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With modest specs like a low-resolution 4.5-inch screen and a 5-megapixel camera, T-Mobile's Samsung Galaxy Avant is all about value. Android 4.4 keeps it current, as does the 1.2GHz quad-core processor inside. Unfortunately, Samsung's decision to step away from its customary AMOLED display shows in this phone's dull, somewhat grainy visuals, a bummer for those of you familiar with the AMOLED technology's characteristically vibrant screens.
Still, for about $230 off-contract (or $9.60 per month for 24 months), the Avant is a quite decent choice in T-Mobile's lineup, but not a handset that excites on its own.
Dressed like a familiar Samsung phone, the round-cornered Galaxy Avant has a black face and back, and a silvery rim encircling its spines and its physical home button. A pleathery-feeling tactile backing reminiscent of lightly textured naugahyde makes the handset really comfortable to hold, and helpfully deters smudges besides.
Possessing a 4.5-inch screen, the Avant is smaller than most by today's standards, which makes it easy to pocket and manipulate one-handed. The 960x540-pixel resolution isn't all that surprising for a phone of this class, even though the pixel density of 245 ppi makes the visuals "soft" and grainy. The bigger problem is that Samsung took a major departure from its usual AMOLED technology, installing a TFT LCD display instead.
The concession, probably to pricing, makes a huge difference. Even at higher levels of brightness, the Avant's screen looks dim and dull -- as do the videos, colors, and images on it. Outdoor visibility is dismal, particularly in bright sunlight, and the limited viewing angle means you really do need to position yourself directly in front of the screen.
Standing 5.2 inches tall by 2.6 inches wide and 0.39-inch thick (133 by 66 by 9.9mm), the Avant weighs 4.8 ounces (137 grams), which is certainly lighter than larger phones of our day, but it feels heavy for its size. Sticking to the Samsung script, the power/lock button lives on the right, the volume rocker on the left, the headset jack up top, and the Micro-USB charging port down below.
Above the display, you'll find a 0.3-megapixel camera, and below the screen, a home button with capacitive buttons on either side. Flipping the phone over, you'll find the 5-megapixel camera lens and flash, and a little divot along the edge where you can pull off the back cover. Beneath it, there's a microSD card slot that you can expand to include another 64GB.
Bluetooth 4.0 and NFC mean that you'll be able to share content between devices.
With weaker hardware, it's essential that the software is strong. Android 4.4.2 KitKat is a very recent version of Google's software, and the TouchWiz layer on top means that you're getting the same essential experience as you are on a higher-end Samsung phone.
For instance, My Magazine newsfeed (powered by Flipboard) and Google Now are baked right in, along with extras such as printing and screen mirroring, private mode, a simple "easy interface" UI, and options to customize the phone's look and feel.
These Samsung-granted features are more limited on the Avant than they are on a top-tier device like the Samsung Galaxy S5. While there's a power-saving mode, for example, you won't get Ultra Power Saving, and there aren't as many gesture capabilities or camera options.
In terms of preloaded apps, you'll find the usual heap of Google services, as well as T-Mobile's apps to manage your account, hotspot, and services such as T-Mobile TV. Visual voicemail and Wi-Fi calling are two other extras. There are a few other installations as well, such as Amazon, Dropbox, and Lookout security. Samsung keeps its own apps to a minimum with S Voice, a Google voice search rival.
We've seen a good many 5-megapixel cameras from Samsung, and they're typically good. This one, however, disappoints. For starters, it defaults to 3.7 megapixels in a widescreen configuration (16:9), so you'll have to switch over to the 5-megapixel setting (4.9, to be exact) if you plan to milk the Avant for every megapixel it's worth.
The biggest problem is that image quality is subpar. Colors are muted and drained compared to real-world counterparts. Even with ample lighting and stillness, subjects are often out-of-focus and grainy, without many clearly defined edges. Flash can help bring out color and crispness, but it frequently comes on too strong. Outdoor photos look much better than indoor shots.
