Not only is it about time that we finally see devices natively ship with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, but it's also good to see inexpensive devices, like the Pantech Marauder, carry it too.
But unlike many other entry-level handsets that tout their "for first-time smartphone users" status in order to justify low specs, the Marauder actually has a stake in this commonly used claim. It includes an optional user interface mode specifically tailored for Android beginners that is simplified and easy-to-use.
It also hosts a sliding keyboard for messaging enthusiasts and boasts 4G LTE data speeds on Verizon. What's more, it's competitively priced. Though the phone is $100 after you sign a two-year contract and send in a mail-in rebate, it's currently being offered for free from Verizon in conjunction with promos and online discounts.
The Pantech Marauder is hefty. It's 5.07 inches tall, 2.57 inches wide, and 0.46 inch thick. Though this doesn't make it thicker than, say, the Kyocera Rise (which is a half-inch-thick QWERTY device), it's definitely heavier. It weighs 6.1 ounces; the heaviness was especially apparent when I pinned the handset between my cheek and shoulder during phone conversations. And I could also forget about walking around comfortably with it inside the front or back pockets of my jeans. Though it got into the pockets, the fit was bulky.
To the left are a Micro-USB port and a volume rocker. Up top are a sleep/power button and a 3.5mm headphone jack.
On the back is a 5-megapixel camera that, unfortunately, doesn't come with an LED flash. At the bottom left corner there is a small slit for the output speaker. Using a small indentation at the bottom edge, you can remove the plastic backplate to reveal the 1,680mAh lithium ion battery, a microSD card slot, and Verizon's 4G SIM card.
The device's 3.8-inch WVGA touch screen has a 480x800-pixel resolution and can display up to 260,000 hues. For what is supposed to be a handset for beginners, I was impressed by the display. It was bright, colors appeared vibrant, HQ YouTube videos looked clear, and both app icons and text were crisp. True, the Marauder's touch screen doesn't hold a candle to higher-end phones' displays, and I could see line aliasing in the icons if I looked closely, but it's decent nonetheless. It's also responsive, and my numerous swipes and taps were registered quickly.
Below the display are four hot keys that light up when in use: back, home, recent apps, and menu. Above are an in-ear speaker and a front-facing VGA camera.
Underneath the device is a five-row sliding QWERTY keyboard. The snapping mechanism is sturdy and springy. The buttons are generously sized, though the spaces in between them are narrow. Because the keys are so flushed with the rest of the handset's surface, I initially had trouble trying to spell out words without pressing multiple letters at the same time. After a while I finally got the hang of it, but someone with even slightly bigger hands may find it difficult to type.
The Marauder comes with two user interface options. One is called "starter mode," designed specifically for beginners. It offers four home screen pages, a simple lock screen, and a streamlined app drawer.
When you start getting the hang of the handset, or you're already familiar with Android, you can graduate to "standard mode," which gives you five home screen pages, makes all your apps readily available, and includes more options with its lock screen.
A 1.2GHz dual-core Qualcomm processor powers the phone, and it can carry out simple tasks like pinch zooming, swiping through apps, and transitioning back home just fine. There was some noticeable lag, however, when switching between portrait and landscape mode, which happens automatically when sliding the keyboard in and out. Also, feedback for the front-facing camera delayed significantly behind my moving of the device, and touch focusing on the rear-facing camera was slow.
The handset runs on a skinned version of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, which includes different native icons from the vanilla ICS (though you can customize many of the widgets) and a clunkier looking dial pad. You can choose among three dial pad styles, but all of them are pretty inelegant.
Google staples include Gmail, Google+, Latitude, Maps with Navigation, Messenger, Search, Talk, Places, Play Books, Movies, Music, and Store, and YouTube. Users will get basic task-management apps like a native Web browser and e-mail client, a calculator, a calendar, a clock with alarm features, a music player, a news-and-weather app, a task manager, a voice dialer, and a recorder.
Verizon also included a slew of its own features, such as its local app store; mobile hot-spotting; My Verizon Mobile, which lets you check your account info; V Cast Tones for buying ringtones; and its own navigation app.
Extra goodies include Amazon Kindle; Amex Serve, which lets American Express users access a prepaid digital money account; a document viewer; two games (Let's Golf 3 and Plants vs. Zombies); and a Net Media app.
Camera and video
In addition to touch focus, a zooming meter, and geotagging, the 5-megapixel camera has two photometry options (wide and center), three color effects, five shooting modes (including a Polaroid-esque option!), an exposure range from -4 to +4, a timer, five white balances, and nine scene choices. The front-facing camera has all the same options, save for touch focus and the scene modes.
Video recording options also consist of a zooming meter, geotagging, the same white balances, color effects, and scene modes, four video sizes (ranging from 720p HD to QVGA), and, interestingly, a time-lapse effect that includes tilt-shift.
Photo quality was perfectly adequate. The automatic white balance was accurate, but colors were a bit muted. In sunny outdoor shots, edges and small details, like the ripples of running water, were well-defined. Photos had more digital noise in dimmer lighting, as exemplified in indoor shots, but in general, images were in focus. Pictures taken with the front-facing camera were understandably more blurred and colors blended together, but were altogether passable.
Video quality was also average. Images were in focus, and the feedback did not lag behind my moving of the phone. However, bright, white colors were washed out, and dark hues were hard to distinguish. Also, audio was picked up poorly. A subtle buzzing sound was recorded, and voices nearby came off tinny and hollow.
I tested the dual-band (CDMA 800, 1900) Pantech Marauder in San Francisco using Verizon's services. Call and signal quality were strong. Volume was ample; voices came across loud and clear. In both calls made outdoors and indoors, there were no dropped calls, extraneous buzzing noises, or audio clipping in and out. Likewise, I was told I could be heard fine as well, and that I could be easily heard.
Verizon's 4G LTE network (1xEV-DO rA) was impressive. For example, loading the CNET mobile site took an average of 7 seconds, while loading our full site took 32 seconds. Funnily enough, The New York Times desktop site took more time on average, clocking in at 44 seconds, and its mobile site took 11 seconds to load. ESPN's mobile site took 12 seconds, and its full site loaded in 21 seconds. On average, the game Temple Run, which is 22MB, took 3 minutes and 14 seconds to download. And the Ookla speed test app showed me an average of 1.3Mbps down and 0.22Mbps up.
During our battery drain tests, the device lasted 9.28 hours. Anecdotally, the handset has a less than stellar battery life. While spending a handful of hours browsing the Web, talking on the phone, and playing games, the battery's reserves drained to about half or even less than that. According to FCC radiation tests, the phone has a digital SAR rating of 0.63W/kg.
Putting aside its bulky size and flat keypad, the Pantech Marauder is an excellent QWERTY phone. In addition to running Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, it has a no-brainer UI for beginners, and operates on Verizon's 4G LTE speeds. More importantly, it won't break the bank. As previously mentioned, it's currently being offered for free, but even without the promotions and discounts, it'll still just be $100 under a two-year contract.