When we did an unboxing for the Alcatel OneTouch Blaze 990 sometime last month, we didn’t know it would gather so much interest in that short span of time – at least, it garnered more than we thought it would. Of course, the specs and price were all in the right place, and might even be called commendable in some respects. After all, even with some interesting midrange android features, it is priced at PHP 9,999 – down from regular PHP 14,999. (Our contact at Alcatel says the lower price stays for the time being, so we’re reviewing it at that price.) Still, the brand recall for Android phones of late – or most popular phone brands for that matter – have been HTC, Samsung, Nokia, Apple, BlackBerry and the usual suspects. Imagine our surprise and delight to find that Alcatel isn’t taking this sitting down, and bringing the fight straight into the competitive budget Android territory with some French flair at a competing price. But did they succeed, or was it just a valiant effort? You can find out here on our review of the Alcatel OneTouch Blaze 990.
The OneTouch 990 is one of the more dapper looking phones we’ve seen this side of 10 grand. In fact, while there’s only a few phones under the PHP10,000 mark, it would be safe to say that the 990 is the classiest looking in that category. Far from having straight lines and boring sides, the 990 has got curves and fancy touches to where you might find to look. The back is particularly the nicest, with a raised area for the camera/speaker module near the top, and a slight tapered bump near the bottom. We find it, and the texture and decals on the cover, aesthetically pleasing. What’s more the top bump sits just above your index finger when you hold the phone. This lets your finger act as a small ledge for the bump to hang onto and prevent the phone from sliding off your hand.
All around the phone’s sides, there’s an uninterrupted line of shiny plastic that reminds us of something like chrome or shiny copper. It gives the phone a little bit of bling – not tacky, but tasty. The buttons are situated on this strip, and they take on its size and shape – thus not taking away from the overall look. They’re easy to press, and blend well with the design. The power/lock button though, is unusually placed on the lower left side of the phone, and the mini-USB data/charge port is on the top. Its not too much trouble to adjust to these changes from the norm, but you do wonder why they’re there. To its merit, the shiny chrome strip on top around the USB and 3.5mm headset jack looks particularly nice, as we’re used to seeing the ugliest, non-embellished, afterthought-looking USB ports on most phones.
On the front, you get the generous (for this price range) 3.5” screen with small bezels on either side. The top has the speaker grille, Alcatel badge, and surprisingly – a front facing camera. The bottom part of the bezel houses three large capacitive buttons – of which reminds us of some Windows Phones. Below that on the middle is a physical Home button that is a great size – easy to find and press even when you’re not looking. It’s worth noting that the phone has no charge or notification lights – so it’s a little awkward to glance at the phone when its charging and not seeing the orange (or green) light. (Alcatel does something with the charging UI instead – which we’ll talk about in the UI section.) Similarly, the capacitive buttons do light up, but only with a weak glow. Thankfully, you can still quickly find the buttons when its dark – as opposed to phones with buttons that don’t light up at all.
Build quality is decent, and the plastics are solid to the touch. There are no squeaks or clicks when we pinch the phone and we think the shiny strip around the device serves a chassis-like function. Of course that’s probably not the case, but it makes the phone look like its secure from any bumps and bruises. The Blaze 990 comes in three colors: Aubergine, Bluish Black & we got the Spicy Red for our review unit. It’s a nice dash of color in the world of bland looking cheap devices.
Of course we’re familiar with the Android OS, and the Blaze 990 is using the popular Froyo 2.2 version of it. It does come with some tweaks though, and thankfully most of them are welcome. You still swipe sideways to scroll through homescreens, and the app drawer is still the alphabetically arranged icon menu that you scroll vertically. You can use the homescreens as your quick access area to widgets, shortcuts, contacts, and other features to your liking. You can pretty much customize these as much as you want, and if by default you couldn’t add a shortcut to something, you’re sure to find an app in the marketplace that does the trick.
Speaking of the homescreens, in most phones you have space for about 5 or 7, and for most cases is unchangeable. The Blaze 990 has an option for 3, 5, and 7 in its menus – which would have been a good thing. However, we noticed a little bit of jank in its treatment of widgets if you change the amount from the default five. We don’t know what’s causing it, but when we switched to a 7 screen interface the placement of widgets would sometimes get lost between screen 1-2 and 6-7. We think the software defaults to 5 screens and finds difficulty in remembering placements if you change to a 7 screen system. We opted to stick to five homescreens instead and never had a problem with it afterwards.
For the minimalist at heart, they’ve added a feature to completely hide the notification bar that is always present in Android phones. Double tapping an empty part of your homescreen will slide the bar up. This gives the phone an entirely different “clean” feel. Of course double tapping the screen again will bring this bar back down. When you unlock the phone though, you’ll notice it slide up – refrain from pulling it down at this point. Since the phone is trying to hide it, when you drag it down, both actions end up in a weird short bar that you can’t use. Re-unlocking fixes this, but you need to fight the urge to tug on the notifications if you prefer the minimalist style. Wait until it completely hides, then double tap the screen to make it appear is the best solution.