Although the Avant doesn't have as many settings and controls as a marquee device like the Galaxy S5 or Galaxy Note 4, it still has panorama, beauty face, and night modes, plus a sports mode to assist with fast-motion shots. Its sound and shot mode records some audio to go along with your still -- though it really only plays back on other Samsung phones.
The 720p HD video capture is adequate, but also suffers from issues of clarity and vivacious color reproduction. I do like that the camera adjusts to changing lighting scenarios. Don't place any bets on the 0.3-megapixel front-facing camera, unless it's to predict pixelated and grayed-out selfies. Even without blowing up a picture, I can see random clumps of white pixels on my eyelid.
Like many entry-level and midrange phones these days, the Galaxy Avant is bolstered by LTE and a 1.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 processor, with an Adreno 305 GPU. These attributes lend some stability to performance, which can still be affected by factors like the exact internal placement of those transceivers.
Let's start with LTE. 4G data speeds seemed a little slower than usual on T-Mobile's LTE network. Large files like games took a little longer to download than I thought they should, but YouTube videos and Pandora music stations streamed without incident or interruption.
Scores on the diagnostic Speedtest.net app were also on the lower side, ranging from 2 to 11Mbps down during my testing period. Uplink speeds were surprisingly faster, creeping into the double digits twice.
Similarly, the processor seemed to do a little better in real-world scenarios than in test results. On Quadrant, the Avant scores 8,134, a little under the 8,839 result for the second-generation Moto G , which uses the same 1.2GHz quad-core chipset.
What matters most is how the device performs. I didn't notice too much lag, certainly not when playing Spider-Man Unlimited, which, though washed out, still moved along swiftly enough. True, the game was much, much less vibrant and visually crisp than playing the same game on the (also much larger) Galaxy Note 3, with both devices at maximum brightness levels. But the take-away message is that my coworkers and I happily played the game without being distracted by the speed and visual quality -- you can still have fun on a budget phone.
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Storage on the Avant is very good, with 16GB internal storage up front and up to 64GB through an expandable SD card, which you'll have to supply yourself. You get 1.5GB RAM, a little more than I'd expect for this kind of phone.
The Avant's 2,100mAh battery has a rated talk time of 18 hours and 15.2 days standby (over 4G), plus up to 8 hours of video playback. During our own talk time test, the device lasted 16 hours and 10 minutes. The phone has a digital SAR of 0.49 watts per kilogram.
Call quality was fantastic overall when I tested it on T-Mobile's GSM network in San Francisco. Both my main testing partner and I noticed how close and natural the other sounded, truly speaking into one another's ears. The line was almost totally clear on both sides, without any crackling or hiss on my end. My tester did say that if he really strained his ears, he could hear a whisper of static. Volume was the only issue. Levels were just about perfect at the highest setting, which means there's nowhere to go when things get loud.
Speakerphone was also well above average, though not as good as the audio streaming from the earpiece. Although voices remained clear and remarkably echo-free, volume immediately dropped for us both, and on my end, the highest level was just loud enough in a pin-quiet office. It's much harder to hear in already-louder environments.
Voice quality also took a hit, with muffling on both ends. My calling partner noted that my voice sounded flatter, not nuanced or deep. He didn't hear static or artifacts, but said I sounded like I was speaking with a piece of paper over my hand.
The Avant doesn't have any of the extra calling features you see on high-end Samsung phones, like audio boost, but that's fine (that setting just amplifies flaws anyhow).
Now, call quality can vary by your location and network congestion at the time, so some calls will sound better than others, and your experience may differ from my own.
Unfortunately, there aren't a tremendous number of options when it comes to T-Mobile phones hovering around the $200 mark. The Samsung Galaxy Avant performs above-average for its class, making it one of the better choices -- and that excellent call quality is certainly a bonus. If you need a phone now and price is everything, get it without qualms.
If you're open to other carriers, you might also consider Cricket's 4.5-inch Motorola Moto G 4G LTE for $150, which has similar specs and rides AT&T's network. It's the new 5-inch, $180 Motorola Moto G with 8-megapixel camera that's my current favorite budget Android handset, but it lacks LTE and hasn't yet picked up a US carrier or started selling on Motorola's US site.