It’s taken long enough for a Firefox phone to scamper into Stuff‘s offices and beg for a bit of attention. I’m just indulging a little imagination here, picturing an actual fox that isn’t going to chew my fingers off (which is the way it’d actually happen), but the point stands. The Alcatel OneTouch Fire E has been available overseas since 2014 and we’re getting it a bit late.
Understandable, though. The Fire E isn’t available as broadly as, say, anything that Samsung’s ever made so having it delayed here isn’t a wrench. And, after using it for a while, it’s still not much of a wrench. But maybe that’s just because it’s new, and I’m scared of it. Probably not.
The OneTouch Fire E is an Alcatel handset and a very… standard version of one at that. At least on the outside. The review unit we got was the Slate-coloured handset, which is about as stock smartphone as you can get. It’s the equivalent of a white Corolla, in handset form. It looks like Samsung’s sideline of offspring from their Galaxy flagships, if you want a totally accurate picture.
It’s quite slim though, measuring 8.2mm thick. It’s got a volume rocker and power button on the right side, headphone port at the top and charge port at the bottom. The SIM and microSD slot share the same port, on the upper left edge. There’s a rear speaker vent, a slightly protruding camera lens and flash but there’s no style to any of this. It’s a very basic design.
There’s not much of note in the internals. There’s a 1.2GHz dual-core, 512MB of RAM, 4GB of storage (just under 2GB available for users) and a 5MP rear camera. Them’s entry-level specs right there. As such, expect similar performance to starter phones the world over. Expect similar pricing as well, the Fire E will set you back around R1,600 or so.
I can’t give you a decent performance metric, for app reasons (more on that lower down the page), but I can tell you that the Fire E is noticeably laggy during use. Not with multiple apps running, you’ll notice stutter just unlocking the phone. It’s still similar performance to an entry-level phone trying, however valiantly, to run Android 4.4 so I’m not going to hold the lag against it.
It seems to perform well enough, considering its hardware, but… you know how, when you first installed the Firefox web browser, it was miles and miles better than Internet Explorer ever was? And you were so impressed with its performance that the creeping issues and slowdown weren’t even spotted until it was far, far too late? I’m hoping that isn’t going to happen here, but that’s something that time will tell about. But, speaking of Firefox…
The OneTouch Fire E is running version 188.8.131.52 of the Firefox OS and using the Fire E is one of the first genuinely fresh-feeling experiences I’ve had with a smartphone. Unfortunately that’s a bad thing. Part of this is just because the interface is completely new but some of it is just a usability issue. You can only unlock the handset by swiping left and right, while all of the menus operate vertically.The settings menu is a chore to navigate and isn’t as full featured as I’m used to, even the drop-down notifications slider feels…old. The keyboard is lifeless as well, with no visual indication whether you’re set to CAPS or lowercase. It’s unusual coming from Android and iOS to this and Firefox has a fight on their hands getting folks to like the interface. Still, who knows, it could grow on you.
The Fire E comes with a selection of apps pre-loaded. Some, like the MTN ones and Pinterest, you’re going to discard right away but the highlights are there as well: Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, as well as Nokia’s maps app, the Firefox web browser and their own Marketplace. But the highlights are all there are. Firefox OS is facing the same issues Windows Phone did at the outset, their app selection is tiny and the apps that they do have available, I’m just not confident about. Hence, no benchmarking. Because it just doesn’t exist for the Firefox OS yet. Nor do a whole lot of other things that you take for granted – internet banking and chat apps come to mind.
The Firefox OS should be this phone’s largest drawcard and instead it winds up being its greatest setback. It’d be a decent entry-level phone if it were running Android, but that could just be habit talking. But somehow I don’t think so. Firefox OS, and the Alcatel OneTouch Fire E, aren’t bad in themselves but as a fairly new entry into a contested market, there’s some catching up to do here in order to be truly competitive. Right now, you can get better options from Microsoft’s product lineup – never mind the barrage of Android devices waiting in the wings. But hey, you’re getting LTE with this handset so it’s not all bad.