Consider the high-end smartphone. While you lust after those, Pantech is on the prowl, steadily adding to and improving upon its army of budget offerings in the US. It may not be as formidable a force as the Samsungs and Motorolas of the world, but the outfit is finally beginning to leave a mark. Once a complete unknown outside of Asia, the phone manufacturer is keeping itself incredibly busy on this side of the Pacific, cranking out low-cost devices for AT&T and Verizon. Now, Pantech's focus has turned to LTE, starting with the $50 Breakout on Big Red, followed by a smartphone and tablet option on Ma Bell.
The Pantech Burst is the inaugural entry-level LTE smartphone in AT&T's lineup, debuting at $50 with a two-year commitment. Don't let that bargain-basement price turn you off, though -- this thing's got plenty of mojo to back it up, which makes the Burst a stark contrast to its Verizon counterpart. But what can we expect from a budget-friendly handset? Is Pantech finally pushing out a device that will help it earn a new level of respect from American consumers? We're bursting at the seams to answer those questions and take the device for a spin after the break. (Yes, we just went there.)
Amazing performanceDoesn't feel like a budget LTE phonePlenty of internal storage space
Unresponsive capacitive keysCamera needs some workLackluster UI
If you're looking for LTE on the cheap, the Burst gives you some good bang for your buck.
Judging from the outside, there's absolutely nothing that would make the Burst stand out above the crowd. In fact, you could argue this handset is the most "normal-looking" Android smartphone Pantech's put out in the US -- one only has to take a quick glance at the Crossover and Pocket to validate this theory. The short version: it's a slab with a 4-inch display, a typical plastic build and all of the standard ports. Fortunately the phone attempts to break the monotony by adding a few tiny design tweaks and offering black and red color options. But as we'll find out soon enough, beauty isn't just skin deep; it lies beneath, within all of the circuitry, boards and other gizmos hidden under the exterior.
To specify, let's rattle off a few specs you can expect from the Burst: a 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S3 CPU, a full gig of RAM, Adreno 220 GPU, 4-inch Super AMOLED display, 16GB internal storage (expandable up to 48GB), 5MP rear shooter with 720p HD capture and a VGA front-facing camera for video chat. It also adds quadband (850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900) GSM / EDGE, triband (850 / 1900 / 2100) WCDMA / 21Mbps HSPA+ and dualband (700 / 1700) LTE. With only a couple exceptions, this is a highly respectable list of specs we imagine would entice a large number of people. Push all of that into a low-end phone, and you have our attention.
Adorned with your run-of-the-mill plastic without any texture or soft touch material to call its own, we found the Burst to lean toward the slippery end of things, but the smartphone's smaller frame appears to make it easier and more comfortable to hold. It measures 4.98 x 2.46 x 0.45 inches (126 x 62 x 11mm), which puts it in the middle of the pack, thickness-wise. In this case, Pantech designed the phone carefully enough so that it could pull off a sleek profile, regardless of any relative heft. It also benefits from being incredibly light, weighing just 4.32 ounces (122g). While we would have preferred soft-touch plastic to add an smidgen of extra tactility, it was still was a pleasure to hold otherwise.
If you're looking for a smartphone with the latest and greatest HD display, look elsewhere -- would you expect any different from a budget device? The Burst is equipped with a 4-inch Super AMOLED display that boasts a WVGA resolution of 800 x 480. This may sound incredibly underwhelming by today's standards -- assuming you're comparing this to $300 phones -- but the pixel density of the device is 233ppi, which is perfectly reasonable. Let's put it another way: this is the same panel featured on the Samsung Nexus S, but without the curved glass. As a warning to those offended by the very existence of PenTile, the Burst is all 'bout the RGBG layout, with some obvious pixelation should you stare at the screen hard enough. This shouldn't come as much of a surprise, though, when you remember the price. And while we would love to have a better screen, it's good enough for us to not have any outspoken concerns with it. The colors are well saturated, the viewing angles are tremendous and the screen is bright when used indoors; unfortunately, we struggled to make out the display in direct sunlight.
