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    Alcatel OneTouch Watch review: No beginner's luck here

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    The Alcatel OneTouch name doesn't exactly conjure up images of premium, fashion-forward devices, but that hasn't stopped the company from dreaming big with its first smartwatch. To add steam to the Alcatel OneTouch Watch hype train, the company's design brass went as far as telling our own Richard Lai that the company's gunning to be the Zara of the wearable world. Not a style guru? Essentially, Alcatel's been trying to cook up a fashion-forward smartwatch without a price tag that'll make your wallet groan. At $150, I'd argue the end result fulfilled the latter half of that equation more than the former, but the bigger question is whether Alcatel's first attempt at a wearable (running its own homebrew software, no less) is actually worth a damn. Well, after having spent a full week with the Watch lashed to my wrist, I'm unconvinced.

    Gallery: Alcatel OneTouch Watch review | 36 Photos

    Hardware

    It's usually only high-end smartwatches that get circular screens, but Alcatel's eager to prove you don't have to shell out gobs of cash for a wearable that looks like a traditional watch. It's not hard to see where the company cribbed its design cues from, either. From the round body hewn partially of stainless steel, to the occlusion that obscures the bottom of the 1.2-inch screen, to the single crown button lodged on the right edge, the Watch looks more than a little like the Moto 360. I can't fault Alcatel for those external similarities -- the 360 is easily one of the most attractive wearables out there -- but the design team dropped the ball on a few key details that kept the Watch from looking and feeling as nice as it could.

    The design team dropped the ball on a few key details that kept the Watch from looking and feeling as nice as it could.

    Take that chassis for instance. I dig the mostly metal build and the fact that it's water- and dust-resistant up to the IP67 standard, but the rear of the Watch's body is made of chintzy, easily marred black plastic. Hardly a dealbreaker, but it feels cheap and out of place here. It'll sound a little persnickety, but the font Alcatel used to highlight the 12 and 6 o'clock hours is really bothersome too. I can't quite place what typeface it used, but my gut says it's something incredibly generic like Arial Black. What really gets me is that a slightly crisper, classier face (or even just a typeface change) would've made the Watch look so much more sophisticated -- instead, it feels like Alcatel phoned this part in.

    What's worse, the strap is just lousy. My review unit came with a stiff, dark gray resin band with red trim (there's also a fetching white model up for pre-order), and hardly anything about it'll make you want to wear it for any serious amount of time. The dense material makes for some sweaty, uncomfortable wrists, and the locking clasp you'll use to adjust the band's fit is both initially confusing and tricky to open unless you've got sturdy nails. Thing is, the band also doubles as the Watch's charging system so there's no way to swap it for something a bit more comfortable. Forget separate cables or wireless charging docks -- the end of that rigid plastic strap flips up to reveal a full-size USB jack that slips into your laptop or wall charger, like one of Nike's old FuelBands. I've been wondering if we'd ever see this in a proper smartwatch, but the stiffness of the jack makes it really hard to slip the fastening loop over it. That wouldn't be such a big deal if the charging end of the wristband wasn't so prone to popping loose when that fastener isn't firmly holding it in place. Sigh: a great idea marred by poor execution.

    It's not all bad, though, I promise. The Watch is powered by an STMicroelectronics STM429 chipset and a surprisingly long-lasting 210mAh battery keeps things humming along (the Moto 360 has a 320mAh battery, for comparison'). The screen, while relatively low-res at 240 x 204, is bright enough to withstand some harsh spring sunlight. I'd have loved to see an ambient or auto-brightness mode that kicked the screen into a low-power state so I didn't have to paw at a button whenever I wanted to see the time, but Alcatel was clearly keeping costs down. Even so, there's a gyroscope, altimeter, accelerometer, heart rate monitor and an NFC radio lurking in that 10.5mm thick body; would adding a light sensor really have been that difficult?

    Software

    Alcatel's body of work is made up mostly of Android smartphones, so it was a surprise to hear that the company didn't throw Android Wear on its first smartwatch. Instead, it runs a proprietary OS that, while intentionally limited in functionality, still manages to play nice with both iOS and Android devices running the simplistic OneTouch Move companion app. I spent my week with the Watch (come up with the catchier name next time, y'all) paired alternately with an iPhone 6 and a Galaxy S6 Edge, and to its credit, it performed just as well on one as it did on the other. Granted, sometimes that meant the Watch was equally lame on both platforms, but hey -- at least it was consistent.

    Sometimes that meant the Watch was equally lame on both platforms, but hey -- at least it was consistent.

    Once you fire up the Watch for the first time and blaze through the dead-simple setup process, you're left looking at, well, the time. Pressing and holding the watch face brings up a selection screen that gives you three total choices: a digital readout, a minimalist analog display and a slightly more ornate analog look with on-screen hour indicators that reach out to touch the ones painted directly on the face. You'd be right to think that's not very thrilling, but digging into the companion app lets you swap background colors and images for a little extra character.

    The colorful grid of app icons you'll swipe through after tapping on the display is almost reminiscent of Windows 8's Start Screen, but only about half of them actually count as apps -- the rest are system settings like screen brightness and airplane mode that didn't get lumped into a separate menu. And the rest? The weather app gives you current conditions plus high and low temperatures for the next five days, while an included activity tracker monitors your daily step counts and calories burned. You can measure your heart rate, use the Watch as a compass or stopwatch, locate your phone and even control music playing on your handset. All pretty de rigueur for a smartwatch these days. Meanwhile, swiping up from the bottom of the screen opens a notification shade and, tapping on the "6" brings you back to where you just were.

