Not long ago, a $250 unlocked smartphone was probably asking for trouble - a sketchy processor, WVGA display, potato-resolution camera, and 3G were basically what you could expect. But as technology has marched forward, component costs for things like 1080p LCD panels, 13MP camera sensors, and LTE have become much cheaper.
The Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 5.5" (I know, I know, the name is ridiculous), which I will from here on call the Idol 3 for the sake of brevity and sanity, has the things you want in a modern smartphone. A big - but not ridiculously large - 1080p IPS-LCD display, a modern Qualcomm processor, dual front-facing speakers, LTE, a 13MP Sony IMX image sensor, and a respectably capacious 2910mAh battery. 16GB of storage is standard budget fare, with the usual microSD slot pinch-hitting for local media storage and the like.
It runs Android 5.0, Alcatel's software skinning is minimal (basically, just some OEM apps and a few minor tweaks to settings), and the design of the device itself is simple and sleek, if not particularly exciting.
This phone is launching in America, and as such, it really doesn't have much competition in the not-quite-high-end and inexpensive market segment. But the competition it does have is well-known to smartphone enthusiasts: the OnePlus One. At $50 more, the One isn't without advantages - a more powerful Snapdragon 801 processor, more RAM, slightly larger 3100mAh battery, and a dedication to providing software updates do make the One quite attractive.
But the Idol 3 offers a larger 8MP front-facing camera, SD card slot (a potential deal-breaker for some), and fits that 5.5" display in a slightly smaller and significantly thinner frame.
But before we get into the specifics, you're probably wondering (come on, at least a little bit) what sort of company Alcatel is and why they're suddenly getting a lot of attention for this smartphone that kind of came out of nowhere. You've likely actually seen some Alcatel phones if you've gone to an American carrier store before, but you probably didn't pay much attention to them, because most of them are... terrible. But that's because they're built for carriers as profit-padding for "free phone" contract customers who think they're getting a deal. This new phone is nothing like that.
Anyway, back to my point: this Alcatel is probably not the Alcatel you're vaguely familiar with, the giant French multinational corporation Alcatel-Lucent. Nope, Alcatel smartphones have literally nothing to do with Alcatel-Lucent other than using the Alcatel brand. Alcatel phones are, in actuality, TCL phones.
TCL is also a very large electronics corporation (read: $16 billion plus in revenues last year) in China, and in 2004, they started a joint partnership with Alcatel-Lucent to make Alcatel-branded phones. A year into the venture, TCL bought out Alcatel's 45% share and retained the right to continue using the Alcatel name for the business. So, there is no meaningful relationship between Alcatel-Lucent and Alcatel smartphones. Fast forward ten years, and that's why this Chinese phone is branded with the name of a French company that does not actually build it.
TCL's smartphone business, by the way, is huge - they shipped more phones than Sony in 2014. And by Q4 of 2014, they were on pace with Xiaomi and LG. The only companies shipping significantly more phones are the obvious ones: Samsung, Apple, Huawei, and Lenovo / Motorola. So, yes, this is a very big company that sells a hell of a lot of phones. Now, let's talk about that phone.
