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While basic, the Alcatel SmartFlip can handle some smartphone functions.
While basic, the Alcatel SmartFlip can handle some smartphone functions. TCL Communication

Who says a folding smartphone has to cost $2,000, like the new Samsung Galaxy Fold? There’s another folding smartphone that costs just $59. Granted, it has a tiny screen, old-fashioned push-button controls, and a painfully slow processor. But it is a smartphone . . . of sorts.

It also looks exactly like an old-school flip phone, the kind you’d have cherished 20 years ago.

The Alcatel SmartFlip, made by the Chinese electronics company TCL, costs less than an iPhone replacement battery. But would you buy it? The SmartFlip may be far inferior to even the cheapest smartphone, but if you need a cheap but surprisingly capable backup phone, you could do worse.

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That’s because TCL has managed to squeeze in a limited set of smartphone features. The phone has a low-end Qualcomm processor, but supports 4G data and Wi-Fi. There’s even a GPS navigation chip. And though the phone comes with just 4 gigabytes of memory, you can open the back cover and slip in an additional 32 gigs.

And yes, the battery pops out. TCL claims huge battery life, but you needn’t take their word for it. You can just buy one or two spare batteries on eBay and swap as necessary. Try that with the Samsung Galaxy Fold.

The camera is a 2-megapixel unit instead of the 10 megapixels or more that we’ve grown accustomed to, so don’t expect much. The same goes for the phone’s tiny, grainy video screen.

The SmartFlip runs software called KaiOS, an Android alternative that’s popular in Asia but hasn’t made a dent in the United States, though it was developed here. It can’t run standard Android apps, but a few good ones have been custom-made for KaiOS phones, including a version of Google Maps that lets you use the phone as a personal navigator.

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It does have Google Assistant, which lets you run Web searches with your voice. That’s a great feature, especially on a flip phone, where you have only a 12-button keypad for typing. Phone users of a certain age will remember that particular misery. Being able to speak one’s commands is a godsend, at least when it works. And it usually does.

Did I mention that it’s slow?

You’d think that with such a tiny screen to fill, Web pages would pop right up. No such luck. And using a push button instead of a touchscreen to navigate can become agony. The phone supports Facebook and WhatsApp, but simply pecking in my admittedly complex Facebook password was such a misery that I changed it to something dangerously simple.

Once logged in, the app served up a cramped but serviceable version of the social network. There’s no option to post messages by voice, so heaven help you if you want to post a comment.

Primitive as it is, the SmartFlip lets you do what you need to do, often by speaking instead of typing. But first and foremost, it’s a phone, with just enough smarts to keep you plugged into the wider world.

The SmartFlip may also be a harbinger of things to come. Other entrepreneurs think that consumers have had enough of the superphone arms race and are ready for something simpler.

Before the year is out, a Brooklyn company called Light is supposed to introduce a minimalist touchscreen phone. According to the company’s website, the Light Phone is “designed to be used as little as possible.”

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It will feature no advertising, no news, no social media apps, and no e-mail.

That’s a lot of nothing for a phone that will sell for $350. These days, you can get a full-featured Android for $100 or so and just refrain from using the apps that annoy you.

Or you can opt for a SmartFlip — cheap, crude and cooler than it looks.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.