There’s no stopping Alcatel’s flood of budget handsets in 2018 and they’re getting cheaper every time. The Alcatel 1 is the most basic model in the firm’s ‘1 Series’, which at the time of writing includes the Alcatel 1 and the Alcatel 1X. Two phones isn’t really a series, so we can probably expect more in the near future. Launching at £70, the Alcatel 1 costs about as much as a decent night out on the town. The question is, would you want to take it with you?
I ask the question, because the Alcatel 1 is an ugly handset, even by budget smartphone standards. The worst part (or the best, if you’re easily amused) is the quiet wheezing sound produced by the Alcatel 1 when you give it a squeeze. This is caused by a gap of air between the case and the removable backing at the rear. At first, it’s hilarious. Then it’s sad. But then it becomes funny all over again.
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Alcatel 1 review: What you need to know
Budget smartphones don’t get much more budget than this. The Alcatel 1, just like the 3V released just before it, houses a supremely low-end MediaTek processor; a MediaTek 6739 quad-core CPU, in this instance. And its 1GB RAM and 8GB storage are paltry, too.
It’s a tiny thing with a 5in 18:9 aspect ratio screen and a low 960 x 480 resolution. It has a removable rear panel and battery, low-quality cameras, and runs Google’s diet-Android OS, Android Go.
Alcatel 1 review: Price and competition
At the time of writing, Alcatel has not set a fixed price for the Alcatel 1. I’ve been told it’s definitely going to be “under £100”, most likely around the £70 mark but that’s not set in stone until the August launch. Provisionally, then, I’m calling it a £70 smartphone.
Surprisingly, it’s not Alcatel’s cheapest smartphone. That honour falls to the Alcatel Pixi 4, which was launched back in 2016 for only £59, a phone you can now pick up for as little as £20 from EE.
As for newer phones, the most likely competition for the Alcatel 1 is the Honor 7S and Vodafone Smart N9. Both are pricier than the Alcatel 1, at £100 and £109, respectively. We were underwhelmed with their benchmark performance, but they both have excellent screens for the money.
Finally, we have the Alcatel 3V. At £90, this phone offers some great features like dual display modes and fingerprint unlock but it has plenty of weaknesses as well.
Alcatel 1 review: Design
The Alcatel 1 is firmly at the smaller, lighter end of the smartphone scale. It measures 138 x 66 x 10 x 138mm (WDH) and it weighs a mere 134g. Comparing it with any 2018 flagship – or even the 6in Alcatel 3V – is like pulling up a tugboat next to the Titanic.
Viewed from the front, the Alcatel 1’s design could be mistaken for a white iPhone 5S. The casing is plastic right the way around, though, so it doesn’t feel anything like it. Alcatel describes the phone’s unibody case as a “premium” design with a “metallic finish”. It’s neither of those things, unfortunately.
The back casing is a scratchy plastic number with a dull, silverish coat. This is, apparently, the Gold model, and the Alcatel 1 also comes in Black or Blue. Unusually, the rear casing is removable. Pop it off and you gain access to the phone’s microSD and dual SIM slots plus its replaceable, 2,000mAh battery.
There are only two buttons on the Alcatel 1: the power button and the volume controls, both on the right-hand side. On the bottom edge, you’ll find a micro USB port, while a 3.5mm headphone jack resides on the top. The tinny in-ear headphones are of Poundland quality, sitting so loosely in the ear that they actually tickle. It’s unclear where in the Alcatel 1’s speaker is actually located; there are no speaker grilles, and the sound seems to float vaguely out of the top of the handset.
At the rear, the lone rear camera and accompanying flash are in the top left-hand corner and there’s no sign of a fingerprint reader. The phone comes boxed with a micro USB charger which is mains only. Frustratingly, Alcatel does not include a micro USB to USB cable, which means you’ll need to source your own if you wish to connect the phone to a computer in order to charge it or transfer files.
Alcatel 1 review: Display
In keeping with the current smartphone design trend, Alcatel has gone for an 18:9 aspect ratio on the Alcatel 1’s 5in display. The display still feels cramped, though, and the on-screen keyboard is more suited to the fingers of a child than an adult. Less effort has been made with the display quality itself, which at 960 x 480 is not even HD. Watching YouTube clips on the Alcatel 1 brings back painful, decade-old memories of the website’s pre-HD era.
The Alcatel 1’s display is also pretty low on quality. In our tests, it produced 71% of the sRGB colour gamut and of those colours only white was accurately replicated. The rest were wildly off the mark: reds, pinks, purples, blues, greens, and grey tones were all a long way from what they should be.
The screen is also dim, reaching a maximum brightness of only 323 cd/m², which means it’s hard to see outdoors. It has terrible viewing angles, too, and a very low contrast ratio of 372:1. The entire screen appears dull, dreary and flat.
Perhaps the screen’s worst trait, though, is that has no oleophobic coating, so it attracts grease and grime at an alarming rate and cleaning it requires real effort. Moreover, it slows down finger movement across the display and responsiveness is poor. You frequently have to push hard into the screen first before moving your finger in order to get it to perform the most basic of touchscreen gestures.