|Great battery life||Battery life and budget phone are not synonymous, but the Idol 3 does unusually well here. The 2910mAh battery easily lasted me through every day, and still usually had 30-40% to spare at the end of the evening.|
|Excellent screen||Alcatel sourced a great 1080p LCD here, and they (with assistance from Technicolor apparently) tuned and calibrated it surprisingly well. It's a great IPS LCD.|
|Doesn't feel cheap||While it's not super premium, the Idol 3 avoids feeling cheap or shoddy with a dense feel in-hand and soft-touch plastic on the back. It's nice.|
|Almost stock Android||There are a few modifications, but this phone is running nearly stock Lollipop, and that's going to win Alcatel Android fanboy brownie points for sure.|
|Solid camera||The 13MP Sony sensor takes some good photos, as does the 8MP (yep) front-facing camera, though Alcatel's HDR mode needs a little work.|
|Slow||There's no way around it - this is a kind of slow phone. That Snapdragon 615 chugs and stutters unpredictably, sometimes sailing along smoothly only to start dropping frames and jamming up for no good reason.|
|Update unknowns||How long will it take before the Idol 3 gets Android 5.1? Who knows! And OS releases beyond that? This could end up being a non-issue, but cheap phones often get cheap software treatment.|
|Muddy calls||I didn't find the Idol 3's front-facing speakers particularly good for phone calls, muddying voices more than I'd expect for your average smartphone.|
|The OnePlus One exists||At $50 above the Idol 3's online price, the significantly more powerful OnePlus One looms over Alcatel's generally very nice phone with the offer of a [much] better chipset and more RAM.|
Design and build quality
From the front, the Idol 3 has an almost Nexus-like design aesthetic. The screen is a large canvas framed by some narrow vertical and horizontal black bars, the front-facing speakers are tucked into little gray slivers along the top and bottom, and the phone has a more rounded shape than offerings from LG, Samsung, and HTC.
I wouldn't call the design inspired, but it's not a bad-looking phone at all. The back of the Idol 3 is probably the design low point - it is shamelessly generic. I'm also not sure how I feel about the plastic chrome trim around the edges a la Samsung, but I don't really have anything else to complain about design-wise - for something in this price bracket, the Idol 3's design succeeds simply because so many budget phones have failed on this point over the years.
Build quality definitely belies the price - the Idol 3 is quite thin, and components seem tightly-packed in there, so the phone has a density that makes it feel nicer than it may actually be. A non-removable rear cover helps, too, and even if the back of the phone looks pretty generic, the plastic has a texture not unlike semi-gloss cardstock. It gives you just enough extra grip to make you think twice about whether it's plastic at all, and the texture itself rarely shows fingerprints or scratches. If every cheap phone could have a plastic back like this one, we'd live in a nicer world.
But, my review unit has already developed a bit of a squeak if you start poking around near the top speaker, and this phone is still made of plastic, so I wouldn't call it premium. But in this part of the market, the Idol 3 stacks up very well from a materials and design standpoint - this phone is much nicer to hold than you might expect.
Unnervingly good, is how I'd describe it. The price of 1080p IPS LCD panels must be plummeting, because the Idol 3's screen looks better than the One M9's to my eyes. Colors are tuned much more true to life, and it's even noticeably brighter turned up to the maximum setting. The screen does have some off-angle color cast (not Nexus 5 bad, but it's there), though, and the white balance seems a little cool... but it's still a really, really good screen.
It doesn't have Gorilla Glass, but it does have Dragontrail - an increasingly popular choice among Chinese OEMs (as well as Sony) as an alternative to Corning's compounds. Dragontrail was developed by the Japanese firm Asahi Glass Company, and offers fairly similar benefits to Gorilla Glass, though it's never been very clear which solution is superior. Either way, it's scratch and shatter-resistant, like Gorilla Glass.
If one thing about the Idol 3 left me unexpectedly impressed, it was the battery life. The Idol 3 easily lasted me a day every single day with plenty to spare the entire week I used it. I had a Wear device paired, Wi-Fi on all the time, Bluetooth on, GPS, NFC, and maximum brightness in adaptive mode. I wasn't pulling punches. I'd say 3 hours screen-on in a day is totally doable without even really trying, something I wouldn't be able to say about the much-pricier One M9 or many other current high-end phones.
The one catch is that idle battery life doesn't seem fantastic, but that's really only going to be an issue if you leave the phone off the charger overnight. It'd be a two-day phone for me if the idle drain was managed a bit better, but that's not a complaint.
The reason it gets such good battery life? I can't be certain, but the "performance" section of the review offers a potential explanation and counterpoint.
