Mid-range phones are having a moment.
Devices like the OnePlus 3, Moto X Pure Edition, iPhone SE have brought flagship-level power to more affordable prices in recent months, while forthcoming phones like the ZTE Axon 7 look set to continue to the trend.
Now, you can include Alcatel’s Idol 4s in that conversation. The follow-up to last year’s sneakily excellent Idol 3 raises the price from $250 to $400 unlocked, but also comes with a more premium design and its own VR headset.
The device will work on GSM networks like AT&T and T-Mobile, and is available for pre-order for $350 today. After using it for the past week, here’s what I’ve found.
What’s good about the Alcatel Idol 4s
This is a genuinely unique phone. The Idol 4s seems like a fairly typical mid-range Android device at first blush, and if you use it casually, that’s pretty much what it is. Dig a bit deeper, though, and you’ll see that Alcatel has packed some legitimately inventive ideas in here.
My favourite is the “BoomKey,” a little button on the phone’s right edge that you can customise to perform various functions. You can have it launch the camera, snap a photo (even from the lock screen), take a screenshot, or launch whatever app you want. This is convenient! I’ve set it to open Chrome and haven’t looked back.
Besides that, Alcatel’s put dual speakers on both sides of the phone, which gives your games and videos stronger-than-usual audio. The “reversible display” feature from the Idol 3 is still here, too — flip it on in the settings menu, and the display will automatically reorient itself if you grab the device while it’s upside down.
There’s a fast fingerprint scanner on the back, and while it’s not new, I do appreciate being able to add 200 GB of microSD storage to the standard 32 GB.
And again, it comes with a VR headset. No other phone does that. More on this in a minute.
The display is big, sharp, and colourful. To be specific, this is a 5.5-inch OLED display with a resolution of 2560×1440. OLED displays are typically great for their infinite contrast ratios, and here you do get dark blacks and bright whites. Brightness in general is very good, colours are vibrant, and it’s easy to read in the sun.
The phone nerd in me wants to complain about the slightly blueish tint to the whole thing — and the way that slightly degrades viewing angles — but most people buying this will be more than satisfied.
It’s thin and light, and it doesn’t feel cheap. The metal sides, smooth glass, rounded edges, and generally tight construction all help the Idol 4s feel something like a flagship phone. At 6.9mm, it’s thinner than the OnePlus 3 (and iPhone 6s), and at 0.32 lbs, it’s far from an anchor in your pocket. It won’t beat the Galaxy S7 Edge in any beauty contests, but it looks good.
Battery life is fine. It’s not exceptional, but I never had much of a problem getting the Idol 4s’ 3,000mAh battery to last through a full day. That will change if you run it through VR, naturally, but the phone does support Qualcomm’s Quick Charge standard, which lets it fully refill in about an hour and a half. (Though it’s Quick Charge 2.0, instead of the faster 3.0.)
There’s a headphone jack! Just in case you were worried.
What’s solid about the Alcatel Idol 4s
Performance isn’t a problem, but it’s not top-tier. The OnePlus 3 has set an incredibly high standard for what a $400 phone can do, and with its relatively mid-range Snapdragon 652 processor, the Idol 4s just can’t keep up. To be clear, it can totally play graphics-heavy games, and it isn’t slow to open apps whatsoever — it’s just not the best of the best.
The software is mostly clean. As with the Idol 3, Alcatel has changed the icons of some stock apps, but largely left Android 6.0 Marshmallow the same. Using it here isn’t that much different than using it on a Nexus device; the wallpaper is just a little bit changed.
That said, there is a little more bloat than I’d like. It’s not horrid, but if I wanted WhatsApp, Instagram, SwiftKey, or whatever TiZR Lifecasting is, I’d download it for myself. There’s also a question of how quickly Alcatel will update the device to Android 7.0 Nougat — a company rep told me it will receive the update, but couldn’t give a specific timeframe just yet.
The camera is perfectly competent, but that’s it. It’s the same song and dance as most midrange Android phones: good in the sunlight, less sharp at night. The 16-megapixel shooter takes decently colourful, shareable photos in the right conditions, but you could do better when things get trickier. I do appreciate the fact that the selfie camera has its own flash, though.
(Also, this is where I’ll note that I technically used a pre-sale version of the Idol 4s. The major points here won’t be any different, but there’s always a chance that Alcatel rolls out an update that improves camera pain points in the future.)
What’s not so good about the Alcatel Idol 4s
Please, no more glass backs. This might not be a problem for everyone, but as a former Nexus 4 owner, I’ve been conditioned to loathe phones that use glass instead of aluminium (or even really nice plastic). They’re fragile, they’re more slippery in your hand, and they’re addicted to sliding off the arms of your couch.
The Idol 4s is no different, and the fact that it’s a fairly large phone doesn’t make it any easier on those with smaller-hands. Using glass over aluminium keeps Alcatel’s costs down, but it means you’ll either need to be cautious or pop on a case.
The VR is very basic. An Oculus Rift, this is not. Scratch that: A
Gear VR, this is not. Alcatel’s included headset is comfy and competently put together — even if it’s ripping off the Gear VR’s design — but it’s basically a nicer-feeling version of Google Cardboard.
Good VR requires good software, and there’s little in Cardboard’s catalogue that has any meat. The same goes for the handful of VR video and photo apps Alcatel pre-loads onto the device. 360° videos are a neat trick, but nothing here does much with the format beyond that. That the phone has occasional issues with smoothly tracking motion doesn’t help.
The bottom line
You can safely add the Alcatel Idol 4s to the growing list of good, not-expensive Android phones. Though I’m not the biggest fan of its materials, it doesn’t get much outright wrong, and its existence is a good thing. If you take the plunge, you will more than likely be happy with it.
There is a list of these things, though. Specifically, the OnePlus 3 gets you more power and a better camera for the same price. If I had to pick one, I’d start there. But if those extras appeal to you, or you’re just smitten with any sort of VR, the Idol 4s deserves a spot on your shortlist.