    And, well, that's all the thing does. At the time of writing, there is no extensibility, no extra software you can install, nothing to help the Watch weasel its way into your life. Alcatel spokespeople said back at CES that they were seeding devices to developers in an effort to jumpstart development of fresh, new apps, but we'll have to wait and see how that shakes out. There's good reason to don your skeptic hat, though -- if a developer needs to devote time and energy to making a killer app for a wearable platform, you'd better believe it'll be one people have already embraced. The whole iOS/Android agnosticism thing is great in that it potentially doubles Alcatel's market for the Watch, but I wonder how many app makers will bother giving this thing a shot.

    In use

    I realize I've been harsh on this thing so far, but know this: Questionable design aside, the Watch does most of what it set out to do without too much fuss. Using a doodad on your wrist to count steps can be tricky, but watching the counter tick upward in time with my steps down Broadway was reassuring... even if the count was several hundred steps off compared to the Withings Activité. That's no great sin though -- there's plenty of motivational value in a "broad strokes" look at your movement. Speaking of tricky, heart rate monitors can be iffy when you cram them into smartwatches and the Watch is no exception. I could be sitting dead still and breathing normally, but my readings would jump from 62 beats per minute to 145 within the span of a minute or two. Cheapo sensor, or heart attack waiting to happen? My money's on the former.

    To my utter shock, using the Watch as a remote shutter button for my phone's camera was the simplest, most impressive trick Alcatel brought to the table. The interface consists of a single button to snap a photo and it just worked every time. Bravo. Just forget about changing focus from your wrist, though. Too bad the built-in music-control app doesn't fare nearly as well. Cycling through tracks with a quick left or right swipe is simple enough, but waiting for the volume level to catch up to where my finger was placed took ages.

    When everything's synced up properly, the experience can be almost peachy. The issue is, the Watch is pretty lousy at connecting to your phone again if you spend too long out of range. Actually, you don't even need to be all that far away -- I've seen it fumble the connection while sitting right next to my iPhone on a couch. Either way, you probably won't notice the problem until a blue bubble pops up on the display asking you to launch the OneTouch companion app again to re-forge the bond between devices. Oh, what's that? You were expecting an important message? Hope you weren't counting on your wrist to buzz, then. Occasionally, fetching an updated weather forecast will take so long you'll wonder why you didn't dig your phone out of your pocket to start with.

    When everything's synced up properly, the experience can be almost peachy.

    My beef extends well beyond just connectivity issues, by the way. The built-in accelerometer usually does a fine job of lighting up the screen when you bring your wrist up to your face, except when it just doesn't. It usually sorts itself out after a little while, but as I write this sentence, it's been over an hour since the motion-sensitive display feature stopped working and I have no idea why. I also spent one Sunday on an 11-mile traipse around town and racked up something like 23,000 steps. My phone died midway through the day and I thought nothing of it until I finally got the thing to a charger after midnight. All of the day's movement data? Nowhere to be found. Since there's no way to view information older than a day on the Watch itself, all of the ego-swelling statistics from that day seem to have disappeared forever. It's these little technological lapses that turn a potentially serviceable smartwatch into something that needs coddling. No thanks.

    If the Watch has a single saving grace, it's the 210mAh battery tucked away in there. Alcatel claims the average user can squeeze between two and five days out of the Watch before it needs to charge again, and thankfully that's roughly what I've seen over the past week. Even with brightness cranked all the way up and notifications pouring in like a tidal wave, I couldn't get the Watch to die before a full 48 hours had passed. Three to three and a half days was the average amount of time it took to fully kill this thing, and with a little forethought (and a lot of airplane mode), the Watch could easily hit four of five days before officially giving up the ghost.

    The competition

    The Watch is nothing if not a curious little beast, thanks to its cross-platform predilections and more-or-less "premium" design. If you're not absolutely dying for a color screen, but still want a wearable that feels like something your grandfather and not your kid cousin would wear, consider the Pebble Steel. It's a touch more expensive at $199, but you get an e-paper display that'll sip on the battery for up to a week and a crazy amount of third-party apps and support.

    If you're willing to give up on iOS compatibility (for now, anyway) some of the less expensive Android Wear watches might be more up your alley. Google's online store dropped the price of a non-customized Moto 360 to $165 since a new one is very clearly hurtling toward store shelves, making it the cheapest Wear watch you can buy new in-box right now. It doesn't come close to delivering the sort of battery life I squeezed out of the Watch, but the huge boost in functionality makes it worth a nightly trip to a power outlet. On the flip side, if you're more concerned about owning a fitness-focused wristwatch that doesn't look like something out of a Playskool vision of the future, the $150 Withings Activité Pop should do nicely. What it lacks in features it makes up for with effortlessly good looks and a battery you won't have to worry about for months.

    Wrap-up

    Here's my smartwatch philosophy in a nutshell: The best ones do exactly what you need them to when you need them to, and then fade away into the background when it's all done. When everything works the way it's supposed to, Alcatel OneTouch's Watch manages to hit that threshold. It's not the most handsome, nor the most thoughtfully designed wearable, but at least its functional. Too bad, then, that the occasional moments of data loss, flaky connections and sometimes screwy basics make the Watch feel like something you have to take care of. Rather than adding convenience to your life, Alcatel's first wearable borders on being burdensome. I don't doubt that the company's ironing out some kinks and prepping firmware updates to clean up the experience down the line, but man -- talk about a lousy first impression.

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