Pantech Flex (AT&T) review:

Pantech Flex (AT&T)

Like every Android smartphone, the Pantech Flex supports Google services like maps and navigation, plus multiple inboxes and accounts that extend to the social sphere. Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich adds a host of new tools, like built-in screenshots (they work perfectly on the Flex.) Unfortunately, you won't be able to use one of the best Ice Cream Sandwich tricks, Android Beam, since the Flex lacks NFC.

However, there are still plenty of additional features, including Bluetooth 4.0 (which CNET editor Brian Bennett says will change your life.) There's also support for the SwiftKey and Swype virtual keyboards. Swype has swooped in to become the de facto alternative keyboard, but I'm glad to see SwiftKey selected by default. Nearly every smartphone coming out on AT&T carries LTE support, and the Pantech Flex is no different; it can also turn into a hot spot for up to eight devices.

Here's an idea of the apps you'll get with the Pantech Flex: there will be the usual clock, calculator, and calendar trio, plus a music player, a document viewer, and a converter. You'll also find Amazon Kindle, a file manager, AT&T Radio and AT&T Live TV, and a weather app. Pantech also gives you access to your social networks, to a task manager, and to a video player. Of course, you can skip on over to the Google Play store to download any other app.

The Pantech Flex has the first 8-megapixel camera I've seen from Pantech, and while I like their moxie, I can't say I like the photo quality. Shutter speed was slow and pictures often blurred if the subject didn't stay perfectly still.

Pantech Flex
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Slower shutter speeds help make baby a blur. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The Flex failed both the squirming baby and dog tests, but it also tripped up when subjects did remain still. Photos often didn't look crisp, and even with auto focus going, the background in many images was was more focused than the foreground.

Pantech Flex
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Despite focusing on the pooch's furry face, the Flex produced slightly more defined blades of grass. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Some pictures did look good, but I wouldn't call the camera reliable.

If you have the patience to set up your shot, you may get better results using the camera's standard or HDR settings. You'll be able to adjust the exposure and resolution, white balance and scene mode, the self timer, and various effects. I'm disappointed I didn't see a panoramic mode, which is now built into Android 4.0. The Flex supports 1080p HD video recording and playback.

Pantech Flex
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Here's a section of one of the best photos I took with the Flex, without any resizing or retouching. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Pantech Flex
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Here's the same photo, resized and cropped. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

In addition to the rear-facing camera is a 2-megapixel front-facing camera. Photos and video are passable, but not great (you wouldn't expect them to be.) The camera will do the trick for video chats. The Flex can store up to 8GB on board and up to 32GB of additional photos and videos on the microSD card.

Pantech Flex
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Using flash and a still subject still won't guarantee photographic crispness with the Flex's camera. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Call quality
Call quality on AT&T's network with the quad-band Pantech Flex (GSM 850/900/1900/2100) was pretty good here in San Francisco. Volume was a little low on the medium high setting, but it sounded fine when I increased the volume. The background also sounded clear, without any white noise. Voice quality took a bit of a hit, so that my test partner sounded slightly lispy and muffled.

On his end, my testing companion said I sounded pretty good. He also heard slight muffling, but had no issues with volume levels. My voice sounded fairly natural to his ears, but not fully natural, he said. Although the call was completely free of background noise, it wasn't crystal clear; however, he said that the calling experience was more than acceptable.

Pantech Flex (AT&T) call quality sample Listen now:

I tested the speakerphone by holding the phone at waist level, and immediately noticed that I needed to increase the volume to maximum. Audio sounded tinny and a little buzzy, not round and rich, and I definitely noticed that voices sounded sharp at the higher frequencies.

My test partner noticed more distortion with the speakerphone than with the standard call mode, which he said made me harder to understand, even "highly robotic." He wasn't a big fan of the speakerphone experience, even though I felt like I could carry on a conversation.

Battery and performance
Thanks to LTE speeds, the Flex showed some muscle loading up Web pages, downloading apps, and streaming music. For example, I easily got speeds in the 20-25 Mbps download range and upload speeds spanning the 10-20. Its 1.5 GHz Qualcomm MSM 8960 processor isn't the fastest on the market, but I couldn't complain about the speed of navigating around. Even switching between easy and standard experiences was speedy and seamless.

During our battery drain test, the Flex lasted 10.6 hours on its 1,830mAh battery. Anecdotally, it lasts most of the day before requiring a recharge.

Final thoughts
For $50, Pantech has crammed a lot into its Flex for AT&T. LTE hands out fast data speeds, the design draws in your eye, and the camera and processor specs sound terrific. On top of that, Pantech's two modes give users choices for how they like to take their Ice Cream Sandwich. Unfortunately, Pantech's ambitions exceed its capability to execute. The camera is unreliable, sometimes taking blurry shots or focusing in the wrong place; the Flex's physical edges feel sharp in the hand; and the standard Ice Cream Sandwich experience feels overdesigned.

Taken on the whole, $50 (with a new contract) is a great price for what you get just so long as you're not expecting a handset at the top of its class. Thanks to the easy mode, I would recommend the Flex as a good option for first-time smartphone users, especially those who are looking to save a few bucks.

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