We've teased a bit of the Pantech Flex's internals already, but now it's time to discover what it's all about. The smartphone wields a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 SoC (MSM8960), which combines a 1.5GHz dual-core Krait CPU, an Adreno 225 GPU and a plethora of connectivity options. This includes LTE support across the 700, 850, 1700 / AWS and 1900MHz bands, alongside HSPA+ support for the 850, 1900 and 2100MHz bands. For times when you're out in the boonies, there's also quad-band GSM / EDGE access. Keep in mind, however, that you'll need to unlock the Flex to use networks outside of AT&T's reach, and even then, the phone would only be of much interest to T-Mobile's US subscribers in areas where the carrier has repurposed its 1900MHz network for 3G access. As you might expect, the phone also offers 802.11a/b/g/n and WiFi Direct, Bluetooth 4.0, along with both GPS and its Russian equivalent, GLONASS. Unfortunately, the Flex lacks NFC, which means no support for Android Beam or NFC-based payment systems such as Google Wallet or Isis.
While the Pantech Flex is no doubt a budget smartphone, its 4.3-inch qHD (960 x 540) display is among the best in its category. It offers excellent touch response, fantastic viewing angles and higher-than-average resolution. That said, even though the individual pixels are packed a bit more tightly than WVGA (800 x 480) alternatives, the Super AMOLED display features a PenTile matrix, which causes text to appear slightly blurry. Naturally, advantages of Super AMOLED displays include deep blacks, increased color saturation and better vibrancy. Unfortunately, the screen is less than ideal for use in direct sunlight. It's also worth mentioning that if you're not an AMOLED fan, the LG Escape for AT&T ($50) offers a similar 4.3-inch qHD display, albeit with an IPS screen for better sharpness.
The Pantech Flex arrives at AT&T as a natural successor to the Burst. While its older sibling succeeded in its effort to bring dual-core processing and LTE speeds to the masses, its thick, plasticky enclosure made it difficult to ignore its budget status. In that regard, it's easy to understand what Pantech hoped to accomplish this time around. With the Flex, Pantech has eschewed the all-plastic enclosure in favor of a more industrial design that sports a hybrid of plastic and metallic finishes. It's also larger and slimmer than before, measuring 5.1 x 2.6 x 0.32 inches (130 x 66 x 8mm).
The Flex's design is best described as haphazard -- imagine if the Samsung Focus and Droid Incredible 2 had met in one regrettable late-night tryst. Above all, its design is manic and lacks cohesion; almost a split personality that's symbolic of the two software environments. Both the volume rocker and power button sport textured finishes that make it easier to locate the controls by feel. Unfortunately, this smart move is completely negated by the poor location of the power button: it's positioned in the middle on the right side. Right-handed folks will discover that their thumb naturally covers the exposed microUSB port, which is exactly where the power button should be. Instead, not only does this make it more difficult to wake the device or put it to sleep, but it also means that the microUSB port will eventually collect gunk from your fingers, which could lead to hardware issues. This isn't so much of an problem for left-handed folk, but the majority of people will likely loathe the layout. There's also no notification light, which is unfortunate, but a relatively minor sacrifice.
One of our primary complaints with the Pantech Burst was its set of unresponsive capacitive buttons. That's a non-issue this time around, as the navigation keys of the Flex are completely software-based -- just like the Galaxy Nexus. The end result is a cleaner look up front, in addition to the elimination of wasted space. For every battle that the Flex wins, however, the smartphone loses another. In this case, it's the raised edge of the frame that surrounds the display. Needless to say, it causes an unsettling feeling every time your thumb crosses the harsh edge, and your only hope is that you'll eventually wear down the plastic to make it flush with the display -- by that time, however, you'll probably be looking at a new smartphone.
Removal of the Flex's rear cover is relatively painless, which is a good thing, considering that the phone will be sold in part to the elderly. Underneath, you'll find a substantial 1,830mAh battery, in addition to slots for the micro-SIM and microSD cards. The phone includes 1GB of RAM, along with 8GB of built-in storage with approximately 5.5GB available for use. Eco-minded shoppers should know that the Flex ranks relatively low on AT&T's sustainability scale, with only two out of a possible five stars. For a more complete overview of the Pantech Flex, we've included a spec sheet for quick reference.
