There’s little about the NEC Terrain ($99.99) that doesn’t say “old school”: The small screen, the hefty dimensions, the company behind it, the physical keyboard, and even the oversized packaging all speak to an earlier decade of phones. There’s definitely a market for worksite-friendly, secure Android phones. But the cramped screen and older version of Android here are just too much of a trade-off, in our view.
Physical Features and Storage
The NEC Terrain invites Nextel and BlackBerry flashbacks, and is much more comfortable on a belt clip than in a pocket. This 6.06-ounce device is about the chunkiest smartphone AT&T stocks, almost as thick as two iPhone 5s duct-taped together (5.02 by 2.54 by 0.57″ HWD).
All that padding pays off in ruggedness. A thick plastic bezel only showed slight scuff marks after two five-foot drops onto a concrete floor. Gasketed covers for the headphone jack, micro-USB port, and battery/microSD/SIM-card compartment allowed me to use it under a running faucet, although the phone isn’t technically waterproof. There’s a big, dedicated push-to-talk key on the side.
That armor protects a 3.1-inch, 640-by-480 pixel screen (with a wide bezel and a big AT&T logo where you’d expect a home button) and a somewhat cramped, four-row physical keyboard. Without dedicated number keys, you’ll spend a lot of time holding down its Alt modifier key, and you probably won’t approach the input speed allowed by gesture-typing software such as what’s in Google’s stock on-screen keyboard. But the physical keyboard will help in bad weather and on worksites, as the touchscreen doesn’t work with gloves.
The Terrain’s touch screen can seriously tax your eyeballs and fingertips. The Android back, home and recent-apps buttons and other targets demand some dainty aim, and a standard four-by-four grid of app icons only fits truncated names: ” AT&T C…”, “AT&T D…”, “AT&T E…”, and “AT&T N…”
Those are the carrier’s first four bloatware contributions: a code-scanning app, a drive-mode utility, a link to download its push-to-talk tool, and a $9.99/month navigation app. You also get a myAT&T account manager and a yellow-pages program (why, AT&T, why?).
Freshly set up, the Terrain offers about 5GB free in combined app and data storage. Augmenting that with a microSD card requires temporarily removing the battery to get at the card slot.
Calls, Internet Access and Battery Life
Calls were clear, with a useful amount of sidetone (hearing your own voice in the speaker) at louder volumes. Noise cancellation sufficed to dampen the scream of an arriving Metro train, even when I lowered my voice closer to a whisper.
Like all good rugged phones, the Terrain is very loud. The speakerphone could easily be heard over the noise of a construction site (Amtrak’s “Julie” virtual assistant had little luck hearing us, but a voicemail left from there was consistently audible) and the regular speaker is loud enough even at minimum volume to do the speakerphone’s work in a quiet room.
Calls and voice dialing through a Plantronics Bluetooth hands-free kit went as you’d expect, aside from Android having trouble recognizing some series of digits. The Terrain’s push-to-talk feature requires an extra subscription and a compatible device on the other end of the line; we did not have a chance to test that.
Our 2013 Fastest Mobile Networks tests found AT&T’s LTE network to be faster than Verizon’s in the Washington D.C. metro area, and the Terrain can certainly keep up; we saw the Speedtest.net app clock downloads in one bandwidth-blessed Arlington spot at 45 to 48 Mbps. With tri-band UMTS support, it’ll also run internationally on 2100MHz 3G networks if you take it abroad.
But the Terrain didn’t see one alternate source of fast bandwidth in my home that other devices reliably connect to: a 5 GHz Wi-Fi network. While the phone supports 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, it’s only on the more crowded 2.4GHz band.
Its user-replaceable battery lasted 9:49 in a talk-time test; after 24 hours left idle on AT&T’s network, it showed 68% of a charge.
Those aren’t brag-worthy numbers, but the Terrain’s small screen and its chipset’s average benchmarks (and below-average graphics prowess) probably keep them from being worse. The Terrain uses a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm S4 processor (not to be confused with the souped-up S4 Pro found in the Moto X) with decent but not outstanding performance.
Camera, Multimedia and Apps
Nobody should buy the Terrain for its camera. Even in optimal daylight conditions, photos taken with its 5 MP back camera sometimes exhibited a distracting, gauzy glow around lighter details, while its flash cast a radioactive blue tint on close-in subjects. The VGA front camera did considerably worse.
Video (720p from the back camera, VGA from the front) was only watchable in bright indoor and outdoor lighting. In a room with the blinds mostly drawn, the former was almost uniformly black, while the latter recorded horrendously grainy 30fps video in which I could still see actual details. Transferring audio and video to a PC or Mac requires a distracting detour through a menu to set its USB-connection mode for that session.
The Terrain’s audio-output options (a speaker and a headphone jack) are unremarkable as well, but it does include the increasingly rare component of an FM radio. You’ll need headphones, not included in the box, to provide that feature with its antenna.
This is the part of an Android review that should note this platform’s strong and growing advantage in apps. But here, that sentence needs a couple of asterisks: It ships with Android 4.0.4, which makes it almost two years out of date, and its screen resolution was last competitive maybe three years ago.
Since NEC recently announced it’s bailing on the smartphone business entirely, the odds of the Terrain seeing another update appear dim, while the chances of newer apps leaving this phone behind will probably only escalate.
Putting “ruggedized” high on your shopping list constrains your choices dramatically, but you have a few options. On AT&T, we prefer the Samsung Galaxy Rugby Pro, with a much larger screen, a newer version of Android and better upgrade prospects. We also slightly prefer Verizon’s Casio G’zOne Commando 4G LTE, which also sports an old version of Android but at least has a roomier screen. Neither phone has a physical keyboard, but it looks like right now, a physical keyboard in a rugged device with a high-quality Android experience may just be too much to ask for.
|Phone Capability / Network||GSM, UMTS, LTE|
|Screen Resolution||640 x 480 pixels|
|Dimensions||5.02 x 2.54 x 0.57 inches|
|Video Camera Resolution||720p|
|Battery Life (As Tested)||9|
|Available Integrated Storage||5 GB|
|Processor Speed||1.5 GHz|
|CPU||Qualcomm Snapdragon MSM8960|
|Total Integrated Storage||8 GB|
|High-Speed Data||EDGE, LTE, HSPA+ 21|
|Screen Type||TFT LCD|
|Operating System as Tested||Android OS|
|Camera Resolution||5 MP|
|Screen Pixels Per Inch||260 ppi|
|Bands||850, 900, 1900, 2100, 700|
|Form Factor||Candy Bar|
|Screen Size||3.1 inches|
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc