Alcatel came back fighting last year with the OneTouch Idol 3 in both 4.7″ and 5.5″ variants. This year we’re looking at one of their two offerings; the Idol 4S. Take a look in our full review.
(UPDATE: Alcatel has just gotten back to us with a launch date and price for the Idol 4s which has been ammended at the bottom.)
Disclaimer: Alcatel PR Provided this Idol 4S for me (Dom) to review. They provided it free of charge, but have no say on the outcome of the review and have no editorial control whatsoever. The Idol 4S was used on the Three Mobile network in the southeast of the UK for 8 days as my only device. The device received no System OTAs in that time.
Both OneTouch Idol 3 variants in 2015 came in at sub £200 and were devices that I reviewed, loved and kept (well, the 4.7″ one, the 5.5″ one went to my mother). They had cracking screens, phenomenal speakers, fast enough performance and decent enough cameras, but what really let them down was the build quality. This year Alcatel is fixing that. They’ve dropped the OneTouch branding to simplify to Alcatel, and they still have two models, the Idol 4 and Idol 4S, but unlike last year, the size and spec difference is much smaller, with the Standard Idol 4 being 5.2″ to the 4S’ 5.5″.
-5.5″ 2560x1440p OLED screen
-Octa-Core Snapdragon 652. 4xCortex A72 1.8Ghz, 4xCortex A53 1.4Ghz.
-Adreno 510 GPU
-3GB LPDDR3 RMA
-32GB eMMC 5.1 storage.
-16mp rear facing camera, capable of up to 2160p30 video
-8mp front facing camera, capable of up to 1080p30 video
For a more complete Spec list, head on over to GSMArena to check it out.
Build quality is most certainly not one the things Alcatel has to worry about this year, the proverbial glass sandwich is back, a sheet of Gorilla Glass 3 encases the front and what I believe to be Asahi DragonTrail glass on the back, and instead of a plastic frame this year, we have an anodized Aluminium chassis with beautiful chamfers on both the front and back.
If we look at the front of the Idol 4S, we have a beautifully symmetric design, reminiscent of the Xperia Z series, a speaker on the top and the bottom, with equal bezels up top and on the bottom, because the Idol 4S pulls the same trick as it’s predecessor, it can be used upside down, and new for this year, back to front as well. going from left to right, we have the ambient light and proximity sensor very much hidden in the glass and near impossible to see unless you’re looking for it, and even then, you might do what I did and mistake the next item for the ambient light and proximity sensor get-up. Next up we have what looked remarkably like the sensor array, but is instead an LED flash for selfies. This isn’t too far off as an idea, we’ve seen from facing flashes before on other devices, but not like this. The flash on the Idol 4S is so well hidden that, if like me, you’d easily miss it until you accidentally turn on the flash in selfie mode and nearly drop the damn thing. Slightly before the flash is something that’s nice to see which is an LED notification light, it’s a single colour (White) which makes me wonder why they didn’t just used the LED Flash for notifications, similar to how Apple did. Lastly up the top (aside from the speaker, but we’ll get to that later) is the 8MP front facing camera which is capable of capturing 1080p video, it has face detection and autoHDR, but I’m unable to find out whether or not it has autofocus, but I’m going to side with no for the time being.
Below the screen we have nothing
Lastly on the face is the simplest and most beautiful speaker setup there is 54 speaker cutouts on the bottom, and a matching 54 up top (Then repeated on the rear). These prove that there is a way to do front facing speakers without making them look ghastly (See HTC, Motorola Sony et al). This is itself an evolution of last years design though, which I also loved, Alcatel knew what to change to make an already great design better. There is one problem with this speaker design though, and that just that these holes can get filled with dust, lint and various other pocket debris.
Taking a look over at the back, we’re greeted with the 16mp camera and Dual Tone LED Flash, along with the camera’s monstrous Camera hump, If people are going to get mad at Apple for the hump on the iPhone 6s, they gotta get mad at Alcatel for this. It’s not horrendous looking, but it does extend up a lot higher than the rest of the chassis. Below that we have the newly redesigned Alcatel Logo, in place of where the previous model said Idol, and down at the bottom where the previous model Said Alcatel OneTouch, the new one simply says “Idol”. Below Where it says Idol there is the regulatory information in a different shade of black, so its hidden until you look for it, a nice touch from Alcatel If I do say so myself.
