What do you get when you cross a manufacturer that typically makes good, affordable phones that fly under the radar, and a carrier that's padding out its 4G LTE lineup with a range of Android handsets? That would be the Pantech Burst, a $50 LTE phone with a surprising number of goodies. Sure, the 5-megapixel camera isn't the absolute sharpest, but it does have a 4-inch Super AMOLED screen that hits the sweet spot, a 2-megapixel front-facing camera for video chatting, and a 1.5MHz dual-core processor.
Besides all that, the eye-catching design is a breath of fresh air compared with the numbing sameness of so many Android 2.3 Gingerbread phones. The phone's call quality is a red flag, however, I'm sad to say, so if you intend to frequently use the phone as (gasp!) a phone, then you may want to test it out in your neighborhood before buying the Burst, wallet-friendly price notwithstanding.
From the moment I first laid eyes on the Burst at CES 2012, I liked what I saw. It's a great medium-large phone (more medium by today's standards) with some interesting style and a splash of color--at least if you lay your hands on the ruby-red version I reviewed. It also comes in titanium. It has rounded shoulders, a black glossy face, and shiny black accents on the side, creating a tuxedo effect. I like the two strong ridges on the back, where the phone curves into the spines.
The Burst fit my hand well. At 5 inches tall by 2.5 inches wide by 0.45 inch thick, the phone for me hits a sweet spot of being big enough that I can see the screen, but not so large that I can't still operate the phone with one hand and squeeze it into a front jeans pocket (albeit with a bump). At 4.3 ounces, it is neither too light nor too heavy.
The Burst's 4-inch Super AMOLED screen immediately drew me in with its brightness, high contrast, vibrancy, and clarity. It counts as one of those pleasant surprises you may not expect in a phone with such a moderate price tag. Android 2.3 Gingerbread runs the show, with Pantech's very usable interface on top. I like the lock screen motif, with six icons you can drag into a central circle to unlock to show the home screen, the music player, the call log, the browser, e-mail, or the messaging inbox--similar to HTC's Sense UI. I just wish there were one to open the camera.
As with other Pantech phones (and many other Android handsets in general), there are seven customizable home screens on the Burst, which you can see at a glance when you pinch the screen. The drop-down notifications menu includes system settings--like for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi--that you can turn on or off with a finger tap.
When it comes to other hardware features, the Burst keeps it straightforward. Above the screen is the 2-megapixel camera lens, and on the back is the 5-megapixel lens, with flash. The right spine has the Micro-USB charging port and the left has the sleek, black volume rocker. Up top, you'll find the 3.5mm headset jack and the Tic Tac-shaped power button.
Pry off the stubborn back cover to reveal the microSD card slot (I had to use the edge of a spare standard SIM card to do this.) But it won't be a standard SIM you'll use to get service; the Burst uses a smaller microSIM.
If you're worried that the budget Burst skimps on features, don't be. The handset comes with the usual support for GPS, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth, and can act as a hot spot for up to seven other devices. Pantech's custom interface makes it easy to add accounts for Google and corporate e-mail, integrate Facebook and Twitter into your contact list, and provide updates.
There are also accounts for the video chat app Qik Lite and a Social Network widget that provides autoupdates every 10 minutes to Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace (this could run down your battery more quickly--beware!)
You'll encounter Google's typical services, such as Search, Talk, Books, Maps, Places, Latitude, and YouTube. As always, you get a clock/alarm clock, a calendar, a browser, a music player, and voice search.
AT&T has of course placed its own cadre of apps on the Burst, including AT&T Navigator, a code scanner, a family map, your account info, and U-verse live TV. There are many more preinstalled apps besides, starting with Adobe Reader and Amazon Kindle, moving on to Clock tools, a compass, and a converter, and continuing with a document viewer, a memo pad, and a shortcut for installing a movie app.
Beyond that, you'll find NFL Mobile, a PC Suite Connector app, the Qik Lite app mentioned above, an RSS reader, a sketch pad (use your finger to doodle), and Stocks. Finally, there's a video player, weather, and Yellow Pages Mobile.
Strangely, there are also icons for Verizon's V Cast Videos and MyVerizon Mobile apps on my review unit, obvious (and amusing) strays on an AT&T phone.
Pantech's camera app involves icons for toggling between the front and back cameras and switching between camera and video modes. Tap the screen to pull up other options and the settings menus. The Burst will take photos in a range of resolutions from 5 megapixels down to VGA. It also has flash, three focus modes, and a slew of white-balance presets, filters, and shot modes. There's a fun setting called Instant that acts like a Polaroid you can annotate.
Thanks to the Burst's Super AMOLED screen, photos on the phone look pretty good. The true test, however, is how they look full-size on a larger screen. It's no surprise that photo quality is crisper and more vibrant when photos are taken with abundant ambient light, but what did surprise me is how excellent they were when taken indoors, too, even beneath artificial light sources. The color reproduction and the level of detail were high for the camera's image size when taken during the day. Shutter speed was average.
The front-facing camera took decent photos as well, with decent color reproduction. Unsurprisingly, they're riddled with digital noise, so try not to look too closely.
Video taken with the camera shows impressive 720p HD quality. Playback was smooth, volume capture was strong, and there was great detailing. As with the camera settings, you get white-balance and filter presets. You can also set a video timer to cap the duration of a recording--the scale goes from 10 seconds up to an hour. This is useful for limiting video size when sending an MMS, to name one scenario. In addition, you can record video through the front-facing camera.
I tested the quad-band Pantech Burst (GSM 850/900/1800/1900; LTE 700/1700) in San Francisco using AT&T's network. Call quality was good on my end and disappointing for callers. Most of the time I could hear soft, persistent white noise. Voices sounded a little muffled and a little hollow, but I didn't hear distortions or bleeps, and volume was good. On their end, callers said I sounded flat, distant, and a little unnatural. My voice was muffled, but loud enough. There wasn't any background noise, but I did sound slightly distorted at higher volumes. In one call, my companion said that the audio symptoms flared at first, but settled down somewhat as we kept talking.
Pantech Burst call quality sample Listen now:
Try not to count on the Burst's speakerphone and you'll be better off. I tested it at waist level, and had to raise the volume to hear. Voices sounded thin and jangly to my ears, a bad experience overall. On their end, callers heard more echo than usual, and said my words sounded garbled. Speakerphone distorted badly on high volume. One caller also mentioned that the phone transmitted a "Whoooooo" sound when I spoke.
While the calling experience may have struck a sour note, internal performance didn't. The 1.5GHz dual-core processor made navigation fast and seamless. Unfortunately, I'll have to get back to you on 4G LTE speeds for the Burst. The microSIM I have for review seems to be provisioned for 4G HSPA+, but not LTE. Pantech and AT&T are working on this, so stay tuned. However, if AT&T's Samsung Galaxy Note is any indication, LTE will be impressive.
The Burst has a rated battery life of 4.5 hours of talk time and 10 days standby on its 1,680mAh battery, a poorer result. We'll continue testing the battery drain in our own labs, and will update this review with our results.
I was impressed by the Pantech Burst's design, feature set, and price when I first learned of the phone at CES. When the highest-end phones sail in at $200 dollars or more, a $50 Android phones seems like it's too good to be true. If you value call quality and long battery life above all else, the fairy tale ends. Yet if you plan to make phone calls sparingly, you'll enjoy a beautiful screen of practical size, a very solid camera with nice color reproduction and impressive detail, and a dual-core processor that moves it all along.