Alcatel OneTouch Watch review: Good looks and decent battery life don't always make a great watch
What makes a good smartwatch? Having a great battery life, surely. Being useful, definitely. Being attractive, maybe being no-fuss and somewhat fun to use. It's a tough combination to hit, and that's why there aren't any perfect smartwatches yet.
Alcatel's OneTouch Watch brings a few really good ideas to the table: it's affordable (priced at $150 or €99; an equivalent of £98 and AU$186). It's water-resistant, reasonably. Its battery lasts several days. It works with both iPhones and Android phones (iOS 7 and Android 4.3 and later). And, best of all, it doesn't have a separate charger: it has USB in its band. I'd love to see other watches try these ideas out.
It could have been a killer combo, if the watch was great. It isn't. I've been wearing one for a handful of days, and it ends up feeling like...well, a budget smartwatch. I wanted to love it more. The OneTouch may not end up touching a lot of people, but its heart is in the right place.
To most people, the round Alcatel OneTouch will look like one of the many circular-faced Android Wear watches to have come down the chute, including the Moto 360 and the LG G Watch R . Alcatel will offer both rubber and metal straps, but they're not replaceable. My review model had a rubberized sport band: attractive next to the metal body and glass-covered face.
The watch runs its own software but has three interchangeable watch faces: two round analog-style ones and one digital. The black-and-white design works well with the hour markers permanently placed around the outer dial, and the Alcatel phone app lets you change background wallpapers to different colors, preset patterns, or any photo you'd like.
The band is a little hard to put on: it's stiff, mostly because it also houses a flip-out USB port on the edge of the band's tip. It took me a while to figure out how to pre-adjust the metal clasp down the band, fit it on my wrist, snap it tight and get that USB tip to fold in nicely. The stiffness on my wrist wasn't awful, but it didn't feel loose and comfy. For its price, it cuts a sharp profile.
No one may know you're not wearing Android Wear, even if you do. The round LCD display has the same "flat tire" cutout on the bottom as the Moto 360, so it isn't fully round.
The OneTouch runs its own operating system; neither Android Wear or anything else. Tap on the screen, and there's a colorful grid of apps and features. Stopwatch, weather, timer and controls like screen brightness and airplane mode. It's hard to tell what icon does what: they're not always intuitive. You can check a fitness app, start a timed workout, open a camera-control remote shutter feature (on iOS, it makes you open the Alcatel app before it works), and use a music playback remote to see what tracks you're listening to on your phone, skip/play/pause and adjust volume.
The watch hooks into your phone's notifications, even allowing you to individually turn the fire hose on and off for individual apps. Facebook, Twitter, mail, incoming calls: they're all there. On the watch, swiping up brings up the list of notifications, split up by type. It's a clever idea, but the notifications end up being glommed into scrollable lists. I rarely got pop-up messages; instead, my watch would vibrate and make me check the phone's notification window. It was a lot less easy to use casually than, say, the Pebble watch .
You'll have to touch the screen, mostly by swiping, and press the side button to navigate. The OneTouch Watch doesn't have a microphone or speaker, so you can't dictate messages, or listen to calls. Even with touch, it's harder to operate than the simple four-button Pebble watch.
But the biggest problem I had was the interface and watch operation felt sluggish: touch gestures were sometimes unresponsive, and Bluetooth connection was buggy. There have been a number of early firmware updates pushed to my review model so far, but I'm still finding that the watch disconnects with my iPhone far more than the norm. Repairing can be a painful process, at times.
The OneTouch Watch pairs via an Alcatel OneTouch Move app, which also acts as a fitness-tracking hub. A clean, minimal design shows a series of rings measuring daily step, calorie, distance, and duration of exercise goals. You can tweak any of these, and an additional timeline mode shows moments where you exercised, or measured your heart rate.
The OneTouch measures steps reasonably well, although more generously than my iPhone 6 Plus pedometer. The problem comes with heart rate: the optical tracker on the back of the watch doesn't measure continuously: it only does spot checks. Those readings ranged wildly: 58 BPM one minute, 140 BPM another. I didn't trust it. Heart rate is already of questionable value in most watches, and on this one it's worse than most.
On the watch, you can browse each goal in its ring: it looks a little like the Apple Watch 's ring-based activity measurement app, but less attractive.
A built-in stopwatch lets you measure the time of a run and measure distance and steps for that duration, but you can't measure exercise sessions as well as you could on any good, basic fitness tracker.
It's a better suite of built-in basic fitness functions than the Pebble Watch, and it's even pretty decent compared to Google's Android Wear. Is it better than most fitness trackers? No: the Alcatel app doesn't have any social features to connect with friends, and doesn't hook into any third-party apps like RunKeeper or MapMyFitness.
Battery life and charging
I went a whole weekend without needing to charge the OneTouch Watch. That's great compared to Android Wear and the Apple Watch. It's less impressive compared to the Pebble.
Charging requires no cables: the wristband holds a plastic USB tip that pops out, much like on the older Nike Fuelband. Clever, but the tip feels cheaply constructed: what if it snaps? You'll suddenly have a watch that can't charge at all. I like a world with no dongles, but I'm not sure that USB tip has been built to last.
Conclusion: A few charms, but too buggy for now
The OneTouch watch feels like a budget fedora that looks good on your head but doesn't actually feel good to wear or use. For its price and its basic functions, Alcatel's watch earns some respect for trying to be more useful, but this version isn't as easy to use or as versatile as a Pebble watch, nor is it as advanced or full of potential as Android Wear or the Apple Watch.
It's a poor man's Android Wear watch, which is a funny place to be: Android Wear watches are rapidly dropping in price (the Moto 360 is just a few dollars more, now), and with iOS compatibility likely looming for Android Wear, even iPhone owners might want to wait. The Pebble is still better in a lot of ways, and there's a new Pebble Time watch coming out soon, too. Budget watch shoppers have a lot of choices. I wouldn't pick the Alcatel OneTouch as one of them right now, even though it has a few clever ideas.