Flanking the display on its top and bottom are the VGA camera and capacitive navigation buttons, respectively. The keys are configured in the standard formation, with menu, home, back and search from left to right. Turning the phone to the right will earn you an up-close-and-personal look at the micro-USB charging port. The tippity top of the Burst houses the 3.5mm headphone jack and power button, while the volume rocker sets up residence on the left side of the device. The chrome top and plastic bottom (black or red, depending on your color choice) merge together in a curious arrangement, with the chrome bit reaching up on each end and the plastic piece extending down from the display in the middle. We can't say it's the prettiest phone we've ever seen, but we at least appreciate Pantech's commitment to taking design risks in the name of getting noticed.
As an aside, another curious design choice is the plateau on the rosewood-themed battery cover, featuring ridges on the left / right and a gentle slope on the top / bottom. Speaking of which, the battery cover is where you'll find the standard 5MP rear camera and its accompanying LED flash on the left -- a first for Pantech in the US -- and speaker grille on the right. Lifting up the back reveals a 1,650mAh battery, noise suppression mic and slots for a microSD and microSIM card. The microSD slot is empty when you purchase the phone, but there's a very good chance you won't notice it right away -- the Burst is blessed with 16GB of internal storage. If you do need more capacity, you'll be able to stick in a card up to 32GB, which would push the phone's capacity to a grand total of 48GB.
Performance and battery life
When the Burst was officially announced at the AT&T Developer Summit last month, we were already taken aback by the idea that a low-end LTE phone could boast a 1.2GHz dual-core processor -- in comparison, the similarly priced Breakout on Verizon features a 1GHz single-core chip -- but during the course of our review, we've learned that the spec is incorrect. Rather, the Burst is powered by a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm S3 CPU with 1GB of RAM thrown in. Something this significant merited some extra investigation, and not only have we verified this using multiple apps that list components and track CPU use, we've also received official confirmation from Pantech that it is, in fact, clocked at that higher speed. AT&T's website, however, remains steadfast in listing the incorrect spec, which painfully adds to the confusion. We say: if you got it, flaunt it. This is easily the most impressive spec any $50 phone has ever had to offer, and it's being downplayed as if it's not important.
The Burst is powered by a powerful 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm S3 CPU that keeps up with the Skyrocket and Nitro.
Stepping off our soapbox, this powerful CPU lives up to our expectations in both real-life performance and benchmarks. The Burst handled our multitasking and gaming with ease, not giving pause or allowing any hiccups in the process. And the benchmarks certainly seem to back up our own experience: its Quadrant (version 1) score edges out the Samsung Skyrocket and trumps the LG Nitro and bests both in SunSpider 9.1. The other two devices came out on top in the other benchmark results, but the Burst didn't trail far behind in any of them. We were completely stunned to see a Pantech phone compete with such bigshots. It's a breath of fresh air to see an inexpensive handset that offers a level of performance that power users can be satisfied with.
LG Nitro HD
Battery life (LTE)
Disclaimer: during the course of our review, Quadrant Standard was updated to version 2. The refresh adds ICS compatibility and will more accurately factor in additional cores, as well as making adjustments to the frame rate and other bug fixes. Because of this, the way scores are tabulated will be different as well. While our benchmark results in this review reflect the first version of the app, we have also run Quadrant v2, generating a score of 3,189. We haven't had the opportunity to update and test most of our old devices to offer a truly proper comparison, but we tested the TI OMAP-powered Motorola Droid RAZR Maxx and got a score of 2,273.
We won't dispute that the Burst doesn't suffer in the speed department, given its LTE connectivity. We can, however, disagree on it being the fastest on said high-speed network. We took the LTE-capable Pantech Element and ran speed tests side by side to ensure there would be as few external factors getting in the way of our assessment. In the same location, at identical times and with equal bars of service, the Element outpaced the Burst in download speeds by a prodigious margin. While the tablet consistently hit speeds of between 30 and 45Mbps down, the handset averaged in the 20s with occasional bursts (sorry) in the 30s and 40s.
