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Alcatel Onetouch Watch review

The fitness tracker that's posing as a smartwatch

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In the nascent world of wearables, there have been two camps. The fitness trackers, like a Fitbit or a Jawbone, and the smartwatches, like Android Wear and the Apple Watch. The common thinking has been that these two camps will soon converge, and there’s been a lot of evidence that such a future is not far off. Fitness tracking is a big component of the Apple Watch and a number of Android Wear devices, and Fitbit’s latest models have a lot of smartwatch capabilities to augment their fitness tracking.

Yet while many smartwatches have fitness tracking and many fitness trackers have smartwatch features, both options demand compromises. You either choose between great fitness-tracking features or smartwatch productivity. Alcatel’s new Onetouch Watch, a $149.99 wrist-worn wearable shipping this month, is just the latest device trying to be both.

After wearing the Onetouch Watch for the past week, I’ve found that it’s not a great smartwatch, nor is it a great fitness tracker. Instead, it asks a different compromise: are you willing to give up the best in either category for something that’s cheaper than most smartwatches and better looking than most fitness trackers?

Alcatel Onetouch Watch

At first glance, the Onetouch Watch belongs in the smartwatch camp. With its round face, metal body, and color display, it’s easy to compare it to Motorola’s Moto 360. But while the Moto 360 is a full Android Wear-powered smartwatch, the Onetouch Watch runs on a proprietary platform that works with both Android and iOS devices. Aside from the cross-platform benefit, the Onetouch Watch is slimmer, cheaper, and lasts longer between charges than most other smartwatches.

Aesthetically, the Onetouch Watch is considerably nicer than many other wearables, especially in this price range. It’s round, much like a traditional watch, isn’t as thick as most Android Wear devices, and has a design that can work with a wide variety of outfits or personal styles. It doesn’t look like a computer on my wrist nor does it attempt to make a fashion statement like the Apple Watch — to most people, I’m just wearing a generic digital watch.

At the center of the round face is a 1.22-inch color touchscreen with 240 x 204 pixel resolution. It’s not a full circle — there’s a flat area at the bottom just like on the Moto 360 — and you can certainly see pixels, but it’s bright and vibrant with great viewing angles. It’s easily visible outdoors, which isn’t something I can say for a lot of smartwatches with color screens. Most of the time the Watch’s display is off — you wake it up by pressing the button on the side or raising your arm as if to check the time. The gesture actually works with less lag than I expected, but I still prefer a watch that lets me check the time without moving my arm.

Charging the Onetouch Watch doesn't require clumsy adapters — just plug it into a USB port

The Onetouch Watch has a fixed rubber strap that’s flexible and comfortable to wear all day. It comes in two colors — white or black — but it isn’t interchangeable, so you’re stuck with whichever one you pick from the outset. The fixed band does have a couple of key advantages: there’s an NFC chip inside the band for quick pairing and a built-in USB plug for charging. The USB plug at the end of the strap might be the smartest part of the Watch’s design: you can plug into any USB port to recharge the watch, no clumsy adapters needed.

Alcatel Onetouch Watch

Tapping the screen launches a basic grid for the various built-in apps on the Watch. There’s a simple weather app, compass, music controller, phone locator, and an app to remotely take pictures with your phone’s camera. There’s also the fitness-tracking apps, which can count steps, track distance traveled, track your sleep, and measure your heart rate.

There are three basic watch face designs (two analog, one digital), and you can customize the colors and background of the watch face. You access notifications by swiping up from the bottom of the screen, which is a bit clumsy and not too easy to do when you’re on the go. The flat area at the bottom of the display also acts as a back button to navigate through the hierarchy of the interface.

