Alcatel Idol 4S review: it’s hard out there for a phone

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If you’ve thought of Alcatel at all, you’ve probably only thought of it as a budget smartphone maker, creating drops in a sea of low-end Android phones. But say you’re Alcatel, how do you move up from the bottom to the middle, and make a phone that isn’t destined for the prepaid section of the phone store? Make something that people might do more than tolerate, but instead actively want to buy? You might do something a little like the Idol 4S.

The Idol 4S is Alcatel’s attempt to move up and compete with the next tier of modern smartphones. It has a more refined design and higher-end components and materials than cheaper phones and the company’s earlier efforts. But the real thing that is supposed to set the Idol 4S apart is that it comes with a VR headset right in the box (or, more accurately, the box *is* the VR headset).

Moving up to the midrange and including a VR headset means that the 4S has a higher price than you or I might expect from the brand; it will be $ 399 when it goes on sale early next month. That price puts the Idol 4S against much stiffer competition in the unlocked Android world, such as the impressive OnePlus 3 and the promising ZTE Axon 7.

After spending over a week using and testing the Idol 4S, I have mixed feelings about it. It’s a very capable Android smartphone, with no real performance flaws or deal-breaking issues, but it lacks some of the refinement of the competition. There are certain, questionable design choices that I’ll get into later, and I don’t find much value in the VR experience, but overall the Idol 4S is fast with reliable battery life and a great screen. I just don’t think it’d be the phone I’d recommend if you are planning to spend $ 400 on an unlocked device.

Turns out breaking out of the low-tier pack is harder than it looks, even if you include VR.

Alcatel Idol 4S

Looking at the Idol 4S, it’s clear that Alcatel is leaving behind the budget plastic of its prior models. The glass and metal sandwich design is familiar (from the back, it looks strikingly like last year’s Samsung Galaxy S6) and telegraphs that 4S isn’t a bargain bin phone. The device itself is very well constructed and the slight curve on the sides of the front and rear glass panels is a nice level of polish. It is, like other phones with front and rear glass designs, very slippery without a case.

Alcatel Idol 4S Alcatel Idol 4S

The Idol 4S has other high-end hardware features too, such as a very quick fingerprint scanner on the back and powerful stereo speakers on the front. The output of the speakers puts the $ 800 Galaxy S7 Edge to shame and actually did justice to the new Justice single.

The phone’s 5.5-inch AMOLED display is great, even nicer to look at that some more expensive phones, such as the Nexus 6P. It’s bright and colorful with great viewing angles, and the quad HD resolution is sharp enough for VR purposes. It doesn’t get as blindingly bright as a Samsung when outdoors under direct sunlight, but it still remains readable.

Despite impressing me with much of the Idol 4S’s design, Alcatel misses with the odd “Boom Key” on the right side. The round button — which, must be said, is a dead ringer for the power button on Sony’s old Xperia Z — can be programmed to do a variety of things, such as launching an app, taking a screenshot, or snapping a photo instantly when the screen is off. It can also trigger a variety of “Boom effects” within apps, such as increasing the loudness of music, enabling a surround sound effect in video, or displaying weather animations in the app launcher. I didn’t find any of these features particularly useful, and certainly not important enough to warrant a hardware switch for them. Mostly, I just pressed the Boom Key to turn the screen on, which I could also do by pressing the power button on the left side or double tapping the display, making it thrice redundant. I’d much rather have a switch for toggling notification modes, such as on the OnePlus 3, than the programmable Boom Key.

Alcatel Idol 4S

The Idol 4S may compete with other $ 400 phones with its external hardware, but it doesn’t have as powerful internal specs. Instead of Qualcomm’s top-of-the-line Snapdragon 820, as found in the OnePlus 3, ZTE Axon 7, and many other Android phones this year, the 4S has the midrange Snapdragon 652 chip. It also has 3GB of RAM, when many other phones come equipped with 4GB or even more.

These lower specs haven’t proven to be an issue in my testing, however. The Idol 4S is a fast and responsive phone and I didn’t experience any sluggishness or slowness. It can play games, jump between apps easily, take 4K video, and do pretty much anything you’d expect a modern smartphone to do without issue. It may not be as impressive on the spec sheet, but in the real world, I’ve been struggling to find a difference in performance between the 4S and phones with the more powerful processor.

