AT&T offers a growing selection of smartphones that taps into its superfast 4G LTE network, but the Pantech Burst breaks through by being the first that costs less than $50. This handset doesn't scream "cheap," either. The Burst boasts a bold Super AMOLED screen along with a dual-core processor. Plus, Pantech has added some software enhancements to Android that make the OS more user-friendly. Read on to find out whether this smartphone is as good a value as it seems.
At a time other smartphone makers are pumping out supersized devices, the Burst is a breath of fresh air. Reminiscent of the Galaxy S, the Pantech has a compact chassis with rounded corners, and weighs just 4.32 ounces. By contrast, the HTC Vivid on AT&T weighs nearly two ounces more, at 6.24 ounces. At 5 x 2.5 x 0.45 inches, the Burst is easy to operate with one hand. Although it's plastic, we like the brushed metal look of the dark gray back, as well as the dark chrome accents. The Burst is also available in Ruby Red.
The Burst has a power button on the top left side that's slightly recessed, but easy to press. The volume controls line the left side toward the middle, and the microUSB port is on the right. Four capacitive buttons sit beneath the 4-inch display (Menu, Home, Back, Search). A VGA camera for video chats is up front, and a 5-MP shooter with LED flash sits on the back next to a small speaker.
Overall, the Pantech Burst feels sturdy and is fairly stylish for a $50 LTE phone.
Display and Audio
The Pantech Burst benefits from having one of the brightest and boldest screens available on any smartphone. We measured a brightness of 500 lux, which is higher than the Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket (441 lux) and the HTC Vivid (381). When watching a trailer for "The Dark Knight Rises," the yellow-and-black uniforms on the football players popped as the earth swallowed most of them whole. Like most AMOLED displays, viewing angles were quite wide.
The Burst's 800 x 480-pixel resolution Super AMOLED display is lower than high-end Android phones, but that's a minor trade-off as far as we're concerned.
The back-mounted speaker on the Burst produced loud audio when we played that Batman trailer and streamed Kearney's "Nothing to Lose" on Pandora. The audio wasn't tinny even at max volume.
Pantech bundles the Burst with two keyboard options: the standard Android keyboard and Swype. We prefer the former because we found that we could type faster. Plus, the strong haptic feedback provided nice tactile feedback. We appreciated the dedicated @ key that showed up in address fields, but there's no .com key. Swype, which lets you trace a line between letters to type, comes in handy if you need or want to enter a lot of text with one hand.
Software and Interface
Although it's running Android 2.3.5, Pantech has made several tweaks to Google's OS, starting with the lock screen. When you turn the phone on, you'll see a wheel of shortcuts you can swipe to the middle to launch straight into that app. These options include a general lock shortcut, as well as email, music, messaging, Web and phone. This feature is convenient, but we wish you could customize the menu to swap in other shortcuts, such as the camera.
Pantech also gave the notification menu a makeover. When you swipe down from the top of the screen, you'll see five buttons you can toggle on and off, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, Alarm and Sound. Pantech calls this feature the Easy Setting. Press the down arrow at the top right of the display, and you'll five more options, such as Auto Rotate and Tethering Setting. The only missing as far as we're concerned is a quick brightness control.
Other welcome modifications to Android include an apps menu that lets you swipe from left to right even when you reach the last page of icons--no dead ends here--and a well-designed multitasking menu. Pressing and holding the home button displays your open apps in a grid with an X in the top left corner. Just tap the X to close the app.
While the line drawing icons on the bottom of the screen might be a little cute for some, overall we like the modifications Android has made here. The Burst makes Google's OS easier to use, which is exactly what you want a $50 smartphone to do.
Specs and Performance
The Burst packs a 1.2-GHz dual-core processor that provided snappy overall performance. Most applications opened almost instantly, and the multitasking menu made it a cinch to switch between open programs. To test the phone's performance further we fired up a few games, which the Burst handled with aplomb. Racing around the water in Riptide GP proved fast and smooth, as did tearing around the track in "Tiki Kart 3D," a Mario Kart knock-off with fun explosions and weapons.
In terms of synthetic performance, the Burst notched a CPU score of 3,104 in the Benchmark app, which actually beats the Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket (1.5-GHz dual-core Qualcomm APQ8060, 3,035) but was behind the regular Galaxy S II on AT&T (1.2-GHz Samsung Exynos C210, 3,340). The Burst also surpassed the HTC Vivid (2,129) and the LG Nitro (1,107).