Storage, wireless, and call quality
With an advertised capacity of 16GB, the Idol 3 has 11GB available to you out of the box, which is pretty standard for most 16GB devices these days. A microSD card can be used (in the limited sense that Android lets you "use" one) to expand this a bit for your media collection or photos, something fewer and fewer phones are offering these days even in the budget space where they have traditionally been ubiquitous.
Wi-Fi performance seems strong, and I had no issues with reception or LTE performance on AT&T while using the phone. The Idol 3 supports the full gamut of AT&T and T-Mobile LTE bands, by the way, which is pretty rare for an unlocked phone at this price.
Call quality, frankly, let me down a bit - the speakers just aren't tuned well for low-volume applications, and incoming calls sounded muddy to me. I've never had an easy time hearing someone on a smartphone, but the Idol 3 makes it a little more difficult than usual. Perhaps this can be corrected in a firmware update.
Audio and speakers
The Idol 3 has dual front-facing speakers, and they're actually pretty good. While not as loud as those on my Nexus 6, they make plenty of noise and don't even appear to clip at maximum volume. They're no BoomSound, but again, for something on a budget handset, this is way better than I'd expect.
One thing to note is that the Idol 3 has some kind of JBL system-wide audio tuning turned on out of the box, and you should promptly turn it off, because it is legitimately terrible. Audio through the headphone jack is just awful with this JBL mode turned on, and for a minute, it was so bad I thought there was something wrong with the amplifier or the music I was listening to - it sounded like I was listening to music in an empty corrugated steel shed.
Once the JBL mode is off, headphone audio seems perfectly solid, and in line with what I'd expect from Qualcomm's Hexagon DSPs to date.
Alcatel is loud and proud about the 13MP Sony IMX image sensor on the rear of the Idol 3, and it's got a pretty solid 8MP front-facing shooter, as well. But the rear camera is kind of the star of the show here, and it's one of the components most often neglected by cheap phones. So, has Alcatel been able to tame this Sony sensor into taking some good shots?
For a phone at this price point, the camera is more than adequate. You can tell this is a decent sensor, because sometimes you get an image that really does look nice, especially in HDR mode.
The flipside, I'd say, is that performance is inconsistent. HDR exposures varied a fair bit in my testing, and some just didn't come out very good. But overall, this camera seems pretty well-tuned in terms of exposure and post-processing. There's also no real attempt to force color into images unless you're in HDR mode, so pictures come out looking reasonably realistic.
Shutter times are decent in non-HDR shots, but the app launch time isn't always great, and repeated captures do slow things down a bit. HDR capture time is probably about the same as the Nexus 6, so you do have to stay real still for a couple seconds if you want to get a usable photo.
HDR mode sometimes has difficulty deciding what it wants to do.
The camera app itself is, honestly, nothing to write home about, but that's usually a good thing. The layout is pretty easy to get a grip on quickly and doesn't crowd you with too many features, while still giving you access to enough from the viewfinder to easily switch modes.
Here's a gallery with some more photos.
Here's where things get iffy for me. As far as the benchmarks are concerned, the Idol 3 already doesn't stack up well to one of the few other Snapdragon 615 devices on the market - HTC's Desire 820. CPU-bound benchmarks like Geekbench 3 yield single-thread scores anywhere from 10-30% lower on the Idol 3 as thermal load builds, and multithread performance takes a similar hit. Unfortunately, I don't think the 615 escaped the Snapdragon 810 "heatgate," because while it does not use the high-power A57 CPU cores of that chip, it does have eight A53s, which serve as the four low-power cores in the beefier 810.
In the Desire 820 and Oppo R5, these A53s can get very hot. But in the Idol 3, they stay substantially cooler - and I think that's because the Idol 3 slows down and throttles more readily than those phones. I hate to drag Alcatel into this Qualcomm throttling quagmire, but I have long had reservations about the Snapdragon 615, and having now used three phones with the chip, the Idol 3 continues to validate them.
