As our devices have become more technically impressive, they’ve also become kind of delicate. We have to put cases on our iPads and iPhones, or risk scratching; if a drop of water hits our tablets, it could be game over. The Pantech Element, on the other hand, is ready for action. It’s waterproof, ruggedized, and generally able to withstand... well, the elements. It’s durable on the outside, but still has some impressive hardware inside: a 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon processor, 1GB of RAM, 16GB of internal storage, and an 8-inch TFT display.
On paper, the Element seems like a killer combination: a powerful tablet that you don’t have to worry about. But the Honeycomb tablet market is cluttered with Galaxy Tabs, Transformers, and Iconia Tabs — is there a place for the Element? Read the full review to find out.
Hardware / design
It's unremarkable hardware, but it does have one unique characteristic
Especially given its rugged features, the Element doesn’t look particularly big or bulky. At 10.6mm thick, it’s actually thinner than the Kindle Fire or HTC Flyer, and its edges are tapered in such a way that it doesn’t feel large at all in your hands. Its aesthetic is very minimalist: it’s black on every surface, with only a few logos and buttons marring its simplicity. Unfortunately, it’s glossy on every surface, too, so good luck keeping fingerprints off it — I would’ve much preferred a textured, matte back like those on many phones and tablets. You’re definitely meant to hold the Element in landscape, with a power button up top next to a one-button volume control (hit either side to change it). The headphone, SIM card, micro USB, Micro SD, and Micro HDMI ports are all covered by rubber flaps, but are easily accessible.
I’ll be honest: I got very excited when I first saw that the Element is waterproof. Its Ingress Protection rating (a standard measurement of a device's ability to withstand dust, freezing, water, and the like) is IP57, which means that in addition to being dust-resistant, the tablet is tested to withstand being submerged in up to a meter of water for up to 30 minutes. (Unlike tablets like the Panasonic ToughPad A1, It’s not ruggedized in other ways, which is unfortunate — you can’t drop or freeze the Element.)
I had visions of playing Fruit Ninja in the bathtub, and not worrying about my hands being wet while I flip through a recipe for dinner, but unfortunately it turns out there’s quite a gap between "it’s waterproof" and "you can use it in the water." I ran water over the Element, dunked it, and sprayed it, and the tablet kept working — it sinks like a stone, but will continue working underwater. But when the tablet gets wet, it becomes impossible to use: drops of water will activate buttons on the capacitive screen (water conducts electricity much like your fingers do), so the Element starts opening apps, typing, and generally going crazy. The display also becomes totally unresponsive to your fingers when it’s wet, and often stays that way until you dry it completely, and then turn the screen off and back on. The Element is certainly a tablet you can drop in the bathtub, but you can't do much with it while it's in there.
Display and speakers
A few things right, a few things wrong
I have a love-hate relationship with the Element’s 8-inch TFT LCD. The display is very bright, relatively readable even in sunlight, and reproduces colors fairly accurately. I also like its 4:3 aspect ratio, which makes the tablet much more usable in both orientations than a longer, thinner 16:9 tablet. Viewing angles are good as well, without a lot of discoloration even when you’re viewing it off-axis. But its 1024 x 768 resolution isn’t as good as the 1280 x 800 displays on tablets like the Galaxy Tab 7.7 — there are still some jaggies on the screen, and smaller text can be very hard to read. The screen is also very recessed, with a sizable gap between the glass coating and the display itself, and I don’t like feeling like I’m not touching the display. The slightly-off resolution (it’s not quite 720p) also means you get black lines above and below video as you watch — the iPad has the same resolution, and a similar problem — rather than the screen-filling footage you get on some tablets.
Finally, a speaker you can hear
The Element’s speaker, on the other hand, is all good all the time. First of all, it’s front-facing, which seems painfully obvious — on most tablets, you’re looking at the screen, and sound is being projected from the back, directly away from you. In this case, you’re getting blasted with sound, so even though it’s not the loudest speaker it’s one of the most effective. It also sounds good, full and clear even at loud volumes. There’s little dynamic range or low end to speak of, but I suppose that’s a lot to ask from a tablet.
It's a tablet camera — what can you expect?
The 5-megapixel camera facing out the back of the Element is... well, it’s a tablet camera, and not even a particularly good one. The 2560 x 1920 images it produces are soft and noisy, even in good lighting, though they’re good enough at small resolutions. It has an incredibly bright flash, but it gives everything in the room a blue tint. The camera app itself is also really slow, frequently needing two or three seconds to lock onto focus. It also shoots 720p video, but it doesn’t look very good either. I don’t think I’ve ever taken a photo with my tablet or met anyone who has, so I’m not especially concerned with poor camera performance, but the Element is certainly not the tablet to buy for its camera.
The Element’s front-facing, 2-megapixel camera takes terrible, soft photos, but you’re not really able to use it anyway. It’s located in the worst imaginable place — on the side as you hold the tablet in landscape, exactly where your thumb rests while you hold it. It’s also off-center, making it hard to frame yourself for video chat or self-portraits. The only practical way to use the front shooter is to hold the tablet vertically, which any camera user knows is a bad way to take pictures. And did I mention it takes bad pictures anyway?
