You don't see many tablets outdoors. There are a few ways to explain this, but one of the easiest is the fact that these thin, expensive, glass-covered computers are fragile.
Unlike smartphones, which spend most of their lives protected in your pocket, tablets need a sleeve or bag to shelter them from nature's fury. Without one, an unexpected rain shower or a spilled glass of water could quickly put an end to your forward-thinking, tablet-embracing lifestyle.
The Pantech Element is a tablet that dares to go outside. Not only is this $299 (on contract) Android 3.2 tablet able to survive full submersion in up to 1 meter of water, but it's also blessed with AT&T's 4G LTE mobile data network.
Does the Pantech Element's added durability mean we'd recommend it over similar tablets? Let's take a look.
Design and features
At first glance, the Pantech Element doesn't seem much different from any other Android tablet we've come across. It's a little on the small side, with an 8-inch screen as opposed to the 10.1-inch screens found on most of its Android 3.2 (aka Honeycomb) siblings.
|Pantech Element||Motorola Xyboard 8.2||Kindle Fire||Nook Tablet|
|Weight in pounds||1||0.86||0.9||0.88|
|Width in inches (landscape)||8.1||8.5||7.5||8.1|
|Height in inches||5.9||5.5||4.7||5.1|
|Depth in inches||0.44||0.35||0.5||0.37|
|Side bezel width in inches (landscape)||0.81||0.75||0.44||0.12|
You'll notice something's different when you take a look at the sides of the tablet. All of its ports--the headphone jack, Micro-USB, HDMI, SIM slot, and microSD slot--are covered by plastic doors. This is one of Pantech's measures to waterproof the tablet, and these doors better be all closed up if you plan on putting its waterproofing to the test.
Not all of the Element's design choices are quite as thoughtful--at least, aesthetically. The position of the logos on the front and back would indicate that the tablet is intended to be used in a landscape orientation, but the location of the front-facing speaker and camera on the left of the screen makes you wonder if it should be held in portrait like a giant smartphone. You can use it either way, of course, but there's an odd visual tension looking at it.
Another small gripe is the use of a high-gloss finish on the back of the tablet, similar to the one used on the HP TouchPad. The slightest bit of finger grease gives it the texture of a rented bowling ball. But hey, since it's waterproof, you can just hose the thing down whenever it feels grimy.
In terms of hardware features, the Pantech Element offers many of the expected conveniences of its peers. You get a full gigabyte of system RAM, 16GB of built-in storage, Bluetooth 2.1, 802.11n Wi-Fi, GPS, accelerometer, compass, and cameras on both the front (2 megapixel) and back (5 megapixel), with the back camera being capable of capturing 720p video.
A couple of hardware features stand out. There's the 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S3 processor, which really does an impressive job of standing up to the 1.2GHz Texas Instruments OMAP 4430 CPU found on the Motorola Droid Xyboard 8.2. There's also the integrated 4G LTE wireless data connectivity, which is a great pairing for a tablet designed to survive outdoor use.
With that said, the Pantech Element isn't the rough-and-tumble Indiana Jones tablet you might be hoping for. It survived a dive or two into the CNET fountain, and a prolonged submersion in the bathroom sink, but its plastic design still isn't the kind of thing we would kick down the stairs or expect to survive a dog mauling. To be fair, neither AT&T nor Pantech is marketing the Element as indestructible. Really, it's a fairly average Honeycomb tablet that you can keep poolside without worry. It's not meant to accompany you to Mt. Everest.
Let's also be clear that the Pantech Element can't be operated underwater. If you were looking for a scuba-worthy tablet, this won't do. In fact, capacitive touch screens in general don't play well with water, since they rely on the body's natural electrical capacitance and can be fooled by even just a few drops of water.
The Pantech Element ships with Android 3.2. It's completely conceivable that this tablet will receive an over-the-air update to Android 4.0, but no plans have been formally announced.
