Budget-friendly phones are supposed to sacrifice style and substance for a cut-rate price. And yet here stands the AT&T Pantech Discover, a $49 smartphone that offers everything from LTE speeds and a 720p display to a 12.6-megapixel camera and 3D speakers, all wrapped in a gorgeous chassis. So does the Discover represent a paradigm shift in the budget smartphone space, or is Pantech's latest offering too good to be true?
The Pantech Discover may be budget-friendly, but its curvaceous design oozes the kind of premium look and feel typically reserved for pricier handsets. Its edge-to-edge glass display lends an elegant, understated look, while its rubberized and textured back panel is expertly sculpted to fit nicely in your hand. The phone's 12.6-megapixel rear-facing camera is surrounded by a handsome blue metallic ring. Below that rests a chrome Pantech logo and beneath that is a gray AT&T emblem.
Silver piping lines the Discover's edges, which adds some flair. On the Discover's top right and left edges are the its large external speakers; their unique positioning ensures audio isn't muffled when the device is placed on a flat surface.
Along the Discover's bottom edge is its microUSB port, while the top edge houses the silver power button and 3.5mm headphone jack. On the left edge is the Discover's volume rocker. At 5.3 x 2.7 x 0.36 inches and 4.8 ounces, the Discover is both larger and heavier than the $49 HTC One VX, which measures 5.2 x 2.6 x 0.36 inches and weighs 4.4 ounces. The Discover is by no means too bulky, but it would be easier to operate if the power button was on the right edge.
The Discover's 4.8-inch 1280 x 720 resolution display offered sharp visuals and bright, vibrant colors. A trailer for "Iron Man 3" looked spectacular as red and orange explosions ripped across the screen. Details, including minute scratches on Iron Man's mask, were easily visible, while text on websites such as NYTimes.com and Laptopmag.com looked razor sharp. In fact, pixels are only slightly visible when zoomed all the way in and your face is glued to the screen.
The display's 400 lux brightness rating is lower than the HTC One VX's 471 lux rating, but still far better than the category average of 296, and is easily visible in direct sunlight. We noticed some screen wash-out at wider angles, but overall the Discover's screen is much better than we'd expect at this price.
Perhaps the most impressive feature of the Discover is its side-mounted speakers. Dual 3D surround sound, available with natively stored audio and videos, improves the Discover's audio performance with enhanced bass, treble and a fuller overall sound.
While listening to Lupe Fiasco's "I Don't Want to Care Right Now," the speakers pushed out enough sound to fill a large conference room. The 3D surround sound really strutted its stuff while watching the aforementioned "Iron Man 3" trailer. Explosions rumbled from one speaker to the next, enhancing the feeling that we were standing next to Tony Stark as he battled for his life.
Software and Interface
The Discover features Google's now-outdated Android Ice Cream Sandwich, rather than the current generation Android Jelly Bean, which means users don't get access to features such as Google Now and offline voice typing. Pantech says it will send out an over-the-air update for Jelly Bean in the future, but hasn't mentioned a specific date.
Pantech's Android overlay is relatively unobtrusive and mostly helpful. Instead of a standard lock screen, the Discover's lock screen features six shortcuts that users can swipe toward the center to access the camera, phonebook, dialer, messenger, browser and a simple unlock. If those options don't suit your needs, you can change the shortcuts to access any app on your device. You can also change the unlock screen to a standard Ice Cream Sandwich slide unlock, Face unlock, pattern unlock, or pin unlock.
Users get three customizable home screens in addition to a customizable app drawer at the bottom that can be filled with up to 15 app shortcuts or folders. Tap the settings button in the bottom right corner of the screen to add any number of widgets, as well as to change the home screen themes, wallpapers and various settings.
If this is your first smartphone, or you're setting it up for an older user, you may want to consider the Pantech Easy Experience mode. When active, Easy Experience trims the home screen to the bare essentials, including the clock, calendar and weather information. Buttons for the browser, contacts, camera and other functions are also larger, making them easier to see and tap.
To really drive home the point that Easy Experience is meant for older users, Pantech has also included a Pill Reminder app in the Shortcuts menu. Somewhat disturbing, however, is the fact that AT&T loads its own AT&T Navigation app in the shortcut menu. While seasoned smartphone users will know to skip AT&T's $10 montly service for the free Google Navigation app, inexperienced users -- the ones Easy Experience is targeting -- might not know any better and may end up forking over their cash for no reason.
The Discover also supports motion gestures. When enabled, this feature lets you answer calls, skip music tracks, pause songs and browse your image gallery by waving your hand from left to right over the phone's front-facing camera. In practice, the gestures worked well, but we did notice some instances when swiping from left to right would skip forward rather than backward and vice versa. Pausing and playing worked flawlessly.
Keyboard options on the Discover include a standard Android offering and SwiftKey for Pantech. Typing with the Android keyboard felt natural, resulting in little if any missed keystrokes. Still, we preferred using SwiftKey, thanks to its predictive text feature and slick swipe to delete function. Despite the Discover's large size, typing with one hand while holding it in portrait mode was no problem. If you're going to hammer out a long text, though, we suggest using two hands in landscape mode.