The Idol 4S’ performance outpaces its spec sheet

The Idol 4S’ 3,000mAh battery is also able to last a full day between charges for me, and the quick charging feature lets me top up in a hurry. The quick charging feature also works with any Qualcomm-certified charger, so it’s not tied to a specific charger and cable like the OnePlus 3 is.

The phone is compatible with GSM networks, and I’ve been testing it on T-Mobile. Network performance has been on-par with other unlocked phones I’ve used, and it has a second SIM slot that’s useful when traveling. If you don’t want to run two SIMs, the second slot also doubles as MicroSD slot to expand the 32GB of onboard storage.

Camera performance and quality is another area where the Idol 4S doesn’t quite match up to the competition. The 16-megapixel sensor has a bright, f/2.0 lens, but it lacks image stabilization. It’s not a bad camera by any means, but it’s not as impressive as other phones in this price range and gets soundly trounced by more expensive devices. The issues appear to stem from weaker post-processing: there’s a fair amount of noise and grain in the Idol 4S’ shots, making them not as crisp looking as images from superior phones. I don’t think the camera is so bad to rule the phone out completely, but it’s not the Idol 4S’ strong point by any means.

Alcatel Idol 4S

The software on the Idol 4S carries on Alcatel’s move toward a less modified version of Android. There are slight user interface tweaks here and there, but for the most part, it’s the same look and feel of the Android 6.0 Marshmallow software that comes on Google’s Nexus phones. It’s fast and uncluttered and doesn’t have any showstopping bugs. The Idol 4S also doesn’t have any carrier bloatware, since it is an unlocked device. Alcatel says that it will update the 4S to Android 7.0 Nougat, but it has not committed to a time frame for the upgrade.

Alcatel Idol 4S VR goggle Alcatel Idol 4S Alcatel’s headset is a mix of Google Cardboard and Gear VR

That leaves me to discuss the elephant in the room, the Idol 4S’ included virtual reality headset. The VR headset itself is a clever bit of design that doubles as the phone’s packaging.

The headset is a lot like Google Cardboard in that it doesn’t plug into the phone in any way and doesn’t let you adjust the lenses. But instead of being made of flimsy cardboard, the VR goggle is made of plastic and has a padded strap for comfort. The 4S snaps into the front of the headset and there are two controls on the bottom for back and select functions that communicate through magnets embedded in the phone. It’s similar in appearance and construction to Samsung’s Gear VR, but it lacks adjustable focus and doesn’t have as many controls.

The construction of headset itself is fine and the padding on the strap and around the goggles make it comfortable to wear, though the non-adjustable lenses contribute to a constricted, tunnel-like view. But what makes any VR system worth your time is the content available in it. There are a handful of 360 video experiences and a couple games installed on the Idol 4S, as well as a store to find more games and video. I was also able to get the Google Cardboard app installed and working with it. But the overall experience isn’t as polished or complete as Samsung offers with Gear VR, and Alcatel doesn’t have the backing of Oculus for more content in the future. It’s also not compatible with Google’s forthcoming Daydream VR platform. It’s basically what you get with Google Cardboard, but with a more comfortable viewer.

Alcatel Idol 4S

I have a lot of good things to say about the Idol 4S: it’s well made, performs well, and doesn’t have any major flaws. But I can say that about other phones that are priced similarly, which makes it tough for the Idol 4S to separate itself, even with its included VR viewer.

Alcatel’s strategy for last year’s less expensive Idol 3 allowed it to stand out in a crowded field by offering a level of performance and features unheard of at its price point. The same can’t be said for the Idol 4S: it’s playing in a much more competitive field and doesn’t differentiate from the other, already very good options available. Alcatel really wants the VR headset to push the Idol 4S over the top, but it’s not good enough of an experience to choose this phone over something else.

The Idol 4S doesn’t disappoint, but it doesn’t wow either

I don’t think anyone buying the Idol 4S would be disappointed by the phone itself, they just might be disappointed with what they might be missing out on.

Photography by Dan Seifert

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