Two things make the Pantech Flex for AT&T an extremely interesting Android smartphone. First, with highfalutin specs like Android. 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, a 1.5GHz dual-core processor, and an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera, the Flex is Pantech's most premium U.S. attempt. Second, rather than waving these specs like a banner, Pantech offers an "easy" mode that's simpler and friendlier for first-timers to use.
Parts of Pantech's dual-mode philosophy work better than others, but I appreciate the attempt to embody the spirit of flexibility. The same goes for the Flex's hardware. After so many good and even great midtier phones, it's wonderful to see Pantech aim high, though in a few cases the effort is better than the execution.
I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention one of Pantech's other strengths, keeping costs low. AT&T and Pantech have long offered bargain prices for phones that often outperform rivals at the same price point. With the Flex, they largely do it again.
Design and build
I've always admired Pantech's physical designs, from the cute (but defunct) to the sophisticated and excellent Burst.
This Flex is an interesting specimen, stylish as Pantech's phones usually are, but much more into hard lines, planes, and angles. A black and slate grey color scheme reinforces the edgier look, but a grippy, soft-touch finish on parts of the back panel help keep the Flex from looking and feeling too robotic. Compared with the Samsung Galaxy S3, Pantech's Flex looks as if it has the more premium build. I also want to give Pantech snaps for its back cover design, which it pulls off without too much trouble and has, so far, snapped back into place every time.
Aesthetic accolades aside, the Flex isn't a comfortable phone to hold. The back panel flares out wider than the front, and I felt the hard corners every time I picked up the Flex. Luckily, it didn't box my ears when I made a call.
At 5.1 inches tall by 2.6 inches wide by 0.32 inch deep, the Flex is slim, but fairly tall. It should fit into loose pockets, but since it lacks rounded edges, don't expect it to glide. The Flex weighs 4.6 ounces, which puts it about in the middleweight class for a smartphone of its size.
A 4.3-inch qHD Super AMOLED display (960x540-pixel resolution) takes up most of the Flex's face. Resolution and picture quality are similar to the original Motorola Droid Razr, though today's standards classify qHD as the middle of the road compared with a 1,280x720-pixel HD display.
Above the screen is the front-facing camera. On the left and right spine are textured buttons for power and for the volume rocker. They're coarse to the touch, but eminently findable. The right spine is also home to the Micro-USB charging port. Up top is the 3.5 millimeter headset jack, and on the back sits the 8-megapixel camera lens. You'll have to pull off the back cover to access the microSD card slot.
Like any good phone-maker, Pantech has bulked up its Flex with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) as the operating system. Yet, Pantech also gave the phone a softer side in an easy mode, a second interface choice that vastly simplifies the Android experience.
The phone starts up in Ice Cream Sandwich, but if you go into the Settings, you'll be able to change the experience from the default standard to the simplified easy. Herein lies the first problem, that new phone owners must be savvy enough to make the switch on their own, read the manual, or get someone else to help.
The standard experience embraces Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), but Pantech has made its own mark with a custom interface. I always like Pantech's lock screen, which lets you open the camera, e-mail, music player, dialpad, or message center in addition to unlocking the start screen.
The Flex has five customizable home screens that all start off prepopulated with widgets and apps. There's a static strip at the bottom of the home screen where you can access shortcuts to the Web, your contacts and app tray, and so on. You can even add more and scroll right and left to find them. And below the shortcuts is the on-screen navigation array with touch buttons to take you back, go home, call up thumbnails to recent apps, and open the settings.
Here it gets even more complex, because opening the settings pops up shortcuts for widgets, wallpaper, home-screen themes, and the regular settings. While I appreciate that Pantech is exposing so many layers that phone owners can actually use, there's a lot going on, even for those who know Android well.
The packed-in tools continue. Pull down the notification tray and you can toggle on and off crucial system settings with a touch: Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth, Airplane Mode, Power Saving, and so on. You can also expand and collapse a tray to access detailed settings for the display, sound, and Wi-Fi, for instance. All this sits above the notifications stream.
The app tray isn't exactly straightforward either. Pantech has removed the widgets library from the app tray, which is more than fine by me, but they also allow you to add your own "groups" tab (and color code them!) You'll have to figure out on your own how to add apps to those groups. It isn't hard, per se, but it isn't as intuitive as dragging and dropping, either.
Contrast all this with easy mode, with one home screen, large icons, and one menu of tools to go along with a more straightforward navigation menu. Its unlock screen is an animated light switch -- you really can't get much more intuitive than that.
While I like Pantech's choices, its standard Ice Cream Sandwich mode just seems blockier than it needs to be. I can't help but wonder if the more complex experience is a bit manufactured to really stand out from the easy mode, or if it's the other way around: after customizing Android ICS (and overdoing it,) Pantech retreated to the look and feel its customers know best.