You'll need to beg our pardon, because ever since we reviewed the Motorola Droid RAZR Maxx, our view on how long a smartphone battery is supposed to last has become irreversibly upended. After witnessing its 16.5-hour rundown time, we've seen the light and can't go back to the way things were before. There's no reason more handsets, even those that take advantage of LTE, shouldn't follow suit. Indeed, it's difficult to argue against the fact that the Maxx succeeded in raising the bar and rethinking possible. Oops, wrong carrier.
Using our standard video rundown test, the Burst lasted for seven hours and 30 minutes when connected to LTE. This device's 1,650mAh juicepack got us through a full day with moderate usage, but heavy content consumers will need to have a car charger handy.
We never experienced a dropped call during our tests, and we could hear the other end of the line easily enough, but the internal speaker falls on the quieter end of the spectrum. Happily, we didn't receive any complaints, likely due to Audience's dual-microphone noise suppression technology. The external speaker also teetered on the edge of mediocrity, with voices sounding slightly tinny on the other end. We had an enjoyable experience listening to music on our Skullcandy headphones, thanks at least in part to Pantech's equalizer, which offers plenty of profiles and even gives us the option to customize EQ levels to our own personal preference.
The touchscreen was perfectly responsive in the sense that we didn't experience any lag or significant delays, but we noticed it occasionally stumbled when we required extreme precision. On multiple occasions, when we attempted to press a smaller button -- say, a tiny browser link or progress bar in the music player -- the screen would register touch a couple millimeters off. We usually moved the tip of our finger around a bit and found success on the second try, but it happened enough times to be a concern. Unfortunately, we had a similar spat with the capacitive navigation keys below the display as they would often require a second or third press before our touch registered.
We'll just put this out there: Pantech isn't known for placing stellar cameras in its US models. Rather, its shooters seem to be inserted into each phone as more of an afterthought, completely lacking the TLC we've come to expect from vendors like Samsung and HTC. We can't really be surprised by this, though, because the outfit appears to know its place in the US smartphone food chain. That is, Pantech understands that its primary demographic isn't a power user or mobile photography connoisseur. After all, it's trying to serve up inexpensive handsets -- its last three smartphones started at $50 on contract -- and more often than not, the camera tends to be one of the first casualties of corner-cutting.
Pantech isn't known for stellar cameras, and the Burst doesn't do anything to change that reputation.
Setting this expectation, we now turn to the camera experience on the Burst. Pantech sticks with its standard five-megapixel rear sensor, not unlike what you'll find on the Breakout and Pocket, but adds a poor LED flash this time around. While the sensor still lacks attention to detail, we noticed that it at least seemed to gauge white balance accurately. We wish we could say the same about its low-light performance, though, because it's utterly miserable. There are zero options for enhancing the precious little light we could conjure up, and the moon would do better at capturing images in the dark than the Burst's flash. Pictures of objects a mere three to four feet away from us are barely visible, much less exhibiting any semblance of color.
The camera app is much quicker to load on the Burst compared to the Pocket, only taking one or two seconds, but the four- to five-second shutter lag is plenty slow enough to miss crucial memories that can come and go in a split second. We've found the only method to get faster snaps is to hold the shutter button down to lock the focus, and let go whenever you're ready. Doing so shaves a full second off the shutter lag, but it's not ideal for most situations.
The user interface hasn't changed at all since we reviewed the Pocket, which means it's still just as bland as ever. There's nothing wrong with the camera app having a basic UI, per se, since we'd prefer to keep the viewfinder as clean and minimal as possible, but Pantech seems to take the same attitude with its overall list of features and functionality. You can tweak exposure, zoom, color filter, focus mode and white balance (with a limited selection of choices), but you're not getting any fine-tuning options like ISO, contrast, panorama mode, metering, anti-shake, smile detection and so on.
