Not long ago on Bandwidth Blog On Air, I bemoaned the fact that we were unlikely to see anything new or shocking from Android-based phones in the new future. By all appearances, Google seems to have reached a happy plateau with 6.0 Marshmallow that will define products yet to come from manufacturers.
While that’s great news for consumers, it can be a dull prospect to be excited about one similar Android slab after another. While devices such as the LG G4 or Huawei P8 might buck this trend, a vast majority of Android phones – budget handsets, at that – tend to fly under the radar.
Breaking the mould, then, is Alcatel with the introduction of the OneTouch Fire E. Rather than run Android – as so many budget handsets do – the Fire E is South Africa’s first Firefox OS based smartphone.
Positioned at an affordable R1600 ZAR, the Fire E is an interesting proposition. Were we to liken operating systems to languages, South Africans are largely au fait with the lingo of iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile and Symbian, yet precious few of us – myself included, before receiving the Fire E – have ever dared to speak Firefox OS.
The key question, then, is whether the Fire E, as a Firefox OS experiment of sorts, is capable of attracting the same gravitas that Android and Windows Mobile do on lower end handsets.
Out of the box, the Fire E is a pleasant smartphone. Embracing the ‘pebble’ aesthetic far more elegantly and simply than Samsung ever did. It’s a simple and effective design that’s pleasing to hold, save for a protruding camera fixture that disrupts the device’s low profile.
Rather than the traditional Android soft-touch buttons that so many of us are used to seeing, the Fire E instead carries a single, simplistic circle that’s reminiscent of an iPhone or iPad’s Home button.
In terms of specs, the Fire E comes bearing a 1.2Ghz dual-core processor alongside 512MB of RAM. Internally, there’s 4GBs of storage – expandable up to 32GB via MicroSD – accompanied by a 1700mAh removable battery, with a rear 5MP camera and a front VGA shooter.
At a light 103 grams, the Fire E is refreshingly light – and Firefox OS, unfortunately, continues this trend on bootup.
It’s difficult to admire Firefox OS as anything other than an unfinished product. The Fire E arrives with version 126.96.36.199 – which, ironically, feels somewhat like an open beta.
Generally, the Fire E is sluggish; both the processor and 512Mb of RAM struggle under the weight of the OS, with the touch screen occasionally becoming unresponsive and apps flickering as the device continuously strives to render scrolling effects and fails.
App icons frequently disappear, and I found that the fastest way to regain them was to disconnect and reconnect from WiFi or 3G. Opening and closing apps is a monotonous affair, with Firefox OS’ backwards multitasking strategy hindering usability rather than aiding it.
It’s not all negative, however. Firefox OS might be a new endeavor on the market, but Alcatel alongside MTN have been careful to load the device with a multitude of apps commonly used by a South African audience. Largely, users shouldn’t feel too out of place; Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, HERE Maps and more are readily available. The Firefox Marketplace and browser are ultimately the centrepiece of this affair. However, one app noticeably absent from this lineup is WhatsApp, which will be a deal breaker to many.
The Fire E’s cameras deliver much what you’d expect; par performances from budget cameras. The 5MP primary camera is ideal for quick snaps and little else; the front-facing VGA camera is but a courtesy, and will likely make your selfies an unenjoyable endeavour.
The 1700mAh battery is, unfortunately, non-descript as well; clocking in a full day and two at a push when used economically. Granted that there is little potential to use the Fire E for any task that’s particularly taxing, this isn’t too surprising.
All this is disappointing news, because I genuinely wanted to like the Fire E. There’s little on the market today that is as novel as Firefox OS. Granted, the Fire E might present an unfinished product that’s occasionally frustrating to use, feels lacklustre, and doesn’t deliver when you need it to, but the situation isn’t all bad.
In day-to-day use, the Fire E is a perfectly usable budget smartphone that screams ‘different’. Its design is simple, appealing, and grew on me the more I used the phone. The OS itself, while limited at present, provides all the essentials one would need on a budget smartphone without feeling either too light or over-encumbered beyond not including WhatsApp.
Ultimately, however, the Fire E is a novelty product that’s different for the sake of being different. Ideally, I imagine that the Fire E is a suitable smartphone for the elderly or the young who require a device with bells, but no whistles.
As a concept phone, the Fire E confirms the notion that Firefox OS won’t be on par with Android for a long while to come, and is hardly the Android-killer it markets itself to be. Whether the Fire E – alongside Firefox OS – will take off in South Africa is debatable, yet I feel that the device itself speaks in a language far too foreign to what the South African market space has grown accustomed.
The Fire E might burn bright on paper and in the imagination, but in reality, like Icarus of legend, flies a little too close to the sun.