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Pantech Perception review: A good, but not great, midtier Android phone

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Pantech has been quietly making pretty good, inexpensive phones for Verizon and AT&T for years. Like many of its brothers and sisters, Verizon's Pantech Perception is the kind of device you won't want to overlook if you're in the market for an affordable handset.

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7.0

Pantech Perception

The Good

<b>Pantech's Perception</b> has a nice big screen, a large battery, and a very reasonable price tag. I like its 'edgy' design.

The Bad

Camera performance on the Perception faltered, and the phone didn't seem to channel Verizon's LTE network with maximum speed. Call quality underperformed.

The Bottom Line

Consider the Pantech Perception if you're deciding among $100 smartphones, but you'll get more for your money with a discounted Samsung Galaxy S3 or other last-season phones.

The Perception, which costs $99.99 with a new two-year service agreement, is a large, solid, middle-of-the-road Android 4.0 phone that comes with a fast dual-core processor and an 8-megapixel camera that takes 1080p HD video. It also happens to bundle in a large helping of useful features, from using arguably the most popular virtual keyboard around to motion control and personalized settings options.

The handset is far from perfect, and you may even pass it up for another sale model. However, Verizon customers looking for a phone for $100 or less should at least give the Perception a look.

Pantech Perception props Android for $99 (pictures)

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Design and build
Apart from affordable price tags, one thing you can count on Pantech to provide is an eye-catching design that sets its phones apart from the usual herd, at least somewhat. In the Perception's case, that means some sharper angles on the back plate and a faux-brushed finish. There are also some subtle edges to make the phone's shoulders slightly rougher around the corners. The spine design softens the look with a curvier, almost elongated teardrop element, and the Perception gets a pinprick of red in the right spine's power/lock button.

Not every design element endears me. The Micro-USB jack on the top edge sits too close to the 3.5-millimeter headset jack, and the flap covering the charging slot gets in the way of the charging cable. The battery cover pops off without a problem when I used my thumbnail, though it didn't work very well when I tried curling it off with the nails on my middle and index fingers.

The Perception gets Pantech's signature edgy look. Josh Miller/CNET

Physically, the Perception is a fairly large device that stands 5.2 inches tall by 2.7 inches wide by 0.35-inch thick. Because of all those edges on the back panel, the phone doesn't quite conform to your hand's curves but I wouldn't call it uncomfortable to hold, either. The phone's dimensions are about on par with other handsets of the same size, and it fits into pockets and purses the same way.

As for bulk, the Perception's 4.8-ounce weight feels neither too heavy nor too light, but adds a certain amount of heft that makes you feel like you're holding a powerful electronic, not a prop.

There's no mistaking that when you're using the device, the screen is the star of the show. The Perception's 4.8-inch Super AMOLED display features a 1280x720-pixel resolution, with a pixel density of 306 ppi. This isn't the 1080p HD resolution of today's killer smartphone screens, but it's still a good 'un, with bright, rich hues and deep blacks, balanced by sharp, legible lettering. Of course, the screen looks better brighter, but automatic brightness settings were good enough for me in most situations.

There are no physical navigation buttons to be found on the Perception, but you can find the 2-megapixel camera module above the display, and the 8-megapixel shooter on the back cover, right above the LED flash. Beneath the back cover are the microSD card slot and removable battery.

OS and features
Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich is technically two versions behind the most recent Android build, but you won't sacrifice too much essential functionality on the Perception. There's no Google Now, and the notifications aren't as rich, but you'll still see the majority of Jelly Bean's most useful tricks.

While Pantech doesn't push its personality as far as some other manufacturers do, it does add some of its own flavor in the custom skin department. The Perception's lock screen, for instance, lays out shortcuts to the dial pad, messaging, camera, and music player, in addition to the general unlock button. In addition, Pantech has added its own style of system shortcuts in the notifications shade, as well as a skinned settings menu for the wallpaper presets and for the app tray.

Pantech's new lock screen (L,) and the Perception's main home screen. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Fewer Android handset-makers follow Google's original Android 4.0 vision of using entirely on-screen controls. The Perception does this, scuttling any touch-sensitive navigation buttons in favor of software buttons at the bottom of the screen.

The Perception supports all the usual connections you can think of: Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth, NFC, and it can also serve as a mobile hotspot for up to 10 devices over 4G (and as many as 5 over 3G).

There's support for extra motion controls that let you perform actions such as answering the phone with a wave of your hand, or advancing through your playlist with a similar wrist wiggle.

Keyboard snobs will appreciate Swiftkey for Pantech, a variation on the popular third-party keyboard app. You'll get the virtual QWERTY's penchant for learning from your social networks and other writing styles over time, as well as your preference to choosing predictive text or relying on autocorrection. Swiftkey is installed by default, though you can also switch over to Pantech's standard keyboard.

You can turn on an easy mode for Android training wheels (L,) and the Perception comes with Swiftkey's virtual keyboard app installed by default. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Pantech doesn't stop there. The Perception comes with some easy-access personalization controls that let you customize the look of your lock screen, wallpaper, and other items from a central control menu.

For those who prefer training wheels while learning to use Android's many features, there's the option to switch into Easy Mode, a stripped-down and finger-friendly version of the OS that lets users access the most important parts of the device more intuitively.