Even if 8 CPU cores sound very robust on paper, they're just that: a number. In the real world, there's almost no application on a smartphone aside from a CPU benchmark where an 8-core processor would be able to take advantage of all those threads. Qualcomm made it perfectly clear why they got on board with octacore chips: because they think consumers want more cores. When a Snapdragon 801 from one year ago is scoring 50% higher in single and multithread benchmarks, it is impossible for me to sit here and endorse the Snapdragon 615 as much more than a marketing stunt.
What you also don't often see mentioned is that the Snapdragon 615's Adreno 405 GPU has just a little over one third the number of shaders (ALUs) as a Snapdragon 801's Adreno 330 (yes, 801, not 810), and rated processing power to match. The other dirty little secret about the 615 is that it's still on the 28nm fabrication process, like the older 801, whereas the 810 moved to the more efficient 20nm.
The end result is a phone with unpredictable performance. The Adreno 405 can handle basic games pretty easily, but the amount of random stutter and hang in the system UI was pretty frustrating to me. It's always possible this will get better on newer software, and given the solid (if toasty) performance of the Oppo R5 and Desire 820, both Snapdragon 615 phones, I'm hopeful. But as it is now, this phone is not particularly quick.
Stability, bugs, and usability problems
Instead of including this with "performance" as I typically do, I'm changing how we do this section of phone reviews. Basically, I'll use the stability area to document any bugs or usability quirks we encounter while using a review device. In this case, the list is pretty short.
- Phone occasionally answered calls in speaker phone mode despite speaker phone mode being disabled. Toggling only fixed this sometimes.
- Random drops in frame rate / UI stutter were relatively common and unpredictable in occurrence.
- The "open Wi-Fi networks available" notification also creates a notification sound (Alcatel claims they will fix this in a later update) - a behavior I have literally never seen on a phone, and one that can be profoundly annoying.
- The built-in Gallery app sometimes failed to render full-sized images, instead displaying blown-up, pixelated previews. Closing the app usually fixed this problem.
- The camera app crashed on two occasions when switching to review mode, but this bug was not consistently reproducible.
The Idol 3 ships with what looks like a pretty stock-ish version of Android, albeit with Alcatel's lightly-skinned launcher, lockscreen (which can be set to stock mode as well), and a few extra features. As such, I am going to talk about the changes, but reviewing Lollipop is, thankfully, something we have already done multiple times.
The launcher is... a launcher. There is nothing particularly interesting about it, and you should probably just slap on a new one. It doesn't have any special features.
The custom lockscreen, which is called Func for some reason, gives you some rather random extra lockscreen shortcuts - calculator, music app, take a selfie, add a contact, and... scan a QR code? Regardless, this is easily disabled in the settings, at which points you are left with a stock Lollipop lockscreen. The notification bar has some light modifications in the form of different toggles - screen casting is removed in favor of "Wi-Fi Display" (it's Miracast), NFC is in there, and there's a new option below auto-rotate called "reversible."
This is probably the only software feature Alcatel really promoted around the Idol 3 at MWC, and while it's certainly cool, I probably wouldn't ever use it. Because the phone has two speakers, as well as microphones both on the top and bottom of the phone, the "reversible" mode allows you to have voice calls with the phone oriented upside down or right side up, and will switch on the fly. I have no idea why you would want to do that, or personally have much experience with accidentally answering my phone upside down, but the option is there, and it works. The whole system UI obviously flips as well, so you can use your phone upside down whenever your heart desires.
Double-tap to wake is available in the display options, though I didn't find Alcatel's implementation here particularly reliable, and just tended to use the power button. A couple other "gesture" features are in there, too - flipping the phone over to mute incoming calls or to snooze or dismiss an alarm.
There's a "find my phone" system you can sign up for on the device that seems to lock the phone if the SIM is removed (often among the first things a good phone thief would do), and sends an SMS or call to an emergency number with unlock instructions for when you recover the device. The service is provided by Alcatel, so that's nice.