The Element benefits from all of Google's official Android apps, including Android Market, Maps, Gmail, and Navigation. AT&T also throws in a few of its own, such as Messages, AT&T Navigation, AT&T FamilyMap, and AT&T Code Scanner.
The manufacturer puts a subtle spin on the stock Honeycomb design, replacing the clock font and navigation icons with a theme that reminds me of folded ribbon. For the most part, the pure Honeycomb experience is left unmolested.
Taking a look at overall system performance, you can see where the software and hardware make for a slightly awkward fit. This is the first Honeycomb tablet we've tested that uses a 4:3 aspect ratio similar to the Apple iPad. The Element also has a relatively uncommon 1,024x768-pixel screen resolution, compared with the wider 1,280x800-pixel screens found on the majority of Honeycomb slates.
So what does this squat screen mean in terms of performance? Well, there are small things, such as the onscreen keyboard taking up more room on the screen (in either orientation), and HD video content not filling the screen quite as naturally as on a 16:9 design.
In terms of apps, I found that Google's own apps and many older apps designed for phones scaled naturally to the Element's screen dimensions. Graphically intense game content, such as Riptide GP, looked noticeably better on the Xyboard 8.2's 1,280x800-pixel-resolution screen and gave driving games the advantage of a wider field of vision.
There are some upsides to the Element's smaller, squarer screen. As on the iPad, a 4:3 aspect ratio has a more natural, magazinelike dimension when held in portrait orientation. Most Honeycomb tablets feel awkwardly long and skinny held this way, which is why you'll typically see them held horizontally. Unlike the iPad, though, the Element's 8-inch size is small enough to allow your thumbs to meet over the keyboard in portrait mode, making typing relatively breezy.
Screen quality on the Pantech Element isn't as good as it could be. Pixel density tops out at around 160ppi, compared with the 184ppi of the Xyboard 8.2 or the 215ppi of the Toshiba Thrive 7. The viewing angles are nice, though overall picture quality doesn't seem particularly vibrant.
|Tested spec||Pantech Element||Motorola Xyboard 8.2||Kindle Fire||Nook Tablet|
|Maximum brightness||446 cd/m2||372 cd/m2||424 cd/m2||306 cd/m2|
|Default brightness||271 cd/m2||181 cd/m2||147 cd/m2||154 cd/m2|
|Maximum black level||0.66 cd/m2||0.38 cd/m2||0.44 cd/m2||0.29 cd/m2|
|Default black level||0.4 cd/m2||0.15 cd/m2||0.15 cd/m2||0.15 cd/m2|
|Default contrast ratio||677 cd/m2||1206 cd/m2||926 cd/m2||1026 cd/m2|
|Maximum contrast ratio||675 cd/m2||979 cd/m2||939 cd/m2||1055 cd/m2|
The only complaint I have about the Element's audio experience is that the little waterproof gasket covering the socket is annoying to pry off every time you want to plug in your headphones. Sonically, though, it's clean and quiet, and I suppose the gasket is a small price to pay for a waterproof tablet.
Pantech rates the Element's internal battery at 12 hours of use, or 25 days of standby time. Assume that the 12-hours-of-use figure is under best-case conditions with wireless turned off. Here are our official CNET Labs-tested battery life results. More tablet testing results can be found here.
|Video battery life (in hours)|
The Pantech Element fills a valuable niche in the tablet market. It's the first mobile 4G tablet that truly affords you the freedom to use it outside, without fear that bad weather or a spilled cup of coffee will render your investment useless.
Unfortunately, it's still quite an investment. The $299 subsidized price demands a two-year data commitment, with a minimum rate of $35 per month. That's a total of cost of $1,139 over the life of the tablet, not including taxes and messaging rates. The tablet is available off-contract for $449, but unless you consider 4G connectivity a must-have, that's a sucker's price when there are so many better Android 3.2 options on the market, not to mention the imminent wave of Android 4.0 devices.
Still, if you have the kind of active lifestyle (or chronic clumsiness) to justify the expense, the Pantech Element is a solid choice.