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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.