15
Aug
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While everyone loves to gush over flagship phones, the truth of the matter is that for many customers, cheaper phones - be they last-gen's flagships or this-gen's budget devices - are the route of choice. Traditionally, the former route tended to work out better, especially for enthusiasts; after all, generation-old flagships tend to still outperform and out-feature current-gen budget devices. Plus, high-end devices generally have a ton of developer support and are usually better supported by the manufacturer. But is buying a used flagship still the better option for a budget-conscious consumer? After spending some time with a brand new budget phone from Pantech and Verizon, I'm not so sure.

One of the biggest reasons that the Marauder is impressive for a budget device (those last few words are really key) is largely thanks to somebody else, really. That (corporate) person is Google, because the bulk of what makes the Marauder so good is Ice Cream Sandwich. That's not to say Pantech hasn't done well here (they have). It's that with how good Ice Cream Sandwich is, you have to really try hard to make it not good.

Thankfully, Pantech hasn't mucked things up. In fact, for its intended audience, the Marauder is probably pretty good, Pantech customizations and all.

Pantech Marauder: Specifications

  • Price: $300 off-contract, $0 with new contract/upgrade
  • Processor: 1.2GHz dual-core CPU
  • RAM: 1GB
  • Storage: 4GB
  • Display: 3.8" 480x800
  • Battery: 1680mAh
  • OS: Android 4.0
  • Dimensions: 5.07" (H) x 2.57" (W) x 0.46" (D)
  • Camera: 5MP rear, VGA front
  • Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.0, 802.11b/g/n, WiFi Direct

The Good

  • Performance is good. Seriously, actually good. It feels 98% as smooth and snappy as even the absolute best devices on the market. That's partially thanks to the 1.2GHz dual-core and partially thanks to how mature Android has become with 4.0.
  • You don't see a lot of Android phones with full QWERTY keyboards nowadays, for whatever reason. The Marauder has one, and that will be a major perk to many peoople
  • Free for new contracts and upgrades, and only $300 full retail? For a 1.2GHz dual-core ICS device with LTE? Hell yes. If that's what the lay-users have to "settle" for, I'm almost jealous.
  • Battery life is awesome. I honestly couldn't tell you definitively why, but it's great. Legitimately great. Like, featurephone great.

The Bad

  • Even a good budget device is still a budget device, and this one certainly feels like it. Every aspect of "budget" has advanced by leaps and bounds in the past few years except for one: feel. The absolute cheapest build materials were used and, as a result, the keys feel mediocre, and the plastic feels like it was taken off a cheap pen.
  • 4GB of storage and no microSD in the box = major, major fail. Sure, you can get a respectable microSD card for $10 bucks these days, but that's just sort of a pain. There's no excuse for only including 4GB of storage in 2012, especially when a large chunk of that is taken up by the OS and preinstalled apps/bloatware.

Deep Dive

Build

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As a budget phone, the feel of the plastic is not so great. Imagine hard plastic on a cheap children's toy, but give it a grippy diamond texture and you'll have a good idea. And thanks to the full QWERTY keyboard, it's neither thin nor light (for comparison, it's slightly thinner and very slightly heavier than the original EVO 4G) by today's standards. But you know what? That's alright, and frankly, I'd trust it to hold up better than many costlier phones, screen aside. The slider action feels surprisingly firm and sturdy, though how good it would feel after two years of heavy use is definitely dubious. Still, the build as a whole is plenty good enough that I wouldn't panic if I bumped or dropped the phone, and I'd have no qualms owning it myself.

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You'll find the charger and volume buttons along the left of the phone (or bottom, when the keyboard is out). The power button and headphone jack are along the top, while the (awesomely loud) speaker is on the bottom of the back. All in all, fairly logical places to put things since it plays double-duty as a normal portrait and landscape QWERTY device. That said, adjusting the volume with the keyboard out is a tricky exercise in dexterity and grip. The back plate is removable, but doing so certainly isn't easy (that's a good thing).

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As you'd expect, the keyboard slides out to the left, orienting the device in landscape mode. The keys are firm and moderately clicky, but there's no getting around the fact that they're covered by a mushy plasticky/papery material. It's the same as most other cheaper phone keyboards, and it still sucks. And as somebody who is pretty well fully adjusted to using a touchscreen to type (I've been using one on phones exclusively for about 2 years now), I actually kind of dislike having a physical keypad, where before I couldn't go without one. It could have something to do with my ever-clumsier fingers or how cramped the keyboard is. My accuracy improved over time with the Marauder, but it's still actually worse (and slower) than just typing on-screen. Obviously, this comes down to personal preference, and there is something of a learning curve.

