Alcatel One Touch 990 £100
31st Oct 2011 | 16:23
Will this budget phone be the new king of cheap Android phones?
Overview, design and feel
Some phones are all about power; others affordability. Alcatel's One Touch 990 (or OT-990) falls firmly into the latter category, as you'd expect given the company's reputation as a purveyor of budget phones.
So the question we're asking here isn't what exciting tech helps this rival Samsung's Galaxy S2, HTC's Sensation, Sony Ericsson's Xperia Arc, or any of the other powerhouses in our 20 best mobile phones list.
Rather we're concerned with whether it's money well spent. Especially when the world contains the likes of Orange's budget titan, the San Francisco. If you read our review of it, you'll know we lost our heart to that phone because of its amazing competence given its paltry cost.
Other rivals worth bearing in mind are the INQ Cloud Touch, which excels at social networking, and the LG Optimus One, but although they're not much more expensive, your budgetary concerns will clearly hold sway.
Speaking of the bank balance, at the time of writing the Alcatel One Touch 990 costs £99.99 on Pay As You Go from the O2 website. Monthly contract options weren't confirmed, but we wouldn't expect them to be too expensive. Also worthy of note is that the phone is exclusive to the O2 network in the UK.
So, what are you getting for that £100 outlay? Well, the Alcatel's spec list is respectable enough, with a 600MHz processor, Android 2.2 (expected to be upgraded to 2.3 in the future), 5MP rear camera and a 3.5-inch touchscreen.
A 2GB microSD card is supplied, but the phone can take up to a 32GB card, and there's a front-facing camera for video calls. Connectivity options include 3.0 A2DP Bluetooth, HSDPA 3G and GSM 2G. In short, the overall package is solid for the outlay.
Also solid but rather more exciting is the chassis, which is pretty impressive. Yes, it falls into the generic "glossy, flattened tech lozenge" group, but that's precisely the point: it looks like smartphones double or even treble the price. It's smart, functional and black – very black. The rear plate stamps some personality on the phone, though, throwing a monochromatic black-grey weave into the mix.
If you prefer, there's a second back cover in the box, which features some colourful splodges on a grey background. It's less tidy looking than the weave, but it's our personal favourite, which probably tells psychiatrists more than we'd really like them to know. (For all you Rorschach experts, we see a flower surrounded by butterflies.)
Lever open the back casing and you'll find the 1,300mAh battery, and underneath that are the slots for your SIM and microSD card.
Size-wise, the One Touch 990 isn't titchy, measuring 116mm tall and 62.2mm wide. It sits assuredly in the palm, although it's noticeably heftier than some similarly-sized models we've held, tipping our scales at 148g. It's a bit plasticky, too.
Most of the front's real estate is occupied by that 3.5-inch TFT capacitive touchscreen, which is more than passably bright and pretty clear indoors. However, it does struggle to punch through the reflections of its glossy coating when it's sunny out, even on the highest brightness settings.
The display resolution is good, but you will definitely notice the difference in clarity between this and a Retina display-esque screen.
Beneath it sit Menu, Search and Back touchscreen buttons, plus a physical Home key. There's a volume rocker on the right-hand edge, and the power/sleep control on the left-hand side.
The latter is placed rather awkwardly far down towards the lower extremities of the Alcatel One Touch 990, which stops you nudging it accidentally when held in your left palm, but also requires a fairly major thumb stretch to reach. Seriously, it's like doing hand yoga. Also, we noted that it's then all too easy to hit while holding the phone on its side like a camera. It's not a game-breaking design gaffe, but we found it needlessly fiddly.
The Home key is pleasingly rounded, though, making it easy to find even in the dark, and the volume rocker is nicely clicky and tactile, which we love.
Aside from the physical inputs, there's a micro-USB port and 3.5mm headphone jack socket on the very top of the phone. A speaker sits alongside the camera in an island that protrudes from the cover on the back, and that's about it.
The hardware's all functional, prettier than we have any right to expect and mostly really good. It has limitations, sure, but none that we haven't encountered on phones demanding a far bigger chunk of your change.
Ask yourself this question: do you like stock Android? Because you'll be getting a fair amount of it with the Alcatel One Touch 990. That's hardly a bad thing, since Google's mobile operating system in 2.2 (Froyo) trim is assured and pleasing to use.
All the regular good stuff is packed in here, including but not limited to an array of home screens for storing the many apps and widgets you have access to, a simple menu system and a comprehensive selection of settings that enables you to customise the phone to a high degree. It's smooth, it works and it's eminently usable.
One thing that Alcatel has changed for the One Touch 990, however, is the on-screen menu at the bottom of the screen, sticking a phone shortcut on the far-left menu key in the centre and messaging icon of the far-right. We reckon this selection of shortcuts is a sensible choice for minimising the time users new to smartphones will need to get the basics down.
But the placement of the icons themselves is less than ideal. Why? Because while you can swipe between the five home screens on offer by default, pressing the little dots to switch between screens suddenly becomes a hit and miss affair. And when you miss, you end up in the dialler or messaging apps.
We're quibbling, though – swiping works just fine, and you can opt to long-press the menu to jump to any one of your screens. There are plenty of workarounds, and we doubt you'd even notice if you're not in the habit of navigating via the dots.
You can also opt to add or lose an extra two home screens to have either seven or three, depending on what you find most manageable.
In terms of prettifying your Alcatel One Touch 990 experience, there's the usual assortment of supplied wallpaper shots, the chance to use photos of your own and a selection of live wallpapers. There are some themes to skin your widgets as well. If what's on offer isn't to your liking, there's plenty more in the Android Market. After all, this is Android – it's nothing if not customisable.
What the Alcatel One Touch 990 doesn't let you do is save configuration profiles, so you can't easily flip between work and personal setups, for example. Stick that bikini model or Twilight star as your background and you'll have to make your peace with the whole world (or at least everyone in the office) knowing you like to spend your days gazing dreamily at Edward Cullen.
We tend to go for a one-size-fits-all approach anyway, so user-generated profiles are a nice touch we can definitely live without, but your mileage may vary.
Finally, the array of widgets on offer by default will be familiar to Android devotees. All the usuals are present – weather, clocks, the search bar and the like.
The only really notable inclusion is the Twidroyd widget, which enables you to absorb Twitter content from those you're following and upload your thoughts to the microblogging service. Its implementation here follows the "simple but effective" trend that we're quickly discovering.
Contacts and calling
You may have noticed the Alcatel One Touch 990's mixed-bag nature by now – outperforming our expectations in some areas and occasionally dropping a minor clanker that hints at the budget price tag attached. Well, here's the part where we get to wax lyrical about the Alcatel One Touch 990's virtues: it's a more than decent phone.
The dialler is clean, functional and well organised. There's a tab for typing in manual numbers, plus one each for your call log, contacts book and favourites. While you can't type to search your contacts list, there is a handy tab on the left-hand side of the screen for zipping through to what you need, and the phone also displays the starting letter of your current section of contacts as you go.
It never took us more than a few seconds to find what we wanted, and we've accumulated a fair number of contacts over the decade or more that we've been using mobile phones (not that we ever call half of them).
Favourites make the situation even easier, as long as you're sparing with them. Our 10 most often-called contacts lived happily in there, ready to be summoned with a finger press when required.
When a connection was established, we did find the speaker volume a little quiet and the quality slightly muzzier than some phones we've cradled next to our ear canals, but it held a connection well and was more than intelligible. It's the difference between a brand new wine glass and one that's been through the dishwasher a few times – less obviously crystalline clear, but still ably fit for purpose.
Importing contacts proved easy, too. All we had to do was supply our Google account details and they were synced in a matter of minutes. If you're not as deeply tied into Google, you can also opt to import contacts from your SIM and SD card, each of which also worked fine.
Alternatively, you can choose to sync up Facebook and corporate accounts, enabling them to flood your contacts list and more. It's every inch the experience you'd hope for.
Messaging on the Alcatel One Touch 990 proves just as pleasing as calling. The keyboard on our test model for both the Messaging and Email/Gmail apps is the stock Android one, and it's a comfortable and competent companion to our typing needs.
While good use is made of the screen's real estate in portrait mode, we far prefer the less cramped typing experience you get from turning to landscape orientation.
On opening up your text message inbox, you'll see your threads, with a handy count of the current conversation's messages and a bit of summary from the last message you sent or received to help you orientate yourself. We particularly like that you can click the contact image next to an entry to ring them or see their contact card as well. Enter into a thread and the presentation is basic, but it does the job well.
Email's just as good. Setting up an email account in the Email app is as simple as following the handy wizard you're presented with on starting up, and there are settings for several popular kinds of email provider, including Hotmail, AOL, O2, Gmail, Sky and many more. If none of these suffices, there's an Other option you can use as well.
With an account or accounts hooked up, you'll see your combined inbox in list form for perusal, with images not loaded by default but available on request.
Composing a message is as easy as hitting the Menu key, tapping Compose and then filling out the relevant fields.
And the story continues in much the same vein for Gmail too – its implementation is as pleasing and user-friendly as you'd want it to be. In short, for handling text-based messages, the Alcatel One Touch 990 leaves very little to be desired, bar perhaps some aesthetic polish. If you're a big texter or want confident on-the-go email capabilities and don't mind typing on touchscreen smartphones, we doubt you'll be disappointed.
With a 600MHz processor on the Alcatel One Touch 990, we were expecting decent but less than lightning-quick browsing. In this regard, it lived up to our expectations completely.
Pages load quickly enough, images look good on the Alcatel One Touch 990's screen and embedded video use was really great. But on our heavier test sites, there was occasionally noticeable lag between your actions and their results when you're scrolling around pages.
At all times, we also found text movement slightly jerky and stilted, rather than truly fluid, but that's bearable in a budget smartphone.
Zooming in to read text is fine – double tap to zoom in or tap the handy on-screen zoom keys and then wait a short moment for the phone to reflow the text to suit.
However, when it comes to flicking a finger to scroll text, it can be a totally different matter. It's intermittent, but when you experience the half-second or so pause between flick and action, the whole affair quickly becomes a jarring, uncomfortable experience.
Before you assume we've been totally spoilt by flashier smartphones, let us explain. The reason the pause is bad is because you're not expecting it. We found ourselves overcompensating and then overshooting where we wanted to be. Going back meant another flick and another wait. Sometimes, the whole page seems to take a quantum leap forward from a small gesture too – we don't know why.
These moments really killed the intuitive nature of the interaction for us, so thankfully they weren't super common.
That said, it's not by any means awfully broken, and we soon learned to live with it, dragging our finger with exaggerated care when we noticed the behaviour begin.
It's not all doom and gloom, though. Window management is pleasingly simple – zoom out far enough with a two-finger flick and you'll see all your current windows displayed, available to scroll between and select with a tap.
Bookmarking is easy too, as is sharing a page, with a dedicated option in the More section of the menu.
For all that, the final nail for some will be the total lack of Flash support. We could bang on about it, but the upshot is that if Flash sites are important to you, you'll need to look elsewhere.
You get two cameras on the Alcatel One Touch 990: a front-facing one and a 5MP effort on the rear. While the former's good enough for a quick mug shot, the back one's really where the action's happening.
But just a simple figure is not an indication of quality – how does that 5MP snapper account for itself? Well, sadly this is an area where the Alcatel One Touch 990 is a letdown.
When it comes to actually snapping your shots, you have plenty of options: a 1x to 3.9x digital zoom, several white balance settings, a flash mode using the light on the rear of the Alcatel One Touch 990, the ability to store location data for your photos and tweak the usual exposure and ISO settings.
But as the results below bear out, the Alcatel One Touch 990s shots can be lacking in sharpness, and it struggles to deal with shadowy regions and suffers from colour casts.
(Click on any picture to see the full resolution version)
FLAT:At wide zoom and using auto white balance on a sunny day, skies were washed out, and slightly shadowy regions appear far darker than to the eye. The reds here lack the punch we see in the real world, too.
NOISY:Zooming in to the maximum 3.9x setting results in a muzzy, noisy picture that, despite lacking an expanse of sky to throw off the camera, is still far too dark.
CLOSE-UP:In this close-up, detail is reproduced well, but there's a definite purple tinge to the shot.
RED: We thought it might be the gathering clouds, so adjusted the white balance setting to match. That just turned our images red. Unfortunately, we couldn't really make this out on the phone's screen.
CLIPPING: Thinking we had the white balance sussed, we took a picture of this red brick building. The detail's not too bad, although again you'll see a lot of sky clipping going on.
LANDSCAPE:Here's a (sadly red-tinged) panorama. Once again the sharpness and detail we'd hope for were lacking.
Video footage using the default settings on the Alcatel One Touch 990 proved even more disappointing than the stills camera. Check out the pixilation on the grass and the river in our test clip. Colours also seem washed out, and transitions from light to dark aren't superb either.
The sound is the only part that we can really find kind words for, capturing our disbelieving exclamation well.
It's worth noting that you have a plethora of video quality options, including WVGA, VGA, CIF, QVGA and QCIF, plus a choice of encoders, but we're not sure that the hardware can make real use of them.
Entertainment-wise, there's enough to keep you busy on the Alcatel One Touch 990, with Music, Radio, Video and YouTube apps to delight your eyes and ears. At least, that's the principle – how does it fare?
The default Music player, while subtly different from many we've used, is a rudimentary but competent enough affair that just about gets the basics down and leaves it there. You can view your music by album, artist and song, picking tracks to play with the press of a finger.
Playlist management is less capable than we'd like, though. You have to long-press songs or albums to find an option to add them to a playlist, or save your current selection as a whole. After that, tweaking requires you to delve into the playlist (via the playlist tab) to remove songs one at a time – there's no option for batch selection.
The lack of an EQ or sound profiles grates too, but as ever, if you find the default app too uninspiring, there are plenty of alternatives in the Android Market.
What was good was the built-in speaker, which although definitely trebly, produced a clean sound that wasn't like the wasp in a tin can-like tones of many portable devices we've heard. Sticking some nice Sennheiser headphones in the top socket proved the Alcatel One Touch 990 can grunt out some decent quality sound that way, too.
It's not a treat for audiophiles or anything, but the hardware is pretty great for everyday use. Just pair it up with the right software and you're good to go.
The video player follows a similar theme as the Music app, being pretty much the definition of about sufficient. It performs capably enough when things are slow, but fast camera moves and quick transitions aren't exactly easy on the eyes, with the phone struggling to keep up with the action. Even quick hand movements seemed to blur more than they really should. It's also a bit slow to load.
Colours were good, though, with reasonable punch, and the simple controls proved more than capable for scrubbing through clips and so on.
And the FM Radio, while basic, was quick to set up and simple to use. It does mean sticking in the earphones provided with the phone, though, which are chunky, very plasticky and less than downy soft in your ear. If you can find a decent replacement pair that also act as an aerial, though, then you'll find listening to the radio a pleasing experience.
The YouTube app performs as capably as it has elsewhere, without any of the lag we encountered with the web browsing.
With a 1300mAh battery powering the Alcatel One Touch 990, we weren't expecting days on end of use from this Android smartphone. Nonetheless, we have to say we found the battery life on the poor side.
Let's qualify that a bit: you can go for about a day and a half with moderate use - browsing, listening to music and whatnot - if you haven't got the various data services enabled. What you can't do is use services such as AccuWeather or Twidroyd and expect to get more than a day out of the phone between charges.
We're not talking heavy, extravagant use here either – on one of our test days, we did just a little web browsing and made nine minutes of calls, and our battery was flat before the next morning.
A bout of thrashing the battery seems to indicate that the problem lies with an inability to manage the power consumption of certain tasks when the phone's on standby.
One thing you can do is use the Battery Saver app to kill off power-munching tasks before putting the phone to sleep, but that's a fiddle.
Still, many modern smartphones are similarly power hungry, so it's not a major downer. Just make sure you take the charge cable with you when you're travelling around.
Maps and apps
As is usual with modern smartphones, there are an awful lot of apps packed into the Alcatel One Touch 990. Being an Android phone, there's the usual slew of Google's offerings including Calendar, Latitude, Places, Talk and Navigation (in beta).
Google Maps was seriously impressive, getting a satellite lock in mere moments, then scrolling, rescaling and fishing out directions from the ether with alacrity. This makes it an eminently usable tool, rather than a last-ditch resort, although do be aware of eating into your battery life.
If you're keen to track your data use and talk time (which is especially handy if you're working with contract limits), there's a handy Traffic Manager app.
This displays a general overview of your usage stats and a breakdown of per-app data use.
The Notes app is a handy way of keeping lists or jotting down thoughts, although it's light on options for sorting what you store, so you'll have to be ruthless with keeping it manageable.
Having both News And Weather and AccuWeather apps on the phone by default seems mildly redundant, but both do their jobs reasonably well, serving up meteorological information with at least three day's worth of general forecasting. The former also serves up a list of headlines aggregated from across the web, which is good for catching up with events over your morning cup of coffee.
At the other end of the day, you might need the LED torch to help you see your keys in the dark, and it fulfils this function just fine. We wouldn't go for a night walk around a forest with it or anything, though.
Calendar does a decent job of keeping your life in order, and can be synced with your Google account to help keep your schedule unified.
And if you want to get some Office tasks done on your phone, you'll find OfficeSuite ready and waiting for you. That's assuming all you want to do is read documents, mind – you'll have to upgrade to a Pro account to actually create and edit them.
The final app of real note is the Android Manager, which is the solution that Alcatel employs for transferring files to and from the phone as a partner to mounting your SD card with the USB cable provided.
We found the computer client it requires to pair with a little fiddly to get set up and synced with the app using the not-very-clear instructions provided (although being early to the party may have hampered us in this, and it could be much smoother by the time the phone hits shelves).
Nonetheless, it worked well once up and running, and saves having to mess about with drivers, proprietary suites and all that jazz.
And of course, being an Android smartphone, more apps are available to download from the Android Market.
Hands on gallery
The Alcatel One Touch 990 is an intriguing proposition for those looking for a good budget smartphone. Some parts of it are way better than we have any right to expect for a cheap Android phone, and most of the rest of the time it's reliable fare. But there are a couple of areas we'd really like to see improved too, such as the video capture and power management.
The look is really good. It's not at Apple iPhone 4S levels of attractiveness, but you'd be hard pressed to tell this wasn't a £200-plus model. It goes to show that budget doesn't have to equal fugly.
It's Android done well. If you dig Google's mobile operating system, you'll have plenty of it to enjoy. No cheap layers get in the way of the experience, and it's smooth in operation the vast majority of the time.
It's a good phone, and gets the basics right – messaging and calling are both easy and generally pleasurable.
It's a good all-rounder smartphone. Despite its foibles, web browsing is OK, there's plenty of potential for media use and the provided apps are a solid foundation to get your Android journey underway. When you want to expand on that, there's always the Android Market ready and waiting.
And, of course, how can you not like the price?
Unless you're careful, the Alcatel One Touch 990 will need regular charging, because it doesn't always manage its power use well on standby. We don't want to have to micromanage our phone's power.
Web browsing has a few disappointing input lag issues with scrolling on image- and video-heavy sites. There's no Flash support either.
The camera's not great and video capture is downright shoddy, with mushy quality and washed-out colours.
There's loads that shines on the Alcatel One Touch 990 and little that leaves a bitter taste in our mouths, which is a real win for a budget Android smartphone with few obvious concessions to its price.
You can certainly get more feature-packed phones if you're willing to part with extra cash, but if you're keen to keep costs low and enjoy many of the advantages of a modern smartphone, you wouldn't be going far wrong by putting your money into this. It doesn't quite top the Orange San Francisco for us, but it's worthy to join the high-class, low-budget crowd.