Equipped with a 1.5-GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor and 1GB of RAM, the Pantech Discover gets the job done. On the CPU Benchmark test, the Discover scored 4,821, which is higher than the 1.2-GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4-powered HTC One VX's score of 3,977, not to mention the category average of 3,100.
On the Quadrant benchmark, which tests CPU, graphics and I/O performance, the Discover managed a score of 5,440. That's better than both the HTC One VX's score of 5,333 and the category average of 3,379. On the An3DBench graphics benchmark, the phone notched 7,067, which is better than the HTC One VX by 25 points, but lower than the category average of 7,194.
During our real-world testing the Discover proved snappy. Switching between the standard interface and Easy Experience, a complete UI swap, took roughly 2 seconds, which is rather impressive. Apps opened and closed quickly, and games such as "RipTide GP" ran buttery smooth. However, the camera app was sluggish, with a solid second passing between our tapping the shutter button and the phone capturing an image.
4G and Web
AT&T's 4G LTE network has proven exceptional in the New York area, and it was no different on the Pantech Discover. When we tested the phone near our Manhattan office using Speedtest.net, the Discover's download speeds averaged 18.9 Mbps. Upload speeds were nearly as fast, averaging 13.9 Mbps.
Web site load times were equally as impressive over AT&T's 4G LTE network. CNN.com loaded in an average of 2.1 seconds, while the mobile version of ESPN.com loaded in 5.9 seconds. NYTimes.com's mobile site loaded in 4.1 seconds and the image-heavy Laptopmag.com loaded in 8.9 seconds.
The bundled browser uses AT&T's Browser Bar, which features shortcuts to Facebook, Facebook Like, Tweet It, Apps and Share along the bottom of the screen. You can always swipe this away. Up top you'll find an option to add more tabs, but it takes up a fair amount of real estate until you start scrolling down.
Pantech loaded the Discover with a host of first- and third-party apps, such as the aforementioned Easy Experience. The Discover also offers a free 14-day trial for the MOG music app, the Siri-like Smart Voice voice-controlled digital assistant, ThinkFree Office and YPmobile.
Pantech also borrowed an idea from LG with its pop-up video feature. The option, which only works with natively stored videos, lets users watch movies in a small window while using any other app. The music player offers a similar function, but it's not nearly as impressive as the video option. When using this feature, we noticed some slight lag while scrolling through the Discover's apps menu, but it had little effect on graphics performance while playing "RipTide GP."
The Discover is the first smartphone to have AT&T's DriveMode app preloaded. When active, the app automatically blocks the Discover from receiving text messages and calls while traveling in a car moving faster than 25 miles per hour. The app also lets users save up to five contacts to an Allow List that cannot be blocked. Additional AT&T apps include the AT&T Locker cloud storage app, AT&T Ready2Go, AT&T FamilyMap and myAT&T.
Pantech includes full VPN, Exchange ActiveSync and device-encryption support with the Discover, meaning it can be used as both a consumer or business-level device.
Camera and Camcorder
With a 12.6-megapixel sensor, the Discover's camera looks rather impressive on paper. In testing, however, the camera was roughly on a par with those found on other smartphones. While details were sharp, with roadway cracks and rocks easily visible, colors appeared slightly muted. The camera's shutter lag was also unable to keep up with quick moving objects, such as a group of pigeons, causing them to appear blurred.
Shooting options include Normal; Instant Film, a virtual Polaroid creator and Division, which shoots four photos one right after the other and sets them up in connected Windows. Best Face mode lets you capture multiple photos of a subject or subjects in quick succession and select the frame that makes everyone look their best. This feature worked well in our testing, allowing us to select an image of a co-worker without him blinking.
The Discover's 1080p camcorder offered average results. Details tended to be sharp, but colors were oversaturated.
Battery Life and Call Quality
Despite its 2,100 mAh battery, the Pantech Discover lasted only 5 hours and 20 minutes on our LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous Web surfing over 4G LTE with the display set to 40 percent brightness. That's well off the category average of 6:06 and nowhere near the HTC One VX's time of 6:58.
Call quality over AT&T's voice network was rock solid during our testing. Our test call sounded crisp and was free of any distortion or echo. The caller on the other end of the line reported similar results. The phone's speaker-phone function was also clear.
The Pantech Discover really grabs your attention -- and not just because of its low $49 price. It's curvy design, bright HD display and punchy stereo speakers make it a truly unique offering. The only real drawbacks are this handset's below-average battery life and older Ice Cream Sandwich software. In this price range we prefer the $49 HTC One VX for AT&T. It has a smaller 4.5-inch display, but it lasts longer on charge and sports a faster camera. However, if you're new to smartphones or know someone who is, they'll appreciate the Easy Mode interface on this device coupled with its robust feature set.