||$50 with two-year contract; $400 outright
||5.1 x 2.6 x 0.32 inches (130 x 66 x 8mm)
||4.66 oz. (132g)
||4.3 inches (109mm)
||960 x 540 pixels (256ppi)
||Super AMOLED (PenTile) display
||8GB (5.5GB available)
||MicroSD, none included
||8MP, AF, LED flash
||LTE 700/850/1700/1900; HSPA+ 850/1900/2100; GSM / EDGE 850/1700/1900/2100
||Qualcomm MSM8960 (Snapdragon S4)
||1.5GHz dual-core Krait
||802.11 a/b/g/n with WiFi Direct
||Android 4.0.4 (Ice Cream Sandwich)
|Supported multimedia formats
||AAC LC/LTP, AAC+, eAAC+, AMR-NB, AMR-WB, FLAC, MP3, MIDI, OGG Vorbis, PCM/WAVE, WMA
Performance and battery life
With a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 running the show, it should come as no surprise that the Pantech Flex can run with the big dogs. The phone offers a dual-core 1.5GHz Krait CPU, and it's immediately apparent that the Flex offers the same level of performance and responsiveness that keeps One X and Galaxy S III owners grinning. Outside of the poky camera app, mainstay titles such as Chrome, Gmail, Maps and YouTube all pop open without hesitation, and switching between apps is a similarly breezy affair. Within the browser, web pages render quickly, and actions like panning, scrolling and zooming are all buttery smooth. The same can be said for animations and transitions within Pantech's launcher, which is wonderfully responsive. From a cold boot, the Flex delivers you to the lock screen and then straight into the launcher in just under 30 seconds. Benchmarks reinforce our real-world impressions, which suggest the Flex performs roughly in line with the One X for AT&T. Call quality is a similar strong point, which was consistently clear and free of distortion.
||HTC One X (AT&T)
||Motorola Atrix HD
|SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms)
|GLBenchmark 2.5 Egypt Offscreen (fps)
|SunSpider: lower scores are better.
Aboard AT&T's LTE network in Portland, Ore., the Flex averaged 10.7 Mbps down and 6.3 Mbps up. That's more than sufficient for most needs, but it's roughly one-third of the chart-topping speeds we've seen for the carrier. Even with LTE enabled, we averaged between 36 and 42 hours of battery life with moderate use. Meanwhile, in our standard battery rundown test, the Flex was able to squeeze out eight hours and 34 minutes of uptime before calling it a day, which is on the better side of average and just short of the One X.
As an upgrade over the Burst, the Flex now features an 8-megapixel rear camera that's paired with a 2MP front-facing shooter. Even with the new setup, however, Pantech's implementation continues to disappoint. To its credit, the camera now captures a greater amount of detail than before, and under a narrow set of conditions, it delivers very nice photos. That said, you'll consistently find overblown highlights that are impossible to eliminate within the EV settings, an issue that holds true even in ideal lighting. The camera performs poorly in the shade, where highlights are overexposed, shadows are underexposed and colors appear washed out and muted. Fiddling with the white balance can sometimes prove helpful, but even then, colors are far from accurate. Meanwhile, 1080p video capture is smooth and fluid, but the camcorder suffers from the very same weaknesses as the still camera. In an ironic twist, the Flex performs quite well at nighttime in HDR mode, but that small victory isn't enough to salvage an otherwise forgettable camera.
Despite the fast Snapdragon S4 internals, the camera app is slow to load and you'll find significant shutter delay. Even in burst capture mode, the shutter speed is far from quick -- about one shot per second -- and while photos remain at 8MP in this mode, detail and file size is roughly halved. Worse yet, it's impossible to focus in burst mode, even initially.
The camera software is also on the weak side, and those who want to tweak the settings will find only EV and pre-set white balance controls. Unfortunately, there's an even a greater problem: the camera app is incredibly buggy. As is, whenever you want to take a picture, you risk locking up the phone and forcing it to restart. Even worse, if the phone crashes, whatever photo you've taken will be corrupt. This problem is exacerbated when you attempt to import the pictures to your computer, as any broken files may cause the transfer to lock up completely. This is completely unacceptable, especially when you consider the Flex's positioning as a smartphone for the technologically averse.
Yes, the Flex's camera must be judged in the context of the phone's budget status, but it's so unpredictable and so underwhelming that you're likely to give up on taking photos almost completely, which is a shame. Given its buggy software, the camera may not even come through in a pinch when you need to snap the license plate of some jerk that rear-ends you. Granted, Pantech may improve the situation with a software update, but the fact that it delivered the Flex in this broken state -- and that AT&T agreed to sell it -- reflects poorly on both companies.
As you're now aware, the Pantech Flex has two personalities. Its core software is based on Android 4.0.4 (Ice Cream Sandwich), but unlike most smartphones on the market, the Flex offers two software environments: one that boasts an abundance of customization options, and another that's designed for utter simplicity. During the phone's initial setup, users will find an explanation and visual overview of both environments and must choose between the two. As a nice touch, an introductory video is provided for the Pantech Easy Experience, which guides users through the home screen and explains how to add both quick contacts and app shortcuts. Oddly enough, the Flex also seems to have a bit of an identity disorder. On a few occasions, the wrong environment would appear after pressing the home button.
In a broad sense, Pantech's bare-bones launcher should appeal to anyone who might feel overwhelmed by traditional smartphone interfaces. That said, it's impossible to ignore that the Flex is partially geared toward the elderly. In addition to the jumbo type within Easy Experience, the phone also includes an aptly named Pill Reminder app -- we'll let you decide whether this is helpful or insulting.
