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Alcatel's new flagship smartphones have high-end features, low-end prices

And they're coming to the US

If you're familiar with the name Alcatel Onetouch at all, you probably associate it with low-end phones that aren't particularly exciting. Those low-end phones have been the company's bread and butter here in the US, and have helped it move up the rankings of smartphone makers. With the new Idol 3, a high-end smartphone being announced at Mobile World Congress today, Alcatel is looking to change that perception.

The Idol 3 is actually a pair of smartphones: a larger, 5.5.-inch model, and a smaller, 4.7-inch version. Both of the phones share many characteristics and features, but the 5.5-inch Idol 3 has a full 1080p display compared to the 4.7's 720p panel, a faster Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 octa-core processor (the 4.7 has a quad-core Snapdragon 400 series chip), larger battery, and more RAM and internal storage. Both have 13-megapixel rear cameras with wide-aperture lenses and LED flashes. The 5.5-inch model has an 8-megapixel front-facing camera, while the 4.7-inch version makes do with a 5-megapixel front camera. The phones have dual front-facing speakers powered by JBL, and interestingly, two microphones, so you can pick up the phone in any orientation and answer a call. Both phones are sleek and slim (about 7.5mm thick), and could easily be mistaken for a better known brand.

But perhaps the most interesting part of the Idol 3 is that Alcatel is selling them in the US, and for not a lot of money. The 5.5-inch model will sell for under $250, while the 4.7-inch Idol 3 will go for under $200. Both will be sold unlocked through Alcatel's web store in the US and support LTE on either AT&T or T-Mobile. The Idol 3 is the first flagship phone that Alcatel is bringing to the US

There are lots of phones flooding the market at ultra-low price points, many of which bring along rather impressive design and user experiences. But the pair of Alcatel phones are notable in that they don't look like cheap smartphones at all. Even the Motorola Moto G and Moto E, both of which are great inexpensive phones in their own rights, mostly look the part. In contrast, the Alcatel's have bright, laminated displays with great viewing angles (which Alcatel says was tuned by Technicolor), fast performance, loud speakers, and clean, attractive designs. Most of those features have been reserved for high-end, expensive smartphones until now. The Idol 3 units I saw don't quite hit the high marks set by HTC and Apple when it comes to build quality, but when you can get three 5.5-inch Idol 3s for the cost of one iPhone 6 Plus, it's easy to excuse that.

The Idol 3 runs Android 5.0.2 Lollipop with Alcatel's slightly-customized user interface. There's a daily digest pane to the left of the main homescreen that displays weather, calendar appointments, news headlines, and more. It reminds me of HTC's BlinkFeed. The Onetouch Mix app lets you mix two songs together from music stored on the device or streamed from Rdio, complete with faders and scratching. It's neat, if not quite an app that most people will use very often.

Cheap phones are getting really good

There's plenty of room for criticism on Alcatel's new phones: they copy other devices' sizes, they copy some software features, they copy some hardware features, etc. But the fact of the matter is none of that really matters. Copycat or not, inexpensive phones are getting really, really good, and that benefits everyone who buys smartphones, whether you're willing to pay $250 or $750 for one.


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