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Alcatel One Touch Evolve review: Underpowered phone isn't worth the low cost

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There's no way around it, the Alcatel One Touch Evolve is cheap — both in price and specs. At $99 all-in, it's a bargain smartphone that has a sleek design, but it's held back by an old version of Android, a dim screen, and a lousy fixed-focus camera.

Allcatel_One_Touch_Evolve_35828164-0980.jpg
5.7

Alcatel One Touch Evolve

Pricing Not Available

The Good

The <b>Alcatel One Touch Evolve</b> has impressive call quality and it's one of the lowest-priced phones on T-Mobile.

The Bad

The phone lacks 4G support, has a slow processor, and the screen is fuzzy and dim.

The Bottom Line

At $99, the Alcatel One Touch Evolve is an affordable Android phone, but its dismal performance makes it not even worth that price.

The Evolve, along with the $139 One Touch Fierce, is part of the Alcatel's efforts to bring entry-level budget smartphones to top-tier carriers in the US, something the company hasn't done before. Though the Evolve is a budget device, and I'd expect lower-end specs and features for its price, its poor performance means I still can't recommend it. For a little more money and a lot more performance, look at the LG Optimus F3 or the Nokia Lumia 520/521, three budget phones that are worth the money.

The wallet-friendly Alcatel One Touch Evolve (pictures)

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Design
Despite its budget price, the all-black Evolve doesn't look particularly cheap. Compared with the shiny design on the Fierce, this model looks understated with its soft-touch matte back cover and silver accents. There's also a shiny dark detail around the edge, near the screen, which helps elevate the design.

Unfortunately that high-end veneer disappears once you pick it up, because I could feel the back cover move around when I even gently grasped the sides of the device. Though the back cover feels soft in my hands, the phone itself feels boxy.

The Evolve has a soft-touch matte black design on the back. Josh Miller/CNET

Measuring just 4.7 inches tall, 2.5 wide, and 0.4 inch wide, the Evolve is small enough to use one-handed without straining to tap any part of the screen. My everyday phone is a much larger phablet, so it feels tiny in my hands, which is a welcome change. It's also heavy for its size at 4.7 ounces, though that didn't bother me.

Up top you'll find the standard power/lock button and a headphone jack, along the right side there's a volume rocker. Unlike most Android phones that have the charging ports at the bottom, the port is on the left side here. That makes the phone awkward to hold in your left hand while its charging.

The headphone jack and power button. Josh Miller/CNET

On the back, there's a removable battery that covers the SIM and SD card slots. It's a pain to have to remove the battery just to swap in a SD card, which can add up to 32GB of extra storage to supplement the 4GB that's built-in.

Instead of physical buttons, the phone has capacitive hot keys, housed on the bezel below the screen, for the home, back, and menu controls. The only way to tell which button is which is to tap somewhere on that bottom bezel to turn on the backlight, which illuminates the outlines of each hot key.

With only 233 pixels per inch, it's no surprise that the 4-inch 480x800-pixel screen doesn't look sharp, though I was disappointed by how dim it looks even at maximum brightness. Icons, especially the ones designed by Alcatel, look fuzzy, but medium- to large-size text is easy to read. This display supports 16 million colors, and the colors of the icons and wallpapers on the screen look saturated.

The 4-inch screen looks dim and is hard to read in sunlight. Josh Miller/CNET

Because the screen itself is highly reflective, it's tough to read in full sunlight. It also collects a lot of smudges, which makes hard to read the screen clearly. You'll want to keep a cleaning cloth handy so you can wipe it down often.

Operating system and features
The Evolve comes with Android Jelly Bean 4.1, which isn't the most recent version of the operating system. However, unless you're very well acquainted with the OS already, you probably won't spot too many differences between 4.1 and the most current version, Android Jelly Bean 4.3.

You will, however, notice Alcatel's custom Android overlay, which has colorful menus and square-shaped icons. Swipe down from the top of screen to reveal the custom notification menu, which has a row of settings where you can toggle Wi-Fi, sound, Bluetooth and more.

Alcatel's modifications remind me of Samsung's TouchWiz overlay, which is too juvenile for my tastes, but the simplistic design here will appeal to anyone who needs a little extra guidance.

Alcatel One Touch Evolve
Alcatel's custom notifications menu (left) and the stock messaging app. Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

All of the standard Google Android apps, such as Gmail, YouTube, and Google+ are preinstalled, and Alcatel opted to use Google Chrome as the default browser instead of the stock Android browser. That's a plus for me, as Google's Chrome is my top-pick mobile browser because you can sync your open tabs to your computer or tablet.

From Alcatel, there is a notes app, a movie studio that lets you edit video, and a special setup wizard that walks you through setting up your phone's language and basic settings, such as WiFi or e-mail. T-Mobile also added its suite of four apps, including Visual Voice-mail and T-Mobile TV. In order to use T-Mobile TV, Visual Voicemail, and Mobile Hotspot, you'll need to pay an extra subscription fee, thought the TV and voice mail apps both have free trials.

The gesture-based keyboard Swype is preinstalled and set as the default keyboard. If you're not familiar, Swype lets you move your finger from letter to letter to input text, instead of tapping on the screen. The keyboard was more exciting several years ago, but now gesture typing is more widespread and is available on the stock Android browser and other apps like Swiftkey.

Camera and video
The Evolve has a 5-megapixel back camera. My major knock against it is that it has a fixed-focus lens, which limits what kinds of photos you can capture.

