Hundreds of smartphones of all shapes, sizes and colors pass through the doors of Engadget HQ every year, so it’s natural for a few oddball devices with crazy form factors to end up in our hands from time to time. The Motorola Flipout, LG DoublePlay, Kyocera Echo and Samsung DoubleTime are all instances of carriers trying something new, seeing what sticks. Of course, pushing out a phone with an unproven form factor is a huge gamble for a mobile provider, and as a result they only ship to stores in low volume and rarely receive any kind of marketing campaign at its launch. Indeed, the vast majority of these types of phones are low-end devices aimed at young adults and first-time smartphone buyers, but we still find it adventurous to take a break from the monotony of black slabs and try out something completely different.
The Pantech Pocket is definitely unique — not because it flips or slides a weird way or because it has two and a half screens, but because its 4-inch display, whose 4:3 aspect ratio promises 20 percent more horizontal real estate. Did AT&T's gamble on the display pay off? Is it worth the $ 50 that AT&T demands with a two-year commitment attached? Time to find out below.
Is it difficult to imagine a 4-inch phone that’s wider than the 4.65-inch Samsung Galaxy Nexus and the 4.7-inch HTC Titan? Guess what — now you no longer have to, because it’s a reality. At 3.07 inches (78mm) wide, the Pantech Pocket wins the title against the Titan by a full 7mm and is skinnier than the 5.3-inch Samsung Galaxy Note by a whole 5mm. But what more can you expect when the handset is as close to a square as you’ll likely ever see?
When putting the Pocket up to our ear, we felt like it was trying to eat our entire face.
Indeed, the Pantech Pocket — which, ironically, is the least likely smartphone to actually fit into your pocket — sports a 4-inch SVGA (800 x 600) display and boasts an aspect ratio of 4:3. It’s bright enough, but isn’t as color-saturated as an AMOLED panel. The premise behind this screen is that you’ll have a better app viewing experience, a wider keyboard and more screen real estate for reading e-books and surfing the web. We found that the Pocket was great for digesting content, but unfortunately this comes at the expense of comfort. Holding the phone was an incredibly awkward experience in almost every way, whether we were making a call or just trying to maintain a solid grip on the device. And we’ll warn you up front: putting the handset up to your ear invokes the feeling that it’s trying to eat your entire face. The only method in which we could hold the phone somewhat comfortably is by moving our index finger to the top of the phone, the remaining fingers cradling on the opposite side.
Fortunately, the Pocket isn’t a heavy handset, at 4.66 ounces (132g). With a depth of 0.44 inches (11.3mm), it’s not the thinnest either, thanks to the device’s rubberized build (though we didn’t find this to be a lingering concern when handling the phone). We could tell that the handset exudes a solid look and feel, and for good reason: Pantech told us it’s made of “a non-crystalline thermoplastic that offers high quality heat resistance, good transparency and high-impact strength and other physical and mechanical properties.” In other words, it’s going to be a bit more durable than your standard phone. Don’t confuse durable with indestructible, though: this isn’t a phone you’ll want to throw against the wall or onto the concrete, if you can help it. It feels like it can hold up to a bit more pressure, but it’s not military-certified and is still vulnerable to abuse. It is, however, much more likely to hold up to normal wear and tear — as well as the occasional drop — than your average phone.
You can see the thermoplastic lining the sides and back of the Pocket, and it even curls up onto the front of the device as well. Instead of laying flush with the screen, the edges bubble up just a tiny bit above it, which in theory adds a little extra protection to that massive display just in case you drop the phone at just the right angle.
It’s more likely to hold up to normal wear and tear, as well as the occasional drop, than your average smartphone.
Also on the front are the usual four navigation buttons, manifested as hardware keys instead of capacitive controls. These buttons are tall enough to come up just barely above the bottom rubberized edge, which allows for easy pressing. One button that doesn’t, however, is the tiny power / screen lock on the top left of the phone. Its small size and prominence already offer a difficult target for our fingers, but that unpleasantness is magnified when we hold the phone in our left hand; as awkward as it already is to grip our phone, it’s compounded as we attempt to unnaturally stretch our index fingers even further to the left. If you normally hold handsets in your right hand, however, you’ll be just fine.
Accompanying the power button on the top is the 3.5mm headphone jack located just to its right. The remainder of the Pocket's exterior is quite minimalistic; only a micro-USB port sits on the right side of the phone, while just a volume rocker takes up space on its left side. The back only offers a camera lens poking out just above the textured battery cover and a small speaker grille to its right. Taking the battery cover off reveals the Pocket's 1,650mAh juicepack, a 2GB microSD card (which can be swapped out with any size up to 32GB) and a microSIM — made popular with the iPhone 4 and 4S, it looks like the smaller SIM cards are finally expanding out to other phones in AT&T's lineup.
