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Pantech Discover review: Nearly flawless and only 50 bucks

If you're looking for an inexpensive Android phone to fall in love with, AT&T's $50 Pantech Discover is it.

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Jessica Dolcourt
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Jessica Dolcourt

Editorial Director / CNET Franchises, How-To, Performance Optimization

Jessica Dolcourt leads CNET Franchises, How-To, and Performance. With over 15 years in journalism, her experience includes mobile phone and software reporting and reviews, and delivering advice on expansive topics ranging from personal finance to travel and home. Jessica got her start at Download.com and holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).

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8 min read

Pantech isn't as well-known as fellow Korean smartphone competitors LG and Samsung, and it's a shame. It tends to sell attractive and original smartphones with top-tier U.S. carriers at a low contract cost. For example, the Pantech Discover offers tremendous value -- $50 gets you Android 4.0, 4G LTE, a dual-core processor, a 4.8-inch HD screen, and a 12.6-megapixel camera.

Pantech Discover
8.2

Pantech Discover

The Good

The <b>4G LTE Pantech Discover</b> has an excellent ergonomic design, great external speakers, a good camera, and comes at an incredible value.

The Bad

Not all of the Discover's specs are top-notch, including the Android 4.0 OS that excludes Google Now.

The Bottom Line

If you're looking for an inexpensive Android phone to fall in love with, AT&T's $50 Pantech Discover is it.

Not all the phone's features reach the highest rung of the specifications ladder. But for $50 with a new, two-year service agreement, they don't have to. The Discover's upper-midrange specs and comfortable-but-unique design make it an easy top choice among midlevel Android smartphones.

Pantech Discover is contoured Android comfort (pictures)

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Design and build
Barring a few awkward exceptions, smart, contoured handset design is one of Pantech's strong suits. For me, it's what clinches my support of the Discover.

Like other touch-screen smartphones, it's tall, fairly slim, and black. But where some phones have rounded or squared-off edges, Pantech has a mix of both. Where other phones have flat or slightly rounded backs, the Discover's undulates at the top and bottom, which creates a really wonderfully ergonomic feel.

Pantech Discover
The Pantech Discover comes with unusual contouring. Josh Miller/CNET

And where other phone makers place speaker grilles at the top and bottom, Pantech gave its Discover enlarged 3D surround-sound speaker "ears" on the sides of its face. Add to that a comfortable and inviting back panel covered in a textured soft-touch finish, and you've got a phone that quietly stands apart.

The Discover stands 5.3 inches tall, 2.7 inches wide and 0.36 inch deep. Its large, 4.8-inch touch-screen display has a 1,280x720-pixel HD resolution. It's no lightweight at 4.8 ounces, but thanks to the contoured back, it doesn't come across feeling like a brick.

Pantech Discover
These 3D surround-sound speakers were built for your ears. Josh Miller/CNET

I mentioned the 3D speaker "ears," but I also like how Pantech shaped the asymmetrical volume rocker on the phone's left spine. It looks neat and works well. Up top you'll find a standard 3.5-millimeter headset jack and a silvery power button that's embellished with very small grooves. The right spine lies bare, but the phone's base houses the Micro-USB charging port. Peel off the back panel to expose the external memory slot capable of holding 32GB of storage, as well as the Discover's micro-SIM card slot.

Interestingly, Pantech skipped the three capacitive navigation buttons that usually grace the area just below the screen. In the Discover, these manifest as onscreen controls.

The only flaw I discovered is that the phone has a tendency to slip if you speak with it wedged between your shoulder and your ear. If you use a Bluetooth headset to speak, you're golden.

OS and apps
Unfortunately, the Discover runs on Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich right out of the box, though Pantech and AT&T do aspire to Android 4.1 Jelly Bean.

Pantech, like many other manufacturers, adds its own special sauce on top of stock Android, imbuing it with a customized lock screen, notification bar, and various other screens. For instance, the shortcuts bar below the customizable home screens is dynamic, not static. You can customize most of the icons there, and also swipe left and right to add more, just as you would with the home screens.

Pantech Discover
Pantech's 'easy experience' mode is great for smartphone beginners, or for those who like to keep it simple. Josh Miller/CNET

Another Pantech variation pops up a separate menu bar when you press Google's Menu button. Here you'll find Pantech-made buttons for widgets, wallpaper, themes, and settings.