When it comes to apps, the Perception has plenty. You'll find, of course, essentials like an alarm clock, calendar, and calculator, and Google's services, like search, mapping, and e-mail. Beyond these, Pantech and Verizon set you up with the full suite of Amazon apps, including Audible and Amazon Kindle for e-reading. There's Camnote, Color, a document viewer, NFL Mobile, some game demos, and a task manager. Viewdini, Smart Voice, and Slacker Radio are others you'll see on top of Verizon's own suite of management apps and storefronts.

Cameras and video
Nothing about an 8-megapixel camera sounds midrange from the outset, and I was really excited to test this one out. Unfortunately, photos were mediocre across the board, in both indoor and outdoor shots. That's too bad, since a high-resolution camera with autofocus and LED flash for a $100 package sounds like a steal.

The central flower is so devoid of detail, you'd hardly think I focused on it. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The camera quality isn't devoid of merit, though focus seemed extremely hit or miss, color reproduction was weak, and image details were flatter than they should have been. Zoomed in to full scale, subjects were noisy.

Pets are hard to photograph because they move around so much. This subject sat still long enough to take this not-too-crisp shot. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Perhaps the most telling image issue was our controlled indoor studio shot, always taken with a flash when the camera has one. In this case, the photo came out with a brick-red tint over the entire scene that we couldn't disregard.

CNET's standard studio shot gets eery through the Perception's lens. Josh Miller/CNET

My complaints also applied to the 1080p HD video recorder, which never got as crisp or clear as it should have, and to a lesser extent, to the 2-megapixel front-facing camera. High-end lenses and sensors cost more, and in this area, Pantech had to make concessions in order to meet its expected price.

Third time's the charm. The flash washed out this stove-browned tortilla during my first attempt. This third try was the best. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

If the camera is low on your list of smartphone priorities, you'll still be happy to know that the usual modes and presets are all there, such as the choice to lower the camera's resolution and its change white balance presets. The Perception is slim on effects and modes, but you can give photos the look of a Polaroid picture or multiply photos into four smaller sizes, which is handy for creating your own wallet-size images.

Panorama and HDR (high-definition range) modes are tucked into onscreen controls that actually make them a little hard to find, but they're there.

I shot this Victorian house outdoors around dusk. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Call quality
I tested the Pantech Perception's call quality on Verizon (CDMA 800/900/1900/2100; LTE 700/2100) from my San Francisco base. Audio was totally passable, but not a fantastic experience. Voices sounded a little hollow and slightly unnatural, and also muted and never completely clear. On the plus side, volume was strong at medium-high, and the line was clear with no background noise. There's a noise-canceling control on the screen, but neither my test partner nor I could tell much of a difference.

My test partner also thought my audio sounded off and that I came across distorted, but he had a better audio experience than I did. He said I sounded pretty good, though a little unnatural, and also lacking the sharp finality you get with a crystal-clear call.

Pantech Perceptioncall quality sample Listen now:

I found speakerphone equally flawed when I held the phone at hip level. It was distractingly buzzy and and a little echoey, and volume did drop enough for me to punch it up a notch. On his end, my tester also noted dropped volume, but otherwise thought that audio quality sounded about the same as the my voice did through the earpiece.

Performance
Verizon's 4G LTE network courses through the Perception, but when I ran numbers on the Speedtest.net diagnostic app, something strange happened. The app consistently returned much slower results than I'm used to seeing. Speeds were fine when I whipped out the stopwatch to measure download and upload times, but other times, the pokiness returned. I had no problems, of course, using Wi-Fi.

Results from two diagnostic tests, one to measure processor performance (left) and the other to measure network speed. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

On the processor front, the Perception packs a respectable 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 chipset, which not too long ago was a pinnacle of performance. It did well in its own Quadrant diagnostic test, scoring 5,314. To add some perspective, the two fastest Android smartphones on the market today score 11,381 (Samsung Galaxy S4) and 12,194 (HTC One.)

Pantech Perception (Verizon)
Download CNET mobile app (3.8MB) 41.5 seconds
Load up CNET mobile app 7.4 seconds
CNET mobile site load 4.2 seconds
CNET desktop site load 11.7 seconds
Boot time to lock screen 27 seconds
Camera boot time 2 seconds
Camera, shot-to-shot time 1-2 seconds, no auto-focus

The Perception has 1GB RAM and 16GB internal storage, with a microSD card slot that welcomes up to 32GB more. It's got a rated talk time of 11.6 days standby on its large 2,020mAh battery. Anecdotally, the Perception's battery life seemed to last a day before needing a charge, and it ran 7 hours, 20 minutes in our battery drain test playing looping video.

One last figure you might like to know is the Perception's digital SAR, which the FCC measured at 1.03 watts per kilogram.

So, should I buy it?
So long as you're not hung up on the camera or having the absolute speediest handset in town, you'll find a fair number of features in the attractive Perception. I like the processor and the phone's edgy look, Pantech's relatively uncluttered take on Android, and features like motion control as well. Yet, Verizon has also dropped last season's hottest phones down to the Perception's price.

For my money, I'd probably opt for Samsung's newly discounted Galaxy S3 over the Perception at this price. The LG Lucid 2 is another worthy $100 contender. Yet, if you wait for Verizon to drop the price, the Perception would be a fantastic $50 buy.

Pantech_Perception_35734225-0758.jpg
7.0

Pantech Perception

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 6