Alcatel may be little known in the US, but it wants to be taken seriously as a manufacturer of quality, relatively low-cost Android smartphones. Last year, the company took the first step to establish this reputation with the Onetouch Idol 3 — a device that cost $249 but offered nearly everything you’d expect from handset double its price. This year, it’s trying to build on this good first impression with two new Idol handsets, the pricier of which signals the company's entry into the high-end market.
The Idol 4 is the direct successor of last year’s model and the lower-specced of the two, with a smaller 5.2-inch 1080p display; an octa-core processor; a 13-megapixel rear-facing camera; and 3GB of RAM. The more up-market Idol 4S has a 5.5-inch 1440 x 2560 display, a faster processor, a 16-megapixel camera, and the same 3GB of RAM. The screens on both devices pop (although the IPS display on the Idol 4 is outdone by the vivid AMOLED on the 4S), and performance seemed solid after our few minutes poking around. However, the Idol 4 only comes with 16GB of internal memory, and the Idol 4S with only 32GB. In both cases this is expandable, but it's still a pretty poor show for these ambitious handsets.
The design of the phones might strike some as a little bland (they were a bit too rounded for my taste), but the build quality is certainly impressive, and the chrome-looking trim that ran around the edge of the Idol 3 has been upgraded to real aluminum. Apart from this, the main design change is the addition of a physical button on the right-hand edge of both devices — the "Boom Key" — which looks almost identical to the power button on Sony’s Xperia Z series. It’s a programmable button and can operate a range of functions, from taking a picture when the phone is locked to boosting the bass when listening to music.
These commands are all selected from presets at the moment, and although Alcatel says it’s working on allowing users to map any function onto the Boom Key, it’s still only a minor selling point for the Idol 4 and 4S. It might be useful to have the extra shortcut occasionally, but for most commands you want quickly there’s already an on-screen option. The button’s placement also makes it feel distractingly crucial, and during my brief hands-on with the 4 and 4S I instinctively reached for it multiple times to try and unlock the screen.
The packaging for the Idol 4S doubles up as a headset for virtual reality content
Much more interesting is Alcatel’s wheeze to make the packaging for the Idol 4S do double duty as a VR headset. (The Idol 4, unfortunately, does not get the same treatment.) Its plastic construction isn’t going to impress anyone, but that’s not really the point. It’s light and sturdy, and although I didn’t have the chance to wear it for any length of time, it felt comfortable enough. This isn’t a VR headset that’s going to transport you seamlessly to a virtual world, but you can certainly use to try out any 360-degree videos you find online, or experiment with the Google Cardboard app. The temptation of having a first taste of VR might be enough for some customers to choose the 4S over other, similar devices, and at the very least it’s nice to be like a child again — finding the packaging just as interesting as its contents.
The bad news, though, is that neither the Idol 4 nor the 4S are going to be bargains. US pricing has yet to be announced for either device, but it’s expected that the Idol 4 will come in at around €280 (that’s about $310), while the 4S will leap up to about €450 (that’s $500). While we praised the Idol 3 for being a bargain at the price, if these estimates are correct, then the phone’s successors are less obviously good value for money. However, they do feel like pretty fantastic devices apart from that — with great screens and mature, polished design. We’ll have to wait to spend a little more time with them both to find out whether Alcatel has done enough to earn its graduation to a higher price range.
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