Pantech Discover review

The Pantech Discover for AT&T gets you the same features and performance you'll find in smartphones that cost more than twice the price, making it the best budget phone there is.
Photo of Pantech Discover
399.99

Best known for entry-level feature phones, Pantech has been making quite a different name for itself lately with powerful, budget-priced smartphones like the $49.99 Pantech Discover for AT&T. We really liked Pantech’s last smartphone, the Flex, but we wanted a better video camera and NFC support. The Discover adds NFC, along with a bigger, sharper display, better battery life, and a 12.6-megapixel camera. Video capture still disappoints, but in every other way, the Discover competes with phones that cost up to four times the price, like the popular Samsung Galaxy S III. It’s our new Editors’ Choice for budget smartphones on AT&T.

Design, Connectivity, and Call Quality
You’d never guess this is an inexpensive phone by looking at it. Made of textured, rubberized black plastic with a silver accent band around the middle, the Discover cuts a sleek, attractive profile. It measures 5.28 by 2.70 by 0.36 inches (HWD) and weighs 4.76 ounces, which makes it a touch more manageable to handle than the Galaxy S III, though it’s also a smidgen thicker and heavier. Also, don’t confuse this with a small phone. Any device with a screen this big can be difficult to handle if you have tiny hands.

The 4.8-inch, 720p HD TFT LCD looks rich and sharp. It isn’t quite as saturated as the Galaxy S III’s AMOLED display, but it also isn’t PenTile, so it looks clearer. All of your buttons are on-screen, which helps reduce the size of the bezel, and looks pretty snazzy. There’s a Power button and 3.5mm headphone jack on top of the phone, Volume controls on the left, and a micro USB charging port on the bottom. The top quarter of the phone bumps out a little bit more than the rest, to accommodate the 12.6-megapixel camera sensor and stereo speakers on either side. More on those in a bit.

The Discover runs on AT&T’s EDGE, HSPA+, and LTE networks. There’s also 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, with support for both the 2.4 and faster 5GHz bands. You can also use the phone as a hotspot to connect up to 10 additional devices with the proper service plan. Reception is solid, and the phone turned in typically excellent speeds on AT&T’s LTE network in New York City. If you take a look at our Fastest Mobile Networks survey, you’ll see AT&T’s LTE can exceed Verizon’s LTE speeds, though Verizon’s LTE is more consistent and covers more of the nation.

Voice quality on the Discover is average. Voices sound full but fuzzy in the earpiece, with a faint hissing sound in the background. Calls made with the phone sound better; voices are very clear, with just a faintly hollow quality to them. Noise cancellation is average. The speakerphone sounds good, and is actually loud enough to be heard outdoors. Calls were fine over a Jawbone Era Bluetooth headset and standard Android voice dialing worked accurately. The Discover’s 2100mAh battery was good for an impressive 14 hours and 53 minutes of talk time. It’s also removable, so you can always carry a spare.

Hardware, OS, and Apps
The Discover is powered by a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 MSM8960 processor, which is the same processor that was in the Flex. It’s also the same chip that powers the Galaxy S III. It should go without saying that benchmark scores were solid, and you won’t have trouble running any of the 600,000+ apps in the Google Play store.

The Discover runs Android 4.0.4 (Ice Cream Sandwich), which is a little disappointing. Pantech promises an update to Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean), but won’t say when. In the meantime, you get Pantech’s heavily skinned interface, which lets you choose between Standard or Easy Experience, the latter of which simplifies the phone’s UI for inexperienced users.

(Next page: Multimedia and Conclusions)

Easy Experience increases the size of text and buttons across the board. It also features easier navigation with limited scrolling, and just one home screen with quick access to the phone’s most essential features: your camera, contacts, Internet, messages, and phone dialer, as well as a link to shortcuts and a main menu. Even the phone’s lock screen is a simple light switch you must flip up to use the phone. There’s also an optional video that plays over the phone’s UI to familiarize you with key features.