Next is the left and right sides, Starting on the left we have the power button right up on top, a decision that many will find inconvenient, but one that
does not bother me all that much being a leftie and as a person that primarily uses double tap to wake and sleep, but it does have a little play in it, and if i vigorously shake the device there is a slight rattle emanating from the power and volume buttons recesses, so it’s not perfect, but it’s getting damn close. Underneath the power button is the SIM/MicroSD card tray., this is once again metal, but continues the trend from the power button as “Close, but not quite perfect”. If you recall my Huawei P9 review, I noted how perfectly made the frame and SIM tray was, it was so perfect that unless I was looking at the device, I couldn’t figure out where the tray was, unfortunately on the Idol 4S, there is not quite that luxury, it often sits nearly flush, but sometimes It can push in a little further than I’d like, but this is a nit pick, as it is very rare that I’m running my fingers over the SIM tray on my phone, especially when the tray is this far up the side of the device.
On the right we have the Volume rocker and the, I kid you not, Boom key. Starting off with the volume rocker as it is easier to explain, it’s a one piece rocker that’s nice and thin, but not to the point of being annoying or hard to feel, like the power button this has an unfortunate rattle when shaken, but it could be far worse. So let’s get on to the weird part. Alcatel decided to include something called the Boom Key this time around, in theory, it’s a button that when you press is, makes everything a little boomier, in music it makes it pseudo-surround, on the home screen it does full-screen weather animations etc. but it always just felt a little… naf. After a few hours of that I turned the button into a screenshot button, and since then I have changed it to be an app launch button, choosing the launch the VR launcher with a single press. The Boom Key is something that I could see being a great Idea in theory and in the design stage, but in practice it falls flat, It is in the place where most companies put their power buttons, and it looks incredibly similar to Sony’s old power button, and to make it even weirder, you can use the Boom Key to wake the screen up, but not put it to sleep. I would have much preferred the Boom Key not exist and have them save the R&D cost as well as the tooling cost.
Up top we have the 3.5mm headphone jack and the Microphone, and on the bottom we have the MicroUSB charging and Data jack and the other microphone. The thing with this phone though, is that either of those could be labelled as top or bottom, as the phone works both ways, sure the camera would be upside down and so would the branding, but who cares, you have a phone that works upside down and back to front. Whilst I am a bit upset that the 3.5mm jack is up top, as I stated that can somewhat be remedied by the fact it works upside down, the other thing I’m slightly upset about is the lack of USB-C, this one is harder to excuse, especially as how long ago the Idol 4 and 4S were announced, since then the North American model was retooled to have a fingerprint reader, I see no reason why both models couldn’t have been retooled with USB-C jacks.
Alcatel has actually done really well this year again. Like Moto and a lot of the Chinese OEMs, Alcatel has decided to stay close to Google’s Vision of Android and decided to add a few usability tweaks on top, such as the reversible option and more.
Android 6.0.1 is what we get here with a relatively recent security patch (April 1st, but I’d rather a newer one), and as I said, it’s nice a clean, whilst there is more bloat on here than I’d like (just like last year) fortunately, most of it is uninstallable, and the bits that can’t be are usually disable-able, so not too much to complain about there.
The apps that Alcatel have added though are pretty great, such as the VR launcher for the included Virtual Reality headset which is nice and simple head tracking app. They also have a custom camera app that is better than Google’s (But come on, whose isn’t?). But Alcatel has done something that a lot of Android OEMs don’t know how to do, and that is to use restraint. They refrained from adding countless useless features like CleanMaster, they didn’t duplicate every single app on the phone with one Google makes, they decided that it is not worth the time and user frustration to do that. Sure they added a fair amount of bloat, but as I said, it’s uninstallable for the most part, something that a lot of Android OEMs once again don’t let you do, Alcatel isn’t perfect, but it gets a lot of points for getting close.
My One reservation about software when it comes to Alcatel is updates. The Idol 3 took an absolute age to get Marshmallow after debuting with 5.0.2, both of my units are still on 5.0.2 despite Alcatel reassuring me that it’s been released. But worse than late updates? The constant lack of communication with regards to software updates, asking if it was going to get 5.1, then 5.1.1, and then 6.0 and then finally 6.0.1 became tiresome, because you’d get an annoying evasive answer, or no answer at all. Alcatel have done great by launching the Idol 4 and Idol 4S on Marshmallow, and that’s great, but Nougat will be out soon, and are we going to have to wait about 12 months or so to get that? Is the Idol 3 ever going to see Nougat? Who knows, because as I’ve said, software support is one of the few areas that Alcatel is seriously lacking in, and if they’re reading this, please, for the love of your customers, give better answers.
Unlike on some devices, this is going to be a piece of cake to write. Armed with the Snapdragon 652, the Idol 4S flies. I haven’t had a single slow down, nor have I seen a hint of stutter or lag, this is likely to do with the ultra fast CPU cores (4 Cortex A72’s at 1.8Ghz) or an actually decent GPU (Adreno 510 and roughly 500Mhz) or the ample amount of RAM (3GB) but performance is seriously not an issue for Alcatel and the Idol 4S here.