The Pocket uses quad-band GSM / EDGE (850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900) and tri-band HSPA+ (850 / 1900 / 2100), capable of hitting speeds up to a theoretical max of 14.4Mbps. We were happy to see that AT&T left the "4G" moniker out of the title this time — it seems as though the carrier's gradually getting over its excessive use of the term (in name, at least).
The Pocket uses a 5MP rear shooter but doesn’t offer a LED flash and lacks a hardware shutter button and front-facing cam. But that’s just the beginning of our concerns. The camera app takes a good five seconds to load and shutter lag lasts roughly four seconds to allow for autofocus — even worse, you need to hold the phone perfectly still the entire time or the image will end up blurry. There are no tap-to-focus or continual focus options, and there’s no way to lock in exposure or drag the focus box around to various parts of the screen. This means there are no workarounds for shutter lag, and the camera is simply useless when it comes to grabbing quick snaps. Once you’ve finally succeeded in getting the shot you want, it’s displayed in eternal playback mode and can’t take another image until you physically hit the back button. If there’s a way to turn this off somewhere, we have yet to find it in the incredibly limited settings menu offered for the Pocket’s camera.
The white balance is also off, as colors simply appear flat and washed out in most cases; there were a few circumstances, such as outdoors, in which we could actually pull off a pretty decent image, but the end result is inconsistent at best. Images taken indoors typically appear muddy in detail and low-light photos completely lack crispness. And there’s very few settings to help you in special situations. Macro focus, zoom and exposure are present, as well as a few basic white balance settings (daylight, cloudy, flourescent and tungsten) and filters (mono, sepia and negative). It’s missing, however, several adjustments you would find commonplace on a Samsung or HTC device, such as ISO, metering, anti-shake and panorama mode, to name a few. We understand that we’re being incredibly critical for a lower-end device, but we’ve used plenty of budget phones (the Samsung Stratosphere comes to mind) that offer 5MP cameras with higher quality and more customization options.
The Pocket’s video capture claims a resolution of 720p, but the quality didn’t seem to match that claim.
We came to the same relative conclusion about the Pocket’s video capture. It claims a resolution of 720p HD, but the quality of our movies — both in MPEG4 and H.264 — didn’t seem to match that claim. Motion was incredibly choppy and the movies lacked a significant amount of detail. Believe it or not, it’s difficult to recommend the Pocket’s camcorder over the Stratosphere’s 480p SD max resolution.
The Pocket comes with Android 2.3.4 loaded with Pantech’s proprietary skin on top. The UI has a personality unique to the Pocket, but has a lot of similarities to the Crossfire and Breakout before it. This particular UI, much like the one seen on the aforementioned devices, doesn’t really bring anything new or innovative to the table, and it looks and feels like a cheapened version of TouchWiz or Sense.
The first thing you’ll notice when turning the Pocket on is the lock screen, which features direct shortcuts to five different apps on the phone à la Sense. This is by far the most we’ve seen offered on an Android OEM’s skin to date, for which we’re intensely grateful, but here’s the problem: they aren’t customizable. Oh, and a shortcut to the camera app is nowhere to be found. Perhaps we’re being too picky here, because we at least have fast access to messaging, music player, email (the app which contains every email account that’s not Gmail, that is), your call logs and the browser. All of these are wonderful to include on the home screen, of course, but we prefer choice. There are plenty of apps we’d like to get to as quickly as possible — camera being by far the most important, given our need to capture precious moments as they happen — and we have a hard time believing that it’s terribly difficult to add in the capability.
Also included with Pantech’s UI is Themes, a feature that can be found on Sense, MotoBlur and plenty of other proprietary skins such as SprintID. Just like on the others, Themes offers various customizable sets of home panels, each one attempting to fit a different environment or lifestyle. If you’re leaving work to go out for a night on the town, you can change your theme to a set of home panels, apps and widgets that you will theoretically find far more useful than those spreadsheet editors and PDF readers. In addition to your own user-defined theme, you can choose between Active, Social, Work, Play and Favorite. Sadly, Pantech didn’t get much further than this point in the development process, as it doesn’t appear like there was any thought put into what each theme contains. No matter which theme you choose, you’ll be greeted by the same apps on the main front screen, with perhaps a different wallpaper and two or three different widgets scattered about the set of seven panels.
It’s in the app tray, though, that you’ll find Pantech’s most creative flourish. You’ll still be greeted by the same 4×4 grid of app icons, but you can choose a different background to add a little “spice” to your experience. Some backgrounds cleverly make each row look like shelves (which looks eerily similar to stuff we’ve seen come out of Apple’s camp, such as Newsstand). It’s different and looks kind of cool, but it’s also completely unnecessary and likely hinders the phone’s performance. We should note, however, that you can avoid these by simply choosing the all-black background.