One stock Android feature you won't find here is multi-user mode, and I'm guessing the reason is storage, but I've asked Alcatel to clarify on that point. Though, you do get a notification light, and you can toggle it on and off. So there's that. Oh, and FM radio! Because there are no CTIA carrier jerks deciding what does and doesn't end up on your phone.
There are also some preloaded apps that, frankly, would be better off not being installed on this phone, like Alcatel's Wi-Fi Transfer app... which only seems to work with other Alcatel phones... which is almost completely pointless here in America (it can do Bluetooth sharing to any Android device, but so can like a billion other apps). There's also a promoted preload called Facetune (lite! no full version for you), which is basically just a glorified filter and photo tweaking app. There's a basic notes app (does anyone on earth use these?), and an NFC tag scanner app (?). But on the whole, the bloat is very light, and that photo editing app that's preloaded can be uninstalled.
Basically, this phone is Lollipop with some very light customizations. I won't say they're all useful, but none of them really seem to hurt the UX (perhaps aside from the now-missing Cast screen shortcut in the quick toggles).
Here's the thing, on value, I can't ignore that you can get a OnePlus One for $50 more than this phone. Yes, OnePlus has customer service issues, their marketing is awful, and they've had some problems with touchscreen defects (or non-defects, if you ask OnePlus). But the Snapdragon 801 is a much better, tried-and-true chipset that is worth every single one of those fifty dollars. Sorry, Alcatel.
But, if you can get the Idol 3 5.5 for $200, maybe even $230, the sacrifices in the performance department (and unknown software update track record) could easily be worth it for some people. Especially the people who want a microSD card slot. And don't want to buy a OnePlus product. This is a really good phone for the money, don't get me wrong - it's just that there's also another really good phone for slightly more money out there that is also better in some key identifiable ways.
What I liked about the Idol 3 at MWC was the fact that you could get a slightly detuned version of the 5.5" phone in a 4.7" package - a Snapdragon 410 chipset and 720p IPS LCD (that still looked very nice, by the way) being the notable downgrades. That phone will probably retail for $200, if not less. And at that price and size, I think Alcatel has an all-around more attractive product for those people who want a not-gigantic LTE smartphone that isn't some tragic carrier-branded or prepaid garbage.
The 5.5" Idol 3 makes worthwhile upgrades, upgrades I appreciate - I want that 5.5" screen (it really is quite good). I want the faster chip. But I also can't just believe that saving $50 is a compelling reason to ignore a significantly better competitor device. Buying the Idol 3 over a 16GB OnePlus One would require some pretty subjective, personal reasoning or an extremely inelastic budget.
But if that doesn't concern you, here's what you need to know about the Idol 3 independent of any competing device. First, we don't know how well Alcatel will handle OS updates. I heard about an informal 90-day internal goal for new Android OS releases, but Alcatel isn't making that kind of promise publicly (at least not yet). Second, the Snapdragon 615 isn't horridly slow, but I'm not even sure why it exists other than as a way for marketers to use "octacore" in the specification sheet. It's not like Qualcomm is giving OEMs many options here - its entire released 2015 portfolio is ARM reference design-based at this point, and that portfolio just doesn't seem very good.
If the performance doesn't bother you though, and you're willing to take a chance on OS updates down the road, the Idol 3 has a lot of great stuff to offer. The 13MP camera is surprisingly good, the software basically feels like stock Lollipop, battery life is totally respectable, and the beautiful display could easily make it pass for a phone costing much more.
Alcatel's first real entry into the unlocked smartphone game here in the US will definitely win them some customers - this is not at all the kind of phone you'd expect from a company that also makes something like this, and that's a very good thing. I look forward to the 4.7" version of this phone, as well as everything else Alcatel is cooking up for the unlocked market here in the US. If the Idol 3 5.5 is any indicator, Alcatel is setting the bar high in the budget segment.