At just $79.99 without a contract (and currently available for a cool $50), the PCD Chaser for Virgin Mobile is one of the least-expensive smartphones you can buy. Unfortunately, you can tell why the price is so low as soon as you turn it on. From the shockingly bad display, to the slow, unresponsive performance, to the poor camera, it’s clear that cost was a much more important factor than quality in designing the Chaser. So while there aren’t many cheaper smartphones available, there are certainly better ones, and they’re not that much more expensive. Chase after one of those.
Design, Call Quality, and Plans
The Chaser measures 4.2 by 2.25 by 0.52 inches (HWD) and weighs 4.2 ounces. It’s a relatively comfortable size to hold and use, but there’s so much bezel surrounding the display that it feels like much of the phone’s body is wasted space. The handset itself is made of rubberized black plastic, with a plastic silver band running down the middle. It doesn’t feel terribly flimsy, but it doesn’t feel premium, either.
The Chaser’s 3.2-inch, 480-by-320-pixel display is among the worst I’ve seen all year. It looks dim and grainy, and there’s a distinct horizontal pattern that runs across it. Photos and video look poor, but text looks even worse. It’s also difficult to type on the tiny onscreen keyboard.
The Chaser is a single-band EV-DO Rev. A (1900 MHz) device with 802.11b/g Wi-Fi. Reception is average (Virgin uses Sprint’s network), as is call quality. There’s a nice punch of volume in the earpiece, but voices sound fuzzy, and there’s a lot of background static. Calls made with the phone sound somewhat muffled, but there’s decent background noise reduction and some sidetone to prevent you from yelling. The speakerphone sounds harsh, but goes loud enough to use in a quiet outdoor environment. Calls sounded fine through a Jawbone Era headset, and voice dialing worked fine over Bluetooth without training. Battery life was unimpressive at 5 hours and 4 minutes of talk time.
In addition to the Chaser’s inexpensive price tag, you can use it with an equally cost-effective plan from Virgin. $35 per month gets you unlimited data, text, and Web, along with 300 voice minutes. 1,200 minutes costs $45, and unlimited voice calling brings the price to $55 per month. If you like to surf the Web and text more than talk, that $35 plan is hard to beat. Virgin does have one downside for heavy data users: Although you get unlimited data, your speeds will be significantly throttled after 2.5GB of usage per month. An extra $15 per month lets you use the Chaser as a mobile hotspot, and gets you an additional 1GB of full-speed data.
Keep in mind the Chaser works on Sprint’s slow 3G network, so data speeds are not this phone’s strong point. For that, you’d have to look at one of Virgin’s 4G WiMAX phones, which is limited to the much more expensive HTC EVO V 4G and the Samsung Galaxy S II 4G right now.
Hardware and Software
The phone is powered by an 800MHz Qualcomm Snapdragon MSM7627T processor, which, even a year ago, would have been considered low-end; today it’s more like an artifact. The Chaser struggled with all of our benchmark tests, and turned in some of the lowest scores we’ve seen this year. Everything about this phone feels slow, even when it’s simple tasks like swiping between home screens or scrolling through the app menu.
The Chaser is running Android 2.3.5 (Gingerbread), which is light years behind the most recent version, Android 4.2 (Jelly Bean). Virgin doesn’t have any phones with Jelly Bean, but at this point, most of the carrier’s phones run at least Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), and it’s hard to recommend anything that doesn’t. There are so many enhancements and improvements that come with each new release of Android, that you’re significantly setting yourself back by buying into an old version.
PCD has added Mobile ID, which comes loaded onto every Virgin smartphone; otherwise this is nearly a stock version of Android. There are five home screens you can swipe between that come preloaded with a few apps, as well as directions for how to use the phone. Android has a powerful Web browser and excellent email support, though the outdated hardware and software make for overall slow performance. You’ll be able to run most of the 700,000+ apps in the Google Play store, but how well they will run is another question.
Multimedia, Camera, and Conclusions
The Chaser comes with 151MB of free internal storage. There’s also a side-mounted microSD card slot that comes preloaded with a 2GB card; my 64GB SanDisk card worked fine as well. Music tracks sounded fine through both wired headphones as well as Altec Lansing Backbeat Bluetooth headphones, though there was some background hiss between songs while using a wired pair. I was able to play AAC, MP3, OGG, and WAV test files, but not FLAC or WMA. Standalone video support is spotty. The Chaser plays MP4 and H.264 test files at resolutions up to 800 by 480, but not AVI or Xvid files.
The 3.2-megapixel camera isn’t good for taking pictures or video. It takes almost two full seconds to capture a photo, which is two seconds too many. Pictures look like oil paintings, lacking any real detail, and colors aren’t particularly accurate. The camcorder is even worse. It records small, grainy, 352-by-288-pixel videos at an unwatchable 10 frames per second. And there’s no front-facing camera, so video chat is out.
The PCD Chaser is like a mobile Monkey’s Paw. It grants all of the wishes you’d ask for in a smartphone, but they all come true at the expense of functionality and quality. Right now, you can get the HTC One V for just $100. It gets you a bigger, sharper display, better battery life, a faster processor, a better camera, and Android 4.0. It’s just a much better phone all around. Even in the sub-$100 range, you’re still better off with the keyboarded Kyocera Rise. It too has a lackluster display, but gets you a better battery, faster processor, and Android 4.0.
More Cell Phone Reviews:
|Screen Details||480-by-320-pixel TFT LCD|
|Operating System||Android OS|
|High-Speed Data||EVDO Rev A, CDMA 1X|
|Form Factor||Candy Bar|
|Battery Life (As Tested)||5 hours 4 minutes|
|Processor Speed||800 MHz|
|Screen Size||3.2 inches|
|Storage Capacity (as Tested)||151 MB|
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc