SA's first Firefox OS phone reviewed - TechCentral

SA’s first Firefox OS phone reviewed


Mozilla is best known for its popular Firefox Web browser. But for the past four years, the company has been working on a smartphone and tablet platform called Firefox OS. The fruits of that labour have now arrived in South Africa, via MTN and phone maker Alcatel.

The Alcatel One Touch Fire E smartphone – recommended retail price R1 600 through MTN – is the first Firefox OS smartphone to arrive on South African shores. It’s coming into a market already crowded with low-cost Android- and Windows Phone-powered smartphones and, unfortunately, it does not fare well.

The problem is not so much the low-end hardware, but rather the operating system, which lacks many of the key applications users have come to expect, including cornerstone apps such as WhatsApp and Gmail.

The phone itself is slim and good looking (dare we call it foxy?), with a distinctive circle-shaped home button at the bottom of the 4,5-inch, 540×960-pixel IPS LCD. Looking remarkably like an old iPhone, the Fire E has a dual-core 1,2GHz processor, internal storage of 4GB (expandable using SD cards by up to 32GB), 512MB of RAM and a 1 700mAh non-removable battery.

Alcatel-280There’s a distinctly pedestrian 5-megapixel camera with LED flash (a low-end VGA camera graces the front), along with accelerometer, assisted GPS, proximity sensor and digital compass. Cellular network data modes are 2G and 3G HSPA, and Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g/n) is supported. Not bad for a device that costs just R1 600.

Unfortunately, the software that powers the phone lets down what would otherwise have been a respectable entry level smartphone.

The Linux-based Firefox OS — our review phone was running version 2.0 — doesn’t look or feel like finished software. Its rows of icons don’t look terrible, but the software is not nearly as refined as Android or Windows. And it’s a little sluggish on the bare-bones hardware.

There’s an Android-like notifications centre that appears when you slide your finger down from the top of the screen. This provides buttons to quickly switch on and off services like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Sliding a finger left on the lock screen brings up the camera app and a right swipe unlocks the screen.

Bundled apps include Nokia’s excellent Here Maps. There are a few local apps too, including News24 (which seems to have a strategy of developing for every platform under the sun), EWN (a news app from Primedia) and PriceCheck (a Naspers-owned price comparison app). An app for online fashion retailer Zando is also bundled, which seems odd on a low-end phone aimed at the mass market.

The default home screen of the MTN-supplied Alcatel One Touch Fire E

The default home screen of the MTN-supplied Alcatel One Touch Fire E

MTN has bundled its own app, myMTNza, which allows users to check their airtime balance and load Internet and SMS bundles. Facebook and Twitter also come preinstalled.

System apps include Contacts (which can be imported from Gmail), Gallery, Calculator, Calendar, Clock, FM Radio, Music, E-Mail (with POP3, IMAP and ActiveSync support), File Manager and Flashlight (which switches on the LED light for use in the dark).

Uninstalling apps is easy and similar to the iPhone. Long-pressing its icon allows you to move it around or to uninstall it by pressing a small red ‘x’. Apps can be installed through the Firefox OS Marketplace.

The big problem is that there are big gaps in the store. While some popular apps are available, including – rather interestingly — Microsoft’s, apps that people use every day, like Instagram and banking apps, are not.

A lack of apps on Windows Phone has long been one of the biggest handicaps of the Microsoft platform – though the situation has improved markedly in recent years. The lack of developer support for Firefox OS is similarly going to hobble the platform.

The challenge for Mozilla – and for operators planning to sell the Firefox OS smartphones – is convincing consumers to consider them as an alternative to the rich ecosystem offered by low-end Android equivalents. Even Windows Phone is becoming a more diverse offering, with a growing number of apps.

On the basis of the ecosystem, it’s hard to recommend the One Touch Fire E. Consumers at this price point would do well to consider a cheap Lumia phone from Microsoft or one of the plethora of Android alternatives.  — © 2015 NewsCentral Media


  1. Anton Visser on

    Isn’t this platform HTML 5 based? Making porting of mobi sites developed in HTML 5 very easy to the Firefox OS ecosystem. I believe there is a huge potential here to get local developers involved in this platform.

  2. Abbas Gadhia on

    You forgot some of the great messaging apps that are available such as Telegram and Line and not mention that WhatsApp IS available via another app.

    Very biased article. An unbiased person would have done better to review this.

  3. Evert Albers on

    I understand that WhatsApp is currently testing out a web-based version of their app for desktop browsers, so at some point I would expect a port to FireFox OS as well.

  4. Question: does it make phone calls. (not being facetious talking about reception)
    Observation: I’d rather have less apps and less bloatware than a phone as loaded with irremovable rubbish like my samsung is. I and I suspect many others are just about ready to jump ship if there is an alternative. I’m happy to see a lateral alternative to Android.

  5. Greg Mahlknecht on

    The web-based version doesn’t work without being paired to a smartphone version of WhatsApp, it’s not an architecture which could be applied to a Firefox OS version of WhatsApp, unfortunately

  6. I collected my Alcatel OneTouch Fire E today. It’s a neat looking phone, I was stunned to see that there was no access to Whatsapp and no Gmail and I have to say I would not have gone for this contract had I known that (my bad… I didn’t check for that before I signed up) and it’s disconcerting to see that the battery is non-removable. Does one throw away the whole phone in a year or so, once the battery life is over? My initial delight with my new phone has dimmed rather quickly. I hope there are work-arounds for those issues.

  7. Andre Venter on

    I have an app called ConnectA2 that emulates Whatsapp. And i use the email client to view my GMail’s

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