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Aside from the cheap feel of the plastic, the only downsides are that the front isn't protected by any sort of fancy high-density glass or plastic, meaning it will probably easily be scratched - in other words, invest in a screen protector. Second, the back seems to pick up and hold dirt and grime easily, and it's a pain to get it clean. That's probably courtesy of the very fine diamond texture - the grooves are so small that cloths and paper towels can't get between them. Still, a minor gripe, and something that a little rubbing alcohol should take care of, for the most part.

Display

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The display is actually pretty solid. It's no qHD or 720p mind-blower, but it doesn't need to be. As much as I adore the 720p display on my One X, it's 4.7". The display here is 3.8", giving the phone better pixel density than, say, the original 4.3" EVO.  And frankly, it's still a superior display to any sub-par qHD PenTile (I'm looking at you, Motorola and HTC) I've ever seen.

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Density aside, the display is thoroughly average in every other way. Colors are a bit dull but still good, and blacks aren't especially deep. It gets bright enough, but again, it's not quite a small sun as are most displays now. In sum, the display is simply thoroughly average. It doesn't stand out for being especially good or bad, but it's adequate, and there's little to gripe about in particular.

Software

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Pantech's optimizations are surprisingly deep, doubly so when you switch to Starter Mode. In standard mode, they have added color to everything. It's like they made it a development priority to include all the colors of the rainbow in every screen you encounter. They also added textures, replacing the simple black background of the app drawer with a grainy, gradient gray background. The notification shade also features a similar smorgasbord of colors, with black, light, medium, and dark gray, orange, teal, and white all playing a part (there's also some green in the status bar icons). The icons and widgets all incorporate various combinations of the above colors, too - at least they're consistent. All in all, it's not the most attractive UI I've used, but it does feel the least formal.

Starter mode is rather brilliant, in my opinion, and is genuinely a good way to get those who aren't so good with technology into the smartphone game. (Ditto for the phone, since it doesn't pack a ton of high-tech features they'll never use.) It also makes things very simple by enlarging all the icons and removing many of the more superfluous ones. It cuts your icon choices down quite a bit and makes it easier to call those who matter most by placing widgets to call select people right on the home screens. I hate to say it, but it's basically the smartphone equivalent of those home phones with huge buttons that they sell for the elderly. Ultimately, a necessary tool that opens up a new world and can easily be disabled at a later date.

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Rainbowification aside, there are some other notable customizations to speak of. Anyone who has used plain old Android 4.0 can see that most of the OS remains intact and unmolested (a lot less than most other custom UIs). The lockscreen is now vaguely reminiscent of Asus's "Ring" UI, where there are 6 icons in a circle (starting at 9 o'clock: unlock, music, phone, messaging, email, and camera) with a clock in the middle. Next, you'll notice the launcher used is reminiscent of one of the many alternative launchers available on the Play Store in that it offers a scrolling dock at the bottom, meaning there are three different pages of docks that can be changed independently of the homescreens. There are five homescreens by default, with long horizontal pagination bars at the bottom of the screen, just above the dock. The notification shade, in addition to the colorization, picks up some of the exceedingly popular power control widgets along the top (though WiFi toggle - by far my most used one - is absent) and a permanent WiFi chooser (but not toggle) widget just below. Finally, some of the homescreen widgets are proprietary, though nothing special.

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As with most other budget and Verizon devices, the Marauder packs some bloat:

  • Amazon Kindle
  • Amex Serve
  • Verizon Apps
  • Doc Viewer
  • Help
  • Let's Golf 3
  • My Verizon Mobile
  • Net Media
  • Plants Vs Zombies
  • Setup Wizard
  • Verizon Tones
  • VZ Navigator

Not bad, especially when compared to some other handsets, but the annoyance is magnified by the fact that they conquer the homescreens out of the box. Pantech also includes some proprietary apps for music and movies, and unsurprisingly, many of the system apps (email, calendar, messaging, phone, and the like) have been customized as well.

Unfortunately, that leads to what is the biggest shortcoming with the phone. To ship a smartphone with just 4GB of memory in 2012 is absolutely ridiculous; to take up 2.5GB of it with the OS and bloat and leave only 1.5GB of storage for the user is downright offensive. It would cost you maybe $2 to throw in a 16GB microSD card, Verizon/Pantech. Right now you're downright screwing the type of customer who doesn't know any better; there's nothing quite as terrible as a company pulling a fast one on those who don't know much about their product.