When we ran An3DBench to measure graphics performance, the Burst notched 7,058. The Skyrocket (7,428), Nitro (7,353) and Galaxy S II (7,754) all scored higher, but not by that much. The Burst also beat the Vivid in this test (6,001).
The Burst comes with 16GB of memory, and you can expand that capacity up to another 32GB using the microSD card slot next to the battery.
4G and Data Performance
AT&T's 4G LTE network is now available in 26 markets, covering 74 million people. This coverage now includes New York City, where we conducted our testing. The Burst averaged a blazing 27.2 Mbps download rate in one location and 8 Mbps up, both well above AT&T's claimed speeds. By comparison, the Galaxy SII Skyrocket averaged a slightly faster 28 Mbps down and 9.5 Mbps up, and the HTC Vivid offered slower downloads (21.6 Mbps) but faster uploads (11.1 Mbps).
When we moved outside of 4G LTE range, the Burst still offered fairly good download speeds, reaching 2.6 Mbps. However, the phone only hit 354 Kbps on the upload.
Regardless, provided you're in an area with 4G LTE coverage, you'll be psyched by the speeds this value-priced smartphone offers. It took the phone only 3 seconds to load the mobile versions of NYTimes.com and CNN.com, and a mere 9.2 seconds to load the full desktop version of NYTimes.com. Laptopmag.com finished loading in a similarly swift 9.5 seconds.
AT&T bundles the Burst with a fair number of its own apps, but you can uninstall them if you like. These include AT&T Navigator, Code Scanner, FamilyMap, U-Verse Live TV and YPmobile. The most useful apps preloaded on the device are Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Amazon Kindle and Qik Lite video chat.
Pantech also includes a bunch of utilities, such as Calculator, Document Viewer and the handy Converter app. We're not fans of the bundled e-mail app, however. The font size is so big you only see six messages at once, versus eight for the Gmail app. We'd recommend downloading a third-party alternative, such as Touchdown, for Exchange mail.
Camera and Camcorder
One of our biggest complaints about the Burst is its sluggish 5-megapixel camera. We noticed severe lag--nearly two seconds--between pressing the shutter button and the phone capturing an image. Outdoors our shot of two children playing in the snow delivered good color accuracy, but didn't look very sharp. Indoors, our pictures of a golden retriever exhibited significant graininess, and that was with the weak flash engaged.
We had better results with the Burst's 720p camcorder. Footage we shot of the same two kids playing in the snow looked brighter, and we had no trouble making out finer details in their jackets.
To test out the front-facing VGA camera, we conducted a Skype call with a colleague. He said we looked "horrendous" on the first call, so we called back. The second time around, he said the picture improved, but only slightly.
Call Quality and Battery Life
In general, the Burst provided solid call quality during our tests. When we dialed a landline, the other caller said we sounded clear without any echoes. We heard only slight fuzziness on our end of the line. In a quiet environment, the earpiece was plenty loud but we had a bit of trouble hearing when there was a lot of background noise.
The Burst features a 1650 mAh battery with a rated 4.5 hours of talk time. That's not very long. In the LAPTOP Battery Test, the phone lasted 4 hours and 40 mintues. This fairly short endurance is typical of 4G LTE phones, but still disappointing. The Burst outlasted the HTC Vivid (4:21) and LG Nitro HD (3:53) but trailed the Skyrocket S II (5:43).
When we moved outside of 4G LTE range, the Burst seemed to offer much longer battery life. However, unlike LTE phones on Verizon's network, there's no way to turn just the LTE radio on or off.
AT&T offers three data plans for the Pantech Burst: DataPlus 300MB ($20 per month, $20 for each additional 300MB), DataPro 3GB ($35/month, $10 for each additional 1GB) and DataPro 5GB ($50/month, $10 for each additional 1GB). Only the 5GB plan includes tethering.
The Pantech Burst is hands-down one of the fastest phones anywhere for $49. The 4G LTE speeds are fantastic, and the tweaks Pantech made to the Android interface makes the UI more intuitive. The slow camera is a letdown, and we wish the battery lasted a bit longer, but overall, this smartphone is a great value. While some first-time smartphone owners on AT&T might prefer the more affordable and even more pocket-friendly Samsung Focus Flash running Windows Phone, Android fans will appreciate the Burst's true 4G data rates and larger Super AMOLED display.