AT&T is looking to make a big splash with the $299 Pantech Element, an 8-inch tablet that's essentially waterproof. In addition to its ability withstand spills or even the occasional dunk, this Android-powered slate offers a vibrant display, solid performance, and blazing 4G LTE speeds. But will the $299 (with two-year contract, $449 with no contract) Element sink or swim in an already crowed tablet market?
You wouldn't know when picking up the Pantech Element that it's waterproof. A large glossy display sits in front surrounded by a shiny black bezel with a noticeable lack of capacitive buttons. Logos for Pantech and AT&T reside on top at opposite corners of the display. A 2.0 megapixel front-facing camera sits in the center of the left bezel next. A shiny gray plastic band frames the front of the Element adding a subtle accent.
A thick strip of matte black plastic sits wraps around the sides of the tablet. A chrome power button and a black matte volume rocker sit at the top of the tablet embedded in a hard black plastic panel with a snakeskin pattern. There is a similar panel at the bottom of the tablet. However, the panel opens into two separate port covers. The left port cover reveals slots for a SIM card and microSD. A microUSB port and a mini-HDMI port sit under the right cover. The headphone jack on the tablet's left is also protected by a port cover.
Although the port covers are there to protect the tablet from water, we found them to be somewhat difficult to open, especially the headphone jack port cover.
The rear of the tablet uses a smooth glossy black plastic with a herringbone pattern that rests just beneath the surface. We like the way the pattern shifts depending on how the light hits it, but we found that back picks up fingerprints too quickly. You'll also find a 5-megapixel rear-facing camera and LED flash.
The 1.1 pound, 8.4 x 6.1 x 0.4-inch Element is heavier and wider than the Motorola Droid Xyboard 8.2, which weighs a mere 13.8 ounces and measures 8.5 x 5.5 x 0.4 inches. The 7.5 x 4.8 x 0.4 inch T-Mobile Springboard is also lighter at 14.1 ounces.
The Pantech Element is IP57 rated, which means that the tablet is protected against dust and water. Thanks to the port covers, Pantech claims that the Element can survive being submerged in 1 meter (3.28 feet) of water for 30 minutes.
During our testing, we were able to pour water directly over the ports with no ill effect. We then placed the Element in a pan and poured water over it while it was powered on. We left it submerged for about 10 minutes. While the touchscreen isn't operable while the tablet is underwater, we saw that the vibrant display was still going strong.
After taking the Element out of the water, wiping off the excess liquid and quickly turning the lockscreen on and off, the tablet worked like nothing had happened.
At 501 lux, the Element's 8-inch Vivid HD, 1024x768p capacitive touchscreen display delivered bright, vivid colors and clear, sharp detail. Though the tablet's display has fewer pixels than 1280 x 800 competitors like the Toshiba Thrive 7-inch, text on Gameinformer.com and CNN.com easily legible. Multitouch gestures such as pinch-zoom and scroll were quick and responsive. Although we noticed gridlines on the display when we zoomed in, we didn't see the checkerboard pattern we've encountered on other tablets as the image readjusts.
As we watched the HD "Red Tails" YouTube trailer, we saw crystal blue skies set against the bold reds, yellows, and oranges from fighter planes bursting into flames. We also noticed how actor Terrance Howard's light brown eyes popped against his olive uniform. Images remained colorful even at 180 degree viewing angles to the left or right of the screen. Unfortunately, using the Element in direct sunlight brought on glare, making it difficult to read or watch video. In other words, you might want to think twice about using this slate poolside.
The Element's single speaker produced a fair amount of volume, easily filling a large room. We enjoyed crisp, clear dialogue during the "Red Tails" trailer, as well as big explosions coupled with the distinctive sound of machine guns firing. When we listened to Jazmine Sullivan's "Holding You Down (Goin' In Circles)," we heard a rich smoky alto, a crisp harpsichord, and a clear snare drum. We were pleasantly surprised by the amount of bass we heard, but there was a lot of brassiness and distortion during the harmony sections at full volume.
The stock Android keyboard on the Element offers large gray keys with generous spacing between the keys in both portrait and landscape modes. Although punctuation marks such as question and quotation marks are located directly above the keyboard, other special characters must be accessed using an alternate keyboard.
The Element also comes with a Swype keyboard that has large keys like the Android keyboard, but with not as much space between them. Tracing our words on the Swype keyboard allowed us to type emails slightly faster than pecking at the keys. We also liked being able to access special characters just by pressing and holding a key.
Overall, both keyboards provided a fair amount of haptic feedback that felt good under our digits.
Software and Interface
The Element runs a standard version of Android 3.2 Honeycomb. The requisite five homescreens are present, as are the icons for Back, Home, and Recent Activity in the bottom system bar. The clock and mini-notifications for network, battery, downloads, and email can also be found in the bottom system bar. The top system bar has icons for Search, Voice Search, Apps, and the Multitask page.
The initial homescreen has widgets for Accuweather.com, email and AT&T data usage. Icons for Web, Camera, Market and Settings line the right side of the display. We found a calendar widget on another homescreen along with icons for AT&T Messages, Contacts, Qik Lite and Google Talk.
Another homescreen displayed a recent website widget as well as a Google Books widget. AT&T added its Featured Apps widget, and shortcuts to FamilyMap, Code Scanner, and myAT&T app to another screen, leaving the remaining screen virtually blank and ready for customization.
