Alcatel's latest effort comes with Android 2.1, a full Qwerty keyboard and a price tag that makes it one of the cheapest Android devices on the market right now. Unfortunately, the phone relies on irksome resistive-touchscreen technology, and comes with several quirks that thwart it from ousting its low-cost, Android-based rivals. The Alcatel OT-980 is available solely on pay as you go, and costs £99.
With Android, BlackBerry, iPhone and Windows Phone 7 all scrapping relentlessly to carve up the biggest slice of the smart-phone pie, big-spending mobile users have an embarrassment of choice available to them. Out of all the key players, though, Google's Android is the only one attempting to offer its services to the lower end of the market. We've already seen devices such as the T-Mobile Pulse Mini and Orange San Francisco break through the sub-£100 barrier, and there's more competition on the way -- with Alcatel's OT-980 being one of the most notable rivals.
A portrait-format slider with a full Qwerty keyboard, the OT-980's appearance calls to mind similar phones such as the Palm Pre and BlackBerry Torch. In reality, it's much chunkier than the Pre and lacks the reassuring build quality of the Torch, but when you consider it's pitched at the lower end of the market, such differences are easier to stomach.
Slightly less welcome is the presence of a resistive touchscreen display. As the Android platform has developed and matured over the past couple of years, it has become more reliant on highly responsive capacitive technology, where no finger pressure is required. Gestures such as 'pinch to zoom' are now commonplace in many Android applications -- including the gallery viewer, Web browser and Google Maps -- but unfortunately, resistive screens cannot register more than one touch at a time, which makes such functionality impossible.
My kingdom for a stylus
Matters are made worse by the fact that the OT-980's display is often a real pig to use. Cycling through the various home screens and menus isn't an issue, but precise tapping is infuriatingly awkward. Opening hyperlinks contained within emails and Web pages is nigh-on impossible, and there were several moments when we had to resort to using a pen, or any other pointy implement that was close at hand. Lamentably, the OT-980 doesn't come with a stylus -- an item which really should be standard issue with resistive-screen handsets.
The screen-related woes don't end there, either. With a resolution of 240x320 pixels, the 2.8-inch TFT display makes a real hash of rendering high-detail images. Where applicable, you'll need to configure your apps to display their text in a larger font, as small letters become ill-defined and almost unreadable. The screen also has a curiously washed-out look to it, and even when the backlight is at full blast, it lacks the vibrancy of the latest Super LCD and Super AMOLED handsets, like the HTC Desire Z and Samsung Galaxy S.
The disappointing nature of the resistive screen is mitigated slightly when you slide open the phone's Qwerty keyboard. Typing on the OT-980 is a breeze, despite the densely packed cluster of buttons. The only complaint we have is that, for some strange reason, several keys are incorrect -- pressing 'Q' actually types 'A', and 'Z' is 'W'. Although we tried tinkering with the keyboard configuration in the options menu, the problem remained. We can only assume this is a pre-production issue that will be rectified before the device goes on sale.
With its muscular dimensions and 152g weight, the OT-980 feels like a monster when compared to other devices. Despite its considerable heft, much of the phone is fashioned out of cheap plastic rather than metal. Although it's unlikely to capture any admiring glances when you reveal it in public, the OT-980 is at least comfortable to use. The rounded casing allows it to sit snugly in the palm, even when the keyboard is exposed.
In terms of multimedia, the OT-980 falls a little short of what we're used to these days. 2 megapixels is all budding photographers have to play with, and the shots produced by the phone's camera leave something to be desired. Similarly, video recording is fuzzy and generally unimpressive. Thankfully, audio can be channelled through the 3.5mm socket into your favourite pair of headphones, and a microSD card slot allows you to boost storage capacity up to 32GB -- ample room for all your tunes, photos, apps and videos.
Android 2.1, but not as we know it
The OT-980 is sporting Android 2.1 -- better known by its dessert-related codename Eclair. A relatively modest 600MHz CPU beats at the heart of the phone -- which is quite a way behind the 1.2GHz monsters that are invading the smart phone arena these days -- but, surprisingly, the OT-980 is pretty nippy. Navigating between the various elements of the phone's user interface is smooth and painless, something which can't always be said of more powerful Android phones, like the Motorola Milestone XT720. Things begin to slow down when you have several applications open simultaneously, but on the whole it's a slick experience, and one that is no doubt aided by the low resolution of the phone's screen.
Strangely, many elements of the user interface are taken from Android 1.6 rather than 2.1. The video recorder and camera, for example, are treated as two different applications, whereas on the Motorola Droid and Nexus One --two of the first devices to come with 2.1 on board -- they're rolled into a single app. The application drawer is also based on the variant witnessed in Android 1.6. Clearly the underlying code is Eclair-based (it features animated live wallpapers, which were only made available in 2.1), but cosmetically, it feels as if it's stuck in the past.
Because the OT-980 is running 2.1, you're granted access to the vast majority of applications available on the Android Market, including the near-indispensible Google Navigation. That said, Android's development is thundering forward at a frightening pace, and there are already some apps that require the 2.2 version of the OS -- otherwise known as Froyo. With Android 2.3 imminent, the OT-980 is already outdated. It's not the only Android handset to suffer from Google's relentless update process, but given its humble status, it's much less likely to see incremental software updates than other 2.1 devices.
Getting Android 2.1 to the market for under £100 is an achievement in itself, so coming down hard on the failings of the Alcatel OT-980 doesn't really seem very sporting. When compared to other phones in the same price range, the OT-980 is undeniably impressive. It's wise to remember that handsets like the HTC Desire and even its cheaper cousin, the HTC Wildfire, are considerably more expensive than Alcatel's effort. Place the OT-980 alongside feature phones like the Sony Ericsson Cedar or LG Town C300, and it becomes a more appealing proposition.
On the flip side, the OT-980 fares less well when placed alongside its budget Android rivals, such as the Orange San Francisco and Huawei Ideos -- both of which include capacitive touchscreens for the same sub-£100 price of Alcatel's contender.
Edited by Emma Bayly