Video capture unsurprisingly maxes out at 720p, and its performance seems to have improved over the company's previous models, but not by much. The motion in our sample videos appears relatively smooth overall, but there were a few choppy bits when the camcorder attempted to catch faster-moving objects. We were impressed by the audio, however, as our voice came out loud and clear and the mic picked up surprisingly little street noise.
Since Pantech's new releases have generally been few and far between, we've grown accustomed to seeing a new build of Android installed on each, along with a revamped version of its custom skin. In the case of the Burst, however, only half of this is true: even though the OS has been bumped up to version 2.3.5, it essentially has the same interface as the Pocket. This came as a disappointment to us, since we weren't overly impressed with the skin to begin with and were hoping to see a few improved features, such as more options for customization.
We can tell Pantech is working hard to come up with a clean and simple user interface, but unfortunately it goes overboard in its quest by offering a cartoonish look. This theme is evident everywhere, from the lock screen to the nav bar at the bottom of the home panel and virtually every menu the UI has.
We're going to pick on the lock screen a little bit, because we think it shows a fair amount of promise that falls short on Gingerbread but hopefully will be fine-tuned by the time the Burst gets upgraded to Ice Cream Sandwich (this is definitely happening, by the way, but Pantech hasn't said when). On the screen you'll see a ring with six circles, each one representing its own portal that takes you into a different place on the device. In addition to the standard unlock circle, there are quick launch shortcuts to get you into the phone's call logs, standard email, web browser, music player and messages. This isn't unlike the lock screen employed by plenty of other skins -- HTC Sense comes primarily to mind -- but we'd much prefer to be the ones behind the wheel, making the decision as to which shortcuts we'd prefer. For instance, it's downright silly that we can't have a shortcut that takes us directly to the camera, we can't replace the email quick launch with Gmail and we can't be taken directly into the dialpad instead of the call log if we prefer.
The navigation bar located at the bottom of every home screen offers quick access to the phone dialer, messages and web browser. Unfortunately, these options are just as stubbornly unyielding as the lock screen. The app menu is fortunately more customizable, but not by much. We're impressed that Pantech provides the opportunity to uninstall apps directly from this tray without having to do it from the settings menu, but misses the mark by not allowing us to put apps in folders or even separate them out into various categories. The Burst's app tray keeps the same set of background images that we saw introduced in the Pocket, which is a clever tweak but contributes to the UI's cartoonish look and doesn't let you add in your own pictures as an alternative.
Our review wouldn't be complete without a lecture on the bloatware that comes installed on the phone. Both AT&T and Pantech added their own contributions to the list of 52 pre-loaded apps that either bless or frustrate your life, depending on how you look at each one. Of that number, only seven are uninstallable, and the phone's UI offers no respite aside from the ability to rearrange the apps you don't use and banish them to the last panel in your menu. The usual classics are there, such as Amazon Kindle, AT&T Code Scanner, AT&T Family Map, AT&T Navigator, Featured Apps and Live TV. Pantech's charitable donation to the bloatware cause includes a compass, unit converter, document viewer, handy memo, PC Suite connector, RSS reader, sketch pad and stocks app. Some of them turned out to be rather useful, but as we've argued since the dawn of time, it should be up to us whether or not we're allowed to keep them.
The choice of virtual keyboards is limited to a selection of two: the stock Android board and Swype. We had few issues with either, and Swype is gradually becoming more and more intuitive as it continues to be updated. If neither option tickles your fancy, it's easy enough to download other options from the Market and add them to your collection.
We're willing to go out on a limb and crown the Pantech Burst as the new king of budget handsets. It's not perfect and isn't meant to be, but if you can get past minor flaws like the camera and certain UI elements, you'll find yourself in possession of a powerful handset that's capable of keeping up with the network's LTE titans. Indeed, this was the first time we've truly felt proud to whip out a Pantech phone, and we're hoping this is a harbinger of things to come. We'd love to see this particular device become the poster child for entry-level phones going forward -- after all, if this company can do it, so can everyone else.