Virtually every Honeycomb tablet has the same strengths and weaknesses, and they’re all present on the Element. You get a mostly unchanged version of Android 3.2, and the changes Pantech did make are minor — the Home, Back, and multitasking buttons are slightly redesigned, for instance. A few of the built-in apps also look a bit different, but most of the changes are small enough that there’s little to complain about. Well, little to complain about outside of the normal Honeycomb problems, like the operating system’s overall sluggishness and bugginess. Then there's the problem plaguing all Android tablets: there are hardly any apps optimized for the larger screen, and no good way of finding the few that are. The smaller 8-inch screen and 1024 x 768 resolution mean blown-up phone apps don’t look as bad as they do on 10-inch, 1280 x 800 tablets like the Galaxy Tab 10.1, but they still look pretty bad.
Android 4.0, as we saw with the Transformer Prime, solves a lot of Honeycomb’s stability problems, and adds a lot of polish and functionality to the device, but unfortunately it can’t do much about the app problem — at least not yet. Pantech has promised to upgrade the Element to Ice Cream Sandwich later this year, but as always, I’ll believe it when I see it.
Buying a device from a carrier means bloatware, and the Element is no exception: there are a dozen or so apps preloaded, a mix of AT&T-branded apps and third-party software. I didn’t find a single one that seemed like something I’d download given the chance, but other than taking up a slot in the app drawer nothing was too intrusive or annoying. Some of the bloatware can be uninstalled, but you’re stuck with a lot of it.
Honeycomb's still not good enough
Performance, LTE, and battery life
Much like every other Android tablet — no better, no worse
In general, using the Element is almost exactly like every other Honeycomb tablet I’ve ever used — and it's pretty rough. In everyday use, the 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon processor inside the Element does its job pretty well. Most of the issues I encountered — the screen taking too long to rotate, the capacitive buttons often taking a half-second before responding to a tap — are widespread among Honeycomb tablets, so while they're not acceptable flaws I certainly can’t fault the Element specifically. Unfortunately, as long as Honeycomb is around, an Android tablet is an incredibly imperfect experience. Outside of the normal OS flaws, though, the device performs really well. It never buckled under too many apps or stuttered while playing video or a game. Benchmarks backed up my theory, too: Quadrant scores averaged 3,440, and any score over 3,000 (or even 2,500) is pretty fantastic.
The browser, however, seems to be if anything slightly below par. It’s fast to be sure, but it’s quirky. On almost every page, it hangs at about 80 percent for a few seconds, and then loads the entire page all at once — I always thought the page was frozen. It also has trouble with fonts or graphically intensive sites (like this one), rendering some typography and styles wrong. An 8-inch screen shouldn’t load mobile sites, either, but the Element does by default. Some of these are Honeycomb problems, but the Element definitely has a below-par Android browser.
The Element is the first US device using a piezo actuator, powered by Immersion Corporation. It adds a bit of haptic feedback to almost everything you do with the Element — it’s designed to make it feel like something’s happening ever time you touch the screen. It’s supposedly more engaging than just staring at a motionless object, but personally I really dislike the effect: it feels as if something’s moving around inside the tablet, almost like a whirring hard drive. Piezoelectricity could be a boon to keyboard functionality — localized feedback could make it almost possible to touch-type on a virtual keyboard — but with this implementation it's no more useful than regular haptic feedback. It’s a little more effective in piezo-optimized games like Grand Theft Auto III, or in Enzo’s Pinball when the Element gently shakes every time you hit the flippers, but for the most part it’s just a jarring reminder that you did something, every time you do something.
LTE and Wi-Fi
AT&T's LTE network is only available in a few select metro areas at the moment, but if you’re in one of them you’re the beneficiary of a super-fast, relatively unburdened network. In midtown Manhattan, I saw speeds consistently around 15Mbps down and 1Mbps up, though they occasionally spiked as high as 20Mbps down and 3Mbps up. Both of those numbers are more than enough for browsing or streaming video, though they're a far cry from the 60Mbps down I got on the LG Nitro HD, when I was one of only a handful of people on the network. Coverage was also impressive — usually LTE reception takes a dive when you’re indoors away from a window, but the Element hung on well. The Element also connects to 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, and always connected quickly and easily, though it wouldn't connect to 5GHz networks.
The Element’s battery life is actually pretty solid, as long as you don’t overuse the LTE network. I wasn’t able to run the Verge Battery Test because the browser crashed each time, but I used it constantly for about three hours — browsing the web, answering emails, and playing a few games — and then streamed the 2 hour, 18 minute-long Shutter Island and a 21-minute episode of 30 Rock over LTE before the battery was dead. In more regular use (and especially if you use Wi-Fi instead of LTE when possible), the battery should easily last a few days.
There’s not a lot to dislike about the Element, but I don’t have a lot of things to love about it either. It’s just an average Honeycomb tablet that won’t die immediately upon being dripped on. Its hardware isn’t on par with a device like the Asus Transformer Prime or the Samsung Galaxy Tab, and even its size and price are awkwardly in no-man’s land: it’s not as portable as a 7-inch slate like the Kindle Fire or the Nook Tablet, or as immersive as a 10-inch device like the iPad. At $299 with contract or $449 without, it’s priced right in the middle as well. If you want a tablet you can place next to your bathtub and watch Netflix without worry, then Pantech’s here for you, but otherwise there’s just nothing exciting about the Element.