Review: Alcatel Venture for Virgin Mobile USA
Alcatel offers the Venture to Virgin Mobile's prepaid crowd, an Android smartphone that includes a QWERTY keyboard, Gingerbread, and a 2-megapixel camera. Here's Phone Scoop's full review of this $99, no-contract smartphone.
For the contract-averse, finding a respectable phone can be hit or miss. Alcatel and Virgin Mobile hope to change that with the Venture, an device that packs a physical QWERTY keyboard into a reasonably small Android phone.
The Venture is made by Alcatel, a company you may not have heard of. Fear not, Alcatel has been around for a while, but previously sold mostly in markets outside the U.S. The Venture is a monoblock device with a 2.8-inch touch display and QWERTY keyboard on the front.
It's fairly long, but the mix of black, metallic, and glass materials lend it a nice appearance. The Venture is not out to set any fashion benchmarks, despite its French heritage. It won't be strutting its stuff down any sort of cat walk. That's not to say it looks bad. It's just a bit "ho-hum" rather than "hot-dog!"
The body of the device is smooth, with nary an edge, ledge, or surface on which to catch you hand. The sides have a nice, rounded shape to them and it rests comfortably in your palm. The front surfaces have a slippery feel to them, but the battery cover is coated in a soft-touch paint job that gives it a nice bit of grip. It'll slip into your pockets no problem, though it isn't the skinniest phone out there.
The display takes up about two-thirds of the Venture's front face. Four physical buttons, marking the typical Android control keys, run in a line across the bottom of the display. Each button is a rectangle, perhaps 1cm in length. The buttons have a pretty good shape to them and the travel and feedback is excellent.
One look at the keyboard and you can see that Alcatel was clearly inspired by Research In Motion's BlackBerry smartphones. They keys have the same "scalloped" shape that RIM has favored on its keys for years. The execution, however, isn't even close to BlackBerry quality. In fact, I'll go on record saying the Venture's QWERTY keyboard is among the worst I've used. The buttons have too much shape to them. When attempting to type messages, I found my thumbs getting caught on keys as I moved them about the keyboard. Worse, the travel and feedback of the buttons is beyond horrendous. There's so much side-to-side play in the keyboard that the entire thing feels like mush. The bottom row, conversely, is so tight and immovable that you have to really adjust the amount of pressure on the keys in order to get the buttons to work properly. It's really a crummy keyboard. About the only positive thing I can say about it is that Alcatel included dedicated "@", comma, and period buttons.
The rest of the Venture's controls work well. The microUSB port is on the left and the volume toggle is on the right. The volume toggle has an excellent feel to it, and travel and feedback are perfect. The same goes for the lock button on the top. The 3.5mm headset jack is easily accessible on the top edge of the Venture. The battery cover pops off easily, and the microSD card slot can be accessed without removing the battery.
The Venture's screen measures 2.8 inches and has 240 x 320 pixels. It's exactly what you'd expect to see on a low-cost smartphone: awful. I can count the pixels on the screen from an arm's length away. There are so few pixels on the screen, everything looks like it is slightly out of focus thanks to the ill-defined borders of images, icons, and on-screen graphics. It really is blah-tastic. However, it is bright, and easily read outdoors under the shining sun.
Virgin Mobile makes use of Sprint's 3G network. During my tests, the Venture performed above average when compared to other Sprint phones. In places where Sprint's coverage is weak, the Venture managed to stay connected to the network and never dropped any calls when I moved between cells. Data speeds over the EVDO Rev. A 3G network were consistently good, suffering only a fraction when under poor coverage.
The Venture is an excellent voice phone. Calls were crystal clear in my tests, and the earpiece can be set to pain-inducing volumes. Set all the way up, the earpiece could almost replace the speakerphone. It was easy to hear calls through the earpiece in a very noisy coffee shop. Good quality plus extreme volume means you'll easily hear conversations. The speakerphone can also be set to jarringly loud volumes. I could hear the speakerphone clearly over the grinding of an espresso machine. Ringers and alerts are smoke-alarm loud, though the vibrate alert was a bit weak.
One benefit of a smaller, lower-resolution display should be that it doesn't require as much power to operate. But it's a benefit that isn't realized on the Venture. I drained the battery from a full charge to 19% in just six hours the first day of testing. Subsequent tests had the device barely lasting until bed time (unplugging from the charger at 7AM). Keep a charger handy.
The Venture runs Android 2.3 Gingerbread with some customizations made by Virgin Mobile, including its own variant of Sprint's iD packs.
There are five home screen panels for customization and plenty of stuff crammed on there by Virgin Mobile. There are two iD packs pre-installed, both of which heavily favor Virgin-branded apps, content, and services. The selection of iD packs is fairly decent, and you can customize each iD pack to make it more suitable to your needs. You can also use a more stock version that has less clutter. The iD packs are an interesting concept, but often come with apps/bloat that I found undesirable.
The rest of the system works as you expect any Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) phone to work. The main app menu is a vertical grid that slides up and down. You can't customize the view of the app menu; it's stuck in the grid. The settings menus are stock Android and don't offer any surprises.
Performance isn't great. The Venture has a 600MHz processor under the hood. The small, low-res screen doesn't tax the processor, but I still found the Venture to be a bit laggy at times. The home screens didn't always transition smoothly, and sometimes the phone would freeze for 5-10 seconds when attempting to open or switch apps.
The Venture uses the stock Android phone software, though it has been skinned by Virgin so it looks slightly different. The phone application is simple and straightforward and offers the typical set of tools, such as speakerphone, muting, and adding a line. One annoying thing: The buttons to activate these in-call features are absolutely miniscule, making them difficult to use quickly. Most other Android phones have huge buttons to turn on the speakerphone or send to Bluetooth. Not the Venture. They might be the size of a pencil eraser.
The phone app includes the contact database, which is accessible via one of the tabs at the bottom of the screen. Contacts can hold a ton of data, including multiple phone numbers, email addresses, web sites, street addresses, and more. There are no special home screen widgets for contacts, though you can add direct-dial shortcuts to the home screen if you wish.
As with all Android 2.3 devices, it adds details from Facebook and other accounts to your contact database and keeps everything synced.
The Venture offers only the stock Android messaging tools, with Facebook and Twitter tossed in for good measure. The generic email, Gmail, Google Talk, and Messaging apps are on board, and function just as they do on other Android 2.3 devices. The email/Gmail clients work well and offer plenty of options for managing/interacting with email. The SMS app offers threaded conversations, and Google Talk works well for messaging Google contacts in real-time. If you want any sort of IM other than Google Talk, you'll have to find your own solution.
It's nice to see the full Facebook and Twitter apps pre-loaded. Both are out of date, and needed to be updated, but at least they are there. I am surprised Virgin didn't put a social networking catch-all app or other similar service on board.
Voicemail is available, but visual voicemail is not. There are no video chat services on board, and the Venture doesn't have a front-facing camera anyway.
Virgin Mobile Live
The Venture's stand-out media feature is Virgin Mobile Live, Virgin's streaming content service. Virgin Mobile Live offers streamed music, broadcasts, concert footage, blogs, and movies. It is an all-encompassing media service that offers bits and bytes of everything, though it’s curated by Virgin Mobile. Speaking of bytes, be careful. Streamed content eats up data allotments quickly, and Virgin Mobile throttles users who exceed their data allotments.
The older stock Android music application is preloaded as a music option. It doesn't bring anything new to the table, unfortunately. You can also make use of the new Google Music service if you care to download it yourself. Either way, music playback sounds good whether it’s from local storage or streamed across the ‘net.
Notably absent is any way to actually purchase and download music tracks. In order to do that, you'll have to download and install the Amazon MP3 Player application or the newest version of Google Play. Pandora is also on board.
The stock Android video application is on board for video playback. It will play side-loaded content as well as any video captured on the device itself. It offers bare-bones functionality (play, pause, stop, etc.). The YouTube app is the same old one that's on every other Android phone.
The Venture's camera resembles the stock Android camera, but has a few modifications. There's no physical camera key, so you'll have to use the home screen shortcut to launch the camera (there's no lock screen shortcut, sadly). It's not the fastest-opening camera ever, that's for sure. What's odd is the orientation of the camera. As with other Android phones, the camera software expects that the phone will be held sideways when capturing images. This feels a but awkward with the monoblock QWERTY design of the Venture, though I suppose it’s something owners will get used to.