I can’t imagine anyone with even a modicum of smartphone knowledge switching to Easy Experience, but it’s actually one of the better solutions I’ve seen for beginners. And once you master it, you can always try your hand at the Standard Experience.

Even Pantech’s Standard Experience looks pretty different from stock Android, which may be a deal breaker for some. I don’t mind most of Pantech’s customizations, and I actually love the scrollable shortcuts at the bottom of the screen. Be warned: There’s lots of bloatware, including 5 apps from AT&T, and none of it can be deleted.

NFC support allows you to easily share documents, music, and pictures with compatible devices. There still aren’t many must-have uses for it, but it’s a nice addition. The Discover doesn’t have an HDMI-out port or MHL support, but you can connect to compatible HDTVs via DLNA.

Multimedia and Conclusions
The Discover comes with 11.97GB of free internal storage and an empty microSD card slot underneath the battery cover. You have to remove the battery in order to switch a card in and out, but my 32 and 64GB SanDisk cards worked fine.

For music, I was able to play AAC, MP3, OGG, WMA, and WAV audio files, but not FLAC. Sound quality was good over both wired 3.5mm headphones as well as Altec Lansing BackBeat Bluetooth headphones. Those stereo speakers on the top of the phone are a definite improvement as well. Audio sounds louder compared with most smartphones, though not necessarily richer. If you plan to watch video with the phone positioned horizontally, you won’t get the ’3D’ Pantech claims, so much as you will vertical audio. I found Pantech’s optional software audio enhancements to be a nonstarter; with a pair of Bowers & Wilkins C5 In-Ear Headphones, it exaggerated the bass so much that everything else was inaudible. For video, all of our test files played back at resolutions up to 1080p without a hitch.

The 12.6-megapixel camera is fine, but helps prove that megapixels aren’t much more than a number. The camera snaps photos quickly, in an average of 0.3-second, and images look sharp and vibrant. Lighter colors have tendency to blow out in bright light, but overall, the Discover takes good pictures, on par with good 8-megapixel camera phones like the Galaxy S III. There’s a built-in panorama mode, as well as some filters and editing features like Best Face, which lets you swap faces in and out of photos. You also get a 2-megapixel camera for video chat on the front.

The Discover’s only real disappointment is the video camera. It records 1080p video at 30 frames per second both indoors and out, but it has an inexplicably herky-jerky quality to it. Stepping down to 720p didn’t solve this, and even holding the phone as still as possible didn’t improve any of the other visual movement it picked up.

Video camera aside, the Pantech Discover is truly comparable with much more expensive smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S III. $50 more can get you the Nokia Lumia 920, which has a better 8.7-megapixel PureView camera, but there’s a much smaller selection of third-party apps on Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 OS, and at 6.5 ounces, it’s kind of a brick. For that same price, there’s also the LG Optimus G, which has a faster quad-core processor but a lackluster camera. $200 will get you the aforementioned Samsung Galaxy S III, which has a much better video camera and superb call quality. There’s also the quad-core HTC One X+, or the 16GB Apple iPhone 5, which has even more apps than Android. But the fact that the Pantech Discover can hold its own against all of these devices is impressive. That it can do this at a significantly cheaper price makes it our new Editors’ Choice.

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Specifications
Service Provider AT&T
Screen Details 1280-by-720-pixel TFT LCD
Bands 850, 900, 1800, 1900, 2100
Physical Keyboard No
Operating System Android OS
Network GSM
High-Speed Data LTE
Form Factor Candy Bar
Megapixels 12.6 MP
Bluetooth Yes
Camera Yes
Battery Life (As Tested) 14 hours 53 minutes
Camera Flash Yes
microSD Slot Yes
802.11x 802.11 a/b/g
Processor Speed 1.5 GHz
Screen Size 4.8 inches
CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 MSM8960 Dual-Core
Storage Capacity (as Tested) 12 GB
GPS Yes

Verdict
The Pantech Discover for AT&T gets you the same features and performance you'll find in smartphones that cost more than twice the price, making it the best budget phone there is.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc