Alcatel 1X (2019) review: Cheap, but miserable

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Alcatel’s whole schtick is cheap and cheerful handsets, but the French/Finish/Chinese brand’s last attempt failed to deliver cheer, despite the £70 price tag.
 
The Alcatel 1X adds the letter “X” and £30, along with a handful of other modest improvements. But is it enough to get back into our good books?  
 

Alcatel 1X review: What you need to know

This is actually a series of modest upgrades over the Alcatel 1. For a start, it gains half an inch of screen real estate, and although it’s still a MediaTek processor powering things, it’s now a quad-core 1.5GHz chip, giving it a 220Mhz boost on its sluggish predecessor.
 
More importantly, it now has a second camera on the back, theoretically giving photography a major boost.

 

But to be clear, this doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a budget phone, and it packs the slimmed-down Android Go version of Oreo as a result.

Alcatel 1X review: Price and competition

All of this comes at a very reasonable £100. That makes its main competition the rather impressive Vodafone Smart X9, which outsources processing duties to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 450 and manages to include a fingerprint scanner. It also packs in two cameras on the back.
 
There’s also the solid Moto E5, but it uses a slower Snapdragon 425 chip and costs £20 more. The Honor 7A started life at £140 but now sits within the £100 price bracket, too.

Alcatel 1X review: Design

The first thing that strikes you about the Alcatel 1 is just how incredibly light it is. At 130 grams, it’s about 37 grams lighter than the iPhone Xs or 71 grams lighter than the Samsung Galaxy Note 9. This is partly because it’s smaller, of course, but it’s also down to its use of a plasticky back with what the company calls a “pebble paint” finish. I’d be lying if I said that it felt luxurious by any definition of the word, but it doesn’t feel slippy and is comfortable enough in the hand.

 
It’s pretty nondescript in the looks department, which is fine for a cheap phone in my books. The bezels are admirably thin on the sides, and slightly thicker at the top and bottom, but not offputtingly so. More importantly, they’re symmetrical, which is always a pet peeve of mine. The back has the vertically-aligned dual-camera array in the centre towards the very top.
 
There is no fingerprint reader of any kind, which already puts it at a disadvantage compared to the Vodafone Smart X9, although it does keep the 3.5mm headphone jack and comes with capacity for either a second nano-SIM or microSD card, depending on your preference.
 
It doesn’t have any waterproofing or wireless charging, of course, but at this price that can’t have come as a surprise, right?

Alcatel 1X review: Screen

The Alcatel 1X has a 5.5in, 720 x 1,440 screen with the fashionable 18:9 aspect ratio, and for the price, it’s pretty hard to fault. 

To be clear, I’m not saying this is the quality of a Samsung Galaxy OLED panel by any stretch of the imagination, but for £100 you can have no complaints, and it actually has a slight edge on the Vodafone Smart X9 here.
 
Brightness comes in at a very impressive 535cd/m2, and it covers 88.6% of the sRGB gamut with a contrast of 1,526:1.
 
Of course, with that sub-FHD resolution, pixel density is a lowish 293ppi, and viewing angles are merely ‘fine’ rather than ‘excellent’, but yes: for £100 this is more than enough.

Alcatel 1X review: Performance

So far, so good, but appropriately enough things come to a juddering halt with performance. You’re not getting a smooth performance here, even with the advantages of Android Go. The keyboard will sometimes delay a beat before popping up, and you can pretty much forget multitasking. The camera is responsive until you turn on HDR, at which point you can expect a delay that can be measured in seconds between each snap.
 
It’s not too hard to track down the culprit. MediaTek processors tend to get used on budget phones and have generally been weaker performers than their Qualcomm Snapdragon equivalents. And while the MediaTek MT6739 is clocked 220Mhz faster than the Alcatel 1, performance is barely any better as the graph below shows.
 

 
As you can see, while single-core performance is similar across the board, the Snapdragon 450 gives the Vodafone Smart X9 a very clear boost in the multi-core stakes. As you’d expect, it feels nowhere near as sluggish as the Alcatel 1X – especially as it has an extra gigabyte of RAM over the 1X’s 2GB.
 

 
Bluntly, you’re not going to be playing any demanding games on any of the phones in our comparison, but the Alcatel 1X seems to do especially badly, seemingly going backwards on the Alcatel 1. That’s actually just an illusion, down to the higher resolution on the new model – as you can see, offscreen it manages three frames per second on the earlier model’s two. Hardly worth celebrating, but a win is a win.
 

 
Speaking of wins, battery life improves dramatically on the Alcatel 1, with the 1X’s 3,000mAh battery managing 10hrs 19mins before giving up.  That’s still three hours behind the Vodafone Smart X9 and nearly ten behind the Moto E5, though.

Alcatel 1X review: Camera

Attempting to set itself apart from other budget phones, the Alcatel 1X has not one, but two rear cameras. To be clear, this isn’t unheard of in the space, given the Vodafone Smart X9 also has two. Nor is two cameras essential for good photography. Google’s Pixel 3 takes some of the best in the business, and it gets by with just one.
 
But it is unusual. You’re looking at a 13-megapixel affair, interpolated to 16-megapixels with an aperture of f/2.0. The second camera is a 2-megapixel affair for depth and bokeh-effect shots where the background looks blurry.
 
So how does it do? Well, prepare for a tale of two halves.
 
In bright conditions, it’s really rather good. As you can see from the picture below, there’s actually plenty of detail on the distant brickwork, which has been known to blend into mush on far more expensive phones than this. Yes, it feels a wee bit washed out, but you can’t argue with the detail.
 

 
Oh, and remember what I said earlier about the processor struggling with HDR switched on? You’re looking at a good four seconds before the picture finishes processing, which is the death knell of the spontaneous snapper.
 
But for low-light shots? Oh deary me, this is bad. It simply isn’t letting enough light in, and is compensating really hard with overprocessing to try and boost the brightness of the picture, creating an image that’s simply drowning in blurry noise.
 

 
Now, you can’t expect miracles at this price, but the Vodafone Smart X9 has proven that you can do much better than this. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do our usual side-by-side shots as the Smart X9 is no longer in the office, so caveats about different lighting may apply. But even so, the difference is light and day:

 

The Alcatel 1X’s front-facing selfie cam is a 5-megapixel camera, interpolated to 8-megapixels, with a f/2.4 aperture. Results are fine enough, but the usual health warnings apply about the ‘beauty modes’ which, frankly, ain’t fooling anybody but the phenomenally short-sighted.

Alcatel 1X review: Verdict

So, should you buy the Alcatel 1X? That answer, I’m afraid, is a resounding no. It has its merits – chiefly in bright, outdoor photography and an excellent screen – but every step of the way it’s outperformed by the Vodafone Smart X9 which comes in at exactly the same price.

If you can stretch a bit further, you’ll get a lot more bang for your buck with the Motorola Moto G7 Power at £170, but if you can’t then the Vodafone Smart X9 deserves your hard-earned cash.

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