I would like to thank Alcatel for fixing their grave error this year (Well to some degree, they still used the woeful P.O.S that is the 617 on the regular Idol 4). Last Years Idol 3 5.5 had a 5.5” 1080p display and the Snapdragon 615, my beef with this chip has been made public knowledge for a long time, and Alcatel fixed that this year. The Snapdragon 652 is a legitimately great SoC, It pairs 4 Cortex A53 CPU Cores with Four Cortex A72 CPU Cores. The A72 is the direct replacement for the Cortex A17, a Chip that was very underappreciated, but the A17 was faster and more power efficient than the A15, and that’s exactly what the A72 is, it is (a lot) faster than the A57 and a helluva lot more efficient too. Pairing a great set of CPU cores with a great GPU is also what helps the Snapdragon 652 (and 650) be leaps and bounds better than the 615 and its ilk from last year.
I Can throw some benchmark numbers in here as screenshots below, they’re good but not mind-blowing, and that’s where the fault of benchmarks lie, the Idol 4s to me never felt slow or sluggish, but the synthetic Geekbench test on one run made it is CPU performance out to be half that of the newest iPhone, and having used the 6s I can tell you that the Idol 4s does not feel half as fast.
The Camera is one of the few places on the Idol 4s that doesn’t wow me. It is not bad in any sense of the word, but in a price point occupied by things like the OnePlus 3 and the ZTE Axon 7 where they have really nice cameras, the Idol 4s seems to fall a bit short.
It’s fast to open, fast to focus and fast enough to capture, and the dynamic range is mostly there, but it just doesn’t wow me, and that’s it’s main problem. Sure you can stick HDR mode on and get some awesome looking images, but if you forget to turn it off, you can also end up with some crummy looking ones. The Flash is a similar story, whilst it is a Dual-Tone LED flash, it almost fires a little too late to actually be useful. As I said, nothing is a deal breaker here and nothing is abhorrent or terrible, but at this price point, you can get some really good stuff and the Idol 4s’ camera is just okay.
Selfies take a slightly different story, they’re actually pretty great, and the Idol 4s does something I’ve not seen until you get to the unreasonably expensive flagships, It does Snapchat properly, no chugging, no lagging, no video artifacts, video and audio sync up properly, this is something that is nigh on impossible to see on a mid to low-end Android phone.
Selfies taken on this thing also come out really well given enough lighting, and if there is not, Alcatel has lovingly provided you with a flash hidden under the glass under what seems to be some sort of diffusion layer, which is super neat as it not only hides the LED from sticking out like a sore thumb (I’m looking at you, literally every other company with a front facing flash) it also, you guessed it, diffuses the flash from seeming so harsh. Though I’d still avoid it if you can.
Lastly is video, Video is something I’m trying to do a bit more of nowadays, I try to do a Vlog from each phone (though that’s gone by the wayside for the last few) but I also try to take more photos and videos to document my somewhat busy life and unpredictable memory. The Idol 4s actually can take 4k UHD video, but I wouldn’t recommend it, it gets the phone hot, slows it down, chews through the battery and the storage and just doesn’t come out the other end looking so hot unless it on a tripod and there isn’t a lot of motion.
1080p on the other hand works great here, though that shouldn’t be a surprise, phones have been able to shoot in 1080p since roughly 2011, we should have had it perfected by now!. But in all seriousness, the video output from the Idol 4s really does look quite nice, with nice fast exposure changes when needed, it focusses like a dream and although it lacks OIS (Optical Image Stabilisation) it remains mostly judder free, despite my caffeine fuelled shaky hand syndrome (It’s a serious issue, I rarely take photos freehand if I can help it), but rather than me tell you about the video capture, here is a 1080p sample from both the rear and front cameras.
Radio’s & connectivity
Radios and connectivity weren’t really an issue for Alcatel, and nor are they this year, with 4G on board, as well as WiFi 802.11ac with 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz, the Idol 4s routinely does great not only in my home deadspots (my office sadly is a notorious deadspot) but also in the real world, such as the seafront, or very congested shopping centre, the Idol 4s held up valiantly and If I could have given it a medal for not giving up I would have.
On 3G/H+/DC-HSDPA I was able to get between 12-15mbps on the downlink and just under 4mbps on the downlink in general, on LTE those speeds jumped to nearly 30mbps on the downlink and just under 20mbps on the uplink, the radios in this thing aren’t a bottleneck, your carrier or ISP might just be screwing with you.