Bloatware, as is typical with carrier-branded phones, runs amok on the Pocket. Along with the standard pre-installed Android apps (or Pantech's own version of each, anyways) comes a few proprietary Pantech apps as well as AT&T's suite. Games weren't a focus here, as evidenced by the fact that there aren't any that come on the device. Amazon Kindle, AT&T FamilyMap, AT&T Code Scanner, Live TV, Movies, myAT&T and YP are all uninstallable without needing to root your phone, but everything else on there remains stuck. Fortunately, Pantech threw in the ability to rearrange icons in the app tray so all of those useless apps you can't stand can at least be put to the end of your list so they're not getting in the way, but we were disappointed by the lack of folders within the tray in order to just hide these apps from plain view forever and ever.
Pantech threw in an app called PC Connector Suite, which allows you to access your phone from your computer using either a USB connection or the same WiFi network. If you’re unable to find the desktop client for the Pantech suite, head over to the support page for the Pocket and you’ll find it there as a downloadable program.
Another disappointment is the inability to change out the bottom row of static icons which features the phone app, messaging and browser. And adding insult to injury, AT&T has publicly admitted (though downloading a detector app would tell us the same thing anyways) that the Pocket is currently riddled with CarrierIQ.
Two-handed typing on the keyboard was good, but it’s a completely different story when only using one hand.
One perk of having such a large screen was that we had no difficulty typing with two hands on the virtual keyboard in either portrait or landscape mode. Using one hand, however, proved to be a bit more of a challenge in both modes. We expect to have a hard time doing one-handed typing in landscape mode, but it gets frustrating when we have to outstretch our thumbs and risk straining them just to hit a letter on the opposite site of the keyboard. By default you’re given two virtual options: the stock Android ‘board and the ever-popular Swype. Either one will do the job just fine, and your personal preference should easily steer you towards one or the other.
As for that frozen, dairy-flavored elephant in the room, it’s unclear if the Pocket will be the lucky recipient of an upgrade to Android 4.0 — also known as Ice Cream Sandwich — as the company has yet to confirm either way.
Performance and battery life
The news doesn’t get a whole lot better with the phone’s performance. Before we go any farther in our assessment, we’ll quickly point out that the Pocket is a budget device that’s likely geared toward first-time smartphone users or young adults, and is not meant to be the fastest phone on the planet. So if you fall into one of those categories and only need your handset to do basic tasks, you’re likely not going to see (or care) what all of the fuss is about.
That said, the Pocket doesn’t feel like it’s using a 1GHz single-core CPU with 512MB of RAM. We would’ve guessed it was running on a 600 or 800MHz CPU instead. It’s not dreadfully slow, but don’t expect a zippy performance from it when handling multiple tasks. We saw some delays when swiping from one screen to the next, and internet browsing has a noticeable lag when scrolling up and down on a large site and even when pinch-zooming. As mentioned earlier, the camera itself exhibits a hefty amount of lag — not just in processing the image, but even opening up the application takes a significant amount of time.
While we don’t judge solely on benchmark scores, the ones we ran on the Pocket were all over the place. Its Quadrant score stuttered in the 1,300 range, but the phone had an above-average Vellamo and SunSpider score, and Nenamark and Neocore were both significantly lower than similarly-spec’d models.
In addition to feeling like you’re holding a tablet to your face every time you make a call, the actual voice quality isn’t top-notch either. While nobody complained about our mic or the way we sounded, the voice on the other end of the line would often be tinny or slightly distorted. Fortunately, we rarely ever had to ask the other person to repeat themselves, but the Pocket isn’t the best when you’re looking for noise-free calls.
The volume on the speakerphone and media player was workable in a quiet room while playing at an average level, but it was too soft to play in a louder environment; the sound was always distorted and the entire battery cover buzzed and vibrated whenever the meter was cranked up to a maximum.
The battery on the Pocket is rated for six hours of constant talk time, and when doing our standard video run-down tests, it lasted for six hours and fifteen minutes straight before dying. We were easily able to get through a full day of moderate use with roughly ten to fifteen percent left over, but you’ll want to charge it up every night while you’re asleep.
Lastly, on multiple occasions we locked the screen only to discover a few minutes later that the phone was in eternal sleep mode and would not wake up without a hard battery pull. This was most common when we were outdoors, leading us to wonder if the Pocket just isn’t able to handle certain weather conditions very well.
We want companies to be creative and innovative. We often find ourselves rooting for the little guys that are willing to go out on a limb and try something new and clever, even if there’s little chance of succeeding. After all, you never know if something’s going to be a hit until you give it a shot. While we’re disappointed that the Pantech Pocket didn’t work out quite the same way we’d hoped, we applaud the possibilities being explored and would love to continue seeing new and creative ideas to break up the monotony of the same ‘ol slate phones that dominate the industry today.
Here’s the problem: it’s so risky to put out a device like this that neither the carrier nor OEM want to invest much money into executing the concept to its fullest. Because of this, phones that fall under this category typically aren’t made well, don’t sell well and poof — goodbye innovation. The Pocket could have been a powerful handset with terrific performance, but was instead regarded as an experiment. A phone like the Pocket may be perfect for a small slice of users who have large hands, need a basic smartphone that does simple tasks and offers a larger viewing experience, but it’s not going to tempt anyone else.