Notifications are where the Onetouch Watch fails as a smartwatch

Notifications on the Onetouch Watch are where its smartwatch leanings start to fall apart. Like any other smartwatch, it’s convenient to get buzzes on your wrist when something or someone is trying to get your attention. But the Watch’s display does not light up automatically when notifications come in, nor does the notification drawer pop up by itself, requiring me to touch the watch with my other hand to see what just made it buzz. The Watch only lets me read the notification — there’s no clearing it or acting upon it from my wrist. Further, the Watch only supports notifications from select apps (calls, messages, email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook Messenger, Google+, Google Hangouts, and Gmail), so there was no way to configure it to see alerts from my email app of choice (Outlook) or get alerts from Google Now. Alcatel tells me that it will add support for more app notifications in the future, but it will be relying on feedback from users for what apps to add.

The other smartwatch things you might look for — third-party apps, custom watch faces, and voice control — aren’t available on the Onetouch Watch. With its limited support for notifications and lack of these extra features, it’s better to think of this as a fitness device with some smartwatch features rather than a smartwatch with fitness features.

Alcatel Onetouch Move app

So how does it fare as a fitness device? Fine enough for what it is, but what it is turns out to be pretty limited. I’ll start with the good parts. The companion app for iOS and Android lets you view your activity and set goals with an informative and attractive dashboard. Thankfully, the Watch’s step counting isn’t as wildly inaccurate as other trackers I’ve worn. The heart rate monitoring may be slow, but it’s consistent and about as accurate as any other wrist-worn monitor I’ve tried. I could easily see someone choosing to wear the Onetouch Watch just because it’s a decent-looking device that counts their steps. (This is also the entire appeal of the Withings Activité line.)

Yet as much as I like the fitness tracking, there’s a lot of room for improvement. I can set my goals and see charts of my activity in the companion app, but unless I’m consciously checking my progress throughout the day, the watch doesn’t actively encourage me to get up and work toward hitting my goals. The data captured by the watch doesn’t sync with Apple’s Health app, Google’s Fit platform, or any other service, trapping it within Alcatel’s system. That’s actually a huge disappointment, because most fitness trackers at this price give you the added benefit of participating in some kind of ecosystem. Either you can compare your scores with friends or at least get plugged into either Android or Apple’s built-in system for fitness. There’s also a sleep-tracking system on Alcatel’s watch, but it’s not automatic, so I need to start it each night and stop it when I wake up.

So why would you want to accept all these limitations? Well, for one, you might just like the traditional, no-nonsense look of the watch. For another, the Onetouch Watch outlasts all other smartwatches with color displays when it comes to battery life. I’ve been able to get a full two days between charges with it, and even more if I take it off at night and forget about the (questionably useful) sleep tracking. Combine that with the super convenient built-in USB port on the strap, and the Watch is one of the least annoying wearables you can buy when it comes to battery life and charging.

Alcatel Onetouch Watch

The Onetouch Watch embodies the split between smartwatches and fitness trackers, and it’s emblematic of what is about to be a deluge of also-ran wearables. It’s a fitness tracker posing as a smartwatch, but it doesn’t do as well as the best options in either category.

If you want a fitness tracker that looks more like a traditional watch than a sport band, the Onetouch Watch is more appealing than a Fitbit or a Jawbone. It’s attractive, lasts long enough between charges, has reliable and accurate step and activity tracking, and is less expensive than similarly equipped devices. The downside is that your data is trapped inside Alcatel’s ecosystem instead of a more open or useful platform.

A fitness tracker posing as a smartwatch

But as a smartwatch, the Onetouch Watch leaves a lot to be desired, especially when it comes to useful notifications on your wrist. It also doesn’t have the expandability of Pebble, Apple Watch, or Android Wear through third-party apps. The Onetouch Watch is cheap, and it looks good, but that’s where its appeal ends as a smartwatch.

It’s an in-between wearable device that doesn’t have the platform support of Apple or Google, nor the fitness tracking chops of Fitbit, Jawbone, and the like. You’re going to see a lot of devices like this on the shelves at Best Buy, because it turns out that making a basic smartwatch and making a basic fitness tracker is getting to be pretty easy. But making something that does both well? That’s really hard.