In a very wise move, users are given a single home screen that can't be modified. Despite its simplicity, you'll find all the essential functionality that one could hope for. This includes access to the phone, camera, web browser and text message apps. Three large widgets show the time, date and weather, which can be used to launch the alarm clock, calendar and weather apps, respectively. The home screen also features a quick contacts list, which offers access to voicemail and up to five contacts, along with a shortcut button that displays a 3 x 3 grid of frequently used apps. The rationale behind these limits is to eliminate the need for scrolling, which also applies to the menu-based launcher and the settings screen.
Another nice touch within Easy Experience is the notification drawer that provides WiFi, Bluetooth, alarm and vibrate toggles, along with huge battery life and network signal indicators. It also displays the current date and time in large type, in addition to the owner's mobile phone number. Even the lock screen is self-explanatory -- it's depicted as a light switch.
In all, the Pantech Easy Experience is excellent. It provides much of the same functionality that advanced smartphone users have come to expect, yet with a simple interface that novices should find much less daunting. In fact, our only suggestion is to strip down the Easy Experience even further. For example, configuration options that appeal only to power users -- device administrators, security credentials and USB debugging -- are still accessible from the Easy Experience settings menu, which add needless complexity to an otherwise simplistic interface.
Fortunately, if you're the type that likes tons of customization options, Pantech has you covered with its standard launcher. Most importantly, the interface is quite reminiscent of stock Ice Cream Sandwich, but with a number of tweaks that should make power users smile. For instance, Pantech designers have added the ability to place up to 10 additional apps within the app drawer, which you can access by scrolling either left or right. You'll also find a wealth of toggles within the notification drawer -- two sets in all -- which you can switch between by flicking left or right. The company has included a variety of attractive widgets for the desktop, which exist alongside the stock Android options from Google.
The launcher is also remarkably similar to Ice Cream Sandwich, albeit with the ability to create groups and rearrange icons. Within the launcher's edit mode, users can easily hide apps or delve into its detailed information. In another twist, users can even choose between two visual sets of icons. Seven different lock screens are also on the menu, which range from secure options such as Face Unlock, PIN and password to a rotary style screen that offers up to six apps for quick launch access. The Flex is configured to use SwiftKey by default, but if that's not your thing, you'll also find Swype and the stock Ice Cream Sandwich keyboard on board.
Even the majority of Pantech's apps are quite nice, which were clearly designed with Ice Cream Sandwich in mind. This is true for mainstays such as the address book, alarm clock, calendar, phone and SMS apps, but also extends to unique offerings like a unit converter, file manager, tip calculator and voice recorder. Unfortunately, we're not terribly fond of the teal color scheme that Pantech chose for its apps, and given the customization available elsewhere, it's a shame that users can't select other options from a color palette.
Pantech has also customized its web browser with tie-ins for Facebook and Twitter, along with pre-configured news categories that are powered by Yahoo. The additions are of dubious benefit, and because the browser lacks synchronization with Chrome, we suspect that most users will simply install Google's own offering.
While the Flex isn't exactly littered with bloatware, there are a number of redundant apps that are simply unnecessary. It's easy to pick off the obvious ones like AT&T Navigator, which is a costly and cumbersome mess in comparison to Google Navigation, but you'll also find greater travesties such as AT&T's Messages app, which sits alongside Pantech's Messages app -- two apps with the same name that do the same thing. Utterly brilliant. As for video, you'll find AT&T Live TV, mSpot Movies, Google Play Movies, Video Player and YouTube. There's also a separate DLNA app called Net Media. While each app arguably has a different function, a well-designed video hub app would have been more elegant. The same is true for music, where you'll find AT&T Radio, Pantech's Music Player and Google Play Music. The level of redundancy is asinine no matter who your target audience may be, but on a phone intended for novices, there's no excuse to introduce such nonsensical complexity into the equation.
Even with the Pantech Flex's low price of $50 on contract, the question of the day is whether it's worth a two-year commitment. To its credit, the phone offers the same level of performance that you'll find in top-tier smartphones, along with a quality display, admirable battery life and access to AT&T's LTE network. Jokes about multiple personalities aside, the Flex includes two excellent software environments that should appeal to experts and novices alike. Pantech's Easy Experience mode is particularly well-suited to the elderly, thanks to its use of large type and its straightforward UI. Meanwhile, Pantech's traditional software environment combines the best elements of Ice Cream Sandwich and adds greater customization options and a number of useful apps.
As with any budget smartphone, it should come as no surprise that Pantech has cut a few corners in order to hit the $50 price point. In the case of the Flex, the camera is a casualty. Put simply, the camera is completely inappropriate for those even remotely interested in casual photography. To confound matters, the camera app is currently prone to crashes, which forces the phone to restart and causes corrupt files. With this in mind, if imaging quality is important, you'll need to look elsewhere for your next smartphone. If, on the other hand, you're willing to accept that the camera is an afterthought, then the Pantech Flex is a worthwhile purchase and an excellent value.
Brad Molen contributed to this review.