Pantech preloads a number of interesting apps on the Element that are designed to boost both entertainment and productivity. Pantech's Net Media app offers as a nifty way to share content (music, images, and video) across DNLA-compatible devices. Pantech also includes its PC Suite Connector app ,which allows a Pantech phone or tablet to sync with a PC via Wi-Fi or USB. However for the connection to work, you have to install the PC Suite software on the computer first.
NotePad is good for jotting down a quick note, but we really enjoyed scribbling in SketchPad, which provides a number of different backgrounds and pens to express your creative side. We also liked PhotoFrame, which turns the Element into a digital photo frame. We found it easy to cycle through pictures we snapped with the tablet and combining them with pre-loaded images for an interesting montage.
Casual gamers will want to check out "Bug Village" on the Element. We spent an inordinate amount of time constructing houses for our burgeoning insect tenants. When that got old, we switched over to "Enzo's Pinball Lite" which gave us three pinball tables to choose from, complete with haptic feedback on the bumpers. We scored even more casual gaming action from the GameWorld hub, which offered a slew of games including the free "Meganoid" and titles such as the $2.99 "Fruit Ninja HD."
When we weren't gaming, we also enjoyed reading the digital editions of some of our favorite magazines in the Zinio mobile newstand. Readers have the option of purchasing a single issue or subscribing for 6 issues.
Other entertainment-focused apps include Netflix, Amazon Kindle, and the mSpot-powered Movies app, which lets users rent movies starting at $3.99. Google Music is also on board.
AT&T branded apps on the Element include AT&T Code Scanner, FamilyMap, Navigator Featured Apps and myAT&T. You'll also find AT&T Communication Manager, which displays domestic and international data usage, and AT&T Messages, which aggregates the user's text, email, and voicemail into one easy-to-read thread.
Third-party apps include Facebook, Adobe Reader, Qik Lite, YPMobile, and Google Talk.
Equipped with a 1.5-GHz Qualcomm APQ 8060 CPU, 1GB of RAM and 16GB of onboard storage, the Pantech Element delivered fairly good performance in our tests. Switching between apps and homescreens was fast and seamless as was multitasking. We were also able to play "Bug Village" with four open web tabs in the browser. We noticed a bit of lag, however, when we start watching videos on YouTube.
On the Benchmark CPU test, the Element scored 3,318, well above the 1,272 Android tablet category average. The Xyboard 8.2 did slightly better with a score of 3,385 while the Springboard notched 2,494. During the An3DBench test, which tests graphics performance, the Element notched 7,004. That's 738 points above the 6,266 category average. The Springboard scored 7,052 while the Xyboard 8.2 posted 7,269.
The Pantech Element comes with 16GB of onboard storage that can be expanded to 32GB via the microSD slot.
Web Browsing and 4G LTE
We enjoyed blazing fast speeds surfing the web on AT&T's 4G LTE network. The Element loaded the mobile versions of CNN.com, ESPN.com and the NYTimes.com in 6.7, 5.3, and 4.3 seconds respectively.
On Speedtest.com, the Element posted a fantastic average download speed of 35.7 Mbps and an upload speed of 16.2 Mbps. The Xyboard averaged 27.1 Mbps down and 6 Mbps up on Verizon's 4G LTE network. The Springboard only managed 7.9 Mbps down and 1.4 Mbps on T-Mobile's HSPA+ 42 network.
Unfortunately, you can't use the Element as a mobile hotspot.
The Element's rear-facing camera captures 5-megapixel still images and video at 720p resolution. We were pleased that we were able to snap off pictures relatively quickly with less than a second of delay between shot. We noticed that autofocus could take a second or more to kick in at times though.
The rear camera delivered sharp details and vivid colors on both stills and video. Our flower shots exhibited bold pinks, reds, and electric blues. Our video of New York City traffic yielded bright yellows and rich blacks. We could easily read the ad on the side of a passing bus.
While photos and stills captured by the 2-megapixel front-facing camera were slightly grainy, the footage still had fairly accurate color. On our Qik Lite video call, we noticed the picture was slightly dark and grainy, but had loud and clear audio.
During the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous web surfing over 4G LTE), the Pantech Element lasted 5 hours and 36 minutes. That's 2 minutes above the 5 hour 34 minutes Android Tablet category average. Still it was more than enough to top the Xyboard 8.2's time of 3:29 minutes on Verizon's 4G LTE network. The Springboard, which runs on T-Mobile's HSPA+ 42 network, lasted 5:10.
Data Plans and Overall Cost
The Element comes with two data plan options: $35 for 3GB or 5GB for $50. Over two years you would spend at least $1,139 on the tablet. The $199 T-Mobile Springboard, by comparison would cost $1,160 with a two-year contract and a $39 monthly 2GB data plan. The $529 32GB Xyboard 8.2 with a two-year contract and a $30 2GB data plan costs $1,249.
If you happen to be in the market for a smartphone and a tablet, consumers can purchase the Element in a bundle package with the Pantech Burst smartphone for $249. However, consumers will be on the hook to purchase separate data plans for both devices.
The $299 Pantech Element definitely isn't your typical Android slate. Because of its waterproof design, you can feel fairly comfortable using this tablet in the kitchen or anywhere else it might get splashed. We also like the fast 4G LTE speeds and respectable battery life when in 4G mode. We're just not fans of the standard-def resolution, and you have to put up with port covers to ward off water.
Because of the relatively high monthly data fees--which are in addition to what you would pay for a smartphone--you might want to either opt for the no-contract version of the Element for $449 and pay for data only when you need it. Or you could pick up a Wi-Fi only device like the Toshiba Thrive 7-inch ($372). But if you want a tablet that isn't afraid to get wet, the Element is definitely worth a look.