Performance

In a word, performance is great. In terms of smoothness, this is by far the best budget device I've ever used. I'd rate the sheer feel of the performance on par with the Galaxy S II. That's in small part due to the 1.2GHz dual-core CPU and gig of RAM powering this little phone, but the biggest factor is definitely Android 4.0. The UI look, feel, and performance are worlds better with Ice Cream Sandwich (let alone Jelly Bean...), and to see how well it runs on even a cheap Android handset constantly puts a smug grin on my face.

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If you're using the Marauder at the exact same time as a flagship device (in other words, conducting side-by-side tests), you'll notice some speed and performance differences. But in the real world, if you're just using the Marauder, it feels every bit as good and every bit as fast. That's right: I'm saying that between how powerful hardware is and how mature Android is, even budget phones feel like they can stand up to the high-end devices.

Conclusion

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Let's be honest: most of the people reading this review probably aren't likely to purchase a Marauder. Most tech lovers shoot straight for the top, or if they can't afford it, they shoot for what was the top of the last generation. 6 months or a year ago, that made sense, as high-end devices maintained a performance edge for 12+ months, and a software support edge for far longer.

It's not such an easy decision anymore, and I suspect it will only get harder as the technology continues to advance. In fact, I'd go so far as to suggest that those looking for a budget option choose the Marauder - or the coming wave of phones similar to it - rather than a second-hand generation-old flagship.

Of course, there's a caveat. The question is whether or not you're looking for a phone to hack and mod, or whether you're looking for a phone that you can buy new for the same price. If you're looking for the former, you're probably better off with last year's flagship. But if you just want to buy a phone that works well and that's that, then the Marauder is a damn fine choice.

Aaron Gingrich
Aaron is a geek who has always had a passion for technology. When not working or writing, he can be found spending time with his family, playing a game, or watching a movie.

  • murr4y

    Wow, I really wasn't expecting that. Great phone!

  • Jahfry

    I was ready to buy and avoid a 2yr contract renewal ... until I saw the 4GB storage. SD would have fixed it and I would have paid the extra. Oh well.

    • Manuel Bocchia

      But...It does support SD cards, doesn't it?

      • mlojlo

        Yes, it supports an SD Card :) I believe up tp 32GB.

    • John Freeman – Saver of humens

      wow is it really hard to buy a 32gb card? you can get them pretty much anywere...
      and it DOES have support for sd cards. just no SD out of the box.

  • like

    If this gets an international version, I might recommend this to some of my friends who like QWERTY keyboards.

  • http://pandu.poluan.info pepoluan

    The main reason why I stay away from budget Android phones is the community support; with a non-budget (but not necessarily the flagship) phone, I can expect a lively community of modders and devs all hell-bent to make their phone nicer, faster, or both. With budget phones, not so much.

    Although... if enough people start buying these budget phones, a community will certainly grow... but due to the amount of producers from China that will surely flock to this market, I have doubts that any budget phone will reach the critical mass for a self-sustaining community...

    • True…

      so true. my old defy was never really flagship, but so many people had it (heck it's probably still the android phone that sells most here in brazil to this date) that there was always stuff coming out for it. in fact, there's a bunch of jellybean roms for it already... that's more than a shitload of newer devices can say.

      • Jonathan Wong

        I recently got a Motorola Defy because it's cheap ableit old yet has a a great community. CM10 works fantastically on the device. Mobile data, for example, rivals a iPhone 4S in speed.

  • RyanK

    Very excited to get this phone. Ordered it last night and it's supposed to arrive Friday. 1.2ghz Snapdragon S4 processor, 1gb of RAM, and ICS. Hard to beat for a phone that cost me nothing. Sure I had to buy a $40 32gb MicroSD card, but I mean, who cares?

    This is a great deal for people like me who want to get into smartphones, but don't have the cash. I know my way around android very well, I've just never been able to purchase a phone.

    • Mitch

      I ordered mine last night too. We shall see.

  • jmahr1127

    Actually, for those on a budget (like I was), I would recommend getting a Samsung Galaxy S II before it is injuncted in the US (by Apple). It's currently free at Best Buy (new), and is super awesome. Especially on Jelly Bean. But I guess that really only applies if you're on At&t, but I'm sure there are other deals on all the other major carriers, so DO YOUR RESEARCH before buying anything.

  • hyraxx

    Doc viewer is bloat? That comes stock with the android OS.

  • apianist16

    Battery life on this phone is terrible. Sorry reviewer, I had it and it has the worst battery life of any phone I have ever had.

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