HTC Thunderbolt: 4G Phone, Hotspot Lands on March 17 for $249.99

Updated. After weeks of seeing Verizon’s (s vz) first 4G smartphone in advertisements and store circulars as a “coming soon” product, the HTC Thunderbolt officially lands later this week. The Google Android 2.2 (s goog) device launches on Thursday for $249.99 with a 2-year contract, and includes wireless hotspot capabilities — free until May 15 —  HTC’s customized Sense interface and of course, access to Verizon’s speedy LTE network.

Verizon is holding the unlimited 4G data plan rate at the same $29.99 monthly price for 3G, although the company has already hinted at tiered pricing plans later this year for its devices. In the 4G coverage areas, Thunderbolt will see downloads reaching 12 Mbps or higher, and the phone will drop down to 3G speeds where an LTE signal can’t be found. After May 15, the wireless hotspot feature can be added for $20 per month, providing 2 GB of data to be shared with up to eight devices. That’s the same as Verizon’s current offering, but as a 4G device, that 2 GB could be used up very quickly.

Some high-level specifications and features of the new handset include:

  • 4G LTE – download speeds of 5 to 12 Mbps and upload speeds of 2 to 5 Mbps in 4G coverage area
  • 4.3” WVGA (800×480) display
  • 8-megapixel rear facing camera and HD (720p) video recording
  • 1.3-megapixel front facing camera with video chatting capabilities
  • Newest generation of the 1GHz Snapdragon (s qcom) processor
  • Mobile Hotspot capability – share 4G connection with up to eight Wi-Fi-enabled devices
  • 8 GB of onboard memory and a pre-installed 32 GB microSD card
  • Built-in kickstand for easy media viewing

Indeed, the Thunderbolt created much buzz when it was introduced at January’s Consumer Electronics Show as one of 10 new LTE devices for Verizon’s network. A few other 4G handsets were shown off at that time, but company representatives alluded to the Thunderbolt as likely being first to launch. Several rumored launch dates came and went, although Verizon never officially confirmed any of them. However, the device has appeared for the last several weeks in print publications as if it was already available; I’ve seen it in my local Best Buy flyer twice this month and there was a full-page ad in this month’s issue of Popular Science indicating the phone could be purchased.

Why the delay, or perhaps better stated, the perception of a delay? Two possible reasons jump out: battery life and network handoffs. With such a large display and multiple radio technologies, the Incredible’s Thunderbolt’s run time could have tested low on the 1400 mAh battery, especially when used as a hotspot, which can deplete a phone battery in just a few hours. The HTC Evo 4G, which was essentially a WiMAX version of the new Incredible, frustrated some users for this reason, although we have a handy list of tips to stretch battery life.

Switching a device from Verizon’s new 4G network back to the legacy 3G network has proven a known challenge too: the first 4G USB data sticks for Verizon’s LTE service exhibited lengthy re-connect times. Are these issues that held back the Thunderbolt, or will they appear in the device after it launches? We’ll know that once we have a review unit, of course, but my hope is that if these were real issues, Verizon held up the launch date to address them before the phone hits the street.

One feature not mentioned in the official press release is support for simultaneous voice calls and data. There was talk of this a few months back, but Verizon hasn’t yet stated the Incredible Thunderbolt will allow for speaking and surfing, something rival phones on AT&T (s t) and T-Mobile can do. We have a question in to Verizon on this and will update the post when we hear back.

Update: According to an email I received from a Verizon Wireless spokesperson, the Thunderbolt will support simultaneous voice and data at launch. I also inadvertently referred to the new handset as the Incredible and have corrected.