Pantech's "easy experience" is by far its most obvious innovation. First seen in the Flex, the easy experience offers an alternative, much more simple way to view and navigate the phone's contents. Icons appear larger and more bubbly, and instead of multiple home screens and scrolling panels, you get a single pane on the home screen and in the settings menu.

The Discover comes with NFC, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS, and Wi-Fi. If you turn on motion recognition in the settings, you'll be able to wave your hand near the front-facing camera (there's actually a proximity sensor right next to it) to do things like advance music, play or pause, flip through the gallery, and accept an incoming call (think: driving.) It worked fairly well in my tests, but you need only flick a finger, not wave your whole hand.

Pantech Discover, equalizer
Equalizer settings can boost treble and bass. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

What good would fancy speakers be if they didn't come with any way to adjust the sound quality? Deep in the settings menu of the music player app, you'll find an equalizer, treble and bass boost settings, and a "loudness maximizer." You can also set the reverberation for various room sizes, and there's a virtualizer just for fun.

The speakers do work well, by the way. In tests, they sounded good and rich for their size, without overt tinniness or harshness. However, they're no replacement for larger, high-quality portable speakers.

As with the Flex, the Discover uses a version of Swiftkey for Pantech that emphasizes predictive text to minimize typing. Unfortunately, this software version doesn't seem to include the ability to trace out words with your fingertip.

A note on screenshots: to take them, press down on the power and volume-down buttons. This is sometimes awkward on other phones, and results in a lot of aborted attempts that nearly turn off the phone entirely. I'm happy to report that on the Discover, I was able to take screenshots flawlessly, and without hiccups.

Pantech Discover, SwiftKey settings
Swiftkey and Pantech join forces on the keyboard; settings give you some control. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

It feels like the Discover has more than the usual complement of preloaded apps. Just to name a few, there are a slew of AT&T-branded apps that include AT&T Drive Mode, which, when enabled, can automatically reply to texts, calls, and e-mail on your behalf while you drive.

There's also an app for Twitter, Mog Music service, a converter, a voice assistant, and a voice recorder.

Cameras

Pantech may push its megapixel numbers up, but in the past, that hasn't always translated into the best image quality on the market. For the $50 price tag, you'd hardly expect stellar photos, but you'd be extra pleased if you got them anyhow.

Pantech Discover, Flowers
This picture of a flower bed was taken in direct sunlight. CNET

The Discover's 12.6-megapixel camera has 4x zoom, continual autofocus, and an LED flash. Not every photo it's taken has blown me away, but I think that it will satisfy most people taking basic shots with it. I tested it indoors, and outdoors in bright sunlight. On the whole, I found that photos were colorful, mostly crisp, and perfectly useable.

Pantech Discover, Antuan
CNET Car Tech editor Antuan Goodwin could have come out more defined after I took his photo using autofocus. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

That said, I didn't think images had as much definition as I expected from a truly terrific 12.6-megapixel camera. For instance, at that resolution, I'd want to see far more strands of fur on a fuzzy blue desk toy, with more definition between the strands.

Pantech Discover, Keith Haring
San Francisco's iconic Keith Haring statue looked bright and colorful. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The camera seemed to struggle when I tried taking a close-up of the same fuzzy desk toy, choosing to select the flash, which then washed out the image. Luckily, in such a circumstance, changing the settings from auto to no-flash is pretty simple and usually solves the problem.

Pantech Discover, blue fuzzy
I shot this photo of a fuzzy blue desk toy indoors, but with natural ambient light. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Photos on the 2-megapixel front-facing camera are more than passable for what they are.

I took all my photos on automatic mode, but those who like to get in there and play with settings with find plenty. Beyond the usual choices to change resolution, white balance, metering, and other effects, there's also panorama, HDR mode, and best face, the latter of which algorithmically selects the most correct face taken from a group of photos. That is, open eyes and smiles. Just keep in mind that you can only use Best Face on the 8-megapixel resolution setting.

Pantech Discover, blue fuzzy in full resolution
here's the same toy, at full resolution. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

There's also a mode to take a photo so it looks like a cross between a Polaroid and Instagram. It'd be nice if you could control some options from the screen rather than from the menu, like cycling through flash modes.