Alcatel 1 review: Performance and battery life
The Alcatel 1 is a £70 phone, so I wasn’t expecting much from the Alcatel 1 in the performance department. In the end, though, I was pleasantly surprised. In the Geekbench benchmark, the phone’s MediaTek 6739 chip achieved a single-core score of 579 and a multi-core result of 1,461.
As demonstrated in the chart above that easily surpasses the Alcatel Pixi 4 from 2016 and it’s also very nearly as fast as the £100 Honor 7S, though really that’s more of a reason to avoid the Honor.
The graphics performance of the Alcatel 1 was harder to read. It completely failed to run the GFX Bench GL off-screen Car Chase benchmark test. We tried multiple times, but it simply couldn’t hack it. The Alcatel 3V, Honor 7S, and Vodafone Smart N9 struggled through it, yes, but at least they ran it. Due to the low screen resolution, the Alcatel 1 actually outdid all four of the comparison phones in the GFX Bench on-screen Manhattan test, running at 8fps. This doesn’t mean it has a better GPU, though.
It’s battery life that really does for the Alcatel 1, though. In our video playback test, the phone went from fully charged to dead in 6hrs 32mins, which means that it’ll struggle to last a day, even with light use.
The fact that the battery is removable means you can extend this quite easily, but buying extra batteries will add to the cost significantly, at which point you might as well buy a better phone.
Alcatel 1 review: Camera
Alcatel has equipped the phone with a 2-megapixel camera on the front and a single 5-megapixel, fixed focus snapper on the rear. Oddly, these produce 5- and 8-megapixel images through automatic “interpolation”, a pointless process that makes no difference at all to quality.
In standard non-HDR mode, images come out as if they’ve been captured with a 1970s lens filter. They’re flat, grainy, and drained of colour – enabling HDR mode doesn’t improve things much. The Alcatel 1’s camera struggles to filter out glare from the sun and on a bright day even HDR images had blurry patches of light in each corner. In low-light indoor conditions, images showed significant amounts of image noise and colour blurring.
Video capture quality, meanwhile, is just as poor. The Alcatel 1 records footage at 1080p and 30fps. It’s unstabilised, so even when filming with a steady hand, the footage looks distractingly shaky. Anything further than 100m away is also drastically blurred, so it’s not well-suited to outdoor video capture.
Alcatel 1 review: Software
The Alcatel 1 stands out from the crowd in one positive way: it’s an Android Go phone. It’s the first phone new Android OS we’ve reviewed and we were keen to put it to the test. Android Go, or Android Oreo: Go Edition, to give it it’s full title, uses smaller, lighter “Go” versions of a core selection of apps to allow cheap smartphones to run more smoothly than they would with regular Android.
Android Go apps pre-installed on the Alcatel 1 include Gmail Go, Maps Go, Assistant Go, and Facebook Lite. Though not available at the moment in the UK, a YouTube Go app is on the way soon that will allow users to download smaller, lower quality video files for offline viewing. You also get Google Assistant, which doesn’t run on regular Android phones with 1GB of RAM.
And, lastly, the Google Play Store will also notify Android Go users of new or recommended apps that have a Lite or Go version. And Go apps also give you control over whether each individual app is allowed to work over cellular or is restricted to Wi-Fi only.
So how much smaller are they? On the Alcatel 1, the regular Maps app takes up 89.5MB, while Maps Go is a mere 375KB. Quite the difference! Functionally, though, the regular and Go versions are quite different. For a start, the ‘Find my location’ feature is less reliable on Maps Go, and the step by step directions breakdown has the look of a much older, more primitive version of Maps. There’s also no ‘Share’ function on Maps Go for forwarding the journey information on to others.
Android Go apps do launch faster than the standard apps – 8 seconds versus 12 seconds when I tested this with Google Maps – but there’s not much, if any, uplift in performance over the regular apps. That said, it’s only through Android Go that demanding apps like Google Assistant are able to work on phones with 1GB RAM.
Android Go certainly seems like a novel way to save storage space and improve launch times on ultra-budget phones like the Alcatel 1, but at the end of the day, it’s no silver bullet. The Alcatel 1 still runs everything terribly, terribly slowly; that’s not a fault of Android Go, but the poor hardware it’s running on.
Alcatel 1 review: Verdict
At the very least, we can say that the Alcatel 1 is unique. It’s a £70 smartphone with CPU speeds of a handset that costs £30 more, it has a removable back and a removable battery and its Android Go OS helps you run a full suite of apps with limited storage. Using it on a day-to-day basis, however, will be a painful experience. The limited RAM means it struggles to multitask, its photo capabilities are woeful and it has a grainy display with terrible viewing angles.
What should you buy then, if not this? It around this price I’d have to say the Alcatel 3V; it’s a good value budget handset with flagship features like a fingerprint reader and face unlock. An extra £19 on top of that could get you the Vodafone Smart N9 for £109 but at nearly £40 more than the Alcatel 1, that’s probably a stretch too far.
The Alcatel 1 launches in the UK in August 2018.
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