The 5-megapixel camera has a fixed focus lens that can't take sharp up-close pictures. Josh Miller/CNET

It's because of that fixed focus lens that you can't take sharp up-close photos with this camera. If you tap on the screen while the camera is on, which on most smartphone cameras focuses the lens on that area, it will simply adjust the lighting. There is also no flash, so you'll have to tweak the camera's ISO and exposure levels to compensate for poor lighting conditions.

Indoor shots with a lot of natural light had significant digital noise and there was a glowing halo-like effect over anything that was white. In the standard studio shot, the photo again has noise and looks dark in places. CNET's image gallery shows how other phones handle the studio shot test.

Outdoor shots were a mixed bag; some photos looked natural, while others looked washed out.

In this close-up shot, the camera's fixed focus lens couldn't focus on the mug in the foreground. Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Alcatel included a few extra camera features, like continuous shot (also known as burst mode for capturing many pictures at once) and smile detection. These, along with panorama mode and facial-detection technology, help make the camera more useful.

Smile detection can tell if your subject is smiling and will snap the photo when they do — you don't even need to press the shutter. In my testing the camera did a great job of ignoring other facial expressions and only reacting to smiles. The portrait shots I took looked sharp, though a bit dark, even in bright indoor lighting conditions.

Alcatel One Touch Evolve
In this indoor shot, there is noise on the couch and carpet. The CNET logo also looks like it's glowing. Sarah Mitroff/CNET

The back camera captures video in 720p and the videos I shot played well on the phone's screen and my computer, with no pixelation or choppiness. It also easily picked up my voice indoors, though it sounded distorted. The video suffered from the same washed-out lighting issues as the still shots.

In this standard studio shot, colors look muted and half of the photo looks dark. Josh Miller/CNET

Streaming video from YouTube looked worse than recorded video, even when playing YouTube's high-quality video over a fast WiFi connection.

There's also a front-facing VGA camera, which has even more digital noise that the back camera and made me look either completed washed out or remarkably dark, depending on the lighting. It also doesn't have any of the special features I mentioned earlier that the 5-megapixel camera has.

Call quality
Alcatel's One Touch Evolve (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) is available on T-Mobile's network in the US. I tested it using the network in San Francisco.

Call quality was impressive and clear, though the phone's earpiece and speaker made audio sound flat and muffled.

My main testing partner said my voice sounded clear and crisp, both when I held the Evolve to my ear and used the speakerphone. On my end, her voice was flat, but there was no background noise, static, or dropped words. On speakerphone, my tester's voice sounded muffled, like I was holding my hand over the speaker even though I wasn't.

One Touch Evolve call quality sample Listen now:

Performance
I used the Evolve on T-Mobile's network in San Francisco, one of the regions that has 4G LTE. However, this phone only supports 3G, which means apps will take typically several minutes to download and Web pages won't load quickly.

Alcatel One Touch Evolve
Average 3G download speed 1.3 Mbps
Average 3G upload speed 0.6 Mbps
App download (Temple Run 2) 35MB in 4 minutes and 19 seconds
CNET mobile site load 8.7 seconds
CNET desktop site load 21 seconds
Restart time 44 seconds
Camera boot time 3 seconds

The 1GHz processor also slows things down. There was also often a lag between when I selected something on the screen and when the phone carried out my request, especially if I was running two processes at once, such as downloading an app and reading an e-mail.

The Evolve plays mobile games like Temple Run 2 without freezing or slowing down, though the graphics didn't look sharp. The gameplay also didn't feel as responsive as it is on other handsets.

Behind the back cover, there is the removable battery. You need to remove it to get to the SD and SIM card slots. Josh Miller/CNET

In our official battery lab test, the 1,400mAh battery lasted for just over three and a half hours while playing video continiously. In my real-world tests, the phone stayed alive during a full day of making a few phone calls, checking email, and playing a game.

According to FCC radiation measurements, the Evolve has a digital SAR rating of 1.49W/kg.

Conclusion
There is nothing evolved about the Alcatel One Touch Evolve. That's largely due to the fact that Alcatel had to make trade-offs when making this entry-level budget phone, and couldn't include the newest and best specs. For its price, I wasn't expecting a quad-core processor, outstanding camera, or brilliant screen, but the lack of 4G support and the fixed focus camera are deal breakers.

The only worthwhile feature of this device is its bargain-basement price, $99 off contract or $28 down and $3 monthly payments for two years, making it the one of the cheapest phones on T-Mobile, as of October 2013. But even with that low price tag, it's still a disappointing device thanks its old version of Android, fixed focus camera that can only take decent shots outdoors with sufficient light, and slow performance that anyone, not just someone who reviews phones for a living, can notice. For those reasons, I don't recommend it.

At the moment, there are no other Android phones at the $100 level that I can recommend, including the One Touch Fierce. If your heart is set on Android, you're a T-Mobile customer, and you can scrape together another $100, look at the LG Optimus F3 for $200 all-in. You'll get a faster processor, LTE, and a better camera. The Optimus F3 is also available on MetroPCS, which T-Mobile now owns, for only $50 more than the Evolve.

An alternative budget phone is the Nokia Lumia 521, which is running Windows Phone 8 and bests the Evolve with a nicer camera and 4G support. It's only $140 off contract with T-Mobile ($40 more expensive than the Evolve).

Allcatel_One_Touch_Evolve_35828164-0980.jpg
5.7

Alcatel One Touch Evolve

Pricing Not Available

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 5Performance 6