While QWERTY keyboards usually crop up on true-blue smartphones that also carry buckets of other extraneous features aboard, AT&T has recently tried to push full keyboards to the lower-end of the segment with an array of three new QWERTY handsets under $100. The Pantech Matrix, priced at $80, matches the likes of a real smartphone with a QWERTY keyboard and3G Internet access, but keeps the rest of the feature load light. Unfortunately, if you’re looking to take full advantage its speedy 3G Internet access, that feature set ends up being a little too light.
Features and Design
Like Pantech’s earlier Duo, the Matrix gets two slide-out sections: a QWERTY keyboard that pops out the side and a number pad that slips out from the bottom. While this makes dialing easier, it also adds quite a bit of heft to the phone, thickening it to .78 inches deep. Other dimensions are fairly standard: an easily pocketable four inches tall and two wide.
Besides its dual keyboards, Pantech advertises the phone’s stereo Bluetooth profiles, 1.3-megapixel camera, video recording, and media player. AT&T also includes a handful of carrier extras, such as its Navigator service, Mobile Music, and MEdia Net.
Use and Testing
One of the first things we noticed about the Matrix after firing it up was its subpar display quality. Pantech must have scored a great deal on these screens from a surplus shipment left over from 2002, because that’s exactly what they look like. The lack of color range produced choppy gradients, the low resolution made text look choppy and graphics look pixilated, and there was a subtle “screen door effect,” in which the tiny grid between pixels is visible. Superior brightness helps mask some of these flaws, but in general, it’s not a pretty or refined-look display.
Like the Matrix’s primitive screen, the operating system on the phone hearkens to an earlier time. From the crudely animated icons for different options to the generic bleeps it bleats out as you scroll through them, the interface felt familiar, but a bit crusty around the edges, too. Seasoned cell phone users should have no problem adapting to its D-pad navigation and list-based menus, but anyone looking for any hint of a smartphone should move on.
More specifically, the Matrix’s Web browser is stuck in a time when checking the weather and getting stock quotes from a phone was still considering cutting edge stuff. Yes, the Matrix has a broadband 3G connection and the technical capability to open ordinary HTML pages like a real browser, but the time spent getting there with its clunky browser and slow processor will put you asleep. After plugging in DigitalTrends.com, for instance, it took 40 seconds to even load enough of the front page to display parts of it on screen, and another 30 seconds before it had actually finished loading everything. And of course, even after getting there, you’ll still have to navigate an unscaled HTML page in a miniscule box using a D-pad. AT&T’s network may be up to the task of feeding this phone a five-course meal of data, but you’ll still feel like Grandpa without his dentures trying to actually consume it all with such an antiquated browser.
Consuming preformatted video and other content from AT&T’s MEdia Net fares a little better, but even then, the small screen size makes reading text a very slow, clicky affair, and watching video a novelty at best. AT&T’s mobile e-mail client also measured up short, with no support for sending pictures from the camera as attachments, and more glaringly, no support for Gmail.
As a phone, the Matrix does what it needs to do, and does it fairly well. The slider for the key pad feels sturdy and smooth, dialing is easy even if the keys don’t have much feel to them, and sound quality is average. Reception and battery life were both highlights: our Matrix seemed to hang onto 3G coverage and get strong signal no matter where we went, and after burying it in a storage closet for a week, after usage, we were amazed when it still came out with battery life. Pantech’s estimate of three hours of talk time and 10 days of standby seems realistic.
For its relatively modest 1.3-megapixel resolution, the camera on the Matrix performs quite well in a variety of conditions. Our photos had a bit of the requisite digital noise in darker shots, but we liked how accurately the camera seemed to capture color. We credit the easily navigable options menu for the camera, which is far more robust than what you might find on others in the same price range. It allows you to adjust for different lighting conditions, compensate for brightness, choose different effects (such as sepia tone) and even set a timer for self shots. You won’t find quite enough options to confuse a first-time user, but you’ll find enough to make the best of your shots with manual tweaking, which struck us as an ideal middle ground.
Though the Matrix’s slide-out QWERTY keyboard does distinguish it from similar-priced phones that offer only numeric keypads, it ranks very low as far as QWERTY boards go. The two halves of the phone only slide apart about an inch, compressing the actual keys into a space only about three quarters of an inch tall. Those little keys mean you’ll mainly be typing with your fingernails to get precise key presses, compared to phones like the T-Mobile Sidekick or G1 that actually offer generous enough keyboard to accommodate the full fingertip. The hard, gel-coat keys fell short on tactile feedback, too. It’s certainly a better solution for texting than a traditional number pad, but don’t expect to want to tap out much more than short messages.
The main buttons on the face of the phone fair no better, getting clustered unnecessary close together at the bottom of the phone and demanding fingernail operation. We might understand if the length of the phone demanded tiny controls, or a giant screen sopped up all the extra space, but Pantech wasted at least half an inch of the phone’s length making room for Pantech and AT&T logos. Apply that space to a larger set of controls, and you turn a bathroom into a living room, in terms of comfort.
The Matrix’s $80 price tag makes it hard to knock this phone for what it is. For heavy text messagers choosing between a standard phone with a numeric keypad and the Matrix, its QWERTY keyboard, though not perfect, is still a major plus. And the phone is certainly competent for voice, too. But the dubious implementation of its 3G data capabilities makes us caution potential buyers against getting roped into a MEdia Net data plan that looks a lot more useful on paper than on the Matrix’s limited hardware. Before buying, make sure to investigate AT&T’s other affordable QWERTY phones, like the Slate, Quickfire, and Propel.
• QWERTY keyboard
• Battery life
• Tiny controls
• Low-res display
• Slow browser