Last year, Alcatel made its first real foray into the US unlocked smartphone market with the Idol 3. That phone cost $249, but at the time, offered quite a bit for the money. A large 5.5" 1080p display (with a fairly good LCD panel), dual front-facing speakers, no real bloatware to speak of, LTE, solid cameras (13MP/8MP), and a microSD card slot. High on features, low on price may as well have been the tagline for the Idol 3, and while it was at times excruciatingly slow owing to its Snapdragon 615 chipset, I found it an overall good value proposition. It was a phone that, to me, said "here are $250 in smartphone parts combined with a relatively unadulterated Android." Sure, it took forever to get Marshmallow (and likely won't get Nougat), but I don't think it's a stretch to say that wasn't surprising.

So, now we have the Idol 4S, the Idol 3's spiritual and alphanumerical successor. Gone, mercifully, is the whole "OneTouch" branding, it's now just an Alcatel Idol 4S. The formula seems largely the same: good components, relatively "vanilla" Android. Dual front-facing speakers (that also work when the phone is face-down)? Still there. Relatively premium, if not particularly exciting, look and feel? Yep. Good camera? On paper. Hell, this phone even has a fairly amazing screen - a 5.5-inch 2K Super AMOLED panel makes for a wonderful canvas, nav button burn-in be damned. They've even added a fingerprint scanner, a customizable function button, Qualcomm Quick Charge (quick charger included), a glass rear cover, JBL earbuds, and a box that is also a VR headset!

And you, good consumer, might say "Wow! That sounds like a heck of a package." And you'd be right. But, you might also then say "So last year's phone was $249, this one is definitely nicer, so it's what, $279? $299?" And you'd be so wrong. Try $400. Yep. (Though it's available for $349 on pre-order until August 2nd.)

Has Alcatel managed to insert $400 of value into a phone running with a Snapdragon 652 chipset that is competing against devices like the OnePlus 3, sharply discount Nexus 6Ps, and ZTE's upcoming Axon 7? Well, no.

The Good

Display Alcatel has sourced a pretty great 2K Super AMOLED panel for this phone (the alleged reasoning being VR). Bright, vivid, crisp, and great viewing angles.
Speakers The Idol 4S's speakers are loud, but more importantly, they sound good. You get real mid-range and true stereo with these dual front-facing speakers, like the BoomSound of the good old days.
Reasonably quick The Snapdragon 652 processor provides very respectable performance, and is leagues faster than Qualcomm's older 615/616/617 parts thanks to its advanced ARM A72 CPU cores. A newer, more powerful Adreno GPU helps, too.
Low bloat Alcatel doesn't mess with Android much, and it doesn't put any paid preloads on its phones. Any included apps are there because Alcatel thinks they improve the experience or add to functionality, and I find that largely true. And the couple of preinstalled VR games that don't meet that definition can be uninstalled.
Quick Charge 3.0 Last year's Idol 3 didn't have any sort of quick charging, so the addition of QC3.0 on this year's phone is exceptionally welcome.

The Not So Good

Value This one's easy - the phone is blatantly overpriced. This is a $300 phone - at best - in a $400 phone's fancy box. The value just is not here, and the notion that the VR headset and some bundled headphones help justify that MSRP is a non-starter.
Mediocre battery life I don't want to say the Idol 4S's battery life is poor, but it's not great. It's just average. Average for what I'd expect of a phone with its display size/resolution and battery capacity. But certainly not great, or even very good.
Camera While capable of producing good shots in the right conditions, performance in adverse lighting is highly unpredictable and often poor, and the HDR mode is just plain weird.
Bad VR See the section for more, but this is a Bad VR Headset. Bad design, bad implementation, bad UX. It's a wonder to me that they thought this would be well-received.
Slow fingerprint scanner Remember the first fingerprint scanners? Remember how slow they were? That's how this one is. And it's glass surrounded by glass, meaning it's extra frustrating to use.