In auto mode, the Discover turned on flash to shoot a close-up of this critter. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

You can take video up to a 1080p HD resolution, and you'll find several interesting effects if you like to play around with settings, including a time lapse feature. You can also turn voice recording off, which is an interesting feature that saves video editors from having to delete a voice track during postproduction.

Pantech Discover studio shot
Edges were fairly well-defined in this standard studio shot, but the Pantech Discover added a brown cast to the gray scene. Josh Miller/CNET

Video quality was smooth, crisp, and detailed when I shot indoors and outdoors with plenty of light. Thanks to the oversize surround sound speakers, audio played back very well.

The Discover has 16GB of internal memory, about 13GB of which is user-accessible. There's also the microSD card slot, which can take an additional 32GB in storage.

Performance
A 4G smartphone, the Discover took advantage of AT&T's LTE network performance. Using the diagnostic test, Speedtest.net, I saw fast upload and download speeds in the double digits, with download highs in the 40Mbps range and uplink highs of 17Mbps.

Speedtest.net, Quadrant results for Pantech Discover
Diagnostic results from Speedtest.net and Quadrant show fast LTE and processor speeds, respectively. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

In real-world tests also produced rapid results, with Web sites and files downloading in a matter of seconds. Quadrant's diagnostic test for processor speed was also fast, though I should mention that Quadrant's comparison products aren't up-to-date.

Anecdotally, the 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm MSM8960 Snapdragon S4 Plus processor felt nice and fast. It won't be as speedy as the quad-core version of the chipset, but videos will play back quickly and smoothly with fine detail, and games will run nicely. The Snapdragon S4 Plus is Qualcomm's second-fastest dual-core processor on the market, and was among the standard-bearers before its quad-core phone hit the scene.

Pantech Discover (AT&T)
Download CNET mobile app (3.8MB) 7 seconds
Load up CNET mobile app 4 seconds
CNET mobile site load 5 seconds
CNET desktop site load 6.5 seconds
Boot time to lock screen 29 seconds
Camera boot time 2.2 seconds
Camera, shot-to-shot time 2.5 seconds, with auto-focus

I was fairly impressed with the Discover's battery life as well. The phone has a rated talk time of 10 hours, and 18 days of standby time. I was able to play back video in a continuous loop for about 11 hours running on the 2,100mAh battery.

Call quality

Call quality on the Pantech Discover was good in San Francisco when I tested in on AT&T's network (GSM: 850/900/1800/1900.) I called landlines, cell phones, and dialed into a remote conference meeting. My call with my usual testing partner sounded fuzzy and a little crackly -- enough so that I asked if he was on a landline or the portable phone. There wasn't any white noise when my caller fell silent. The fuzziness was noticeable and distracting enough that I asked about it, but it didn't impede the call's flow.

On his end, my tester sang only praises. He said I sounded extremely clear, with zero distortion and no noise. That's unusual, since my voice usually causes the audio to sound "hot" or distorted as it reaches higher frequencies. I also sounded strong and loud to my dedicated calling partner. "Whomever engineered the talk circuit did a really good job," he said. "This is a real phone." That's the highest praise I've ever heard from my tester.

Pantech Discover call quality sample Listen now:

Speakerphone was very good on both sides when I held the phone at hip level. Volume rose the right amount for me, and the audio sounded focused, clear, and strong. There wasn't any trace of an echo and only a tiny bit of tinniness to signal that the call was being pumped through speakers.

Volume did drop a tad on my call partner's end, but he also said that the speaker didn't enhance the room echo, which it usually does. With the Discover, Pantech has mastered many parts of the audio experience.

Should you buy the Pantech Discover?
If you're looking at high value for a good deal, you'd be silly to pass up the Discover. Although it's missing a few superpremium features, like Android 4.1, a quad-core processor, and a full-HD screen, there are very few flaws in the phone's performance, specs, and design. In fact, with its oversize speakers and ergonomic fit, the Discover does better than most. The Discover is a phone I would recommend to most AT&T customers; in fact, it's so solid, I'd buy it myself.

Pantech Discover
8.2

Pantech Discover

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 8
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