.
Stay tuned to Android Central for a full review of the Bolt soon.