Hardware and design

The camera module and glass rear cover have caused the Idol 4S to be the butt of Galaxy knockoff jokes since it was announced. But it doesn't look they were especially trying to avoid such comparisons, particularly given the design of the camera module. The similarities do end there, however; calling it an ape of Samsung's design language doesn't really seem appropriate unless viewed through a rather narrow lens (pun intended). Now, the suspicious side of me wants to say this smacks of subtle consumer manipulation: from afar, someone thinks they see a Galaxy phone - a well-known brand - but closer inspection will immediately reveal this to be an Alcatel device. But it's possible I'm reading too much into this.

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Alcatel has retained the "stepped" edges on the top and bottom of the phone where the output of the dual 3.6W speakers is routed. This gives the phone an interesting fascia that I don't think you'll find elsewhere in the smartphone world. As design flourishes go, it's a subtle one, but it does possibly serve a functional purpose by sequestering the edges of the display's glass cover away from the physical borders of the device. I also personally think it looks nice, but that's subjective.

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The move to a glass rear cover, I think, is misguided. It has made the phone exceptionally slippery, but given that Alcatel supplied me with three cases for the Idol 4S as part of my review kit, the switch seems rooted in the idea that most people buying these phones will put them in a protective housing. That's always struck me as an odd justification for glass on the back of the phone, though, and without a case that Idol 4S's exceptionally smooth and slippery backside has caused it to fall off my desk, end table, and sofa numerous times. Even Samsung's latest phones aren't quite so... low-friction.

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The body housing is aluminum, with chamfered and polished edges that give the phone a decidedly sharp look in bright light. While I'm not exactly a fan of flashy phones, I think it works here. Overall, I like the way this phone looks, though I am less of a fan of the way it feels: a bit sharp in the hand and really effing slippery. Speaking of feel, Alcatel has chosen to place its fingerprint scanner on the back of the phone, which I maintain is where it should be absent a dedicated physical home button. The problem is that the scanner is also covered in glass, and the circular indentation is not especially easy to feel out. Eventually, you'd likely develop some muscle memory for this - it's gotten easier even in my week-plus using the phone - but it just seems sub-optimal. Again: a case solves this issue, because the cutout for the scanner makes its location far more physically obvious. It doesn't help that the fingerprint scanner itself is also painfully slow, making for constant self-questioning of whether you actually hit the damn thing.

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Alcatel has placed the phone's power key on the left as it did with the Idol 3, and the volume rocker sits on the right. Below the volume rocker is a circular button Alcatel has dubbed the "BOOM" key, which is a term I am going to politely refuse to utter again. This function key is customizable, but also has a good number of built-in features that you can choose to use (versus setting up your own functionality). We'll get back to that later.

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On the bottom is the offset microUSB (no USB-C here) port, and atop the phone is the 3.5mm jack. As for anecdotes about "solidness" and "quality," I'll say the Idol 4S doesn't feel cheap, but neither does any phone that's wrapped in glass and aluminum. To put it bluntly, I think it's time to just drop these terms: they don't mean anything. A phone's outward "quality" can only be judged so far as any imperfections that are apparent in its construction, and even so, such imperfections don't speak to actual quality. Just to precision in manufacturing. In that sense, nothing about the Idol 4S sticks out as being bad, and nor does it look like a phone designed around exceptional assembly tolerances (think Samsung). It's a glass and aluminum brick, and that's kind of the trick, isn't it? It's hard not to associate "premium" and "quality" with these materials, because they're what we've been told are "premium quality" materials.

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Display

It's excellent. While it doesn't have the ultra-bright high-contrast mode that Samsung's Super AMOLED panels do for enhanced outdoor visibility, this 2K panel more than gets the job done. The Idol 3 had a great screen for the money last year, this phone has a great screen for the money - even at $400 - this year. Are the colors over-saturated? Absolutely. But Alcatel allows you to customize the display mode in a couple of ways.

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First, you can set the colors to "natural" (i.e. something resembling sRGB) or "vivid" (i.e. something resembling a Samsung phone). Second, you can set the temperature of the display to cool, standard, or warm, depending on how you like your whites balanced. It's just enough configurability to make me happy, and while most owners will never touch it, I like that they've provided this. The more accurate mode is especially useful when reviewing photos, as it gives me a much better sense how they'll look to people using other devices (mainly, iPhones).