Another nice carry over from last year is NFC, despite not having a fingerprint scanner, the Idol 4s still has NFC and is able to be used for Android Pay, you just have to authenticate with a PIN instead of your finger obviously. Would I have preferred a fingerprint scanner? Yes (Especially seeing as the North American model got retooled to get one) but it is not a dealbreaker for me, despite for having a fingerprint scanner that I had gotten used to on my Oppo F1 Plus, Moto G4 Plus and Huawei P9, it was the lovely experience that made me want to stay on using the Idol 4s (not to mention the fact I actually use review devices as my daily driver) So don’t let the lack of a fingerprint scanner dissuade you unless you really, really, really need one.
This is a new section I’ve decided to start adding in, for the Idol 4s there are just two things I’m putting in this section, and those are the VR headset and the speakers, I’ll speak about the VR experience first as It’s the more fun of the two.
VR has come a long way in very little time, and the phone based VR we see with Google Cardboard and Samsung GearVR is no different, but whereas those devices are extra add-ons (unless you managed to snag a GearVR with the purchase of your S6/S7) the Idol 4s’ VR experience is slightly different and way more fun.
The Box the Idol 4s comes in (and in some cases the Idol 4) is the VR headset, all you need to go is attach the straps, remove the protective films and boom, you have a VR headset that is a mashup of the GearVR and Cardboard. It is essentially a fancier Google Cardboard, but you get a plastic build, foam cushioning for the eyes and nose, adjustable velcro headstraps, and a pair of capacitive buttons underneath the unit that can interact as a select and a back button in the VR UI. Whilst it’s not the best VR experience in the world, it is still more than passable, and the fact that it’s free in the box, no wait, it is the box, is just great.
VR Is something that can bring people together and make them giggle and have a laugh, I’ve not seen another phone do that. The preinstalled VR/360 degree content is pretty great, but where is really shines is in the private cinema, where you can watch videos (Either one you’ve taken or DVDs you’ve ripped and placed on the device) in the perfect seat in a virtual cinema, as I said this isn’t the best VR experience in the world, the Screen can be pixelated if you start to look for it, it isn’t 100% able to always stay in perfect sync (Though it clears up really fast) and lastly it makes the phone get hot and drains the battery faster than I drain a carafe of coffee. Despite all that, I know when I’m on the plane to IFA sometime next month, I’m bringing the Idol 4s and a load of movies to enjoy on the plane, because screw talking to people.
Speaker wise, there wasn’t really anything Alcatel had to do, the Idol 3’s had the best speakers I’d heard barring the original Boomsound speakers (subsequent versions lacked something), but they managed to do it again. Alcatel once again partnered up with JBL to tune the speakers, include a great pair of earbuds in the box, and lastly, they double ported each speaker. What I mean by that last one is that the Idol 3 had two speakers, one up top and one down below, and that’s still the same on the Idol 4 and 4s, but instead of just porting speaker grilles at the front, Alcatel ported them on the back as well, and if you’re one of those sadists that put’s their phone face down for whatever reason, the phone knows it is close to a desk (using the proximity sensor) and tries to redirect more of the audio to come out the back, awesome trick guys, and I love it so damn much.
They aren’t perfect, once you get above roughly 80% they start to get a little tinny and distorted, and sometimes I might say that they rarely go quiet enough, but in the mid volume range, I doubt many people will be disappointed by the sound that comes out of the Idol 4S.
Usually this is the hard part of the review, and in a little way so it this one, but not for the reason you’d think. The Idol 4S is an insta-buy for me, despite it being far bigger than i’d like (Instead of a 5.2” variant, i’d wished the Idol 4 stayed at 4.7”) and it being a glass sandwich with no Dbrand skins in sight (Please robots, a Mahogany skin would look great on this) the Idol 4s just made me enjoy using it, whether it was the (admittedly novel) VR stuff, the beautiful design, cracking speakers, gorgeous AMOLED screen or anything else I’m not sure, but I don’t want to stop using this phone.
The problem for me comes with the price, or rather, I don’t know what It is. Whilst we know that the Idol 4 costs £189/$200,
we have no idea what the UK price for the 4s is (It’s $400USD) and It needs to watch out, because it;s going to have a really, really, really hard time if it is at £330 or higher ,seeing as that is where the OnePlus 3 stands, with twice the RAM, a better camera, faster processor, better quick charging tech and more. The Idol 4s face competition it didn’t have last year, which is good, but it means Alcatel has to try harder to stand out. Alcatel have just reached out to us to let us know that the Idol 4s is going to reatil for £379 and goes on sale on September 1st.
Alcatel Idol 4s£379
- Best Speakers on any mobile device
- Lovely build
- Gorgeous screen
- VR Headset is the box
- Fast SoC
- Camera could be hit or miss
- Fingerprint scanner only on North American model
- No USB-C
- Updates are an uncertainty
- In a much more crowded space this year