Its bargain price tag will help prospective buyers overlook the Pantech Flex's weaknesses, and those seeking Android Ice Cream Sandwich with training wheels will find its optional easy mode appealing.
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) Swift 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.