2K resolution on a 5.5" display is arguably in the gray area approaching overkill, but it's so common now that we don't blink at it. Alcatel's reasoning for using a Super AMOLED Quad HD part was their VR headset, which does make sense if the VR solution is actually anything to write home about (it isn't).

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Minimum brightness dips pretty dang low, though not quite so low as that of recent phones from Samsung. But for reading at night, I think this gets the job done - Samsung's lowest brightness setting is almost too dim for me even in total darkness, and the Idol 4S definitely isn't going to make seared ahi of your retinas come bedtime. The benefits of AMOLED continue to far outstrip the downsides, in my opinion, and even with nav button burn-in essentially assured long-term, I can't say I even care. I'll gladly take my inky blacks, wonderful contrast, superb viewing angles, and ultra low-persistence VR experience over being able to tout that my display won't have barely-visible marks on it two years from now. Nobody truly cares about this outside the internet.

Battery life

In my experience so far, I'd say battery life on the Idol 4S is... decent. It gets the kind of longevity I'd expect for a phone of this display size (5.5" QHD) and battery capacity (3000mAh). Would I happily accept 10 to 20 grams more heft and a millimeter or two of thickness to bump this phone up to a 3500mAh cell? Without question.

Here's the thing: while the Idol 4S's battery life today is acceptable for a modern smartphone - 3 hours and change screen-on time in my particular usage pattern (which is not comparable to yours - I don't mean to be a jerk, but this needs to be made clear) - it will get worse over time. As more apps are put on the phone, as the cell starts to degrade, this phone won't last as long. As is, the battery life is not exceptional, and Alcatel offers nothing but Android's stock battery saver mode to improve it. A QHD Super AMOLED screen is going to drink power expeditiously outdoors, and I found this made the Idol 4S a somewhat poor Pokemon GO partner.

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For $400, this does give me pause. While the OnePlus 3 also has a 3000mAh battery and a 5.5" screen, it has the benefit of a 1080p display that consumes less power. Dash charging is also faster than Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 (which the Idol 4S supports). So I guess I'd say this: the Idol 4S doesn't have poor battery life. It's actually pretty OK. It also charges very quickly. But with the many months it took the Idol 3 to get Marshmallow, I have to wonder how long Idol 4S owners will be left waiting for Android 7.0's Doze "lite" mode, which may be just what the 4S needs to future-proof that slightly worrying battery capacity.

So, the Idol 4S gets a pass on battery life for now, but given how many other areas of the phone got an upgrade over the Idol 3, not to mention the big price bump, I'm slightly disappointed the battery wasn't enlarged. As is, a Galaxy S7 edge has a battery 20% larger than this phone's with a display of the same size and resolution. It's just something to think about.

Storage and wireless

The Idol 4S has 32GB of internal storage, with around 22-23GB that will actually be available to you out of the box. As far as I can tell, the Idol 4S's various preloaded apps add up to around 600MB of space used, about half of which you can reclaim by uninstalling two VR games. Pretty much everything else can be disabled, if you so desire.

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How fast is that storage? Thankfully, much faster than the outgoing Idol 3's. Compared to today's current flagships? My strong suspicion is that Alcatel is using the same eMMC 5.1 SanDisk part as the HTC 10, because its storage benchmark scores are basically a mirror image of that phone's. Slower than the UFS storage of the LG G5 and Galaxy S7, certainly, but still quite quick in most regards. This is certainly good news, as the Idol 3's storage was abysmally slow.

Wireless performance has been strong for the most part - LTE signal on AT&T seems in line with what I'd expect in my area, and Wi-Fi performance and reception seems pretty good, too. Where I've had at least one issue? Bluetooth: I cannot get the Idol 4S to pair with my car's stereo. This may be a preproduction firmware bug, though. Call quality is good, and unlike the Idol 3, the earpiece speaker on this phone seems much better tuned for phone calls (the Idol 3's was quite muddy). And like the previous phone, you can orient the Idol 4S in either direction on a voice call using the "reversible" mode if you so desire.

Audio and speakers

Alcatel easily out-Boomsounds HTC's latest flagship with its dual 3.6W speakers on the Idol 4S. Not only are they very powerful, they actually sound pretty great. You get real mid-range with these speakers! Peak output isn't hugely louder than, say, a Galaxy S7, but the difference comes through in the fullness and depth of the audio. Greater dynamic range makes audio more clear and perceptible, and hopefully means you won't have to crank it as loud to hear what you're listening to. Now, it's no replacement for a Moto Z's ginormous JBL Mod, but this is easily among the very best speaker arrays I've ever listened to on a smartphone. They're also true stereo speakers, and the channel separation can be further exaggerated using the Maxx Audio effects in the audio settings.

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Alcatel designed the Idol 4S with speaker ports on both the front and rear of the phone, too, so some audio comes through when the phone is face down. This does mean that some sound escapes through the back at all times, though I can tell you that audio listened to from the rear is considerably quieter, so this isn't a 50/50 split. More accurately, I think, Alcatel has simply attempted to avoid the total "muffle" effect if the phone is placed face down by allowing some audio to escape the rear if the front is blocked. The vast majority of audio comes through the front ports even when the rear is totally unobstructed. What I'm trying to say is: the rear ports don't make the front-facing speakers appreciably worse.

The headphone jack produces respectable audio, generally in line with what I'd expect of a modern smartphone, which is to say "very good to excellent." Surprisingly, the included JBL-branded earbuds aren't half-bad, though they are insanely bass-heavy. Aggressive equalization can address this, though the built-in Maxx Audio system-level tools don't really offer the stuff to get the job done. That all said, these are shockingly usable earbuds (comfortable, to boot) for an in-box bundle - a far cry from the frankly terrible ones Samsung includes with its $800 S7 edge.

Camera

The Idol 4S's camera has left me a bit disappointed and confused. Sometimes, it gets some really great shots, showing me that the sensor is a good part and that Alcatel's processing can be quite capable. Sometimes I kind of want to throw it. Blurring in low light is a constant issue with this phone, the auto-focus is finicky on close-up shots, the HDR mode is utterly confounding in the results it produces, and video is quite shaky.

This is a capable camera, I have no doubt. But on implementation, Alcatel stumbles. First, let's talk about HDR. I'm not sure what Alcatel's definition of HDR really is, but holy cow, the amount of halo effect going on in some of these images is totally ridiculous. It makes the world look like some kind of drug-addled fairy tale. So: kind of cool, but also clearly unrealistic. The HDR mode must also be manually engaged, which always feels like a step back from the auto-HDR modes on many modern phones. But it's the results that really don't work for me here, not the button.

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The halo effects around objects and the ridiculous color saturation make this photo look like it was hacked apart and back together in Photoshop.

Similarly, in low light, Alcatel is still using the ancient method of a manual "night mode" button to ensure decent captures. I found photos with and without the mode engaged were... basically the same. So why include it? It doesn't seem to particularly matter anyway, as this camera isn't much of a winner in low light conditions, and especially struggles with artificial light indoors. Take a look at this photo I took in my kitchen - all lights in my apartment on around 7PM.

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This was the best of several shots, and it's still utterly gross - look at those noisy, blotchy reds on the cups.

Sometimes the results are good, which leads me to believe this is a capable camera, it's just that Alcatel's processing and tuning is substandard in certain conditions.

Moving on to the app experience, Alcatel's is decent, but the "swipe to change modes" thing is fairly annoying to use. It's often slow to respond, and because my instinct is generally to tap the text for the mode, not swipe, I often end up accidentally hitting the capture or gallery key instead of the mode I want.

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There is a manual mode which gives you access to ISO, shutter speed, white balance, and focus. But smartphone manual mode aficionados - something I still don't quite get - will lament that the maximum exposure length is half a second. Oh, and the viewfinder doesn't update the preview based on your manual settings (yes, really), essentially making it completely useless. It's possible this is a bug, however.

In general, the Idol 4S takes pretty good photos in the right conditions, but lackluster low and artificial light performance, rather odd HDR, and a fairly "meh" camera app don't really leave me with a memorable experience here. It's totally serviceable, but it's just not a great experience. The mega-gallery follows.

Performance

The Idol 4S's Snapdragon 652 chipset is perfectly respectable, offering performance that greatly exceeds the laggardly Snapdragon 61x series that have plagued so many budget and mid-range devices in the last year. Most notably, the 652's GPU is more than up to the task of pushing the phone's dense Quad HD display panel. If you're getting a mid-range Qualcomm chip, this is the one you want.

Now, is it perfect? No. Even with its quick internal storage, the Idol 4S does struggle a bit more than a Samsung Galaxy S7 edge or even a Nexus 6P in some regards, and sometimes in ways that just feel a bit odd - perhaps down to less than fantastic software optimization, or a throttle-heavy CPU profile designed to save power. I'm not really certain. So while this phone is quick, it's not lightning-fast. Given its price point, is that enough?

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Well, the Snapdragon 820s in the similarly-priced OnePlus 3 and ZTE Axon 7 will rather easily best this Snapdragon 652 on single-thread performance, and while the 652 is theoretically quicker than the outgoing 810 in raw CPU terms, even that chip's GPU is notably more robust than the mid-tier Adreno 510. Both the 810 and 820 also support LPDDR4 RAM, while the 652 is stuck on the slower LPDDR3 standard. Last, the 652 is based on a 28nm fabrication process, with the 810 and 820 based on 20 and 14nm nodes, respectively, meaning they likely exhibit greater efficiency at comparable performance levels. The 652's advanced and efficient ARM Cortex A72 cores likely make up for some of this natural disadvantage, but I think the result is a chip that still feels marginally slower than its 810 and 820 series relatives in most contexts, and considerably slower in some.

That all said: the Idol 4S is not a slow phone. It's just that it's a slower phone than some others available at this price point, a la the Nexus 6P (now regularly seeing $100 discounts), OnePlus 3, and ZTE Axon 7. With open-box Galaxy S7s regularly treading near the Idol 4S's MSRP on eBay these days, it's hard to say Alcatel's latest phone offers a lot of technology for the money.

VR

When you saw the Idol 4S's VR-in-a-box, you probably thought two things:

  1. "Cool!"
  2. "That looks like a cheap Gear VR knockoff."

To the first: yes, it is a pretty cool concept. To the second, I was hesitant to pass judgment until I really gave it a try. Sadly, that initial suspicion seems utterly validated, Alcatel's VR experience just isn't good. I really don't even understand how this passed muster in testing against competing products.

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There is no doubt: this is a freaking cool retail box design.

The setup experience is confusing, for one. So, the VR headset has no physical connector for the phone, meaning it must use NFC or something similar to detect the headset. This sounds fine, until it doesn't work. I put the phone in the headset and... nothing happened. I took it out and put it back in, except reversed. Nothing. Tried it again in the original position. Nope. So finally I just went into the app drawer and started the VR launcher app - that worked. From then on, the auto-detection did seem to function most of the time I would put the phone in the headset, so maybe this is a bug that will get sorted out in a day-one OTA. I'm willing to look past this as some pre-launch glitchiness. It's still inconsistent, though. Gear VR's setup process, by comparison, is pretty much idiot-proof even if it does require you to download an app and remove the phone from the headset initially.

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Getting the phone in the headset is easy. Getting it to work is a little less so, I found.

My first impression on actually putting on the headset? "Wow, this is uncomfortable." While my glasses do fit in the headset, the edge of the nose bridge cutout touches my nose at all times and at any angle. And that edge is sharp. Without the phone in the headset, it's not too bad, but once the phone is putting weight at the front of the assembly, it's extremely annoying. And I will admit: I do have a big nose. But not like, a gigantic nose. I'm not getting rhinoplasty spam mail. So, this was clearly designed by people who did not have large noses. It makes Alcatel VR all but a complete ergonomic non-starter for me, but I soldiered on to try and at least see if the experience itself redeemed this design flaw.