Another custom UI feature is their unlock screen. It isn’t drastically different from most, but it has an interesting charge indicator on it. When charging, the bottom part of the unlock screen is treated like your battery “juice”. Juice slowly trickles down in drops into the chamber, giving you a great visual idea of what the battery is currently getting. The juice turns from red to orange to green to signify charge level, and fills up the chamber when its 100%. While not a replacement for the notification/charge led, it’s a great touch for the unlock screen and always puts a smile in our faces when we see it.
An unusual keyboard is included in the list of choices on top of the regular Android stock. It looks slightly cramped with too many buttons you don’t necessarily need, and doesn’t seem to be on the fast side. However, it might be a great keyboard for no-look typers – swiping sideways switches keyboard modes and one of them feature the alphanumeric T9 keypad that most texters will remember from their bar phone days. If you’re not fond of this, you can always use the standard Android keyboard or opt for other keyboards that you can get in the Android Marketplace. The messaging app of course looks mostly like stock Froyo, with the familiar threaded conversation view and contact images on the left.
While the contacts app seems pretty standard to the usual eyes and it doesn’t have the Facebook contact syncing feature that higher end stock Android builds have, the Alcatel build has a Twitter-sync feature to flesh out your contacts with a bit of automatically-synched Tweets from your contacts. (Provided they have names that match their Twitter profiles.) So while your contact lists may look pretty drab without the Facebook profile pictures, at least Tweets can show up on matching contacts.
This being an Android 2.2 Froyo phone, you get the new Live wallpaper features so you can customize your screens with downloadable and preset animated wallpapers. The phone also has a unique themes customization that gives you three presets. These change the wallpapers and some widget skins around to match the style. We’re not sure if you can download new themes for it, but its not like there’s not enough you can download from the marketplace if you wish. Finally, the list of custom skin UI touches end with some simple on-call, dialer, and other small changes to keep the look cohesive.
Of course the Blaze 990 packs the traditional Android browser, and it is pretty much what we expect. With the larger 3.5” screen, its easier to scroll around and read. Otherwise we feel it is as good as the competitors’ with the same screen resolution and processor power. Pinch zoom, double tapping, and panning all work the same way and is neither slower or faster than its peers. Still, that means it loads pages at a pretty zippy pace – though won’t have Flash running in the browser. You can, of course still watch YouTube by clicking through to the dedicated app from the browser.
Speaking of YouTube, we’ve had a lot of fun using this phone to watch videos on it. Why? Because Alcatel saw fit to install a powerful speaker on the Blaze 990. It is by far one of the loudest we’ve had in a while, especially in the smartphone category. These speakers also don’t muffle out when placed on top of a table for handsfree viewing. We’ve generally avoided watching or listening from our phones due to their tinny, weak speakers and its very refreshing to have a phone with a decent screen that can pump out some good, powerful, bassy audio that makes the viewing experience so much more pleasurable. We’ve used more expensive, higher spec phones than the Blaze 990, but this one takes the cake for watching YouTube if only because of the punchy audio quality it delivers.
The gallery, video player, audio player and other stock apps are what you would expect – with some minor UI touches to make them look more at home with the theme. Nothing remarkable in this regard, but the stock Gallery app is always nice as it comes with visual flourishes and transitions – not to mention some accelerometer tilt animations. Of course pinching, swiping, panning, double taps and other gestures work as you would expect with not much in the hint of lag.
Speaking of images, the camera app is also stock. There’s a slider to switch to video mode and you would get the usual amount of ways to change your exposure options and other things. Though, there are no scene modes – you’ll have to figure it out for yourself. Camera quality is decent, with good detail to its 5MP shots to some extent. We like the color reproduction and slight sharpness, though some shots will admittedly look hazy. Still, smartphones were never meant to rival real cameras and in general even perform worse than dedicated cameraphones – so you’ll have to understand that the standards are low. The front camera takes 640×480 images, which are dull and noisy, but thankfully its not the main camera. We appreciate that Alcatel even included the front facing one for video calls – if you ever get a good app for one.
Sadly, for video the Alcatel doesn’t do too well. Both the front and rear cameras can only pick up CIF video at 30 FPS. While maintaining 30 FPS is nice, CIF video is only 352×288 pixels. At that resolution its pretty hard to make out details, so we’d only really choose to use it for video calls – and possibly for emergency video recordings. These videos are a little too low resolution even for the average YouTube clip of your pets or loved ones. You can see for yourself in the samples above.
Since this is an Android phone, there’s always new apps you can download from the Android Marketplace. The list is ever growing and there’s a staggering amount of free ones you can get. If that’s not enough, the Philippines is also allowed to buy apps from Google’s system so you can finally plunk down and pick up some really cool apps and games. Finally, power users will appreciate the WiFi hotspot functionality built-in for good measure.
