Pantech isn't as well-known as fellow Korean smartphone competitors LG and Samsung, and it's a shame. It tends to sell attractive and original smartphones with top-tier U.S. carriers at a low contract cost. For example, the Pantech Discover offers tremendous value -- $50 gets you Android 4.0, 4G LTE, a dual-core processor, a 4.8-inch HD screen, and a 12.6-megapixel camera.
Not all the phone's features reach the highest rung of the specifications ladder. But for $50 with a new, two-year service agreement, they don't have to. The Discover's upper-midrange specs and comfortable-but-unique design make it an easy top choice among midlevel Android smartphones.
Design and build
Barring a few awkward exceptions, smart, contoured handset design is one of Pantech's strong suits. For me, it's what clinches my support of the Discover.
Like other touch-screen smartphones, it's tall, fairly slim, and black. But where some phones have rounded or squared-off edges, Pantech has a mix of both. Where other phones have flat or slightly rounded backs, the Discover's undulates at the top and bottom, which creates a really wonderfully ergonomic feel.
And where other phone makers place speaker grilles at the top and bottom, Pantech gave its Discover enlarged 3D surround-sound speaker "ears" on the sides of its face. Add to that a comfortable and inviting back panel covered in a textured soft-touch finish, and you've got a phone that quietly stands apart.
The Discover stands 5.3 inches tall, 2.7 inches wide and 0.36 inch deep. Its large, 4.8-inch touch-screen display has a 1,280x720-pixel HD resolution. It's no lightweight at 4.8 ounces, but thanks to the contoured back, it doesn't come across feeling like a brick.
I mentioned the 3D speaker "ears," but I also like how Pantech shaped the asymmetrical volume rocker on the phone's left spine. It looks neat and works well. Up top you'll find a standard 3.5-millimeter headset jack and a silvery power button that's embellished with very small grooves. The right spine lies bare, but the phone's base houses the Micro-USB charging port. Peel off the back panel to expose the external memory slot capable of holding 32GB of storage, as well as the Discover's micro-SIM card slot.
Interestingly, Pantech skipped the three capacitive navigation buttons that usually grace the area just below the screen. In the Discover, these manifest as onscreen controls.
The only flaw I discovered is that the phone has a tendency to slip if you speak with it wedged between your shoulder and your ear. If you use a Bluetooth headset to speak, you're golden.
OS and apps
Unfortunately, the Discover runs on Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich right out of the box, though Pantech and AT&T do aspire to Android 4.1 Jelly Bean.
Pantech, like many other manufacturers, adds its own special sauce on top of stock Android, imbuing it with a customized lock screen, notification bar, and various other screens. For instance, the shortcuts bar below the customizable home screens is dynamic, not static. You can customize most of the icons there, and also swipe left and right to add more, just as you would with the home screens.
Another Pantech variation pops up a separate menu bar when you press Google's Menu button. Here you'll find Pantech-made buttons for widgets, wallpaper, themes, and settings.
Pantech's "easy experience" is by far its most obvious innovation. First seen in the Flex, the easy experience offers an alternative, much more simple way to view and navigate the phone's contents. Icons appear larger and more bubbly, and instead of multiple home screens and scrolling panels, you get a single pane on the home screen and in the settings menu.
The Discover comes with NFC, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS, and Wi-Fi. If you turn on motion recognition in the settings, you'll be able to wave your hand near the front-facing camera (there's actually a proximity sensor right next to it) to do things like advance music, play or pause, flip through the gallery, and accept an incoming call (think: driving.) It worked fairly well in my tests, but you need only flick a finger, not wave your whole hand.
What good would fancy speakers be if they didn't come with any way to adjust the sound quality? Deep in the settings menu of the music player app, you'll find an equalizer, treble and bass boost settings, and a "loudness maximizer." You can also set the reverberation for various room sizes, and there's a virtualizer just for fun.
The speakers do work well, by the way. In tests, they sounded good and rich for their size, without overt tinniness or harshness. However, they're no replacement for larger, high-quality portable speakers.
As with the Flex, the Discover uses a version of Swiftkey for Pantech that emphasizes predictive text to minimize typing. Unfortunately, this software version doesn't seem to include the ability to trace out words with your fingertip.
A note on screenshots: to take them, press down on the power and volume-down buttons. This is sometimes awkward on other phones, and results in a lot of aborted attempts that nearly turn off the phone entirely. I'm happy to report that on the Discover, I was able to take screenshots flawlessly, and without hiccups.
It feels like the Discover has more than the usual complement of preloaded apps. Just to name a few, there are a slew of AT&T-branded apps that include AT&T Drive Mode, which, when enabled, can automatically reply to texts, calls, and e-mail on your behalf while you drive.
There's also an app for Twitter, Mog Music service, a converter, a voice assistant, and a voice recorder.