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Sharp edges around the nose area make Alcatel's headset an ergonomic miss for me.

...It doesn't. First off, Alcatel's VR field of view is gen-one Google Cardboard status. They say it's 90 degrees, but I have trouble even believing that. It's not VR so much as a glorified View-Master experience - it's like you're looking through a particularly wide ship's porthole. Sure, there's a VR launcher, Alcatel preloads some VR games, 360 videos, and photos, but this has all the magic and wonder of a second-rate Disneyland in Soviet Russia circa 1971 that'd translate loosely into MouseVillage or something. The motion tracking is inconsistent and constantly needs to be reoriented (in one video it completely freaked out on me and made super dizzy in the process). It's so bad that I thought it was possible I had a defective gyroscope.... until I asked someone else testing the phone, and they reported similar jank. The images are sharp (which is good, since there is no focus adjustment knob, unlike Gear VR), but the narrow field of view makes immersion kind of hopeless.

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Alcatel's VR content could be counted on three or four hands at the moment, and most of it is old.

This might be novel to someone who has literally never used VR before, but a generation two Google Cardboard provides a much wider field of view (~100 degrees) and arguably even superior comfort in my case. The Cardboard app is also leagues better than Alcatel's VR launcher or "Littlestar" content hub, which I still don't quite understand. Thankfully, the Cardboard app is totally compatible with the Alcatel viewer, so you can use that instead. But at that point... why not just buy a proper Cardboard viewer? Or, better yet, just wait for Daydream viewers to come out, since those will likely provide the best VR experience on Android to date.

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Seriously why are the buttons on the bottom of the headset

And as if to put some bizarre icing on the cake, Alcatel has also placed the buttons (home and back) for the VR headset on... the bottom of the viewer. What. I don't. Why? WHO OKAYED THIS? Oh, and I've found that if you hit back and home at random enough, you'll just get thrown back to your phone's homescreen, completely breaking immersion and the experience. Fun!

Anyway, Alcatel's real competitor here is Gear VR. So, how does this stack up?

  • It is much less comfortable (at least for me! Note that it may be just fine for some people)
  • It is much more annoying to control
  • The gyroscope makes motion tracking jittery and disorienting to a nauseating extent
  • There is far, far less content than the Oculus Store
  • It does work with Google Cardboard and, thus, YouTube, which GearVR does not
  • The field of view is inferior (90 versus 96 for Gear VR)
  • The setup process is confusing or at least unreliable
  • It's buggy

The only redeeming thing about Alcatel's VR is that it works with Cardboard as a native Cardboard viewer would. But a modern Cardboard offers dramatically better field of view, and with Daydream headsets that work with any Daydream-compatible device coming out some time this year, there's really no reason to buy a headset that works with only one phone.

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As to Gear VR? Samsung has a huge content lead in terms of games and experiences right now, and I doubt Alcatel has any hope of catching up - it'll likely get some titles from developers looking to branch out beyond Cardboard and the Oculus Store, but that's really it. There's no reason to develop specifically for Alcatel's VR experience. It will have tiny penetration compared to Gear VR, let alone Cardboard, and Daydream basically makes the hardware irrelevant.

Why am I spending so much time on this section of the review, you rightly ask? Because Alcatel has hinged so much of the Idol 4S - and justifying its MSRP - on this whole VR business. But their VR offering just isn't good, not in its current state. It's actually straight-up bad. So, my advice to prospective buyers: don't even consider this in the phone's "value" proposition, because as is, Alcatel's VR is little more than a fancy retail box. Or a mediocre Cardboard viewer with a headstrap, if you're an optimist.

Software

Alcatel left Android largely unmolested in last year's Idol 3, and the same is essentially true of the Idol 4S. Sure, you've got a few-hundred megabytes of apps you can't uninstall that I'd really prefer I could, but none of these apps are paid preloads, they're just stuff Alcatel thinks adds to the experience. And for some people, they may well! For me? No thanks.