The left edge of the viewfinder is reserved for some floaty control settings. Touch them, and drop-down menus appear so that you can make adjustments to basic functions, such as the flash, lighting, exposure, etc. The shutter button is on the right side of the viewfinder.
The software is fairly limited, and somewhat slow. There are no fun shooting modes, such as panorama, for example. Focus is slow, and taking pictures is slow.
We encountered a bug during testing that rendered the camera useless. The bug resolved itself after we wiped the phone and started over. According to Virgin Mobile, the bug was limited to our review unit and was not present on 50 random devices it tested.
The gallery is the stock Android option that's been around forever. Photo albums float in stacks in the main gallery view, and you can sift through them in the chronological timeline in which they are arranged. It has a neat 3D look and feel to it. If you have photos stored in Google's Picasa service or Google+, they are also included in the gallery and you can sift through them with ease. The gallery does the normal things, such as slide shows and allow for photos to be shared via social networks.
As for editing, the Venture only allows for crop and rotate. That kind of stinks.
With just 2 megapixels to work with, it's not surprising that the Venture takes mediocre pictures. Focus is nearly always soft, contrast is out of control, and exposure is hit or miss. You'll notice lots of blown-out colors in the images below, and can see plenty of grain despite the fact that these were taken under a bright, shining sun. They're not terrible, but they are far from good.
The video capture quality is absolute crud. The maximum resolution the Venture can capture is CIF, which is 352 x 288 pixels. It's low-quality, wavy, grainy, not in focus, and pretty much awful. It's useless to shoot video indoors, though the Venture can be used out in bright sunshine to convey the basics of an event or scene. Don't count on it to replace your video camera, as details are missing from most video I captured.
3GPP / MPEG-4 format (viewable with QuickTime)
File size: 2.2 MB
The Web browser on the Venture is the standard Android browser. Web performance was consistent, but not awesome. As noted during the signals section of the review, the Venture performed well at maintaining a good connection to Sprint/Virgin's network. That led to "OK" performance under crummy conditions, and good performance under good network conditions. I saw the 1x network icon a few times, but that didn't seem to hinder browser performance too much.
The Venture offers the standard laundry list of customization features for any Android device. It lets users adjust the ringers, wallpapers, and such, and the addition of the Sprint/Virgin iD packs allows users to choose different themes and profiles for their devices.
The Venture is packed with a wide range of Virgin-branded applications. Some of them are useful (such as MyAccount) and some are not (such as Goodies). I was able to delete some of the pre-installed app, but not all of them. With only 163MB of user-accessible memory for apps, you'll have to be prudent, unless you care to run apps from the microSD card.
The Venture supports Bluetooth 3.0 and the typical set of profiles. I was able to connect it to mono and stereo headphones, my car, other phones, and computers. Call quality send to my car's speakers was very good, and probably the clearest I've experienced via Bluetooth. Music sent to stereo headphones was pretty good, but short of excellent. I didn't have any trouble passing files to other devices.
The only mapping service on board is Google Maps. The GPS radio inside the Venture does pretty well at locking down location accurately and quickly. It was able to pinpoint me to within about 25 feet regularly. Google Maps, however, performed a bit slow on the Venture. Maps were very slow to load on the Venture's display thanks to the slower 600MHz processor. Real-time directions were often unusable because the app fell behind my real-time location.
My biggest gripes with the Alcatel Venture are its inconsistencies. It nails some of the most important features, whist failing badly at other table-stakes tasks.
While I understand that the Venture is targeting cost-conscious customers, the display and keyboard — the two most vital elements for interacting with the device — are painfully bad. Conversely, the Venture is one of the better voice phones I've tested in recent memory, and I had no trouble surfing the web with the device.
The system software is easy to use, and the Virgin iD packs provide a little bit of flexibility when it comes to managing themes and customization, but performance lags and the device is a bit buggy.
Would I recommend the Alcatel Venture to Virgin Mobile customers? Not in its current form. If you absolutely need an Android smartphone with a physical keyboard, the LG Optimus Slider is worth the extra $100.