PERFORMANCE & HARDWARE
As you might have noticed, the Alcatel has a rather large 3.5” screen for its budget demographic. It doesn’t skimp too much on pixels either at 320×480 resolution. This is mostly the new standard for midrange and budget phones, but its definitely refreshing to see that Alcatel didn’t go the route of using a lower resolution screen. The large panel is enjoyable to use and has the average amount of visibility angles and color representation. However, it only maxes out at a comfortable brightness – so we used it only at max, and never somewhere lower. In comparison, we use our other phones at about 35-40% brightness. Unless you work in extremely bright environments though, you’ll be fine using it at constant max power.
Of course the battery life is still your usual Android, with power lasting for about a day before we need to charge it. We’re used to doing this daily regimen on our phones, but users upgrading from more conservative devices will need to adjust their charging patterns. It won’t die on you unnaturally, but don’t expect two days of battery life unless you’ve turned everything pretty much off. Interestingly, the phone that we had didn’t seem to charge off our USB car charger, which worked for all the Android/WP7 devices we’ve tried. We’re not sure why, but that might prove to be a slight problem for users who want to use their phones as music players and GPS devices for their cars.
Thankfully, performance is great. Even with the 600Mhz processor, it could run the apps that we’re accustomed to using. This seems to be attributed to a generous Adreno 200 GPU that helps the CPU churn the graphics for complex applications. The traditional Angry Birds test runs great, and even Angry Birds Rio ran at a decent clip – only slowing down on some busy instances. It’s still very playable though – and that makes the game much more enjoyable. Testing the 3D capabilities on Fruit Slice also gave us a pretty good opinion of its polygonal powers, as it handled it well enough for us to enjoy playing for longer than our usual few games. Multitasking works well too, as Froyo handles the memory admirably. The app memory though, can be a little larger. Though we didn’t reach critical levels during our review, we’d like to have more to have the freedom of installing just about anything that catches our eyes.
As for the firmware, it might be safe to say that this phone will probably just stay as its Android 2.2 Froyo version and not go for Gingerbread and beyond. We’re not familiar with Alcatel’s update policies, but we haven’t heard about them aggressively upgrading their devices. So we’re silently hoping, but not expecting much.
The Alcatel OneTouch Blaze 990 is probably best described as a refreshing new take on the budget Android market. While it brings in new ideas and fancy new touches, some of the custom UI features are slightly half-baked. However, one cannot deny the positives from the phone, despite some very small software niggles. We definitely like the form factor, large comfortable screen, and great design touches all around. The color choice is even quite attractive and despite its budget price, will probably look much nicer than some boardroom-class phones out there.
You can tell Alcatel wanted to make the software for the phone special, by adding some extra visual flair. They didn’t quite get it all through Quality Control though. The widgets getting lost when you change the amount of homescreens seems to be the most serious one around, but all of the others have their own little problems. That said, there’s enough good here that you won’t necessarily hate the bad – or you wouldn’t notice them at all.
As far as competition is concerned, you have a few entries from popular brands. Cherry Mobile has a few below PHP 10,000 with the Nova, Cosmo and even the Orbit now. Though, the LG Optimus One is probably the nearest contender. All of these competing phones have smaller screens though, and most of them have tinny speakers with unattractive backsides. When it comes to sub-10k devices with 600Mhz, the Alcatel is the best looking of the lot – and it doesn’t perform any badly either. It skimps on some things like the screen brightness, charging led, video recording, and other usual Android points, but it goes all out on some great design, front camera, powerful speakers and an unapologetically large sized screen. All those, plus having the color options just might seal the deal for most buyers, including us.
Of course, this all is based on the assumption that the price will stay at PHP 9,999. The original price is way above that, and sits nearly higher than most midrange handsets. If that price ever goes to effect, then it will have to go toe-to-toe with some more formidable opponents like the Samsung Galaxy Ace and HTC Wildfire S. It might be able to hold its own, but won’t be getting a more compelling argument than it has now – as it will have to compete with phones with slightly classier designs, screen sizes and even processing power.
Hopefully it’ll never have to get to that. For when the Alcatel OneTouch Blaze 990 is at its PHP 9,999 price, it gives us an amazing phone for a price that normally settles for something simple and mundane. The Optimus One is a proven device with a lot more support from the rooting community as its advantage, but the Blaze 990 has its inherent design features, UI touches, large screen and powerful speakers to boast of. Call us superficial, but the tossup leads us to prefer the more aesthetically pleasing one. The only other reason we’d reconsider buying it is if we’d do a lot of video recordings. Thankfully, we’d settle for the occasional nice picture or two. For these merits, we’re giving the Blaze 990 a 4/5 as long as the price sticks around. We’ll call it our sub-10k favorite, at least for now.
UPDATE: We’re told that during the launch event today that the PHP 9,999 pricetag is the introductory price. There are plans to return the price to PHP 14,999 after the promotion. The predicted end of the introductory prices will be by end of August. So if this happens, we’ll have to give the Blaze 990 a different score. We’re leaning towards 3/5 at this point due to the fact that the phone will have to compete with some more compelling offers from well known brands. Supposedly if the current sale prices take off, they might not bring them back to regular prices. So let’s hope for that. For now, assume that our review is still based on the introductory price. We regret any confusion this might cause our readers. Thanks!
For more sample images from the phone, check out the gallery below.
And the device gallery is below.