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Once you throw on a custom launcher and, if that's your thing, an icon pack, you'll probably feel at Marshmallow-y home on this phone. Alcatel's settings menu is somewhat modified, but most of those modifications are just additional options and features. For example, managing the dual SIM trays, configuring the custom function key, and various gestures.

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A number you'll probably be seeing a while, though Alcatel promises a Nougat upgrade at some point.

I said I'd discuss Alcatel's key-that-shall-not-be-named, so let's go into that. In its default setup, the custom function button does the following:

  • Single tap to turn on display
  • Double-tab to take a photo
  • Press and hold to take burst photos
  • Press on lockscreen to show weather animation
  • Various functions when pressed in a particular app:
    • Toggle surround sound mode (???) while watching videos (unclear if this is only in Alcatel's content app Littlestar)
    • Boost the loudness and bass of speakers while listening to music (presumably only stock apps, again)
    • Increase clarity and loudness while on a call
    • Create a photo collage while viewing moments in gallery (what)
    • Apply video effects when watching a video (also what)
    • Start a live stream video from the camera app (via an app called TiZR or something, which, alright)
    • As a boost button in Asphalt Overdrive (really)

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Some of the key's functions are a bit strange.

You can also customize the button to do one of the following, though that disables the above app effects (the sub-bullets).

  • Tap to launch camera at any time
  • Take an instant screenshot
  • Start any app
  • Do nothing

Is this going to revolutionize the way you use your smartphone? Even be something you're likely to use regularly outside a camera quick-launch key? Let's be real: probably not. But Alcatel did put in some effort here, and none of this stuff really hurts anything, so it might appeal to somebody. It's nice sometimes to have a function key, I think we can all agree.

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The 4S also supports gestures like double-tap to wake, "drawing" gestures (think OnePlus) to launch any app you desire, flip to mute, some sort of "hover" gesture a la Samsung's Air View (but much more limited), and a glove mode toggle.

Aside from that? It really is just kind of regular Android. Which is what I liked about the Idol 3. The questions come in regard to what "regular Android" looks like six months from now: will it be Marshmallow or Nougat? The Idol 3 took ages to be upgraded from Android 5.0 to 6.0 (5.1 was never released for it) - well over six months. If the Idol 4S takes as long to get Nougat, this phone really is only recommendable to those who don't feel much concern over their phone's current OS version. As to security updates, only time will tell if Alcatel plans to take them seriously (i.e., monthly).

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So, Alcatel's software is inoffensive, fairly close to a "Google" Android, and not loaded down with excessive bloat. In this area, the Idol 4S does quite well, it's just a matter of those pesky updates.

Conclusion

In short, there is nothing so terribly wrong with the Idol 4S. It has a great screen, solid performance, relatively bloat-free software with few unnecessary alterations, an OK camera, a robust set of speakers, and most of the major features you look for in a modern smartphone. The problem is that the game has changed: Alcatel's competition at this price point for unlocked smartphone buyers in the US is unquestionably fierce. And when placed against that competition, it's clear that the Idol 4S is an inferior value in most respects.

It's slower, its camera isn't as good, its battery life is no better, its "quality" and design are nothing to get excited over, and it comes with OS update baggage that'd make Samsung blush. It's not that the Idol 4S is a bad phone, it's that other phones are better. And areas where the Idol 4S stumbles - a camera that sucks in low light, a bad fingerprint scanner, an exceptionally slippery design, and a lame VR experience meant to justify a price - are simply not acceptable in 2016. Not when other companies are offering better experiences for the same money.

So, Alcatel, here's the rub: your phone is too expensive. Knock the price back to $300, and we'll talk. Not $350, not $329.99 - $300. When I can get a Nexus 5X that stomps this phone in most respects for less money - with the guarantee of proper OS update support - I'm not really interested, as an enthusiast. But for a casual consumer, $300 seems like an MSRP that fits the bill for the package this phone offers. Heck, ditch the gimmicky VR, unbundle the surprisingly decent headphones, get rid of the unnecessary glass cover panel and replace it with plastic and call it the 4S Lite or something. Until then, this phone's MSRP exists in a reality more virtual than that headset's.

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