You’ve shopped. You’ve read reviews. You’re looking to go off contract but you don’t want pay $400-$800 for a smartphone. Well, your search may be over! THIS is your Alcatel IDOL! Sorry, I work for FOX and couldn’t help but use that intro a la American Idol, but it’s true. The Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 is an unlocked Android phone that compromises very little and delivers quite a lot at a price point that should leave you with no buyer’s remorse.
For a quick overview of the phone -before you get into the detailed stuff- watch my Quick Look:
Alcatel has two versions of the Idol 3 currently on the market. I don’t think it is any coincidence that, based on their screen sizes and price points, they appear to be gunning for the reigning king of unlocked smartphones here in the states, Motorola. For the average consumer, I think they’ve actually accomplished just that and brought to market two compelling handsets that should make for great competition in the mid-range segment. For this review, we’re focusing on the version of the Idol 3 that comes with the 5.5” 1080p display as opposed to the 4.7” 720p model.
“Mid-Level” Hardware That Competes With The Flagships
Removing the 5.5” Idol 3 from the box, the first thing you’ll notice is just how light the phone is. Weighing in at only 140 grams (or, approx. ⅓ lb.), you may be mislead into thinking that number translates to cheap but the phone doesn’t feel cheap at all. There’s no flex, creaks, no hint of bad build quality to speak of. You get a very nice looking chrome and black frame around the device with very little bezel on the sides of a beautiful screen.
Yes, for $250 you get a gorgeous 1080p display that is viewable outdoors at maximum brightness and reproduces colors and images with aplomb. That’s thanks to a 401 pixel per inch display pushing 14 million colors. Best of all, you’re not dinged for Alcatel having included a full HD screen because battery life on this phone has been excellent for me. Above the brilliant panel is an 8 megapixel wide angle, front-facing camera and the usual array of sensors. Moving around to the sides of the phone, you’ll find your volume keys on the right, and the power button on the left, along with the SIM/microUSB tray. The bottom of the phone is where you’ll find the charge port and one of two microphones. The top of the phone is where you’ll find the headphone jack and the other microphone. The back of the phone sports a 13 megapixel camera that took some pretty solid photos, complete with LED flash. This was one of the very few complaints I had about the phone though. I dislike when manufacturers place the camera in the corner of a smartphone instead of toward the center of the device. I always inadvertently cover it up when I first grasp the phone to take a picture. I tend to have an index finger in my photos, once every several photos or so.
Internally, the phone comes with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage. No worries about the storage though because the Idol 3 supports microSD cards up to 128GB. The phone’s processor, the Octa-Core Qualcomm® Snapdragon 615 handles everything pretty well. I experienced lag occasionally but nothing notable enough to merit any discussion about it. We can’t look at the internals of an unlocked phone without considering the cellular bands it supports and this one has wireless radios galore- with the exception of CDMA. Sorry Sprint and Verizon subscribers. The phone will work on pretty much any GSM carrier in the States as it supports GSM Quad (850/900/1800/1900), UMTS 850/1900/2100/1700, HSPA+, and LTE FDD:B2/4/5/7/12/17. When it comes to Wi-Fi, you’re good to go because not only does the phone come with 802.11 a/b/g/n, but you also get dual band support for both 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks. Rounding out your wireless experience is NFC and Bluetooth 4.1 low energy. Again, this phone is just so robust for the price point! It should really give flagship phones a run for their money for most users.
Now, you would think that with that beautiful screen, all those radio bands and Wi-Fi that battery life might suffer, but it doesn’t. At all. I was getting a full day of use out of this 2910mAh battery on a regular basis. A literal “full day.” Not 7 or 8 hour work day, but all day use. This is always a tough thing to quantify because we all use our phones just a little differently but, suffice it to say, I think most users -even those who consider themselves “power users”- should be able to get through the vast majority of their full day with little concern for battery life.
The front of the phone features two front-facing 1.2 watt speakers, powered by audio from JBL and they sound fantastic! They’re loud and clear, making listening to media content an enjoyable experience, all things considered. I’m not one to watch feature length movies on my phone so my use is in short bursts of funny clips sent to me, Instagram/Snapchat/Vine and YouTube videos. I’d say, at the most, I may watch a 10 or 15 minute video but anything longer and I’m generally watching on a larger screen. That said, the sound output from these speakers, and the headphone port as well, was on par or better than some flagship devices so this is definitely a win on Alcatel’s part.
In the world of Android, “subtlety” seems to be the word du jour when it comes to how fans like their manufacturer tweaks. That being the case, I don’t think we’ll hear too many complaints from the rabid Android fanboys where the Idol 3 is concerned. Alcatel has done a great job of staying out of the way of Android Lollipop’s best features, while adding some of their own that are actually well thought out. One such feature, “Reversible,” allows you to take advantage of the dual microphones by allowing you to use the phone in any orientation when you pull it out of your pocket. There is “no right side up” when this feature is activated though, by force of habit, you may gravitate toward righting it when you pull it out and see the notification LED blinking. I know I did plenty of times even with the feature activated. They also made it so that the experience there is consistent and the software will rotate all on-screen images and graphics 180*.
Alcatel also took some cues from competitors and included a Knock On feature for bringing the screen to life when it's locked. Simply double tap a dark display to wake it up and see notifications. I’ll have to say that the implementation is kind of squirrelly and will lag sometimes, but it works. Just don’t expect it to be perfect and respond every time you tap twice. And, when you get to the lock screen you’ll be greeted by some well thought out shortcuts which provide you with quick access to the calculator, music, camera, contacts, and a QR scanner.
Other than the big, bright icons, Alcatel stuck with Material design concepts throughout their additions which makes using the phone a very smooth, consistent experience throughout. Even their built-in music player looks pretty close to Google’s own Play Music player. So much so that the first time I opened a song and it launched their player, I had to do a double take because I thought I was in Google’s music player.
The only real complaint I have with the software is the SMS messaging app. Not that the apps itself isn’t fine, but the app badge and unread message refresh has been terrible on the unit I have. Sometimes for a couple days, I’ll see message threads I’ve been in and out of, showing as unread. Which, of course, leads to a home screen messaging app badge that always looks like there’s a new message.
The Wrap Up
With the most current version of Android Lollipop out-the-box, a set of delightfully loud front-facing speakers, a fairly stock version of Android with well thought out additions and battery life that litreally lasted all day, there’s not much to dislike with Alcatel OneTouch’s Idol 3. It’s svelte design and the gorgeous 1080p screen add to a surprisingly high quality package that fully delivers for $250. That should be a boon to sales given the current landscape of major carriers going off-contract. My final word: I highly recommend this device. Period. If you have no special needs like an S Pen or some other tool or gimmick and just want a great phone, with a great screen and don’t want to spend more than you would for a laptop or tablet, just for a phone, then this is a worthy Idol. Er, phone.
Disclosure: Alcatel provided me with a demo unit of this phone for the purpose of this review.